Fee for Service Buddhism: A Small Meditation on Money and the Dharma

Two blogs I regularly check out are Notes in Samsara and American (in England) Buddhist Perspective. Through them I also on occasion dip into the blog Speculative Non-Buddhism.

At the moment there’s a bit of a brouhaha they’re all in varying degree caught up with. They’re all critical, again, in varying degree of Buddhist Geeks, which seems to me to be mostly young or younger Dharma practitioners from several different disciplines who have a web based presence as well as sponsoring an annual conference. They’ve been called out upon occasion for having so few people of color, particularly Asian or Asian-American practitioners and teachers, particularly at their conferences. I feel no doubt the color divide among us is a terrible thing and while it is something we are all complicit in, for those coming out of the dominant cultural groupings, healing this breach is mostly our responsibility. So, as the Geeks are pretty high profile, and it seems getting higher profile, this challenge sure looks legitimate to me.

But, there are other issues about them, as well, being aired by Justin, the pseudnonymous Mumon and the team at Speculative. One of the more interesting, I think, have been their challenges to “Integral” influenced Buddhisms, which seem to mark a significant proportion of the Geeks. Personally, I know little of Ken Wilbur, beyond having read two of his earlier books some years ago. I admit to a visceral distrust of systems that answer all questions, and, over the years, my personal red flags have raised around the company Mr Wilber has kept within his warm embrace even when they’ve gone seriously off the rails (notably Franklin Jones & Dennis Merzel), so, I’ve not delved deeply into the system. However, Justin, Mumon and the team have drilled down a bit and offer their perspectives on the shortcomings of the integral system, and what they raise looks helpful to me. And might be worth a further look from you.

However, what brings me to offer a thought or two here comes from a very recent posting from Mumon. He questions a tweet from Justin describing someone connected to the Geeks named Kenneth Folk as a “major” Western Buddhist. As my Dharmic circles don’t extend far beyond the Zen universe, I can’t say I’d ever heard of Mr Folk before. So, I have no dog in the hunt regarding his relevance to the Buddhist world.

In his listings of the man’s shortcomings, Mumon, takes umbrage at Mr Folk offering meditation instruction online for a fee (with a discount coupon).

Mumon’s arguments are several, and, as he points out in the blog posting I cite, he’s covered his concerns at greater length, elsewhere.

Me, I have little interest in fee scales, one of Mumon’s issues, although I have to admit I smiled at learning there was a discount coupon. But I do have views on the idea of fee for service teaching of the Dharma. And that’s the subject of my meditation here…

Mumon is hardly the first Buddhist commentator to raise questions about the ethical appropriateness of charging for teaching Buddhism in one aspect or another. The relevant line for many is a direct connection between “charging money” and “Dharma.” The Dharma is free is the response and charging money is wrong. The strongest specific argument I think is that no one should be turned away from access to the Dharma because of financial constraint.

Me, I see a conundrum. On the one hand the Dharma is a saving thing, succor for the hurt of the world. And those of us who have found healing in the Buddhadharma have some obligation to make it available to others. On the other hand, to draw upon another tradition for an image, the “laborer is worthy of his wages.”

The question for me in this reflection turns on those who bring the Dharma to people, increasingly as the full time focus of their lives, and how they also earn their keep.

The carriers of the Buddhist way have for the most part over the larger part of history been renunciants, who by their rule cannot even touch money. Their support flows out of a complex structure of dana, or free giving. This system was birthed within a cultural context where monastics were supported by the larger community, and even when Buddhism was just one aberrant band among a larger proto-Hindu culture, they could already rely upon support from the larger lay community who had a tradition of supporting spiritual mendicants. In Buddhist cultures this system was expanded and sustained by the belief that gifts to renunicants produced greater positive karma than gifts to anyone else. And for those getting on with their lives and for whom spiritual efforts were mostly left to the professionals, the benefits of supporting the community was, how shall we put it, money in the bank, potentially leading to a better future life.

Each time Buddhism has moved into a new culture there have been shifts and adaptations. Perhaps the most notable until modernity was when Buddhism moved into China, and where monastics moved from being wandering beggars to settling down into communities, often supported by large land grants tilled by serfs (slave could also be used).

Today, as the many schools of Buddhism have come to the West there has been a wild range of ways to deal with the support of teachers of the Buddhist way.

In many ethnic enclaves there have been successful transplanting of East and South Asian monastic communities. And, more power to them, and those who have crossed ethnic barriers to embrace this ancient and noble path. But, there have been other models taking shape, as well. Japan had long since abandoned Vinaya monasticism in favor of an ordination model that increasingly looks like a Western ministry model something akin to Presbyterianism. Here in the West, one, a large Japanese Shin sect has created a church complete with seminary trained ministers. They have had their ups and downs, but I think their story has yet to look toward an end. I look to them with enormous admiration.

My own Zen schools have been struggling with priestly identity pretty much since they’ve arrived on Western soil. As non monastics using monastic terminology they and those they serve have had a hard time finding the right place. Personally, I think looking to the BCA could be helpful. But, what is certain is that story is not done, yet, either.

And, there has arisen within Zen and the larger Dharma community the phenomenon of lay teachers. There have always been lay teachers, but within its Western formations lay teachers have come to the fore in an unprecidented manner.

So, given the complexities of the Japanese ordination models which have produced many Dharma teachers here in the West as well as the significant numbers of lay teachers, we have come up front and ugly, to confront that connection between money and teaching.

Among the options I see, we can

1) scrap the non monastic ordained and lay teacher models.

2) keep these systems amateur (in the most positive use of that term), where the teacher is expected to make her or his living in some way unconnected to the Dharma.

3) revisit the “ethics” of financial support for non monastic teachers.

Frankly, I think the horse has been out of the barn vastly too long for option one.

Option two is what many are doing, myself included. I’m endlessly grateful for having stumbled into a line of work that has, I think, fruitfully, pushed me and challenged me as a Dharma teacher. I think those who have taken on various uniquely Western disciplines as psychologists, social workers, coaches and the various related, also fit into this option two adaptation.

And, I think, as good as it has been for me, and a number of other teachers, it isn’t an ideal model. For one where is the line between a psychological counseling and Buddhist teaching? Or, coaching? Or, the rising discipline of “spiritual direction?” I find that line so movable depending on this or that as to be almost meaningless.

So. Acknowledging it isn’t going to be easy, still, I think we need to go with all deliberation toward option three.

One of the axioms of the Buddha way is seeing through clinging to that which is passing as if it were permanent. For many this has meant abandoning the world. In the Zen way as I’ve learned it and practice it letting go of clinging does not necessarily have to do with retreat from life in the world.

This is in part a response to the various problems that have arisen with too tight a clinging to renunciation as “the” way.

In addition, and I can’t begin to say what is chicken and what is egg, the whole dana scheme has collapsed in the West, where for the most part it has been reduced to another Western concept, tips. I was visiting with a very prominent Insight meditation teacher at a very large center and asked him about how dana is working for them. He admitted how he felt slightly embarrassed about it, but he’s doing well. I think the embarrassment had to do much with the fact, as he also added, that most of his colleagues were struggling to survive.

So, money as one of the grand conundrums of Buddhism come West.

And, of course, it brings with it a whole new set of problems. One or two perhaps illustrated by Mr Folk’s discounted fee schedule.

What I hope for is more open and honest discussions about money and Dharma. I would also hope for some reflection by those who don’t like the idea of “professional” Buddhist teachers, to consider what exactly their problem is, and to articulate it in as open and heartful a way as they can.

I especially hope we tone down the rhetoric as we deal with this difficult issue. The people involved are for the most part devoted to the Dharma and trying to find ways to make a living while living out their commitments, and in service to something deeply loved and cared for.

And, I hope, not use charging a fee for instruction as evidence of someone’s perfidity. Or, at the very least, contextualize the criticism – is really always wrong, or is there an appropriate medium, and what is that medium?

And, of course, for those of us who support revisioning the ways we financially support our Dharma teachers to offer clear thinking on the matter. No facile dismissals in this discussion…

Do this.

And who knows, we might even struggle into something that serves the great way…

For those interested in this subject Mumon has offered some further reflections I found worth a read…

Happy birthday, Spike!
He Drew A Circle
LEARNING TO FALL A Meditation on the Stoic Way
On the Preservation of the Species: A Mind Bubble on Earth Day
  • http://www.openbuddha.com/ Al Billings

    I’d suggest people ask Kenneth about his thoughts and the whys around it. He’s @kennethfolk on twitter and not hard to find.

    I’ve posted my own thoughts on this sort of thing (directed towards a number of people more than once) but I recognize that there are lots of ways to do things. It does seem fair to speak *to* Kenneth and the others rather than simply *about* them, especially since they are online folks and pretty accessible.

  • togeika

    It seems that the most successful temples are established in a cultural context. Our Tibetan, Vietnamese and Thai communities are good examples here in Minnesota. Otherwise, the church system is established here. We just need more training monasteries and Universities so serious teachers don’t have to spend 3 years in Asia training, like many of my friends have.

  • guy newland

    Thoughtful and helpful. HHDL, coming out of a traditional dana context, has been a strong critic of pay-for-dharma. At every event where he appears, the organizers are required to give a public accounting, with him still there, of what they took in, what they spent, what they still expect to spend, and what they will do with any residual money (that is, to what charities they will give it.) It seems he started this because of a concern that some venues were ending up with a profit from his appearances. He personally rejects fees for appearances, but he has all the funds he needs. You point out the new problem very clearly. What if professional lay dharma teachers set themselves up as employees of non-profits, with a board, and a salary that is negotiated and published by the board? (this is my best idea to date.) It can’t just be one private guru-like person collecting money and making her or his own decisions about whom to teach. Or it will seem and become skeezy. for example: Is it appropriate, in terms of the Dharma, for a teacher to share the teachings with one person, but not another, because of what they will pay? When I get invitations to speak at three Dharma centers, should I pick based on which one gave me the most dana the last time I went? Or should I be considering how best to benefit others?

  • 無門 Mumon7

    James, thanks for this post; I have to read your blog more often. :-) My sentiments tend to go in your general direction (as I hope you’ve inferred from my writing), but, as I said elsewhere in my blog, the other issue with Mr. Folk is his claims of “enlightenment,” which raises all kinds of other issues, particularly to those who might be novices to the Buddhist way.

    Or vice versa. None of us are hard to find. But your point is taken. If I can, I will…

  • 無門 Mumon7

    P.S., (assuming the moderated comment gets posted). Full disclosure: I get $175/hour when employed as a fact witness, but I freely admit that the economics in my profession are very highly distorted. But I don’t earn that figure very often at all.

  • Jeanne Desy

    I just want to plug my teacher, Dosho Port, who has established an Internet Zen training program that is *serious* about training in every-minute zazen. This program offers us a members-only course using college-course software, with forums we use to talk to one another, as well as video phone calls with Dosho and occasional video gatherings. We study at our own pace and turn in written assignments online, where Dosho responds to them. One member, Jisen, has begun a World-Wide Sangha on which some members are meeting several mornings a week to meditate together. Several other members are long-time practitioners, at least one ordained, and there are younger people as well.

    In setting up Vine of Obstacles (the reference is to the obstacles of the lay life), Dosho requested a monthly fee, no contract, and offered a sliding scale upon request. (He currently teaches for a living, but will be retiring from that.) Believe me, he’s not selling easy enlightenment, and we get a lot for our money.

    I am 70 years old with a roster of health limitations, and THERE IS NO ZEN TEACHER IN COLUMBUS, OHIO, A VERY NICE CITY TO LIVE IN. Sorry, couldn’t help myself from putting out a help-wanted ad when I get a chance.

    I am no longer able to attend retreats hours away led by visiting Teachers. I need this, and the opportunity it has brought to talk with other serious students. And the limitations of age and declining health are going to be true for more and more people as the demographic of the post-war Baby Boom ages. So here, from the peanut gallery, is a heartfelt endorsement of this kind of experimentation with using new technology to bring Zen to the West.

  • jamesiford

    Thank you, Jeanne. I was thinking of Dosho as someone doing something very important, and who needs support to do it. There’s nothing greedy or grasping in expecting mutuality. And this sure seems to me to be a glowing example of something powerful and useful…

  • jamesiford

    Hi Mumon, glad to hear from you. I didn’t personally feel interested enough in Mr Falk to pursue his claims to awakening, and felt anyone who was interested enough would trace back to your blog and would get your analysis, which seemed responsible enough for me. I don’t really understand the moderation function, but what’s really annoying to me is how comments get dropped into the awaiting moderation spot, but it doesn’t show unless one goes into the specific awaiting moderation spot. Something I sometimes forget to do. Well, something I’ve only recently figured out I have to do. That only came to light for me when a friend complained to me for being blocked…

    • 無門 Mumon7


      Figured you were busy. No problem.

  • justinwhitaker

    Great post, James. I appreciate the mention, but I’m not sure I’m as critical of the Buddhist Geeks / Integral crowd as Mumon nor the Speculative Non-Buddhists (as you say, “to varying degrees”). I’d say I’m agnostic regarding both, as I really don’t know much about either and I may have just stumbled (with my post on Kenneth Folk vs the SNB crowd) into something that is much more complex than I had anticipated.

    In fact I’m sure it’s more complex than I am aware of, and Mumon’s latest post on Folk was very helpful to me in that regard.

    I do share your openness or curiosity to pay/support models for Buddhism in the West. I’m not sure pay-for-dharma is impossible, but I wonder if greater ‘connectedness’ in Buddhism in the West might help. Could there be a Dharma-teachers Union, perhaps? One that takes dues and helps those who are struggling and allows those rich centers in Manhattan to equitably fund struggling centers in Flint, MI, Tuscaloosa, AL, and Billings, MT?

  • Ji Hyang

    ()In addition, and I can’t begin to say what is chicken and what is egg, the whole dana scheme has collapsed in the West, where for the most part it has been reduced to another Western concept, tips

    I have seen this to be true. And at the same time, the one-on-one counseling which I give to sangha members is not appreciably different from the counseling they would receive from a well paid therapist- especially given my dual training. There is a way within our culture that the assignation of a tangible value for the service conditions the client’s experience of its value. Right livelihood makes it possible for a Buddhist teacher to be able to offer the teaching in a way that is in good alignment with the realities of this life classroom. It is best this happen through dana, but I agree with your perception of dana in the West.

    A meditation teacher that I know suggests that– in addition to a specific donation request for personal consults– when necessary other energetic exchanges are possible so that no one is turned away. It seems a fair compromise…

  • Ajahn Don

    This is a subject near and dear to my heart. I’m a Theravadan monk and American. I want to see Buddhism grow in the US, but have been unable to see a way to fund the growth. I live in a monastery supported by the Thai people, and like in Thailand, this is considered to be a community center. This would be difficult for Americans to get into unless it become more of the church-type system. We have no tradition of renunciation and asceticism. Training and supporting Buddhist teachers has to be at the forefront of discussion if Buddhism is to grow in the West.

    Stephen Batchelor has said he’s been disappointed that after the first wave of Buddhism in the 60′s and 70′s, there has been very little growth since. I believe this is because of this economic obstacle more than anything else. While Buddhism does very well for small egalitarian groups, it’s very hard to grow them. This is a conundrum I’m so far unable to figure out.

    Blessings to all–Taan Don

  • David_Naas

    Hidden within the question of money is another, with an assumption that is a “given” — does spiritual development require a live, person-to-person contact teacher?
    It is widely assumed that one cannot do without some sort of breathing guide, that books and practice are insufficient. Is that really so, or is it a figment of illusion created by a ‘priestcrafty’ tradition of Holy Joes who desired to live off the labor of the peasantry?
    Does that tradition apply in the West? If so, then Western economics surely must have a say. “Opportunity cost” is a phrase which refers to the fact that doing anything has a cost, either in giving up doing something else, or in an application of resources (food, time, money, etc). If a “student” is asking a “teacher” to spend time and effort in “instruction”, then why should not the “student” expect to pay the “teacher” for the service?
    My personal take on it is, robes and begging bowls are a cultural artifact with no grounding in Western Culture. To try and impose an Eastern cultural pattern on people living in the West is as absurd as Christian missionaries in China baptizing Zhou as John and expecting him to wear a tie to church.
    On The Other Hand, I could be wrong.