Capitalist Dana Doesn’t Lead to Buddhist Social Action
There is a perception among some that American Buddhists, especially those of us “convert” Buddhists, are mostly in the practice for ourselves. The view is that we like to meditate, study texts, be nice to each other, but that we aren’t very generous, nor all the interested, collectively, in working to make the lives of others better. In its totality, it’s a stereotype. However, as the regular discussions here point out, there also is a fair amount of truth behind those perceptions.
I know people personally who are working in Christian communities on difficult social issues. Their churches have decided that trying to address the collective suffering in our world is integral to living out their spiritual teachings. I’m not talking non-denominational mega churches doing “mission” trips to far flung places, mostly in an effort to convert some black and brown folks and feel good about themselves in the process. I’m talking about progressive Catholic and Protestant communities actively standing up for the most oppressed and marginalized.
We can certainly talk about all the misery Christianity has brought to the North American continent over the past several hundred years. How “the church,” in whatever form it’s come in, has laid many of the tracks of suffering we currently are dealing with today. It’s also true that some Christians are doing some bang up social justice work, the likes of which are pretty lacking amongst American Buddhists. I see organizations like Buddhist Peace Fellowship as trying to shift this tide, but it’s often a slog, given how fiercely the train of capitalist dharma seems to be chugging along.
This lack of social action, though, is really part of a larger issue for many Buddhist communities in the “West” – namely, how to finance our practice and what to do with the money we do have. When priests and lay teachers have to have second jobs, and everything from building campaigns to disrupt oil pipelines to maintaining projects like doing meditation and counseling in homeless communities is left to a few brave people who are willing to risk going broke themselves, we’re kind of in trouble. That “going broke” issue feels vitally pivotal to me. I know it firsthand, having devoted much time and energy during the last three years to both social activism and also leading the board of my Zen center. To the point of literally going broke financially.
We live in a society that reinforces financial privilege so much that it makes it quite difficult to break patterns whereby the financially well off are the ones who get to “serve,” “do ongoing activist work,” and get all the feel good accolades in the process. The only reason I was able to give so much time and energy to the causes during 2011 and 2012 was because I had built up a financial cushion many folks my age don’t have. However, it wasn’t nearly enough to sustain me over a longer haul period, and I’ve spent the last year or scrapping by (often with family help) every month just to pay my modest bills.
One of the things this experience has taught me is that we must build fiercely robust and creative organizations that can support communities devoting themselves to social change work. As long as social transformation and justice are side projects Buddhists do if they have the time, not only will we fail to be a main part of any major solutions, but it will primarily be the privileged few getting to do anything on a long term basis. Which tend to reinforce the kinds of savior and charity complexes that have kept the capitalist train going all these years.
Last night, I read this article by Thanissaro Bhikkhu about the culture of generosity and the struggle of “Western” Buddhist sanghas to embody and express dana. I bring this up because I’m convinced that one of the biggest reasons our sanghas don’t, as a norm, do a lot of social engagement work is that we’re living out a capitalist understanding of generosity, as opposed to Buddhist one. Many Buddhist communities charge fees for much of what they do, and/or frequently reduce or conflate “dana” with money. My own Zen Center recently decided to move to a dana model for our children’s and youth programming. I was heartened to see this change come from the teaching staff, but realized that it was a major shift in mindset, one that probably will take a long time to actually realize. In an e-mail to the rest of our board and staff, I wrote the following:
It’s important for us to acknowledge that what we’ve mostly had is a consumer based, rather transactional model. A response to trying to survive in a fairly easy manner in a capitalist society. Something that creates pretty predictable patterns in terms of income, and also perhaps ensures some level of expected stability in that if you have a fee, and get X number of folks to pay it, then you’ll be “fine” in terms of budgets. It’s a kind of comfort, right? But ultimately, it doesn’t really mesh well with the dharma. Not as I understand it anyway.
We’re just at the beginning, but already I’ve seen a bit of a shift in the way people are talking about it. And not in what I’d call a positive direction. Our youth practice is being talked about as “a service to our members,” and there’s a push to get more folks participating in those programs to either become members or up their membership gifts. Which brings me back to Thanissaro’s articles, where he writes the following:
I was saddened when, on my return to America, I had my first encounters with the dana talk: the talk on giving and generosity that often comes at the end of a retreat. The context of the talk — and often the content — makes clear that it’s not a disinterested exercise. It’s aimed at generating gifts for the teacher or the organization sponsoring the retreat, and it places the burden of responsibility on the retreatants to ensure that future retreats can occur. The language of the talk is often smooth and encouraging, but when contrasted with Ajaan Fuang’s answer, I found the sheer fact of the talk ill-mannered and demeaning. If the organizers and teachers really trusted the retreatants’ good-heartedness, they wouldn’t be giving the talk at all. To make matters worse, the typical dana talk — along with its companion, the meditation-center fundraising letter — often cites the example of how monks and nuns are supported in Asia as justification for how dana is treated here in the West. But they’re taking as their example the worst of the monks, and not the best.
I understand the reasoning behind the talk. Lay teachers here aspire to the ideal of teaching for free, but they still need to eat. And, unlike the monastics of Asia, they don’t have a long-standing tradition of dana to fall back on. So the dana talk was devised as a means for establishing a culture of dana in a Western context. But as so often is the case when new customs are devised for Western Buddhism, the question is whether the dana talk skillfully translates Buddhist principles into the Western context or seriously distorts them. The best way to answer this question is to take a close look at those principles in their original context.
Part of me wonders if it’s near impossible at this time to build a truly dana-based sangha culture in the United States. At least on a scale larger than a community of a few dozen people at most. There seems to be a certain amount of bending or compromising that just comes with the territory of surviving under the capitalist boot. Or the sanghas that have figured something out haven’t spread their ideas well enough. I was intrigued by the comments of Richard Modiano about his Jodo Shinshu community because it sounds like they’re finding a way. There must be more examples out there.
In any event, I think the Buddhist teachings around generosity are essential to springboarding any kind of critical mass of Buddhists, and sanghas, actively tackling the collective roots of suffering in the world. Having an expansive sense of giving and receiving is, in my view, the backbone to being a bodhisattva. Which requires a deep investigation into notions around money, “charity,” “service,” financing our sanghas, and even the ways in which “being a bodhisattva” have been transmitted/translated to us.
I welcome your ideas or experiences navigating these issues.