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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.

Comments (8)

  • Ian Mayes

    Pretty much the only Buddhist scenes/centers/communities that I enjoy being around are those that are based around dana. I started out with the S.N. Goenka tradition of Vipassana Meditation, which is all based on voluntary donations and volunteer labor, and then was mildly surprised to see that centers elsewhere charge hefty fees for that sort of thing. Luckily I found a dhamma center here in Minneapolis, Common Ground Meditation Center, that is all based on dana as well.

    In the world of Nonviolent Communication, which I have been involved in before I got into VIpassana and Buddhism, the topic of money, payment, etc. is a highly contentious one. Ideally, most people there want to be operating based on a gift economy, which is basically like the Buddhist model of dana. However, in practice people have so many different fears and insecurities around money the gift economy model is not used that much in practice, or if it is used it is done so in a very awkward way.

    Part of me has often wondered why not have an extremely frugal grass-roots approach to this kind of work. Like, why not have sanghas that meet in public parks and parking lots when it is warm and nice weather outside, and in different people’s homes when it is cold or not nice weather? More organized car-sharing for transportation, dumpster-dived food for community meals, etc. In both Buddhist-land as well as NVC-land there is a certain kind of middle class aesthetics that seems to be implied. This is not necessary to the work itself.

  • Bezi

    sadhu, sadhu, sadhu Goenkaji…

    Ian if you care to share I’d be interested in hearing what Vipassana was like for you, relative to your practice and/or spiritual life, and if your experience influenced your dana. In other words was it like: “Oh let me give what I have”, or more like “wow… I oughta break them off somthing proper for this…” (i.e. make large donation)

  • nathan

    Ian, my understanding of Common Ground is that they have a lot of “asking” model that Thanissaro questions in his article. I still prefer that to the consumerist way many centers run. Would be interested in how you experienced their dana efforts and teachings too.

    As for the other ideas you brought up, there are days when I’d love to be part of a sangha like that. My zen center is looking at moving, and maybe buying a building, which brings all of this right to my face even more clearly. Buildings and paid staff create a certain foundation for other parts of practice and activity to emerge. But perhaps the cost in our system is too great. I think it’s hard to keep things running well with only volunteer efforts. Although I think size/scale are huge in this. The larger the community, the harder it is to do it with just volunteers. I’ve experienced this firsthand multiple times, both in non-profit development and in activist groups.

  • John Bloise

    Your sense of urgency and sincerity resonates with me, Nathan. The push to become more engaged is an ever-present component in humanity’s quest to “reduce suffering and increase joy.” Time and time again, history is replete with efforts to move beyond soapbox preaching into the more “concrete”, “hands-on” work of building and rebuilding lives…Some thoughts:

    1) Does communicating the message of peace constitute a diminished or less valuable effort for the above mission?

    2) Can we, as Buddhists step beyond the desire to be recognized as Buddhists in order to assist or maximized efforts already underway, or must our work revolve around “real” Sanghas? That is, perhaps efforts (by any organization – Christian, Buddhist, etc.) are hampered by the need to create and sustain a new organizational infrastructure…Just thinking here.

    3) A great organization, informed by, but not labled as, Buddhism, is the Prison Mindfulness Institute, http://prisonmindfulness.org/, which has met with great success in educating those incarcerated, and those who “watch over” them about mindfulness and emotional intelligence, both of which do wonders at gaining clarity and control over flawed views of thinking and toxic emotional states.

    I applaud your message and agree we, as Buddhists, and as humans beings, must and can do more to help our fellow human beings become empowered to live more fulfilling and peaceful lives, characterized, informed, and empowered by compassion.

  • Jeff

    Welcome to the conversation, John. Great questions – the message of peace may indeed perpetuate suffering if it translates to “don’t fight against injustice” or “don’t worry, be happy,” devoid of any political context. As to your second query, I myself am an activist involved in secular organizing who happens to be a Buddhist. IMHO, achieving a peaceful world will require much compassionate struggle.

  • nathan

    Hi John, Thanks for the comments and questions. Your 2nd point is one I have seen many times in various forums on social action and Buddhism. It feels to me that there’s a strong tension between our teachings on emptiness and letting go of identities, and calls for collective social action from Buddhists. I tend to think it’s not vitally important that Buddhists get “seen” as such while doing work in the world. Furthermore, there are plenty of potential pitfalls when groups band together by religious affiliation. And you’re also correct that a lot of energy probably needs to be expended to build/rebuild some Buddhist organizations to do the work.

    At the same time, what I have experienced is that even calls to join already started efforts by non-Buddhist related orgs tend to fall flat. Or only gain a trickle of people in a given sangha. I already mentioned the class privilege argument above, however there’s also the fact that social activism and service “in the trenches” is difficult work. It puts everything you’ve learned to the test. Including everything you’ve learned in Buddhism. And doing it alone, or mostly alone – as a Buddhist – can feel damn isolating. I advocate for more collective Buddhist efforts in part to both break down that isolation, and also because in working together as practitioners, there’s much more of chance to refine our awareness/understanding of the teachings and our practice. Doing this also allows for more possible ebb and flow between “active” and “reflective.” There’d be sangha support to move more “inward” and do more meditation or study, and also support for moving back out into the fires.

    There are places like Upaya Zen Center http://www.upaya.org/index.php where this flow is basically supported because service and social action are a central part of their mission. I tend to think we need more of this, while at the same time, I also support joining currently active movements that aren’t explicitly Buddhists.

    To me, it’s more of a mindset shift. Going from a place where social action and bodhisattva service are tack on extras considered good to do if people have the time/energy – to a place where they are a core part of a Buddhist center’s mission. Not the only focus of course, but one of them.

    How we do the actual work comes out of that mindset shift. Maybe it ends up being more about joining already active efforts, or maybe it’s something else.

  • Venerable Pannavati

    I “learned” generosity as a Christian. We were taught giving 10% of our income was our reasonable service to “God”. I’m not saying I agree with that, but in the process of training myself to give without attachment, I found a joy and a freedom in sharing whatever I had with others freely. By the time I left the church, I was tithing 40% of my income. I had decided that less was more because I found happiness in helping others. As a Buddhist, before I became a monk, I gave generously. It wasn’t even so much about how I felt about the messenger of the Dhamma. For me, it was the value I placed on the Dhamma itself; and now that I am a monk. I talk about the joy of generosity I experience directly through giving of heart, time, money, anything I have that could be of use — and the great value I place on wisdom teachings that empower and liberate us. I feel sad for those who have not discovered this….who buy whatever they want in the world, but always have an idea about how to cut costs around the Dhamma. We should all be frugal, but let’s start with the unessential areas of our life, first. In the gradual training sutta (MN) the Buddha said the first thing he taught was generosity and when he saw that one was well established in this he instructed them further….I understand it and am grateful because mastering generosity helps us to not cling to anything in this world. I believe it is part of the recipe for Nibbana. We have a good sized sangha, but it is carried by just a few who also understand.But, these same ones seem to go through trials in life easier. Perhaps because they are learning to let go. I’m not speaking of those who don’t have. But, those who do.

  • nathan

    “It wasn’t even so much about how I felt about the messenger of the Dhamma. For me, it was the value I placed on the Dhamma itself; and now that I am a monk. I talk about the joy of generosity I experience directly through giving of heart, time, money, anything I have that could be of use — and the great value I place on wisdom teachings that empower and liberate us. ”

    This is a very important point. Thanks for the comment Ven. Pannavati.

    Moving beyond the particular teacher or offering of the day, to a broader understanding of the gifts of the dharma as a whole. The consumer mentality is so transactional, and I think that trickles down to people in sanghas giving money only for “big name” teachers, or based on what they get back in the short term (programs, time with a teacher, retreats, whatever). There really isn’t much learning to let go in all of this.

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