Capitalist Dharma and the Social Ecology of Buddhist Sanghas
As my own sangha is going through some restructuring around finances, and considering a move to a new location (which will involve more decisions around money and community resources), I continue to think a lot about how capitalism has infected Buddhist sanghas, and how we might go about creating/promoting alternative approaches. While some communities have successfully created cultures of dana, many others that attempt to run solely or mostly on gifts from members struggle to make ends meet. From what I’ve read, those that are successful tend to have a handful of wealthy benefactors that make up for all those who aren’t able to give much or anything in the way of financial contributions. Gifts of land and other resources from wealthy benefactors were, of course, behind the success of the Buddha’s original sangha, so that approach is nothing new. At the same time, they weren’t living in an economy that commodified everything under the sun, to point of warping the very meaning of human worth and value.
Fellow Zen blogger Algernon over at Notes from a Burning House has a few thought provoking posts about, among other things, the costs of running a Buddhist center, retreats, and the social ecology of sanghas. I agreed with a lot of what he had to say, but did find myself thinking a bit differently about a few points. In one post, Algernon writes:
Buddhist centers are in a bind because the dharma should be free for all. This value does not apply to rent, repairs to a roof, heating and cooling a space, utilities and insurance, or flying a teacher to the location for a retreat. Deming Zen Center is almost 100% donation-only, and sometimes that bites us in the back. Operating a Zen Center on the basis of dana is very difficult even when everyone chips in. Sometimes people don’t.
So there is a need for fees, even though it establishes financial gates and is a factor in the oft-reported trend that Buddhist practitioners are middle-class and up. Privileged, in other words.
One of the commenters on this article also points out the difficulty of retreats, not just because of fees but also time. Very few people are able to take time away from work to participate in 7-day retreats or longer. Many centers (including ours) do shorter retreats on weekends to allow for more participation, but this is a compromise: a short retreat is very different than an extended retreat.
Unfortunately, the commenter is led to question the importance of retreats: “It’s possible that the problem lies not with the cost of retreats but with over-emphasis on the retreat model altogether.” Note we are now embracing the language of capitalist enterprise: the retreat is spoken of as a product, part of a business model.
Here are two responses I have to his thoughts.
1. I think there is something valuable behind the guy’s point about “retreat models,” even if it’s a bit off in terms of view.
As a long time Zen practitioner who has done retreats, but isn’t doing much in that vein right now, I notice an in-group, out-group flavor amongst convert Buddhists. If you’re doing retreats fairly regularly, you’re seen as “deeply practicing.” If you’re not, or never have, then your practice is viewed as suspect. I think this kind of division is a false one built up around the models of practice we have here in North America and in Europe. Retreat practice, though quite powerful and excellent, is simply one form available to us.
2. Along those lines, there is renunciation and commitment on the one hand, and there are issues of privilege and life circumstances on the other. Minnesota Zen Meditation Center founder Katagiri Roshi used to tell parents with really young children that their main practice was “shikan-baby.” Just sitting with the baby. In other words, doing whatever it is that’s needed to raise the baby. Which makes sense to me. I also think there are plenty of people who have Buddhist practices that don’t “look deep,” but whom are powerful, compassionate people in the world. It’s not so much about tallying up days, weeks and months of retreat as it is how you are able to manifest wisdom in this world. Of course, retreat practice is a well tested way of helping folks drop off all the gunk that blocks wisdom and beneficial action, but lay practice communities like my own are facing all sorts of issues around maintaining it, access, and helping folks integrate their experiences.
Recently, there has been some conversation about the experimental, youth driven group Buddhist Geeks. Through podcasts, an annual conference, interactive online community, and other activities, the Buddhist Geeks seem to have an aim of addressing some of the problems of integration into daily, lay life that more “traditional” sanghas are facing. They also see themselves as a sangha, one that crosses space and time boundaries. Something becoming more and more popular as the internet develops. The Geeks place a lot of emphasis on technology, and have a heavy bent towards Integral Buddhism, which is where the critiques start to come in. Arun from the Angry Asian Buddhist blog has pointed out in multiple years how white-dominant their conference is. Several others have questioned the diversity of Buddhist lineages present in their work. And increasingly, they are promoting what I would call an “entrepreneurial dharma,” which feels and sounds a little bit like prosperity gospel. I used to regularly listen to their podcasts and enjoyed listening to people in their 20s and 30s wrestling with issues in modern Buddhist practice. And I continue to like that they’re experimental, trying to figure out how to work with the challenges of lay life in our world today. However, it’s difficult to look at what they’re doing and not write it off as being mostly about the hip and privileged trying to thrive in a capitalist economy using some Buddhist teachings.
Another issue that comes up around money, finances, and spiritual practice in some circles is a heavy reliance on magical thinking. Buddhist journalist Joshua Eaton, in an excellent article, offers the following:
One disturbing trend I have noticed in some Buddhism, yoga, and spirituality circles is a belief that either (1) one will be magically blessed with the financial resources to go on retreat if one is truly committed, or that (2) one will let one’s financial obligations slide for the sake of going on retreat if one is truly committed. Both ideas ignore the extent of our privilege, something that I have clearly seen in my own life.
A lot of “Western” Buddhists seem to be prone to either conflating magical thinking with faith, or wholesale rejecting both magical thinking and any sort of faith and/or devotional practice. Both of which are major hindrances in my view. Faith isn’t about attachment to a particular outcome. Nor is it about creating some sort of future guarantee based upon behavior and one’s thinking. I’m all for cultivating a sense that things will work out one way or another, which of course might mean an outcome much different from what you had hoped for.
The way I see it, dana is all about faith. And Buddhist communities that operation primarily or solely on gifts of money, time, and resources are doing so from a foundation of faith. I have a theory that it’s more difficult to cultivate faith in communities (and societies) where everything is a product, and has it’s value calculated and controlled. Regardless, though, faith alone won’t get the bills paid, nor create a diverse, thriving community.
All sanghas face the same inequities, oppressive social structures, and pressures to commodify. Some choose to face these issues head on. Other mostly avoid or ignore them. And some never even see them in the first place. The extent to which, as a community, they’ve faced these social issues, they’re either reinforcing status quo norms, or actively undermining them.
The social economy of our sanghas doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Only time will tell if Buddhism in North America and other capitalist nations is able to move beyond economic co-opting, and truly be a visionary form of a more equitable and beneficial way to be in community together.