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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.  

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Comments (37)

  • Mat Witts

    Some good perspectives here Nathan and a fairly accurate appraisal of the current state of the art. But I think if we look more deeply at this problem, it is essentially an individual, psychological issue, not a wider, sociological one, although of course the two fields cross-fertilize on a conceptual and behavioral levels. Taking the longer view, we can see the antagonism between the model of a monk, and the model of a householder ever since yoga practice began its socially documented journey from the vedas. None perhaps is as famous as the Buddha for favouring the monastic version, but there have been many more. One of the more notable characters is Sri Sankaracharya from around the 6th century who actually borrowed heavily from the popularity of Buddhist sangha model to reform vedantic practice and pushing back against buddha dharma and re-invigorating vedic thought, he confounded traditional brahmanistic rendering of the four ashramas where men would leave in the autumn of their years and instead made the sannyasin model something for all men at any stage of life to aspire to. All yoga and buddhist retreats I have come across favour the monastic model, either explicitly or in less tangible ways in their handling of monastic influences but of course many never reach the hallowed ground of the vast, culturally sponsored traditions like theravada and mahayana. Sanghas to work on donations serve as extensions to all the culturally established institutions, which entails all the non-secular and troublesome issues of unequal gender representation, ritual and so on – whereas the westernised, neo-univeralist institutions must tread a difficult course between more blatant, heavy-handed commercialisation and a less faith-oriented attitude of general, charitable giving. For me, I no longer recognise a specific need for a monastic tradition or institutions based on monasticism to follow dharma, which is not to say i am against them either, but we must at least question the differences between the ascetic and the familial attitudes, recognise they are different and work together to support each other since it seems to me that although the consanguine family unit has an equally or possibly much older and richer history than any religious sect founded on asceticism, we must pay respects to those who choose the other alternative, but without acquiescing on the issue of whether one way or the other is best or truest – because neither is it seems to me.

  • Todd Townsend

    I think culturally we have been hamstrung by the commodification of everything – music, arts, movies, dharma, anything. We have difficulty supporting something intangible even as we value it. We may feel that we value our time with a sangha, but if the dharma hall doesn’t have an price of admission, many are dumbfounded how to simply value such a thing in order to support it. We can’t name our own price.

    Likewise, I think that our capitalist culture makes us wary of anything someone is trying to give us. If the dharma is free, what’s wrong with it then?

  • nathan

    “I no longer recognise a specific need for a monastic tradition or institutions based on monasticism to follow dharma, which is not to say i am against them either, but we must at least question the differences between the ascetic and the familial attitudes, recognise they are different and work together to support each other…” This is totally interesting Mat. Your whole comment really, but particularly this point about recognizing different attitudes (and needs) and building our communities based upon that.

    What I have seen especially in the American Zen world is a lot of line blurring and hoping that a semi-conscious blend of monasticism and householder will somehow work for predominantly lay sanghas. Even though I’d like to think that some of this mixing is a positive thing overall, the lack of clarity and deeply examining of differences between monastic and householder seems to be bringing a lot of confusion and misery into our communities. There’s a lot of loyalty amongst teachers and longtime practitioners towards both what they were given, and also some broader, partly or greatly imagined tradition and past. How to work with that, and honor what came before while also moving forward … a predicament.

  • nathan

    Todd, I agree. This issue of needing a price tag in order to value something. It’s troubling. And also one I often don’t know how to respond to. Our sangha recently decided to move to an all donation based model for our children and youth programming. Something I support, and yet have some concern about, in part because of the point you raised. In one way, I think just making the change and letting people adjust is perhaps an answer. A sort of letting go, and allowing culture to shift based upon the flavor of the decision. On the other hand, there’s the risk that the mainstreamed “fee” and “product” culture overwhelms the flavor of the decision, and either fewer folks opt for the programs out of devaluing them, or more folks participate, but do so without giving much time, money, or other resources to support the programming. I don’t think it’s an either/or – elements of both of those could play out.

  • Mat Witts

    I agree with and recognize the predicament you detail here Nathan, and my observations concur with yours also in many other traditions outside American Zen. I suppose what I wanted to remind your readers is this predicament is not confined to America, or to Zen, or to Modern History or even to Buddhism. This debate has been documented and going on for thousands of years in various guises, which is why I categorize it somewhat vaguely I know as ‘psychological’ and not something that will ever resolve within a sociological critique. However, I also wanted to admit that our own tastes will undoubtedly be affected by whatever culture we are born into so we can’t simply ignore the social perspective either. The opportunity to escape from this limited narrative of the serious monk vs. the laissez-faire householder for me was to actually read the accounts of many of the figures throughout history and their own battles with opponents of a different persuasion whilst acknowledging what is fast becoming a global, socio-economic contest between all the actors in the play and how certain aspects of what we might be able to imagine as a more complete practice are overshadowed almost to the point of obliteration by each competing troupe. The traditional role of the father and mother in dispensing wisdom and compassion to their offspring is in marked contrast to the life of the spiritual savants who seem to have almost super-natural talents in disassociating themselves from the unintentional tyranny of that form to teach from an entirely different space with alluring perspectives on everything from personal finance to cosmology. At times of spiritual crisis or just low self-esteem the artifice of monasticism is of course, hard to resist but it should in no way be seen as exemplary. I see the monastic system as a vital cultural good to compliment the life of the householder, and so I put up with the contested aspects because I would hate to see it go into decline. However, unless we have a strong lay community with visionary leaders who respect the differences and are not merely apologizing for – or (worse) trying to mimic the monastic life both communities will be lame. There is also a place for blurring the lines as you put it, there will always be people content to hang around monasteries and teachers, not fully committing to the full monastic life or lay life either but if buddhism is to stay vital, lay support and vision is vital too and to do that we need to be very strong in our lay practice and make sure that the boundary between monasticism and family life is not compromised since both are far too valuable to simply allow them to descend into a sort of soft, spiritual gooeyness that ends up neither being one thing or another? Two communities are of course much more effective than one, and we owe it to monastics not to look to force them into being role models for us but to fix our gaze sometimes in a different direction, in the direction of our business relationships, our family, work and children and to challenge vociferously any intimation that lay life is an inferior calling, because I just don’t see it or feel it in that way. Work well, love much and when you have some spare – give some back to your local monastery – so I think being Buddhist really can be made very very simple sometimes too?

  • Nathan G. Thompson

    A couple of challenges I see present that complicate the monastic/householder narrative are:

    1. What it means to be a householder these days is pretty diverse. Nuclear families with children are one group. Young single folks another. Empty-nester couples another. Folks living in co-operative situations with many folks related or not are sharing lives together are another. Needs and views aren’t all in alignment, which makes it challenging to create a single vision for lay communities. I’ve experienced this firsthand over the past 3 years as a leader in my own sangha’s visioning process.

    2. Many lay sanghas have little or not attachment to a monastic community. The rather independent and fairly haphazard manner in which both lay and monastic sanghas have developed in “Western” countries makes it more difficult for folks on either end to realize the need for each other, and to offer tangible support in either direction. I’d guess that the majority of American lay sanghas simply don’t have a monastic counterpart to give money or other financial support to. And there are at least a few monastic communities I can think of here that don’t really have specific ties to any lay community. Even organizations that have both under their fold, like San Francisco Zen Center, seem to lean heavily in one direction. (In their case, a preference for, or elevation of, monastic practice.)

    Further, I would guess the average lay practitioner doesn’t really have much a notion about monastic life. They don’t think of monks and nuns as role models, or as superior practitioners, or much of anything really because they aren’t on the radar. The inferiority complex is more a vague notion that someone else is doing it all much better. Like the Dalai Lama or Pema Chodron or Thich Nhat Hanh. People who happen to be monastics, but in the average lay mind it’s not as much about monasticism being “better” as it is about these particular people. The cult of celebrity and elevation of individuals as “heroic” seems as much of an issue as the monasticism is better issue.

  • Mat Witts

    Yes Nathan, I see what you are saying but the question is really, ‘What it means to be a layperson?’ – not – ‘What kind of layperson are you?’ and this is clear – unless you are an ordained monastic you are in the layperson category – although I do know of minority groups such as upasikas, samaneras, novices and so on – but they are defined almost always in terms of their relationship to a specific monastic institution or tradition, not their lay status.

    The problem with lay sanghas not having any affiliation to a monastic tradition is actually a different problem, to the psychology comforting idea of heroically ‘going forth’ as opposed to the alleged easy route, which is to run a buisness or live off an inheritance or something. That has more to do with the maturing of the institutions not the deep spiritual yearnings to which the monastic traditions appeal to.

    I think you are right that the inferiority complex is fed instead not by an active, working monastic Sangha in the West but more by public figures such as the Dalai Lama or Pema Chodron or Thich Nhat Hanh and in this networked, lay mind it’s celebrity and elevation of individuals as “heroic” that ties in with the same problem, which as I opened with, is essentially a psychological barrier not a sociological one?

  • Nathan G. Thompson

    “What it means to be a layperson?’ – not – ‘What kind of layperson are you?’ and this is clear – unless you are an ordained monastic you are in the layperson category…” Yes. And, I also think that the modern, globalized world has complicated what it means to be “a layperson.” I don’t see a single definition of “lay” as particularly helpful anymore. Although I also don’t have anything specific to offer right now as to what might be done about that issue.

    “That has more to do with the maturing of the institutions not the deep spiritual yearnings to which the monastic traditions appeal to.” In some ways, I agree with you. And it makes sense, given the relative newness of the dharma in places like North America. However, at the same time, I’m not sure the maturity of the dharma here in the U.S., for example, means sanghas developing with both paths under their fold or directly affiliated in some fashion. I kind of wonder if something else might develop – a third model so to speak. Addressing/responding to the unique cultural/social history waters. Things in many Asian nations are also shifting around due to globalization. For better or worse, I don’t know. Brooke Schedneck has done a lot of research on changes in Thai Buddhism, for example. While the monastic/lay divide is still fairly clear there, Thai teachers and practitioners are also experimenting, offering new forms and practices. Cross pollination across oceans is happening fast these days, and I guess from my view, it might be leading to something different from “lay” and “monastic.” Wish I could pin it down more, but for now, it’s more a gut feeling than anything else.

  • Mat Witts

    Okay, speculation, experimentation and intuition are all fine and to be broadly encouraged. Agreed. But I think we have to be careful not to introduce the prospect of a third or possible multiple alternatives as a reaction to the prior ideas and methods, as if they are somehow, neither experimental, speculative or intuitive – simply because they have been codified and enshrined in the institutions of religion that the contemporary trend in secular tastes finds difficult to mangae other than to dismiss them as backward!! The evidence surrounding the shapes of yoga/buddhism are clearly on the side of a speculative/experimental/intuitionistic approach throughout history rather than anything else (e.g. logical positivist). The appeal I witness is that they seem to ‘work’ on some level or other, although on precisely what levels there is of course much ongoing handwringing in the neuroscience/psychology/complimentary health fields. A fairly common mistake I see from Westerners is that just because yoga/buddhism are new to US we should be talking about them as if they are novelties when much has already been verified about the ideas and methods curated, developed, and tested and whose power and robustness has been proved over thousands of years and served human progress ever since? Of course, you could be right – there could be a third way – but surely we would be better to work on the categorical foundations we already have – which is one of a community of ascetics (most often now, ordained monastics) who have made a public statement of their commitment and another one of ‘lay-folk’? Having a third category doesn’t seem, on the face of it, to be either viable, desirable or even imaginable right now?

  • Mat Witts

    PS. I realise you have actually hit upon the problem brilliantly – the term ‘lay-person’ CANNOT be meaningfully defined in any other way other than in its categorical exclusion from the monastic sangha – an argument parallel to those found in other oppressive forms in the politics of identity – white/black man/woman straight/gay? The defined group is at the centre and it displaces others outwards to the margins and towards a fate of a mostly undocumented history? This was the contest I alluded to earlier as having been going on even before the Vedas and also ties in nicely with my claim that the problem is essentially how layfolk and teachers combined define themselves in relation to the accepted norm of monastic sangha, and in American Zen, and many other niches we could argue it is built on inferiority complexes and much else besides – culminating in a terrifying codependent relationship between the teacher and the taught – rather than a shared, mutuality and respect? Lay practice then it seems to me must continue the process of re-defining itself on its own terms, not on the terms of monastic asceticism and renunciation – and although not actually representing a ‘third way’ would perhaps be sufficient for lay folk to engage more meaningfully with the monastic institutions as they become established in the west?

  • Todd Townsend

    I would tend to disagree with the statement that most lay people don’t have a notion about the monastic life. The way I see it, when someone approaches Buddhism they are greeted with a choice – lay or monastic. As soon as the judgement begins about which is better, the path is lost. One monk is no better than another, nor better than a nun, nor better than this or that lay person and vice versa in the ten directions.

    The fourfold community has worked since Buddha’s time. I think we westerners fret too often, and too much, about systems and protocols. If you are not ordained, you are lay – show up as often as you can and support the temple/sangha/lineage in ways that you can. That’s good enough. Anything else gets in the way of your practice.

    Irony or ironies, I took the Precepts in the Taego Korean Zen tradition. They consider that ‘ordaining’ a layperson. I even have a certificate of ordination. :-)

  • Richard Modiano

    This discussion is very useful to an outsider like myself. I practice in a non-monastic school of Buddhism that started in Japan during the 13th century. For its first 100 years Jodo Shinshu existed without benefit of temples or ordained clergy, but by the 15th century it had temples and priests (not monks; priests married, and there are records of women priests.) The founder of the school Shinran Shonin described himself as neither monk nor layman, and used the phrase ondobo ondogyo to describe the Shinshu adherent, fellow seeker, fellow traveler.

    In the US until the early 1960s most Jodo Shinshu priests had day jobs as well as ministering to their sanghas at night and on weekends. Today priests hold their positions full time. The sangha to which I belong is made up of around 150 families (our resident priest is the father of two children.) The temple supports itself with membership fees (though anyone can avail themselves of the temple’s services including dharma study classes without being a member,) an annual O Bon Festival, marriage and funeral fees and legacies. In short, very much how any religious institution survives economically in the US today. For individual members financial support is from each according to their ability.

  • Nathan G. Thompson

    “The founder of the school Shinran Shonin described himself as neither monk nor layman, and used the phrase ondobo ondogyo to describe the Shinshu adherent, fellow seeker, fellow traveler.” Yes! Thank you. I was trying to recall folks that historically bucked the monk/lay person trend. I know there are others like Shinran as well.

    Todd, from my vantage point, unless a person either comes to Buddhism with a lot of background knowledge, or arrives at a sangha where both sides are present or regularly spoken of, it’s not likely they face this choice you speak of early on. It also might matter where someone lives, and whether there’s a strong presence of both monastic and lay communities nearby.

    I, too, am “lay ordained.” In the Soto Zen school. The local landscape here in the Twin Cities includes 4 fully developed Zen Centers, a small monastery in southern Minnesota with 1 monk head teacher and a few other devoted lay practitioners, and then several smaller Zen groups that are either affiliated with the 4 ZCs, or are from other lineages. It’s likely that you could count on your fingers the number of ordained monastics present amongst us. The vast majority of the teachers are householders, as are nearly all the students. This is reflected in the dharma talks given, the forms and rituals (or lack thereof), and in the manner in which other needs (like actively working with children and youth) are addressed.

    I totally agree with you that there’s “much fretting.” And at least some of it is little more than a hindrance. I also agree with Mat’s point above that “Westerners” are prone to treating ancient practices like Buddhism and yoga as novelties, and sometimes fail to offer respect and care for all that has been handed down to us.

  • Bezi

    Money and dharma. Bleah.

    I can see that I’ve been wildly lucky. The explicitly Buddhist engagement I’ve done so far has all been gratis… and a good thing too. Middle class I’m not. When I awakened (nirvana-ed?) at Vipassana a decade ago I gave what dana I could though I’m not sure ANY amount would have been commensurate with what I gained. East Bay Meditation Center is by donation only, and the monastery I’m trying to move to is funded primarily by the abbot, though monks and laypeople may help support.

    There are definitely other Buddhistic events I’ve passed up because the fees and registration were prohibitive. I’d rationalize not attending by being like: “well actually I don’t particularly NEED to go on an expensive retreat; I’ve already gotten my raft ride to the other riverbank. Why keep lugging the thing around when there’s tolls every goddamn where?” (lol) But I can’t say with 100% certitude that no psychological impact whatsoever was registered. I’ve had the discussion with some from my milieu (black folk) about being excluded from participation on an economic basis and I can tell you that it’s not pleasant. It can make a person feel uninvited, unworthy. And the homogeneity of the resulting sanghas is not helpful for creating bridges of understanding and comradeship between diverse communities either. Ultimately this kind of thing is, quite flatly, impeding Western Buddhist progress and solidarity.

    Mainstream Buddhism too often reflects the dysfunction, contradiction, even oppression of run-of-the-mill late stage capitalism. So it’s psychological and also quite sociological. The first thing you learn in Soc 101 is the difference between “personal troubles” and “social issues.” That’s CRITICAL. If you have individuals blaming and shaming themselves for not being able to do the things they want and need to do for self improvement, that’s bad enough. If you have enitire communities collectively mirroring and modeling to each other internalized oppression… that’s orders of magnitude worse.

    Right now I’m listening to Amiri Baraka (aka LeRoi Jones) commenting on this catastrophic day in a slicing poem, Somebody Blew Up America:


    this fee-based dharma business seems to me a little bit enfolded (not entirely) into a broader phenomenon I’ve been observing ever since Vipassana which I call the New Age industrial complex – complete with its own elite class (Mr. Chopra, Mr. Wilber, Mr. Dyer, Mrs. Marx-Hubbard, etc.), corporations, the whole NINE. Talkin ’bout “for only $5945.00 (minus transportation, meals), you can encounter your True, Blissful Powerful Self! Meet your Spiritual Friends! Confront your Dark Side! Become a Conscious Co-Creator!” I mean: all that’s cool but. Maybe I simply DON’T HAVE FIVE THOUSAND NINE HUNDRED FORTY FIVE DOLLARS lying around. So whatchu sayin’? You’re just not down? Too bad / too sad? Must be your own lousy karma? Better luck next lifetime? That’s some icy mufuggyn shyte right thurr. Damn. Very Cartesian / Newtonian. Materialist. Billiard balls. At any rate, not especially evolved-seeming. No wonder we can’t make the changes the planet needs. Be it week or monthlong retreats in glamorous locales, Amazon shamanism, Burning Man or any number of “consciousness culture” (ugh) festivals… best I can tell it’s – same old wine, sparkly new (aged) jugs.

    I reiterate. Bleah.
    I mean I oughta might check myself because this sounds a tad judgmental. I’m sayin’ dough…

  • Jeff

    Nice segue, Bezi, from Baraka’s “Who got rich from Syria” to “Do we have to be rich for Dharma?” I don’t have any wisdom on the whole lay vs. monastic thing, so I thank you and others for making some of the issues real for me.

  • Bezi

    no digg. I guess I should’ve said “no wonder we HAVEN’T made the changes the planet needs.” I’m sure we Could, but so far our record is – *a little spotty*

  • Todd Townsend

    Good stuff, Be I. Thank you. And thank you especially for the Baraka!! Damn good stuff!!!

  • Todd Townsend

    Sorry, s/b Thank you, Bezi. I missed the auto correct faux pays.

  • Todd Townsend

    Can I just say, I have a love/hate relationship with auto correct?!??

  • Mat Witts

    @Richard, yes I understand there are many different interpretations of monk-hood and lay-life. I have it on good authority that most Theravadin monks in Thailand handle money despite it being explicitly against their monastic code (vinaya) – monks based in Europe are very strict on this and have come up with all sorts of novel and sophisticated ways to allow for lay people to help them out financially – like trusts and so on. All these cultural nuances I think are fine. In the other direction @Nathans and @Todds testimonies both show attempts at blurring boundaries between lay and ordained too but my point was that – sooner or later these experiments inevitably resolve into two distinct, conventional and familar categories – ‘lay’ and ‘ordained’ – and the imagined or wished-for ‘third way’ always seems to be pulled in one of two directions – whether we call them priests, teachers, masters, ondobo or whatever. @Bezi points to the lack of inclusion in some courses, mainly because of the idea that dharma conforms to the model of consumerism which is ridiculous to anyone who hasn’t lost all their marbles – so of course he is right. But whether or not fees for course are expensive or free – undeniably – sooner or later – the story is that a monastic life is considered to provide the safest and most suitable environment for advancing toward enlightenment and liberation, and many of these courses explicitly or implicitly rely on doctrinal interpretations that are biased towards the renunciate (ascetic) values – and this I find is generally internalized by lay students who then go on to mimic them in their own sanghas. The real insult to both (the ordained and the lay) is that the lay feel they must pay these fees in order to be more authentic or some such whilst all the time, the ordained avoid or even sneer at them – which actually has also become a fairly dominant voice in the lay community – that teachers that charge extortionate fees are somehow, fraudulent when the real fraud is in our heads – that ‘going forth’ as an alms mendicant is an exemplary decision and un-matched. This message is unavoidable and is reinforced relentlessly as soon as we study the canonical texts. I don’t want to complain about that assertion because for one thing – I think for some people it might be – but generally my research into the documented history of ‘dharmic’ tradition is that – at best – this development is nothing more than a contest – and it seems to be one mainly inside our own heads, which of course interacts through groups in society and in varied cultures in varying ways – when our intuition is telling us that as we reach the subtle levels of understanding – there really can be no such distinction that is even viable, let alone helpful? As todd says – sooner or later – you have to make your peace with this in one way or another, and for me to live an ordinary life with no monk-ish aspirations or pretensions whilst regularly talking with people that have taken the other road works just fine. The insider-outsider concept doesn’t have to be a problem once we recognise that who is inside and who is outside depends very much on your standpoint, because as soon as you take a vertical perspective on lay and ordained, both need each other – but perhaps not so much in the way that is happening right now?

  • Todd Townsend

    “nothing more than a contest – and it seems to be one mainly inside our own heads”
    Very nice – and might just the crux of everything, interpreted broadly.

  • nathan

    Todd, there’s some truth this all going on in our heads, however as Bezi and I and Mat’s comments also demonstrate, this goings on in our heads has collective impacts that are much larger than any individual’s psychological struggles to be at peace with it all. This whole thing about fees and courses and their monastic biases that Bezi and Mat bring up is one such issue. I see this internalization process in my own sangha, even though the fees we charge are moderate (still fixed at a too damned high rate, but moderate compared with the celebrity teacher courses). There’s both subtle and not subtle cues that those who regularly do quasi-monastic retreats are “deep practitioners,” while everyone else isn’t.

    On the one hand, I went through my own “crisis” around feeling inadequate from all this a few years back, and have made my peace with it. Folks are gonna think whatever they think and that’s how it goes.

    On the other hand, this pattern has limited collective exploration into what it might mean to “go deep” as a lay practitioner. And it has also reinforced many of the oppressive norms of our society in the process.

    What I hear at saying is that these feelings of inadequacy are really unnecessary burdens. Something I totally agree with. If the majority of lay practitioners always feel second rate, there’s something off. And while it’s in our heads, it’s also embedded in the sangha cultures we are creating. I say employ the teachings on both ourselves individually, and also on the communities.

  • Todd Townsend

    Agreed. Somehow the egalitarian nature of the Dharma needs more emphasis.

  • Richard Modiano

    “the story is that a monastic life is considered to provide the safest and most suitable environment for advancing toward enlightenment and liberation, and many of these courses explicitly or implicitly rely on doctrinal interpretations that are biased towards the renunciate (ascetic) values ”

    Jodo Shinshu never had a monastic or renunciate tradition. A professional priesthood didn’t emerge until Shinshu became institutionalized in the 14th century, and priests married and raised families, so this doesn’t apply to Jodo Shinshu which holds that we’re living in the “Latter Dharma Age” or Mappo, when enlightenment is no longer possible, not even in 7 life times much less in one.

    One can only listen to the Dharma and rely on the great vow of Amida Buddha for birth in the Pure Land at death. Meantime one lives mindfully with warm heart and humble attitude, and a Jodo Shinshu priest has no more claim to birth in the Pure Land than does a layman. As for those who practice what Shinshu calls the way of sages (meditation, visualization, prostration, etc.), the best they can hope for in this age is a fleeting glimpse of their Buddha nature and not unsurpassed perfect enlightenment.

    In practice, there are no fees for attending dharma study classes, sutra chanting classes or classes on maintaining your butsudan (home altar.) The teachings are free. My temple raises money with rummage sales, sushi sales, banquets, mochi sales (rice cakes made at the temple), and an annual carnival in addition to charging a fee for funerals and weddings.

    Maybe meditation center type sanghas could adapt some of these revenue generating methods listed above to their own needs.

  • Bezi

    “But whether or not fees for course are expensive or free – undeniably – sooner or later – the story is that a monastic life is considered to provide the safest and most suitable environment for advancing toward enlightenment and liberation, and many of these courses explicitly or implicitly rely on doctrinal interpretations that are biased towards the renunciate (ascetic) values – and this I find is generally internalized by lay students who then go on to mimic them in their own sanghas.”

    Fair enough ~ The fact that I / we even have the opportunity to examine and pursue an option like joining a Buddhist monastery in the city of Oakland (especially given where ‘some of us’ are coming from insofar as life possibilities are concerned) is something I have Maaaaaad gratitude for. Real talk. So many powerful factors come together to make that happen. I wonder if others really trip off of how anything we want or need is at least pursuable, and often obtainable, because of the innovations we now live with with total casualness.

    When I first got back from my spot – in the Shugendo Tendai tradition (where priests can, to my understanding, most def be married and ‘householding’ to an extent) last month, I was dropped off at 16th and Mission in SF. Ay conyo! All that freakin’ NOISE! Shouting, rushing, sirens blaring, frowning, mean mugging, schemes being hatched, cross-lingual hustling… um yeah. Very loud. It was fascinating, charming and horrifying all at once and then some. One can indeed get their karmic work done inside the village walls. I have to say I’ve at least demonstrated that to myself. But the deeper aspects can only be accessed in silence. Perfect, wind-stirring, insect-buzzing, dirty-shoed silence.

    *sigh* And um – we got dat. We can do that. It’s cray.

    In silent meditation I rolled easily into Samadhi two times just before departing. Left the hall and saw two moons in the eastern and western sky and a forest fire in the distance that wasn’t there the next day. Like Woah.

    Um. You bet. Need to support this one with money and resources. It’s just the right thing to do. But there are ways and levels at which to solicit these. And it’s clear to me that the intentions of at least some of the people running these sanghas (and other communities) are more-or-less old-paradigm, profit oriented. That’s the kind of thing I suspect those of us in our various sanghas have to step to in some compassionate but real way if and when we see it. Sounds like some of us here are doing just that. Big up…

    And though all this “Me” and “I did” is all well and good and whutevs ~ I’m pained by the sense that I’m more the exeption than the rule. Buddhism can powerfully benefit sooooo many of us but because of the EXACT phenomena we talk about here, avenues are not available the way they should be. More outreach is needed… at every level. I’m implicating and including myself in that ~

    this piece about internalizing the monastic / renunciate aspect and how students take that into other sanghas is thought provoking. Will have to be on the lookout for that going forward.

  • Mat Witts

    @Richard – thanks for the information on jodo-shinshu, which is a tradition I – and I think most others here that seem to demonstrate more than just a passing interest in Buddhism know very little about – which in some ways could be seen as being an exception that proves the general rule we have been discussing here – in that the vast majority of Buddhists do not recognise the category of the ‘monk-householder’ of someone like Shinran – which is not the same as denying such figures exist. I agree with @Todd, (and, from what I gather – Shinran) in that all these problems will of course become silent, odourless, formless and invisible at the absolutely, imperceptible level – but I agree with @Nathan again in that I believe our conciousness rests in, on, or perhaps it just rubs up against inumerable levels – some conventional – like ‘monk/lay/man/woman/white/black/rich/poor’ – which is where we are focussing our analysis here – but this in no way denies the unitarian, transcendent ‘level’ – which may not be best described as a level at all – but possibly a polyvalent state – but my god – we can’t go into that here!!

    To reach a peak of insight like Shinran doesn’t seem to me to be the end of the story though, any more than say, getting married marks the end of romance – though many comedians, authors and film directors have made a good living from suggesting it is !!

    Personally I am drawn to people who do not teach from the front of the class but actually sit amongst the students (figuratively I mean) and look at Dharma from that perspective. Right now I don’t quite see enough of a difference between jodo-shinsu and other Gnostic strands running through Theravada and Mahayana – it appears at first glance to be a sophisticated system of dis-assembling ritual – with ritual – which is not a jibe – I am very cool with paradox.

    What I do believe is that first and foremost – jodo-shinshu was likely to have been firstly a psychological maneuvre on the part of the founder – which then led to a social reaction to the perceived inequity of the established ordained Sangha in Japan at that time, and (although I do not count myself in this category) I think this tradition would be considered to be an unrecognised schism – even today?

    You could even argue against Shrinan’s solution for ‘muddying the water’ – but again – I wouldn’t anymore than I would be drawn into a debate as to whether you need to live by the five precepts to call yourself a Buddhist – because the point is moot – the fact is that this ‘third way’ which now, I concede is not ‘imagined’ is still at least in the eyes of established lay and ordained Sanghas in Buddhism, ‘fanciful’.

    The fact that ‘in Jodo Shinshu, the primary practice for all followers is just listening to the Teaching. Listening to our priests and scholars explaining the Dharma, is the best way to challenge our doubts and receive shinjin’ – and this conception seems to at least acknowledge the need for an ordained sangha of ‘teachers’ too – with robes, temples, artifacts and so on – so the domineering, religious symbolism has not been deemed incongruous and thrown out altogether as it generally is in the lay tradition, though I appreciate it does not go as far as to insist on celibacy, renunciation or precepts. This is/will of course be perfect for many people – but it doesn’t really disrupt the challenges we are looking at here – which is about a widespread, psychological pre-disposition to elevation of ‘Bhikkhu-ism’ – a pedagogic contagion which moves outward to the lay community which impresses upon us to do our best to mimic it too, through voluntary taking of precepts that might include celibacy, vegetarianism and other attitudes of simplicity.

    So, it feels like there is quite widespread social reproduction of established monasteries under a narrow, monastic interpretation that again, at least risks marginalising lay life – even though there is no incentive for monastics to obliterate it, but I do see (giving the benefit of the doubt) unintended tactical deployment of sophisticated mind control tactics to ‘keep lay people in their place’ – from the design of temples to various protocols adopted by monks and nuns to keep certain aspects of ordained life obscure and mostly, impenetrable by everyone else.

    On this aspect in history I note that, ‘[Shinran’s] convictions led him into the new Pure Land community, for which he was persecuted by the emperor, who was acting on behalf of the Buddhist establishment, which saw the egalitarian Pure Land approach as a threat. Shinran endured exile, humiliation, and governmental cancellation of his ordination’.

    I am sure there is more on jodo-shinshu that might persuade us that the distinction between monks and lay people is now defunct, and we can look forward to a brighter horizon and so I apologise for not following it through in detail – but, in any case – everywhere else I think the current state of the art is pretty much along the lines of what @Nathan and other commenters seem to recognise – monks and nuns mimic the ascetic life to varying degrees of success but are consistently held back from acting from a more socially, emotionally and intellectually integrated place simply because the social status and power that comes from a clearly defined teaching role would surely be undermined if they were to go so far as to renounce their own renunciation and ‘go back’ to the lay life? Thus, the scene which contains both our spiritual elevation and its descent I think is still very much intact despite the best efforts of undoubted masters like Shinran?

  • Mat Witts

    @Bezi – I hear you. I don’t in any way want to give the impression that I am wanting to inhibit or prohibit the establishment of Buddhist monasteries in SF or anywhere!! I agree with you in that the more places like the one you described we have, the better – but with one, what think is a very important caveat which I have restated probably too many times now here – lay supporters must match the effort and make sure they have the vision and focus not to get drawn into a promised model of salvation that (in many practical aspects) has only been developed and designed to work within the confines of a monastery. I am not promoting lay life over and above monasticism – I only try to make sure I proceed with a heart of equity between the two, which I see is vital for both models, whilst also putting out a tentative warning about the sort of wishful thinking that anything other than the ordained monastic form (in all its saffron and ochre and crimson and yellow) or the un-ordained lay form in all its beautiful varieties is likely to work for the majority – but no offense intended to all the monk-lay hybrid forms that also seem to have earned a niche for themselves in this discussion too!

  • Jeff

    No doubt solitary contemplation and undistracted activity are important for spiritual development, but if monastics and weeks-long-retreat-goers are coming out of seclusion with holier-than-thou attitudes, that would seem to invalidate the whole experience as a means to discovering loving-kindness. And if extended periods of isolation are needed for deep practice, does this make Buddhism a “discipline” for the few rather than a journey for us all?

    Perhaps we politically progressive Buddhists can alternate “retreats” with “advances,” during which we might deliberately focus on engagement to learn skillful, compassionate, collective action for social change. After all, what constitutes enlightenment for any isolated individual get in this tumultuous, suffering world? Just a thought.

  • Nathan G. Thompson

    “Perhaps we politically progressive Buddhists can alternate “retreats” with “advances,” during which we might deliberately focus on engagement to learn skillful, compassionate, collective action for social change.”

    I’ve spent the last decade or so trying to learn how to embody this statement. It’s a pretty messy process. In large part because of the attachment to either remain in the contemplative wing or the activist wing. I’m starting to see that the “activist guilt” that arose for me last fall/winter following a very active 1 1/2 year period was linked to an attachment to “stay active.” And with that, an attachment to an identity of “being an activist” who was “doing something.” All sorts of old self-esteem issues arose with that guilt, things I thought I was done with. It was an interesting experience.

    Part of the reason I’ve been able to write the kinds of things I have written here at BPF this summer is because of that stepping back, and the digging into all that internal crap. Which then led to paying even closer attention to the social action/activism around me. And noticing that a lot of what folks are doing seems to be pretty stale and ineffective. Or rife with the oppressive norms that folks claim to be wanting to transform. Being at a few protests this spring and early summer, I looked around and thought “Are we partly doing this to feel like we’re doing something?”

    Point being, I’m glad there are places around like monasteries. And I think it might be helpful to consider creating other places, or more programs within our current places, supporting folks to navigate the reflective/active waters. Cause it’s damned hard to do alone, or mostly alone.

  • Bezi

    Mat, I see what you’re getting @. But um. Hm. Any time I hear anyone pronounce that another “must” do or not do something, it occurs to me to ask: “or else what?” Not to say actions don’t have consequences. They… err (lol) obviously do. In the spirit of your response – it seems pretty clear that effort and a heart of equity are “musts” in becoming more proficient and integrated with the dharma. But not having sufficient amounts of either doesn’t necessarily preclude one from having illuminating experiences. On one or another time frame, these reveal potent life lessons. And just who would make a definitive objective determination of “proper” amounts of effort or equity anyway? Us? (the individual practitioner?) Human beings are a hallway of mirrors to ourselves with our fixed beliefs, roiling emotions, unconscious impulses &c. An answer could appear to be the “master teacher”, “guru”, or however we would say it. But there’s this remarkably insightful book called the Guru Papers:

    which makes the point I’m driving at. A quote from it:

    “True healing can be accelerated by understanding the deep mechanisms of what happened, and of authoritarian dynamics in general. Then people can be more confident they won’t be taken in again.”(p.154)

    The mechanisms of “what happened” could just as well (and usually does) involve mistakes and/or personal illusions as skillful means on the part of the seeker AND the spiritual authority…

    Jeff, I’ve met now quite a few people (too many to be amped over, lol) who come out of seclusion with what I experience as a very inflated, overripe self-image: “oooh, I’m soooo Enlightened and Powerful”. But not only seclusion. They come from “consciousness culture” (ugh) events, seminars, retrerats, Burning Man and on and on, HELLA self-righteous. I’m all for healthy self esteem. But come on. After Vipassana I went through several phases: giddy, childlike enthusiasm I wanted to share with everybody; disillusionment when nobody I spoke to could relate; self-righteous indignation, like “what is these clowns doin’? You WON’T HIT IT if you’re fantasizing about chocolate mousse, worrying about your cat or trying to find out how the Raiders are doing; and then (I think this is the whole crux of it) a profound humility, a deep gratitude for the body, mind and spirit capable of achieving such a state in the first place. What follows from that – realizing I’m ‘just another person’ – is a radically revamped notion of what’s possible for ANY person regarding liberation and self-transcendence. So what I’m saying is – in my experience, if a seeker truly hits on a peak experience which is well understood and contextualized (cause that’s crucial), and the person feels WORTHY of it (which is equally crucial), loving kindness, upaya, wisdom, equanimity, clarity, purpose and all that good ish follow – and NOT braggadocious, feather-and-leather wearing ‘More-Evolved-Than-Youism’…


    “And if extended periods of isolation are needed for deep practice, does this make Buddhism a “discipline” for the few rather than a journey for us all?”

    No… that’s not my position. Let me clarify: for me deep practice comes precisely from a cycle of ‘retreating’ from, and ‘advancing’ into, the chaotic flow of status-quo apparent reality. Like a few folks on here I’ve navigated between periods of hardcore “outer world” activism: marching, leading drum cores, community meetings, city hall, writing campaigns, spitting black nationalist lyrics in clubs populated by skinheads (that was interesting) etc… and intense “inner world” attention and scrutiny, meditation, walking, hiking, liteweight martial arts and whatwhat. And I used to take myself through rugged and raw changes over not doing more on the outer work tip. I have my moments today but they’re fewer and further between because of something the instructor at the people-of-color sitting at EBMC last night said. One of the beneficial outcomes of deepening in the dharma is an evolving faith in the benevolent unfolding of life… a process that involves some degree of surrender to the reality that ultimately NOBODY’s minding the store. Nobody is in control! Not the “illuminati” or anyone. We’re all subject to forces exponentially larger than what we can overcome by sheer act of will. But if you can ‘get in where you fit in’ as we say in da hood, find a way to ride the ebb and flow of transforming spacetime from a place of inner quietude, you can develop the capacity to become responsive to the world instead of reactive. Then you TRUST whatever period or phase you may be in – be it inner or outer focused!

    Plus: you’re more rehearsed and prepared for the potentiality of a time to come where we will be required to explicitly process the inner and outer work simultaneously…

    dee-dee-dee-doo-dee-dee-dee-doo *twilight zone theme*


  • Jeff

    Messy and damned hard sums up political activism pretty nicely, Nathan. And I share your frustration and cynicism about the sputtering, ineffectual outcomes of many of our efforts. Still, the work needs to get done. Whether it’s averting intervention in Syria or overcoming oppressive social relationships within Buddhist communities, I can’t see how we will make those changes without steady commitment and actually persuading lots of other people to join together with a common purpose.

    Still, you’re absolutely right that feeling like we should “be an activist” or “do something” every waking moment is a trap in itself. Not to mention futile, especially if our “movement” consists of a handful of people. Keeping the inner political fires at a low burn instead of flameout levels would seem to make sense for all but the most inspiring mass struggles.

    Stepping back for quiet reflection is nourishing for the spirit and essential for maintaining perspective at the front lines of advocacy. There’s a dialectic going on here which we haven’t yet figured out, but it definitely helps to mull things over in response to the questions and challenges you pose. Thanks, brother.

  • Jeff

    Bezi, as always, I’m grateful for the insights – you provide a much-needed reminder to me not to neglect the inner work.

    I can agree that “ultimately nobody’s minding the store,” but if that’s the case why should we have faith that the unfolding of life is “benevolent,” if by that we mean it will be increasingly possible for all of us to achieve “liberation and self-transcendence.” Although I fully share your optimism, I can’t seem to shake the notion that this potential will not develop for many kalpas unless we tinker with the Big Machine in the world’s basement – the one that doles out food or hunger, peace or war, a survivable climate or fried Earth. For example, more folks could go on those long Vipassana retreats if we had full employment in creative/productive labor, not required to work more than 10 hours a week!

    None of this is meant to imply that everyone “should” be an activist, just as you aren’t urging everyone to get thee to a monastery. Hmm…maybe mix a splash of social criticism and a dash of disobedience in the meditation mousse and you get…a savory, well-balanced Buddhist.

    I would venture to say that our understanding of enlightenment itself may unfold when we turn from competition and individualism to cooperation and compassion as the basis for neighborhood and global social relations. Perhaps the best is yet to come.

  • Richard Modiano

    Although my position is marginal here, it may be of interest and contribute something to the discussion.

    I come from an organizing rather than activist background. I’m what’s called a “dual carder”, that is I belong to two unions, one a business union and the other a revolutionary union, so my bias is in favor of organizing the working class, and that includes the unemployed. Meantime, the daily struggle is to democratize the business union and send the labor fakirs back to the bench while building the revolutionary union. I know this is a “workerist” perspective, but I believe that working people are the motor of history, and they’re the ones who have the greatest potential to effect long term change.

    I also belong to a horizontal Buddhist denomination, without gurus, masters or senior students and without any formal meditation practice. Instead we listen to the dharma and practice mindfulness with the awareness that we’re foolish beings of blind passions. So there are no meditation retreats, no advanced teachings, nothing to spend your money on except your wedding or your funeral.

  • Bezi

    “I can agree that “ultimately nobody’s minding the store,” but if that’s the case why should we have faith that the unfolding of life is “benevolent,” if by that we mean it will be increasingly possible for all of us to achieve “liberation and self-transcendence.”

    great question. If nobody’s minding the store (and of course, very much trying), then our minds are (or can be) really and truly ours to do with what we might. Plug into any channel or not… it’s up to you. And the more you do the work, the more frequencies of liberation and transcendence become available. Don’t like what you’re listening to? Change the station. Something that makes life benevolent is the sense that you have a choice, no matter how limited it may be in a certain moment. The structures and systems of this society don’t give people the sense that there is a choice (but to participate). This was a part of the Matrix trilogy I was really juiced on – how they managed to dig into the deep ground of philosophical inquiry as to the nature of free will vs. predestination…. (‘specially with the Merovingian segment)

    the big machine needs a gang of tinkering. No doubt about that. But what’s so interesting to me is that a lot of us contribute with our unique tools and skill sets. One may be tinkering with the head as a radical economist for example. Someone else might do music or paint (chest cavity/heart), another might march (legs) or organize (arms). Some of us can and do move between these functions. Maybe this all is a bit obscure but what I’m getting at is that I think most of us are twisting bolts and welding plates in our own ways: quiet loud, on a longer or shorter time frame, etc.

    But um jeeyuh. Clock ticking. Waited till very late…

    Vipassana gets results. That’s why they even got it in the prisons. People realize the most interesting and surprising things.

    It’s possible to be a seeker and an activist. I think you hit it: dharma + social criticism + measured doses of disobedience = savory, well balanced Buddhist.

    put it like this. I (or whoever) should have faith because ~ not to is to sap my life energy and prolong my own suffering. I’m of little use to others, leave alone myself, if I’m gratuitously rolling around in agony spiritually…

  • Bezi

    Richard: I never would have thought to make a distinction between “activist” and “organizer” but, seeing why you did… huh – something to ponder…

    Ahhh yes… the worker. Indeed. *trying to drown out the Internationale in my head*
    Once I was a worker… helping to make the machines run on time. This fast food strike is… interesting. Checking it out! And I can’t front… I’m a little boastful to say that we ‘coloreds’ were in essence the first true organized American workforce…

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