The Buddhist Lifecoach or Charging Fees for the Dharma

Nepalese Buddhist Coins

This is yet another one of those troublesome “money and the Dharma” kinds of posts. It isn’t going to be short.

Issues around money and Buddhism are a reoccurring problem, at least for some of us. Traditionally (as in pre-modern times and inside Asia), the Dharma subsisted on the twofold supports of state patronage and lay patronage and donation. (We could add a third leg to make a stool with “working monastics in cottage industries in the monastery” but we’ll leave that aside for now.)

Here in the West, we do not have either of these two traditional supports in as great of a degree. State support is limited to tax exempt status if incorporated as a religious institution, at least here in the United States. There are no kings or emperors giving vast amounts of land and annual payments to create and maintain monasteries, monastic colleges, or national teachers with the full power of governmental support. Lay support does exist in the United States (in fact, that is the only support that does exist). In Asia, this comes across as money donated to specific temples or monasteries, food and money donated to begging monastics, and other financial or material support given by laity as a sign of faith, reverence for the Dharma, and, frankly, because it has been customary.

In America, centers and retreat sites seem to be more often funded by a few well to do patrons (aka sugar daddies) who are quite devout and fairly well off. They show their support and faith by donating enough money to help a building or piece of land to be bought or maybe in defraying ongoing costs. I’ve personally seen this happen in a couple of places in the Tibetan Vajrayana community (and this isn’t a criticism). The problem with that is it is rather unpredictable and unsustainable because it relies on random individuals instead of large groups of people in aggregate. If that individual dies or goes away, the support ends. It is not a good way to keep things going.

In Western Dharma, as I’ve experienced it, support for the Dharma is largely in monthly dues to an organization or center, fees paid for specific events, such as retreats, and dana given as donation to teachers for specific activities, such as retreats or training. Many institutions also maintain bookshops and the like to help. It is also quite common to have work periods or “karma yoga” during events or retreats where event participants spend a period of time working on the center that is holding the event. At the one day retreat I attended recently at Empty Gate Zen Center, I spent thirty or forty minutes trimming bushes or hedges and then some time weeding in order to help the place look better and be maintained. Everyone else was doing the same.

The problem is that this kind of thing often isn’t enough to maintain a center or to pay teachers anything. We live in a society that is money-based and their are ongoing costs to simply live. There aren’t too many monasteries with 1,000 acres of lands and a group of monks farming it. Even Catholic monastics have run into this issue in maintaining themselves though they do have the Roman Catholic Church to fall back on for some support. There is a school of thought that says, well, the Dharma should be free and no one should be charged anything. People should be encouraged in generosity, dana, as a virtue. This means that people are told that the group and teacher (or event) needs donations and often a suggested amount and what people pay is what they decide to give. That works to some degree but I’ve heard a lot of grumbling over the years about it and I’ve seen a number of Buddhist centers close down because there wasn’t enough income coming in to pay rent and utilities, let alone for materials or anything else.

There is the additional problem of people who have (or want to) give their life entirely over to the Dharma. I’ve known of people who made the decision when young (in their 20s) to be full time monastics or lay clergy. They spent the next 20 or 30 years training, giving service, and otherwise living that life. Some of them (the lay ones hopefully) even married and had children. At that point or when any of them get older, they find themselves, usually, without medical insurance and without any substantial income to pay bills as they age or as their children grow up. I met one kick ass Phowa practitioner in Colorado who would spend three or six months working dead end jobs at Best Buy or Circuit City, living in a tiny room on almost nothing or couch surfing, to save up the money necessary to support himself in annual retreats with his teacher and others. He’d been doing this or similar since the 1970s. It is a dedicated life but also probably much harder than many other choices. I know that the San Francisco Zen Center has been having discussions and some concern about the promises that they made, decades ago, to support their clergy for life now that a larger number of the Boomer generation clergy are entering the later years and continue to need more and more support. They cannot simply throw them out but, like social security, it may make their finances insolvent. What is to be done?

Some people will say, “Well, that’s the choice people have to make for the Dharma.” That is certainly true though I will point out that, historically, most monastics that chose this style of living hand to mouth would be able to beg for food and receive it (without being arrested) and would otherwise receive some support to allow them to keep going.

Some teachers have supported themselves by making teaching their secondary occupation, an evening and weekend thing. They have a day job, often in psychology or some other job where they can serve people. This gets around financial issues but at the expense of being able to commit time to the Dharma. Rev. Keisho, my Tendai priest friend, used to work all day running his cabinetry business and spent all of his free-time on the Dharma. Eventually, when he got into more senior years, he sold the business, rented out his home, and went to Japan to train and live in a temple for six years. When he came back, he sold his home and bought retreat land to transform, mostly on his own, into a temple and Dharma center. He only was able to dedicate himself to the Dharma 100% full-time as a sort of retirement from day-to-day lay life.

In response to this overall money problem, there have been various, shall we say, more creative solutions.

Genpo Roshi has received an amazing amount of shit from people like Brad Warner (who charges nothing for teaching, as far as I know) for asking for large “donations” from well-to-do patrons. I don’t remember the exact numbers but I know that Genpo charges upwards of $50,000 for small, five or ten person, private retreats attended by these people. I also know, and this is something that his detractors often gloss over, that he charges much smaller fees to most folks. I have personally met people who worked with him who were poor and any and all fees were simply waived by Genpo and his other teachers. Is it wrong to ask a multi-millionaire to pay what is, for him or her, a relatively small amount, and then funnel that money back into the organization to support waiving fees for people with no jobs? Of course, with this money, I know that Genpo maintains a good sized zendo, a building next door filled with resident monastics, and a rented office (or he did two years ago when I visited it in Salt Lake City).

Other teachers, whom I won’t name in order to not single them out and because I’ve worked with them, have decided to use the model of coaching or training for the Dharma. My physical trainer, whom I use for cardio and weight lifting training, charges $70/hour (luckily, my work subsidizes much of this as a benefit!). My old Cognitive Behavioral Therapist, who was a PhD psychologist, charged my insurance over $100/hour ten years ago. I’ve seen Dharma teachers charging $10/hour, $40/hour, and even $70/hour or more. They treat meditation training and working with students on the Dharma as, say, your yoga teacher would for working one on one. Is this wrong? Part of me reacts to it rather distastefully, even though I’ve participated personally, because it feels like it runs the risk of turning the Dharma into another commodity and of inserting financial considerations, either on the part of the student or the teacher, into a relationship that should be free of it. Perhaps I’m also a little jealous as I would never have thought to charge, say, $40 an hour for training someone in a Buddhist practice and I’m really not sure that I could.

Both the Genpo “Charge on a scale” approach and the trainer approach are much more clearly sustainable, financially, than hoping that your basket by the door has enough to cover rent. I’m not sure if they are sustainable over decades or centuries though.

What is an appropriately ethical and Buddhist response to the monetary needs of Dharma teachers and Dharma institutions in the West?

I don’t have any answers in this. I’m very interested in what people think on this matter within the Buddhist community and their own experiences, pro, con, or whatever. Please feel free to comment or start a discussion on your own blog and link back to here.