Buddhist Geeks - Last Day and Closing Thoughts

I’m a little late in writing this (it is now Wednesday) but I’ve had nearly back to back trips to several conferences so bear with me.

I wanted to write about the last day of the Buddhist Geeks conference.

Ken McLeod Morning Talk
Ken McLeod

Ken McLeod did a talk, “There is No Enemy: a tool kit for change,” which spoke from his personal experience. Several days later, I have a hard time summarizing it, though I found it engaging. Diane Musho Hamilton also presented on “Enlightenment through an evolutionary lens.” These were each short, 20 minute, presentations.

Rohan Gunatillake on how Buddhism is broken
Rohan Gunatillake

Rohan Gunatillake spoke after this on how the aesthetic of Buddhism, specifically meditation, is broken (see a podcast with him on this topic). By this, he meant that the presentation, marketing, and form of it were broken from the viewpoint of the public. People have a very odd idea of what Buddhism or meditation actually is and this impacts their willingness or interest to participate in what would otherwise be useful and engaging activities. He spoke to the idea of taking lessons from groups like YCombinator and startups and creating skillful applications and methods for teaching practices and the Dharma, as well as presenting them to people. An example of this is his own “Buddify” phone application that he’s hoping to unveil this fall, which will teach meditation to your average person in a way that is accessible. Rohan would like to see a thousand flowers bloom and see a bunch of Buddhist startups where people create new tools and methods of working with the public (or even the existing Dharma community).

One of the more interesting sessions of the day was the “Emerging Face of Buddhism” panel with Ken McLeod, Diane Musho Hamilton, and Shinzen Young with Hokai Sobol moderating.

The Emerging Face of Buddhism panel with Ken, Diane, Shinzen, and Hokai
Ken McLeod, Diane Musho Hamilton, Shinzen Young, and Hokai Sobol

I’d been thinking of doing an “unplugged” session on Buddhism and money but it turned out to not be necessary. The panel spent about 60% or more of its time discussing the issues around money and Buddhism, specifically charging for instruction, what is sustainable, how teachers can (or cannot) make their living by teaching the Dharma.

Ken McLeod has been using a coaching and instructor model for, he said, about 20 years, in Los Angeles. Diane Misho Hamilton spoke about charging small fees (though they might be dana based) to maintain the Zen center that she and her husband, Michael Zimmerman, operate. They also charge students who decide to participate in koan interviews and training on a regular basis for, I believe, weekly meetings. She made a point to note that none of this income goes to support her, as she makes her living off of her secular career. Shinzen Young pointed out that he’d never had a “real” job, having been a meditation teacher for decades. He stated that if you’re willing to live a semi-monastic lifestyle (as he does) with no family, spouse, etc., it is possible to live simply on dana given by students “as long as you deliver the goods” (as he said). If the students see the value and utility of what you are teaching, if they get results, they will value and support your work.

The elephant in the room (or the Voldemort) here is Diane’s teacher, never actually mentioned by name, Genpo Merzel. She mentioned that her unnamed teacher had caused a lot of controversy with charging wealthy people $50,000 each for small group (five people plus the teacher) five day retreats. She stated multiple times that she wasn’t comfortable doing this, herself, and had issues with it but also that it pointed out that there are different communities willing to pay different amounts for the Dharma and that this money had been used to support the other activities of that sangha.

All of the teachers on the panel seemed to agree that issues of access and sustainability were very important. Dharma seekers or practitioners need access to the teachings. Setting fees too high will exclude people, especially working class folks, people with families, or otherwise lacking means. This also disproportionately impacts minority groups (and Diane acknowledge that the panel and the room was a rather limited demographic of practitioners, alluding to the fact that it was a very white and very middle class audience).

I did not get the sense that they had specific answers to this problem and considered it to be an evolving situation that we need to address over time. I did come away with the feeling that everyone on the panel was thoughtful and had reflected on these issues, even if they didn’t always have a solution. I also came away very favorably impressed with Shinzen Young, even though he makes his living entirely from the Dharma (readers of my blog will note that I’ve commented on people who charge high fees in a “trainer” model of the Dharma before in a negative fashion). From my own point of view, I’m not opposed to people making a living from the Dharma as much as the exclusion that results from high fees and there is a very large gray area on what this means “acceptable” fees will be (and no universal standard for this).

Vincent Horn, Kenneth Folk, and Hokai Sobol during unplugged Pragmatic Dharma discussion
Vincent Horn, Kenneth Folk, and Hokai Sobol

Later, we had another set of “unplugged” sessions that follow the unconference model of being bottom up directed sessions guided by a facilitator. I attended one on the “Pragmatic Dharma” movement that was organized by Vince Horn, Kenneth Folk, and Hokai Sobol. I’m not going to attempt to summarize that movement overly but, in many ways, it is trying to create a 21st century Buddhist practice optimized for people living today in the kind of world in which we live. For Kenneth, this means stripping practices down to their functional and useful essentials, jettisoning all of the fluff or culturally specific baggage. Hokai spoke (with David Perlman and others going back and forth) on how this could related to Buddhist tantra. There was also a bit of discussion of whether the Pragmatic Dharma (or “Hardcore Dharma”) movement is really a splinter off of other Dharma traditions or just a mode of practice that will be reintegrated into them. I found it very interesting but I’ve also known all three of the facilitators online for years and done some sort of Dharmic work with two of them so I might already be considered to be in their camp, by some.

Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche presenting the closing keynote at Buddhist Geeks 2011
Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche

The closing keynote of the talk was by Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche. Paul Lynch, one of my own teachers, noted that DPR managed to blow, by presence and the ideas in his talk, almost everyone away in comparison. DPR spoke for an hour. He acknowledged the great utility of current technology, admitting to owning a smartphone, using twitter, and speaking from notes on an iPad. He admonished geeks to put the magic of the heart into technology. We must not create more isolation but connection with our gadgets and working with them. He said, “Dharma has to be practical, not theoretical… Help beings that need help in your neighborhood.”

I think that it would have been incredible (but not possible given the Karmapa events on the East Coast) if Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche could have done the opening keynote of the Buddhist Geeks 2011 conference. It would have set just the right tone for the event that followed.