People are sometimes astonished when Buddhist teachers and dharma centers require a payment for teachings and retreats. Shouldn’t the dharma be free? Christian ministers don’t expect fees for sermons, do they?
In the West, we’re accustomed to attending services, Sunday schools, scripture study and prayer groups without being asked to pay an entrance fee. Unless you are a member of that congregation or synagogue you probably won’t be asked for money, other than to drop something into the collection plate at Christian services. However, it’s not unusual for Buddhist centers to station someone near the door before services to ask attendees to kick over a “suggested donation.” There is nearly always an admission fee for classes and retreats. What’s the deal?
Think of Buddhism as a Start-Up
Churches and synagogues in the West get funded all kinds of ways. Successful, long-standing institutions probably have endowments and investments. Some Christian denominations maintain a kind of financial pool, so that wealthy congregations help support newer and poorer churches.
The Catholic Church is its own banker. Most religious institutions in the West ask members to commit some part of their income to the synagogue or church. And, of course, churches are forever holding fund-raising activities.
It’s also the true that some Christian denominations require churches to be self-sustaining. And it should be added that after the 2008 financial crisis banks foreclosed on churches in the U.S. in record numbers. Still, a church or synagogue with a large and well-established congregation to support it can probably stay in the black, so to speak, without asking for door fees.
Most monasteries, temples and dharma centers in the West are entirely self-funded, with no financial ties to a bigger institution with endowments and investments to sustain them. Many either rent space or are paying off substantial mortgages. In those cases the money raised from fees is necessary to keep the facility operating. I’m sure there are exceptions, but the dharma centers I know of personally are entirely on their own financially, and most are barely squeaking by.
Some dharma centers in the West have money-making ventures on the side, ranging from restaurants and bakeries to mail-order businesses selling things like books, Buddhist art and meditation pillows. These usually are taxed separately as for-profit businesses. Some of these enterprises have been quite successful; others have not. Side businesses seem to work best for urban centers that can draw on a large pool of volunteers to provide free or cheap labor. I know of a rural Zen monastery in the U.S. that tried running a health food store in the community to raise funds, but the project was abandoned largely because it became a burden on the few people able to work at keeping it open.
S.N. Goenka’s Free Vipassana Retreats
Many point to the example set by S.N. Goenka (1924-2013) as the solution to too-expensive dharma. Goenka, a Burmese teacher and philanthropist, personally built a number of Vipassana meditation centers around the world that offer an entirely free ten-day course/retreat on insight meditation. Why can’t other Buddhist organizations do something like that?
For one thing, there seems to be a shortage of wealthy Buddhist philanthropists. And while Goenka’s gift to Buddhism is priceless, his retreat centers offer a limited solution. By most accounts the retreats offer video instructions; student access to one-on-one direction is limited. There is little to no support for spiritual development beyond the ten-day course. And a tradition that relies on working one-on-one with a teacher or guru over a period of years simply can’t fall back on canned lessons.
How Much Is Too Much?
In Asia, supporting the temples and monasteries with alms and donations is an essential part of lay practice, not an option. In some traditions laypeople give alms to receive merit, making almsgiving a privilege. Not being allowed to give alms is something like excommunication.
Especially outside of ethnic Asian communities, many dharma centers in the West often lack community support. These centers really need everyone who comes through the door to leave something in the bowl, or they won’t be there long.
But that takes us to the other side of the issue — when are teachers and dharma centers asking for too much? Within U.S. Zen there have been at least three teachers I know of who appear to have abused the good will of students, pushing them to make large sacrifices of time and money to realize the teacher’s ambitions for a bigger Zen center or some other glorious enterprise, not to mention one teacher’s infamous white BMW and another teacher’s three houses. But those are exceptions; most Buddhist teachers I know live very simply.
The spiritual world is full of con artists, no question. But there’s a huge gulf between a dharma center collecting $30 at the door for a meditation workshop and a teacher demanding a four-figure sum for personal access to him, which has happened.
In short, this issue is not going to go away anytime soon. I would ask you to be understanding if a temple asks a modest fee for something. On the other hand, if a fee is a genuine hardship for you, don’t hesitate to speak up and let the temple know. They may give you a discount, or they may rethink their fee schedule. I hope we all agree that lack of money should not be an impediment to learning the dharma.
[This is an article I wrote for the Buddhism section of About.com. However, since About.com has removed it from their servers, all rights revert to me.]