Retreats for Nuthin’ and Your Zen for Free

mtvRecently Lion’s Roar put up an article called What About the Cost of Retreats?  by Pamela Ayo Yetunde. In it, Yetunde bemoans the often high costs of Buddhist retreats and says, “let’s look beyond class and invite new people into our healing environments while simultaneously making it possible for them to actually be there.”

Yetunde says poor people can’t go to high-priced Buddhist retreats. She says, “This is simply the modern Western reality; the idealized monastic retreat model conflicts with the responsibilities of a contemporary householder.”

That’s true. But this statement ignores the fact that this is not a new phenomenon that has come up only since Buddhism made its way to the West. This has always been the case. Maybe even more so in Asia in the past than it is in the West today, where even our poor people generally have higher incomes and more free time.

What Yetunde points out here may be the very reason for Dogen’s famous about-face about who can get enlightened.  In his early writings he said that Buddhist enlightenment was available to everyone. Later, though, he said only full-time monastics could get it.

Here’s one guess as to why. As he continued his work as a teacher Dogen must have had to grapple with the fact that, yes, everyone can get enlightened — but in practice, it’s almost impossible unless you devote a huge amount of time and energy to the project. Most people who work regular jobs and have families simply cannot make that sort of commitment.

I have two main personal responses to the questions raised in this article about the costs of meditation retreats. The first is; If you’re interested in there being free or at least cheaper meditation retreats, why don’t you go make them happen? In Yetunde’s case, she has. Good for her! I’d love to see more of that. Yet I see a distinct lack of such initiative from most people who make this complaint.

My question, “why don’t you make it happen?” might sound like sour grapes. Isn’t it our responsibility as Zen teachers to make such stuff happen?

Well, let’s take a look at that question. Shall we?

Training to become a Zen teacher and training to become a person who knows how to organize groups of people and create successful events are almost always mutually exclusive. Each of these skills takes a tremendous amount of focused work to develop, and it’s nearly impossible to work on them simultaneously. It’s rare to find someone who is good at both, or even good at one and just merely competent at the other.

Take me, for instance. I worked hard at the Zen thing for years. But, like a whole lot of people who work at the Zen thing for years, I am not a highly social person. I don’t like crowds. I don’t like events in general. I prefer working privately and in a quiet space. I have devoted myself to doing that.

When the time came for me to teach others, I resisted. Hard. I had to be forced into it. And I still do not like it. Getting groups of people together to do stuff is distinctly not my thing. At all. I’d imagine most Zen teachers would say the same about being event organizers.

Therefore, when it comes to running any sort of event, like a retreat, I just muddle through as best I can, usually failing to make it work very well. So let’s just think a little about what that process involves.

I’ll take the retreats I lead twice a year as my example. Mt. Baldy Zen Center, which I do not own nor am I affiliated with, charges us a fee for every person who attends the retreats. So, at the very minimum, we have to charge participants what Mt Baldy charges us. We could not do it for free even if we wanted to.

So what about doing it someplace else, someplace that does not charge? Places that both do not charge fees and are appropriate for a Buddhist retreat are extremely rare. A few years ago someone offered us a house for a weekend retreat. So I went and took a look. It was a lovely house, but a terrible place to do a retreat. We’d have had to squeeze all the zafus between the couches, chairs, and coffee tables of the living room. There wouldn’t have even been enough space for the walking meditation unless we climbed over furniture. Other free places I’ve looked into have had similar drawbacks. State parks sometimes have outdoor pavilions, but rarely rooms. We did try to do a retreat at an outdoor pavilion in Austin one year, but we had to bug out in a hurry when a giant thunderstorm nearly drowned us all.

So you need a space that works for what you want to do there. In every case I’m aware of someone has to pay for the retreat space. And for the food. And for the bedding. And for cleaning up after. The list goes on. If it’s not the participants who pay for this stuff, then it’s some benefactor. Sometimes such benefactors want something other than mere money in return, which can be a problem.

I can think of a few places who do offer free retreats. But I could not recommend those retreats because the folks that run them are trolling for converts for what are, quite frankly, cults. It’s not always your money that people want. Sometimes they want your soul. I tend to prefer a retreat that asks for money because the transaction is a lot clearer and cleaner.

Be that as it may, personally, I’ve run through a whole bunch of scenarios aimed at trying to make at least some of the retreats I run cheaper than usual if not free. There are a lot of difficulties involved. For me, a person who is bad at logistics and planning to begin with, it’s overwhelming. So I’m doing my best while waiting for somebody to offer me a no-strings-attached free space that’s appropriate for retreats, plus a livable income so that I can spend the time to lead those retreats while not earning anything myself.

For the time being, I’ve found a guy called Rylend, who is both interested in Zen and a good organizer. He and another guy named John have been the main folks who have made my Southern California retreats happen for the past few years. Here’s what Rylend says about the Mt. Baldy retreats, “For what it’s worth… DSLA loses a couple of hundred dollars every time we stage a retreat. We just decided a long time ago that it was more important to us that those who want to come can. We basically fund-raise the rest of the year to make up for it. It’s probably the principal reason why Angel City Zen Center is on shaky financial ground right now. Folks like to act as though we’re making money hand over fist with this stuff, but really, we’re barely keeping our head above (or below) water.”*

Rylend also adds, “Most of the money Mt. Baldy charges us to stage our retreats goes to the U.S. Forestry service (from whom they rent their space). There is always a guy behind the guy… and that guy usually isn’t asking these questions (about how to make cheap/free retreats available to everybody).”

My second response is; Where have you been one Saturday each month for the past thirty-odd years? Gudo Nishijima started running ultra-cheap day-long retreats in Tokyo sometime in the 80s. His students have carried on that tradition in Japan, England, France, Germany, and America. We do ours in LA the first Saturday of every month at Angel City Zen Center. We accept donations gratefully (some anonymous person dropped a $100 bill in the plate this month  — thank you!) but we do not charge a fee to attend as such. If you want to come for free, you can. If you want to pay $2, we won’t turn you away or even guilt trip you.

We have run these things at various spaces in LA since 2005. Yet only about five or ten people ever show up. There are millions of people in LA, and hundreds of thousands of those folks claim to be “into meditation.” Where are they? Where were they in Tokyo when we ran monthly retreats there? What about the donation-based retreats I’ve led in London, Berlin, Helsinki, and elsewhere? I mean seriously? Where are you people?

You might say these places are too far away. OK, then. Back to question one. If you want a free or donation-based retreat in your town, you are probably the one who is gonna have to make it happen. If not you, who? If not now, when?

And just let me also tell you also how it works for me, as the leader of retreats. I love the idea of free or cheap retreats. But, in the same way most spaces you’d use for a retreat charge you to use them, my landlord charges me to use the space I live and work and go to the toilet in. In short, I need some source of income.

If you think taking a week or even a weekend off to attend a retreat each year stretches your budget and forces you to miss out on potential income, how much lost income would it represent if you had to lead such retreats multiple times each year without compensation? What sort of job would you need to get that would allow you to take around 10-20 weeks off each year to go run meditation retreats? Personally, unless I get paid I cannot lead a retreat. Not even if I wanted to, and, I actually would like to if I could.

Back when I worked for Tsuburaya Productions, I refused to accept payment for running Zen retreats. But working for a living meant I was severely limited on the number of retreats I could run. And I had to use my vacation time to run them, which meant that I did not take vacations other than to go work at running Zen retreats.

So these days, I absolutely love running retreats at wealthy, well-established centers that charge high fees to attend them. That’s what allows me to run other retreats that are cheaper. Without the so-called “upper middle way” retreats everyone loves to gripe about, I could never run the ones that don’t charge high fees. So if you do have enough money to attend a high priced retreat, I encourage you to do so. You may be making it possible for others who can’t afford such fees. Or, as my friend John points out, you can skip the high-priced retreats and go to a cheap one but drop a wad of (tax-deductible) money in the donation basket on your way out.

The final point I’d like to make is about value. People tend not to place a lot of value on things they get for free. That’s just human nature. I can see a huge difference in the level of seriousness in retreats that cost a lot and ones that don’t. One year I led a retreat where a number of people attended on the cheap. A lot of those who attended that retreat at reduced rates spent their evenings in the woods smoking weed. Nothing like that has ever happened at a retreat I’ve led where the fees were high. That’s just one specific example of this phenomenon.

So, to all y’all that want your retreats cheap or free for the people, believe me, lots of us who run them do too. It just may not be quite as simple as you imagine.

*John says we actually made about $200 on our most recent retreat. He says, “This was in part achieved because I paid for my wife and me to attend at about full price, while also giving one of the talks. While I’m not wealthy, my income fluctuates enough that sometimes I have a good month. I had pretty good months in November and December, and I believe in the mission of DSLA enough to put my money where my mouth is. Or where my butt is. I wonder if it is a bad precedent to charge someone to give a Buddhist talk, but that is what I did.”

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THERE IS NO GOD AND HE IS ALWAYS WITH YOU is now available as an audiobook from as are Hardcore Zen and Sit Down and Shut Up!

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Check out my podcast with Pirooz Kalayeh, ONCE AGAIN ZEN!

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Every Monday at 7:30pm there’s zazen at Angel City Zen Center (NEW TIME, NEW PLACE!) 1407 West 2nd Street, Los Angeles, CA, 90026 Beginners only!

Every Saturday at 10:00 am there’s zazen at the Angel City Zen Center (NEW PLACE!) 1407 West 2nd Street, Los Angeles, CA, 90026 Beginners only!

These on-going events happen every week even if I am away from Los Angeles. Plenty more info is available on the Dogen Sangha Los Angeles website,

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