The High Cost of Zen

I often get the question of why it’s so expensive to go to Zen retreats or to do monastic practice. Shouldn’t the dharma be free?

Before going into my answer I want to make the point that, while Zen retreats are often costly, going to your local Zen center just to sit with the group is almost always free. Donations are usually requested but seldom required. There are exceptions, of course. But that’s how it works most of the time.

But it has never been free to do intensive Zen practice.

It’s true that charging monetary fees for Zen retreats is, as far as I’m aware, a fairly recent phenomenon. But just because, in the past, money wasn’t usually exchanged for attending a retreat or getting admitted to a monastery, that doesn’t mean it was free.

The most famous example of the high price for studying Zen intensively is Huike, otherwise known as Taiso Eka (the Japanese pronunciation of his name), a student of Bodhidharma. Bodhidharma was the Buddhist master from Afghanistan (or possibly India) who is said to have brought Zen practice to China.

Huike wanted to study with Bodhidhrama, but Bodhidharma refused to let him into the cave where he’d been meditating alone for nine years. He probably thought it was useless to try to teach the practice and preferred to do it alone. Huike sat outside in the snow until it was up to his waist. Still, Bodhidharma wouldn’t let him in. He probably hoped this irritating stranger would give up and go away.

In a moment of desperation, Huike sliced off his own arm and presented it to Bodhidharma as a way to prove that he really meant it. That’s when Bodhidharma finally let him come inside.

No one knows if this story is literally true. Some say that Huike’s arm was sliced off by bandits while he was on his way to find Bodhidharma. According to this version, the fact that Huike still went to Bodhidharma even after that convinced Bodhidharma that Huike was serious. It’s a little less dramatic that way, but it’s still pretty powerful. And it still makes the point that Bodhidharma wasn’t going to accept just anyone who happened to wander in. It became a tradition in many Zen monasteries to require those who wanted to attend to wait outside, often for several days, before admitting them.

In contrast, the religions we in the West are most familiar with are generally missionary religions. In my neighborhood, Scientology just put up a bunch of billboards advertising how they’ll fix whatever ails you. Almost all forms of Christianity and Islam actively seek to bring new people into the fold. Some sects of Buddhism do that, too. But Zen is not one of them.

Zen is a bit more like Judaism. There’s no tribal component to Zen. No one thinks you have to be born into Zen to be a true Zenny. But, like most forms of Judaism, Zen Buddhism does not actively try to increase its numbers by making itself as attractive as possible to the general public. In fact, also like Judaism, Zen Buddhists often actually make it pretty hard to join up.

There is a good reason for this. And the reason is that, in order to have a Zen Buddhist meditation retreat where people can actually meditate, you need to be sure everyone in the place is serious about meditation.

A few months ago, a woman showed up for morning zazen at our center in LA who had her own ideas about meditation. To her, meditation was about sound and movement. So, as the rest of us sat quietly, she was rocking to and fro, waving her arms around, and making funny noises. We very nicely told her that that sort of thing didn’t work in our group. She left in a huff, never to return.

Not long after that, a guy showed up who seemed very enthusiastic about learning Zen. But as soon as we started sitting he started fidgeting and, at one point, took out his phone and began texting. Fortunately, he got up and left before the sitting was over. I’ve had lots of discussions with Zen people around the world, and every center seems to have similar stories.

This sort of thing is annoying at a half hour zazen gathering, but we deal with it. If, however, someone like that joined a long-form Zen retreat it would be a real problem. Of course, someone like that would probably leave pretty quickly. But there are other, more subtle ways you can disrupt a Zen retreat. It’s remarkable how sensitive you become to the minds of the others around you during retreats. It’s not as if you can read other people’s thoughts. But you can sense a lot more about the folks around you than you’d probably imagine. In fact, I think we always sense these things. It’s just that the silence of the zendo can make it clearer.

Money isn’t real. It’s a social construct that signifies something else. In the contemporary Zen world, money is often a way to signify a level of commitment and seriousness. This can be abused, of course. But, generally it is not. Most Zen centers run at a loss and need all the financial help they can get.

Every center that I know of that charges for retreats and monastic practice also offers discounts to serious people in financial need. Many even offer non-financial ways to pay for intensive practice. For example, if you can’t afford to pay $3000 to do a three-month monastic practice period at Tassajara, you can pay for it by working there during the summer. This is another way to show an acceptable level of commitment.

I feel like I write this same article far more often that I should have to. I’m not sure why this is hard to understand. But it appears to be. Maybe people are used to being courted and flirted with by religious institutions and take offense when that doesn’t happen. If you want that, there are plenty of places to get your ego tickled by folks who, I guarantee, are going to start asking you for money soon enough.

I’ve always found the Zen approach a lot more honest, myself. And, after working with it for a few years, I have come to see the practical side of this attitude as well.


I’ll be leading a workshop this Saturday July 22, 2017 at Austin Zen Center, Austin, Texas (1pm – 5pm). If you can’t afford that, I’m also speaking after morning zazen that day, which is free. Also note that Austin Zen Center says, “AZC is committed to making the teachings available to everyone. To request financial assistance from our Scholarship Fund, or if you would like to donate to the Fund for others to be able to participate, please call Susan Hansen at 512-452-5777”

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July 22, 2017 Workshop at Austin Zen Center, Austin, TX

September 7-10, 2017 Retreat in Finland

September 11-13, 2017 Stockholm, Sweden

September 15-20, 2017 Retreat at Domicilium, Weyarn, Germany

September 22, 2017 Talk in Munich, Germany

September 23, 2017 Retreat in Munich, Germany

September 24-29, 2017 Retreat at Benediktushof, near Wurzburg, Germany

October 1-4, 2017 Retreat in Hebden Bridge, England


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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My whole life is like a Zen retreat sometimes. Your donations are my main means of support. If you find a little bit of truth in what I’m saying remember that even a small donation helps. Thank you!