Zen Economics

Buddhist MoneyA couple days ago my friend Gesshin Greenwood forwarded this article from Tricycle Magazine to me. The following is my response to her. As you will note, I was unable to reread the Tricycle article before sending this reply. I have decided not to reread it before posting this on my blog, so there may be some discrepancies between how I remembered the article and what it actually says. I don’t think those need to be corrected because sometimes criticizing one’s impressions of an article like this are just as valid as criticizing the article itself.

I’ve been thinking a lot about that interview in Tricycle you sent me. I think the guy makes some interesting and valid points. I think in some ways he is correct and in other aspects he may be looking at things the wrong way. I’m having a bear of a time getting on line right now, so I can’t go back to the article and check specifics. I’m just writing this from memory.

He talks a lot about what the Buddha would do. I think somewhere in the interview he acknowledges that this is an absurd question. But then he keeps on speculating anyway. I’m not sure he gets into why that’s an absurd question.

It’s an absurd question because you cannot separate any person from their historical circumstances. As Dogen says, “being is time.” In Star Trek: The Voyage Home, the crew of the Starship Enterprise leaves their historical circumstances and travels back to 20th century San Francisco. That kind of stuff is fun in movies, but it’s not real. Still, we tend to speculate about such stuff all the time. What would Jesus do? What would the Founding Fathers say about gun control? Would the Buddha advertise his summer retreats in the back pages of Shambhala Sun?

But the Buddha as a person is inextricably bound to the times in which he lived, just like Jesus and the Founding Fathers. If you actually try to think the question of what he would do if he were alive today through it becomes impossibly complicated. Who is going to explain to the Buddha what Shambhala Sun is? Or even what a magazine is? Who is going to teach him English? Who is going to explain the past 2500 years of human history to him? Who is going to tell him about The Beatles, Hitler, Napoleon, Louis XIV? Mohammed? Jesus? Who will explain to him how contemporary banking systems work? It just goes on and on.

That being said, maybe we can try to understand why the Buddha recommended his monks to live by begging. Was it because there was some kind of virtue in begging or in poverty? Is there? Is being poor in and of itself virtuous? Is begging? Lots of people are poor beggars without being particularly noble. I can’t see anything intrinsically good in it.

I don’t think he was teaching the value of poverty and begging. I think he was teaching the value of understanding that every human being lives by the support of the human community. We call certain people “independently wealthy” but that’s a misnomer. No one is independently wealthy. All wealth derives from the human community. Wealth cannot be created in any other way.

So-called “independently wealthy” people are people who take more from the human community than they actually need. They are far too often not much more than a drain and a burden on the rest of us. The Buddha knew that because he lived the first part of his life as one of those people.

What’s worse is that being wealthy is often just wasteful. Lots of people these days not only have more than they need, they have more than they can possibly use. They waste the resources of the human community in a way that really ought to be a crime. They’re kind of like cancer. Cancer occurs when one part of the body grows absurdly large at the expense of the rest of the body and thereby kills its host organism and then dies because that which supported its growth dies.

Of course not every wealthy person is a cancer on society. Some rich people do great good with their wealth. They often support art, music, and even Buddhist teachers. And I suppose people who make $5000 wristwatches need someone to support them too.  It’s just that far too many times, great wealth simply ends up sucked into a bottomless black hole where it benefits no one, not even the one who supposedly possesses it.

The Buddha was trying to teach his followers not to be like that. He was trying to teach them to take only what they needed from the community and to understand how they depended upon that community. He wasn’t trying to teach austerity and pain. He was trying to teach them that they could be comfortable and happy that way.

The guy in the interview talks about how Buddhist meditation teachers work these days in the current economic system. They advertise. They get interviewed. They write books and try to sell them. This is, of course, what I do too.

I’ve often felt weird about all of this. I feel guilty every time I charge people money for leading a retreat. Right now I’m traveling through Europe like I do every year, leading retreats, giving talks, doing interviews and all the rest of that. I kind of hate it and I kind of love it.

Different sorts of jobs require different levels of fame and notoriety. When I worked in the international division of Tsuburaya Productions I didn’t need to be very famous. I did need to cultivate a reputation among the people I did business with as being dependable and competent. But I didn’t have to be famous.

As an author, I have to be famous in order to make a living. There have been a few exceptions to this rule, but those are all extraordinary cases. Most teachers also need to be famous. The only way you can make a living as a teacher without being famous is by being part of an institution. In that case, the institution itself provides the necessary fame. For example, a professor at Harvard University doesn’t need to be all that famous herself because Harvard University is famous.

The Buddha was famous. He and his monks were supported in a large part because he was famous. The guy in that interview talks about how Buddha was supported by a patron, as were many teachers like him. But why did those patrons choose to support them? How did they even know they existed at all? The Buddha didn’t take out ads in Shambhala Sun or appear on Oprah’s Super Spiritual Sunday show. But I’m sure he did a certain amount of what we would retrospectively call advertising.

I also recall that the author says he is director of some center for Buddhist studies and gets paid a stipend. I wonder how he got that position. I wonder if he expects all of us to get positions like that. I wonder how many jobs like that even exist. Should all Buddhists seek those kinds of jobs? Would the economy support a world full of people working for centers for Buddhist studies?

So we have no idea what Buddha would do if he were alive today. But we do have to figure out what we will do. We have to figure out what we’re comfortable with and what feels ethical to us.

I work for a living. I put in more hours nowadays each week than I ever did when I had a so-called “real job.” I deserve to get paid for what I do. When I had a “real job” I never felt guilty about working and getting paid for it. But now I do — all the time, It’s a drag. I don’t like it.

Guys like that guy in the interview are good at making people like me and you feel guilty about what we do. But is it useful? Does it help anyone?

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30 Responses

Page 1 of 1
  1. Mark Foote
    Mark Foote September 16, 2015 at 12:06 pm |

    That help should be offered to people who need it without expecting anything in return, I think is pretty natural. That people should give to those who offer them help that they need, also seems pretty natural. That the return offering should be cash money rather than chickens or preserves seems like the direction things have been heading, for the last hundred years or so.

    The gentleman in the article likes the idea of people sitting up and not lying down, judging by the story he told about the monastery in Korea with the trap door. He doesn’t like the idea of happiness as characteristic of Gautama’s way of life, he doesn’t like the idea of a way of life that is perfect in and of itself without a goal such as nibbana, and he doesn’t recognize Gautama’s teaching of the six-fold sense sphere, where experience as it really is in connection with the senses is offered as fulfilling the eight-fold path, and developing and bringing to fruition the factors of enlightenment.

    Once I got here, I was completely fascinated by the counterculture, which was in full bloom at that time. I really believed that the counterculture was going to change America, that there was a new consciousness that was the cutting edge of some new evolutionary leap. As it turned out, it was a very fringe movement and it never made any real impact on the mainstream culture. I misread the movement.

    meanwhile, further down the page:

    Buddhist history, I have always been struck by how the tradition was kept alive in each generation by a handful of practitioners. The pursuit of liberation was never a mass movement.

    Myself, I’m thinking what was real on the West Coast in 1968 is real today, and it is the meeting of the cultures of Asia, Africa, America, and Europe. That never was a mass movement, because the reconciliation is taking place out of necessity for individuals, and yet the survival of the planet seems to depend on it more all the time.

    Get the white folks to move their hips, respect the earth and her gifts, and forget themselves a little while still acknowledging the role of science; the real teachers are involved in this, IMHO.

  2. Cygni
    Cygni September 16, 2015 at 12:39 pm |

    I could teach the Buddha what the Shambhala Sun is, the Beatles, Hitler, and Jebus too…


    1. Cygni
      Cygni September 16, 2015 at 1:33 pm |

      When it comes down to it all you really have is family, and good friends if your lucky, my father was right about that. If the Buddha ever did decided to come back I could teach him a few bass lines too…


      I can’t afford to donate to your blog but I could send shrooms if you ever want to try em, although we both live in legally retarded countries, so there is that hickup.

      God helps those who help themselves…

  3. room101
    room101 September 16, 2015 at 2:16 pm |

    This Tracy chap makes a good point when outlining the obvious commodification of Buddhism and all the prestige games that are played. The tradition is in danger of watering down. No doubt about that. However, all these resignation postures can be full of shit when you preach them as the standard.
    It reminds me of the Freudian joke:

    Where were all the neurotics when god was distributing all the power?
    They got ill.

    Dogen writes: “Dharma can be wealth and wealth can be Dharma”.
    No contradiction if you approach wealth with the right frame of mind. End of story.

    Our biosphere is about to die. We have no time to play this outsiders chicken shit anymore. Actually, we have to take over if we are about to survive. And by we I mean people who at least have some tiny clue of selflessness.

    Let Tracy go in a cave waiting for the world to come to his feet, while one day he discovers that there is no water left on the planet. This is around the corner folks.
    It is brilliant plan to cave in, playing the holy hermit fairy tale. But I suggest we come with better ideas and spread them around. Like making a fortune out of obscure financial speculations and then buying all the rain forests in Indonesia and Brazil.

    1. mb
      mb September 16, 2015 at 2:58 pm |

      Tracy is the first name of the person (female btw: http://tracycochran.org/about-the-parabola-editor-blogs/) conducting the interview. The interview subject giving the opinions was Mu Soeng.

      I know…whatever.

  4. AnneMH
    AnneMH September 17, 2015 at 5:48 am |

    i think about this a lot, how i don’t think that most meditation teachers and other spiritual folks can take care of the basics of life without something else or fame. A lot of the teachers i know have psychotherapy practices or are yoga teachers or just have some type of job, but it is really hard to take time for retreats at any regular job. i study with a nun and there is an entire non-profit with a board of directors to take care of her and help build some nun training, but basically there are a LOT of people involved to support a person who lives extremely simple. most of the small retreats she leads are not that profitable, still mostly supported by us volunteers. i wish i could take away the guilt thing but i understand that reality conflicts with the ideal that we read about.

    what has me thinking personally is the total boom in mindfulness in education. i have a really long practice (and i feel so weird about saying that) and i already work in education. i have always used some parts of my practice to be a good human and help the kids. Now it is a big popular idea, wow. and my fears are halfway coming true, that everyone who has meditated for 6 months is feeling they are ready to incorporate this in the classroom and are using a bell to manage behavior instead of another system instead of getting what is fundamentally different. i won’t even touch the secularization because there is simply no way to stop it, maybe after the fad is gone a few people will hang out and keep going. so what to do, stick to some type of purity or jump in with as much integrity as i can. i can’t stand to watch it done badly so i am jumping in and promoting teacher practice above all else, of course this is not part of my paying job and i doubt that it will ever pay. i am making some contacts and i am happy to say that the people who have been doing work emphasize teacher practice, and some organizations have really excellent standards for the teachers they are sending into schools. there are now even scholarship programs for teachers to attend retreats, so that is better than i expected. still some disconnect,

    i don’t know how much it will change, our local sitting group is run by us volunteers and can’t raise the $40 rent we need. when everyone understands the system as well as they understand church giving then maybe our teachers will be supported better.

  5. Cygni
    Cygni September 17, 2015 at 9:00 am |

    This Planet might be fucked. I still wan’t to save her, even if I have to do it alone.


  6. Zafu
    Zafu September 17, 2015 at 11:42 am |

    Religious guilt is like sooo… Wonder Bread.

  7. Mark Foote
    Mark Foote September 17, 2015 at 11:58 am |

    Thanks to Minkfoot for the Cohen poem at the end of the last comments thread.

    Thanks to Cygni for the excellent Pink Floyd, a band I’ve apparently not heard enough of; amazing the similarity between the picking here and the picking on U2 songs. Like ’em both.

    I’m sorry to hear that the sangha in Colorado is struggling so, MH (am I getting that right, Colorado?). I have mixed feelings about my participation in meditation centers, especially Zen centers, and I guess I’m not alone in that. As I wrote above, for me it’s about dancing, saving the earth, and discovering the conjunction of selflessness and science more than anything else. That makes for some awkward moments at most Zen centers.

    It’s easier to concentrate on the cushion when I am sitting with other people. I think most folks feel that, and yet they feel lost when it comes to the posture, so they feel the need for a teacher at the front of the room.

    Amazing to me is that people expect the person with the Zen credentials to be able to teach them something about the posture; the concentration teaches about the posture, not the person at the front of the room, regardless of credentials.

    Because this is so, it truly amazes me that people will fall away from a group where the concentration is good, even though there is no teacher at the front of the room.

    1. Mark Foote
      Mark Foote September 17, 2015 at 8:03 pm |

      last paragraph should be:

      “Because this is so, it truly amazes me that people will fall away from a group where the concentration is good, on account of the absence of any teacher at the front of the room.”

    2. minkfoot
      minkfoot September 18, 2015 at 6:14 am |

      I spent two months with the Arcata Zen group. Their previous teacher, Maylie Scott, had died about three years earlier, and the sangha ran the center all by themselves, thank you very much! They rented teachers from the Bay Area at need (like for retreats).

      It was a vibrant group, probably still is. If I were a west coast bloke, that would be my sangha of choice.

  8. The Grand Canyon
    The Grand Canyon September 17, 2015 at 12:09 pm |
    1. Fred
      Fred September 17, 2015 at 2:10 pm |

      “Once I got here, I was completely fascinated by the counterculture, which was in full bloom at that time. I really believed that the counterculture was going to change America, that there was a new consciousness that was the cutting edge of some new evolutionary leap. As it turned out, it was a very fringe movement and it never made any real impact on the mainstream culture. I misread the movement.”

      I’m going to respond to this without reading the article.

      The counterculture did change the culture. It was absorbed into the culture and became part of the culture. It wasn’t a fringe movement. It’s part of everything.

      Example, the elementary school curriculum in Ontario, Canada is pure counter-culture from 1968. Kids are absorbing it. It becomes part of their value system.
      It’s the heart of their conditioning.

      1. Fred
        Fred September 17, 2015 at 2:27 pm |

        No U2 in this Floyd:


        Just the counterculture.

        1. Fred
          Fred September 17, 2015 at 3:28 pm |

          . “A lot of what goes on in Buddhism in America is about creating a personal story and an identity. Dharma centers can become social clubs that allow people to process an identity, allowing them to feel good about themselves for a short period of time. I meet people who tell me, “I am a Theravada person” or “I am a Zen person.” But this is just another process of commodification, of packaging oneself. It has nothing to do with Buddhist practice. It’s a group sharing, a group identity. Yes, there is some connection to Buddhist practice, but underneath it all people don’t really want to displace their personal and social identities or their inherited Judeo-Christian worldview. When Buddhist teachings are practiced authentically, there’s no choice but to deconstruct the inherited psychic structures.”

          He’s promoting a ” psychological homelessness “, a deconstruction of the place of a conditioned self that exists in the thoughts and processes in an evolving culture.


          1. Fred
            Fred September 17, 2015 at 4:52 pm |

            You ” deconstruct the inherited psychic structures “, and
            “go to the other side of nothing, and you are held by the hand of the absolute.”

            Then you come back, and live in the inherited psychic structures, like a crab in a shell.

            You don’t need a zen economy for that

          2. Fred Jr.
            Fred Jr. September 17, 2015 at 5:41 pm |

            That just means you’ve punched the clock 😉

  9. Michel
    Michel September 18, 2015 at 5:37 am |

    It would seem that, in the Middle Ages, full property as we know it didn’t exist.
    People who owned things had a duty towards the community which had allowed them to gain (and to keep!) what they had, and therefore could not dispose of it as they would like. If you no longer had the use of something, you were not allowed to destroy it: you had to give it away.
    Remnants of that attitude survive in parts of France and Germany where, at times, you’ll find objects being left for you to pick up in the street, sometimes even with a poster saying (about the telly, the cooking range, the fridge or the washing machine) that it works.
    It is the Industrial Revolution in England, and the French Revolution in France, which introduced the right to full and absolute property. In England, with the Enclosure laws of the Eighteenth Century, the right of people to put their property in common in order to have mutual succour was upheld. The French Revolution upheld the rights of association.
    Something of the same can be seen in the neo-con ideology, where it is understated that ordinary people ought not be allowed to unite against the mighty.

    But Scandinavia still has laws that state that landowners are not allowed to deprive the citizens from access to Nature. And I think that, when (or if) we defeat the banksters, we’ll have to re-enact such laws…

  10. woken
    woken September 18, 2015 at 7:26 am |

    Outside of very small communities, Zen and Buddhism cannot be transmitted or practiced to any meaningful degree in our late capitalist society. It cannot be done. Our society commodifies EVERYTHING, once that thing reaches beyond a handful of people. By commodifying it, it is no longer what it really is: it’s a brand, a promise, a guarantee, a fetish. It is reified.

    The person who wrote about teachers making a living from yoga and psychotherapy: Yoga teachers are ripping people off, the commodified thing they market to their self obsessed customers has absolutely nothing to do with yoga, but this is mitigated in our society’s minds by people making money out of something. We westerners have mangled these eastern traditions and made them into something they were never meant to be. The basic rule of thumb: if someone is marketing themselves as a “teacher” of yoga, zen, tai chi, aikido, whatever, then what they are teaching is not worth much: Seek out those that le below the radar, or get to asia and try to seek out the real deal (even that is getting harder). If you can’t/won’t do that, go to the gym, take up cycling and join a church. You’ll get something more authentic.

    1. constantine
      constantine September 18, 2015 at 8:09 am |

      “We westerners have mangled these eastern traditions and made them into something they were never meant to be.”

      “Seek out those that le [sic] below the radar, or get to asia and try to seek out the real deal ”

      Well you’ve obviously never been to East Asia . . .

    2. Andy
      Andy September 18, 2015 at 8:55 am |

      Theory fetish.

      I’m off to fondle a Situationist.

      1. Mumbles
        Mumbles September 18, 2015 at 1:33 pm |



      2. Mark Foote
        Mark Foote September 18, 2015 at 2:38 pm |

        make me laugh!

  11. woken
    woken September 18, 2015 at 8:23 am |

    “Well you’ve obviously never been to East Asia…”

    I lived there for a decade, but regardless, you ignored my qualification about seeking training there.

    1. constantine
      constantine September 18, 2015 at 8:32 am |

      A decade and you think the west has mangled eastern traditions? LOL

  12. Used-rugs
    Used-rugs September 18, 2015 at 8:41 am |

    The watered-down bullshit succeeds because there is a market for it. Why do you think there are so many spiritual teachers in America now? Why does everyone want to become one in the shortest amount of time possible? Because teaching meditation is easy, plain and simple. When religion is reduced to a superificial technique then commodification is what you get. 90 percent of people are just spiritual hobbyists anyway. They’re not going to pursue the dharma very deeply, nor do they want to.

  13. Zafu
    Zafu September 18, 2015 at 12:25 pm |

    By commodifying it [zen and buddhism], it is no longer what it really is: it’s a brand, a promise, a guarantee, a fetish.

    The problem here is that you don’t know what the value of the commodity is. Religions are indeed a brand or promise, essentially, which is meaningful. The essential value is meaning, which is nothing but a promise or brand.

  14. economy news
    economy news September 19, 2015 at 11:34 pm |

    Does Buddha had any power when he alive. looks the article indicate that, So we have no idea what Buddha would do if he were alive today. But we do have to figure out what we will do.

  15. mtto
    mtto September 20, 2015 at 11:21 am |

    Not exactly the topic of this post, but it reminded me of Schumacher’s Buddhist Economics.

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