Western Socially Engaged Buddhism: At What Cost?


When I discovered the website for the Zen Peace Center’s Symposium for Western Socially Engaged Buddhism, coming up this summer, I got all excited.  Spiritual and social liberation!  Sharing strategies!  All about it.

Then I saw the price tag.

$600 for tuition, breakfast, and lunch.  Dinner and lodging not included.  (Not to mention the cost for me to travel to Massachusetts.)

Six hundred dollars?  Probably closer to a thousand, all told?  Now where’s the social engagement in that?

Of course, this is not a dilemma unique to the Zen Peacemakers.  As nathan and I have been discussing lately, it’s a huge challenge to make a sangha’s economy reflect its philosophies.  And when I called the ZPs to inquire about a sliding scale or some other option, it was clear that they were at least considering the contradiction between the symposium’s mission and its prohibitive costs.  Within a couple of months, they had designed and posted a volunteer application, which would cover the cost of tuition — though still leaving the problem of travel and lodging.  My new friend Ari, ZP assistant to Bernie Glassman, says they’re also pursuing possibilities for free places to stay: either camping on the property or staying with local sangha members.  If you’re interested in attending, hit up the volunteer app!  (Unless, of course, you can afford to pay — in which case you’d be helping make things more affordable for the rest of us.)

It’s important to keep in mind, I think, that the point of keeping entry costs low isn’t only a matter of accessibility.  Of course, we want to make teachings and community-building events available to poor and working-class folks.  But for a group explicitly interested in social justice or “social engagement,” there is also the problem of reproducing oppressive, class-based structures.  Inclusion is not enough: we need transformation.

For example: what does it mean when social justice -oriented sanghas establish endowment funds, which invest donors’ contributions into the financial market, strengthening the capitalist structures that exploit and crush workers?

We don’t need to rely on this model.  Check out this definition of a “dana economy” from the rad-sounding Eco-Dharma Center:

All our events are offered in the spirit of dana, a Sanskrit/pali term meaning giving and gift. The ethical practice of generosity expresses the transcendence of separate selfhood and constitutes a basic ethos at the heart of creative community. The economic forms of consumerism and capitalism highly condition our relationships in the world – encouraging us to experience ourselves as discrete subjective entities, producers or consumers, insulated from responsive engagement with others. Rather than emulate this, it is our intention to support economic relationships which contribute towards a culture of sharing.

We do not intend to enter into relationship with you as the providers of a service for a consumer. We intend to enter into a wholehearted human relationship with you, as co-producers and collaborators in the transformation of ourselves and our world. To support this intention we ask for contributions to make this work possible, rather than offering our work as a service to be bought. The basic principle of the Dana Economy is, “give what you can, take what you need”.

The suggested donations in our programme reflect the very basic income required to make the events viable. We do not have any independent means of financing the events and we do need that those attending offer financial support to make the events financially viable. If you can offer more, please do. If the incoming donations for an event are insufficient we will be unable to give them freely. So, please look at the suggested contributions and enter into the spirit of this approach by giving what you can. We are also willing to discuss donations in the form of skill sharing and offers of work to support the project.

(from http://www.ecodharma.com, on "radical ecology")

I know we need to be realistic, and as Ari reminded me, most sanghas do not dedicate themselves exclusively to offering retreats, a la Goenkaji’s Vipassana centers, so that’s not a viable model for everyone.  And I want to emphasize that I’m not trying to guilt-trip anybody.  Rather, I’m eager to talk more, and more openly, about the real costs of maintaining sanghas, and how we can reproduce and sustain radical dana economies: economies of insight and generosity. I’d love to hear y’all’s thoughts.

In addition to volunteering in order to earn my way at the Symposium, I’m hoping to host a workshop on using the Internet as a tool of dharma.  So wish me luck!  Seems like it’s a popular subject these days, and I’m psyched to hear how others are theorizing it.

Meanwhile, here’s a bit of info on the ZP’s newsletter — for which they often solicit contributions.  I checked out the issue on prison meditation this month, and there were a number of really solid articles.  (Also made me that much more eager to see Dhamma Brothers: a documentary on the introduction of a Goenka-style 10-day silent Vipassana course into an Alabama prison.)

Take care, y’all!

— — — — —

Zen Master Bernie Glassman and the Zen Peacemakers invite you to enjoy


A Newsletter for Western Socially Engaged Buddhism

The Zen Peacemakers founder, Bernie Glassman has created the a clearinghouse on Socially Engaged Buddhism in the West. We are pleased to invite you to receive our FREE monthly online publication.

You will learn about:

·      Who?: Profiles, links and articles on the individuals and groups practicing service and working for social justice as Buddhist practice

·      What?: Emerging service projects and social actions, including opportunities to train and get involved

·      Why?: The history, ethical bases and philosophies that inspire the global movement of Buddhist communities towards social engagement

Previous issues include Bernie’s meeting with His Holiness the Dalai Lama as well as surveys of Buddhist chaplaincy programs and work in prisons.  You are invited to e-mail submissions for our March issue featuring Dharma-based mental health programs to editor@zenpeacemakers.com.  For your free subscription, please go to: http://www.zenpeacemakers.org/subscribe

We are also building two related directories:

Groups and Activists


Learning Resources

It’s easier than ever to access information and to get involved!

15 thoughts on “Western Socially Engaged Buddhism: At What Cost?

  1. nathan February 24, 2010 / 11:01 am

    “For example: what does it mean when social justice -oriented sanghas establish endowment funds, which invest donors’ contributions into the financial market, strengthening the capitalist structures that exploit and crush workers?” I’m laughing and crying, because I just suggested a fund like this at my center, knowing that it was only a half step at best.

    I feel split in half sometimes. Just getting to “access” in my community seems like a struggle sometimes, let alone tackling the reproduction of oppression. Same is true of my workplace, where every comment I have made about the system we work within creating more oppression by it’s very nature is responded to by leadership with statements like “we have to follow the rules, whether we like it or not.” Privilege is tenacious, deep rooted, and very good at expanding it’s reach.

  2. Momin February 24, 2010 / 12:02 pm

    Some years ago I started to continually take note how “Zen” is used to not only sell books about Zen, or other such arguably relevant artifacts like tea or miniature gardens, but also cosmetics, furniture, and even electronics. At first this irked me, but then after realizing that I have no particular authority to be outraged on behalf of Zen, I came up with a koan:

    The commercialization of Zen Buddhism is a wonderful thing.

  3. kloncke February 25, 2010 / 10:44 am

    Nice koan, Momin. :)

    nathan, I totally hear you. And I think half steps can be better than no steps, but even more important is that everyone in a sangha be *aware* and *conscious* of the stakes and implications of stepping. Which might require some intense discussions and consciousness-raising. It’s just like we always learn: if the motivation is sound and pure, the fruits of the action will reflect that. So if the sangha community is solid in its analysis and motivations, there will be much more energy to transform the structures.

    Maybe that means holding a forum on financial transparency, and inviting a speaker from EBMC who can discuss their practices; maybe it means a series of dharma talks on the harmfulness of capitalism and its ties to racism and patriarchy, and what that means for our own community of practice (gah, what a dream come true that would be!).

    …or maybe it means going ahead and implementing a reform, communicating the reasons behind it, and using that as a jumping-off point for engagement, so that the conversation doesn’t devolve into abstract debate.

    Always remembering that when it comes to money, it’s easy to overestimate its importance. Teachings can be offered, and communities can sit together, literally out on the streets, or in a park, as in the time of Gotama himself. (Well, maybe not up North in the snow ;)). Resources are certainly useful, but ultimately, we don’t need much, do we?

    In any case, I’m glad for your sangha to have somebody like you in a leadership role! Eager to hear more as things develop.

  4. Leora February 25, 2010 / 4:43 pm

    Internet and dharma. I think that the internet itself (or maybe all our media/ums?) lends it to that form of transparency – like the quickness with which you were able to contact this person Ari and the quickness with which you were able to get this conversation started. So maybe the internet has something to say about how to make transparency work. Do you read The Interdependence Project blog, Katie? Thank you for Giving What You Can on this blog!

  5. kloncke February 25, 2010 / 6:05 pm

    I’ve never read that blog! I will check it out.

    Yes, I think that’s a good point — I know I’ve felt emboldened by the internet, and all the contact info available on it, to reach out to people I probably wouldn’t have otherwise.

    You are the greatest. I hear there’s a breakfast in the works tomorrow — perhaps I’ll tag along with you and Noa. And/or you can both come to the community forum at City Hall to protest the public transit fee hikes! (9am, Room 400, just in case.)

  6. Leora February 25, 2010 / 9:48 pm

    yes come to breakfast, please, there will also be Purim-cookie-making time! Maybe mid morning so that we can all accommodate all of our everything desires. We contain multitudes.

  7. Ari Pliskin February 25, 2010 / 10:29 pm

    Thanks so much for your thoughtful post Katie! Thanks for posting my blog too. The one you posted is about travel and comics. The one I list here is my newer blog focusing on Socially Engaged Buddhism. I’ll write up a longer response to you there in the next few days. Glad to get the conversation rolling…

  8. Ryan February 25, 2010 / 11:30 pm

    Wow, this is a great one! I laughed my ass off when I saw the “sigh.” underneath the Dharma of Capitalism.

    I especially appreciate the intentionality towards avoiding the twin pitfalls of “we have to follow the rules” vs. denouncing non-dana sanghas as “capitalist”. Exploring the contradictions inherent in Buddhist praxis that ignores its relation to political economy seems vital (from the outside), as exploring the contradictions inherent in Marxist or other revolutionary praxis that ignores central problems of ego and attachment also does (from the inside). Glad we talk this stuff over so often!

    The organizational tension between disrupting oppressive structures and maintaining existence in the current system is a very difficult one, especially in a time when few think that a different system is viable.

    Thanks to Nathan for sharing his difficulties, which there are no easy answers to.

  9. Miruh February 25, 2010 / 11:54 pm

    “…there is also the problem of reproducing oppressive, class-based structures. Inclusion is not enough: we need transformation.”

    You write about one of the most challenging issues for the spiritual seeker, to live consciously in a world where it is becoming increasingly more difficult to steer away from businesses that engage in unethical practices. The whole system is so insidiously tied together. By keeping money in the bank where we don’t know how our money is invested. The hidden chain of events that bring our breakfast to the table which if I was aware of, would not want to eat!

    We can only do what we can in the mean-time as we work to change the consciousness of the world starting with our own.

  10. kloncke February 26, 2010 / 1:52 pm

    Oh, that’s my bad, Ari! Hehe, I did it the lazy way and googled you — I guess since the Zen Peacemaker blog is newer, only the other one came up. The link is fixed now. Thanks for stopping by — I’m looking forward to continuing our conversations!


    Exploring the contradictions inherent in Buddhist praxis that ignores its relation to political economy seems vital (from the outside), as exploring the contradictions inherent in Marxist or other revolutionary praxis that ignores central problems of ego and attachment also does (from the inside).

    Can’t wait to quote this in one of my papers. :)

    Miruh, your observation that “the whole system is insidiously tied together” strikes me as an important angle from which to understand interdependence. Often I hear spiritual seekers discuss interdependence as a kind of salvation: liberation from the constraints of the individual, the false “I.” But at the same time, interdependence in a social sense means that we are all implicated, all the time, in various networks of oppression. Understanding this shouldn’t paralyze us with guilt, but can teach us that we can’t buy or behave or even renounce our way out of that implication. We have to actually work together to fight the systems as systems. Thanks for bringing up that important point!

    Y’all are wonderful. This thread is extra-solid. Thanks for being here!

  11. bohemiankitsch February 26, 2010 / 10:26 pm

    i ordered The Dhamma Brothers immediately after reading this post. it arrived quickly.

    just finished watching it. i’m sure it’s no surprise to you that i have tears in my eyes. :)

    thank you. i have a close friend who works for the state senate, passionate about corrections & rehabilitation. she’s coming over for tea tomorrow.

    she’s leaving with a gift.

  12. Ari Pliskin February 27, 2010 / 2:00 am

    I cried too when I saw that. Very moving. Glad you liked it.

  13. kloncke February 27, 2010 / 3:39 am



    thank you so much.

  14. Maia Duerr March 14, 2010 / 3:29 pm

    just a short note to say that I really love your blog and look forward to following it!


  15. kloncke March 15, 2010 / 3:03 am

    Thanks Maia!

    Thanks so much for saying hello.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s