News that a Buddhist temple in China is planning on floating itself on the stock exchange is causing some controversy at the moment. The way Buddhist organisations operate in the real world is a big issue for Buddhism, particularly as it seeks to establish itself in the West – a proudly capitalist culture.
Wealth and fame are big here – as definitions of success and recognition of worth. How does a philosophy that seeks to undermine them thrive in such an environment?
Traditionally, Buddhism has thrived in cultures where spiritual seeking is given great value. The Buddha, for example, lived at a time of prosperity in India. The economy supported as many as 1 in 3 people to become sadhus (spiritual aspirants) – wandering around being supported by the other 2 out of 3. The wealth of a kingdom at that time was calculated partly based on the number of sadhus within its boundaries. They were counted among the riches of the kingdom.
In Buddhist countries like Thailand and Sri Lanka, the Buddhist laity believe that they accrue merit by feeding and clothing the monks. People line up to dole out food as the monks go on their daily alms round. I’ve seen this in Thai temples in London – people proudly putting big notes into the collection bowl as it goes round. You don’t only accrue merit in the future, you accrue status in the present. The culture supports the monks.
In the west, let’s face it, that ain’t gonna happen any time soon. So if you want to be a practitioner, and certainly if you want to be a full-time teacher, you have to hustle.
Many find this distasteful – unBuddhist even. Personally, I don’t have a problem with it. Buddhism changes the cultures it arrives in, but it is also changed massively BY those cultures. Take a look at the difference between Zen, Tibetan Buddhism and the Theravadin Buddhism of Sri Lanka, for example. As Buddhism integrates with western capitalism, it will change massively.
We need to get real about this and stop worrying. People have to make a living. And there is nothing wrong with living comfortably and abundantly. It is insatiable greed and attachment to impermanent belongings that causes suffering, not money or belongings themselves. The Dalai Lama’s Potala palace is not a shed. There are plenty of Buddhist rupas (statues) around the world made of solid gold.
Personally, I find Anthony Robbins more honest and straightforward than Buddhists that create spooky ‘highly-realised-guru’ pseudo-personas to ensure the bills get paid. Some of them do quite well. “It’s not my Mercedes – it belongs to the sangha!”
(Note: if you haven’t read any Anthony Robbins, I highly recommend it. Some people balk at his style, but there is wisdom in there aplenty if you can get past that.)
It’s a lot easier to keep your wits about you when you’re down the market than it is when you’re down the temple. No one’s head-tripping you when you’re down the market, they’re just trying to sell you stuff. You know it and they know it. We understand this – it’s our culture. Buddhism needs to learn how to be this straightforward with the punters. And when it comes to Buddhist teachers, the punters need to learn how to tell the solid gold from the gold-plated stainless steel.
In the west, we tend to think that the more something costs, the better it is. Often this is correct. So let’s charge fair prices for the Dharma, and let’s market the Dharma to as many people as possible. Let’s also offer it for free to people who can’t afford it (for this is also represented in our culture in the form of charitable works), while at the same time helping them to get their heads straight so that they CAN afford it. Being poor does not make you more spiritual. Neither does being rich. Money is just money.
People love buying stuff – it’s the American dream. HH the Dalai Lama is a highly successful global brand. Discuss!
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