BG 146: Investing in the Future of American Buddhism

Episode Description:

We continue our discussion with Shambhala acharya, Judith Simmer-Brown, about how we can strategically invest in American Buddhism so that it survives in the long-term. We explored the first three areas of importance in-depth in part 1, which included the translation of core texts, the development of a monastic lineage, and the appointment of dharma heirs.

In this part of the discussion we flesh out the details of the fourth area, which is royal patronage. Judith speaks about how, given a lack of that kind of support, most dharma teachers and organizations turn whole-heartedly to the market to sustain them. And with that come all sort of issues–including the pursuit of fame and fortune. We finish the discussion, going back to the question of whether we’ll be able to develop a monastic community in the West, and why that’s important to the healthy development of Buddhism in America.

This is part 2 of a two-part series. Listen to part 1, The Survival of American Buddhism.

Episode Links:


Vince: And maybe one of the most tenuous areas seems to be the last, which is patronage.

Judith: Oh this is the one that I feel probably most intensely about. Because I think it has the potential to sabotage the other three. So since were talking on the radio and I’m not giving a keynote address I’m going to be maybe a bit more frank.

Vince: Okay, great, please.

Judith: With out patronage Buddhism is not going to survive. And what does patronage look like? Because we don’t have a monarchy and we aren’t getting royal patronage, where do we turn for financial support in the west? Unfortunately and this is a very American thing we turn to capitalism. We turn to the market and Dharma teachers in America are increasingly turning to the market as a way to compete and survive.

And I remember eleven years ago when I was a keynote speaker at this Buddhism in America conference in San Diego when I showed up there I was approached by many many people asking for my web site, my CD’s, my brochure, and basically my marketing plan. And I was so shocked because I realized that I was on a program with almost all the other Dharma teacher were making their living as Dharma teachers, and had a whole commercial thing going on. They had booths with products and books and CD’s and I started thinking eleven years ago about the market driving nature of Buddhism in America, and I have witnessed I’ve looked at it a lot. How it is we support the Dharma in America is through the market. And it means that everyone whose a Dharma teacher who measure success by how the number of students they attract, and the amount of money they make, and how much their profiled in our Buddhist magazines. We’ve measured success less by the integrity of the teachings or the depth of practice or realization and more by the charisma and the pizzazz and it’s market driven pizzazz.

So it alarms me to see Dharma teachers who have been classically trained and have received Dharma transmission who now are appropriating techniques from the New Age and from pop psychology in order to become popular and famous. And in so doing they’re teaching things that don’t look like the Dharma at all. They look like psychotherapy or psychodrama, or you know sort of dime store relationship advice kinds of things. And I find that very troubling my self, because I feel that it betrays the trust that was given to us by our teachers. It doesn’t mean that I don’t think we have something to say or to offer from the point of view of our own culture. But I think we need to be very very careful about the integrity we have as Dharma teachers, and if we are grabbed by the desire to be famous, to be rich, to be popular, we are going to be sabotaged as Dharma teachers from the beginning.

On the other hand I’m very sympathetic. Because, in America the only way to survive as the Dharma teacher is to have financial support, and the only way to do that that’s directly available is the market. So I see that what many of these teachers are doing is doing the best the can to fulfill their commitment as Dharma teachers, and this is the way that is provided to them by our system, by the way things work. The only problem comes when they are lured by the desire to be the biggest and the best, to have the jazziest web site with the greatest number of hits. To have full page ads in Tricycle, or Shambhala Sun, or BuddhaDharma and to attract hordes of people to there teachings. And I think its really risky territory for the entire enterprise of American Buddhism to be relying only on the market.

And I think it means there’s no easy solution. But it means we need to be having like summit meetings between the various sanghas, and dharma teachers and communities in America to begin to really think how we could save the precious jewel of the dharma in the setting without sabotaging it by the market driven situation.

Vince: Seems like the whole idea of royal patronage where very wealthy patrons provide the sustenance for a whole community, there’d be less temptation to try to become more famous because you already have what you need to do what you’re there to do, which is teach the dharma.

Judith: Well of course if you study Buddhist history you see the gyrations that Buddhist teachers had to go through to receive royal patronage.

Vince: That’s another issue that comes up in that situation.

Judith: It is. And in China for instance, when Buddhism went to China it had to really agree to bow down before the king, the emperor, in order to receive royal patronage. So there were compromises there as well, and adaptations. But I’m not sure that they’re the same kind of temptations that I see in Buddhism in America. The biggest change I’ve seen in the last 11 years is it feels to me that dharma teachers are sometimes getting more extreme in their attempts to be famous than they were 11 years ago. So that concerns me.

Vince: You mentioned the integrity issue; that if the intention is to become famous versus really provide a deep service to people… But then on the other hand, of course, like you’re saying, if they don’t have the money to even teach, they obviously can’t provide that service.

Judith: That’s right.

Vince: So yeah, I mean you said it’s not really clear, the solutions, but do you have any sense having looked at this, both as a teacher and then kind of purveying the field, do you see any things that are hopeful, that seem to be working better than just a simple, full on market driven system?

Judith: I do feel–this is probably coming from my own experience–I think it’s really good of dharma teachers have some other means of support. And I really myself feel very blessed to be a professor, so I have a salary. I don’t have to live on my dharma teaching income, which is not much. I mean, it’s helpful but it’s not much. And my intention for teaching the dharma is not based on money at all.

I think that any dharma teacher has to really look carefully at motivation and how much we could be hooked by the desire for fame or wealth or whatever. And be very, very clear about the integrity of having some independence from patrons, from popularity and that kind of thing. So I think the ideal thing is if we have some kind of career that can support our dharma teaching in such a way that we are not reliant entirely on the income we get from dharma teaching.

Vince: It seems like it’s a real tough situation since there’s not a whole lot of societal value put on that kind of knowledge. So it’s like there are not a lot of systems in place to support that.

Judith: That’s right. That’s right. And I think that, again, if we could develop a kind of cross-tradition foundation to support dharma teachers, to maybe at least subsidize them, so that the issue of survival is not there. And then, people can come up with a reasonable living that’s not going to be wealthy perhaps. But that’s fine. None of us are in this for the money. At least I didn’t think so. Sometimes I wonder. Sometimes when I see the kind of things that are done in order to draw more people to your center or to your website or to your tapes or CD’s, I wonder if perhaps things have just gotten a little out of hand.

Vince: One thing I wanted to backtrack to, another kind of critique that you brought up in the talk was that often times now when the whole issue of dharma heirs there can be a sense in which if you’re published, and this connects in with the popularity piece, then that somehow legitimizes you more so than say if your lineage…

Judith: I think that’s really true that one of the things, and I learned this perspective from a conversation with a professor from Berkeley, Robert Scharff, who was saying that in these days the dharma heirs are chosen by the publishing companies not by the dharma teachers. You know, their teachers. And that it seems that if you’ve written a book that sells well then you are a kind of de facto dharma heir. And it’s true that if you write a book that really sells that you have some kind of standings as a Dharma teacher, again driven by the popularity of the situation. Now it is really important that people who become Dharma heirs get the word out that they learn how to write because writing books is one of the ways to propagate the Dharma. But when publishing companies are standing in for the Dharma lineages themselves then we have to ask some kind of question about that.

Vince: Yeah. It seems like… having worked at a spiritual publishing company, it seems like, yeah there is a fine line because most spiritual publishing companies worth their salt really started because they wanted to help propagate authentic spirituality, and then in the process they of course really do have to stay alive as a company and…

Judith: …They do!

Vince: …they want to make money, so they can continue doing what they are doing. It’s almost the same temptations really for a publishing company, with those kinds of intentions, as it is with a teacher and a community it sounds like.

Judith: Very much, very much. And I think that that’s natural given the system that we live in. I think the main point is to develop some kind of self-critical perspective so that we can begin to balance things because we can smell when things get a little off. And when we seek adulation more than the integrity of our own hearts that may tell us that we need to back of a little bit and rethink our priorities and our motivations. And I think the publishing companies are in that situation.

I remember at this keynote James Shaheen, the editor of Tricycle, standing up and saying, “So.. what should we do? You know, as Tricycle?”

Vince: Right

Judith: ”I mean, should we not take the ads of people? We survive on advertisement.” And I don’t mean to say that of course we shouldn’t have ads, and we shouldn’t have, something that relies on the market to some degree. The question is if that motivation outweighs the initial Dharmic motivation.

Vince: Yeah

Judith: I think that’s something that we always have to look at. Oh, it’s funny because I remember in the early years of my years at Naropa when Buddhism was not popular at all there wasn’t any problem like this. But as Buddhism has become popular and become sort of hip to be Buddhist, then the dangers of the market kick in.

So, I remember that when Time magazine ran a story on the popularity of Buddhism and they sent out reporters to Naropa to interview us, I began saying that I felt nervous about the popularity of Buddhism; worried about what it would mean for the integrity of the Dharma. And so, that’s a concern I’ve had for quite some time. I may be just being paranoid.

Vince: That sounds like a really sane and grounding perspective when there’s so much excitement behind Buddhism.

Judith: I think also though, this is where I think it would be helpful if we could get together as American Buddhists and really make some kind of judgment. about the qualities and systems that we’d like to promote, and find a way to pool the financial resources of a larger community of Buddhists, to maybe provide a foundation where people could apply for grants for worthy projects and things like that. Rather than relying on what people will pay for a weekend program could we find some way to pool our resources so that people could offer programs for free?

Or that we support translation projects, that we support Buddhist education projects, that we support people paying tuition for Buddhist education projects. Is there a way that we could make money available through grants rather than through popularity? I often think that when my generation of Buddhists die off we will be leaving estates. I mean, my estate won’t be anything but some people’s estates will be sizeable. If there were a way that we could have a kind of larger foundation so that those estates could go for the support of American Buddhism, maybe in these kind of selected areas. I don’t know. Some way to provide patronage for the systematic, strategic areas that Buddhism needs in order to survive. I think it would be fantastic.

Vince: Beautiful. I hope that just this conversation may spark in listeners some sense of thinking about the ways they can contribute to the development of Buddhism in America. In a strategic way, just like the student in your classroom who made such a big difference.

Judith: That was amazing. She gave money to a monastery, she gave money to a large translation project, she gave money to basically the Shambhala community and also to Naropa University. She gave a lot of money to Naropa. She gave a million dollars to Naropa at a time when we were on the verge of closing. We almost closed. And if it hadn’t been for that generous beginning of our endowment, Naropa would have been completely past tense. This was in the early 80’s. And this donation at a strategic time in our history meant that we were able to keep our doors open. And she also gave us a piece of land that’s on our current Arapahoe campus that she just bought and gave to us. And it was such an amazing thing.

The thing that I remember the most is Naropa was in terrible financial shape in those years. This was like 1982 and we were missing paychecks right and left. We were on the verge of closing our doors. I was missing paychecks all the time and working other jobs, and word came of an anonymous donation and within six months everything changed at Naropa. Our paychecks were guaranteed. We began to build and we began to develop a much more stable foundation. And this woman was still my student and I didn’t know anything about her having given the money.

After she graduated from Naropa, she called me up and invited me to lunch. And she showed up driving a BMW. She’d always driven a beat up old pickup truck and wore carpenter pants and sort of sweatshirts and things like that. She was dressed very nicely, had beautiful shoes. I was just staring at her. She drove up in a BMW and she took me to the Boulderado for lunch, and at lunch she told me that she had been the one who had given the money to Naropa at that time. And I just wept. I couldn’t… words couldn’t express my gratitude because she saved the University. And she said, “I just, after graduating, I just wanted to tell you that I had done this but I didn’t want you to know before.” And it just was so incredibly generous of her. And she made such a huge difference in all of our lives by this gift.

These kinds of things, if we got together and planned what it is we could provide foundation support for, key elements for the survival of Buddhism. Maybe we can’t agree across traditions but maybe there’s ways we can at least begin to pool our resources and think more strategically about how to survive as a tradition. And I think it’s what we’re going to need to do in the century to come if we’re going to make sure that it’s not just a kind of flaky, watered down, made up situation. Something that really carries the living blessings of the traditions that we practice.

Vince: So before we close, maybe if I could ask a little bit about monasticism, where you see it heading. This is something you said you wanted to come back to.

Judith: I think the returns are not in on monasticism. I personally think that monasticism does need to be established in this country. It may never play the role it did in Asia, where it was the major force in all the Buddhist traditions, but there is some precious gem that monasticism has always been for Buddhism. And I think that having authentic monasteries in our traditions is really, really important in the West. So that there’s some kind of a repository of a certain lineage of practice and study and mentorship that we otherwise could lose. So even though there are many who pooh-pooh monasticism in American Buddhism, I wanted to put a plug in there. Because I think it’s really much too precious to just shelve and say, “It’s not American.” That’s subject for more conversation perhaps at another time.

Vince: No, actually I think we should maybe go into that a little more.

Judith: Okay.

Vince: I think it would be interesting and it’s really relevant, especially because when we look around, or I look around, I don’t really see many monastic communities that are working, that are convert Buddhists, that are Western Buddhists. I know of one Theravada group in California. Ajahn Amaro.

Judith: Ajahn Amaro

Vince: But very few.

Judith: Yes. There are very few and there may always be very few. But my experience of monasteries first began at Tassajara when I was a Zen student. And it’s a real monastery. It’s a Zen monastery. And it’s an amazing place. And I learned something in my bones about practice being at Tassajara, learning how to cook in the kitchen, learning how to slice mushrooms, learning how to lead a monastic day getting up at four in the morning for zazen and then, during sesshin doing long days. And the whole cradle of monastic training at Tassajara is just absolutely amazing.

And then in my time as a Tibetan Buddhist I’ve spent a lot of time at Gampo Abbey in northern Nova Scotia. Pema Chodron is the abbess of Gampo Abbey. And it’s an amazing community. Again, very remote, very deep practice. Practice in one’s bones, so that the routines and practices of the day are so potent and the study part is so rich as well.

I also have had a number of monastic students at Naropa, and its been very difficult for them being solitary monastics in the US. But at Naropa they’ve been able to find something that is at least a little bit like monastic community. My feeling is that the monastic vocation is not something that many people will hold. But there are those for whom it is deep in who they are. Pema Chodron’s a very close friend. She has monasticism deeply embodied in her. And her life as a monastic has produced such incredible benefit for many, many people. She would not be beloved the way she is if she were not monastic. It’s just very clear. There’s been a kind of purification of her, over the decades that I’ve known her, that comes from her monastic discipline and training. So that didn’t come from nowhere. That came from exertion and blessing and commitment and practice and study.

So I think we need to make a place and endow monasteries to continue. And there will be different kinds. You know, it took Thubten Chodron’s monasteries, the strictest in the Tibetan tradition here; she follows the most strict version of the vows. Gampo Abbey has a slightly altered thing. There may be different kinds of monasteries. Zen monasteries are very different from Theravada or Tibetan ones. But I think we need to have those places in our culture, as part of the mosaic, what makes up American Buddhism. And I don’t think they are the same as our practice centers where we go for a short-term retreat–like a month or three months. And those are short term compared to the monastic life that goes on for years.


Judith Simmer-Brown