In this episode, taken from the Buddhist Geeks Conference 2012, Tami Simon, founder and publisher of Sounds True, explodes the taboo around charging for what is of ultimate value. What if commerce were seen as a positive engine supporting the dissemination of spiritual teachings versus something to be avoided or disdained?
Tami: It’s wonderful to see an entrepreneur born within an entrepreneurial company. Well actually maturing within an entrepreneurial company. So Vince, you know I actually just feel so proud of you. I did from the moment I met you and I couldn’t believe that we had the chance to hire you and then the chance to watch you take your wings. And it’s an honor and a pleasure to be part of the Buddhist Geeks conference. Here my first time here at Buddhist Geeks.
So this phrase selling the Dharma, this phrase was introduced to me when I was 22 when I first started Sounds True. And so just to give you a little bit of background. I went to Swarthmore College and was in the religious studies department. And in my sophomore year was studying with a professor who was there for one year from Sri Lanka, Gunapala Dharmasiri, and he was there on Fullbright scholarship and he was teaching a course that I took called Buddhism and Existentialism.
And soon after taking that class I dropped out of college. And I decided instead to travel to Sri Lanka, India, and Nepal for a year. And when I came back I started Sounds True. When we launched our very first catalogue, I sent it to Professor Dharmasiri because I wanted to show him what had become of me. So I sent him the Sounds True catalogue and he wrote me back a letter. And now to give a little context he had been a Theravada monk for the first 16 years of his life before he became a professor. And he wrote in this letter to me “leave it to Tami to sell the Dharma.” And there was something in that letter and the way that he used that phrase, it was humorous, it was slightly derogatory, it was slightly a rib, and I could also tell that he was slightly chucked, slightly like I knew she would do something. She was bold. She wore her ripped jeans to class even when I thought that was perhaps disrespectful. I told her not to dropout of school. It was disrespectful to her parents. And here she is selling the Dharma. And this letter from him and the use of that phrase stuck with me. And truthfully it stuck in my heart. Was I doing something that was in anyway disrespectful to what I cared the most about, to what I had given my life to in that year when I was traveling in Sri Lanka and India and Nepal. I gave my life to doing everything I could to introduce the practices, that I had been introduced to, to as many people as possible. Was there anything contradictory or wrong or bad in starting a business for the purpose of selling these teachings?
So it’s an idea that haunted me for quite some time. But I have to say it doesn’t haunt me anymore. I actually feel that the work that we’re doing at Sounds True and in the relationships we have with other people to sell the Dharma is an evolutionary movement that is tremendously positive and is creating all kinds of access. So I want to talk a little bit about that. I want to talk about some of the questions I’ve had and how I’ve sorted it out.
One of the things that I’ve asked is why is it that there’s so much, you know, Vince introduced this. This is controversial. Why is it controversial to begin with? What’s the big deal? We’re producing books and audio programs. We’re giving authors royalties. We’re charging $4.99 for, less than a fancy Starbucks drink, for two hours of incredible down-loadable content. So what’s the big controversy? And I’m not a historian of religion so I’m not going, clearly, and I’m not going to speak about this. I mean I already talked about my college dropout status. I’m not going to talk about this from a historical perspective. But what does seem to be the case is that this idea of separating the sacred and the profane is something that we see throughout the religious history. And that there’s certain things that go over here. These things live in the world of spirit, ideas, practices. Sometimes even we think that human teachers live over here in this realm of spirit and they shouldn’t dirty their hands with money. And then we have the world of the profane, the world of matter, you know, matter, money, earth. We have the world of sexuality. And this is all considered to be separate from the world of the spirit. And this core separation I have to say does not make any sense to me as in zero, zero sense to me. It’s life. It’s our sacred world, our sacred life. And to me, there’s no separation between this world of sexuality and spirituality and this world of money and commerce and spirituality. The question is how do we bring it together in a way that is of service. What is our genuine motivation? And I think looking to motivation is really one of the key places to start. Because if our motivation behind anything that we’re doing is to aggrandize ourselves, to give ourselves more personal territory, to really reward simply ourselves that’s a very different motivation for engaging in the world of commerce than if you’re engaging in the world of commerce from a spirit of service.
And if really it’s the spirit of service, and you know what, I’m so moved by this presentation on Kiva. Something that I knew nothing about and I thought I would so much rather that some of my money was put in kiva.org than even some of the socially responsible investments I currently have it in. This would make me more personally in touch with where my money was going. So it was really moving to me. And it was clear in listening to Matt the spirit of service behind what he’s doing, this sense of the interdependence and using the flow of money in the name of service. So I think understanding this question of motivation clarifies how we can work with things that perhaps have been divided and separate and instead look at an all encompassing sacred world embrace.
Now I think when we keep things separated into the sacred and the profane, there is an incredible shadow that can become apparent. I think we see this a lot in spiritual communities who say I don’t want to touch money. I want it to be donation only. I don’t want to charge. I’m not interested in money. And I was talking to a spiritual teacher that Sounds True works with. His name’s Rick Jarow and he’s a professor of religious studies at Vassar College. And he’s somebody that we created a program with. It’s called “Your Anti-Career Guide”. And he helps college students find their “anti-career” meaning career that’s true to them not necessarily true to the outside world but true to their hearts. And so I was talking to him about his whole question of dhana and charging for the Dharma versus not charging. And he told me an interesting story. He said that he knew of someone who was being trained by their teacher not only how to give a Dharma talk but where very carefully to place the dhana basket at which side in the back of the room next to which of the exit doors that would open easily versus the exit doors that wouldn’t open easily. And as he was telling me this I thought “well this sounds a lot like marketing.” I mean this is kind of what they kind of teach you in marketing where do you put the buy button on the screen. It makes a big difference if it’s on the right side of the screen or the left side of the screen. He went further to talk to me about examples of teachers that he’s known who have said to him quite bluntly the key to my success as a Dharma teacher is my ability to magnetize a wealthy disciple. It only takes one but I need one really good wealthy disciple and then I’ll be able to bring forth the teachings and make sure that they spread the way that I want them to spread and that I can build my center. And you know it’s not that there’s necessarily anything wrong with people donating money to teachers. But what I found for myself is that there’s something very above board, something very straightforward, something very not in the shadows to simply charge, to simply charge money and then give people a refund if they want a refund. You know commerce. Here you go. Here’s what it cost and here’s your refund versus I’m going to sort of manipulate and kind of play to my wealthy students so that I can accomplish my goals. I mean to me there’s actually a slight tinged and this is a strong word but I’m going to say it of something even a little bit like prostitution or something. You know I’m going to kind of strut myself and kind of get my money but we’re not put it over here versus a very clear we are a for profit business. That’s true.
And there’s a big difference between creating a business that is prosperous and a business that’s “greedy.” There’s a big difference between prosperity and greed. And I want to underline that because I think sometimes people who are in this space of saying well okay I’m going to run a dharmic business because we need to be sustainable. And I’m all for this word sustainable. I think it’s a beautiful word but yet it also communicates a type of we’re going to be right above drowning. We’re going to be sustainable. Do you know what I mean? We’re not going to let ourselves drown under the water. And if you say something like prosperous, people think what do you mean? You want to be prosperous. Yeah, actually. I want my company to be very prosperous. And the more prosperous we are, the more we can do, the better I can pay my employees, the more money I can give to Kiva, the more Dharma we can distribute for free. You know prosperity is a wonderful thing because it creates a fountain and a flow of possibilities. I think one of the issues sometimes people have with the idea of charging for Dharma teachings is access. What about this question of access. We want to make it broadly available to as many people as possible. And I think this form of charging and being prosperous and creating access can exist simultaneously. And I actually think what’s happening right here is an example of that. Meaning people have paid to come to this Buddhist Geeks event and so there’s a certain number of people who are here who have paid, who are supporting the speaker travel fees. I don’t know exactly the details of the organization. But supporting Buddhist Geeks to continue and thrive and be prosperous. And we’re live streaming this for free. Anybody any place in the world can tune into this. And so these models are actually coexisting and working beautifully together. So, there’s no reason to say that in the name of access we can’t engage in a for profit model. We can.
I think the keys are some key principles. I talked about honesty, transparency, above board. Where is the money going? That’s one of the litmus tests I think of working in this sphere of selling the Dharma well is that there’s nothing hidden about how we’re using the money. It’s not in shadow. It’s right in the light. There is a commitment to what comes first. What’s the motivation? One way to say that is what’s at the bow of the boat. And I think for any organization if what’s at the bow of the boat is making money, it’s not an organization that’s ever really going to be loved by customers. And it’s certainly not an organization that’s modeling this type of service that I’m talking about. If the mission of the business is first, if that’s what’s at the bow of the boat then what can come second, what can come third is we’re going to find ways to support that mission that are skillful, that are strategic, that are fair for our customers and that make us money. If it comes second then I think there’s a feel to a company. And you can see it. Even if you just go on your websites. Customers are so smart. And these are the businesses that earn something. I’ve heard this term “love mark”. Your business gets a love mark which is like a trademark but it’s the customers who give you the love mark. And it’s because they can feel it. They feel that bow of the boat. They feel your mission. They feel your heart and your sense of service that’s going into what you’re doing. And there’s something in it that they want to be a part of. And it’s a very different feeling.
Now I just want to make two more points and one is that I still think some people have this idea that spiritual teachings are somehow separate from everything else we do and sell. And I say this because Sounds True produces events with a very well known teacher who fills auditoriums of 2,000, 3,000, 4,000 people. And whenever we put up a notice about his event, we get email saying I can’t believe that so and so is charging all these people in the room just for somebody to go up there and give a Dharma talk and teach. This is ridiculous. So I hear all of these complaints. And I wanted to share with you a way of looking at this that I think would be quite different. I was talking to another Sounds True author recently about this a young gentleman named Jeff Foster. And he said to me, you know I think of going up on stage and teaching which he does more like being a musician, more like being an artist. And people don’t seem to have any difficulty paying a talented musician, going to a concert. So why is it that we think that when somebody is opening themselves and speaking they’re using their body if you will as a type of human instrument, a conduit for the beauty of the moment to speak through them? Why is it that we don’t want that person to be paid? We don’t want to buy a concert ticket for that. Why is it that we have to take spirituality and make it something that’s completely separate from every other art form? You know I question that. I question that deeply. And I think the more that we can drop some of these divisions there won’t be this rarefied realm of teachings. There will be our life, the glory of our life, the beauty of our life undivided in its wholeness and this will include obviously the realm of commerce.
I was speaking to somebody right before during the break, right before this talk, and I said what do you think this Buddhist Geeks audience really not just wants to know but needs to know about this idea of selling the Dharma. And he’s like well the first thing of course is to stop demonizing business. And I was like okay check. I think I can talk to that because I don’t think, not only do I not think it should be demonized I think it’s an inherent part of the distribution, the powerful distribution of teachings in our world today. And it’s one of the most important vehicles to do so and we can do it in a way that is sacred and beneficial to our communities. Okay. Good. He said the second thing is what if Buddhist groups and organizations could actually learn a lot from business and business people. Could we take it even further that businesses might actually have something to give to Buddhist organizations. And I would say yes most certainly. I have learned so much being in the business world not having a business background but running a business now for 27 years about leadership, about collaboration, about effectiveness, about the power of well organized hierarchies to get things done. And ultimately it all comes down to this idea of the morning was about inner inquiry and this afternoon is about action, to me it’s unified. It all comes down to each of us as human beings sourcing our own inner inspiration and serving our community. Rick Jarow, this Vassar professor said if you want to know what a marketplace is another word for it is your community. We’re in communities of people and we sense their need. Matt sensed a need in the world. Those people he was in touch with that becomes a community, a marketplace of people that we contact. So when we sense that need there’s an integration of the inner and the outer. And it ultimately it comes out our hearts as we give our gifts to our communities. And when we give a gift that we find valuable people exchange value with us that’s called commerce.
And so yes I think we can learn a lot from business and businesses can learn so much about how to operate differently which is in the context of a sacred world because we need businesses to do that. We need them to understand and balance the ecosystem that they’re in which means that they’re honoring all of the stakeholders of their business, their customers, their authors in a case of a company like Sounds True, their vendors, their investors that everybody in the ecosystem is honored as we design our businesses. And I think it can be an incredibly powerful force for the Dharma in the world today in moving forward.
So thank you and go Buddhist Geeks!