Wednesday, September 10, 2014

The Dharma is Not a Product

The Dharma is not a product and students are not customers. I am very fortunate to teach in a location that does not charge rent because that means the Original Mind Zen Sangha does not need a substantial income. Therefore, we do not not to shop for students.

Bodhisattvas dedicate their lives to helping others awaken, but what does that necessarily entail? To what lengths should Dharma teachers go to in order to appeal to students?

In the American spiritual marketplace, Zen--with its rigorous meditation practice, bare-bones liturgy, and stoic character--is not the shiniest gem. Other traditions are far more attractive.

I enjoy leading a small sangha, for it frees us from the obligation of large expenses. We don't have a mortgage, rent, or even heating bills. And that's a blessing.

Still, there is the unstated pressure to grow, to bring in more members. But how much of that is the Bodhisattva vow, and how much is just ego? (My intuition says that the moment someone utters the question, "Why aren't more people coming?", ego has appeared.)

Do we really need a bright temple in order to draw in crowds, or exciting Dharma talks to impress students? When does change or accommodation (upaya or skillful means) become just plain old compromise? Should Zen sanghas be trying to encourage people to join?

These are important questions I find myself facing as the Original Mind Zen Sangha approaches its third year. I am very wary of any approaches that intentionally try to appeal to, entice, or attract students. If someone asks how to meditate or is curious about Buddhism, then by all means answer their questions. Give them literature. Point them to resources or invite them to attend a meditation class. We can even offer seminars at the library or yoga center. Advertise with paper pamphlets--make the Dharma available.

But marketing Zen sounds simply counter intuitive (or even hypocritical) to me. I don't think that Zen teachers should be in the Zen business. Period. That approach tends to reduce people to students, and students to human advantages or mere resources.

Thoughts or comments?


  1. Duly chastened. Bows.

    But... Does American Zen, with its emphasis on formal practice and lack of devotional practice, limit itself? Can it become a mass religion or culture in America and, therefore, create widespread change?

    1. Just developing some general thoughts, not directed anywhere in particular. You raise very important questions. I genuinely believe that Zen has a lot to offer modernity, but for me the question becomes, "How do we offer Zen service without selling it, so to speak?" It's a slippery edge. Thanks for reading and commenting, Jonson. _/\_

  2. I once asked my teacher, Kyudo Nakagawa Roshi, about trying to recruit new membership to the sangha. He was emphatic -- "No! No! No!" With that answer, I asked him how, then, he envisaged his own role in Zen practice. "I encourage them for zazen," he said.

    His view may be easier said than done, but I think he hit the nail on the head. It may be a common tendency to want others to agree with me and thus create an imagined circle of friends, but when has agreement ever had much to do with serious Zen practice?


  3. If you think you have something to sell then it's a problem. If you think you have nothing to sell then it's also a problem. I don't think you will fall into either trap.

    The start of Zen is with the seeker and the sought. The end of Zen is no seeker and nothing to seek. Neither view is exactly correct and the end does not help the start - that is why there are people who claim to be Zen Teachers and people who claim to be Zen Students.

    In the end it just comes down to which set of power dynamics you wish to play with and which path allows you to live with yourself. There's not a right answer, there are different consequences to each answer for each person.

    What is Jukai and Kesa and Raksu and Precepts if not an elaborate list of special things that you have to buy to be a Real Buddhist (TM).

    Who is a Zen Teacher but an authorised reseller of Special Things (TM)?

    You cannot avoid playing the game. It's just a matter of which game and which rules you play by.