By Dawai Gocha
I’m just a monk who still makes plenty of mistakes, but I’ve been around Buddhism since I was a kid and I’ve come to learn that there’s a difference between relatively pure dharma and dharma that’s been overcome by poison.
In my early teens I got a taste of Buddhism when my mom showed me a center that was open 24 hours a day. Like many places, this center had its share of issues, but as a kid it felt right. The people were relaxed, the environment was spacious, and I was able to walk around the park and meditate in the main shrine room whenever I wanted. As an 18 year old, I even lived with Western monks during some hard times and remember how they never pushed Buddhism on me and always respected my boundaries.
Since then I’ve experienced many different centers, temples and groups from all over the world. I’ve seen Theravada, Vajrayana, Zen and other Mahayana centers but also non-Buddhist places, which are beautiful and warm, each with their own unique qualities but preserved in goodness. Many places have the feel of Dharma; humbleness, kindness, calmness and other qualities that might be representative.
One of my first surprises was when I looked into a retreat associated with the Medicine Buddha. Doing Medicine Buddha mantras, visualizations and meditations were some of my practices at the time, so I was excited to learn about a retreat center with all these beautiful healing practices.
The only problem was that it cost about $500 a night.
While I was happy that wealthy people were connecting with the teachings, I wasn’t sure that a business dressed up as an authentic Tibetan retreat center was the right presentation. These things definitely shook up my idealistic mind. Another time I found a center that wouldn’t allow people over 45 years old to work in exchange for a free retreat and even though I was in my late 20’s, the discrimination didn’t work for me. I also noticed retreats and centers charging about $40 to $100 per event with no “suggested donation” and always heard stories about members not being able to attend due to costs. Then I ran into Dharma groups that were inventing their own paths and calling it Buddhism all while the teachers and students seemed confused.
During these times, I always remembered the good qualities of the other centers and moved on. I learned that I had to be realistic about expectations and have rational ideals without compromising.
Many times people probably don’t even know they’re being driven by affliction when teaching or running a dharma center. Maybe the teachers are also experiencing some suffering and need healing. So we often find centers and retreats that are showing signs of pure dharma, but are also tainted and afflicted. They might have empowerments, meditations or even traditional Buddhist infrastructure, but underneath they’re overcharging, disregarding teachings and are being driven by their afflictions.
It’s not hard for any of us to become a profiteer, fame driven or any of these things so I don’t seek to blame people. I just think it’s important to call this stuff out and continue with discernment. So many people come to retreats with an idealistic, friendly and open mind, only to be met by a controlling and authoritative business. I see people getting discouraged by these things and it pushes people back into the matrix instead of pulling them out.
This can be a big deal when we feel so good and pure about something and then we get let down and discouraged upon discovering the reality. Of course this is all part of the path and we shouldn’t be overly idealistic, but just like we challenge racism, sexism, hate and fear, we can challenge what we know is wrong and make a conscious decision to stand against these things.
We can do that however we want but at least we should acknowledge when a teacher, sangha or center is not keeping to what we know is right.
With so many people in need, a dharma center should be helping and should mostly be free of degenerate qualities. It should not seek to profit from or break you; it should encourage diversity of class, gender and race, and have an element of kindness rather than business. From my perspective, I see many nuns and monks who work tirelessly to preserve Buddhism but don’t have many resources. Centers should not be charging them for food and rent. Many nuns and monks would give you everything they could either way.
When a monk cannot go to his own center because he can’t pay the fee, does that seem right?
These are all things that create isolated and unhealthy centers. When we say “fee” instead of “suggested donation” this alienates an entire range of people. When we only charge for retreats instead of openly offering work-studies, payment plans, work-arounds and other options, then we alienate and prevent people from ever meeting the Dharma.
If we run centers and groups like a business then it fills up with customers, not practitioners.
Many dharma students especially feel that this is a contradiction. I see it being talked about in many different forums. The ordained have been the major factor in preserving dharma, so how can people sell it as product yet neglect those who have made the product? And what about the poor and struggling? Does dharma only cater to the middle and upper class?
I don’t know guys, I can’t compromise on this one. There are many solutions, a middle path, where we can fit into western society and pay the bills without compromising the integrity of Buddhism or ourselves.
Mostly we should discern when dharma is decent and when it’s been too far degenerated.
Dawai Gocha is practitioner and monk in a Nyingma Dzogchen lineage of Tibetan Buddhism. He first took refuge with His Holiness Penor Rinpoche when he was a boy and has continued to practice Buddhism for over 20 years. He has received teachings from H.H. Dalai Lama, H.H. Penor Rinpoche, Mingyur Rinpoche and others; receiving empowerments and instructions on many different Buddhist practices.
Editor: Dana Gornall