Some thoughts on Dana

Here is a transcript of a short Q/A on Dana with Ken McLeod

Dana and Payment for Teachings

Q: I don’t know how much of a question this is, it might be more of a gripe or complaint. It may be this way in the east, but I know in the west, in our capitalist society, that its become you have to make a living so I’ve found over the years that I’ve been practicing that its hard to, I guess I’m a little confused, I wonder is it sufficient to have the types of relationships with teachers that I’ve had, with people at places? I love Against the Stream it’s a big big part of my practice but sometimes it feels there’s a void in the teacher student relationship, you’re allowed to ask questions in the environment but you only have a certain amount of time, at the end people, trying to get home to their families, so you’re encouraged to almost, I’ve seen that some teachers do private practices where they charge money, like it’s a therapy session, it’s kind of this, I don’t know what it is to me, but it seems kind of unfair to the student, or maybe in the past there’s been a stronger relationship in the east with student teacher and in the west we just haven’t cultivated that?

Ken McLeod: Boy, did you ever ask the wrong person! I was the person who invented that private practice model. And a lot of other teachers have used it because it actually makes it possible for a teacher to live in this ‘dog eat dog capitalist world’.

I did it for two reasons: one, I taught a ten day retreat at a center where I was very well known. And there were about 25-30 people on this retreat and it was on a donation basis, and everybody agreed it was one of the best retreats that had been taught that year at that center. do you know how much I walked away with from that retreat? Guess. $300 for a ten day retreat. I’d do better working at McDonalds! Totally unsustainable!

What really clenched it was when I met with a group of people who said they were interested in me establishing a center and we met for an afternoon and I asked them what their commitment was, what they were willing to commit to a center, and it was astonishingly clear, that their expectation was I would put all the work into establishing a center and teaching it and they would come when they chose! Talk about balance, this is not balance, so I did something else.

It’s a very real question, what you are bringing up here, and there are a couple of very important points. One is it’s really important to have this kind of interaction, where you can actually talk about stuff. It’s got to work on both sides – money doesn’t fall out of the sky for you and it doesn’t fall out of the sky for me either. So what do we do?

There have been different mechanisms for this, throughout the course of history. The eastern models, which were largely based on agrarian societies – in Tibet which is my training they were pre-industrial societies, in a large portion of Tibet they were nomads. We don’t have nomads over here, we haven’t had them for quite a while.

Also the structure was very very different. Tibetan Buddhism is somewhat different than Chinese and Thai, Theravaden tradition – what you encounter in the Tibetan tradition is much worse. If you wanted to study with me in the Tibetan tradition you gave me everything you owned, and then I took responsibility for you, completely. Would that work for you?

Q: Take responsibility?

K: Well yes, then I would take care of you, I would give you a place to stay and food to eat.

Q: I’m in!

K: And you have to do everything I tell you. You in?

That worked in an agrarian society, and there are many many examples of that. My teacher said that at 3 different points in his life he gave his teacher everything that he owned. This doesn’t work in our society because we aren’t land based so we don’t have land that just generates wealth naturally.   It’s s very different, so I’m not recommending that I’m just giving it as an example.

We haven’t developed, or we’re in the beginning stages of developing the models by which teaching and practice can take place. And it is much more challenging in this society than it is in an agrarian society, and the reason is its because the society is much wealthier and we have a higher standard of living. And this is beautifully pointed out to me by a friend of mine who is a research Dr – you’ve heard all this business about why health care costs just keep rising and rising, well there’s an economic reason for this. this is probably more, this is way too much information but you asked so you’re going to get it.  there’s an economist who wrote a paper 50 years ago about why health care costs will just keep rising and rising, and this applies to Buddhist practice and allot of other professions too. The way he explained it is in Mozart’s day you had four people playing a violin quartet, okay, say it took an hour for them to play this piece of music. And you had, I’m going to use a different example than he did, and you had 4 people who make nails, a routine job, this is right at the start of the industrial era so they didn’t have many machines, so how many nails could they make in an hour these 4 people? Let’s be really generous, they’re really fast, let’s say they make a thousand.

So you have 4 people who can play one violin quartet in an hour and 4 people who can make a thousand nails in an hour.

Let’s transpose this to 250 years later. How long does it take those 4 people to play the violin quartet? An hour. How many nails can those 4 people make today?

S: Alot!

K: Right, with the right machine they make, probably a million. Just unbelievably more. So what has that done to the price of nails? Driven them down. The consequence of that is the cost of that violin quartet goes up.   As the productivity in our society goes up, those elements in our society where productivity cannot be raises, and meditation is one of them, the relative cost of those just keeps going up. So, I understand completely, that, it costs money to practice! It costs more money for us to practice than it did when we were all herding cattle and growing grain. It costs allot more money.

You can calculate how much it would costs a Dr. or an attorney to go on a one week retreat. It’s a really large sum of money. We are wealthier, we have a higher standard of living, but things just cost more. So when we talk about renunciation and giving things up, we’re giving up allot more to practice. So we have to be really clear about this, is this important in our lives?

For me it is. I could be allot wealthier if I’d done something else, but I don’t think my life would be the same, and that is very important to me. So you’re quite right, there are tensions here, and rather than gripe, but I understand that very well, say, okay, this means I have to figure out what is really important to me, because I have limited resources, and do I put them here or do I put them there.

You’re smiling, say more.

S: It’s just a hard decision to make, I’ve made it several times and recently I had to give up, I was doing the therapy with one of my teachers and I had to give it up, I couldn’t afford it anymore and I can’t even pay dana any more, and I was going to go on a metta retreat with against the stream and I had to cancel..

K: This is very frustrating!

S: But it’s a big question, I have to sit down and say am I going to be able to survive if I don’t focus more on saving money and working – because that’s why I’m not going on this retreat because I have more work that week so I can’t go, and it’s a hard decision to make because I went on an 11 day retreat at Joshua Tree with Spirit Rock and it changed my life.

K: So this is very important to you. You are in the phase of working out how to live your life so you can do what is important to you, and that’s wonderful. Is it easy? No, it’s not. But this is where our practice takes hold. I think it’s wonderful, that, ‘this really means something to me’. Now we have to figure out, I have all this work to do, it produces x amount of dollars, and I’d like to do this retreat, that means I can’t do this.

You’re a free lancer of some kind?   I can relate, because when you’re a freelancer your time on retreat comes right out of your income. Big time. It’s not like you’re on salary, no one’s paying you. I do business consulting so if I go on retreat I don’t get any of that money. So you work it out, you’ve got to focus on what are the aspects of the freelance work that really produces and is this retreat of sufficient import to forego that 10,000 dollar gig – these are real decisions.

S:   So it’s not a matter of east or west or a thousand years ago or now it’s there’s been different levels of how much people are willing to give up and we’re starting to work though those in our society and you might have had to give up more a thousand years ago in Tibet, it’s not relative.

K: Well, the first part of what you said, yes, I don’t think it is east and west. The east developed certain models and by and large teachers and monasteries and teaching institutions were funded by the aristocracy. With really large land grants and funding building and things like that.

S: Churches

K: Yeah, that’s how they were funded. Because the people who had allot of wealth valued the teachings but their relationship with the society was such that they wanted to make these teachings available so they just funded the teachers and funded the institutions and funded the monasteries and that’s what made it possible for many other people to come and just donate what they could. But that’s really how it was funded for centuries. And that’s how it was funded in Tibet, but there’s one other thing is that the monasteries became very large land holders, as they were in medieval Europe , so they had a huge amount of income coming from the serfs that farmed their land, so they were feudal estates.

We haven’t developed that, but it’s happening. There’s a center back east, called the Garrison Institute, which was bought and refurbished, it’s an old catholic seminary, that was bought relatively cheaply from the Catholic Church, relatively cheaply like a few million dollars! And these people have created a foundation in which people who have allot of money make donations to the foundation and it puts on programs and they try to make the programs self sustaining so the whole thing can hold together but it’s very much a case of people with large resources themselves valuing the teachings setting up an institution which can then provide teachings to a large number of people at a moderate cost. It’s exactly the same kind of thing.

Here, as solo practitioner or free lance person you’ve got to make some really hard decisions, ‘do I do this retreat’, ‘do I go on a vacation because I’m losing money either way’, or someone calls up and says ‘here’s this’…

But let me tell you a story of a friend of mine who was very helpful to me the first few years I was here in LA. He was a paralegal and he worked for one of the major law firms in Century City, they always said they were the biggest and meanest and baddest – they really knew how to beat up clients, they were very successful. This is in the late ’80’s early 90’s.

He had a friend in Hawaii who called him up and said ‘I’d really like you to come and visit me’. So he made arrangements to go on vacation to Hawaii but a couple of days before he was to go on vacation his law firm said ‘we have a big case coming up, could you delay your vacation because we really need your help’. So he delayed his vacation and didn’t go, and then got caught up in things.

Then he got another note from his friend, ‘well actually I’m HIV positive so it would be really nice to see you’. So again he scheduled his vacation and his lawyer firm again a day or two before he was to go said ‘this is a big case coming up, could you delay your vacation again?’ So he said ‘okay, I’ll do that’.

And a few months later he got another note from his friend…

And the case was always settled after a couple of days.

Then the same thing happened and his friend said ‘I’m really sick now, I’d like to see you’. He was feeling really badly. So again he made arrangements to go and again on his way to the airport he got a call from his law firm saying ‘is there anything you can do, we’ve got this big case and we need you to do the research’, so he turned around and went back.   The case settled three or four days later, didn’t go to trial.

Then he got a note that his friend had died. So he went to the airport, was on the plane, and he got a call from his law firm saying’ can you change your plans’, and he said ‘no’. Then he went and attended his friends funereal, and the case settled 2 days later.

So it’s very easy to get caught up in the work world and miss what is really important in our lives. It’s really easy. He really remembers this very vividly, and that’s one of the reasons he just stepped completely out of it, he never wanted to get caught in that kind of thinking again!

So, your concerns, the challenges you face are really legitimate. Do we have it all worked out? No. It is inevitably going to be a more professional model than it was. Because, back in the days of monasteries, if you were ill you went to the monastery and their was a monk there who specialized in medicine, and he was the doctor, and if you had legal problems you went to the monastery and there was a monk there who specialized in canon law and the king’s law and he would help figure that out. And if you had wealth you were expected to make a donation and if you didn’t, they were available.

But as we went through the renaissance and the industrial other revolutions we’ve gone through each of those professions left the monasteries. Those monks who were good at medicine became doctors and those who were good at keeping track of things became accountants and those that were good at figuring out legal tangles became lawyers, and now we’ve had the counselors leave and they’ve become therapists and now we have those with a certain amount of spiritual understanding and experience being available as not therapists but spiritual guides; in the Catholic Church they’re known as spiritual directors. But those are actually becoming professions now in a way they weren’t a hundred years ago, so we’re gong through these changes.

S: So it’s even happening outside of the Buddhist community, in the Catholic Church and stuff?

K: Oh, in the Catholic Church, and look what’s happened with yoga, the model for yoga is totally different, and look what’s happened in martial arts. In martial arts, you couldn’t even get allot of that training, they were family secrets, like they were trademark. The only way you get certain kinds of training was to join the family, and that was it. So you really had to give up allot. It’s way beyond Buddhism, it’s everywhere.

S: Thank you for explaining it better.

K: You’re very welcome.