ON 18 July 2011, Sam Mowe wrote about diversity within American Buddhism for Tricycle: The Buddhist Review‘s blog in an article titled “Tell Us Your Story.” One of the comments to that post led to another post on Tricycle‘s blog by Monty McKeever, “Why Is Buddhism So Damned Expensive?” That comment read, in part,
There is one thing about Buddhism that I find disturbing. Why is it so damned expensive? I have missed teachings because I just cannot afford the fees. I’m not surprised that Buddhists do tend to be middle class, they are the people than can actually afford it.
I would say two things. First, while it is amazing that there are so many free or low-cost online Buddhist resources, being a Buddhist is about more than just receiving teachings, isn’t it? People also want community (Sanskrit, “sangha”), face-to-face human interaction. Second, retreats cost more than just their registration fees. Not everyone can afford to take a week off of work (not to mention caring for children or ailing relatives), fly or drive sometimes long distances to a retreat center, etc.
In other words, it’s possible that the problem lies not with the cost of retreats but with over-emphasis on the retreat model altogether. Retreat is wonderful, [but] there’s no reason that Buddhism should be limited to practicing on one’s own in between the occasional retreat or sesshin.
Let me also say that I’ve been very fortunate to be able to attend teachings, go on retreats, and even live at retreat centers long-term for little or no money, something for which I am incredibly grateful.
Before going into more detail about this comment, it might be best for me to explain my own class background. I grew up in Athens, Georgia, a hip little college town that is home to REM, the B-52s, and a 28 percent poverty rate. My parents divorced when I was one, and both my father and his child support checks were largely absent after that. My mom worked a clerical job, sometimes working a second job on the weekend to make ends (not quite) meet. I am the first member of my immediate family to go to college, an accomplishment that was made possible only by scholarships, federal student loans, and my family’s sacrifices on my behalf. Even now, as I apply to PhD programs, I make my living at low-income temp jobs.
I am not qualified to say what is necessary to deepen one’s meditation practice or to attain realizations; my own practice is faltering, at best, and my realization is nonexistent. I am, however, qualified to say something of what it is like to be working-class in America. There are an awful lot of people in this country who simply cannot go on retreats, regardless of their value. Some must care for young children, aged parents, or ailing relatives who cannot attend a retreat with them and who cannot be left on their own. Others live paycheck to paycheck and simply cannot afford to take the time off of work to travel to a distant retreat center, even if the center does wave the retreat’s registration fee.
Indeed, many Buddhist events and organizations fail to take economic hardship into account. At one point in time, I lived in a city with four major Tibetan Buddhist centers, three of which were more than an hour from my apartment by public transit and only one of which was located on a major subway line. It is true that centrally-located property is always more expensive, but one wonders how much access to public transportation figured in these centers’ decisions on where to locate. Even more striking was a recent week-long Buddhist conference that was open to the public but took place at a retreat center far from any major cities and charged a hefty registration fee. How could any working-class people even have hoped to attend?
One disturbing trend I have noticed in some Buddhism, yoga, and spirituality circles is a belief that either (1) one will be magically blessed with the financial resources to go on retreat if one is truly committed, or that (2) one will let one’s financial obligations slide for the sake of going on retreat if one is truly committed. Both ideas ignore the extent of our privilege, something that I have clearly seen in my own life.
Let me give an example. Last weekend I rented a car to attend a special ceremony at my primary teacher’s retreat center, which is five hours away. I had just enough on my credit card to cover the two-day rental, but when I got to the rental company I realized that they also require an additional $300 security hold. Thankfully, a supervisor overheard me talking with the clerk and decided to make a one-time exception. I have no idea whether this had anything to do with the intervention of the buddhas and bodhisattvas—although I did thank the bodhisattva Tara afterward—but I am fairly certain it had something to do with the fact that I’m white and was wearing business clothes. I’ve similarly benefited from traveling in liberal, college-educated circles where having spent two months at a Buddhist retreat center is a valid explanation for a gap on a resume instead of being an oddity or a red flag.
The question at hand is not whether retreats (or centers, or conferences) are valuable; that ought to go without saying. Rather, the question is how we make Buddhism as welcoming and accessible as possible to anyone who is interested, regardless of their income or social status. The Buddha was exceptional for his ability to relate with people from all social and economic backgrounds, from cowherds to kings. Can we follow in his example? Free online teachings and waved registration fees are a wonderful start, but more is needed if we want to continue to make the teachings of the middle way available to those who are not middle-class.