Joshua Eaton

Independent Journalist

Category: Ministry (page 1 of 2)

Let’s Talk: It’s Time to Open Our Doors

The winter 2012 issue of Buddhadharma: The Practitioner's Quarterly

The winter 2012 issue of Buddhadharma: The Practitioner’s Quarterly

I SPENT THE YEAR AFTER COLLEGE in an AmeriCorps program that placed me in the Task Force for the Homeless in downtown Atlanta, Georgia. During my time there I served at several different transitional homes, emergency shelters, and soup kitchens. It was the end of a string of social-service work for me, which started several years earlier with volunteering at a Latino community center next to my college campus. I spent the summer before my senior year living in an intentional community that provides homeless services in Boston. Then I went to St. Bernard Parish, Louisiana, on my last spring break to prepare meals for victims of Hurricane Katrina.

During this time I was struck by the fact that all of the social-service groups I served with were dependent on organized religion for support. Many of the soup kitchens were housed in church basements, and almost all of the emergency shelters relied on various church groups to come in and cook a meal once or twice a month. A Hindu group took over two whole shifts a month at the soup kitchen where I lived and served in Boston.

I was also struck by how absent my own religious communities seemed to be. I’ve never visited a Buddhist center that hosts outside community groups or one whose members regularly volunteer together outside their center. An
acquaintance who spent a year serving in New Orleans after Katrina once asked me, “Why is it that Buddhists are always talking about compassion but they’re the only group I’ve never seen volunteer down here?”

More important than volunteers, religious institutions provide public spaces. When Occupy
camps were evicted from public parks and squares this past winter, it was churches that opened their doors to homeless occupiers and general assemblies. Churches and synagogues have long provided space for scout troops, AA groups, and community meetings, as well as offices for small nonprofits and housing for disaster-relief volunteers. They’re also polling places. And many even provide free space to other religious groups that can’t afford to meet elsewhere. The public spaces religious institutions provide are an invaluable part of America’s civic life.

It probably won’t surprise anyone to hear that these institutions are declining in membership. Every indicator of traditional religious identity is going down, while “unaffiliated” is the fastest-growing religious identity in the country. As more and more churches are converted into upscale lofts, where does that leave the nonprofits and Scout troops and popular movements that depend on them? The other traditional alternative is public schools and universities, but budget cuts have left them decimated. Those that haven’t already closed are less and less willing to provide their space free of charge.

What if Buddhist centers and meditation groups opened their doors and let civil society in? Buddhist thinkers have long thought that public spaces are a necessary part of a just society. For example, the Indian poet Asvaghosa (80–150 AD) goes into elaborate detail when describing the many beautiful public spaces the Buddha’s
father—the model of a righteous king—built after his son’s birth. The Indian philosopher Nagarjuna (150–250 AD) and the famous Indian emperor Ashoka (304–232 BC) also tell kings to build public spaces, mentioning them in the same breath as monasteries and temples. The tradition is clear: Good kings build and maintain
public spaces for their citizens. In a democracy that duty falls to us.

With traditional religious institutions shutting their doors it’s time we opened ours. Buddhist centers and meditation groups cannot possibly hope to fill the gap that churches and synagogues are leaving in America’s civic life, but we can still make a difference in our communities. Remember my acquaintance in New Orleans who asked why Buddhists were always talking about compassion but weren’t doing anything? It’s up to us to prove him wrong.

This article appeared in the winter 2012 issue of Buddhadharma: The Practitioner’s Quarterly.

Dana Wiki Fundraising Report, Part 1

Dana Wiki logo

Dana Wiki logo

AS I have written about here before, Dana Wiki is a website that I started in 2008 to help Buddhist organizations get involved in social service. Toward the end of last year Dana Wiki’s DNS registration expired and I did a small WePay fundraiser to re-register its domain name.

I’m happy to report that the fundraiser was a smashing success. I initially thought I would need to raise $61 to renew Dana Wiki’s DNS registration for one year ($45) and cover WePay’s transfer fees (3.5%). Here’s how much I actually raised:

  • Donation one: $70 (minus $2.45 WePay transfer fee)
  • Donation two: $10 (minus $0.50 WePay transfer fee)
  • Total: $80 (minus $2.95 total WePay transfer fees)

That’s 31% higher that my initial goal. Not bad! Even better, I discovered that my domain registrar, Network Solutions, automatically added private DNS registration to the initial price quote they gave me. When I removed this option, the cost of the DNS renewal for one year went down from $45 to $36.99. Here’s how I’ve spent the donation money to date:

  • DNS renewal (1-year term): $36.99
  • WePay transfer fees: $2.95 (see above)
  • Total: $39.94 (out of $80)

The remaining $40.06 is in my personal savings account at Harvard University Employee Credit Union waiting for me to open up a separate savings account where it can live.

I didn’t purchase a longer DNS term because I’m considering making some major changes to Dana Wiki and want to be absolutely certain what direction the site is taking before doing anything else. However, as promised on the WePay fundraising page, this money will only be spent on either DNS registration or web hosting for Dana Wiki. When it is spent I’ll post another full update both here and at Dana Wiki.

Finally, here’s a screen shot of the DNS renewal receipt so that you know I’m honest:

DNS renewal receipt

Buddhism and Class

People practicing sitting meditation at Occupy Wall Street in Zuccotti Park, New York City, New York

People practicing sitting meditation at Occupy Wall Street in Zuccotti Park, New York City, New York

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 commented on McKeever’s post in turn, and my commented generated a lot of feedback, including “Zen Finances and Practice” at Dangerous Harvests,  “Pricing Buddhism and Its Personal Cost” at Notes from a Burning House, and Mowe’s “How Important Are Meditation Retreats?” at the Tricycle blog. Mowe also asked me to write a guest post explaining my comment further, which you are reading presently. Here’s my full comment:

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.

What Is Buddhist Ministry?

The Buddha and Jesus embracing

The Buddha (left) and Jesus embracing

THE question of Buddhist ministry has been on my mind almost constantly since attending a friend’s ordination to the Unitarian-Universalist ministry earlier this month. Traditional Buddhist societies had monastics and teachers—with the exception of Japan and Tibet, which also had non-celibate ordination lineages. Now five schools in the United States are offering graduate-level programs for people interested in professional Buddhist ministry: Naropa Univeristy, the Institute of Buddhist Studies, University of the West, Harvard Divinity School, and Maitripa College.*

Something like the Master of Divinity (MDiv) program at Harvard—of which I am a graduate—obviously isn’t training students to be roshis, lamas, or any other sort of teacher in a Buddhist lineage. Neither is it giving them a traditional monastic education. While several Buddhist monastics and teachers have gone through Harvard’s MDiv program and probably found it quite helpful, such a program couldn’t have qualified them for these roles on its own. So, what roles are these Buddhist ministry programs training people for?

There seems to be an increasing need in American society for a third category of Buddhist religious professional—not a monastic or a teacher, but a minister or chaplain. Unlike both monastics and teachers, whose primary role is to preserve and transmit the dharma, such ministers would primarily officiate ceremonies such as weddings and funerals, provide pastoral care, and give basic religious instruction.

This represents a shift away from convert Buddhism’s almost exclusive focus on individual meditation practice. It doesn’t seek to do away with meditation practice, of course, but rather to incorporate it alongside communal life: ceremonies to mark various life-passages, programs for families and children, visits to the sick and infirm, service to those in need, and comfort in times of crises. It does not abandon the ideal of liberation from suffering, but incorporates it alongside the very real needs and concerns of worldly life.

For me, this rubber meets the road when I think about getting married someday, or consider what would happen if I died suddenly. It would be impossible for my primary lamas to fly all over the country—indeed, all over the world—every time one of their students gets married or winds up in the hospital. Still, I would want something to mark these passages with my friends and family, and I would want something specifically Buddhist. If I ever had children, I also would want them to have some sort of basic moral and religious education that met them on their level. To my mind, it is these sorts of questions—among others—to which Buddhist ministers are the answer.

There are several settings where I imagine Buddhist ministers will be located. Indeed, there are already highly-qualified Buddhist ministers working in each of them, many of whom are graduates of one of the four programs that I mention above:

  • Dharma centers and temples. Buddhist ministers might work in dharma centers, temples, or other Buddhist organizations, where they would provide basic instruction and organization in between visits by teachers or monastics. They would be less a resident teacher than a senior student who helps to run the center and lead group practices, along with both providing pastoral care to and officiating ceremonies for their congregants.
  • Interfaith chaplaincy. Buddhist ministers might work as interfaith chaplains in hospitals, hospices, nursing homes, prisons, private colleges and universities, private secondary schools, airports, corporations, etc. They would obviously be available for people in these organizations who identify as Buddhist, but their primary purpose would be to serve anyone who comes to them, regardless of their religion or lack thereof. In this sense, they would be like any other interfaith chaplain, though they could serve a dual role as both an interfaith and a Buddhist chaplain.
  • Buddhist chaplaincy. Buddhist ministers might also work as specifically Buddhist chaplains, especially in healthcare and education settings where there is a significant Buddhist or Buddhism-sympathetic population. Of course, these chaplains would have to be willing and able to serve a diverse range of Buddhists from various traditions and ethnic backgrounds. The downside here is funding. While the army pays its Buddhist chaplain, most colleges and universities have a core staff of one or two payed, full-time interfaith chaplains supported by ministers from specific religious traditions who are payed by either their local congregations or some national body like their denominations. Many hospitals are going in that direction, as well.
  • Community ministry. Buddhist ministers might also work at large, serving both local Buddhist communities and the local community in general. They might do everything from performing an interfaith or gay wedding in an area where few other ministers are willing to do so, to visiting a sick Buddhist who doesn’t have a local teacher or temple, to helping organize a gathering of local Buddhist groups on a major Buddhist holiday. The people whom they serve need not be Buddhist, either; I was recently asked to officiating the wedding of two friends who are atheist and Christian, respectively, because a Buddhist minister seemed, no doubt, like a nice compromise. (The Christian side of the family got someone called reverend wearing minister’s robes and the atheist side didn’t have to worry about being prayed at or witnessed to.) Again, the problem here is funding; most community ministers either make their living doing weddings and funerals or have an outside job.

These thoughts are more scattered and disorganized than I would like, but I hope that putting them into writing and sharing them with others will both clarify my own thinking and open up some fruitful dialog about the future and direction of Buddhism in the United States, and especially about the future of Buddhist ministry. I am especially concerned for those like myself who have trained or are training as Buddhist ministers and find themselves anxious for some sense of direction, purpose, and even basic livelihood. It is my hope that these scattered thoughts will spark conversations and innovations that can perhaps lead to less scattered lives for aspiring Buddhist ministers.

*Correction, 14 June 2011: This article originally omitted the Buddhist Master of Divinity program at Maitripa College in Portland, Oregon; many thanks to Andy Francis for the correction.

Vimalakirti and Engaged Buddhism



LEWIS RICHMOND has been kind enough to cite me in his most recent article for the Huffington Post, “An Ancient Buddhist Model For Today’s World,” which I helped him research. In it, he discusses Vimalakirti as a model for practicing Buddhism in everyday life.

American Buddhists and Community Service

Dana Wiki's logo

Dana Wiki's logo

MY LATEST article has just been posted at State of Formation: “American Buddhists and Community Service.” It’s a brief look at Dana Wiki, a website that I founded in 2008 to help American Buddhist congregations get more involved in social service. Dana Wiki now has a brand new domain name, new hosting, a much cleaner look, and lots of great new content. I’ve also written about Dana Wiki here.

Discipline and Punish

His Holiness the Fourteenth Dalai Lama during his morning prostrations

His Holiness the Fourteenth Dalai Lama during his morning prostrations

MY LATEST article has just been posted at State of Formation: “Discipline and Punish: the Buddha on the Dangers of Divinity School.” It’s largely based on the sermon on the Kalama sutta that I gave in the 2009 Billing Preaching Prize competition, which is also posted here; you can view me delivering it—alongside my worthy homiletic opponents—here.

Dana Wiki

Dana Wiki's Logo

Dana Wiki's Logo

TWO years ago, I started Dana Wiki, an online, collaborative handbook to help Buddhist congregations get more involved in community service. This past week, I re-launched the site with new hosting, an improved design, and a shiny new URL—

What’s more, I recently did an interview with Rev. Danny Fisher for Shambhala SunSpace, “Dana Wiki and the Future of American Buddhism: Danny Fisher interviews Joshua Eaton.” Please check it out!

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A monk reading the Tibetan "rGyud gzhi," or "Four Medical Tantras"

A monk reading the Tibetan “rGyud gzhi,” or “Four Medical Tantras.” Copyright by Maciej Wojtkowiak.

I JUST posted my first article for the Journal of Inter-Religious Dialogue’s new State of Formation blog, “(In)Formation: Putting Flesh on the Bones of Public Conversations About Religion.” Please check it out, along with the many other wonderful articles by my fellow contributing scholars!

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The Poorest of the Poor: Wealth, Greed, and Buddhist Ministry

Artwork from the cover of Occidentalism by Ian Buruma and Avishai Margalit.

Artwork from the cover of Occidentalism by Ian Buruma and Avishai Margalit. Copyright 2004 by the authors.

ON Monday, President Obama answered questions at a CNBC-sponsored town hall on the economy. Ted Brassfield—a thirty-year-old law school graduate who cannot find enough work to pay the interest on his six-figure student loans, much less start a family—asked an especially pointed question:

Like a lot of people in my generation, I was really inspired by you . . . and that inspiration is dying away. It feels like the American Dream is not attainable to a lot of us. And what I’m really hoping to hear from you is several concrete steps that you’re going to take moving forward that will be able to re-ignite my generation, re-ignite the youth who are beset by student loans. And I really want to know, is the American Dream dead for me? [emphasis mine]

While different in content, Velma Hart—a middle-class veteran, wife, and mother who works as AmVets’ CFO—asked a question that was similar in tone, and just as pointed:

[Q]uite frankly, I’m exhausted. I’m exhausted of defending you, defending your administration, defending the mantle of change that I voted for . . . and deeply disappointed with where we are right now.

. . . I have been told that I voted for a man who said he was going to change things in a meaningful way for the middle class. I’m one of those people, and I’m waiting, sir. I’m waiting. I don’t feel it yet. And I thought, while it wouldn’t be in great measure, I would feel it in some small measure.

. . . I have two children in private school. And the financial recession has taken an enormous toll on my family. My husband and I joked for years that we thought we were well beyond the hot dogs and beans era of our lives.

. . . But quite frankly, it’s starting to knock on our door and ring true that that might be where we’re headed again. And quite frankly, Mr. President, I need you to answer this honestly, is this my new reality? [emphasis mine]

It should go without saying that there’s a deep, deep fear among working- and middle-class Americans about their future, and that of their children. I have friends with advanced degrees from Harvard who can translate three or four languages and know several trades yet are applying for jobs as janitors or security guards. A few days ago, my fifty-something mom mentioned in passing that she’s worried about money but doesn’t think she can work a second job right now. A friend recently recommended to me that I make ends meet by participating in medical studies. America is not simply hurting; she is groaning. And while the majority of the country is just trying to keep from drowning, billionaire hedge fund manager and CNBC contributor Anthony Scaramucci—a former classmate of Obama’s at Harvard Law School—made it clear that an infinitesimally small minority of Americans have quite different concerns:

I represent the Wall Street community. We have felt like a piñata. Maybe you don’t feel like you’re whacking us with a stick, but we certainly feel like we’ve been whacked with a stick. . . .

. . . . When are we going to stop whacking at the Wall Street piñata?

Scaramucci is not alone. The town hall also featured a video in which Ken Langone—a billionaire venture capitalist and former director of the New York Stock Exchange—complains about the administration making “people in business feel like we’re villains or criminals or doing something wrong.” Bill Maher points out in today’s Huffington Post that the fabulously rich Ben Stein, Steve Forbes, Meg Whitman, Michael Bloomberg, and Stephen Schwarzman have all been vocally, publicly, and, in some cases, sensationally complaining about the woes of wealthy Americans.

• • •

In the Suratapariprccha sutra, the bodhisattva Surata discovers a gold bell made at the beginning of the æon, a bell worth more than all the world. Being a bodhisattva, he decides to give it to the poorest person in the city. The plot twist comes when he chooses not the city’s impoverished elder, but the fabulously wealthy King Prasenajit! Everyone is, of course, baffled, not least of all because Surata approaches the king while he and his retinue are counting the royal treasury. Surata explains himself in no uncertain terms:

If one has a treasury of billions
And yet, due to greed, is still unsatisfied,
He is like a great ocean,
Which never has enough
Of the myriad streams it swallows.
Such a fool is the poorest of the poor.

If such a fool allows his greed
To grow, spread, and perpetuate,
He will always be needy
In his present and future lives.

He then proceeds to upbraid the king for his stewardship of the city:

Such a senseless manifestation
Who is monstrously greedy
And amasses riches insatiably
Is called the poorest of all.

Your Majesty, you levy harsh taxes
And punish the innocent for no reason.
Infatuated with your sovereignty,
You never heed
The future effects of your karmas.

While you enjoy power in this world,
You do not protect your subjects,
And have no pity
For the poor and suffering.

You indulge in women’s company
Without any fear of falling
To the miserable planes of existence.
You are not even conscious
Of your outrageous wickedness—
Are you not poor?

If one practices mindfulness diligently
And delights in self-control,
He is called rich and noble,
And his wealth and goodness will bring him
Eternal peace and joy.

As a roaring conflagration
Never has enough wood to consume,
So, O King, your avarice
Is never satiated.

As the water can always engulf more clouds,
And the ocean never overflows with water,
So are you, O King,
Never satiated.

As the sun and moon
Incessantly course through space,
So you, O King, will never rest
In all of your life.

A wise person, though,
Like roaring flames
Insatiably devouring wood,
Never ceases to do good.

As the water can ever engulf more clouds,
and the ocean never overflows with water,
So a wise man is never satiated
With his ever-increasing goodness.

Although the throne gives power,
It is, after all, impermanent.
All such things are impure;
The wise should abandon them.

Eventually, King Prasenajit is convinced to visit the Buddha, whose teachings make him repent. The king divides his wealth into three parts. He gives one third to the Buddha and his monastic community, another third to Sravasti’s needy citizens, and reserves a final third for state use. Prasenajit then gives Surata two priceless garments that Surata blesses and has him distribute to 500 of the city’s needy citizens. Because of Surata’s blessing, the garments heal the physically and mentally ill among them. When they ask how they can ever repay the bodhisattva, a voice from the sky encourages them generate bodhicitta in return.

• • •

Of course, many rich people are deeply compassionate , using their wealth to help others, but Surata shows us how the sole pursuit wealth and power can be just as detrimental to our emotional and spiritual lives as destitution. The fact that one in seven Americans live below the poverty line, or that the top twenty percent of Americans own almost eighty-four percent of America’s wealth, doesn’t just harm people like Ted Brassfield and Velma Hart; it also does immense harm to people like Anthony Scaramucci and Ken Langone.

The Buddha left behind both wealth and power to seek an answer to the question of suffering, not just for himself, but for all beings. As his followers, we, like Surata, we must bear witness to the emptiness of a life spent pursuing power, wealth, and privilege alone. We must speak out on behalf of the poor and suffering, and we must not hesitate to speak firmly to those with a treasury of billions who are not even aware of their own outrageous wickedness.

Note: This post is syndicated at the Zen Peacemakers Order’s Bearing Witness Blog.

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