Friday, September 21, 2007

Economic Intelligence

In private emails with several interested parties, we've been hashing over the question of how to finance Tibetan Buddhism in the decades to come. One correspondent wrote with words to the effect of, "say something simple about this."

I wish it were simple.

In the 1960s, when we really began to work on this problem, we began with absolutely nothing. Our first task was to attract manpower, and in the execution of this task we were successful. We were young, full of energy, and we worked hard.

One of the biggest engines we had was publishing. Publishing revenues drove rapid expansion, and rapid expansion drove expectations. We dreamed up bigger and bigger projects. Rather fatally, we started sending money overseas, and this raised the level of expectation to even greater heights.

The next big engine was an economic boom in Southeast Asia. The Taiwanese started throwing money at Tibetan Buddhism like nobody ever saw.

The third big engine was the seasoning of our constituents. They matured into their careers, and the kids who once scrambled for nickels and dimes were suddenly in a position to do something substantial.

These three engines pulled us through the 1970s, 1980s, and early 1990s. It was a wonderful time to be in the West, where anything was possible.

But you know, things change.

The publishing paradigm has changed. It is now a digital world, but our publishing organs haven't geared up for digital content delivery. There are more books being pushed to a shrinking market, while only a trickle reaches the growing market which is moving away.

The overseas economy changed. The legendary Taiwanese Buddhist millionaires are now few and far between.

Our constituents continued to age. Most are now in retirement, living on fixed incomes, back to square one.

The other factor is, of course, that many of the great teachers died within the space of a few years: Trungpa Rinpoche, Kalu Rinpoche, Dudjom Rinpoche, Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche, H.H. Karmapa, and others.

In the void of the 1990s, foundations, groups, and projects proliferated. The overseas operations remained a black hole. The people in India thought the ride would last forever. Every time Joe Lama came back home with a bucket of foreign cash, it just made things worse, not better.

Shoddy management overseas burned money like juniper. Huge projects were commenced with no---repeat no---long range planning. Sure, we could build it, but how would we maintain it ten years in the future, twenty years in the future, thirty years in the future? What would the political climate be like?

We did not systematize. Sure, stupas are fun. But every time you build one, it is like the first one ever built. We need to build them 108 at a time. To me it is shocking that we have been in the U.S. for over 40 years, and we still do not have 108 (major) stupas in the whole country.

Second language programs in the monastic institutions were poorly conceived... driven by the perception of where the next big meal might be coming from. To me it is shocking that next-generation tulkus are coming here from India who barely speak English.

Full financial disclosure is difficult to come by, particularly with the overseas operations. The Western institutions are better (the law is strict here), but we still see weasel-language like, "in 200x we sent about umpteem thousand and our admin costs are about 10 percent..." What are we ashamed of? Publish the numbers for all to see.

There have been exceptions to all of the above---Tarthang Rinpoche's operations being a notable case in point, and a model of correct work---but these are only exceptions, not the rule. What adds to the injury is that we have seemingly learned nothing from our mistakes. We still crank up projects, flog the faithful, and watch the "drop" more carefully than a Las Vegas casino.

I truly believe we have to start consolidating in order to survive. I think we need to begin bringing in professionals to run the projects, and let the teachers go back to teaching. We have to cultivate the talent to create super-funds that sustain us far into the future. We have to put some of the money to work instead of burning more butter lamps.

There are also other issues to address. The Tibetans lost their country in 1959. The Vietnamese lost their country in 1975. Today, the Viet-Kieu are an economic force to be reckoned with, able to make their influence felt back home. The Tibetans, however, are still refugees--locked in ghettos, trained to rely on charity and dependent upon a "government in exile" that serves absolutely no useful political purpose whatsoever, and is itself reliant on charity.

These are such difficult words to write. These are such difficult words to read.

If these words offend anyone, I am so sorry, but alone among the great religions of the world, Tibetan Buddhism is financially still in the dark ages, depending on others instead of itself.

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