Thursday, May 21, 2009

"Dharma Center" Economics: Updated

I read an opinion piece the other day -- and I forget just exactly where -- but, the gist of it was that OENAB* has greyed, all resources have been exhausted on first generation infrastructure, and unless somebody does something quick, Buddhism in the United States is flat broke.

UPDATED: Ah, yes... the whole mish-mosh I read started here, with commentary on an opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal.

I don't know if I agree or disagree with this item's characterization of OENAB as strictly a white, Anglo-Saxon, baby-boomer phenomena, nor do I have the wisdom to know whether or not anybody has any money left, after all the temples we didn't build and all the monastics we didn't support. I do know that I have a fundamental disagreement with the characterization of Buddhism in the United States as OENAB-dominated (the OENABs are just noisy is all). Nevertheless, the whole premise started me thinking.

Financing Buddhism in the United States has always been a challenge.

In the early days, a bunch of kids got together and started earning. They supported the lama, and the lama's family. When the lama got on his feet, publishing deals were cut and the money started rolling. Trungpa Rinpoche made what was, at the time, a reasonably advantageous percentage deal with Sam Bercholz, and proceeded to make Shambhala Publications a very profitable business enterprise. Tarthang Rinpoche was a little smarter. He kept control of his own properties, and bought his own presses, and proceeded to make his own fortune. Those who came later struggled somewhat in the shadow of these two giants, relying on the generosity of individual sponsors who, more often than not, were buying a warm spot close to throne.

The situation changed. By the 1980s, Taiwan was the 500 pound gorilla, and to their credit, Taiwanese people really know how to support Buddhism with only thin strings attached. I should also mention the Singapore people, and Hong Kong people in the same breath, and yes, even the Mainland Chinese people. I have nothing but respect for the honest generosity of the Asian people, and nothing but disappointment in OENAB's failure to match up.

I guess everybody was still trying to figure out how to get their back-end cut. Do you know? There are well-documented cases where American "sangha members" gave themselves a salary to build stupas? Maybe I am wrong, but the notion gives me an icky feeling. Do you know, there are actually American "ordained," (or the "play" ordained) who drop their robes to go 9 to 5?

Now, the situation has come full circle -- as situations often do. The Asian economy has cooled, and since the lamas wised up to the game and started delivering services straight to the source, there isn't a whole lot of incentive to help out the struggling Yankees. The American economy is in the toilet, and in consequence, we are starting to see a bunch of kids get together in order to start earning.

"Dharma Center" Economics 101...

There is actually a parasitic character to what evolved. You have gringo authors and commentators knocking down percentages, and you have centers charging other centers for core services. Dave Dorje is out flogging prayer wheels. Kathy Kandro is sewing prayer flags. Somebody else is putting the mark-up on bells and whistles, Patty Pema is being inscrutable on Oprah, and so it goes, doing what we do best. In America, the Buddhists are eating the Buddhists, like fish eat fish in the ocean. If I wake up tomorrow, and somebody tells me there's a Dalai Lama Action Figure on the market, I will not bat an eye. Hell... I'll probably go buy one.

What is the solution? Do we stalk Richard Gere? Do we apply for foundation grants? Do we start tithing like Mormons? Do we stop the "Dharma Center" madness altogether, consolidate our efforts, and start building real institutions? After all these years, what is the future of Brick and Mortar Buddhism here in Gold Mountain?

And more to the point... who is going to pick up the check?

*OENAB = Obnoxiously Ethnocentric North American Buddhism, so-called because it ignores those of Asian descent who actually comprise the majority of Buddhists in North America.

Stumble Upon Toolbar

2 reader comments:

Anonymous said...

Thanks as always!

scott said...

What a delightful post! Thank you!