Can all dharma centers become tuition-optional Goenka factories?

Have you ever looked at the price tag of a meditation retreat and thought ‘Damn Enlightenment is expensive?!’  I know I have.  Have you heard someone say that it is unbuddhist to charge for the dharma?  Well, the Buddha’s original followers may not have charged for their teachings, but they also owned nothing but robes and begging bowl and I don’t hear any Western Buddhists saying that it is unbuddhist to wear blue jeans.

Reacting to the price tag on our Symposium for Western Socially Engaged Buddhism, fellow mindful blogger Katie Loncke questioned whether charging $600 for a one week event was in line with the philosophy of Socially Engaged Buddhism and whether it might be more socially just to offer a tuition-optional model like that of the Goenka centers.  However, as two practitioners in the Goenka tradition describe in a Buddhist Geeks podcast interview, the Goenka model more closely resembles the cheapness and uniformity of a mass-production factory than a radical anti-capitalist plan for inclusion.

At the Zen Peacemakers, the Goenka centers have come up in conversations about how we structure our own centers.  Wouldn’t it be nice if we didn’t have to charge tuition? Do we want the Zen Houses to become an understandable model that can be easily reproduced and franchised anywhere in the world or do we want each house to develop its own loving actions based on bearing witness to local circumstances?

While I would like to learn more about how the Goenka folks (and IMS for that matter) get money to provide widespread free and reduced-price tuition, I know that we do provide low-cost ways to participate in some programs including bartering volunteer labor for tuition and sometimes housing (which we will do for the upcoming Symposium).  As Karen Werner, the director of the Montague Farm Zen House (our local ministry) is a founder of the North Quabbin Time Bank and thus a leader in the alternative economies movement, we also wonder how non-capitalist models could compliment our tuition-based programs.

At the same time, isn’t the marginal cost of coordinating and providing food, wellness and transportation services for low-income neighbors (which is the focus of the Montague Farm Zen House) more expensive than the marginal cost of squeezing one more seeker into a meditation hall (which the Goenka centers do so efficiently)?  In addition to compassion, creativity and commitment, it takes money to challenge economic inequality and luckily there are generous wealthy people who seek to do that.  We see the act of inviting fellow Peacemakers to join us in begging (see malas tab) as a transformative communal spiritual practice.

Are there limits to fundraising?  Sure!  Is it desirable to support people in their quest to empower themselves?  You bet!  And that is our goal in developing social enterprise.  Not by abandoning capitalism, but by making it more compassionate, the Greyston Bakery was able to provide jobs, training and community to scores of people transitioning off the streets.  Are there any simple answers or unified strategies to solving the most challenging questions in our society?  No way.  But we do the best we can.

(When I shared this article with Bernie, he had a different take, which may appear in a later post)

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