One of the major complaints in the probably over-cited Buddhadharma article was that Buddhism is too expensive. Retreats cost so much that centers now offer scholarships. The Buddha Dharma is supposed to be a life-altering experience, so why aren’t Buddhists forking up enough to support their community through simple donations?
One might guess that Buddhist centers have excessive budgets and could use some fiscal restraint, but I doubt this. I’m more convinced by conclusions drawn in Nicholas Kristof’s recent piece, “Bleeding Heart Tightwads.” My favorite part is Kristof’s quote from Arthur Brooks:
“When I started doing research on charity,” Mr. Brooks wrote, “I expected to find that political liberals — who, I believed, genuinely cared more about others than conservatives did — would turn out to be the most privately charitable people. So when my early findings led me to the opposite conclusion, I assumed I had made some sort of technical error. I re-ran analyses. I got new data. Nothing worked. In the end, I had no option but to change my views.”
There you go. Liberals are stingy hypocrites. Now according to Tricycle magazine’s own Buddhism By Numbers, “[p]erhaps unsurprisingly, Buddhists were the most liberal of any religious affiliation surveyed.”
So perhaps unsurprisingly, Buddhists are stingy hypocrites. Are they really talking about donations when they write, “suggested donation”? I know I always sound like a hater, but I’m not the first person to make this claim. Again I cite Tricycle: over a fifth the Buddhist community makes over $100,000 a year. There should be no reason for the community to be Scroogy! Unless, of course, we’re talking about a bunch of liberal Buddhists who are simply being liberal (just not with their pocketbooks).
To be fair, it’s evident that generous American Buddhists do exist. For example, I was quite impressed with S.N. Goenka’s vipassana centers because they operated on the principle that a center must be supported by its community’s donations. If the community won’t support the center, then the center has no need to exist. The fact that these centers continue to flourish is a testament to the generosity of thousands of Buddhist practitioners, not to mention the efficacy of the teachings.
Part of the reason for Buddhist stinginess may lie in the culture. In the temples I grew up in, dana wasn’t just something that people did, it was a teaching in itself. There was a common saying along the lines of: people who had material gain received it only because they had previously given sincere dana, whether to charity or the Mahasangha. There was also a big sign on the wall showing the temple cost breakdown — and families would write their names next to whichever item they would support. It was all but written, “You should give!”
In other Buddhists settings, I’ve noticed that dana is usually a non-discussed topic at the centers I’ve visited. Perhaps it hasn’t been properly woven into Western Buddhist cultural values. Maybe people don’t know they’re supposed to give. Or maybe they’re just liberal.
Okay, I admit it — I’m really out on a limb here making this connection between Western Buddhist stinginess and liberal stinginess. If I’m wrong, then I’m only wrong because it means that there are tens of thousands of liberal Buddhists out there who are matching their loving-kindness with actions of generous giving. I hope you’re one of them.