August 01, 2011

Making Buddhism accessible to working-class people

Joshua Eaton

This guest blog post comes our way from Joshua Eaton, an editor, writer and translator. Eaton holds an M Div in Buddhist Studies from Harvard University.

On 18 July 2011, Sam Mowe wrote a blog post on diversity within American Buddhism, “Tell Us Your Story.” One of the comments to that post led to another post 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.

My own comment on McKeever’s post 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?” Mowe also asked me to write a guest post explaining my comment further, which I’ve been shamefully slow in delivering. 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.

Image: from the Flickr photostream of lazysupper

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sgriska's picture

This is a thoughtful and important article and discussion. Though I have no local sangha and my finances no longer permit me to commute an hour and a half to the nearest dharma center for practice/fellowship let alone the extra expense of retreats, I have cobbled together a diverse e-sangha for myself through social media and have found the interaction extremely beneficial to my practice. Though such technologies and arising communities are in their infancy, I strongly suspect the internet will increasingly enable lots of people currently geographically and/or economically challenged to develop sangha relationships and work and grow together. It's a decidedly non-traditional approach, and at least currently has its limitations, but I fully expect to see the internet playing a huge role in the spread of the Dharma in the west outside of the traditionally white, upper-middle class, cosmopolitan origins.

Mat Witts's picture

Wherever a particular religion does not have any state funding, has cultural aspects that are antithetical to the established norms and has no representation in government either and yet incurs everyday expenses like heating, accomodation, admin, lighting and services then it is self-evident that it is going to be the users of those institutions that are going to be expected to foot the bill, and this means these institutions will be biased in favor of those who, you guessed it, have the means to support them. We do not need an expensive education to appreciate this, we just need a PhD in the ****ing obvious. It is easy to get a round of applause for the 'what about the poor' issue, but looking beyond the rhetoric and towards solutions, the best solutions I have seen come not from the sort of wishful thinking and naive idealism that Buddhism has to find its feet in some new alien culture or another and be subjected to some painful, hybridization but when an entire tradition is lifted from one culture to the alien one by a wealthy benefactor or through some international cultural exchange. In this sense transplantation, root, stem and branch seems to lead to much better outcomes than a singular and deliberate attempt at cross fertilization (which will happen anyway). This situation is possibly symptomatic of aspects that do not immediately come to light - like US foreign policy and America's disproportionate reputation for favoring hard, imperialist, military power to cope with its obvious distaste for cultural difference where it matters rather than a policy of developing 'soft power' by forging cultural alliances with foreign governments and inviting projects to build authentic buddhist monasteries and religious temples in the country. Instead Joshua is pointing his finger at well-meaning but undoubtedly partial implementation of 'sliding scales' and similarly degrading financial tweaks allegedly aimed at the poor, but I agree often amounts to a tokenistic gesture like a 10% reduction on the fees for a retreat that might costs hundreds or even thousands. My other query is why would any self-indentifying working class person want to complain in public about a lack of opportunity to participate in an apparently elitist institution? It wreaks of spiritual aspiration, but in the wrong direction to begin with? Dharma is not about equality, in the socialist sense but about equity in a mostly psychological domain - and so unless you actually believe that paying top dollar for a retreat is really going to get you to where you want to go, 'learning' will always be seen by the rest of us to be freely accessible 24/7 wherever we are - whereas 'teaching' is very much, an optional extra, or possibly even a luxury we might actually do a whole lot better without? And for that, there is mastercard?

Dominic Gomez's picture

Unfortunately, a number of schools of Buddhism brought such exclusivity upon themselves. Shakyamuni, although from a higher caste, originally traversed the countryside with the purpose of encouraging people from all backgrounds to awaken to the same life-condition (buddhahood) as he. But notions that the Law was comprehensible to only an elite class of monks or priests eliminated that opportunity from the common people.

amayfaire's picture

@wtompepper, to answer your questions, I am not quite sure when or how I "found" Buddhism. As @qcundiff stated, the library is the working class bookstore. I was fascinated with the study of religions as a kid, and dabbled in a dozen variations of asceticism. I'm trying to remember the first Buddhist text I read, and I think it was the Dhammapada. I was also a big science fiction reader, and grew up in the generation of Star Wars and Dune- two sci-fi monoliths that drew heavily on Buddhism, Hinduism, and mystical Islam. So, somewhere between the Fremen in Dune and the Dhammapada, I came to Buddhism. I had tons of books, and I wrote letters to request free information. I read everything I could get my hands on, and adopted Zen meditation and koan reading. Then, when I was in college I read "Dharma on No Dollars A Day." It radically changed my practice, which at that point was largely Zen. Now I'd say I practice a more non-sectarian, yet heavily Tibetan Buddhism, one that is strongly feminist, strongly queer, and strongly working class. I believe in the revolutionary character of Buddhism, and its ability to serve as a call to rebellion- much as Stephen Batchelor's recent work indicated.

My sangha is an odd one. I don't sit with a group of Buddhists at all, though I've been to a couple of retreats in the last decade and have benefited from those experiences. My sangha is a group of friends from all sorts of religious and spiritual traditions, and we all agree to share each other's faiths. So, we have one Pagan and one Heathen, who bring their mead and firewood to our gatherings along with their strong connections to nature and fate. Two atheists, who have taught me so much about conviction and non-attachment. One Unitarian and one agnostic, who teach about questioning all forms of authority but seeking the divine everywhere. I'm the only Buddhist, and I can't speak to what I bring to the group but I know that together we are a fascinating assemblage. We gather and share food, talk under the stars, light fires and share whatever offerings we may have. It is esoteric, and messy, and anarchist in the best sense, and as crazy as it may sound it works wonderfully. We don't gather on a schedule, but when we feel the need. We don't have a teacher, because we are all teachers. And students.

I am sure that there are some working class individuals who are waiting for a lamp to Buddhism, just as there are many middle and upper class folks on the same search in need of that same lamp. I just hope that we can begin to question the common attachment to the idea of "working class" as something that you can stereotype, something you can predict. Better that we see class as a place from which the dharma can spring, instead of something that we can use as an excuse for a self-serving charity.

gcundiff's picture

I found Buddhism in the public library. The library is the working person's bookstore. I've been fortunate enough to have had the time to participate in a work/study at a center. I try to make good use of Lama Yeshe's books from the wisdom archives. Then I turn around and try to share what I've learned. I sit with a group of veterans at the local VA hospital. The same faces keep showing up ever week. We are our own little sangha.

amayfaire's picture

I have learned much from this discussion, but would like to add a different approach. Quite frankly, it sounds to me as though the focus has been to solve a class problem with material solutions. Buddhists would be much better served to open themselves to the idea that the working classes have much to teach, not just to learn.

I came to Buddhism as a working class kid, seeking some sort of spiritual home that didn’t require me to rely on fancy clothes, or tithes, or praying to deities that seemed to have little connection to my daily life. I found Buddhism as a spiritual home that argued against all those systems that held me in. Nobody brought me Buddhism, I found it.

Is the problem that the working class needs help finding Buddhism? I don’t think so. I think Buddhism needs help finding the working classes. We in the working classes know all about sangha, because our networks of community are integral to our survival and the survival of our families. We know all about death, and disease, and living in poverty, because we live with it each day. I think that, too often, there is an assumption that a lower income somehow correlates to a lack of intellect or spiritual engagement, as though being working class means someone has to bring “enlightenment” to “the masses" or working class folks are too attached to understand non-attachment. The working classes, however, have much to offer mainstream American Buddhism about what it means to be enlightened, about what it means to be Buddhist. For us in the working class, a spiritual life cannot depend on income, so it does not. We don’t need a sliding scale, nor do we seek a teacher other than the ones we carry within ourselves and our communities. We are a sangha surrounded by struggle, by disease and death, by the realities of a life that requires hard work and social invisibility. And from my sangha I have learned more about being Buddhist than any experience in my life. And those lessons, those working-class lessons, are ones that could only strengthen Buddhism. After all, if Buddha is found in money and the material, if we find Buddha in that road, we must kill him.

jeaton's picture

I could not like this comment more. Thank you.

amayfaire's picture

Oh! Deepest thanks.

wtompepper's picture

This is great stuff!

There is a kind of patronizing attitude in the idea that the "educated" middle classes will "save" the lower classes from their misery, by teaching them to struggle in poverty with equanimity or something. The most important thing is the sangha, and working class people can have their own sangha without anybody giving them a "scholarship" for it.

Do you have a group that meets and practices together? When you say you "found" Buddhism on your own, how? In a book? At a center? From a teacher? I'd love to hear more details about how you found Buddhism--maybe it can help encourage others on the path. You say working class people don't need much help finding Buddhism, but I did. I grew up in a very blue-collar family and neighborhood, and it took me quite a long time, and quite a lot of dukkha, to find Buddhism.

Dominic Gomez's picture

The Winter 2003 issue of Tricycle carried an article by Clark Strand on a related issue:
The ability to finance one's Buddhist practice reflects differences of income. Clark's article addresses ethnic differences.

wtompepper's picture

It seems to me that what nancykreml describes is the way Buddhism is going to work in mainstream American culture, if it ever works at all. Freely available weekly practice, book discussion groups, open teachings where beginners can learn a little about Buddhism without feeling intimidated by the incomprehensible discussions and activities at a retreat.

Americans are too obsessed with celebrity teachers and big money events for validation of their practice. There's nothing wrong with having a teacher who isn't famous, or just practicing with a group of fellow travelers on the path. Commitment to such a group, to keep showing up and keep trying even when there is not financial incentive or approval of a famous teacher, can be the most powerful kind of Buddhist practice. I've been to retreats with famous teachers that were overcrowded and very superficial and useless; and I've practiced for years now with a group of lay Buddhists who are all just trying to figure it out together. I'll take the latter model.

If you want to bring Buddhism to the working classes, just do it. Start a group of two or three people who meet at convenient times in an accessible place, invite a teacher to talk or give some lectures or just have a book discussion group and meditation practice. Good teachers will be happy to help, and those who want big audiences or big fees wouldn't help anyway. The important thing, and in our culture the difficult thing, is to keep practicing, every day, every week, without any external validation or financial incentive.

Anreal's picture

What a refreshing attitude. Nicely done!

sajitar's picture

Bravo! Well said.

nickribush's picture

Thank you Joshua...I'd be interested to see what more you think is needed. You've outlined the problem: what's your solution?

Having been involved in trying to make the Dharma freely available to all for nearly 40 years, one thing in particular has struck me. Not everybody wants it. Big surprise, right? Back in 1977 Lama Yeshe sent me to New Delhi to start a center "to repay the Indians' kindness to us Tibetans." We finished up with a beautiful center but very few Indians came...although they were clearly welcome. When I mentioned this to HH the Dalai Lama a few years later, he said that the Tibetan Library in Dharamsala had been going since 1969 and was open to all but almost no Indians came to teachings there either. That the main issue was karma. Lead a horse to water...

So, I'm not going to open that can of worms here but it's definitely something to think about.

Another thing to think about (for students of the Tibetan lam-rim tradition) is the teaching on the perfect human rebirth, where it outlines very clearly how hard it is not only to be in the right time and place to get Dharma teachings but also to have the right frame of mind. I'm not going to get into that here either!

When we bought a house for Kurukulla Center here in Boston just over ten years ago, we gave a lot of thought to the fact that our Medford location was not close to the T (subway). Prior to that we'd been offering teachings near Harvard Square, which is fully accessible, and thought our numbers would probably drop off considerably. In fact they increased. But as far as I can tell, by far the majority of people who came/come to either location were/are middle class. All our teachings are free, too. Anyway, the thing is that we looked at more accessible locations but they were prohibitively expensive compared to what we could get for our money in Medford. So we had no choice. I think many other Dharma centers would have found themselves in a similar situation.

I run the Lama Yeshe Wisdom Archive ( and we publish free books. So far there are more than 600,000 in print. And we have thousands of pages of teachings freely available on our website. Now, I don't know to whom we send our books but we are doing our bit. Working class readers and the unemployed are welcome.

So, that's it! Thank you.

jeaton's picture

Let me say two things. First, perhaps the horse would like a nice glass of tap water instead of Evian? I know from personal experience and from talking with others that a lot of Tibetan Buddhist dharma centers have a very upper-middle-class culture. This is difficult to explain to people because it's so close to us that we don't see it, like trying to explain water to a fish. Still, it's glaring if you're not a part of it. I would imagine that the same is true in India.

Second, there are some real economic barriers to full participation that things like waived registration fees and free teachings just don't account for. I'd love to see more centers provide childcare, as many churches do. I'd also love to see fully-funded scholarship programs that would help serious low-income practitioners pay for travel, registration fees, and maybe even missed work when they go on retreat.

Really, I think a lot of this just boils down to the fact that when something starts out predominantly white, or middle class, or whatever, it's very, very difficult to change later on. So many of these things create a cycle and so many of them feed off of one another. And so often, we end up mistaking the way we do things because of our culture, or our socio-economic background, or whatever, for the Dharma.

The main thing, though, is to listen to people who aren't middle-class when they tell you what they want and need.

Does that all make any sense? By the way, I think y'all have done a really wonderful job at Kurukulla Center--especially with the ways it's connected with the local community and serves both the Tibetan and convert communities so well.

wtompepper's picture

In Tibet, in China, in Japan, everywhere that Buddhism has succeeded, it did so by adapting to existing cultural forms. To assume working class Americans will be able to abandon their culture, to just step outside of their mental tendencies and largely unconscious construal of the world, and adopt Tibetan Buddhism, is expecting far too much. They may be "welcome," but it won't matter if it makes no sense to them, and if they cannot "feel" it as meaningful and powerful. Being able to let go fo attachments to cultural norms is not likely to happen before any practice of Buddhism.

nancykreml's picture

There are ways that some groups make it possible for all to participate. My small Dharma Group, also in a southern college town, has no resident teacher, though we have spiritual director only 100 miles away. Our only expenses are renting a shrine room, and there are enough middle-class members to pay the rent. Our weekly practices are meditation and book discussion, both free, and we have recorded and put online many teachings from our spiritual director. We always buy some extra copies of books for people who'd like to participate but can't buy, though most books we select are available used at reasonable prices. The membership dues are on a sliding scale that starts at $15 a month, but you don't have to be a member for almost all events. When we have a joint retreat with our director's Dharma Group in another city, we always offer scholarships for those who can't afford it. Some members who can't attend offer to pay for those who have time but not money. We hold garage sales and do other things to raise money, and those without money can contribute time and energy to those and to maintaining the shrine room. I really think we would not benefit half so much if we didn't have to work together as a real sangha including people who don't have a lot of money. Occasional retreats are wonderful, but our daily practice means that we have an ongoing community to share it. I hope other group will share ways that they make it possible for everyone to take part.

jeaton's picture

It's so heartening to hear about your sangha, which sounds really lovely, and I would really like to hear more about what others are doing along these lines.

ANDREWCOOPER24's picture

Thank you for this eloquent, insightful, and challenging post.