July 19, 2011

Why is Buddhism so Damned Expensive?

Monty McKeever

Yesterday my colleague Sam posted a blog that quickly prompted a thoughtful response from a practitioner in Scotland. At the the end of his post he writes,

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.

It is true, many dharma programs are expensive, which can be frustrating. I have been frustrated myself.

As dharma communities find their way in a highly materialistic culture, problems and issues around money (isn't the dharma free? but don't sanghas have to pay the bills?), are things we all struggle with. Here are two recommendations that have helped me.

1- Regarding Buddhists programs and teachings, inquire about scholarships, sliding-scale pricing, and work-study programs. Many dharma centers offer these. Such centers, despite tight budgets, WANT you to attend their programs and will be happy to work with you to find a way to make attending possible. If you are intimidated by the price of a program, don't just give up. Reach out. If there is no workable option available, make your desire for one known. Doing so provides a great service to others that find themselves in the same situation.

2-Explore free and low-cost ways to support your practice. Most centers offer free teachings and group-meditation practice. There are also many excellent free resources online. Tricycle, for example, offers free Basic Membership, which, amoing other things, includes our "daily dharma," a free daily quote and free articles from our Wisdom Collection. I personally spend a lot of time on sites like Access to Insight, Himalayan Art Resources, and Sweeping Zen,  to name just a few. Do you have any you would like recommend? Feel free to post!

Regarding low cost options, support your local library! Libraries are too wonderful to be as neglected as they are. Recently, in our ongoing community discussion, What Led You to Buddhism? I was very happy to see that not one, but several commenters reported discovering the dharma at a library. Think your local library won't have any good Buddhist resources? Put it to the test. You may be pleasantly surprised.

I feel I also need to mention the work we are doing here at tricycle.com. For Sustaining and Supporting members, ($30 and $25, respectively), we offer a year of weekly video teachings and discussions with great Buddhist teachers and scholars. This averages out to $2.50 a month or less to learn from renowned teachers, not to mention our magazine and free offerings like daily dharma, community discussions, our blog, the Tricycle Gallery, The Tricycle Community site on NING, and so on.

If you have any thoughts on the relationship between Buddhism and money or any advice for those of us who struggle with it (which is probably most of us), share your thoughts.

Further reading:
Dharma on No Dollars a day by Walker Douglas
Cold Hard Cash And The Middle Way by Noelle Oxenhandler



Image by ianqui (Flickr)



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jbearden246's picture

These things cost thousands of dollars. This, in a day of a disappearing middle class. Some things you need to do take a retreat, but that systematically excludes most of America today.

BrownBrown's picture

Some of the most profound and affecting Buddhist teachings I've encountered are free:

http://www.abhayagiri.org (free audio & books)
http://www.bhavanasociety.org (free audio & pdfs)
http://www.bps.lk/onlinelibrary.asp (many, many free pdfs)
http://www.buddhanet.net (free audio & pdfs)
http://www.what-buddha-taught.net (TONS of free pdfs)

I'd post more links, but ironically the spam filter is preventing me!

nickribush's picture

Free teachings with great teachers: http://www.kurukulla.org/

Free Books and thousands of pages of free teachings and hours of free audio on line: http://www.lamayeshe.com

bblueskye's picture

I know everyone is different, but my own personal point of view is that some of these really expensive retreats that are held in places offering luxury accommodations and access to a bestselling Buddhist author probably wouldn't offer me much. I know I've heard people tell me that hanging out in a big room with Ram Dass everyday for 2 weeks is something I must do with a few thousand bucks I just don't know what to do with, but I've found that just finding a group of people to practice with locally or finding local stuff that's a small donation or free to the public can go a long way, and I've found a lot of retreats in the U.S. that are 100-300 dollars that go from 2 days all the way up to a week.

Some of these people that have these pricy retreats are no doubt great Buddhist writers and very devoted to what they do, but they're just people. Not studying with them isn't the end of the world.

rinchen_wangmo's picture

The Foundation for the Preservation of the Mahayana Tradition has an Online Learning Center which offers several free teachings: http://onlinelearning.fpmt.org/

icykalimu's picture

you can find most of english tipitaka in my blog:


keithgully's picture

I used to attend retreats but I now carry them out on my own as practice is so much more useful to me than procrastination. Meditation is something you can easily do on your own and it only takes a relatively short time to learn the mechanics of sitting practice. Secondhand enlightenment is not so useful...

nelierea's picture

I am also grateful for the low cost/free online retreats and sites like dharmaseed.org, which has an abundance of teachings and recording from past retreats available for whatever you feel moved to donate. I've been a student of the dharma for well over a decade but it seems the time I have been the most devoted student is during times of hardship (emotional and financial) when I have been least able to afford a retreat, I went to a weekend retreat last year and (for the first time) a week long silent retreat (also a first) this past Spring. The only way I felt able to afford either was my godmother has left me a little money (just about enough to cover the cost of those two retreats plus a little dana plus house/petsitting and gas). And I AM middle class--but on the lower-middle end of that group in terms of income and struggling to stay afloat, as so many others are too. If my ancient car dies or ancient roof ends up needing replacing, quite possibly I will not be able to afford another week long retreat for years.

I teach at a community college and the people I teach are the ones I feel really lack equal opportunity to become an involved buddhist. There are mutliple reasons for this but many are issues of accessibility--sanghas within reach of public transportation, and which maybe offer help with childcare for all those single parents--but also I think the way the dharma is presented is often with the assumption that everyone hearing it has a college education. The week long retreat I attended was wonderful--every teacher was good. But there was one, and I regret to say only one, who, when he spoke, I found myself thinking "This guy could thrive in a community college classroom"--turned out he teaches the dharma to prisoners which is probably what I was seeing (and no, I'm not comparing community college students to prisoners--but their class background is probably somewhat similar). We need more dharma teachers like that, and maybe more teachers who learn to teach in ways that can reach a broader range of folks. I think in many ways it is people most affected by social injustice that are least reached--and maybe would most benefit.

worthmoremusic's picture

This has been my biggest gripe... All of these wonderful teachings cost plenty ..and every time I wish to participate, I cannot because it's cost prohibitive. I completely understand centers need money to run, to exist, etc.....but every time I see these fees, I have to ask.... "did Buddha charge?" Like many of us, I am so grateful for these low cost or free online retreats..without them, many would not receive any guidence.


Dominic Gomez's picture

Apparently, part of the problem is with how far the concept of "a community of believers" (i.e. the Sangha) has been transmogrified in the modern West from its original purpose. As one of the three treasures of Buddhism (the other two being the Buddha and the Law) the sangha was the group of people who practiced the Buddha's teachings, preserved the Law, spread it, and transmitted it to future generations.
In many circles, the sangha is more an exclusive intelligentsia rather than the vehicle through which common people may actively put into practice the bodhisattva ethic.

sadiekaili's picture

I'm happy to see this difficult topic addressed here. I am taking a break from attending the sangha I was enthusiastic about a year ago due in part to this issue. My life in service has, of late, also meant a life of poverty. While highly educated and white, I can "pass" into the middle class buddhist circles but am very mindful of those on the fringes who are simply not going to gain access to the teachings.

In addition to fees charged for programs, other considerations which can limit or promote access are:
Is the center accessible by public transportation? On a major bus or subway line? One that is running when evening programs are over?
Are there scholarships provided or just work/study. For many of us who work hard at low paying stressful jobs all week, the opportunity to work an event is not the same as a break or retreat from duties/ pressures of daily life and is usually the people who need the breaks the most who end up working the events.
Are there any considerations for children? Programs or childcare so that those with children can participate?
Are social circles forming along class lines or gatherings held at places only accessible for those with automobiles?
Is spiritual validity given equally to daily practice as retreat time?

Thank you for opening this up

Alex Kelly's picture

The Dhamma the Buddha taught was priceless (ie it cost £0). The model of the Sangha and lay community realtionship which was based on Dana has obviously changed and diversified a lot in modern times. Teachers and organisations who set themselves up as Dhamma centres are working outside of the that model and are subject to the inevitable distorting influences of the captialist economy.

Here is an extract from a relevant article on these problems:

"...if we're serious about bringing the culture of dana to the West, we should be very careful to ensure that our efforts honor the principles that make dana a genuinely Buddhist practice. This means no longer using the tactics of modern fundraising to encourage generosity among retreatants or Buddhists in general. It also means rethinking the dana talk, for on many counts it fails the test. In pressuring retreatants to give to teachers, it doesn't lead to gladness before giving, and instead sounds like a plea for a tip at the end of a meal. The frequent efforts to pull on the retreatants' heartstrings as a path to their purse strings betray a lack of trust in their thoughtfulness and leave a bad taste. And the entire way dana is handled for teachers doesn't escape the fact that it's payment for services rendered. Whether teachers think about this consciously or not, it pressures them subtly to tell their listeners what they think their listeners want to hear. The Dhamma can't help but suffer as a result."

No Strings Attached: The Buddha's Culture of Generosity
by Thanissaro Bhikkhu

One can see a similar trend in the plethora of Dhamma books in the marketplace, one cant help but feel that Buddhism has become big business. What you get then is the pressures of selling the 'Dhamma' that is popular and trendy rather than the Dhamma that is true and pertinent. What the Buddha taught actually goes against the stream of the world not with it and so was often not in tune at all with worldly life.

gloonie's picture

Thanks for the quote from Thanissaro Bhikkhu, Alex.
The argument is on the sometimes very subtle influence that such dana practices have on teachers. It can result in a corrupting influence on two directions. First, as Thanissaro Bhikkhu points out, it can have a deleterious effect on the way the teacher determines what content to provide.

The other corrupting influence is directed toward the listener. Attendees are effectively put in a position of "rating" the speaker. This is often done unconsciously (though perhaps superficially) by judging the style and poise of the speaker. An uncomfortable position at best, an invitation to abuse of power at worst. I have heard some brilliant insights from teachers who were NOT particularly good or flashy speakers but had a profound knowledge of the dhamma.

As far as publications and Dhamma books, I much prefer the model that allows the books to be freely downloaded as an e-book OR purchased as a book to cover publishing costs. The capitalist mentality somewhat softens this way.

One more thing: There certainly are amazing amounts of free talks online, another being all of Thanissaro Bhikkhu's dhamma talks at http://www.dhammatalks.org

mkelly@his.com's picture

Some groups, temples and centers operate on a dana basis. This gives you a great opportunity to practice generosity at a level that fits your situation.

jeaton's picture

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, 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.

Kat's picture

I have been practicing for just a few years now and am going to my first retreat this fall. I am stressed about the cost both in time and money, for my family but I know what I'll be bringing home to them will be worth it. I live in a community that does not have a sangha and I cannot find other Buddhists in my area either. Networking for practitioners should be more available.

To that end: I would love to join/host a reading and meditation group. If you live in Utah please contact me. :) We won't have a teacher but sharing books and meditation time would be so much more than I have now.

emotive.atb's picture

I have struggled with the same thing. I even found a dharma center and attended 2 retreats there, but then I had to move. Now I am in a place with even less options, unless I can travel some distance just to attend a dharma center. Fortunately, even while experiencing financial hardship, I was able to get financial aid/ scholarship and make it to the center. On my second visit, I took refuge.
Kat, I would be happy to network with you concerning dharma practice, or anyone else. If the network doesnt exist, start one.
I don't know about Utah, but I visited Garchen Institute in Prescott, AZ... and I highly recommend anyone seriously interested in the Dharma to visit.
Thanks to all who posted their views regarding Buddhism and money.

Kat's picture

I would love that. My family and I practice together, we read and meditate daily. My dream is to connect with other Buddhist families so my children can have young friends in the Dharma. We have a good set of online resources and many, many books. Sharing practice ideas for families & meditation skills with others would be nice. I'm sure we have much to learn.

lovinaklife's picture

Kat - How fortunate you are to be going on your first retreat:-) I went on my first one last year and it was AMAZING.

Kat's picture

Thank you I am very excited!

emotive.atb's picture

Retreat is highly recommended. I have attended 2, and can't wait for the opportunity to do it again. Money has always been an issue, and at this time, I am not able to make it happen based on time and money... yet I am confident the time will be right once again. Until then, I practice and do what I can independently, and I am constantly making use of free online resources. I have so much free reading material saved waiting for me to get into. Don't let finances stop you.
mant blessings to all.

amadhamma's picture

Vipassana courses in the tradition of SN Goenka and Sayagyi U Ba Khin are given for free. www.dhamma.org

Baltimorejones's picture

Geshe Kelsang Gyatso has published a free e-book available for download to everyone called "Modern Buddhism: The Path of Compassion and Wisdom" at http://emodernbuddhism.com/.

Dolgyal's picture

Free rubbish from the cult, caveat emptor

dannyf's picture

Freely offered resources are available at http://www.audiodharma.org/ and http://www.dharmaseed.org/ with the option to support by voluntary donation. I believe that Dharma is precious and it is important to support teachers, dharma centres and websites in spreading quality, authentic teachings and it is equally important that the teachings should be made available to all who are interested in hearing them, irrespective of financial means. Dharma centres, especially in city centre locations, cost a great deal of money to run and it is only through the generosity of practitioners that they can survive and flourish.

Monty McKeever's picture

Thanks djfqld. Well said.

michaeloutwest's picture

Free resources, from the lineage of the Dalai Lamas: http://acidharma.org/. Additional resources at http://theknowledgebase.co​m/
A fairly comprehensive list of centers, all of which offer their dharma courses for free, can be found at http://diamondmountain.org/resources/

Monty McKeever's picture

Thanks for the recommendations Michael.