Do you have to break the bank to break into the upper middle way? A Kentucky native shows us what practice looks like on minimum wage.
I am forever in debt to the handful of teachers, writers, and thinkers who introduced me to Buddhist practice, provide constant inspiration, and continue to shape my knowledge of this path.
Actually, I’m just forever in debt.
Every time I get in my 12-year-old car and rattle away to the nearest retreat center, I’m reminded that I’m a poor white trash Buddhist. It’s a good thing none of those luminaries will ever try to collect, since I can’t even afford the practice as it is. That’s a shame, because the dharma saved my life.
Once a miserable creature, I was crushed by depression and pursuing self-destruction with a level of dedication that would have made even Fight Club’s Tyler Durden cringe. When I came across a little book on Buddhism, I scoffed. It wasn’t an ordinary scoff, either. It was the abrasive, well-practiced derision of the outspoken skeptic. I bought the book because I was skeptical of even my own mockery.
Just a few chapters in, I understood that I’d always been a Buddhist. After the briefest descriptions of anicca, dukkha, and anatta, I felt their truths ring in my bones. These teachings didn’t just make sense; they described an innate philosophy I’d always possessed but couldn’t articulate.
This was 1998, before I had that newfangled Internet, so my search for a dharma group was confined to the listings in the back of Tricycle. I practiced as well as I could on my own, which was not very diligently. When I found a local Shambhala center, I signed right the hell up. I was ecstatic. Buddhism! In my town! I was going to fling myself at the dusty brown feet of an old Tibetan master, posthaste.
But when I showed up at the center, I made a baffling discovery: it was infested with upper-middle-class white people. I glanced around furtively for the maroon-robed saint I was sure must be nearby but found no such person. I considered slowly backing out of the room and slinking away, but it seemed rude.
So I stayed. For five years. I never officially joined, because I couldn’t pay. The membership fees were beyond my means. Thanks to some kind administrators, I was able to attend several programs. I even managed to live at one of Shambhala’s retreat centers in Vermont for two months.
There were two main groups of dedicated practitioners at the center: You had your older, upper-middle-class folks with professions, vacation time, and plenty of disposable income. Then you had your young people—generally of the same class—with no real jobs, who were content to live there in temporary poverty as long as the accommodations came with a spiritual teacher, vegetarian meals, and an honest shot at enlightenment.
The Shambhala retreat center was staffed by the latter and attended by the former. I was on the work-study crew, which meant laboring in the kitchen in exchange for room, board, and access to a large room full of cushions. I was 27 and had a job out in the world waiting tables that was quite real but not at all professional. And that’s where I got tangled up. Waiting tables, like other low-paying jobs, isn’t a gig with many benefits. I had health insurance, which is almost unheard of in the industry, but the perks ended there. No sick days, personal time, or paid vacation. Taking time off threw my bank account into convulsions. I would never have been able to put my job on hold for two months had I not lucked into an unexpected financial windfall: my grandmother, in a moment of feverish generosity, gave me some cash for no reason other than that I looked like I could use it. With my savings thus bolstered, I had my first opportunity to seriously commit to practice.
Once settled at the retreat center, however, I was disconcerted to find I didn’t really belong to either dominant demographic. Most of my fellow work-study staff had quit forgettable jobs to live in a tent behind the main building and devote themselves to Vajrayana practice. I couldn’t do that. Buddhism had saved my life, but it hadn’t transformed me into a dharma bum. Some of these kids had traded financial stability and careers—at least in the short term—to wander wherever the teachings led. Most either had a college degree, familial connections, or a padded curriculum vita to fall back on. I got to know several self-identified “dharma brats” who grew up in convert Buddhist households with the wherewithal to support their spiritual escapades. My own parents were blue-collar folks (Protestants, at that) who had built a successful business by working like mules. They saw my Buddhist practice as an Eastern oddity that should take a backseat to figuring out an honest career, and I’d inherited enough of their no-nonsense ethic to at least partially agree. I was drawn to Buddhism because of its practicality in daily life; I didn’t want to withdraw from the world.
And I definitely wasn’t one of the well-heeled professionals parking an Acura in the gravel lot for a pricey 30-day retreat. These were the parents of the future work-study staff. Middle-class Buddhists tend to produce more middle-class Buddhists, which is great, but I wasn’t one of them. I could only afford a little bit of the dharma, for a little while.
After my two-month immersion in the world of Shambhala, I decided to move on. I’d never gotten comfortable with its mixture of middle-aged affluence and youthful nonchalance. I stepped into the realm of Zen looking for some no-bullshit clarity, but the same class issues were lurking in this new austerity. Here too, retreats and programs were cost-prohibitive to someone in a rickety tax bracket like mine. I worked mostly nights, so it was hard enough to get off for group zazen on Wednesday evenings—and that was free. Finances weren’t the only burden, either: it can be rough trying to connect with a sangha when your schedule deviates from the nine-to-five Monday through Friday grind, the established upper-middle-class routine. During my affiliation with the Zen group I was one of only a few who didn’t have a serious connection to the larger sangha. I missed casual gatherings, community potlucks, meetings with the Zen master, formal ceremonies, and weekend programs because I had no cash and lived outside the 40-hour work week. I never for a second felt unwelcome, but I also knew that I didn’t fit the dynamic.
With all that in mind, I had gone to trade school to get licensed as a massage therapist. I thought it might let me set my own hours and claw my way up out of the restaurant trade. Even though the cost of a trade school was much cheaper than a college degree, I racked up some intimidating debt. When you’re broke, debt is the easiest thing to accumulate because it seems like the only road to a better life. I was struggling as a server, and the only way to acquire new skills that might let me rise above my station was to pay for them. It’s counterintuitive, but it’s the new American way: spend money you don’t have, to bet on a well-paid future.
My gamble didn’t pay off. I unknowingly walked right into another profession chock-full of no benefits. Zero sick days, zero vacation time, and every hour I spent away from the clinic was an hour I didn’t get paid.
It seemed as if my practice would never mature. I continued to sit at home and learn mainly from books and the Internet. Like many working-class Americans, I found that my lack of a traditional college education narrowed my employment opportunities. And education had become so ludicrously expensive that it was far out of reach.
I wasn’t alone in my dinky little job. In 2012, the National Employment Law Project found that 58 percent of jobs created since the recession ended in 2009 were low-wage, paying less than $13.83 an hour. Even worse, the Economic Policy Institute had declared in 2010 that 28 percent of Americans would be trapped in low-wage jobs for ten years. On the whole, poverty-level jobs are far outpacing the general economy’s recovery.
So my practice suffered. I kept massaging but got a second job waiting tables. It wasn’t even easy to score that job, because lowly as it was, a lot of people needed it. Still the debt rose. My zazen felt shaky without the guidance of a teacher, and I was becoming disillusioned with Zen on the whole. I was no good at striving without striving or thinking nonthinking.
By now I’d started studying writings from several Theravada teachers as well as early Buddhist sutras. Maybe I was what Chögyam Trungpa would have considered a spiritual materialist, but I was just looking for something to resonate with me as deeply as my first contact with the teachings had. Vipassana turned out to be that thing. I looked around, but there were no Vipassana or Theravada organizations in my town. If I wanted to go to a costly retreat I’d have to travel, which added another expense to the menacing pile of debt. My Internet searches for nearby centers kept widening. As the concentric circles spread out, I could practically hear my battered credit cards sighing at the prospect of plane tickets or car repair bills. My injuries couldn’t absorb another insult.
I’m not bitter about the retreat system in America. There’s no doubt that retreat is the best way to solidify and deepen one’s practice, and of course it can’t happen for free, because centers have to pay rent, bills, and teachers. I get that. People like me are just lost along the way. We don’t feel the overwhelming urge to simply leave the world behind and go live in a temple. Yet we don’t have enough money—or the right kind of jobs—to focus our practice in a serious, formal setting. To be sure, there are options that help us along: Work-study and financial aid are two big ones. I’ve utilized both before, and I will again. I have no choice. But it’s still painful. For the first Vipassana retreat I attended, I received a scholarship that covered half of the fee. At the end of the day-and-a-half program, we heard the usual talk on dana (generosity). It’s important. These were local teachers with day jobs, not international dharma celebrities with book deals and podcasts. Our donations would compensate them for their time. But my face was hot and my hands shook as I pulled out the only tenant of my wallet to slip in the envelope. A five-dollar bill was what I had to contribute to someone who had just spent 42 hours guiding my practice.
By this time I had somehow managed to turn a lifelong passion into a vocation. The only thing I’d ever really wanted to be was a writer. During my short stint in college, I figured that by age 22 I’d be a gentleman of letters, putting out a novel every couple of years for which I’d be paid, oh, I don’t know . . . a million bucks? But in the 15 years since the dean had bounced me out of school for aggressive jackassery (my declared major had been English, but my unofficial area of study was alcoholic high jinks, which seemed pretty in line with the writerly lifestyle), I’d figured out that being a rich novelist was hard. I was finally getting paid for writing, though not in the way I’d always imagined. The beginning of a freelance career is a delicate thing, and selling nonfiction articles wasn’t something that made my lifestyle comfortable enough to start hopping off to retreats every couple of months. Luckily, writing was exactly as lucrative as my previous jobs, so I didn’t have to suffer the sudden shock of fortune and leisure.
In 2013, Mother Jones reported that the month of July had seen 47,000 new jobs in retail and 38,000 more lucky folks like me working in food service. I had given up massage but was forced to keep waiting tables as I struggled to attract publishers for my work. The Zen retreat I’d just attended was on a Saturday, and that’s kind of a big deal for restaurants; I would’ve made more money waiting tables than the retreat cost. It was difficult. And not just because of the money that I would lose at the restaurant; I had writing deadlines to meet as well. Every word I typed had the potential to bring in new clients with new dollars to create the life I wanted, the life that could lead to the eradication of debt and grant me privileged access to upper-middle-class dharma.
And I’m on the upper end of the low-class dharma student spectrum. My main concerns are battling debt and trying to escape the economic quagmire these crappy jobs are perpetuating. I still have health insurance, but millions don’t. When a practitioner can’t afford a simple checkup or mammogram, a weeklong retreat is out of the question. My wife and I have no children and no elderly relatives to care for, but those who do have issues that clearly dwarf mine. Any serious practitioner who has to cough up for childcare or assisted living is in a spot so tight it squeaks, especially if they had a decent middle-class gig that evaporated during the recession. A 2012 Washington Post article reported that mid-wage vocations accounted for around 60 percent of vanished jobs but made up only 27 percent of job growth during the recovery that year. I’ve never had a job worthy of disappearing in a recession; I’ve worked in the midrange of poverty ever since I entered the job market. But a lot of folks who used to have reasonably comfortable lives are now saddled with problems that seem insurmountable. Where are their dharma dreams?
Typical white-collar American life is quite conducive to dharma pursuits. But for those of us who don’t have access to that lifestyle—or have lost it—the path is doubly frustrating. We wind our way through the minefield of financial insecurity while trying simultaneously to cultivate a fulfilling practice in solitude. Those of us in the lower class have no real disposable income, no truly “free” time, and we have to keep up a break-neck speed just to break even. We get up early to sit before heading to a job that we can tolerate only because we sit. We meditate before bed to alleviate some of the daily stress that would otherwise keep us up all night. Economically and spiritually, it’s always a battle just to stay put. Just to not lose ground. At any given moment, our quest for awakening has to be sidelined as more mundane matters become paramount.
Sometimes it’s not possible to attend a retreat if you need to crank out a piece on how hard it is to be a poor white trash Buddhist in America. But you can’t rise to financial stability without sacrificing that retreat in order to complete the work that will later make the retreat possible.
And even if it does become possible, what of others like me? As America’s middle class withers, fewer will be left to carry on Buddhist practice here. The well-to-do have had no problem making Buddhism work for them. What kind of collective mind this cultivates remains to be seen. Now the most important question regarding the future of Buddhism in America might well be: whose?
Brent R. Oliver is a writer based in Lexington, Kentucky.
Illustration by André Da Loba