Filed in Work, Community

White Trash Buddhist

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.Brent R. Oliver

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

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paul6316's picture

Being broke-ass myself, I was nodding my head so hard while I was reading this that I nearly dislocated a couple of vertebrae. I just got an e-mail from my sangha: $665.00 for a week-long sesshin. You must be fucking kidding me. That's a month's groceries for me, my wife, and our cats, to rent a three-foot-square space on the floor for seven days, with $15.00 worth of food thrown in. If I had that kind of money, I'd have my own little sesshin at an all-inclusive resort in St. Martin.

william allred's picture

No parking meters under the bodhi tree, but entrance to the deer park requires a fee be paid.
We quit the tax-paying, home-owning, new car driving ranks of white middle classdom to become mendicants in squatter's housing. The home was donated by a Doctor who became a frind when we "shared the dharma", which caused him to leave the medical field as a profession. He adopted our devil-may-care lifestyle of sharing what was had with those who were receptive.
We do what is asked of us by those who have cash to spend; all manner of contract work, day labor and maintenance of second homes in a resort community nearby. We spread the Dharma with clients also.
No taxes paid, thus our gross is also net.
Setting up an archery range in the back acres gave us a field of dreams, we built it, they came. From all walks and strata.No one comes who is not fitted with bow and archery lessons. Some return, some stay on the path for years.
We pass along copies of Kiley Jon Clark's writings, Awa Kenzo"s Zen Archery editions from various authors and whatever else seems to fit their grip.
Teaching and living simply allows for a suitable base for living and personal practice.
Good luck to all who pursue a path with a fistful of dollars. Many lifetimes is what we have.

martinurbel's picture

I used the "Share with a Friend" option to share the article with several people in my sangha. One of them wrote back to thank me and said that to read the whole article she would have to spend $30 to join Tricycle, which she cannot afford.

wilcuneo's picture

Enlightenment has become an Industry , a very lucrative one and that they way we the world is ! Sad but true!

celticjk's picture

there is a valid excuse for every failure but the question is, how do you overcome those valid excuses?
Don't do it unless you really mean it. if you are not willing to eat rice and beans and convince your wife and kids to eat rice and beans, don't do it!
Brent Frei New York Times 12-18-14 Corner Office

when we are stuck in the problem, we have little room for the solution.
all of what the writer says is accurate and true. he needs to work or he does not get paid. taking time off from work for dharma retreats is a double expense and the guilt felt to give dana on top.
suffering is optional. the writer seems to have expectations for himself on what a practice is.
my suggestion is t practice letting go of the expectations.
find solutions to dharma practice - find others who are like minded with time and work restraints
and find a common place where you can meet and support each other.
tricycle has wonderful online retreats with contact with the retreat leader.
oh and last but not least
breathe in, breathe out

awhiterainbow's picture

amazing, amazing article. a mixture of heartbreak and gratitude while reading this. we need more people speaking out like this. thank you!

hanging.dresses1's picture

Sangha is my volunteer service. My service gives me endless opportunities to strengthen my practice. I too live on a very limited income and have found real joy in the service of others. I also see the Dharma in action everyday I offer my time to others.

dennis7x's picture

Thank you for this post, now I know I am not alone ...

erictaekwondo's picture

So refreshing....
Western buddhism is so stuffy and intellectual, and let's face it, upper crusty. I've actually heard wealthy people excuse their lack of social involvement and charity citing the dharma, saying that we need to accept reality as it is and everything is just peachy, and if people are suffering it's because of their karma and the way they are clinging to bad or unskilled "thoughts". Buddhism in the west discredits itself at every turn, excluding the mentally ill from retreats for no apparent reason, hosting countless expensive retreats at luxury locations and creating celebrity teachers who are tirelessly self promotional; Buddhism in the west is constantly selling a sanitized, marketable version of itself. Christianity doesn't have a corner on the market of hypocrisy, Buddhist's are giving them a darn good run for the money.

Jprice's picture

I am curious about the atmosphere of division between "class" the lack of social involvement of the "rich". This has not been what I have experienced. There is good and bad in everything and in everyone. I agree that finances should not play a role in spirituality and personal truth seeking. Perhaps looking at (paraphrasing Gandhi) "being the change we wish to see" will change the perceived division.

lcornett's picture

I avoided attending Buddhist classes and joining a sangha for years because of the high advertised price for full membership and for classes, along with the fact that I was barely getting by on a low Social Security income and had very little savings. However, about three years ago I asked the Dharma Coordinator at Jewel Heart in Cleveland about the perceived financial barrier and discovered that those fees could be waived or reduced to a level I set when I let them know about my financial situation. Subsequently, I became a full member and attended classes, ceremonies, initiations and retreats (at the center they own in Ann Arbor) without any discrimination or second class membership.

tina_mccoy's picture

If you are seeking to study Buddhist Dharma and practice, Ven. Thubten Chodron at the Sravasti Abbey posts her dharma teachings on YouTube so people may listen to her teachings for FREE. That is how I found her. She also offers Retreat From Afar --- check out her website for this program and other video teachings, All the Best...

Peter @ Dharma Spring's picture

The issue of class and diversity in Western Buddhist sanghas deserves deep consideration. While some centers offer scholarships and word practice programs, these efforts though helpful are not sufficient. You should check out "The Offering Bowl" It's a kickstarter-like platform where would-be retreat attendees and those wanting to join residence programs can raise money without passing the begging bowl themselves. But this sort of approach still requires social media savvy to drive friends and family to the site to make donations.

What's needed is a centralized charitable fund that is practice center "neutral," where people would apply, demonstrate financial need, and the retreat expense would be paid directly to the center.


melcher's picture

Ah...Class...America's great shadow. We are so reluctant to address it and yet It brings to the surface our insecurity, resentment and rage while we confuse it with our simple need to 'belong'.

What is the meaning of Sangha? Is it a particular group that gathers around a particular teacher? Or is it something that embraces a wider human community? At times we need the reinforcement, teaching and encouragement available among 'spiritual friends'. At other times the interpersonal dynamics of the circle may be a distraction and we need to practice in isolation.

I live within walking distance of a major dharma center. I can sit in one of the most beautiful meditation halls in the country any day for free. Membership dues are quite reasonable and I can do volunteer work to help pay for retreats. Many of the people who come have much more money than I. Most of those who are residents are much younger and their life situations more flexible than my own. Whoever they are and whatever their situation, when we are deep into practice none of this matters.

For the past year and a half I've felt the need to separate myself from involvement with a group and to practice on my own. The demands of my everyday experience with the public at my job present me with abundant opportunity for practice and plenty of reminders of why I need to do so. My own attachments to all of the forms of self-inflicted suffering are continually exposed. Although I serve a community that doesn't necessarily know about my practice, in many ways it feels like the Sangha.

I am also very grateful for Tricycle as a resource and a connection to other voices on the path.

Whatever we are faced with, the path is the path. Every contact and every situation is in some way a gift. I sincerely hope that Buddhism prospers in America in a way that enables its exposure to a wider audience. I believe it offers answers to our insatiable need to fill up the emptiness at the center of our consumer culture. I have no control over these things. I only have influence on the quality of my own practice. To put things In Christian terms, we all have our own crosses to bear. In the end, whoever we are, all is impermanent.

The most important factor that keeps me going through every circumstance is faith, not in the sense of belief as much as confidence in the effort I make from day to day, without attachment to results.


tina_mccoy's picture

Well said! Dharma is the path, not the destination. And "Whatever we are faced with, the path is the path. Every contact and every situation is in some way a gift." I like this phrase. Thank You.

sanghadass's picture

Or, in Buddhist terms: our own wheels to roll!

sanghadass's picture

"Venerable. Ananda said to the Blessed One, "This is half of the holy life, lord: admirable friendship, admirable companionship, admirable camaraderie."

"Don't say that, Ananda. Don't say that. Admirable friendship, admirable companionship, admirable camaraderie is actually the whole of the holy life." - Upaddha Sutta

So we need Dharma friends, we need Sangha - the third refuge. We also need 'generosity' (dana). We need to connect and give in whatever way we can. If all we can afford is a smile then we need to be able to join in the Sangha - anyway. Even if we cannot smile but we know we are home - among true friends and family - this is enough. We cannot turn away Mitra's from a Dharma gathering. As, we cannot deny food and drink to our family. Or, turn them away from our door! If we do this, it is not the Buddha's Dharma! At least, not in the original spirit of the teaching.

No one was turned away from recieving the teachings the Buddha gave - out of compassion. No one, was 'charged admission' to recieve teachings and be given opportunities to practice. The only requirement is receptivity and love. We all participate as best we can. We give of ourselves! If we are able to give more money then we have this wonderful opportunity to help and support others who cannot. The gift of the Dharma is the greatest gift! The Sangha may not have much money but they are rich in other ways.

We need to discover the truth that liberates us all. And, work together for the benefit of all beings. Whatever their so-called status. Remember, only 'nobodies' (akinchana) realize the Dharma. Underneath our stories of who we think we are, we are all nobodies! The idea that how much cash you have in your pocket is what matters is something that needs serious attention.

Goenkaji managed to avoid a pay-as-you-go 'business model' to share the gift he had recieved. His Vipassana organisation spread far and wide. People were encouraged to give of their time and energy or, money. If, they felt a sense of gratitude for what they had recieved! All input was voluntary. There was no expectation or pressure involved. It still works well! It worked in the Buddha's time and it still works now. So what's in the way? There are many successful Dharma centres and Sangha's who operate in the same way. Why not make this the norm for the transmission of the Dharma in the modern world. Take a leaf out of the Buddha's book. That which is freely given, is freely recieved.

We are meant to understand if people are without means. Without a disposable income. It is disgraceful and shameful that sincere people may miss out on opportunities to practice because they cannot afford to pay! Its just not good enough. The Buddhist community began as an outpouring of compassion, good-will, wisdom and, generosity of spirit. Somehow it devolved into elitist cliques - the greater and the so-called lesser vehicles. Both, elitist in their own way! The Buddha would not have appoved of the divisiveness of his latter-day followers. The Buddha's dana 'to us' was a universal and unconditional giving - without caste or class distinctions. What happened? Perhaps we need a counter-cultural movement in the Buddha Dharma that is truly committed to making the teachings more accessable. Turn the wheel one more time and 'wake up' together - with no one left behind.

bcomenius's picture

Thank you so much for writing this article. I met a young man upstate at Menla a few years ago who waited tables somewhere down south. It was so unusual. I remember noticing that.

I have been attending Sangha in upper income neighborhoods around NYC now for several years. It has been a great concern to me how unconcerned the groups have been about the declining and degrading social life in the US during our own recent memory.

The members of sangha are each overwhelmed by lifetimes (or perhaps generations) of stress and trauma within their families and experiences. The concerns play out each and every meeting. Even within Upper income and wealth strata, there is a lot of embedded trauma and dukkha. That is absolutely true. There is nothing else to say about that.

However, if we the wealthy and educated practitioners of mindfulness, in greater NYC, one of the major and destructive centers of money, media, and political power on the planet, on our way to becoming "enlightened", cannot do something about the declining socio-economic conditions, and mounting political dystopia we see all around us everywhere, I don't have great hopes for all the collective years of dharma teaching (and money spent on retreats, books, tapes, dvds, etc.).

Ferguson shows us exactly what is happening in our country, regardless of the bliss we feel, or dukkha we may still feel in our own private worlds.

We had better get busy. As one political visitor to a sangha a while back said "yogis and buddhas need to start getting off that mat and cushion". In order for us to avoid the kind of disaster history tells us is coming, we need to change our actions in the world with some kind of new conscious awareness of cause and effect.

I certainly hope more articles like yours can begin to generate a new conscious awareness of how we each singly and as groups of buddhists are or are not contributing to cleaning up this mess (which by the way means reducing suffering in the world), as the case may be. We are rich. We are educated. We are articulate. We are connected by virtue of family, marriage, friends, work associates, clients, coop boards, school ties, kid's private schools, etc. to the very people in power who are playing money and power games with lives all over this planet.

It is really getting serious this draining of money out of the main street economy and heartland of the US. There are serious implications we only have to look back to the 1930s for. And, especially places like Spain, Italy, Germany. I will say no more about that.

Of course, the rest of the planet is also suffering under this global financial boot under our watch. But, for now we do need to clean up our own backyard before the surplus military gear we all haplessly paid for for generations is rolled out against our fellow citizens (and ourselves) all over this country.

Namaste Mr. Oliver

kamwick's picture

Why do people need a center? Why do people need to look outside themselves in order to examine reality? Generating questions, exploring and examining reality doesn't cost a thing.

giankar's picture

Totally agree. "Group practice" is a social-life oriented degeneration of Buddhism. Gather the teachings that suit you, get an empowerment if needed, and head for the hills, the beach or your own room !

deannies's picture

Agree..we can all sit under a tree, or go to the beach, or climb a mountain, or watch the sky..No charge! The Buddha did it and so can we. :)

info40's picture

I'd suggest taking a look at the Bhavana Society's retreats, I think Bhante Gunaratana should be applauded for making retreats available to all.

maryft's picture

Thank you so much for your article, the energy in your writing, and this great discussion! I sit alone but try to practice all the time and everywhere. Not long ago I think Tricycle had a "from the editor" or something that concluded that the world is our sangha.

variegatedfoliage's picture

Lack of funds needn't keep a person from advancing on the path. I have a severe chronic illness and have been practicing on my own while homebound, thanks to the wonderful audiobooks and dharma talks available, mostly free of charge, on the internet. The obstacle itself, in my case illness, can be a means of enhancing learning. I recommend as an amazing resource for dharma talks on all levels, downloadable and right there on your mp3 player whenever you need it.

Miguel Rodriguez's picture

This is a great article, if you add the people living with catastrophic illness, like HiV, cancer, etc, it will be very difficult to attend a well establish but expensive Buddhist center.

Julie Miller's picture

One could also add all the people who may have adequate monetary resources, but who live in rural, isolated places that put Dharma centers many (expensive) travel miles away from one's home. I often wish that there was more emphasis from teachers on how to practice when the community is not accessible- for whatever reason. It might not be the best way to practice, but when you live hours away from community, it's often the only way.

theworsthorse's picture

This is an important issue for American Buddhist centers - whether led by westerners or otherwise - building retreat centers and residence halls and beautiful temples, along with designing dharma programs that require working people to choose between quitting their jobs and doing retreat, limits access to the Buddhadharma in really fundamental ways. And the lack of access has been an issue for lay practitioners throughout the history of Buddhism: retreat practice and attending teachings and empowerments has pretty much always required monastic vows, a mendicant's life of poverty or family wealth. Alongside that, at least in the Zen and Vajrayna traditions, it has long been taught that attaining realization means trading the worldly life for extended retreat. So the problems aren't new and they aren't going to go away. Access to the dharma requires money and time and having both in hand is a privilege of class.

The availability of technology that lowers the potential cost of access to teachers and teachings, at least in most parts of the Western world, is a boon and partially addresses the problem. Some teachers and sanghas recognize the issue and are looking to address it. This will help, too, and hopefully more will follow. But such access will not solve the fundamental issue that, as has always been the case, a practitioner without the bounty of disposable time and money and unwilling or unable to take a vow of monasticism or poverty will have limited access to retreat and advanced teachings.

theworsthorse's picture

This is an important issue for American Buddhist centers - whether led by westerners or otherwise - building retreat centers and residence halls and beautiful temples, along with designing dharma programs that require working people to choose between quitting their jobs and doing retreat, limits access to the Buddhadharma in really fundamental ways. And the lack of access has been an issue for lay practitioners throughout the history of Buddhism: retreat practice and attending teachings and empowerments has pretty much always required monastic vows, a mendicant's life of poverty or family wealth. Alongside that, at least in the Zen and Vajrayna traditions, it has long been taught that attaining realization means trading the worldly life for extended retreat. So the problems aren't new and they aren't going to go away. Access to the dharma requires money and time and having both in hand is a privilege of class.

The availability of technology that lowers the potential cost of access to teachers and teachings, at least in most parts of the Western world, is a boon and partially addresses the problem. Some teachers and sanghas recognize the issue and are looking to address it. This will help, too, and hopefully more will follow. But such access will not solve the fundamental issue that, as has always been the case, a practitioner without the bounty of disposable time and money and unwilling or unable to take a vow of monasticism or poverty will have limited access to retreat and advanced teachings.

jesse.bercowetz's picture

The article is problematic in my opinion. White trash is a derogatory term. If a person is not white and seriously marginalized its tricky to use the term. Does the author truly live at the poverty level 11,670. Is he on medicaide , food stamps , subsidized housing, has higher education been denied....
In my opinion white trash is an economic issue and a racist term. It's not just a person struggling that lives in the south and certainly not someone whose main concern is a Buddhist retreat...

Kevin K.'s picture

Thank you Mr. Oliver for this wonderful and timely article. The long thread of excellent comments here clearly shows you're articulating things many of us have been thinking and talking about for a long while.

At the risk of belaboring the obvious, it seems to me that the root of much of this is the need to both learn from the Asian monastic traditions AND to create Western alternatives to them. I'm thinking in particular of the Thai forest tradition on the "learning from" part, in that monks in it handle no money, keep no food and are utterly dependent on the laity for their day-to-day survival. They also eat one meal a day and own only a couple of sets of robes and an alms bowl, and in living lives of such extreme simplicity - most of us would say asceticism - they are rather far removed, it seems to me, from lay Buddhist teachers giving "the dana talk" at swank retreat centers where fixed costs before dana are often $100 a day or more. There is no precedent for THAT kind of dana in the Asian traditions, where someone who hasn't renounced the world and isn't a full-time practitioner wouldn't dare put themselves out there as a worthy recipient of such generosity - or as a teacher, for that matter. On the other hand, the basis of those Asian systems is a lay population postponing its own awakening and making merit through offering dana in hopes of being able to practice in a future life, and I very much question whether that is something worth replicating in the West even if we could.

Several in the earlier comments have mentioned the Goenka retreat system, and while I'm no fan of the exclusionary "Dhamma fundamentalism" of that tradition I agree there's a lot to be learned from the ability of that organizaion to simply "get it done" in making retreats happen all over the world with no fixed costs. It seems to me that again it comes down to learning from the Buddha's advice to be frugal and simple in our wants and needs - which is going to look like ascetisism rather than the middle way it is because of our Western obsession with sense pleasures and creature comforts.

Instead of building retreat centers with private rooms, state-of-the-art yoga and meditation rooms and organic cuisine (and people expecting to make Marin County or Boston middle class livings staffing the places) we need a lot more of us looking at putting a cluster of mobile homes or other inexpensive housing up in low-cost areas, or repurposing existing buildings, with a focus from the outset on keeping fixed costs to an absolute minimum and creature comforts closer to camping (or the life in the forest the Buddha himself led and recommended).

The Western practitioners I rely on for practice guidance have all had to go to Asia to do intensive retreat practice because the facilities here are only affordable for the rich. Three months of vipassana practice at the Thai monastery in Lumbini or at similar places in Myanmar or Thailand costs much less than a month at IMS or Spirit Rock, even with round trip airfare - albeit you're sleeping on a concrete slab, eating less and simpler food and dealing with insects and other tropical nuisances. It seems to me that until we have multiple facilities where people can do retreats of any length without going broke we won't have a sound basis for the Dharma in the West.

rinias's picture

I wanted to say something similar to this comment, particularly about finding retreats where there is no cost (the Dhamma is free and cannot be bought and sold).

You said you looked into the Theravada tradition: would you care to look some more? For structured retreats, there is the wonderful Bhavana Society in West Virginia, where Bhante Gunaratana (Mindfulness in Plain English, etc) gives free retreats. For a very much less structured visit, Forest Dhamma Monastery near Lexington, VA is a true working Thai Forest Tradition monastery. There are no retreats given, but you can visit and stay for some time. In exchange, you help out around the monastery. Look them up and contact the abbott to find out more.

Both of these places, while not terribly close to you, Bent, are not very far away; but more than that, they are very much open and accessible to all.

dominics375's picture

Fantastic Article.

mohansunam's picture

Very good article! Irony of Shambala organisation is that the founder Trungpa Rinpoche who talked so vastly about spritual materialism and warned people how it can cause downfall in dhamma, and yet after his departure how Shambala and other Dhamma Centres run their organisations are shameful. Dhamma is priceless and universal so it should be accessible to everyone, it should never target one particular groups. That's why S. N Goenka 10 day Vipassana retreat is the best example of how dhamma centres should be run. It runs solely on donation basis, and even though waiting list is so high 3-5 months; people from all walks of life can practice it and pay donation in the end of the course if they so desire. There is no price tag at all.
And practicing dhamma is not about going to retreat every other month and listening to master discourse every other day. It's about practicing in our daily life in everyday circumstances. We have to decide whatever it may be zazen, vipassana or any other technique and practice it not only morning and evening but also in our daily activities. Dhamma is to liberate us and not to further create pain and suffering, if it brings pain and suffering then we are clearly not practicing correctly. Craving for that day when everything will be fine and I will practice dhamma greatly is not a very good motivation.

pemadorje's picture

Thanks for a thought-provoking article of personal experience that resonates with me and many others.
This is a concern many of us have had for years. As a member of the board of Jnanasukha, the foundation supporting the activity of Lama Dechen Yeshe Wangmo, I am very happy we launched, a couple of years ago, a free Dharma online program that includes a Dakini Day online tsog practice.
Feel welcome to check it out at

toni2's picture

Thank You Thank You…. It is really hard…. not having the income .. to attend programs and study… like I would like too… There are great Teachers here in Colorado… but … they are many hundreds of dollars not to mention the time off from work that won't happen. I haven't taken refuge because.. I am rural and because I will never have the money to take the classes so I can even be allowed the more advanced material..I can buy online classes one at a time but that won't get me authorized.. Buddhists really are very elitist and if you aren't on the right level .. forget getting the information. Buddhist's continually talk about expanding here in the west.. but My feeling is you really have to be pretty wealthy to be a Buddhist and that is offensive in and of it self…! Yes! I have books, and the link and Pema and on and on but most of that is beginner stuff.. right?… Yea thanks again … this a big issue for me.

buddhajazz's picture

Toni, me too. I am, by choice, as poor as a church-mouse as the saying goes. It does not keep me from practice. And as I read below from another Buddhist's reaction to this article--solitary-practice can be just as Buddhist as sangha-practice. Every so often I'll show up for a "sit" and generally react in the same way, noting the elitist qualities, to me a reminder that my best practice is "the path" not the sangha connection. There are enough publications out there providing solid information about "the path" that fills my brain, keeps me on track and creates an ethereal sangha--the contemporary heroes. And despite the notion of "beginner stuff"--we are all beginners, a good thing.

jundo cohen's picture

Hello. This article underlines the very reasons we created our fully online Zen Practice Center at Treeleaf Sangha, and I wish other Buddhist groups would follow suit (our focus at Treeleaf is Shikantaza). Our mission statement reads, "Treeleaf Zendo was designed specifically as an online practice place for Zen practitioners who cannot easily commute to a Zen Center due to health concerns, living in remote areas, or work, childcare and family needs, and seeks to provide Zazen sittings, retreats, discussion, interaction with a teacher, and all other activities of a Zen Buddhist Sangha, all fully online."But, really, we are a Sangha just about like any Sangha, and the place feels like a small, intimate group of people who sit together and support each other in practice. That is the way it should be. We are now in our 8th year, and require no donation or fee. Further, the emphasis of our Practice is a "monastery" without walls, in which the Buddha’s Truths may be practiced any place and the family kitchen, children’s nursery, office or factory where we work diligently and hard, the hospital bed, volunteer activity or town hall are all our “monastery” and place of training. In December, we will even be holding our 7th 2-day, fully online Winter Retreat, in which people from around the world will be sitting together by video connection right from their homes, maintaining a retreat practice amid the world. The Dharma should be available any place, right where we sit! Gassho, Jundo Cohen, Treeleaf Sangha

buddhajazz's picture

Jundo--I just went in to look around on Treeleaf, considering becoming one of the Treeleafers so that I could enjoy further the exchanges we've had here at this site. The bells and whistles of registering made me feel like I was joining another "elitist" group. No matter how many times I tried to prove I was "a real person" I was left feeling like I wasn't one. ho hum..."and so it goes" as Kurt Vonnegut would say. :(

jundo cohen's picture

I am afraid we had to put a few hoops in to make sure that the applicant is a sentient being, and not a spambot or spyware. There, we do discriminate. :-) Since we are a Community where the Practice is centered on Shikantaza, we do ask that the folks who come be willing to sit Shikantaza at least once per day. Gassho, Jundo

buddhajazz's picture

Yes. I'm a practiced meditator, no problem. How does that fit into the registration formula? I tried 5 times--following all the directions and was denied each time with not "playing" the entry game--even tho I matched up the bat with the baseball player, the football with the helmeted football player. Certainly, these were sentient being choices, not a spambot. Any ideas? JILDE

jundo cohen's picture

Please email me privately (jundotreeleaf[a] and I will see to the problem and get you in.

Gassho, Jundo

buddhajazz's picture

thank you JILDE

buddhajazz's picture

Thank you Jundo. As a solitary practitioner, poor, white and woman, I am glad to see there are possibilities for sangha connection that reach out to those who need it. The idea of a "Monastery without walls" warms my heart. My sangha has been designed over the years to include energies with contemporary thinkers, ideas from traditional writings and folks in the neighborhood who share similar paths--these my ethereal sangha and support system. I'll add Treeleaf Sangha to my ethereal sangha collection.

BobLucore's picture

This is a marvelous piece and great discussion. More like this please, dear Tricycle editors. I can't tell you how gratifying my "inner Teamster" found this. Very grateful, Brent.

EricW's picture

Hi Brent,

Thank you for this article. Despite some progress and much discussion (within the pages of Buddhist publications, on blogs, and in many local Sanghas), race, gender, and class are definitely still with us when we set foot on the path.

I spent a number of years bouncing around from tradition to tradition, frustrated with the inability to really connect. Much of my frustration was due to cost prohibitive retreats, and long distance travel. So I read a lot of books and hung out in online Buddhist spots. Thankfully, I also adopted a daily sitting practice. Nothing special required. A few cushions (pillows and a folded up blanket work fine). Eihei Dogen (a teacher in the Soto tradition) once wrote: If you cannot find the truth right where you are, where else do you expect to find it?

Eventually I settled into the Soto Zen tradition. Now I spend my time practicing with an incredibly supportive Soto Zen Sangha. No dues. We meet primarily online using video chat to sit together. In August we had a one week retreat where some folks were physically sitting and eating together, and those who could not attend "in person" joined in via video. All one.

For the time being, and well into the future, I suspect some of what you write about will persist. Despite the best efforts of Sanghas to offset the cost prohibitive nature of retreats (through scholarships, means based pricing, etc.), there will remain class divisions - they are deeply embedded in the host culture. There is also the simple fact that there are still comparatively few Sanghas in Western nations. Most of us can probably walk or bike to a nearby church, but a practice center in any Buddhist tradition (let alone the particular one that speaks to our hearts the most clearly) may be hours away by car.

May you find a Sangha that helps you along the way.

Deep bows. -- Eric

brogers1926's picture

yes, thank you for holding these issues in the light. and the many thoughtful sharings of experience. sangha at work! thank you all.

robin33's picture

I am in Singapore.

There is so many temples, teachers and Buddhist Centres in ASIA that we are spoilt by choices and yet dharma did not flourish. Young people prefer the western culture of Hip-hop and MacDonalds and swing toward Evangelistic religions that offer anything western. In fact, Christianity is on the rise, and people willingly gave to tithe (at least 10%) and offerings when they go to church. In a Buddhist temples, everything is free.. free food, free accomodating, free dharma... and Buddhism is in the decline..

I guess it is a different type of suffering then.

Beccafahey's picture

Thank you Robin33, you broke it down to the core - wisdom alive in your words.

Dominic Gomez's picture

We are in the Latter Day of the Buddhist Law when old practices are no longer effective. People still seek happiness, though, and think it can be found in hip-hop, fast food, and Western-style spiritualism.

safwan's picture

As a proof of ineffectiveness of most Buddhist traditions in this current age - is what the writer of this article mentions in one sentence about his reaction or thinking when he saw the other participants: "white-collar American".

This is a product of a discrimitive mind in 3 areas : the 'white', the 'class' and the 'national identity'. He was ot taught that the Buddhanature, a wonderful potential in the "lives" of all beings - surpasses all differentiations.

As individuals - yes, we are unique of course in all sort of levels - but we also share the same wonderful feelings and mind of enlightenment, of the Buddha's desire for overcoming sufferings, discrimination and illusions separating us.

In Buddhist teachings prior to the Lotus Sutra, 3 categories of people had limitations before attaining Buddhahood: the criminals because of evil karma, the intellectuals-only (Sravaka and Pratyabuddha vehicles, those who focus only on their intellect and not on heart) - and women. The Lotus Sutra abolished all barriers before people of any kind - and therefore I believe that the sangha of Buddhism which teaches this depth of Buddhanature can attract all kind of people, and survives into the future.