Selling Buddha

I recently read a news report about 30,000 monks from Thailand and Myanmar gathered together next to the airport in Mandalay City. It was an alms giving event where thousands of devotees came to offer donations to the assembled monks. Ironically, the event was organized by a controversial Buddhist leader who has been accused of embezzling funds donated to his temple. Interspersed within the online news story were ads from Tiffany & Co., Amazon Prime, and The Apple (credit) Card—to name a few. This mixing of monks, money, and Madison Avenue, seems very weird.

Around 800 C.E. the Tibetan Buddhist sage, Padmasambhava, warned there would come a future time in which the Dharma would be sold like merchandise in the marketplace. I think that time has arrived. I constantly receive ads from Wisdom Publications, Shambhala Publications, Tricycle Magazine, and others, trying to sell me on the latest and greatest book or online Buddhist teaching. Although the teachings may have great benefit, I find the marketing to be antithetical to the Dharma these well intended corporations are trying to sell.

I have to admit my view of things is often tainted by a very cynical habit of mind. This is one of my conditioning factors. My meditation practice has helped to erode the hard edges of that cynicism over the years, yet I cannot help feeling a bit deflated when witnessing commercial assaults on the wisdom of Buddha. There is a long history of greed mingling with spirituality—from the selling of indulgences in the Christian Church to commercial evangelism. Now all traditions are marketed through the internet.

Our Dharma Center is not immune. We certainly have financial needs to pay rent and administrative costs. I receive a modest stipend. We have a website and a donation button. But we try to keep things very simple and only request what is needed—we have no interest in growing bigger. Our relative footprint on the planet has grown primarily through word of mouth and our financial model is (at this point) sustainable. We are grateful for the support of our sangha. Conversely, I observe huge Buddhist organizations held captive by their need for funding and desire to grow.

I wonder how Buddha would deal with this time. I think he would say it all boils down to intention. How do we use the resources at our disposal? Does the institution require more than the help it offers? This is the same for our inner resources. How to we feed our desire for more? Does it interfere with our generosity towards others? Growth for growth’s sake is never sustainable no matter the value of what is planted. Everything has an expiration date: the law of impermanence.

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