Buddhism and Clarity

Six months ago I got married. This involved having a conversation with my partner about the definition of our relationship, and then signing a contract (then a big party!). When we wrote our vows, there were certain things we needed to discuss; for example, what does "forever" mean? Are we promising to love each other "forever?" If not, what exactly are we promising? The original vows we worked off of initially had us promising, "I vow to give you everything I have." We both felt that was an overstep, and reworded it to "I vow to give you what I have that you need." Working together in this way, we clarified what our expectations were. And in the end, straight out of "Curb Your Enthusiasm," I vowed to love him for one lifetime, which seemed more realistic than "forever."

Pledging to be with someone for the rest of your life is very romantic, but there is also something very unsexy about marriage. There are contracts. Clauses. You become a tax entity. You have to talk about money a lot because money is one of the main differences between marriage and cohabitation. And yet, when done correctly, there is great relief and enjoyment in being on the same page with someone. It's because of this kind of trust that you can open up and be yourself.

In romance and in relationships in general, clear communication about money, time, definitions, and boundaries is considered the hallmark of maturity. And yet for some reason, in Buddhist communities this same clear communication is considered somehow unspiritual-- too goal focused and self-centered.

I'm thinking of a couple of examples. In many Zen communities, the student-teacher relationship is very vaguely defined, if it is defined at all. Students (and teachers) seem to not understand what the relationships means. Is it guidance? If so, what kind? Emotional? Psychology? Spiritual? What shape does this "spiritual guidance" take? Is it verbal? Or does it focus more on learning through imitation, through the body, through bowing and chanting? Is certification expected? If so, what are the pathways to that? What does the student owe the teacher? Respect? Obedience? If so, what are the limits of respect and obedience? Where do you draw the line? Who decides? What does the teacher owe the student? Opportunities to train? Help navigating a religious bureaucracy? How? What kind of help? What if there are no training opportunities? Et cetera. These are all really important questions in the student-teacher relationship that are rarely if ever discussed.

There is a similar problem with ordination. For many priests, ordination is seen as an exploratory adventure-- and I'm not going to lie, in a way, it is-- even as it is reserved for mature and dedicated practitioners. Yet it's crucial to have some thing spelled out before hand; it's important to illuminate the contours of this vocation for students, to speak of timelines, deadlines, money, of what is promised and not promised, of what the student will be helped with and what they will need to figure out on their own. This is to protect both parties-- the student and the teacher (or institution).

The second place I see a lack of communication is around money and dharma. Buddhist teachings have traditionally been offered freely (although there is a PhD thesis out there about how historically accurate that claim is, I'm sure!), and so most Buddhist teachers do not demand a fee, relying instead on dana, or the generosity of participants. I find this model works well for leading retreats and giving dharma talks. For example, I sometimes help lead a one day sit with Blue Cliff Sangha, like the one that is coming up on April 28. I don't expect money going into this, but the participants usually donate some money. It is gratifying to receive, no matter the amount.

However, it is important to understand that Buddhism does not exist on a plane outside of the economy. There never has been and never will be a time when Buddhism is not involved in the economy.

Let me say that again: there never has been and never will be a Buddhism that operates independently of the economy. This is quite simply because nothing is free. The recent revelations that Cambridge Analytica harvested Facebook data and used it to psychologically manipulate the public is further evidence that if you are not paying for services, you are the product. When Buddhist monks went (and go) on begging rounds, they are receiving food and alms for their spiritual efforts. They operate within a spiritual economy of merit-making. Donating alms to monks is a powerful way to make merit.

Things get tricky for me with Buddhist writing. I don't expect money for dharma talks, but I am a professional writer. It's what I studied in college. And, it is my time. I might spend far longer writing an essay or article than a dharma talk (although this depends. I spend time on dharma talks too!) Wisdom is free, but time is money.

I've signed two book contracts in the last few years. This involved the exchange of money, a timeline, making expectations explicit and understood. I know when my publishers expect a product and how much I will be paid. A contract protects both of us; for example, when I was having trouble finalizing the cover for my book, I went back and looked at my contract and discovered that I had signed away my rights to have a say about the cover. That was frustrating, but it cleared things up so I could move on.

Recently, a Buddhist magazine contacted me asking if I would write an article for them. They said they would pay me. I wrote the article, and then they decided not to publish it. Imagine inviting a schoolteacher to teach a math class and at the end saying, "We're going to pass on that class," even though they have already taught it. I suppose it was my fault because I did not clarify the expectation originally (although in the example of the schoolteacher, aren't certain things implied already?).

Most magazines and publications have contracts with writers, and they will often negotiate a "kill fee," which is a small percentage of the original commissioned price given to the author if the magazine or newspaper decides not to publish the story. But Buddhist magazines do not have contracts. Writing this, I realize that I would have a really hard time demanding a contract from a Buddhist magazine. This is because they are a *Buddhist* magazine, and I have a belief that teachings should be offered freely. And yet, they are making money off of the magazines, so that doesn't actually feel right to me.

At the end of the day, it is not actually about money for me. It is about honest communication and respect. Lauryn Hill sang, "Baby girl, respect is just a minimum." I don't want to feel mislead. Contracts exist for this very reason-- to protect both parties. Yet in Buddhist communities, asking for a contract or at least a clarification of expectations is seen as being greedy or self-centered. Actually, this reminds me of how in college, if you were hooking up with someone casually, there would be a point in which one person would want to "tdr," or "define the relationship." When I was in college, it was seen as very uncool-- somehow too needy-- to ask to define the relationship. This is how a lot of young people operate still; the show Grown-ish captures this hilariously when the protagonist asks her friends if she should talk to the guy she likes. "In person?" they ask. "Bitch, what are you, fifty?"

But defining a relationship is about clarifying expectations so that people do not get hurt. It is an important way to build trust and intimacy. With Buddhist teachers and institutions, however, we believe that explicit communication makes us greedy and immature, even when there is a vast power differential, and when the communication really just serves to protect the less powerful party.

We will sign contracts with our bosses, with spouses, with landlords and so many others, but why not with our spiritual teachers and institutions?

Speaking of which, if you learned something from what I wrote and would like to support me, there is a paypal button on the left (click on the three bars at the top left and scroll down)!


  1. Great points. I do think it's a hold-over of fuzzy entitlement thinking (what I need will magically appear when I need it, and I don't need to consider how it appears). It runs counter to the line in the Zen Meal Chant: "Many labors bring us this food; Let us consider how it comes to us." It's also counter to the vow to care for the Dharma; or the perfection of Dana (giving). Buddhist mags get away with it because people still willingly submit articles; nor do people call them out for unpaid, exploited, and dishonored labor.

  2. Dear Gesshin,
    First off, kudos on your marriage! It can be a beautiful container for the freedom to love and respect another. And yes, an institution (something I did not grasp whatsoever when I married 30 years ago). And it sounds like you’ve created some healthy beginnings!

    The real question for me is, how can I work within this institution for change? Which means, (and you know this far better than I do), starting at the top. I want an institution where there is no authority figures. Would it even been called an institution? Perhaps organization is a better word? I just finished reading a beautiful book edited by Natalie Goldberg; “The Truth of This Life, Zen Teachings on Loving the World as It Is.” They are the dharma talks given by Roshi Katherine Thanas. Stunning clarity. There’s a few things she says that have hit me profoundly. Here’s the first: “ Transmission, or true understanding, does not come from someone else; nor can we transmit to someone. We transmit to ourselves. Each one must find intimacy directly, not through our thinking mind, but from immediate direct experience prior to the mnd’s mediation. -wow And this one: “The horizaontal dimension is the ground of our life and makes workable the various hierarchies of student and teacher, parent and child, boss and worker....Even though our minds may insist on something else, ordination is not a hierarchical move away from the shared ground of being. This is a new condition for our communities to work with. Let’s watch what our minds make of it.” (pgs. 91 & 96).
    So, my dear fellow practitioner/priest(ess). I’ll leave you with this experience: When I was preparing for the Jukai ceremony and sewing my rakusu, there was a great deal of emphasis on creating the lineage charts. And, I was told (again emphatically), that the matriarchal lineage was just as important as the patriarchal. I thought, “ok, that feels good.” We handed over all the written work prior to the ceremony and told we would be given the charts along with our rakusu from the preceptor during the ceremony. So, I’m up there, in front of ____, receive my robe and name and the chart-the patriarchal lineage chart. I bow and take my place. Afterwards, I found one of the priests asking where the other chart and all the “glosses” I’d written up about the precepts and he answered, everything is in the back of the zendo in zip lock bags. There. That was it. The recognition of women in a nutshell. “In zip lock bags.” Quite the metaphor. I emailed one of the older priests later thanking him for all his support before the ceremony and mentioned how I thought it would be nice (nice?) if we were handed both the male and female charts when receiving our rakusu’s Afterall, didn’t we have a woman Roshi Abbott? He said he would pass it on to her. Another priest said, the soto zen organization is “slow to change.” I’m certain that is when something shifted for me in a very deep and profound way. I finally realized (for me) I wasn’t going to wait (or fight) for an institution to let me know my value/worth. This has been something of an issue for me my entire life, from the catholic religion and a father (generational, for sure) who saw me as a second class citizen all the way through every organization I’ve ever been involved with. I absolutely understand that this is a direct reflection of what I’m here to learn this time around: my own value/my own agency/ my true inner authority. Ay yay yi......I am interested to see how you will work with these issues Gesshin. Will I continue sitting and attending sesshins and talks by teachers I admire and read books about the dharma by those I respect, of course. I can’t not practice! Everything continues to morph and change and as always, one continuous practice.
    In gassho,


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