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Buddhadharma : Fall 2005
fall 2005| 80 |buddhadharma tioners and therefore can easily become the heart of a large, vibrant sangha. In exchange, they must deal with the high cost of rent, utilities, and maintenance that comes with that convenience. While centers such as S. N. Goenka’s Dhamma Dhara manage to run solely on a dona- tion basis, most others, such as the San Francisco Zen Center, must come up with alternative methods for solving their monetary issues. Zen Center was set up to be finan- cially independent from the beginning. “We want to be able to make ends meet and have a sound financial basis,” says director Robert Thomas. “At the same time, we are just asking people to keep Zen Center afloat and make sure we don’t operate in the red. In addition, Suzuki Roshi thought it was important for peo- ple taking part in our events to have to pay something.” The center has a three-tiered payment system for its programs, consisting of a standard rate, a member’s rate at ten per- cent less, and a reduced rate at twenty percent less. “We just barely make it year to year,” he says. “Some years we are a little bit over, some years we are a little bit under. We have been at this place from the beginning, it seems, where we just barely cover our expenses. So we feel OK about what we are charging.” One of the center’s more creative approaches, widely used in the Buddhist community, was work in exchange for program credits, based on the Zen ethic of work as practice. Unfortunately, it ran afoul of local labor laws and had to be discontinued. A scholarship fund was cre- ated in January 2004 to let the sangha know assistance was available to all inter- ested parties for up to half the amount of a class, workshop, or one-day sesshin. During the first year of the program’s existence, it was funded by a small num- ber of donations, as well as money from a general fund. That year, the center’s schol- arships exceeded its funding. “It was kind of like play money,” says Thomas. By the second year, the center had decided to cre- ate a system where the money collected in the previous year’s fund went toward the next year’s scholarships. While the system didn’t guarantee that the center’s scholar- ship fund would break even, it did allow the center to periodically take stock of the finances and to make sure the system was still on track. At Zen Mountain Monastery in Mount Tremper, New York, program fees are cheaper for students who have an ongo- ing relationship with the center than they are for visitors. While a committed student can expect to pay $175 for a basic week- end retreat, a visitor or newcomer will pay $250, which is what a committed student pays for a weeklong stay. In-house teach- ers conduct most programs, but when a visiting teacher comes, the price often increases to cover the teacher’s travel and honorarium. Those who have made a year- long commitment are eligible to apply for the center’s scholarship program. Based on their statement of financial resources, the center decides what the students will pay on a monthly basis. “In the beginning, a lot of people who came to the center were on the fringe – students, artists, and other people living close to the bone,” says Geoffrey Shugen Arnold, Sensei, director of train- ing and operations. To allow them to attend programs, the monastery set up a work exchange program. The students pay what they can and make up the rest by helping out at the monastery. In some cases the monastery has even accepted items, such as firewood, as barter, in order to allow a student to attend a program. “At times the work aspect of the work exchange has interfered with the participant’s appreciation of dana – the importance of giving without the expec- tation of receiving. We don’t want people to lose that appreciation, and we don’t want to connect a cash value to what we are offering.” Karmê Chöling in Barnet, Vermont, one of the oldest practice centers in North America, has always had policies to try to keep programs within reach for par- ticipants. Terri Rowe, the assistant direc- tor, says that at one point their financial assistance system became too intricate. It was too hard for people to figure out what a program would actually cost them and too complicated to administrate, so it had to be simplified. Under the old sys- tem, practitioners received a one-third or two-thirds discount if they made less than $30,000 or $20,000 respectively, but the discount applied only to program cost, not to the cost of accommodations. The current system covers the total cost and offers a twenty percent discount to people earning under $20,000 and a ten percent discount to people earning under $30,000. One can also pay half the fees up front and half over a six-month period. “We offer just as much in discounts as we ever have,” says Rowe, “but there is always the constant issue of how much we can afford.” Karmê Chöling relies on donations not only to make retreats affordable, but also to survive financially. “If we didn’t receive as many donations as we do, we would need to change our policy, because the donations are what really keeps things going.” Dhamma Dhara Vipassana Meditation Center in Shelburne Falls, Massachusetts, relies entirely on donations. In fact, the center does not even accept donations from anyone who has not completed at least a ten-day course in vipassana. The cost of food and accommodations are covered by the charity of previous prac- titioners who have donated money to the center after completing programs. While students are told what the expenses of the center are, they are not required to pay fixed charges. “As Goenka-ji has said,” explains senior teacher Barry Lapping, “‘How can you pay for something that is invalu- able? How can you put a price on the dhamma?’” Those who teach at Dhamma Dhara are not paid for their services, and in order to become a teacher, practitio- ners must have an independent source of income. The people who serve on the courses and work at the center are volun- teers. “It prevents the possibility of any commercial attitude developing at all. Any kind of financial gain should never enter the purity of the dhamma,” says Lapping. This kind of volunteerism also helps keep costs down, as does the fact that all the courses offered at the center are essentially the same, varying mainly in length. For most centers, the answer to the question of what they should charge for a program is never as simple as, “What can students afford?” Based on a mix of factors, including economic needs, con- sideration for practitioners, and beliefs regarding how a student should pay for the dharma, each sangha creates its own system. For some, the economic reali- ties may put teachings out of a student’s reach. In these cases, what can practitio- ners like me do when we feel we can’t attend the retreats and programs we want to? The only thing we can do – keep prac- ticing.