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[whitespace] Buddha Illustration Dharma & Greed

Popular Buddhism meets the American dream


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THINK ABOUT AMERICA. Turn the word over in your mind. America, the land of liberty, the richest nation in the world. America, home of the brave and the brave investor. America, to the shores of which come the tired, the poor, the teeming masses yearning to be free-market capitalists. America, where greed is good, failure is bad, and everyone wants to be a millionaire.

Now consider Buddhism.

That's right. Buddhism. The dharma path. The road to enlightenment.

Turn the word Buddhism around in your mind awhile. Whether you are familiar with Buddhist philosophy or not, you probably can conjure a notion of what Buddhism seems to be about, of what kind of person a Buddhist might be. You may imagine scarlet robes and shaved heads. You might see the Buddha himself: peaceful and smiling, large and shirtless.

Got it? Good.

Hold those two ideas in your thoughts a second. Allow them to dangle there in your mind. America and Buddhism. Buddhism and America. Now squeeze the two together.

American Buddhism.

Sounds like some unlikely distant cousin of jumbo shrimp and nonalcoholic beer, as paradoxically mind-boggling as "flexible ethics," "religious tolerance," or, ahem, "compassionate conservatism."

Yet before we trip too far on some sweet oxymoronic high, we'd do well to return to our meditation on the meanings of "America" and "Buddhism." Because, ladies and gentlemen, brothers and sisters, American Buddhism--with all its tasty paradoxes fully on view--is clearly an oxymoron to be reckoned with.

Recent estimates put the number of American Buddhists at somewhere around 3 million, a group comprised of both Asian Buddhist immigrants and Western converts. Often connected to one of the increasing hundreds of Zen centers and other Buddhist training centers in the country, these practitioners range from traditional monastic adherents (full-time monks and nuns) to garden-variety working-class Buddhists (or "weekend meditators"), people with houses and cars and families and careers--and a spiritual practice that, while relatively new to America, does have a few thousand years of impressive momentum behind it.

Yet this is America, a culture obsessed with a hunger for wealth and property, a populace powered by a mainstream encouragement of greed and envy and avaricious desire. Let's face it: in America, if you can't make money, you can't be taken seriously; if you don't dream of becoming rich and famous (or at least rich), you aren't properly American.

Summit Meeting

BUT DIDN'T the Buddha teach (roughly paraphrasing here) that such earthly desires lead to sorrow and pain, that only by transcending greed and envy and the pursuit of material goods will we find true, enduring happiness? So how, then, does American Buddhism integrate these two apparently opposite ideals? How can you live in a culture where money is necessary, yet follow a spiritual path in which the desire for money is poison?

Let's put it another way: Can anyone be truly American and truly Buddhist?

Well, it seems the Dalai Lama has been asking the same question.

At a Northern California gathering of Buddhist teachers held in late June--a kind of Buddhist-American summit meeting held at the famous Spirit Rock Meditation Center in west Marin County--220 influential Buddhist leaders met for five days behind closed doors to discuss the many tricky issues facing American Buddhism at the turn of the century. Though attended by such Buddhist superstars as bestselling author Jack Kornfield (also a co-founder of Spirit Rock) and Barbara Gates, co-editor of the popular, Berkeley-based AmericanBuddhist journal Inquiring Mind, it was the Dalai Lama of Tibet--easily the most famous, most successful promoter of popular Buddhism in the world--whose presence created the biggest stir.

After all, in some ways the Dalai Lama is the perfect symbol of American Buddhism. As the primary ambassador for the cause of Tibet (the country from which he was exiled after the Communist Chinese invaded in 1951), the Dalai Lama must walk a tight doctrinal line between serving as a defender of Buddhism's basic principles and working as the Tibetan cause's most proficient and successful fundraiser.

It was, according to Kornfield, the difficult issues of American Buddhist economics that most interested the Dalai Lama during the gathering's five days of meetings. Of special concern was the growing trend in American Buddhism--especially on the two coasts--of being attractive mainly to affluent practitioners, those who can afford the often pricey meditation retreats and classes (not to mention all those books and tapes and videos, the zafus and incense and handcrafted meditation benches). As for how to sustain a sense of Buddha Mind while living and working in money-mad America, the Dalai Lama reportedly emphasized the importance of sticking to the Buddhist basics: mainly, each person's cultivation of compassion and freedom from anger and greed. So how does one do that?

And how does one do that here?

Buy the Book

"IT'S A PROBLEM that a lot of Buddhists in America are dealing with," says Peter Bermudes. As director of promotions for Wisdom Publications, a thriving Boston-based publishing company that specializes in books about Buddhism, Bermudes agrees that these are major issues for the growing population of American Buddhists.

Now 25 years old, Wisdom is a nonprofit company, producing about 15 books each year. The company's catalog features more than 100 titles, from exhaustively researched scholarly works such as this year's Zen's Chinese Heritage: The Masters and Their Teachings (by Petaluma resident Andy Fergusen) to more mainstream reads such as Sandy Boucher's highly anticipated upcoming memoir, Hidden Spring--A Buddhist Woman Confronts Cancer. As evidence of the growing interest in Buddhism, a good number of Wisdom's titles have been adopted by college professors for use in comparative religion courses, an increasingly popular field of study among college students.

Which points to another wrinkle in the paradox. In America, Buddhist books are big business. Books about various aspects of Buddhism frequently end up on the bestseller lists and turn their writers--Sylvia Boorstein, Jack Kornfield, Wes Nisker, and Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh--into the Buddhist-community equivalent of superstars. The Dalai Lama himself, with more than two dozen books to his name, holds the unique distinction of being one of the only three spiritual leaders (along with the Rev. Billy Graham and Pope John Paul II) to ever have two books on the New York Times bestseller list at the same time. Even the Dalai Lama's mother has a bestseller.

With so many books to select from, each emphasizing a different viewpoint, the average American Buddhist is able to pick and choose among them, essentially building a do-it-yourself spiritual practice, all but sidestepping the traditional Eastern Buddhist's dependence on a firsthand spiritual teacher.

American Buddhists are often independent Buddhists.

"American Buddhists seem to be very attracted to the Buddha's suggestion that we test Buddhism through our own experience," Bermudes suggests, "that we take what we perceive to be true and work with that."

Books give the independent Buddhist a way to do that.

On the other hand, books do cost money, and, as Americans, we tend to have money or are willing to go to great lengths to make it appear so. This is another way in which American Buddhism defines itself: just as Americans are addicted to consumerism--in part as a public display of our all-important ability to make and spend money--it stands to reason that American Buddhists might naturally feel inclined to accumulate "Buddhist goods," partly as a public display of their devotion to their practice.

"In a social psychology sense," says Bermudes, "we in the West tend to value the things we pay for and to value most highly the things we pay the most for."

Zen Coin

LAURA KWONG sits lightly on the sofa inside the sparely furnished, comfortably bustling community house at the Sonoma Mountain Zen Center overlooking Petaluma. From an attached office come the ring of phones and the hard-plastic tap-tap of computers. Across the room is the kitchen, behind a pair of ornamental doors through which drift the sounds and scents of lunch being prepared. Kwong--the center's co-founder and director of practice--is silent, calmly considering the question of money and its complicated relationship with American Buddhism.

While all Buddhists must find their own ways to think and act in regard to money, Kwong has observed that many practitioners come to Buddhism precisely to step away from the spiritually assaulting pursuit of monetary gain. Though some drop out of the mainstream completely, devoting themselves full time to their practice, most merely experience a shift in priorities.

"With all the high-tech developments of the last 10 years," she explains, "with people working 14 hours a day at their computers, trying to make a lot of money very fast, people are feeling more and more alienated from their human-ness. In Buddhism, people discover the value of moving slower, and they learn that happiness comes from inside them, not from without."

The San Francisco-born Kwong began practicing Buddhism in 1958. She was part of the original group that founded Green Gulch Farm in Muir Beach and Big Sur's remote Tassajara Zen Mountain Center (both centers operated as part of the San Francisco Zen Center). With her husband, Jakusho Kwong Roshi, a dharma successor to Shunryu Suzuki Roshi in the Soto Zen lineage, Kwong helped found the Sonoma Mountain Zen Center in the mid-1970s.

At the moment, the center is home to 10 residential practitioners and hosts nearly 50 weekly attendees at the Saturday morning meditation sittings. Financed primarily through donations and memberships, the center also generates income through its Zen Dust bookstore and website, and also--following the lead of Green Gulch and Tassajara, pioneers in the art of creative moneymaking--by renting rooms to practicing and nonpracticing visitors, much like a Buddhist bed-and-breakfast.

"People come from all over the world to practice here," says Kwong, smiling like a proud parent. There are usually two or three guests staying at the center at any given time, taking advantage of the beautiful, slightly whimsical facilities; the zendo is a converted barn, complete with a redesigned chicken coop that now functions as a facility for individual meetings.

Then there is the center's world-class aura of deep peace and quiet.

Though the idea of renting rooms at a Zen center might have once seemed odd, it has become a common practice among such centers around the country. Large-scale moneymaking, in fact, is just another fact of life for America's many meditation centers, almost all of which have developed various cottage industries to support themselves.

Green Gulch, the very model of the modern major Zen center, operates a successful organic farm and a four-star vegetarian restaurant in San Francisco--Greens, at Fort Mason--maintains a popular conference center (Gov. Jerry Brown, back in the '60s, was fond of holding meetings there), and also runs a busy bed-and-breakfast business. This in addition to a long-running series of cultural and public-speaking events and the usual course-list of ongoing classes and meditation retreats.

The remote Tassajara Zen Mountain Center, in the wilds above Big Sur, was originally intended as a private monastery, but also adapted to the need to generate income.

"So many people, even non-Buddhists, wanted to go there to eat the good food, to feel the ambiance," explains Kwong, "we eventually reconceived Tassajara as a part-time retreat center."

Establishing an annual guest-season between May and August, the center generates a decent income each year before closing itself off from the public for eight months of monastic use.

Another notable venture was the Tassajara Bakery and Cafe in San Francisco. The now-defunct Tassajara baking operation--run by the Zen Center until it was acquired recently by the Just Desserts chain--provided handcrafted breads to grocery stores around the San Francisco Bay Area. It was so successful that it inspired a basketful of similar operations around the country.

The most impressive example is the Greyston Bakery in New York City. Originally conceived as a way to support the social outreach programs of the Zen community of New York, Greyston was founded in 1982 by Roshi Bernard Tetsugen Glassman. A one-time systems engineer who became a Buddhist monk, Glassman hoped to increase the Zen center's involvement in the troubled, poverty-entrenched region of south Yonkers and decided to follow Tassajara's lead. But while Tassajara focused on making bread, Glassman felt that the Greyston Bakery would enjoy larger returns by producing pricier fare and decided to specialize in high-end all-natural gourmet desserts and cakes. It was a good idea. The bakery can now count on regular clients such as Bloomingdale's, Godiva Chocolates, and the White House--and provides mountains of fudge brownie chips for Ben & Jerry's ice creams. Greyston now earns close to $3 million a year, motivated by the goal (described in its mission statement) of "feeding poor people by feeding rich people."

Indeed, the majority of Greyston's workers are residents of southwest Yonkers, many of whom were previously viewed as "unemployable." By recruiting its multimillion-dollar workforce from the same community the Zen center has been assisting, the bakery stands as the perfect example of an enterprise that is both demonstrably Buddhist and--insofar as it is clearly a strong moneymaker--pretty darned American.

Photograph by Michael Amsler

Business Unusual

TO BE FAIR, it is certainly common for Western businesses to offer assistance to the needy. Even profit-hungry behemoths like Wendy's and Wal-Mart make sizable donations to charity. The difference, of course, is that Greyston's sole reason for existence is to profit the poor, while most big biz exists to profit the stockholders.

"Many Zen centers have to deal with this issue of going into business, whether it's renting rooms or selling produce or starting bakeries," observes Kwong, leading a tour of the Sonoma Mountain Zen Center's elegant new bathhouse. "I observe them all very carefully, and I haven't seen any degeneration in the practice--yet.

"In Japan or China," she adds, "the whole community pledges and gives money and food so the temples don't have to go out and build businesses. In America, it is different."

Kwong agrees that it is often difficult to balance the practical need for income with the Buddha's call for open compassion for all people. And in the case of the more successful Buddhist enterprises, it can be terribly easy to grow a bit greedy. This is a spiritual pitfall, for while greed is good in America, greed is bad in Buddhism.

Therefore, with the exception of overt moneymakers like Greyston Bakery and Greens Restaurant--which ask gourmet prices for their gourmet goodies--most Buddhist businesses attempt to keep their prices low as a matter of principle. At Sonoma Mountain Zen Center, for instance, it costs a mere $30 a day, including three meals, to occupy a small, comfortable room. The popular vegetarian restaurant at Mendocino County's City of 10,000 Buddhas--a conservative Buddhist monastery in the hills near Ukiah--almost always has a line of patrons waiting, in part because the prices are as reasonable as the food is tasty.

While it is true that some extended retreats can cost hundreds of dollars, at Marin County's Spirit Rock Meditation Center most of the popular classes--taught by some of Buddhism's biggest names--will run you a paltry $5 per event. They go so far as to offer a work-pay program, the Buddhist equivalent of having penniless diners work off their meal by washing dishes. It is clearly stated in the center's literature: "No one will be turned away for lack of funds."

Let's see Wal-Mart do that.

The difficulty of blending commerce and spirituality is not unique to Buddhists, of course. "Right now there's a strong spiritual revival in the Christian and Jewish communities as well the Buddhist community," observes Mill Valley writer Lewis Richmond, author of Work as a Spiritual Practice: A Practical Buddhist Approach to Inner Growth and Satisfaction on the Job. "And guess what? Every religious community is concerned with the spiritual deficits of free-market capitalism, the conflict between compassion and greed. It's a very human problem. Part of us wants to take care of our brother--and the other part wants to live in Tiburon."

Lewis is a successful software entrepreneur and a former vice president of Smith & Hawken Ltd., the Marin-based gardening specialty outlet. A practicing Buddhist and teacher, he was a founding member of Green Gulch Zen Center, assisting in the development of the center's successful moneymaking enterprises.

"In traditional Buddhist nations," he says, "the teachers offered a clear answer to the problem of money: Buddhists were simply prohibited from touching the stuff. Their original solution was just to stay away from the whole thing and have nothing to do with commerce. So monks have to get donations from wealthy people, and it usually becomes a very corrupt system.

"But in America, we've developed this ad hoc way of supporting the institution with little moneymaking schemes," he says. "And I think it's a much better system."

Asked if Green Gulch and its affiliates are flirting with the devil, so to speak, by going into business, Lewis laughs.

"What the Zen centers are running can hardly be called businesses," he says. "A business by definition is an enterprise that produces wealth, which seems to be the predominant activity on the planet. But if you look at these enterprises at Buddhist centers, they are almost all operated with voluntary or semivoluntary workers. These are nonprofit organizations that would never survive as real businesses."

The threat of unchecked greed, while potentially harmful to American Buddhists, is kept in check, says Lewis, by adherence to the spirit of Buddhism itself.

"The fundamental Buddhist precept is to treat all living beings with compassion," he says. "That's the touchstone when you start talking about money. Is there a compassionate energy to the activity? Is this enterprise or this job about more than mere greed? The real issue with money is not money. It's the role that money plays in a person's psyche and their life."

You Chant Do That

THE UNEASY integration of Buddhism and capitalism has been gradually evolving since the 1930s, when a number of Buddhist teachers immigrated to America with hopes of finding eager students. It was a rocky start. Though the dharma bums of the 1950s Beat generation--especially poet Allen Ginsberg--were helpful in raising the country's awareness of basic Buddhist ideas, it was in the late '60s that public interest in Buddhism began to seriously blossom. While a new generation of flower children was dropping out and turning on, thousands of disillusioned souls found that Buddhism offered a satisfying social and spiritual alternative to the great American money grab. "From 1965 to 1975, it seemed that everyone was practicing Buddhism," Kwong recalls.

"People were dropping out all over, running around barefooted, and turning away from the pursuit of money."

Then came the '80s and the rise of the selfish Me Generation.

"We can still feel it here, the repercussions of the '80s," says Kwong. "Suddenly the same people that had tried to drop out were looking up and saying, 'Hey, I'm married now. I have a family. I need a job.' So everybody went to work.

"All the Zen centers still feel it. There were fewer people coming to retreats and all that. From the early '80s to around 1995, people were building their careers, getting their houses and their health insurance and their IRAs. Then, all of a sudden, many of them realized that wasn't enough. And now some of them have begun returning to Buddhism.

"I think the recent popularity of Buddhism and meditation," she surmises, "has to do with the acceleration of Silicon Valley and the high-tech corporate companies. Lots of people who come up here to meditate are from the high-tech world, people looking for ways to replenish their energy, to clean out their minds and gain a fresh view of work."

Bob Sweeney is a 25-year practitioner of Nichiren Dai Shonin, a sect of Buddhism in which daily chanting plays a major role. Like its distant cousin, Nichiren Shoshu--an aggressively goal-oriented Buddhist sect with lively meetings that some have likened to Amway conventions--Nichiren Dai Shonin employs chanting to achieve specific aims. Sometimes the aims are purely monetary.

"We don't tell people what to chant for. It's up to them," says Sweeney, "And people do chant for things like money and relationships.

"But," he remarks, "the real goal [of Buddhism] is the development of respect for other individuals. I can chant and take action that benefits everyone concerned."

Challenging the assumption that American Buddhism appeals mainly to the affluent, Sweeney--a Santa Rosa resident who handles risk issues for an international retail company--insists that a survey of his fellow practitioners would cut a swath across all economic lines. He prefers not to think of his fellow Buddhists in terms of the amount of money they make. "Society might say that some of us are wealthy and some are not wealthy," he says.

"But I see us all as being rich. We're rich in the quality of our lives."

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From the October 12-18, 2000 issue of the Northern California Bohemian.

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