Engaged Buddhism begins at home. . .
The following is a preview of an upcoming article in the Fall 2014 Tricycle Magazine, which I received by email. It’s called “White Trash Buddhist” and it’s about the class divisions of contemporary Buddhism. I’m glad that someone had the guts to write this article and name the worst offenders by name, Shambhala. And I’m glad that Tricycle had the wisdom to actually publish this article, one that will probably offend a significant percentage of its readers and subscribers. I am planning to write a similar article, less from a personal perspective and more from the point of view of a sociologist observing the situation. My upcoming article will go beyond Shambhala and look at class divisions more broadly across many different Buddhist sects and organizations.
Contemporary Buddhism is loaded with class divisions that make it possible for the rich to “buy a stairway to heaven”. Through their wealth, which finances their extensive training, the upper class move into positions of power and run Buddhist organizations for their own benefit. Without the money to finance these high level trainings, the poor are left in the status of “beginners” with no access to the positions of power to decide what happens in these organizations. The young and the poor work as the service class, staffing retreats for the rich. The class divisions in contemporary Buddhism are insidious. And kudos to Tricycle for being willing to tackle the issue head on.
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.
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 . . .
(More selections from “White Trash Buddhist” wherein the author works as a waiter while he writes and tries to go on meditation retreats he can’t afford).
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 other-wise 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.
. . . . . . . . . . . .
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?