Sunday, May 19, 2013

Giving freely

A couple of months ago our teacher at Wind in Grass, David Weinstein, sent an email out informing us that he'd no longer be working with students who weren't members of Pacific Zen Institute.  Since there's a charge for membership, this effectively meant that he wouldn't be working with people who weren't paid up.

David did point out that there's no minimum membership fee, so you could be paying as little as $5 a month.  Also, we already give David the money in the donation bowl on the nights that he comes inFinally, the change will really only affect one night a month, when David's there.  So is this really much of a change?

I think it is, and I also think that it's a step in the wrong direction.  (And I know that I'm not alone in feeling this way.)  But before telling you why I should say that I have valued having a teacher in over the last few years.  I also think David is a very good teacher (and I've been to quite a few Buddhist events since I moved to California).

That said, I think this move is wrong for three reasons.  The most important one is that it brings us very close to paying for the dharma.  But if Buddhist teaching is centered on doing without material wealth, giving generously to others, and so on, that seems like a strange situation to be in.  Asking for payment undermines a central part of the message that we're trying to convey.

As I admitted above, we do give dana to our teacher anyway.  So what's the difference?  The main difference is that dana is freely given.  In other words, it's a real donation or gift, and symbolizes the very values of generosity and unstinginess that we're promoting.  It also gives us an opportunity to enact those values in giving freely what we can.

But paying for membership also creates a division between members and non-members, insiders and outsiders.  This is the second reason I'm against it.  People need to feel like they can come sit with us whenever they want, and not sit with us whenever they want, too.  As Michael said to me, one of our main strengths is that we don't ask newcomers for any kind of commitment. 

There's a related, practical issue.  It may make sense for someone like me, who turns up every week, to pay a monthly fee for membership.  But we have a lot of people who turn up once every two or three months.  Are we going to have to start presenting them with a choice of either committing to membership or going elsewhere to talk to a teacher?

The final problem I have with this is more personal.  It's that it brings WiG more clearly and firmly within the bounds of PZI.  Of course, WiG has always, strictly speaking, been a branch of PZI, but most nights it doesn't feel like one - it feels like a bunch of friends meeting for informal meditation.  I like WiG a lot, but have doubts about PZI.  But other people may feel differently about that one.

I've deliberately dodged a big issue here, one I might get around to discussing in a future post.  That issue is the whole question of how we should compensate Zen teachers, if at all.  For now, I'm willing to entertain the idea that they should receive regular and generous donations, since they often do work comparable to Christian ministers, who are salaried. 

But I'd still want to insist, at this stage, that they receive donations, and not pay.  I'd also want there to be a way of collecting donations that doesn't divide people into an inside and an outside group.  But these are just some thoughts from someone who's enjoyed having a teacher for the last three years and would like him to be able to work, at least occasionally, for no money at all.

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