In Buddhism, giving, or generosity, is called dana, a Sanskrit term that probably has many more connotations than we have space to deal with. Here, I would like to discuss that category of giving that has sometimes been called "repaying our debt to Buddha."
Now, Buddha was an ordinary human being. Okay, perhaps not so ordinary as you or I. My point is, in Zen, we do not worship the historical figure as a deity, or imagine that he is somehow watching to see if we appreciate the teachings he codified and handed down to us through successive generations of followers. Much less do we fantasize that if we do not do something tangible to reflect our gratitude for buddha-dharma, that we should feel guilty, or fear retribution.
No, Zen is not a religion of paranoia, or prosperity, for that matter. We neither expect to profit from our practice, nor are we attempting to avoid suffering in Zen.
But Zen practice exists, when and where it exists at all, in the real world. It is as subject to economic realities as is any other entity that exists, whether as a natural object, sentient or insentient; or a corporate entity, such as a 501c3.
To understand this is to embrace Matsuoka Roshi's strange aphorism that "The Zen person has no problem following the sidewalks." This means, I think, that if you are following the way of Zen, you do not stop short at the apparent barriers thrown up by the machinations of humankind, such as corporate organization, or the sidewalks in your neighborhood. Sidewalks provide dependable, durable footing, and relative safety alongside streets and thoroughfares of a city. But of course, they are also usually impermeable, and contribute to runoff and resultant flooding during rainy weather. So each such invention represents a compromise.
The formation of a Zen center also represents a kind of compromise. If there were no corporate entities such as the city, state, and federal governments, there would be no need for a corporate entity such as a 501c3. In fact, the design of the larger institutions both requires, and permits, the design of the smaller entity. In another part of the world, subject to another form of government, it might prove more or less difficult, or even impossible, to establish a Zen center.
But we should not confuse the fact that a democratic form of government allows for the establishment of a 501c3, with the notion that the latter is then itself a democracy. When we established the Atlanta Soto Zen Center in 1977, chartered as a not-for-profit (NFP) under the State of Georgia, we discovered that we could choose between two types of 501c3, one known as a "member," the other a "non-member" corporation. The latter, which we chose, is the way most charitable organizations are set up, for reasons of simplicity. The member NFP requires a majority vote by the entire membership, in order to pass a motion of the board of directors (BOD); while the latter may take action with a simple majority of the BOD, or the voting membership as defined by the BOD.
By now, you may be wondering why I am wading into this particular patch of weeds, in what is supposed to be a byte of Dharma, after all. What does all of this have to do with the teachings of Buddhism or Zen?
Well, the answer is that Zen is nothing, if not practical. Otherwise, it would not have survived for 2500 years and counting, through multiple cultures undergoing upheaval, and suffering on an international scale. Zen has always managed to "follow the sidewalks" from its inception in India, its diaspora into China, Korea and Japan, and its introduction to Western Europe and the Americas. Zen adapts. Taking a close and unsentimental look at the condition of the world today reveals that the work, or mission, of Zen, is not yet accomplished. But that is not the fault of Zen, not a defect in the buddha-nature. It can be laid at the feet of human nature. Which brings us back to earth, here in Atlanta, Georgia.
We at ASZC are part of a larger movement, yes, including our fifteen and counting affiliates, but more than that, of the mainstreaming of Zen in America. We have thousands of folks who have come through our practice centers here and elsewhere, benefitting from the presence of genuine Zen, and then moving on. They have not all, or always, seemed to appreciate, or value, the experience; but they will never forget it, either. Whatever we get from Zen, it goes with us.
But to truly appreciate Zen means to give back to it. The original Order in India practiced charity, but not the kind where they gathered goods or currency from the wealthy, and distributed it to the less fortunate, which is the model of charity we recognize and honor in the West. No, instead, the monks and nuns would go into the village with begging bowls, accepting dana in the form of food offerings. Which sustained their lives, of course, but more importantly, allowed the villagers to contribute something to the support of Buddhism. Then they would return to their monastery or meditation center and take up the work of investigating the dharma. This was their dana, generously dedicating their lives to the Three Treasures. This is the same way the priests and disciples of our Order practice their generosity today, with the additional burden of managing households, careers, and family responsibilities.
Now we find ourselves in a culture where begging on the street would be met with a range of reactions, from ridicule to rage. Further, we are propagating a lay practice that is designed to provide the opportunity for anyone and everyone to practice Zen, not just to support it. So ours is yet a different, more complex form of charity, which may appear to be self-sustaining. But it is not. Your affiliate, and our training center in Atlanta, are subject to the vicissitudes of economics, much like the livelihoods and households of all the members of our Sangha.
Let me share with you one of the clearest models of economics I have ever heard, put forth by one of my colleagues when I was teaching design in Chicago. Jerry Jacquard, a sculptor, was receiving donations of steel from U S Steel, to use in his large, outdoor sculptures. Their purpose was to market Corten, a new kind of steel whose surface would rust, but then stop, forming a surface that did not need painting. In order to get it specified, they needed to overcome resistance to the perceived negative aesthetic of rust. Enter Jerry, with his use of the material on beautiful, monumental sculptures.
This was in the 1960s, in the middle of the Vietnam War, and students were up in arms, protesting everything. When they got wind of the evil corporation donating material to Jerry, they confronted him with what they felt to be a compromise of the ethical principles underlying art and design. To help them understand his point of view, Jerry developed an eight-point model of the dimensions of creative development of art, the first dimension being verbal, the definition of the concept; two dimensional being concept drawings; three dimensional modeling, and so on. One of the critical dimensions, he asserted, is the economic.
To defuse the situation, and place the discussion in a more natural context, he used the metaphor of a tree. The "economics of a tree" consists of soil, in which the seed finds nutrients; water, which nourishes its growth; sunshine, which provides the energy for photosynthesis; and so on. No economics, no tree.
He used this example to make plain to these very idealistic, but inexperienced, students, that if they aspired to become artists, they would have to solve the economic dimension. Art takes a minimum investment in materials to produce, and that investment requires currency of some sort. No economics, no art.
So we can say the same thing about Zen. No economics, no Zen.
You may argue that you can practice Zen within the framework of your own livelihood and household as things stand, and you may be correct. But what we are speaking of here is the larger mission of Zen, and whether or not you feel you want to support it. Zen or Buddhism has always been a social enterprise. Those who think they can go it alone are misguided, and, worse case, "dharma thieves."
Matsuoka Roshi was occasionally critical of attitudes he encountered in would-be American Zen students, particularly the "hippie" cohort in the 1960s, and those he would often refer to as "come-and-go-type" or "wishy-washy type." He never named names, and would chuckle or guffaw when making such a comment. And it was usually in the context of praising another, serious student.
He told the story of the dharma thief in one of his talks, which we have not recovered, I am sure because the Chicago Zen Buddhist Temple was experiencing the same, ongoing shortfall of funds that we experience in Atlanta, even though our attendance is robust. The dharma thief is one who thinks there is something to be gained in Zen, called the Dharma. They have heard about it, just as they may have heard of the Hope diamond, and are coming around to see if they can get it. But they do not want to pay anything for it, other than investing their own time.
Of course, we always stress that your presence at your center is your greatest donation. But this does not merely reflect an appreciation of your efforts, more a recognition of the effect we have on each other. Nor do I mean to suggest that it is sufficient to pursue Zen on your own, as long as you attend the center. The benefit, or donation, that the Sangha receives from your presence, is to feel encouraged by the presence of other, like-minded seekers. It does not substitute for contributing our fair share of financial or in-kind support to the center.
I have asked the leadership of our Order, the Silent Thunder Order, to investigate the economics of our network of affiliates, with particular attention to Atlanta, and with the BOD of ASZC, to come up with more effective means of communicating our economic status, including our budget and projected goals of funding it. We have plenty of history to base this on, and from which to develop realistic appeals to you, the members of our community, to support us. This is the model of dana for our age. Full disclosure, I am the only one who receives any financial support from the ASZC and its network of affiliates, at present. Eventually, we hope to be able to offer stipends and other appropriate forms of supplementary income to our priests, as needed. But we cannot prosper without your help.
In the meantime, please look into your own heart, and pocketbook, to determine if you are doing your best to support your Zen center. This is your dana, your way of practicing generosity in the modern context. If you remember the benefit to your life of your Zen practice, and recognize a debt of gratitude to your Zen center, please repay that debt to the degree that you can afford. Please do not assume that others are covering the expense of bringing genuine Zen to the larger community. We all share in this responsibility; we all need to do our part. This, dana, is the direct manifestation of Dharma in our lives, embracing the need to "not spare the dharma assets" in support of Sangha and Buddha treasures.
Let me close with another quote from Matsuoka Roshi, regarding this urgent and important matter. When anyone would suggest questioning the value of Zen practice, and in particular zazen, in the context of the Zen center, he would ask, "What else can you do that will give you your whole life back?"
I would add: What more can you do to support, protect and sustain this precious practice? Please do your best. We are depending on you.