Commercial Intent – aka Buddhism, money and making a living (online)

As I write this, this blog has a whopping 4 visitors a day, on average. As a seasoned web professional of over 10 years, I knew that it was never going to get a lot of traffic overnight. Why not? Because I started this blog with the intent of simply writing about what I care about. My more general spiritual stuff gets posted on my All Considering blog which has over 500 subscribers and about a 1000 visitors daily and still doesn’t make a significant dent in my income. Still when I write about popular Buddhist topics like mindfulness, it gets posted there.

To make that even clearer: I have never decided the TOPIC of my spiritual writing by the kind of audience I expect it to pull in. If I were to do that, I would end up writing about how to make money by thinking positively (aka lying) or how to get your health back by doing puja’s (aka lying) or simply on how to become happy for ever more (aka lying). Instead I write about what I think about, believe in and have learned. 

This blog is for the stuff that is only interesting to a specifically Buddhist audience. And by that I mean the kind of Buddhist that has actually taken refuge, believes in karma and rebirth and studies Buddhist texts at least to some extent. It’s a small group. Far smaller than the audience of people like H.H. the Dalai Lama, Thich Nhat Hanh or Pema Chodron. Of course it’s still a bigger group than my former sangha of theosophists, but I digress. 

The thing is – a few Buddhist sticklers have decided this blog is too commercial for their taste. Why? Because I link to pages with Buddhist merchandise, which signifies commercial intent in their eyes. 

And yes, I’ll readily confess, those pages make me a few dollars a month. 

Buddhism and money is a tricky topic. Ask any Buddhist scholar and they’ll tell you money and Buddhism go back a long way. Let’s get some facts out there:

  1. Buddhism was probably most popular in it’s Indian heyday (300 BC to 500 AD) among traders and merchants. 
  2. Originally the Buddha, monks and nuns begged daily for their food. Literally. In India roaming religious people were (and are) a normal part of the landscape. Lay people giving food to such people think it will be good karma for them to support them. 
  3. Not long after the Buddha’s death (and perhaps even before) donations from lay people became so large that it enabled monks and nuns to live in monasteries with their own land. That land could of course not be worked by the monks themselves, so they had people who did it for them living on the land. Any profit went to the sangha. Since monks aren’t supposed to touch money, they hired people to do it for them. (seeing a problem yet?)
  4. In all Asian countries where Buddhism is alive today, there is an active culture of giving TO the sangha. Monasteries are kept on such donations, often given for the purpose of specific prayers the monks are to recite for lay people’s worldly success or their deceased relatives. (most Western readers will now scoff)
  5. In the protestant West we got rid of monks and nuns centuries ago. We have a tradition of paid religious workers (ministers, priests). Salaried priests, as Blavatsky scathingly called them. When we go to a spiritual meeting, we expect part of the money to go to the teacher – unless we realize they’re a volunteer. 
  6. Professional Buddhists in the West are therefore not expected to be paid (you can’t pay for dharma after all), but their audience expects the money they paid to go into their pockets at least a bit. We expect salaried priests, after all. 
  7. Asking for donations is a taboo in many Western countries. It’s associated with charity, with not earning your keep, with super-rich tv-ministers. 
  8. Professional Buddhists do have rent or mortgage to pay, electricity bills etc and they inhabit bodies that require food. 

In short: Professional Buddhists are in a bind. They can’t really ask for money – though the ‘dana talk’ has evolved so that often money gets requested FOR them. They have all the costs of a human being living in a modern world, but since they gave up on a normal day job, it’s unclear where the money is to come from. 

When I started my business almost a decade ago I had been online for about 5 years already. I knew I wanted to spend as much time and energy on studying spirituality as I could manage, so I wanted my business to take up as little time as possible. For about 4 years now that dream is a reality: I can live off my online income mostly recommending worldly stuff like PCs and Christmas presents. As much as my personality will allow I can study and meditate and write about spirituality in general and Buddhism in particular. More about my online journey

Unlike some Buddhist teachers, I don’t ask for donations on my main site (at least not prominently enough to actually get me (m)any donations). Instead I have ads on there. The result is very similar though: I can offer dharma online for free. Those ads pay the webhosting bill, on average. 

Personally I think that as long as Western Buddhists aren’t prepared to financially support their sangha enough for them to live off donations, they have no right to decide on how Buddhist authors and teachers make their living. Deciding on someone else’s motive is even worse.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not a nun. The difference is immaterial for  purposes of this post though. 

Taking refuge: vows, commitments, belief and faith

Since I took refuge, I find myself explaining what that means to me to Buddhists and non-Buddhists alike. Because, after all, I did not suddenly become less of a skeptic. There are aspects of the Buddhism I’m being taught that I don’t relate to much at all. The main example is, always, the enormous amounts of rituals in Tibetan Buddhism.

A practicing Buddhist friend of mine said yesterday that he hadn’t taken refuge. His reason? How could he take refuge in a Sangha consisting of some obvious fools? I told him: it’s not about promising to believe everything every monk comes up with. It’s about respect for those who practice Buddhism as a path. It’s about realizing that you don’t know which Buddhist fool is realized and which isn’t, so that respect is there as a precaution against disrespect towards an enlightened being.

Respect is a bit difficult for us Westerners, especially for Dutch people like myself. I was raised, as was my whole generation, on children’s books glorifying disrespect. I think the most famous example world wide is Pippi Longstocking(*). But let me tell you: compared to other characters in Dutch children’s books – Pippi is a veritable gold mine of good manners. Come to think of it, since my grandmother collected children’s books, I read stories from all over the world. Still, nothing beats the Dutch Annie M.G. Schmidt I think: not a bit of respect for adults in there to be found.

I’m in the mood for stories I guess. One story our Geshela (Sonam Gyaltsen) has already told several times in my hearing is about the famous Indian scholar-monk Atisha. He had studied and mastered all the Buddhist teachings available to him in India. Pondering how to gain enlightenment he walked around a stupa and had a vision of the characters in the decorations around the stupa talking to each other: ‘how can one gain enlightenment quickly? You need Bodhicitta!’. So he went to Sumatra, a perilous sea journey at the time, to study with the monk famous for that realization:  Dharmarakshita. Atisha studied with Dharmarakshita for 12 years.

The point? Well, Atisha had already realized the emptiness as taught by Nagarjuna and Dharmarakshita was a Chittamatrin of the Mind Only School. So the two differed in their opinion on one of the most basic philosophical points in Buddhism. Still, Atisha was a devoted student of Dharmarakshita.

This is a very relevant story for us Westerners, because we come to Buddhism with a mind full of Western knowledge. Do we have to leave that behind to take refuge? Absolutely not. Refuge is saying: “The Buddha became enlightened by a path I trust. I trust no other spiritual path as much, so I take refuge in the Buddha, his teachings and the spiritual community he founded. I want to travel along that path as best I am able in this life”.

There are implications to the Refuge vows though and I do think some belief is necessary before taking refuge:

  • You have to believe in karma and rebirth to be a Buddhist
  • You have to believe that Buddha really existed
  • You have to believe the dharma he taught can lead to enlightenment. However you can choose whichever Buddhist tradition you want to get there, from devotional Nichiren to meditational Zen, traditional Theravada or contemplative Gelugpa. In practice your beliefs and practices will probably be a mix.
  • You have to respect the sangha of ordained monks and nuns, knowing that while individually they’re simply people just like you, collectively they are necessary to preserve the teachings. Individually monks and nuns have to be respected for taking that step of renunciation from the world: that commitment in itself is worthy of respect, even in the case of monastics who can’t manage to live up to the ideals they’re trying to embody.
What becoming a Buddhist does NOT imply:
  • Believing that the earth is flat, that there is a mount Meru at the center with 4 continents around it, us living in the Southern continent. The Dalai Lama has made it very clear that whatever there is in Buddhist mythology that flatly contradicts the outcome (not the speculations) of Western science should be discarded. This is an obvious example.
  • Believing everything in the Buddhist sutras literally: Buddhist scholars past and present have realized that the dharma Buddha taught was not always clear, nor was it always internally consistent. The conclusion was: Buddha taught what was necessary for a particular audience. Since these texts were written down a few centuries after the Buddha passed away, it’s very likely that not all of the sutras contain the words as Gautama Buddha spoke them. Notwithstanding the quality of memory of the brahmin-born monks in his retinue. Of course there is even less certainty about the Mahayana Sutras.
Personally I believe there is real wisdom in the Buddhist teachings as they come down to us after more than 2000 years. It’s obvious that the cultures of Tibet, China, Japan and even Sri Lanka influences the Buddhism as it gets taught to us today. Similarly Western culture has been influencing Buddhist practice and doctrine for over a century. This is to be expected. In fact it’s to be cherished. However, each of us gets to decide which aspects of the Buddhist traditions we are taught will work in our lives and which won’t. We get to pick and choose as long as we don’t lose sight of the essentials.
Devotion is more central than most people in the West are comfortable with. I mention devotion without mentioning what one is devoted TO. The Buddha, as a perfected being full of loving kindness to humanity, is obviously the most ideal object of devotion one can think of. You would not be reading this if you thought Christ was more ideal – if you do, do become a Christian. That devotion is the essence of taking refuge.
Wikipedia, which after all represents the average voice of humanity on a topic, has this to say about the objects of refuge (checked Feb 2012):

The Three Jewels general signification is:

  • the Buddha;
  • the Dharma, the teachings;
  • the Sangha, the community of (at least partially) enlightened beings, often approximated to community of monks and nuns (Bhikkhus and Bhikkhunis).

(*) I do not mean to imply that Pippi Longstocking is Dutch. She was conceived by the Swedish author Astrid Lindgren who also wrote other great books I liked a whole lot better as a child. Ronia the Robber’s Daughter comes to mind.

Universal Buddhist Refuge Prayer

In the Gelugpa Tradition of Tibetan Buddhism of the FPMT one is expected to take refuge in the three jewels (Buddha, Dharma, Sangha) twice daily (three times each), especially if one has already taken refuge formally.

For me, as a former theosophist, anything sectarian is a problem. On the other hand, I did pick Buddhism as my spiritual path of preference for a reason and I do trust my teachers when it comes to the path to enlightenment and buddha-hood. So I took formal refuge and became a Buddhist.

In order to not lose touch with the foundation of my path: universal wisdom and remind myself of my new commitment, I composed the following refuge prayer for my daily practice:

“Till my enlightenment I take refuge in Buddha, all Enlightened beings and my own Buddha Nature;
I take refuge in the Dharma, the universal truth and the path towards enlightenment;
I take refuge in the Sangha, the community of those who are ahead of me on the path.”

Refuge is a universally Buddhist ritual, practiced by Theravada, Zen and Tibetan Buddhists alike. In itself it does not yet determine which type of Buddhism one has chosen.

In the FPMT taking refuge, like other vows, is sometimes also taken as choosing a particular guru as one’s teacher. This part is definitely not mandatory: no teacher would expect you to wait with taking refuge till you are ready to choose a particular teacher as ‘your teacher’.