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.