THE PRICE OF
question of charging for the spiritual teachings
Zen and Chan
was born in 1940 and raised in Brooklyn, NY. He attended Brooklyn
College, part of the NYC college system, where he received a B.A. and
M.S., majoring in mathematics. He worked at Bell Labs in the
mathematical physics department for a year and afterward, in the ship
design industry for a few years.
started Zen practice in 1967 in NYC. That Spring he went to San
Francisco because he had heard that the San Francisco Zen Center was
opening the first American Zen monastery. With luck and the generosity
of the Center, he was accepted and attended the first training period of
Tassajara, their new monastery.
returned to NYC and became a member of the Zen Studies Society. He
remained a member for about two and a half years and then went to Maine
to study with Walter Nowick at what became Moon Spring Hermitage. For
many years, he was head monk, head of the Board of Directors, and in
charge of new members, instructing them in meditation, zendo protocol,
and the ways of the group.
eleven years he left and returned to NYC. Shortly, he found the Chan
Meditation Group under the leadership of Shifu Sheng-yen, a Chinese
teacher from Taiwan. He did not become a member of the group at first,
though after a few years he was given much responsibility, including the
important task of giving private interviews during seven day retreats
and running classes when Shifu returned to Taiwan, every other three
month period. He eventually became a member. From 1982–1999, he traveled
frequently, spending three months in a Korean Monastery (Songgwang Sa),
some time in Japan at both a Rinzai and Soto temple, and two stays at
Shifu’s monastery in Taiwan. During one of the stays in Taiwan, he did a
solitary thirty day retreat. He also visited the Diamond Sangha in
Hawaii twice, and spent two months with the London Zen Group as a guest
of Morinaga roshi, their Japanese teacher. He stayed at the City of Ten
Thousand Buddhas in Ukiah, Ca. twice for a few months at a time, as well
as visiting other places.
early/mid 1990’s he became interested in an academic look at Zen, which
included institutional history, myth making, and the interaction of Zen
and the state. It was an eye opener, as he had seen much over the years
that bothered him and did not make sense, but he could not put it all
together. He also became interested in the sociology of religion. His
articles are the result of years of practicing with Zen groups combined
with his academic studies of Chan/Zen as well as the sociology of
religion and institutions. Since 1999 he has practiced with a few
friends or on his own.
In the Chan tradition of Sheng Yen, how is dana practiced in
terms of giving/receiving the teachings?
Lachs: I left the organization in the year 2000, so whatever I say is from
before that time. Sheng Yen died Feb. 3, 2009 so things may have changed some
after his death.
no specific solicitation for money or gifts in terms of giving or receiving
teachings aside from reasonable monthly dues for members and whatever the
charges were for attending retreats. I do not remember the word “dana” ever
being used publicly, though shortly before I resigned there was some talk of
teaching westerners “dana” or to more actively support the organization. I
remember the retreat charges being reasonable. The retreat charges included all
meals, which were always vegetarian. I think a few people with money problems
were given scholarships to attend retreats while at other times, some people in
a tight money situation were given work exchange arrangements so they could
attend the retreats.
idea of “giving” or “donations” in the context of Chinese Buddhism is
complicated; it is not a simple donation or giving with nothing expected in
return, at least that is so for the Chinese. Something is expected in return and
that something is “merit.” What I think is going on is a transaction exchange
where “merit” is the expected gain by the person who “gives” to the support of
the monks and nuns and to the support and especially the growth of the
All parties of the exchange, the monastics, the
monastery and the giver have much to gain by the transaction. The laity gave
money, gifts, etc. and received in return merit from the monastics/monastery.
But there is also prestige, hierarchy, social connections and relations
cemented, social status, power, growth of the monastery, gaining benefits of
this world, peer recognition, making up for bad karma, and so on involved. Being
a good Chinese Buddhist means supporting the sangha and the monastery. In a
sense, a Buddhist culture is created in this exchange for salvation.
People certainly made donations but they were
voluntary; there was no tithing. Along that line, it appeared to me that the
Chinese members were much more used to giving and appeared to give much from
what I could tell. It seemed that the westerners were not used to giving and my
guess is that what was given by them was nothing like what the Chinese members
gave. But the western members did not really believe in receiving merit in
exchange for giving, as did the Chinese members. This is what I think was going
on in New York City. In addition, most western members had no idea of the scale
of Sheng Yen's operation in Taiwan. I had some idea as I stayed in his monastery
in Taiwan on two different occasions.
To get a sense of the financial scale of what was
transpiring, the Dharma Drum Mountain complex in upstate New York cost on the
order of $3 million which almost entirely came from Chinese donations. Whether
that was from foreign Chinese or Chinese living in America I do not know. There
were some wealthy Chinese people from across America who gave much.
course was a different picture as was what happened when Sheng Yen visited other
parts of Asia. Sheng Yen was one of the four leading Chinese Buddhist leaders in
Taiwan. When he gave a public talk in Taipei, it was a major event. He filled
the Taipei Convention Center auditorium which has 3,100 seats to more than
capacity when he gave a public talk there, while there were major traffic
problems on the streets outside the Center. The Taiwanese heartedly supported
Sheng Yen and his mission. Building Dharma Drum Mountain complex in Taiwan was a
vast undertaking taking many years and tens of millions of dollars. I have heard
it cost in the neighborhood of a hundred million dollars. Sheng Yen indeed, was
a successful fund raiser.
organization had a vast outreach in Taiwan and probably in other parts of the
East. I believe they had a computer file of 75,000 names and that was early in
the 1990's. Sheng Yen also ran retreats for VIP's in Taiwan with maid service
and special bedding and food. No doubt, at least some of these VIP's if not all
of them gave heavily to the building and support of Dharma Drum Monastery.
But in my experience there was never an appeal
for funds directly connected to teaching. I do not remember hearing any
solicitations before or after a retreat or at any classes that Sheng Yen gave. Sheng
Yen kept his fund raising and teaching activities totally separate.
Why do you think the Chinese members were more used to this
tradition of dana than western members?
I think early in Chinese Buddhism the idea of cultivating a
"field of merit" that is, giving to the sangha took hold. By supporting the
sangha and the monastery, that is, cultivating a "field of merit," the crop so
to speak one received is "merit." China being an agricultural society at the
time used agricultural terms like cultivating, planting, seeds, and so on. The
idea of merit was and is strongly believed in Chinese Buddhist culture. Though
it may seem nebulous to Westerners, to the Chinese, merit is as real as a brand
new Cadilac to a Westerner. Not only could merit be gained this way but it also
could be transferred to others and thereby gain in value. This idea of gaining
merit, when combined with Chinese culture being based on genealogy - that is,
family lineage, created a culture of giving to monastics and the monastery and
thereby gaining merit for oneself, family and deceased family members in return.
In Chinese culture, if one does not care for and honor deceased family members,
it is believed bad things will happen to you and your relatives. At times, in
Chinese history, giving to the sangha became so extravagant and competitive,
that the state stepped in to control it and at times keep families from being
ruined. The development of Buddhism in China as a religion in general, is
complicated. Buddhism was not strictly only religious but had a large economic
component to it.
For a most fascinating view of Buddhism in China see,
Buddhism in Chinese Society: An Economic History From The Fifth to the Tenth
Century , by Jacques Gernet, Columbia University Press, 1995.
For a discussion of merit in Chinese Buddhism, see Walsh, Michael
J., “The Economics of Salvation: Toward a Theory of Exchange in Chinese
Buddhism”, in the Journal of the American Academy of Religion, June 2007.
In China, there is a long history of supporting a monastery and
monastics. It appears to me to be a commodity exchange. The laity gives money or
goods or land to the monastics and in return, receives merit which can be banked
and importantly, transferred. The irony of this to me is that once you believe
in receiving merit for giving donations, as is the case with most Chinese
Buddhists, you cannot be entirely generous or even give gifts to the monastery.
There seems to be an inherent exchange component in that the giver expects some
thing in return for giving, that is, merit, which mitigates gift giving or
simply being generous.
What are your thoughts on some contemporary lay Buddhist type
teachers that give satsangs, but do not use the Sanskrit language or practice "dana",
but use more of a Western terminology or business modal, ask up front for a
"suggested donation" or "contribution" of some kind for a satsang or meditation
For example in the case of a teacher
like adyashanti, he says "Contribution per satsang is $10, paid at the door
I think this is straight up. Many people do not know the word "dana" so
it makes things clear and in a sense demystifies Buddhism. As the person giving
the teaching is a layperson, is not a monastic, asking for "dana" as in
supporting a monastic who was not supposed to work, but in return, studies
Budd., meditates and whatever, and then gives the teaching, this is being
honest. As many teachers today are laypeople and Buddhism is moving into new
western capitalistic culture, things will change. In a sense, the job of these
lay teachers is teaching. So it seems reasonable to ask for some thing in
return. Also, there are no monasteries with support by families with a history
of supporting a given place or government support in some places in Asia. There
is always a need for money. I think a suggested donation of $10 sounds
reasonable. I assume people are being honest about "suggested donation" so that
if someone felt they wanted to give $5 or nothing, they could still enter.
Or if Adyashanti asks for a "Contribution per satsang is $10, I
don't see the problem. I hope Adyashanti makes exceptions for people who have
trouble coming up with the $10.
I think the financial aspect of teaching Eastern traditions in
the West is in transition.
Traditionally do Chan or Zen monastery's charge for teachings?
For room and board etc.? This place called daibosatsu I went to charges 75 dollars a day
up to seven days, or 45 dollars for more than 7 days.
"The fee for a full three-month kessei is $2,000. For those who
cannot come for the entire kessei period, a one-month ($750) or two-month period
($1,500) can be arranged."
From my experience Chan and Zen monasteries do not charge for
teachings. In Taiwan, Korea, Japan and the USA, on Sundays very large numbers of
laypeople come to monasteries for services, to hear teachings, and for some, to
meditate. I know in some monasteries people could stay for three days as a guest
for no charge, if they arranged it in advance. Of course for week retreats there
were charges for room and board that varied in amount from place to place. In
some places in the Far East, I was able to stay a few weeks or longer and was
never charged. Of course I gave a donation when I left for which no amount was
suggested. But these places often have a large donor pool, often from families
with a history of support. Well known teachers in the Far East attract many
followers, often high ranking government people, business executives, and
dignitaries and many give/donate much.
But at the very least, if someone thinks Dai Bosatsu or any other
place is charging too much for what they give, they can go somewhere else. There
are many Zen places to choose from these days as well as practice
centers/monasteries associated with other sects of Buddhism besides Zen. "Too
much" is a subjective decision. There exists today a competitive market
place for religious seekers in America.
However, I think Dai Bosatsu needs some contextualizing. Dai
Bosatsu monastery was started by Eido Shimano in 1976. Shimano has a long
history of being accused of sexual and monetary scandal going back to 1965 or so
in Hawaii. In fact Shimano's own teacher, Soen Nakagawa roshi did not attend the
opening ceremony of Dai Bosatsu most likely because of scandal swirling around
Shimano at the time. This history of scandal around Shimano is well known in Zen
circles and just last year I believe, the N.Y. Times did an article on him.
Shimano stepped down amid more scandal somewhere around New Years, 2012. If
someone is interested in reading about his history, go to
There is very much material there. For a truncated and condensed version one can
also read the paper "The Aitken-Shimano Letters" at
by Vladimir K. and Stuart Lachs.
At any rate, Dai Bosatsu and its city center, the Zen Studies
Society have over the years lost many if not most of its large donors. It has
also lost many members while they have a large financial responsibility for
Shimano's and his wife's retirement package, which by most measures is
considered very generous. They also have the up keep and maintenance of two
large practice places. Shimano's handpicked replacement as abbot, Sherry Chayat,
known as Shinge roshi, has been a loyalist of Shimano through years of scandal.
It is hard to see her bringing in the donations that Shimano was able to do from
both wealthy Americans and Japanese.
In a word, they need money.
END OF INTERVIEW