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marketing buddha

The Dalai Lama has dedicated his life to the practice and spreading of Buddhist teachings: how wonderful! And he’s become a media star, filling large venues and appearing on talk shows*. Victor Chan, his Canadian promoter, refers to him and others (including Desmond Tutu and Eckhart Tolle) as the “spiritual dream team.” 

Tickets for October’s two-hour public audience in Toronto (Tibetan language only) sold at $50; the following day’s “empowerment” was priced at $100 (general) and $200 (premium). The small print states that “a reasonable fee structure has been implemented … to defray the cost of organizing these auspicious teachings and ceremonies” and the less-than-wealthy were asked to submit a Financial Hardship Form for case-by-case consideration.

A recent organizer‘s website explains that “His Holiness the Dalai Lama does not accept a speaking fee ….” Then who, I wonder, is profiting from the Buddha’s teachings?

Gautama Shakyamuni (who became known as Buddha, “the awakened one”) spent forty years walking around India teaching his basic message of suffering and liberation. We’re told that anyone could attend such outdoor gatherings; anyone could step up, ask questions of the man, and receive careful and repeated explanation. Kings, scholars, householders, nuns, beggars — anyone! No charge. No premium seating. No financial hardship application.

Ken Wilber is a scholar and author on developmental psychology, philosophy, ecology, and spiritual practices. On the topic of money and dharma (the Buddha’s teachings as transmitted from teacher to student for 2500 years), he writes

The dharma is free. No one should charge money for the teaching or transmission of Dharma. Dharma that touches money is no Dharma at all. Selling the Dharma — there is the root of all evil. The Dharma offered freely and without charge to all who seek it: there is purity, nobility, an honorable disposition. And so goes the strange antagonism between Dharma and dollars. 

What are your thoughts on this?

* I mean no disrespect for the Dalai Lama — he’s simply the most visible among pricy dharma teachers; others include Pema Chödrön, Thich Nath Hanh, and such heavy borrowers as Eckhart Tolleimage credit:


9 responses »

  1. I was drawn to a ten-day Vipassana retreat some years ago by S. N. Goenka’s policy on payment:
    The residential retreat was free to me – no cost at all except the getting to the site (and rides were available for free)
    However, if I found the experience to be worthwhile, I was able – through Dana – to pay all or part of the cost of allowing someone else to attend a future retreat
    In contrast to the hard-nosed commercialism of many ‘teachers’ and religious practitioners, I found this approach attractive and sensitive.
    At that time, I hadn’t heard of the Buddhist concept of freely sharing the Dharma.

    • This is a challenging topic. I’ve written about it a fair amount on my blog, in part because I have been the chair of our zen center’s board of directors for the past year +, and am thus steeped in money matters. I think Ken Wilber’s quote is a bit off. Money is empty of a fixed quality or identity, just like anything or anyone else. And while I bristle at commodifying the dharma, making it into something for purchase, that root of all evil comment feels Christian – or coming from Western philosophical views, and thus feels off to me.

      Having been sunk into the swamp of dharma center finances – over three years on the board now – as well as having sought out writings about these issues from others has taught me a lot about how muddled things are for Buddhists living in capitalist nations that don’t have strong Buddhist cultural support. In order to having places to study and meditate as a community, we need some money. Where do we get it? Well, this is the tough question. If you’re fortunate to locate some rich patrons, like a few of the dharma centers on the U.S. west coast have, then you can offer free classes, retreats, and whatnot. If not, then you’re in a bind.

      I personally think that the younger generations, mine and those coming after me, are going to approach some of this quite differently. Small, more informal dharma groups might become more the norm than larger centers that are expensive to finance. The internet will be more a part of practice, which again will defray some of the cost. I’m not sure the fame of teachers like the Dalai Lama, Thich Nhat Hanh, and Pema Chodron is going to be transferred over into a younger set of internationally known dharma teachers, so some of the money making going on right now might be less so in 20 or 30 years.

      Those are a few thoughts on the subject.

      • Peter B. Reiner

        I tend to agree with Nathan – the Ken Wilbur quote is suspiciously laced with Judeo-Christian attitudes, judgements even (!!!), and does not seem to reflect what I understand of Buddhist teachings.

        [As if to reinforce the oddness of all of this dicussion, Ken Wilbur sells CD’s with his version of the dharma through his website. I don’t begrudge him making a living, but were he to truly live by the contentious quote, all of that information would be available over the internet for free.]

  2. Peter,
    I studied both tai chi and iaido for many years. My Tai Chi teacher said that you needed to charge students in the west or they would not believe in the truth of the teaching. My Iaido teacher did not charge a fee at first, but then he was told by his Japanese teacher that charging no fee did not cut it because in Japan the student would live with the teacher and do the necessary household work. This live-in arrangement did not happen in the west. Money/fee was in lue of being a live-in assistant.

  3. Derek in Ottawa/Canada writes about the age-old system of ‘paying’ teachers with dana (generiosity of donation):

    “I hope that some teachers and students continue to preserve this rare and completely different activity called Dana which is so thoroughly misunderstood in the West today because Dana is a different plant, a different species, than exchange-relations. And Dana contains something that exchange-relations do not. Dana has the potential to liberate the giver. Dana is an enlightenment activity. For the sake of awakening, we should keep the Dana tradition alive. Even though it is very difficult for buy-and-sell-Westerners to understand it.”

    More at

    • This is such a sticky subject. I dislike the feel of paying a “fee” for retreats yet I have. I like the idea of Dana. There is something so gentle about it. It does allow us to experience our own generosity or lack of. I recently read a piece on dana and the gist of it was if we give dana for a teaching or a retreat how different is that than payment, the point being dana should not be in exchange for something such as a teaching.

      I think, having sat on a Sangha executive and grappled with the finance issue, one observation was that most people coming don’t really understand dana, at least at first. In fact I didn’t myself initially when I came and put $5 in the basket without much thought. In the east I have read that people often give because they believe it will bring merit to them. This doesn’t feel good to me either. There feels like some “exchange” going on here.

      True generosity springs from the heart without question of what we will receive in return. This I believe. Am I being an incurable romantic? Can Sangha’s trust that somehow the light bill will get paid? I don’t know the answer to this either. I know our resident nun always asked us to trust (she even felt uncomfortable putting out the dana basket!) and somehow things always worked out. What is the role of faith in all of it?

      Thanks for asking us to think more deeply about this issue.

  4. Malcolm said “…I was able – through Dana – to pay all or part of the cost of allowing someone else to attend a future retreat…” I like this. I also experienced this on a Vipassana retreat many years ago. It is like the idea of ‘paying forward’ – instead of ‘paying back’.

    On the charging for the Dharma talks by the Dalai Lama – – it also says that the Dalai Lama asked that ticket prices be set at an appropriate level to help offset associated costs. And… “the safety and security of His Holiness is our utmost concern. Hosting a guest of this magnitude requires a significant security process for all attendees and has been likened to what you experience at a busy airport.”
    Sadly, life in 21st century America just doesn’t allow for an informal outdoor gathering, if only it did!

    There probably is a profit being made somewhere, but organising an event like this with top notch security must cost a lot of money. And without it people would not have the experience of actually being present with the Dalai Lama, which, from experience, is a priviledge. To have to apply as a ‘hardship case’ is not pleasant, but at least it was offered. An event this big just couldn’t happen without charging, or else being funded by someone with a huge amount of money. It’s a dilemma.
    Do they just say – we won’t charge and therefore the talk won’t happen? As zendotstudio says – a sticky subject indeed!

  5. In the case of the Dalai Lama, you have to remember that he goes to these events by invitation. If you were to go to Dharamsala, you could indeed receive teachings from him and other extraordinary teachers for free, or at very low cost, but if you ask him (or another teacher) to travel halfway around the world and speak to thousands in a professional venue, there are going to be a few incidental expenses. Some of these (transportation, maybe hotels, maybe meals) will be for him and the people he travels with. Much of the money will also go to venues and services there, which in most Western countries are not free. The organizers have to commit to paying these costs up front, so in my experience they set ticket prices based on a rule of thumb that simply divides the total costs by the number of people expected. If their estimate is wrong, and few people come, they end up in the red, which in the West is a very uncomfortable place to be. If participants exceed expectations, then they have an excess, and in cases where I have seen that, it is first offered to the Dalai Lama, who then gives it back. In Japan he asked that the funds be used to translate Dharma materials not available here into Japanese. In Australia I think it was used as seed money for a future visit, but I may not have that right.

    So in the end, at least in the case of the Dalai Lama’s teachings, I think the answer to your question of who profits is just the people providing all of the goods and services that work in the background to make the whole event work. It’s not like the West makes carte blanche offers to religious teachers: “Come on over, all our companies will provide services for free!” Some will provide services at cost, but still there are costs and they must be paid. It’s the reality. Ideally everything would be covered by donations received in advance, but that isn’t always realistic, so each country, each event, must work out a compromise of some kind.

    In any case, there is a big difference between “selling Dharma” for profit and merely covering reasonable costs to make the transmission of teachings possible. Obviously a gray area exists, but there is no easy answer. It’s the same as with artists. It’s considered nonvirtuous to sell Dharma objects for a profit, so what they often do is tally up the costs of their materials and tools, add a living hourly wage for their time, and that’s the price. The fact that something has a price tag doesn’t always mean that someone is making a profit.

  6. Of course, that said, there are charlatans, and there are people who try to make a religious virtue out of profit itself. It’s up to the student to check these things out and decide for themselves, and I’m sure that was just as true 2,500 years ago.


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