November 21, 2011

Why the Dharma Should Be Sold: Or How to Make a Living Off of Spirituality Without Being Called a Sellout. ~ Keith Martin-Smith

Photo: Jason Brackins


At the start of the 21st Century, those of us in the so-called “business of spirituality” face an interesting dilemma.

For millennia, in teaching the dharma (or Buddhist teachings) it has been great frowned upon to charge for teachings.  My own teacher, Jun Po Roshi, runs his Mondo Zen organization very much this way, with each retreat covering basic costs and a modest salary for him.  The priests, lay disciples, and others donate our time and resources, and also pay to attend the retreats we staff. The reason: the dharma is not sold.

The consequences of this model are that gifted and insightful teachers, with genuine and deep insight, are leaving for greener pastures in non-spiritual fields like coaching and therapy.

What a terrible loss.  The dana model, of giving away the teachings as an expression and practice of generosity, has been a time-honored approach since the time of the historical Buddha. The trouble with this idea is that for most of human history, those who taught the dharma were taken care of by a wealthy aristocracy who paid for their temples, robes, food, transportation, security, time for contemplation, education, and every other worldly need.

Spirituality was an important and central rail of nearly all cultures, and therefore was handsomely supported.  Those aristocrats are no longer there, but those of us still teaching are expected to teach the dharma at cost or, at least, without living too grandly.  After all, it isn’t about the money, right?

I would argue that this view is self-selecting a new generation of teachers that have tremendous psychological shadow around money, strongly literal and rigid interpretations of the dharma teachings, and/or a strong inclination to be judgmental and suspicious of anything innovative and emergent.

Brad Warner captures the essence of these fears, some of them certainly legitimate, on his Hardcore Zen blog: “…fundamentally a Zen teacher is not a professional who helps students who are non-professionals in exchange for compensation. The so-called ‘students’ are actually companions in work that is being undertaken by both teacher and student. The only real difference is that the teacher is someone who has done this work for a bit longer than the student. Yet the teacher is no more advanced, because the concept of ‘advancement’ is an illusion… A professional is someone who charges for their services and promises some kind of results, even if not necessarily promising what the client views as success. The moment Zen teachers start looking upon what they do in this way, what they do is no longer Zen teaching at all.” [I should note that Brad may very well have a more nuanced view than this paragraph suggests; nevertheless, this is an important window into why some believe it is unethical in Buddhism to charge for teachings].

I would argue that holding a position like the one above confuses a relative with an absolute view.  From the absolute perspective, there is only Awakened Mind, permeating everything and everyone in this moment.  There is nothing to be sold, no realization to be had, nothing to be gained, no transcendence or transcendence of transcendence, no student or teacher or teaching, nothing but this extraordinary moment in this ordinary mind.

This is why Zen says Zen teachings are “selling water by the river”, for Realized Mind is not something you get, or release into, or surrender in front of, or do anything at all to get. This mind just is, and in that light Brad’s point on this absolute view is correct.

But we don’t live in only an absolute world, but also the world of evolution and growth, including the evolutionary impulse waking up to itself (a most extraordinary thing, really).

"Money doesn't grow on trees."

And in that sense, the idea that “the teacher is no more advanced because the concept of advancement is an illusion” is true, but it is also transparently false. Charismatic and insightful teachers like Adyashanti and Eckart Tolle make good livings selling water by the river, for the simple reason that they do posses something that most of us don’t–the ability to see through the illusion of our separateness. They have crossed through the Gateless Gate and, seeing there is nothing to be had on the other side, attempt to show us this age-old truism of spiritual insight: the diamond we seek is in our pocket.

Saying “the teacher is no more advanced” is, in fact, a dangerous flat-lining of insight that opens the door to many things, not the least of which is the narcissism of the un-awakened student, who in fact does not possess the insight of the master. The truth that we are all fully realized beings is inarguable when viewed through an awakened lens, yes, but so is the view that most of us do not realize this, and need instruction and help to do so.

The diamond is in our pocket, but sometimes we’re not sure of even what room we left our pants in! Hence, the healthy teacher-student dynamic. In Tibetan circles, the relationships between students and teachers can get into extremely hierarchical and patriarchal structures, with some teachers not even allowing their students to question them. This would be the other, extreme side of this coin­–from being “only always an equal” to “always more insightful”. Neither of these views is true, because we don’t live in an absolute or a relative world–we live in both, simultaneously.

It’s time for us to move from these extremes, and instead chose the middle road–no teacher has absolute authority, and we should be skeptical of any that claim they can sell us water by the river. At the same time, teachers and masters exist because they have taken the time to deepen their own insight, and the wisdom in how they came into Awakened Mind can help us to do the same, or to “take our own seats”. This insight is not from a teacher and not given by one, for as Jun Po says, only we can take our seat in spiritual insight–it will not be given to us. But most of us need that teacher to empower us along the way.

So what the hell does this have to do with money? In a word, everything.

The dharma is not sold, it is said, and certainly not sold at handsome profits. My question is: why not?

My teachers, Lama Tsering Everest and Jun Po Roshi, have helped me far more than the expensive therapists I have seen, or the emotional processing I’ve done in groups, or the books I’ve read. And their teachings were, indeed, largely given to me at cost. But I don’t agree that those teachings should necessarily be so cheap.

Jeff Moss

A great spiritual teacher will change your life, and the good ones won’t refuse any students on the basis of money. They might request an exchange of equal value or offer scholarships, but all are welcomed. But for those that can pay, why not charge them? That money will only help the dharma spread, create a deepening community, and encourage other gifted teachers to explore their own insights. If a great teacher fancies three houses and a couple of motorcycles, well, go for it.

The market will say if they’re teaching anything of worth. I would argue that Genpo Roshi (who was given a lot of grief for the aforementioned houses and motorcycles, paid for by very expensive Big Mind private retreats) gave a lot of people the first Kensho they’d ever had, and suddenly they understood the game they were playing in a whole new way. Is it worth $50K for a weeklong, private Big Mind retreat, what he was charging? Not to me, but to someone it was, and who am I to say it’s not worth that much to them? Why do I, or Brad Warner, get to be the arbiter of how much is enough to charge?

Are spiritual teachers professionals? In the absolute view, no, of course not. There is, after all, only one mind, one consciousness, and there is nothing separate from this awareness. But in the relative, are spiritual teachers professionals on par with therapists, coaches, and others who help people take a deeper and more loving cut into their own lives?

Of course they are. And as such, they deserve to get paid, without ridicule, condemnation, or judgment. More to the point, charging money means that professional spiritual teachers will be much more accountable to the quality of what they teach, and how well they do it. An exchange of money gives both the teacher and the student “teeth in the game” to take the practice as something that is worthwhile.

The dana model has served us well for a few thousand years, but like the crumbling other institutions of old, it needs to be re-imagined for a new world that is fast descending upon us. If we want a vibrant and living spirituality to continue to evolve along with us, we need to be willing to pay for it. Or else find some friendly aristocrats.




Keith Martin-Smith began studying the dharma and took empowerment and vows with Lama Tsering Everest in the mid 1990’s. In 2007 he met Jun Po Denis Kelly Roshi and became a lay disciple of his. Keith has been authorized by Jun Po Roshi to teach Rinzai Zen and Mondo Zen, and has been awarded the title of sensei.


He also worked as the Marketing Manager at Integral Institute from 2006-2007, and left to pursue his writing and other interests. In 2009, his book The Mysterious Divination of Tea Leaves was published, which Ken Wilber called “…a profound and deeply felt collection of short stories, highly recommended for those who are looking for insight, intelligence, wit, and wisdom.”

His most current work, the memoir of Zen Master Jun Po Denis Kelly Roshi, is called A Heart Blown Open and is coming out to all bookstores in February 2012. Excerpts from both works can be found of Keith’s website, www.keithmartinsmith.com.

In addition to writing, Keith has been studying Shaolin and Northern style Kung Fu since 1994, and currently teaches Kung Fu and Qi Gong in Boulder, CO.



Read 7 Comments and Reply

Read 7 comments and reply

Top Contributors Latest

Elephant journal  |  Contribution: 1,375,590