"Buddhism Without Merit"

General discussion, particularly exploring the Dharma in the modern world.
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jake
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"Buddhism Without Merit"

Post by jake » Thu Nov 07, 2019 11:02 pm

I found Jeff Wilson's article "Buddhism Without Merit: Theorizing Buddhist Religio-Economic Activity in the Contemporary World" in the latest Journal of Global Buddhism very interesting. (http://www.globalbuddhism.org/jgb/index ... e/view/242)

The abstract sums it up nicely:
"Merit is the fundamental product of the Buddhist system. Buddhists generate and distribute it through their activities, and merit economics have shaped Buddhist practices, organizations, material culture, and inter-personal relations. But what happens when merit ceases to be recognized as a valuable product? For the first time in Buddhist history, some Buddhists are operating entirely outside of the merit economy, with resulting changes in organization, ritual practice, and economic activities. When merit is devalued, it is replaced by elements from culturally dominant non-merit economies and may take on their associated values and practices. Jettisoning the Buddhist merit economy has financial consequences for Buddhist groups, and those who operate without the merit economy must create new post-merit Buddhisms. A sifting process occurs, as practices, ideas, and institutions that are dependent on merit economic logic are altered or abandoned. Successful forms of Buddhism will be those that can be recast with non-merit logic."
I'm curious how merit is presented, if at all, in your local practice group/temple/sangha and how it influences your practice of dana or giving to the group? Wilson gives two cases of centers in Canada and I'm curious to learn how representative they are for other groups in North America or European context.

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Johnny Dangerous
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Re: "Buddhism Without Merit"

Post by Johnny Dangerous » Thu Nov 07, 2019 11:08 pm

It has definitely been my experience that many Westerners have the immediate impulse to give generically to "charity" of whatever kind than to donate money to Dharma. I think this definitely indicates a problem, as many people do not apparently see that donating money to the continuance of Dharma is, of and within itself a big deal, and should be made a priority. I've found myself even having misgivings in places I shouldn't, not being more generous simply based on cultural conditioning.

My local center is totally financially transparent. With some retreats/teachings we barely break even, sometimes even less than that. I think we have a number of people who donate substantially who are more long term members. It tends to be the newer, "Buddhish" people who are not convinced of the value of dana. The issue with that is, IME a lot of centers are made up of 50% "Buddhish" people who come and go, and the core group has to absorb most of the costs of operation.

In this sense, at least on the outside "ethnic" Thai, Vietnamese etc. temples appear to fare better.
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Miroku
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Re: "Buddhism Without Merit"

Post by Miroku » Thu Nov 07, 2019 11:24 pm

I'd also add that it might also be partially caused by the kind of people dharma draws. At least here where I am from it is still mostly the alternative folks who are either in college or in some way try to escape capitalism, which often equals low income. Then there is the other extreme where the upper middle class people seem to use dharma as a proof that they "deserve" to be rich and fail to accumulate further causes of wealth through dana.

Plus quite often the groups/centers take on a huge project that burdens them or spend a lot of money on statues, etc..

I am afraid that if merit economics fail in the west, we can say bye bye to buddhism in the west.
“Observing samaya involves to remain inseparable from the union of wisdom and compassion at all times, to sustain mindfulness, and to put into practice the guru’s instructions”. Garchen Rinpoche

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Re: "Buddhism Without Merit"

Post by mikenz66 » Fri Nov 08, 2019 3:15 am

Miroku wrote:
Thu Nov 07, 2019 11:24 pm
I'd also add that it might also be partially caused by the kind of people dharma draws. At least here where I am from it is still mostly the alternative folks who are either in college or in some way try to escape capitalism, which often equals low income. ...
And there's also the idea that "Dharma should be free", when of course, it's much more nuanced than that. I support the idea of "giving Dharma freely", in the end, someone actually has to bear the cost of supporting monastics, teachers, institutions, books, and so on...

:heart:
Mike

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Kim O'Hara
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Re: "Buddhism Without Merit"

Post by Kim O'Hara » Fri Nov 08, 2019 7:17 am

:good:

Working out how to do it will be an ongoing challenge, I suspect.

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Dan74
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Re: "Buddhism Without Merit"

Post by Dan74 » Fri Nov 08, 2019 11:57 am

mikenz66 wrote:
Fri Nov 08, 2019 3:15 am
Miroku wrote:
Thu Nov 07, 2019 11:24 pm
I'd also add that it might also be partially caused by the kind of people dharma draws. At least here where I am from it is still mostly the alternative folks who are either in college or in some way try to escape capitalism, which often equals low income. ...
And there's also the idea that "Dharma should be free", when of course, it's much more nuanced than that. I support the idea of "giving Dharma freely", in the end, someone actually has to bear the cost of supporting monastics, teachers, institutions, books, and so on...

:heart:
Mike
I think the right approach is that Dharma should be accessible and not for profit. "Free" is often not realistic in the West and also sometimes counter-productive, i.e. tends to be underappreciated in a culture where good things typically come at a cost and free equates to "worthless."

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Re: "Buddhism Without Merit"

Post by jake » Fri Nov 08, 2019 1:42 pm

Thanks for the interesting feedback and ideas. Some of the comments remind me of the distinctions made by Payne in his article "Religion, Self-Help, Science: Three Economies of Western/ized Buddhism" (also in the latest issue of the Journal of Global Buddhism http://www.globalbuddhism.org/jgb/index ... ew/240/246).

For example, the conversation here, given our (likely) shared economic system has shifted from any discussion how "merit" is presented in-group to how best to compensate a group or center for the services they render. For me this raises a lot of interesting questions that are likely outside the scope of this thread. I will tug on one string. This framework of viewing a center as providing services, like teachings, or meditation instruction then necessitates having an "expert" that provides those services. It becomes a lot like visiting a lawyer or doctor. This then turns a temple into an economic liability, overhead that needs to be covered in order for the expert to continue providing services to paying customers. I'm being a bit sloppy with how I reframe things, but the gist remains solid.

Contrary, if I understand Wilson and Payne's articles and remember enough of the basics, another way of viewing a temple and a priest/monastic/lama are as fields of merit. Places where monastics or priests/lamas have worked hard to create fertile soil for us to plant seeds** and generate merit. Instead of a deduction/liability a temple is viewed as a fertile field where we can contribute and reap future benefits. The priest or Lama a skilled practitioner in converting our offering into merit through any number of ways, recitation of sutra, prayer, etc. They're both providing a "service" if you will but the underlying view of the economic system is completely different.

Wilson writes that in his research of a Western Zen center there is no mention of merit. The appeals for donations are largely a membership-model. Where joining allows for the continued support of teachings offered through podcasts, webinars, etc. Almost like a Netflix membership. In the end it proves unsustainable. The push to produce more podcasts, etc. costs more than people listening while jogging donate and the center has to lay off their instructor.

Miroku correctly mentions the economics of people involved in Buddhism. He's correct according to Wilson and Pew (table below). I suspect part of the issue depressing the household income is a confounding factor related to social class. But this only makes the point even more pressing. The centers that are doing comparatively well, according to Wilson and Payne, are the more traditional centers which focus on merit. e.g. the Vietnamese, Laotian, Chinese temples. The majority-Caucasian centers struggle, like the Zen center in Canada.

Wilson cites a Pew study, from his JGB article:
Wilson article wrote:Downwardly Mobile Buddhism
Buddhists in the United States on average earn less than the general American population at large,
according to a 2014 Pew survey of household income: 36% earn under $30,000 (U.S. average: 35%),
18% earn $30,000-$49,000 (U.S. average: 20%), 32% earn $50,000-$99,999 (U.S. average: 26%), and only
13% earn $100,000 or more (U.S. average: 19%). This puts them well behind Jews, Hindus,
Presbyterians, Episcopalians, atheists, Methodists, and many others—in terms of income, Buddhists’
closest compatriots are Southern Baptists, Seventh-Day Adventists, and Pentecostals (Masci 2016).
However, this does not mean that Buddhists as a whole lack significant financial resources, and some
lineages draw especially on members of the information, technology, and other privileged sectors of
contemporary society. Similar dynamics appear to exist in Canada.
My summary is obviously crude and lacks nuance. Pointing to obvious examples, like mountain tops, realizing almost everyone lives down in the valleys between these extremes. As I've aged I've grown more interested in the ideas of merit and giving to generate merit. I still struggle with these ideas though. Look forward to more of your excellent replies.

jake

**I really hesitate to use the term 'seed' given its connotation and use in prosperity gospel

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Miroku
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Re: "Buddhism Without Merit"

Post by Miroku » Fri Nov 08, 2019 7:27 pm

That's a pretty good and interesting summary Jake (and not only because you mention me there ;) ).

As for causes of this problem my personal believe is that the cause is a lack of education/understanding of basic buddhist concepts among buddhist followers in the west. Everybody is trying (or seems to) be the yogi in the west (at least in vajrayana circles it seems to me), which is great, however how much good will it do without basic grasping of the basic concepts as morality, karma, etc.? Nobody wants to be a householder in the west. We all want the highest teachings and don't make enough space for basics. And that is a rather huge mistakes given the fact that we come from a totally different cultural background. We need the study more than tibetans or nepali do.
But these are just my two cents worth of rambling, I guess... Sorry. :shrug:
“Observing samaya involves to remain inseparable from the union of wisdom and compassion at all times, to sustain mindfulness, and to put into practice the guru’s instructions”. Garchen Rinpoche

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Re: "Buddhism Without Merit"

Post by PadmaVonSamba » Fri Nov 08, 2019 11:23 pm

I don't think in the original cited quote that there's a clear understanding of what "merit" is.

Merit is that which develops your letting go to attachment, aversion, and apathy (ignorance), the three poisons.
It's not like Bitcoin.
Developing merit is somewhat like the skill one develops by practicing a musical instrument for a little bit each day.
What you get out of it depends on what you put into it.
A lot of times you read or hear statements such as "donating to the construction of this temple will bring you great merit."
That's not exactly right.
Donating money to dharma projects, or contributing to to any good cause,
volunteering to walk dogs once a week at the animal rescue center, these provide the opportunity to gain merit.
You can develop (gain) a little or a lot, or none at all, depending on your motivation.
it all depends 100% on your motivation.

However, if you want an effective way to support a dharma center that doesn't take a huge chunk out of your wallet,
this method has been used successfully at more than one dharma center:
You Should buy a roll of quarters (or whatever coins you use in your country equal to a small amount) and every day, along with your daily practice,
put one coin in a piggy bank or box that you keep at your meditation area or shrine or altar or whatever, if you have that.
Use a container you can't open and "borrow" from. That's important.
This is the money you donate to your dharma center, or use to pay for special dharma events or whatever.
In American money, that's $91.25 a year (365 days). But .25 a day doesn't seem like much
so, it can be given without a sense of either resentfulness, nor of boastful pride.

A lot of western students seem to suffer a lot when a special event, a teaching weekend or whatever, asks for a donation of money to attend.
This is a very good way for dharma students to pay for that without it being a financial burden, or a choice between that and food for the week.
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