It is always going to be a little challenging trying to build and lead a community of true spiritual Zen (meditation) practice in the West. There are special challenges in this work, whether you are “lay” or “monastic”. Just in the last 6 months of 2019, two of the larger meditation centers in Regensburg shut their doors, due to their inability to generate enough financial support to keep the facilities open. And this is despite the massive boom of interest in meditation-based practices, often designed around stress-reduction, and the not-insignificant fact that were are operating in one of the richest towns in the richest “land” (state) in all of Germany: Bavaria.
Running a meditation center has these challenges, and functioning as a teacher in this context is also full of the challenge of surviving, personally. Of course, there is definitely good money to be had for “teachers”, if you ever have the gumption to exploit to the current mega-market “well-being” Zeitgeist. Yet I am especially loathe to just “make” workshops or programs like high-end yoga experiences that are so popular these days, filled with healthy meals, detoxes, and crystal-massages in exotic locales, just in order to rake in our little slice of the billions in monies which are commonly spent on such trendy environments. We could do it — I have received various plans and prospectuses for this which seem eminently capable of producing super-fat paychecks. But I would die a million spiritual deaths selling this deep existential inspiration, this ancient training, and these wordless insights fermented over decades in freezing Zen halls throughout Asia, just in order to match some market-based impulse, or my own damned imagined needs.
So, there is a natural resistance in the spiritual genes to just “making something” in order to create a forum for “earning money” to survive. The reason is because I just want people to meditate, to have the pure direct unadulterated taste of don’t-know “unborn” meditation for their whole lives (not just a sparkling weekend or “package experience”), no matter what is the “return” or not. For this reason, we have made retreat-fees for our programs here in Zen Center Regensburg (and in Norway, in Greece, and in Austria) very very very low. And though I am mandated by German law to have a small, symbolic monthly salary (at poverty-level), as titularly required as the head of the non-profit organization we created to run this Zen Center, that entire salary I receive is automatically donated by scheduled transfer back to the Zen Center in order to fund the use of an extra apartment for our retreatants and guests to have a less-crowded experience during retreats. I do not keep a single euro of my legally-mandated pittance.
So, the “salary” I receive is given back to the community, 100%. As it should be, for a monk. This has caused not a few of my students to urge me to clarify the means by which I might still remain viable as a teacher for the practice.
So, because many have asked, I can say here just this once, and for all time, and hopefully never again: I do not receive from any organization or school any sort of fiduciary “compensation” for the thirty years of intensive practice and teaching experience that is shared when I live among others in sangha or teach. I receive a roof over my head, I have a warm room and hard bed-mat, and there is enough clothing to go about this crazy world where called. I never fear the exhaustion of our daily supply of avocados, Greek olive oil, and good German bread. Super Kerry Gold Irish butter is always in good supply here (great omega-3!). The occasional jar of ajvar or almond butter are usually stocked on the shelves, when we are lucky. It is an honor to live on this simple plan.
And yet, with aging comes the rush of more pressing cares and needs related to the body and its declining faculties. There is no central religious order which provides me with any support, whatsoever. Even after 30 years of promoting Korea’s ancient meditation technologies throughout the world, there is no temple somewhere in Asia looking out that my personal, physical needs are answered for. Zero! I do not power this work and this passion with any sort of material funding from any sort of “Zen” foundation or group or institution. I exist on wordless begging alone. In Korea, the word for shameless begging is 앵벌이. It’s the guy standing outside your church door, the guy by the subway entrance, the one who comes to your restaurant table with dirtied palm turned upward. This is simply how I live. Even fees accumulated from folks who attend our intensive retreats are — by constant design — lodged directly in our public bank account, where I cannot touch them for personal uses, there only for the support of rent and heat and water and light for their own precious don’t-know bungee-jump into the nature of pure reality.
Korean temples support themselves through a mixture of memorial ceremonies for the suffering and the dead (jae sa) and chanting kidos. These are nothing I have really trained well enough in, during the long years in Korea, and that whole way of baldly false ceremonial self-support is far, far outside my reasons for choosing Buddhism as a practice, anyway. Anything that makes promises of providing “help” for someone’s karmic journey after death is certainly something that smacks too much of the rotten religious mentalities I left in my 20s. Over nearly three decades of life connected with Korean Buddhism, I witnessed countless cases of otherwise fired-up meditators devolving into high-paid golden-voiced “chanters” whose daily lives revolved strongly and predictably around the cold dolorous ceremonies they performed, and the fat envelopes of cash they received. It’s a really really good living, a great groove. Yet, despite the security of it, and the means it would provide to build some buffed golden temple for myself somewhere vast and far off, I would kill myself instantly to awake one day to find myself practicing this angle on Shakyamuni Buddha’s inconceivable insights and path!
Yet, I’ve got to support our work in this practice, in Germany and (maybe) in Greece. The law requires me to have various mandated insurances, and cellphone/data use and teaching-travel impose their own constant sucking from the digital teat of internet-banking. I am accustomed to sleeping on sofas and floors in the cities where I am invited to teach, and receiving meals and medicines from folks who have only the vaguest sense of my true bodily needs. How does one handle the rest?
The Buddha, himself, established a highly-transparent situation where monks distributed the wisdom of their meditation efforts to laypeople in search of enlightened wisdom. It was never — ever — a transactional relationship: it was merely an interaction of soft mutual interdependence: the nuns/monks meditated, and gained finer and finer insight into the infinite rooms of the mansion of the conscious/unconscious mind, and connected laypeople provided freely the gross material means for nuns/monks to pursue these efforts, and to transfer their cosmonautical insights back into the noise of their supporters’ mundane, chaotic lives.
So, with all this in mind, what exactly is my “begging bowl” in the swarm of current needs and aspirations for people to have access to Dharma, to have inspiration in practice?
Several of my Zen students have posed all sorts of ideas for how we should support this practice and teaching while functioning fully in the busy heart of the world, here in Europe, here in Germany, here in Catholic Bavaria or in Greece or Norway or anywhere the Dharma whispers me to roam. Some people have strongly urged me to “brand” myself through Instagram and LinkedIn. Hmmmmmmm, it’s current, and it’s kind of “sexy,” and cool and “now” — but…. This felt so weird. “LinkedIn?” I thought. “A job-networking site? I should list myself or this meditation center among PR people and marketing people and sales reps?” Several really good people strongly urged it on me, but I had to reject that out of hand. They looked like I suddenly had two heads! And anyway, even if it were successful, and brought me a small mint of support, who in their right minds would have any respect for a meditation monk who is networked with supporters by plying his wares along these decidedly careerist channels? Would I even look well on such a practitioner myself, much less follow her purely?
Then maybe there is the route of podcasts. Yeah, everyone has a podcast. And I’m not against the medium. Though I do not have much time for regular listening, I am a devoted, impassioned fan of the great Sam Harris’s “Making Sense” podcast. I recently subscribed to Peter Attia MD’s podcast. I was strongly urged by several people to make a for-pay subscription podcast, like them. That seemed a little better, because issues and questions could possibly be explored at greater length in a podcast-form than in other social media platforms.
But the Zen students who have urged these things on me have also said that really making a decent podcast would require me to produce regular transmissions of material to really “take off.” No more Zen “spontaneity,” I would need to “schedule” regular talks or interviews for podcast so that sufficient “interest” could be generated and maintained by creating a sense of regularity. That didn’t feel right — I don’t want to “blab” on created topics just to fill a space I have created and advertised for certain functional reasons (to spread the Dharma and to support this work) — and I would prefer that things just happen naturally by themselves, or not. I have always hated small-talk and chit-chat. It is perhaps the only thing I have always truly feared, in social situations. Small-talk online, just to fulfill some purpose, would be no different from the small-talk and chit-chat I desperately fear in human situations — being gussed-up as a podcast would not mitigate that visceral terror and disdain I have always, always experienced in the realm filler-experience.
On top of this, there would be the question of “make-work”: While the podcast concept is certainly something I benefit from, in the few times I get to listen, I’m absolutely sure that, having this obligation, it would add a mountain of work to my own fragile practice in this world. Constantly needing to come up with scripts and questions and themes, I would just make my head busy and frazzled for nothing. I would have to listen to peoples’ background stuff before I dialogued with them on-record, the thinking-works they’ve done, the books and lectures and controversial positions (along with the counter-positions, for “balance” in the conceptual realm). There aren’t a lot of really hard-core serious practitioners whose views I would feel welcome with, and yet just having a podcast would require me to address all sorts of positions about who I invite, and who I don’t. All that pointless human noise!
Or, even without guests, I know that the meditating-mind would constantly need to share a considerable portion of its don’t-know streaming-data to come up with “fresh” material to talk about, just to fulfill some perceived need or audience. I would need to “produce” talky-talky content. And the listeners’ comments, and the inevitable blather that would be produced by my own strongly untethered views and insights, would create its own vast forests of work and confusion to slash through. Does one really want that sort of sorry human noise, in one’s already-burdened hours of spiritual reflection, just for whatever theoretical public benefits it might confer? Tethered to a podcast’s insatiable needs for “new” material, I would lose my super-precious solitude in the common rush to “produce something” for public consumption. I would be required to do research and background checking. A more public profile would be required, and journalists would notice, and want to check-off the box of interviewing or “featuring” me — I would be caught and hanged in the wheel of public novelty, just for some up-and-coming’s career click-bait. (This has already been dangled in front of my face.) And certainly, as I have seen with the podcasters I respect the most, I would also, eventually, certainly need to “reciprocate” some interview somewhere to balance the visit of a guest to my own “production.” There might be a flood of comments, misunderstandings, clarifications. Uggghhh — Headache. It makes me panic just to imagine that!
Someone insisted that I post regular Dharma talks so that I can share them to Instagram or YouTube and become a social media “influencer.” Ha ha ha ha!!! But who would be foolish enough to want to be “influenced” by such a crazy, “wild wisdom” excuse for a monk? I am in possession of various contentious views of religion, identity politics, and social happenings: I wouldn’t want even a theoretical son/daughter of mine to follow such a being, such a person, without constant direct parental guidance being built into the experience — . And exactly what would the influence be? A pointless path, if ever there was one.
There is little that can help, with words, that pure suffering does not itself bring, and the benefit of actually sitting together could have verbal/conceptual reasons for delay, or end-around false intellectual/conceptual expressions of Zen (meditation) “understanding” which would just totally obscure the strong wish and belief that people must sit on their own asses to resolve the inevitable questions which would be posed though such a medium. Just more noise, deflection and delay. Something is viscerally repelled by all of this. “Don’t make anything” is one of Dae Soen Sa Nim’s signature teachings. Having a podcast would just dump totally on the crystalline purity of such a view, again and again and again. I could not stand this. So, I rejected “podcast” and “influencer” routes.
So, after reviewing all the options for how to support my teaching-work going forward, the ideas that have stuck are the three following. These seem the most reasonable way for me to continue teaching without needing to get some janitorial job in a local high school somewhere:
- Our Zen Center Regensburg team has set up a “personal” PayPal account where folks can support their errant teacher-guy. That can be used for one-off donations, and for monthly commitments:
- Patreon: Our team has set up a Patreon page. (Big experiment!) This gives me an incentive to produce at least some potentially useful content that might be worthwhile. (So sorry if said content often sucks or is otherwise offensive or hurtful to sensitivities — but it could be irregular and based purely on more spontaneous inspiration and insight, unlike the scheduled needs of a podcast:)
- Local folks have urged me to make these teachings available to the well-meaning corporate folks and good-minded HR- who wish to bring into their companies the technologies of mindfulness and self-knowledge, but who might understandably shy away from inviting or promoting any sort of religious, denominational, or sectarian voice. I get that, absolutely. So, through various introductions and recommendations, my work has been accepted by the folks at one of Europe’s greatest public-speakers’ companies, the London Speaker Bureau. I was invited to address corporations and major banks in South Korea, back in the day, and have been invited by honors business-school courses in Germany, Norway, Korea, and the US. People do want to wake up, no matter what their tools for self-sufficiency:
This is how things stand, right now. When I was active in Korea, from 1992-2012, since I was making an active contribution to the spread of Buddhist teachings in-country, I was supported to do this work. If I needed a plane ticket to fly somewhere to teach, it was provided to spread the Dharma. If I was injured or sick, the temple or my supporters were there to help with the burden. The mundane needs of life were taken care of, so that I could focus entirely on doing strong practice, long retreats, and sharing these insights with the public through talks, retreats, doing translations, and counseling individuals.
That is not the case since I left the temple walls. Let’s see how this new system works.