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The Buddhist organisations that are thriving during the debt crisis

by Mary Finnigan, The Guardian, 18 November 2011

In times of financial hardship, meditators are still willing to pay large fees to hear the teachings of high-profile Buddhists

London, UK -- Here we are stuck in an economic downturn, with the threat of a financial tsunami gathering momentum in the eurozone and with pundits telling us it can only get worse. You might expect people to be careful about their budget priorities – and that nonessential expenditure like spiritual teachings would be put on hold.

<< Karmapa Ogyen Trinley Dorje attracted 2,000 people, paying $200 each, to hear him speak at an event. Photograph: Lobsang Wangyal/EPA

Evidence suggests, however, that the opposite is true – especially if you happen to be Buddhist. It seems that in this period of acute financial stress, Buddhists are still willing to part with their pounds, dollars, roubles and rupees in order to sustain their meditation practice. Because meditation calms the mind and generates insight, this is a predictable response – but what does come as a surprise is the amounts of money involved.

Take the 17th Karmapa Ogyen Trinley Dorje, for example. A young, high-profile Tibetan Buddhist lama with a romantic history of escape from Tibet after dodging Chinese security. Confined for several years under conditions resembling house arrest in India, he eventually managed to visit the United States for the first time in 2008. About 2,000 people gathered at a monastery in Woodstock to catch a glimpse of him. They paid $200 each. Roughly $400,000 (£250,000) hit the coffers and after expenses, the monastery had enough left over to embark on an extensive building project.

Then there's Sogyal Rinpoche – credited as author of the bestseller The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying. A recent feature in the French news magazine Marianne revealed that the cheapest tariff for a week's teachings with him at his centre Lerab Ling in France was €500 (£425) – which entitled participants to pitch a tent and eat vegetarian food. Five hundred people attended the retreat, including reporter Elodie Emery – which means that Sogyal attracted more than €250,000 on one occasion.

Emery estimates that Lerab Ling pulls in €1m to €1.5m annually in retreat fees alone – in addition to shop sales and donations. Sogyal's global organisation, Rigpa, has websites that include multiple income streams. One of them, the Tertön Sogyal foundation, targets will bequests. Board members include Pedro Beroy, the managing director of the investment banking division of Credit Suisse.

In October this year, 1,500 people flew to Tenerife for three days of teachings with Choegyal Namkhai Norbu, one of the few remaining Tibetan lamas still active who was trained in pre-Chinese Tibet. A widely respected master of the Dzogchen tradition of Tibetan Buddhism, Namkhai Norbu attracts capacity audiences wherever he goes. In Tenerife the cost was €150, excluding flights, accommodation and subsistence.

In common with pop musicians, footballers and corporate CEOs, it is the superstar Buddhist teachers who generate big money. Without them, many centres around the world would be hard pressed to make ends meet. As the older ones fade away, a new generation including the 17th Karmapa, is being groomed to take their place. These include the reincarnations of the late Ling Rinpoche, Kalu Rinpoche and Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche. (Rinpoche means "precious one").

But if all this sounds like quality Buddhist teachings are beyond the reach of middle- to low-income neophytes – there is good news. In the UK, several Buddhist organisations offer meditation instruction at moderate prices. The Dechen community led by Lama Jampa Thaye offers one-day courses for £17.50, rising to £20 next year. A two- or three-day event with the high-profile lama Sakya Trizin costs £20-25 per day. Beginners classes are around £4 per session.

Gaia House in Devon has a programme of residential courses with visiting teachers, with cost on a sliding scale from £118 to £59 depending on means. Director Andy Power says there's an "element of trust" involved in this. The fees for a Zen retreat with senior teachers Stephen and Martine Batchelor range from £363 to £76.

The Theravada Buddhist organisation, The Samatha Trust, relies on voluntary donations for teachings and retreats. "The exception to this," says the treasurer, Anne Schellizi, "is that we charge beginners a flat £50 for a weekend at our centre."

When the Thai meditation master Nai Boonman visits, Anne says retreatants are "spontaneously" generous. The trust covers its overheads on an annual income of £35,000, but runs appeals for projects like new buildings.

An Indian prince, 2,500 years ago, brought up in the lap of luxury renounced all worldly possessions to become the Buddha. His example led to the foundation of an order of mendicant monks and nuns who rely on the generosity of local communities for their survival.

"The basis of monasteries is not economic production," says Rupert Gethin, professor of Buddhist studies at Bristol University, "but there's a form of social contract – if you want monks and nuns in your society you have to support them. Monastic institutions can accept financial donations and some of them do become quite wealthy."

Clearly many organisations are making healthy profits from running Buddhist events, although it is a recognised principle that the teachings are not for sale. Whether this state of affairs is corrupt – or simply a 21st century fact of life is open to debate.



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