White Trash Buddhist: Class Divisions in Contemporary Buddhism

Engaged Buddhism begins at home. . .

The following is a preview of an upcoming article in the Fall 2014 Tricycle Magazine, which I received by email. It’s called “White Trash Buddhist” and it’s about the class divisions of contemporary Buddhism. I’m glad that someone had the guts to write this article and name the worst offenders by name, Shambhala. And I’m glad that Tricycle had the wisdom to actually publish this article, one that will probably offend a significant percentage of its readers and subscribers. I am planning to write a similar article, less from a personal perspective and more from the point of view of a sociologist observing the situation. My upcoming article will go beyond Shambhala and look at class divisions more broadly across many different Buddhist sects and organizations.

Contemporary Buddhism is loaded with class divisions that make it possible for the rich to “buy a stairway to heaven”. Through their wealth, which finances their extensive training, the upper class move into positions of power and run Buddhist organizations for their own benefit. Without the money to finance these high level trainings, the poor are left in the status of “beginners” with no access to the positions of power to decide what happens in these organizations. The young and the poor work as the service class, staffing retreats for the rich. The class divisions in contemporary Buddhism are insidious. And kudos to Tricycle for being willing to tackle the issue head on.

White Trash Buddhist

Do you have to break the bank to break into the upper middle way? A Kentucky native shows us what practice looks like on minimum wage. Brent R. Oliver
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I am forever in debt to the handful of teachers, writers, and thinkers who introduced me to Buddhist practice, provide constant inspiration, and continue to shape my knowledge of this path.

Actually, I’m just forever in debt.

Every time I get in my 12-year-old car and rattle away to the nearest retreat center, I’m reminded that I’m a poor white trash Buddhist. It’s a good thing none of those luminaries will ever try to collect, since I can’t even afford the practice as it is. That’s a shame, because the dharma saved my life.

Once a miserable creature, I was crushed by depression and pursuing self-destruction with a level of dedication that would have made even Fight Club’s Tyler Durden cringe. When I came across a little book on Buddhism, I scoffed. It wasn’t an ordinary scoff, either. It was the abrasive, well-practiced derision of the outspoken skeptic. I bought the book because I was skeptical of even my own mockery.

Just a few chapters in, I understood that I’d always been a Buddhist. After the briefest descriptions of aniccadukkha, and anatta, I felt their truths ring in my bones. These teachings didn’t just make sense; they described an innate philosophy I’d always possessed but couldn’t articulate.

This was 1998, before I had that newfangled Internet, so my search for a dharma group was confined to the listings in the back of Tricycle. I practiced as well as I could on my own, which was not very diligently. When I found a local Shambhala center, I signed right the hell up. I was ecstatic. Buddhism! In my town! I was going to fling myself at the dusty brown feet of an old Tibetan master, posthaste.

But when I showed up at the center, I made a baffling discovery: it was infested with upper-middle-class white people. I glanced around furtively for the maroon-robed saint I was sure must be nearby but found no such person. I considered slowly backing out of the room and slinking away, but it seemed rude.

So I stayed. For five years. I never officially joined, because I couldn’t pay. The membership fees were beyond my means. Thanks to some kind administrators, I was able to attend several programs. I even managed to live at one of Shambhala’s retreat centers in Vermont for two months.

There were two main groups of dedicated practitioners at the center: You had your older, upper-middle-class folks with professions, vacation time, and plenty of disposable income. Then you had your young people—generally of the same class—with no real jobs, who were content to live there in temporary poverty as long as the accommodations came with a spiritual teacher, vegetarian meals, and an honest shot at enlightenment.

The Shambhala retreat center was staffed by the latter and attended by the former. I was on the work-study crew, which meant laboring in the kitchen in exchange for room, board, and access to a large room full of cushions . . .

(More selections from “White Trash Buddhist” wherein the author works as a waiter while he writes and tries to go on meditation retreats he can’t afford).

Typical white-collar American life is quite conducive to dharma pursuits. But for those of us who don’t have access to that lifestyle—or have lost it—the path is doubly frustrating. We wind our way through the minefield of financial insecurity while trying simultaneously to cultivate a fulfilling practice in solitude. Those of us in the lower class have no real disposable income, no truly “free” time, and we have to keep up a break-neck speed just to break even. We get up early to sit before heading to a job that we can tolerate only because we sit. We meditate before bed to alleviate some of the daily stress that would other-wise keep us up all night. Economically and spiritually, it’s always a battle just to stay put. Just to not lose ground. At any given moment, our quest for awakening has to be sidelined as more mundane matters become paramount.
. . . . . . . . . . . .

And even if it does become possible, what of others like me? As America’s middle class withers, fewer will be left to carry on Buddhist practice here. The well-to-do have had no problem making Buddhism work for them. What kind of collective mind this cultivates remains to be seen. Now the most important question regarding the future of Buddhism in America might well be: whose?


31 thoughts on “White Trash Buddhist: Class Divisions in Contemporary Buddhism

  1. I think the issue has more to do with capitalism and external cultural and economic realities than it does with any particular sangha. It’s not easy to practice when you’re grinding to get by -whether you’re interested in programs and retreat centres or not.

    When I became inspired and decided to pursue Buddhism seriously, I found the Shambhala sangha was fine with my total lack of money. In order to create the situation to delve deeply into meditation and Buddhism, I moved to retreat centres for several years, and I spent months in retreat. I know many others who have done the same thing, and found it a good way to work with the economic realities of our times -that wages are low and the cost of living is high (including for retreat centres as they pay for food and heat all sorts of costs that continue to climb). And at city centres I was always able to pay what I was able to pay, which was almost always nothing at all.

    For me, I was comfortable asking to participate for free, which really isn’t an option for everyone based on their own style/comfort/fear/etc…, so I don’t want to deny anyone else’s experience. But for me, as someone who has been homeless for long periods of time, has only once had a year above the poverty line, and is a high school dropout with no other formal education, my experience of being a poor practitioner hasn’t led me toward blaming the sangha. Rather, I see this issue as originating from the overall world, where capitalism has forced us into ever more competitive, unequal, and desperate situations. In my experience, the sangha is one of the few places where I, as a poor person, might spend time as an equal with a rich person -and vice versa for them. It’s also one of the only areas of my life where I’ve been unable to afford to attend something and individuals or the organization stepped up to help.

    I wonder how much of this has to do with just asking? That’s also something that seems to be looked down upon in our society, but is very traditional in Buddhism. The monks would go to the town and beg for food and money so they could afford the basics and continue their practice. Perhaps the solution and the origin of this issue are very, very old?

    But begging, however traditional, doesn’t solve the problem of inequity -it merely is a way of working with it. The real issue is with finding alternative, anti-capitalist, grass-roots models for life. Myself, I’ve been impressed by the Transition Town Movement and the push toward creating local resilience. But one way or another, the solution is likely based on our society becoming more egalitarian.

    I’m sorry to hear that you felt rejected by the sangha based on your income. Myself, I feel rejected from basically *everywhere* because of my income. So, my prajna tells me that the issue is systemic in our society, and that’s why I’m focusing my efforts toward providing alternatives to capitalism.

    1. Hi Nyima: thanks for your comments and your story. I too was financially strapped and not able to afford the price tag of courses and retreats. I asked for a discount and was able to do all five levels of Shambhala and 5 courses for a nominal fee, ranging from $140 per retreat to $20 for a course. In return, and out of gratitude, I did as much volunteer work at the Centre as I could. But when I applied to take a sixth retreat, I was told, “We got you to Level 5, you have to pay for the rest yourself.” So I would have to pay at least half the cost of each retreat upfront and then work off the rest by working as a volunteer at other retreats. And there were definite amounts set: each hour of volunteer time was worth so many dollars off my own retreat costs. When I sat down and figured it all out, I realized (1) I didn’t have enough to pay even the half up front that was required; and (2) I didn’t have enough time (with my three part-time jobs) to do all the volunteer hours that would be required to make up the other half. Furthermore, I looked down the road at the retreats and courses required to get to any sort of advanced level of practice in Shambhala and realized that it would cost me thousands, even tens of thousands of dollars. I decided that it was just a ridiculous and unworkable situation. I’m not buying a stairway to heaven. It shouldn’t cost that much to be enlightened. And I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life “working off” my debt to Shambhala as an essentially unwaged slave, in what amounts to a caste system, staffing retreats for rich people. Shambhala didn’t reject me; I rejected Shambhala. I don’t believe that Buddhist organizations should be run this way. I switched to Nalandabodhi and I can take any course, online or in a centre classroom, for $50 per course (for members). That’s very fair and affordable. The courses are excellent, taught by very advanced practitioners who have spent many years studying Buddhism.

    2. It’s never easier to wash one’s bowl than it is for others; it’s only easier to avoid doing so.

  2. i get it, i am a peer facilitator in a local group that is attended by a lot of survival level, recently sober, heavily tattooed types. we barely make the $40 rent most weeks and the yoga studio doesn’t kick us out. we have a nun who will come visit and as an alms mendicant we do our best to contribute to her support. But yeah, 29 years of practice and i saved enough for a 7 day retreat! amazing, and when we got to talk at the end i learned how many people get to do this every year.

  3. Shasta Abbey, Throssel Hole Buddhist Abbey, and the Order of Buddhist Contemplatives offers all their retreats on Dana. I deeply disagree with charging money for the Dharma. To me, it’s just an unethical practice. It’s one thing if one is just setting up a temple, and needs to pay off the mortgage. It’s another thing to keep doing things like that years later. Even Christian churches survive on donations. There’s no reason Buddhists can’t do it too, and it’s the traditional Buddhist way.

  4. Isn’t it ironic that to read an article that critiques the “cash for enlightenment” nature of Buddhist institutions, you have to pay? I find it fuckin’ hilarious. Like the starkest type of black comedy.

    1. I thought that was hilarious too. I’m a western monastic living below the poverty line and can’t afford to read the article. lol 🙂

  5. As a middle class white person I’m now rejecting and not attending many programs simply because they are not necessarily path. You don’t graduate from program to program collecting diplomas and then gain enlightenment at the end because you went to school. Sure they’re helpful but they’re not in any way official or mandatory for Buddhist spiritual exploration. You can’t buy your way into enlightenment. The author can be already ahead of that mentalIty utilizing their poverty default position.

    1. Agreed. Those who think they are ‘buying a stairway to heaven’, I think, are sadly mistaken. They are deeply dependent on competition for social approval, to show they have “achieved” enlightenment. I sometimes think these expensive retreat programs are ways to force the rich to part with their money, so perhaps it gives them some experience of non-grasping.

      1. The Shambhala Centers are not perfect, are not Shangri-la. Yes, in Asia, where I live, it’s mainly free, but centers are supported by wealthy patrons and the support goes mainly to a priestly class that doesn’t work.

        Trungpa Rinpoche, the founder of Shambhala Intl., having come from that system, didn’t want to follow that model. The reason why Trungpa Rinpoche wanted us to pay and abandon the “dharma is free” model was because he wanted us to abandon the separate class model and relate our practice to the “normal” world of sex, money and work. In fact he wrote a book called “Work, Sex and Money.” I’m going to venture a guess that when US meditation center programs are free and supported only by wealthy patrons to keep the doors open, to that extent the community has abandoned the Vidyadhara’s teaching goal and gone on to another one.

        As the centers make programs free, they will be catering to more and more people who are outside the main stream of materialistic, work-a-day society and I’d like to ask, provocatively, how will that benefit the society? I can understand how it will benefit impoverished meditators, but it will remain outside the main stream of society. For people who don’t want to join the workaday world the Shambhala model may not be for them.

      2. “As the centers make programs free, they will be catering to more and more people who are outside the mainstream of materialistic, work-a-day society and I’d like to ask, provocatively, how will that benefit the society?”
        UM, well, the BUDDHA was certainly “outside the mainstream” of HIS society, so I guess we “against the stream” people are following the Buddha’s path. But you certainly speak the truth when you say that “Shambhala model” is not for those who are “outside the mainstream of society.” I certainly agree that those of us who are following the Buddha’s path, who are NOT materialistic, don’t feel like we fit in Shambhala. Well said.

      3. I don’t see the problem. There are many different paths in Buddhism, and many different upayas. What works for you is good. I was explaining, I wasn’t proselytizing the Shambhala path, since I’m not a member of it. Just that there’s a rationale for these different approaches depending on the tradition, on the teacher and the lineage. If one works better for you, great.

  6. I doubt that anyone would defend Shambhala as perfect or that it is for everyone. The teacher who started it, Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, was one of the few Buddhist teachers who didn’t believe that working life, money life, sex life, married life, daddy or mommy life, were any different than sitting life. So with that kind of “project design,” you might find that the teaching structure reflects the structure of society. Also Trungpa Rinpoche was not political, not in the least. Not even with regard to Tibetan/Chinese politics. He wanted us to become good workers, good entrepreneurs, good moms, good, dads, good sons, sane artists, sane scholars.

    When a teacher teaches from this lack of division between secular and spiritual, there are bound to be great difficulties in implementation because his students are on that path as well. And you’ll find elements of what you don’t like in society in the religious structure.

    I know that from my own impoverished personal experience and my experience of having struggled with my dharmic devotion and inspiration and my lack of financial security at the same time. The important thing is not to make a cause out of the challenges to your world, but to take it personally, something you yourself must work with. It is too bad that no one in that organization never explained that to you. It’s not about money and it’s all about money. At some point we have to realize the basis of our dilemma: that we created our world, drought, tracking, Ferguson police, ISIS, global warming, Obamacare,work, sex money or wherever we’ve hung our hat.

    We can do something about our world of suffering and I’ve tried to do just that. Dedicated my life to that. I’m not a member of Shambhala, but the worries I have with regard to $ and dharma (and even teachers we see here in China we try to make offerings to) are the fuel of my own practice. How I realize that is the basis of my ability to help others.

    Lee Weingrad

    1. Re your previous comment ‘As the centers make programs free, they will be catering to more and more people who are outside the main stream of materialistic, work-a-day society and I’d like to ask, provocatively, how will that benefit the society’?
      I’ve been involved in a Tradition for 15 years that is freely given (Vipassana and Thai Forest). No money is charged for bed, board or Teachings. It attracts the widest section of society that I have seen at any centers or courses I have attended. From teens to elderly, every color and even religion. We have people arriving for courses having hitch hiked and those who drive up in their Mercedes; doctors, social workers, single parents, college students; all are welcome and all attend because previous mediators have given donations so that the Tradition continues. And continue it does, not only that, more and more centers are opening all the time.
      Finally, how else are we, as lay practitioners, able to practice the quality of Renunciation? As lay people we have families and other responsibilities, at least when I sit a Vipassana retreat, for those 10 days I am there on the charity of others. I then give, not for what I have received but, for the benefit of others.

  7. I have seen the predominance of white, educated, middle class folks at certain centers for years now. Having been for much of my adult life, poor without choice, I have never had to do without the Dhamma. Perhaps this is one reason that I have sat so much in the Goenka and Thai traditions; Dana/Donation. I’ve just not been able to afford what I call the ‘Boutique Dharma centers and courses’, unless I’ve been working and serving there. As I become older and more versed in the Teachings I do feel an urge to share in urban, gritty communities (I write this from my home; the 4th floor in a council/social housing block of flats), and also to addicts, those with mental health difficulties ect. I think it’s really needed in such communities.

  8. The article cannot be dismissed entirely, but it paints a very simplistic picture. I’ve been an active member of the Shambhala sangha since 1978 and I don’t see myself in this article. Where the article misses — and what the author does not get — is that the retreat centers and local centers are supported in many different ways by people from a wide variety of economic means. If it weren’t for some very wealthy individuals behind the scenes your so-called upper middle class professionals and your so called “white trash” might not have any retreat centers to go to. What about the may individuals from the professional classes who have put their careers on hold (or left them entirely) in order to take on administrative positions at places like Karme Choling? What about the many people with regular jobs (upper, middle, and lower class) who live in the Karme Choling area who have contributed their time and money to support Karme Choling. To divide and classify these folks by upper-middle class and “white trash” — it doesn’t fit what actually is going on. Yes — there are practice paths that are expensive and that’s a problem, but as a member of an urban center for twelve years I saw people from a variety of economic levels come through the Center and participate and contribute and do so for years. The author talks about “power.” Power? You know what? When I hear that someone I know has been appointed (or drafted or ordered or accepted) to take on a leadership position at a retreat center or large urban center — I feel kind of sorry for them, because I know that during their stay they will be the target of all sorts of questionable demands and attacks. You can call it power — I call it penance.

    1. I think the urban centres are much better positioned to serve a wide range of people of different incomes, abilities and ethnic backgrounds. Most major cities are served by buses or trains that lower-income people can afford. Accessibility is less of an issue, etc. I agree that running these centres is a huge trial-by-fire requiring a lot of hard work and sacrifice. But that’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about the whole hierarchy of the sangha and how they are run top-down by people who have the most experience–fine, that’s as it should be–but those who have the most experience are often those with the most wealth and leisure to pay for it. And there’s no way for relative newsiest have any say in what happens in the sangha. The original Vinaya rules required that NO decision could be made unless the entire sangha was present, everyone had a chance to discuss the issues and be heard, and everyone agreed by consensus on the policies. Today’s sanghas are not run this way anywhere that I know of. At this point, I’ve given up on sanghas. I don’t see that there is any real ‘refuge’ in contemporary sanghas, whatever that means.

      1. If you are looking for a strict application of the vinaya then Shambhala is not for you. I suggest becoming a member of the monastic order of a Gelugpa sangha or a strict Theravada order. Any lineage teacher who is a householder will not apply the vinaya to other householders. Sent from my iPhone


  9. I’m interested in Buddhism, but the more I research it and discover about it, the more consternation I feel.

    I’m an atheist and a Socialist. The essence of Capitalism is exploitation – it’s how the rich get rich. But I like the way Buddhism, unlike most other religions, is concerned with the ‘human condition’ and finding ways of dealing with the process of living and life.

    Yet when I read about a residential Buddhist retreat in the United States, that obviously makes lots of money and is essentially a ‘business’, I think to myself:… Hang on! What about the army of catering staff and cleaners that must be keeping the place running? What kind of wages are they being paid? What are their working conditions like?

    The same retreat that offers its customers a lesson in compassion and feeling interconnected with all of fellow humanity is making a fortune that is going to a handful of fat cat business owners whilst the staff are earning less than minimum wage.

    There is some serious cognitive dissonance going on within Buddhism.

    1. ‘There is some serious cognitive dissonance going on within Buddhism.’
      You got that right. Even Buddhist Peace Fellowship, radical as they are, expected me to pay for a cross-country flight to San Francisco and a week at a retreat center in the Bay Area, just so I could serve on their board. And they didn’t see anything wrong with it.

      1. Oh dear. Just express yourself. Tell them how you feel. The middle classes are so out of touch, they think they’ve got it bad. They don’t realise how others struggle simply to survive.

        The pursuit of the truth is supposed to matter in Buddhism, so tell them your truth. I hope things work out for you. Take care.

  10. I’m completely new to Buddhism. My comments probably expose my ignorance somewhat. Apologies for that.

    1. No need to apologize. I think you’re very perceptive. Don’t give up your native intelligence to become a ‘buddhist.’ Question everything and sort things out for yourself.

  11. Dear Radical Redhead, If I may offer a perspective and solutions for you if you want to do retreats, but worry about the cost or the purity of motivation of those offer the retreats.

    I have been doing retreats for over 14 years, and mediation for 20 years. Just to clarify, I am not aware of any Buddhist meditation retreat centers that run as businesses, though, perhaps those exist. Also, I am only aware of those in the mindfulness/insight/vipassana tradition. The ones that I personally know of and therefore vouch for are Spirit Rock in northern California and the Insight Meditation Society in Massachusetts.

    The retreats at these mostly American retreat places do still cost a lot. The reason is that the facilities, the labor, and the food cost a lot in America. I know that these places struggle to do upkeep and provide a high quality environment and world-class teachings. The teachers themselves do not get paid from the retreat fees, but only from the donations specifically provided to them by retreatants. These teachers are the only individuals in the west that I know of who have families to support, but make their living purely on voluntary donations.

    I did find that I could not afford to do long retreats that I wanted to do in these centers, though I use them regularly for weekly meditation and teachings. There are some good options available for those who want to do long retreats at a lower cost. One option is a Goenka (name of an Indian teacher) retreat: https://www.dhamma.org/en-US/index. The Goenka-established vipassana centers do 10-day retreats many times a year in 10 locations in the U.S. There is no charge at all. Their retreats do have costs, but they manage to cover their costs with donations. The other option is retreats offered at Burmese, Thai, and Vietnamese monasteries. These monasteries support themselves and their retreats via very generous donations from the American diaspora of their native population. Whether rich or poor, the American residents from these countries provide very generous labor and monetary donations. That is why they can afford to offer retreats at a very reasonable rate. I do take advantage of these opportunities, with deep gratitude in my heart for those devotees of the dharma, whose generosity makes it possible for me to do retreats at an affordable cost.


    1. Dear Smita Joshi

      Thank you for your thoughtful message. I appreciate the gesture and the time you’ve taken.

      It’s a bit difficult. I’m in the UK living on welfare after gender transition. It’s been a battle that has left me depleted. Anxiety, depression and fatigue and the precarious position of being threatened with poverty if I make moves to return to normal life overwhelm.

      So money is very tight at the minute. I’ve researched common expected donations for Buddhist groups in my area. They vary and combined with travel costs make things unfeasible.

      I’ve also emailed my nearest Triratner group to ask what their common donation amount was but they didn’t reply. Looking at their website it seems to be comprised of middle class professionals. I would feel uncomfortable entering their group.

      I investigated the possibility of studying vipassana meditation by myself at home, but the consensus seems to be that this is not something you can learn on your own.

      So instead I’m starting a regime of basic mantra meditation, which is a challenge in the noisy flat I live in, but it does have its value. So I’m very grateful for that.

      I’m glad you benefit from the resources you mentioned. I know about the centre in Massachusettes, it looks wonderful! I hope these resources continue to help you in your journey.

      Thanks again for your message. Wishing you health and happiness. 🙂

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