Buddhism has been around seemingly forever; and is now available practically everywhere in the Western world.
That makes it easy to suppose—without thinking about it—that Buddhism falls naturally from the sky, like a gentle sweet rain. Or that it is a public utility, like water, reliably provided by a distant, faceless bureaucracy, at a minor cost. It is easy—but mistaken—to assume this will always be true.
In my opinion, once you have attended more than a few events with a Buddhist organization, over more than a few months, you have a responsibility to it. Buddhist events depend on the work of many unpaid volunteers. Typically, the fee you pay (if any) does not cover costs, and the difference is made up by donations from others.
“Responsibility” might not be an attractive word. Pompous adults use it to lecture teenagers. It sounds old-fashioned—Victorian, even.
Unfashionable Victorian virtues are vital in Vajrayana Buddhism, however. Responsibility, diligence, honor, respect, consideration, loyalty, gallantry: these are essential. They are Buddhist virtues because they are based on facing reality and accepting that we cannot take a “not my problem” attitude. They are Vajrayana virtues because they assume that we are already fine people—not hopelessly stuck in possessiveness, resentment, and ignorance.
There is no “ought” about this. “Responsibility,” in Vajrayana, is not a moral issue. It is a purely practical one.
Buddhism is a practical reality that cannot exist in the abstract. It exists only because local people work to produce it locally. That means holding classes, retreats, and meditation groups. It means producing books, web sites, and podcasts. This takes organization.
That is another unattractive word. Many people distrust organized religion—and rightly so. Personally, I hate organizations. I am not a “joiner” by nature, and I find that organizations usually end up mainly performing meaningless bureaucratic rituals for the benefit of the bureaucracy.
However, delivering Buddhism involves much work by many people. The scale of this is not obvious, until you look “behind the scenes.” We have to coordinate all that work. In the best case, that is all an organization is.
Time and energy
Buddhist organizations run mainly on the creativity, skills, enthusiasm, and hard work of volunteers.
Small organizations do not have the money to hire anyone. The Aro lineage, for example, currently has no employees. (We are now discussing the possibility of hiring a part-time organizer, for the first time.)
Once you are “going steady” with a Buddhist group, it is time to volunteer. Otherwise, you are taking more than you are giving. How much time you can volunteer, and what you can do, depends on your circumstances and skills. I believe all of us are responsible for doing something, however.
A group organizer may ask for volunteers for particular tasks, in which case you can just say “yes.”
you need to peek backstage
More often, to find out how you can help, you will need to “peek backstage.” You need to talk to several people to find out who in the organization does what, who is overloaded, and what tasks are not getting done. Group organizers may be somewhat reluctant to give you a backstage tour. That is not because they are hiding dark secrets, but because it takes time and energy. Also they are probably embarrassed by how chaotic and amateurish some aspects of the organization are. (This is inevitable in any volunteer organization.) You may need to be gently persistent, to persuade them that you are serious enough about wanting to help that it is worth their time to help you find something you can do.
A good start is to ask if you could help with set-up and take-down before and after an event. That is a small task, and it will give you a chance to interact with the organizers “behind the scenes.” (Advice to organizers: always say “yes,” even if you don’t really need the help. It’s a chance to size up a potential volunteer for bigger jobs.)
Some of the work done by a typical Buddhist group: organizing events; event set-up and take-down; publicity (fliers, advertising, web); newsletters (writing, layout, printing, mailing); web sites (writing, graphic design, Photoshop, systems administration); administration (bookkeeping, dealing with legal requirements on charitable organizations, keeping the contact database); arts and crafts (creating paintings, ritual objects, robes).
Volunteering shouldn’t be a burden. Realistically, much of the work is stuff no one would particularly choose. However, it should be at least somewhat enjoyable, some of the time. Mainly that is because it is an opportunity to share and be a part of a community. That is part of the meaning of sangha: we enjoy each other’s company, and we enjoy the fact that we have a shared practical commitment to serving Dharma.
Buddhism should be available to everyone, regardless of how little money they have.
Most Buddhist organizations (including the Aro ones) do not charge for teachings. Many of our events are free. There are no “special” doctrines or practices available only for a fee. The various Aro websites provide more than a thousand pages of free teachings.
Teaching events, however, have to be held somewhere. That usually means paying rent, or a mortgage. This is a main expense for Buddhist organizations, and it is the reason we have to charge for attendance (not for the teaching, as such) in many cases. Often events run at a loss, which means that part of the cost is subsidized by donations.
The other main expense for most religious organizations is the living expenses of the teachers. In the case of the Aro tradition, that comes mostly from direct donations from individuals, rather than from admission fees or through the organization.
With some exceptions, Buddhist organizations in the West are usually woefully short of money. They suffer periodic financial crises, operate on a shoestring, are distracted by the need for fundraising, and cannot make Buddhism available in ways it should be, due to lack of funds.
a strange situation
This is a strange situation. Christians in the West, and Buddhists in Asia, understand that they are responsible for donating enough money that their religious organizations can run effectively. Maybe Western Buddhists confuse “there is no charge for the teachings” with “I have no responsibility to help make them available.”
How much is “enough”? Traditionally, Jews, Christians, Sikhs, and others donate ten percent of their income. Many no longer do, but it is clearly feasible, and not unreasonable.
There is a like-it-or-not economic fact here. Any religious organization that
- has teachers/priests who do not have other employment, and
- holds events somewhere other than members’ own homes
needs a few percent of attendees’ income, on average, in order to function. It costs that much to provide those things. When you go through the financial math, there is no way to work around that reality. Some of the money can come from program fees; the rest must come from donations.
How much of that you feel responsible for personally will depend on your circumstances and on your level of involvement and enthusiasm.
You might ask “what fraction of the meaning or value in my life comes from Buddhism,” and consider allocating that fraction of your income to it. If Buddhism is five percent of what is good in your life, five percent of your income probably exceeds what you spend on retreats, books, and so forth. You could donate the remainder.
I would probably not recommend donating more than ten percent of your income, no matter how important Buddhism is to you. Sometimes people make crazily big donations they later regret. You could leave a large amount in your will, though.
Of course, it is impossible to put an exact percentage number on meaningfulness. But this is a starting point for thinking about what you feel responsible for.