Selling Buddhism

Updated: Apr 21


The Hand of Buddha, Metropolitan Museum of Art


I don’t mind paying my meditation teacher for his classes. He has to eat and pay his rent and maintain his community. I don’t mind paying to go to a retreat for the same reasons. But I do have trouble with the idea that you can sell consciousness. Lately, a certain respected Buddhist organization has fielded a program where, for a fee, you can be certified to be a Buddhist teacher. I know one person who has graduated from this program who remains the same angry, spiteful person she has always been. As for myself, I am the same imperfect, reactive person I have always been. I have a temper and I am all the other things: jealous, judgmental. But I am present with my delusions and that is part of the practice. So, the idea that I can pay a not-small sum of money in order to be “certified” as a teacher of mindfulness makes me giggle. I have joked with friends that I hoped there was something like reincarnation because I’m going to need another life to get it right. I hope to leave most of my shit in this one when I exit.


It may be that this organization can certify people to teach concentration, watching one’s breath, bringing the wandering mind back to center; but they cannot guarantee that heightened consciousness will follow. In A Path With Heart, Jack Kornfield mentions a Thai teacher who smoked cigars and chased women but was also a skillful teacher of meditation. Maybe this is what they are certifying: the mechanics of meditation. Process.


My own teacher is an exemplar of what he teaches, as is another teacher I know who can good-naturedly impart wisdom in a casual conversation. She also has a loving heart, as does my own teacher. Both of these people are the most nonjudgmental and compassionate people I’ve ever met. Their qualities are not something that can be purchased and certified. They come from lives devoted to the dharma as a daily practice.


If you were in a room with a Buddhist teacher, and didn't know them, how would you recognize them as a Buddhist teacher? They would not be acting in a particular way. They would especially not be walking around with a look of piety or forced dignity. They would not be self-righteously not participating in the things others were doing. They might even tell a bawdy joke. But how would you know? You might not. Or you might feel better afterwards. You might feel you've been seen and listened to, had the best of you brought out.


My teacher suggests that it is difficult to practice the dharma without Sila, the Pali word for ethics. If one is in dysfunctional relationships or is working in a profession that has questionable ethics, it is hard to practice. It is impossible, I think, to be a politician who belongs to a party that increases the amount of suffering among the disenfranchised and still claim to be practicing the dharma. And having an unhealthy relationship creates mental turmoil. It may be, however, that practicing and being present with that turmoil will help someone exit that relationship.


I practice. I try to be loving, courteous, and respectful in my daily life and I forgive myself if I fail. I’m happy that I fail less often than I used to. But I have no illusions that I could be a Buddhist teacher, nor am I interested in buying the title. As one vastly imperfect Tibetan teacher once taught, karma is manure.

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