"Forced donation" concept in western Buddhism

I would like to know what do you think about the “forced donation” concept ? It means asking a high price for something that should be given for free or at production cost under the pretext that the company is supposedly going to use that money in a wholesome way, a thing you can never verify because they don’t make public their financial situation. It takes advantage of the costumer desire for self-righteousness.

It is a concept highly used in american Buddhism and the factor that made buddhism be the most expensive religion in the US. In my country, “forced donation” does not exist and any person would laugh at such practices. Honesty is valued over here and the company would be better of just telling you in the face that he wants this or that price for something that should be given for free rather than cover it under the “forced donation” concept. It is a concept that I’ve only seen used in puritan countries.

So what do you think about the “forced donation” concept ? Can it be justified somehow ? And is it the main reason why Buddhism got to be by far the most expensive religion in the US, becoming a kind of a status symbol ? Also, are there any websites where you can verify the financial situation of a company in the US ? In my country all are public and can be verified online.

Also, most of these companies that run on forced donations are tax exempt. In my country you can only get tax exempt status if you give things for free and run on voluntary (not forced) donations. It’s pretty strange to see that in US you are not even required to sell at production cost (wich could be rigged anyway) but can sell at very high profit margin and still be tax exempted under the pretext of “forced donation”.


Lets take a look at these prices:

Retreats or buddhist courses in US rarely go below 1000$ per week. And they can go as high as > 1750$ per night for a simple 2 room apartment:

Susan Kershner $700 - $1750/night
2 rooms, private bath &
kitchenette in San Anselmo home.

How much (if any) the company donates and how much they take for themselves, we can never know because they are not transparent with their financial information.

Also, Buddhism is the only religion in the world with it’s main book (the Sutta Pitakka) copyrighted and even shamelessly sold for 200$ for an online kindle edition that costs nothing to produce. B.Bodhi translated it for free, a kindle edition costs nothing to produce, the company even has tax exempt status, yet it can not provide even the main book in Buddhism for free on the internet, witch would cost them 0$.

All this is covered by the “forced donation” concept. You can imagine how ridiculous this look to an outsider, but I’ve even seen american buddhist defending the wisdom corporation with this “forced donation” concept. You can basically do anything, no matter how shameless and morally cover it with this forced donation concept.

PS: I am from an ex-communist country so I could not be more capitalist and right-wing economically than I am. But this has nothing to do with real capitalism, this is corrupt capitalism. And US ridiculous tax exempt policy is actually destroying the free market because a forced donation company will get a monopoly in the field very fast, as proven by the wisdom corporation in buddhism. Also, relying on people wonderful intentions and creating no barriers against corruption is a communist concept, not a capitalist one.

I’m not happy about the situation, but I do think it still adds value (forced donation retreat centers and teachers), especially if the alternative is that a paid option is not even available.

If we really want to fight that, the only thing we can do is start up low cost and free retreat centers ourselves, and that is no easy or financially affordable thing, especially in the U.S. with all the strict building codes and so forth.

I’ve given lots of thought to this, and to do something like buy a 20 acre property somewhere affordable, probably you need at least 200k$. You put up 10-20 yurts, each yurt costs about 5k$. Grow fruit trees and vegetables gardens, compost, you can maybe offset cost of providing food by 20-30%.

The hardest part is the volunteer labor to keep this going. If you have good enough, a good community, it’s possible. But you’re always just one lawsuit away from the whole thing falling apart.


200k for a field outside the city sounds like a little too high. I don’t know how the math goes in US, but from what you are saying it can be done with 400k for 20 accomodation rooms. This means you need to run 40 1-week retreats per year with a 1k$ profit each to get a return of investment in 10 years. For such a thing, 10 years is decent, it’s not a business to get it in 5 years. And return of investments are much lower in developed countries, I’ve heard 10% is actually decent in such a country. This would mean 75$ per person for a 1-week retreat also covering food. I say this kind of money can be made on voluntary donations since the other option is 1000$ per week. Can 200$ per person/retreat be obtained through voluntary donation ? I don’t know, but the Goenka centers witch run on voluntary donations are doing pretty well and they are a business franchise too. I’ve mentioned before there is a goenka guru with 70 slaves in Romania and when he started, he made most of the money out of retreats run on voluntary donation. So you can even make a profit on voluntary donation. Monasteries function on voluntary donation and are doing pretty well too in the west. Some complain they are wasting quite a ton of money too and they run entirely on voluntary donations.

Maybe I am wrong with the math cause I’m not from US. But in any case the sutta pitakka copyrighted and sold for 200$ kindle edition that costs 0$ to produce is the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard in any religion. Probably even scientology gives some books for free.

My problem with retreat centers is not necessarily the fact that they are a successful business. The problem is they don’t admit they are a business and even have tax-exempt status based on this “forced donation” concept. As I’ve said, in my country you can only be tax exempt if you run on voluntary donation and provide things for free. You are not allowed to sell anything, not even a t-shirt. The whole concept of “forced donation” doesn’t exist.

Is this happening in other fields too or just religion ? And in religions, do similar things exist in christianity in the US or just in Scientology ?

This is an incorrect comment. The sutta pitaka has not been copyrighted. Only one translation of it has been copyrighted. There are free translations available n many places, including this site.

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Nobody is being forced to make a donation. I have never visited one of these secular dharma centers, but no one is forced to go for one and pay their ridiculous prices.

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Yes, in all religions in the U.S. there is huge pressure for donations to be made. The Christian televangelists pass big buckets around instead of a collection plate. Toll free numbers, paypal accounts, etc are flashed all over the screen to get people to call in their credit card numbers. Even bibles are not free, although one can still find free ones, if one asks. At Jewish synagogues there are “membership fees” and one cannot attend religious services if their dues are not paid to date. At LDS (Mormon) churches, there is a person with a computer at the front door to check and make sure your tithing is paid-in-full, before allowing you access to the church.

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A reasonable fee for food and accommodations is understandable, but some retreat centers do seem to go overboard with the fees; well beyond the cost to run the place. They might be private organizations, but if they have charity tax-exempt status, then fees should be reasonable.

The Buddha gave the Dhamma freely to all. He often underwent difficulties and inconveniences and on occasions even risked his life, in order to teach the Dhamma to others (Ud.78). The monk Puõõa was prepared to teach the Dhamma in a district where the people were known for their violence and where he had a good chance of being manhandled or even worse (M.III,269). Today, some Westerners go to traditional Buddhist countries to learn Dhamma or meditation, return to their homelands and then charge for teaching what they were taught for free. Likewise, some Asian monks put a price on the Dhamma. In doing so such people turn the precious Dhamma into a commodity although the Buddha clearly said: One should not go about making a business out of the Dhamma' (Ud.66). When the Buddha said: The gift of Dhamma excels all other gifts’ (Dhp.354), he meant that the Dhamma should be a gift, not something to be sold.

During the Buddha’s time people knew that teachers of other religions charged a fee (àcariyadhana) but that those teaching Dhamma expected nothing more from their students than respect and attentiveness (A.V,347). There is nothing wrong with charging for the food, accommodation etc. used during a meditation course. Nor is it improper for a teacher to accept donations. But to charge a fee, even if it is called sponsorship' or to announce that a donation’ of a certain amount is expected, contradicts the most basic ethics and ideals of Buddhism. Those who teach the Dhamma should see what they do as a rare and wonderful privilege and an act of kindness, not a means of livelihood.
Guide To Buddhism A To Z

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Some people are brainwashed to think “What you get is what you paid for” They think free or cheap means nothing in it for them.
There is about 10% truth in it.
One of my friends had a BMW Z3 maintained by the agent, he was stranded on the road at least once a year. Another friend had a Toyota Corolla for 20 years without any problem, he ha to put only petrol and he did the services himself. People pay big money for the status cymbal.
I do not blame the people who run businesses, I blame the people who buy their products.

I think Sutta Central should consider charging for new members.

Basically these places are running spiritual Club Med vacation/retreat centers for the meditationally inclined. Spirit Rock is in Silicon Valley, the wealthiest region in the country, and its business model (although I don’t know if that is what one they would call it) is geared toward the affluent.

Buddhism has zero relationship with Jewishness . The Old Testament had the mandatory 10% levy to the priestly caste, which is not Buddhist. Btw, the way, weren’t the priestly caste the 'Levites"? Is the word “levy” related to this?

The problem generally seems to exist due to the perceived need for meditation centres.

Buddhism is a late-comer to the Western property (real estate) markets. For example, the Christian churches acquired their expanses of real estate centuries ago. For example, in the Sydney CBD alone, significant amounts of commercial real estate are owned by various Christian churches.

While the need for meditation centres may be construed to be valid, I personally sense this has become a business due to the adapted use of meditation as a form of psychotherapy. Imo, this has occurred because when Westerners discovered Buddhism in Asia they were probably not taught sila (morality) properly; as occurred in probably most if not all mass-market meditation centres in Asia. Thus, these businesses are based on repeat business or returning customers. This happens when sila is de-emphasised because most emotional problems are related to sila, i.e., a lack of it.

That much of ‘Western Buddhism’ has a strong ammoral character, particularly in respect to sexual morality, is good for this type of psychotherapy business based on returning customers.

I first learned Buddhism listening to large public lectures of Ajahn Buddhadasa when he was alive in Asia. Recently some Western monks from Amaravati England made a series of videos called: “Sila Dhamma Come Back” based on a saying of Ajahn Buddhadasa. Personally, I had to laugh at the irony because Ajahn Buddhadasa rarely taught sila dhamma to Western audiences.

In short, all of the above factors combine, which results in demand for meditation centres, which are costly, yet ultimately not really so necessary if people comprehended & practised sila. In addition, it creates a teaching class of full-time professional lay non-celibate gurus, who are teaching mumbo-jumbo about mindfulness of emotions, i.e., what are essentially hindrances.

In other words, if you really want to develop the noble path or jhana, fly cheaply to Asia and spend 6 to 12 months there living for free. Or if you want a happy lay life, maybe check out sila dhamma.

My response was to dxm’s post, this part:

And in religions, do similar things exist in christianity in the US or just in Scientology ?

It was answering that part about whether other religions also have mandatory fees for attendance.

Sure. But it is important to distinguish the cultural religion from the real religion.

The real religion is that found in the various scriptures and, in my understanding, it is only the Jewish religion that has a mandatory levy to the high priests. The apostles of Jesus Christ, according to the Christian scriptures, were essentially mendicants, similar to bhikkhus.

In ancient Israel, as I understand it, it would be very hard to draw a clear distinction between the temple and the state, the priests and civil officials, or the nation of Israel and religion of Israel. So the levy is probably just as much a tax as a purely “religious” collection.

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Indeed. SRMC is affectionately referred to in some circles here (Silicon Valley) as “the upper-middle way”. (“Upper-middle class” is an American term for the relatively well-to-do.)

Back when I was on their emailing list (until getting fed up with incessant messages where “Donate!” was the prominent feature). I recall seeing a job-opening notice, for an executive director, which read like an ad in “The Wall Street Journal”.

I attended the annual (week-long) “Concentration” at SRMC in 2013, using the low-end “sliding-scale” rate of about $800. (Despite living in Silicon Valley for half-a-century, I somehow missed-out on becoming a billionaire. or even a millionaire, which however doesn’t mean that much here where the average cost of a rather ordinary house is currently pushing $2,000,000.) The next year (2014) that rate slid upwards by 50% or so. The numerous other retreat centers around here average now $1500-$2000 per week residential retreat, PLUS one has “yogi-duty” – janitorial, kitchen, etc. work-duty.

(Notable exception: Gil Fronsdal’s “Insight Retreat Center” http://www.insightretreatcenter.org/, which operates on a pure dana basis (but does have “yogi-duty”), and, remarkably, is flourishing. Must note, however, that Gil has near-magical fund-raising abilities, and the IMC / IRC clientele includes a number of people who have done rather well with the Silicon Valley boom.)

Fortunately, being now on the verge of retirement, I discovered the Tathagata Meditation Center http://www.tathagata.org/ (Burmese Mahasi/Pandita monks, Vietnamese congregation), located just 12 miles from where I live, where weekend retreats are free, and month-long retreats (held 4 times / year) cost $25 / day – in both cases, plus dana (but NO yogi-duties). That’s one month for less than ½ the cost of a week at the other retreat centers (excepting IRC)! Also, the evening beginning weekend retreats, there’s a (free) Pali class taught by U Hla Myint (former Mahasi monk and notable translator).

Yet another related anecdote: Thanissaro Bhikkhu had close ties with SRMC a decade or so ago; then an abrupt break. I had presumed this may have had to do with the Bhikkuni-ordination issue, but recently found out (from an informed source) that it actually had to do with their dana policy. TG is known to stress that giving (dana) is a time-honored Buddhist tradition, but pressuring to give is not a Buddhist tradition.

[quote=“Deeele, post:11, topic:5796, full:true”]
Btw, the way, weren’t the priestly caste the 'Levites"? Is the word “levy” related to this? [/quote]

Yes, that would have been interesting. Unfortunately:
“… E [English] levée, whence levee, a reception held by the sovereign, distorts F [French] levé. AE [American English] levee, an embankment against flooding, derives from late OF-F [Old French - French] levée, which also originates the much older levy of taxes or of troops…” … for what it’s worth.

Back To the overall topic:

A friend and colleague told about a friend of his, who wrote a PhD dissertation on socioeconomic strata in American religions. To summarize:
Working class people gravitate towards fundamentalist Christian sects.
Middle class people tend to be Protestant or Roman Catholic.
Buddhism is more likely to be found among the more well-to-do. (More leisure
to meditate?)


spirit rock is not in silicon valley, it’s in marin county. bay area as a whole is one of wealthiest places in country. #1 actually. that’s why they charge. and lots of progressive type people so good market.

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Because well to do people know that they got there by hard work and not by praying to someone. In contrast, poor people think that all due Kamma or think that your life is depending on someone above you. Another reason is rich people know that money does not give the happiness. (not in proportionately at least)
Historically Buddhism was spread from top to bottom. I think Abrahamic religions spread from bottom to top.

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My first experience of ‘forced donation’ was on retreat at Mother Sayamagyi’s place in the UK. I had very little money at the time and if my memory serves me correctly, it was when we arrived that we had to pay. They had advertised as being run on donation basis. I gave what I could but it was less than what they asked for. They told me to pay the rest later. I was shocked - I had thought it was on donation! They confirmed that it was ‘called’ donation but that it was a fixed fee. It seems that their motivation was tax evasion. Strange for a Buddhist centre which claims to follow sila!

Funnily enough Mother Sayamagyi also threatened to kick me out. In my breaks I had been walking around the stupa in the garden, slowly, as I worked to maintain my mindfulness between sitting sessions. I had been trained in walking meditation in Thailand, but I was not following the technique (out of respect for the centre) which was a rather robotic walk and specific attention instructions. However, I was walking slowly, albeit naturally, with my arms down and hands together either behind my back or in front (as is usual in the monasteries I trained in for walking meditation - it’s comfortable!), and internally I was keeping aware of my body in general (unlike the technique I was taught, where the attention is on the feet).

I was called aside by a senior student and told to not do ‘walking meditation’ as other techniques are banned. I did explain that was not what I was doing, and listened to him and followed what he said.

From then on I made as sure as I could to not even look like I was doing the technique which I in fact was not doing. So the next day in my breaks, I walked without my hands together, arms at my sides instead. And made sure I did not walk around the stupa or in straight lines. I just walked around the garden (walking around the garden was totally allowed - so was walking around the stupa actually). And I maintained my mindfulness as I walked. And my walk was a bit faster but still slower than a normal UK person would walk. And I even made sure to not keep my eyes down as I had been doing - a good high gaze as would be ‘normal’ for UK people in a garden. A little more distracting for me, but the last thing I wanted to do was look like I was ‘meditating’. At least I was able to remain calm and mindful while getting a bit of fresh air and some exercise.

That’s when Mother Sayamagyi, through her student, threatened to kick me out, for continuing to do ‘walking meditation’ - a banned ‘technique’.

Wow! Who would have known that you could get kicked out for walking too slowly! Or perhaps mindfulness is only allowed to be cultivated in the meditation hall! Very strange place. Oh did I mention they think they are the only ones who teach the real dhamma? Funnily enough that’s what her dhamma brother Goenka also thought - that in all the world only he taught the real dhamma - and they both think each other are not teaching dhamma! What a cultish mess.

Walk by all means - but don’t be mindful! And don’t tell the tax man either!


The high price of many Buddhist retreats is certainly a problem here in the US. But I think there are some factors to keep in mind – operating and maintaining these facilities here is really, really expensive – particularly in California bay area where Spirit Rock is – you really can’t imagine. For groups that don’t have their own facilities and have to rent them - they have to pay the going rate so the cost is set more by what organizations in general are willing to pay for these kinds of facilities.

Buddhism is not the most expensive religion in the US I think any of the churches that require tithing would be at the top of the list. Sure, if you want to pay full price and do regular retreats at Spirit Rock or similar retreat centers then it is going to cost you big bucks. To their credit, Spirit Rock does provide deep discounts to those that cannot afford the listed prices – so part of the high price is to subsidize lower income people. There are a number of lower cost or true donation based retreat centers around. The forest is free. Personally, I would much prefer to sit in the forest by myself than to be in an elegant room with 30 or so people doing dry vipassana.

Non-profits, charities, and churches all fall under the IRS code 501c3. 501c3 organizations are required to file Form 990 with the government and these report such things as the highest paid employees and officers in the organization and some other information – these are public record - available on line. Unfortunately - or fortunately, depending on who you are – Churches (which includes Spirit Rock) are exempt from having to file Form 990 (that’s politics). There have been a number of attempts to change this but so far it hasn’t happened. There have been some cases where pastors of churches have been earning over a million dollars a year.

A great but little used retreat resource we have here is the million or so square miles of public land. On most of this land, people are allowed to camp for up to 14 days at a time for free and groups are allowed. A small enclosed cargo trailer (with a little work) would make a nice portable kuti. One would be free of just about all regulations and liability issues that retreat centers have to deal with. And you could even sit at the root of a tree, in an abandoned dwelling, or even a cave!

If these things bother you then I think you have already been tainted by the evils of communism. :slight_smile: