By Daniel Scharpenburg
I see that question once in a while and it confuses me.
It doesn’t cost anything to study Buddhism. There are so many Buddhist teachings available now that a person literally could not read everything in a lifetime. Sure, before the internet it may have been a little harder but it’s definitely not hard now.
But also, Buddhism is mostly about DOING SOMETHING. In the traditions I practice it’s sitting meditation. In other traditions it’s chanting. And yes, in some traditions the center of practice is prayer. BUT, what do these things have in common? They don’t cost anything.
Someone once told me that it costs $9 to join the sect called Soka Gakkai. I didn’t fact check that. But as barriers go…not a lot of people are stopped by a $9 investment requirement.
I don’t have to pay someone to sit on my cushion, set a timer, and meditate.
Now, it’s true, I’ve bought a lot of Buddhist statues, malas, and books. I have, I spent a lot of money on Buddhist stuff. But the point I’m making is that I didn’t have to. And you don’t have to.
Meanwhile, many other religions ask for 10% of your income. But “Why is Buddhism so expensive?” is something people yell from the rooftops.
(yes, I know most people don’t actually tithe 10% of their income to their local church)
(yes, I know, some not insignificant number of you just said, “did he call Buddhism a religion?” We will talk about why I do call Buddhism a religion some other time.)
All of that being said, why do people say Buddhism is expensive? I’ve heard someone coined the term “upper middle way” because they feel like Buddhism is only for a certain class of people. It shouldn’t be that way.
Being a Buddhist doesn’t cost anything. Meditating, chanting, bowing…these things are free. Incense costs a little. If you go get a cool meditation cushion and a singing bowl and some bells and stuff, sure…that can start to get pricy. And if you start buying books and keep buying them that can empty your wallet really quickly too.
BUT that’s not what people are talking about when they say Buddhism is expensive.
I saw this meme one time that said, “If traveling was free, you’d never see me again.”
And I just thought, “It’s being comfortable while traveling that costs a lot of money.”
This is similar. Becoming a Buddhist isn’t expensive. You literally just have to decide you’re a Buddhist. Some people say you have to get permission from a teacher. I disagree. I think it is and should be a big and open tent with plenty of room for everyone.
That being said, if you feel like you need permission to be a Buddhist, I’m giving you permission.
Practicing Buddhism isn’t expensive either. It costs nothing to sit still and do nothing.
It’s having the experiences you want that can cost a lot of money. This exists primarily in three areas: access to teachers, retreats, and teacher training.
Access To Teachers
If you want to learn from Jack Kornfield or Pema Chodron or the Dalai Lama…that’s going to cost you. That’s not to shame these teachers, of course. It’s just to say that A LOT of people want to practice with them. But, thankfully, you don’t need to practice with a famous teacher. I’d say you don’t *really* have to practice with a teacher at all but it helps. And there are plenty of teachers that you can find that you can also afford.
Going to Niagara Falls was a lot more fun than going to the Missouri River. But if I’m eager to see water flowing, I can go to the Missouri River any time I want. It’s right by my house.
What people are paying thousands of dollars for is to get the experience they want.
I once had a teacher that I really wanted to practice with. I could have been a student of this moderately well-known teacher, but it would have cost me a few thousand dollars every year to make sure I could get to her retreats. At the time spending that much was a non-starter for me. I was financially struggling at the time. And that’s okay.
Access to a teacher is often not free. And you can draw a pretty clear line between a teacher’s level of fame and the amount of money you have to spend to have access to them.
A good Buddhist retreat is usually in a nice space for several days or weeks with food and lodging available. Providing that is expensive. And then if there’s a famous teacher leading the retreat, see above. People have this expectation that a retreat should be cheap, but it won’t. The few places that have “pay what you can afford” retreats are usually struggling to make ends meet and on the verge of collapsing all the time. But also…you don’t have to go on a retreat to be a Buddhist. And you can also retreat by yourself. Just go somewhere quiet where you can be alone and spend a lot of time meditating.
You don’t have to be trying to become a teacher. That is not a requirement for practicing Buddhism. You can just do it and not share it at all. Or you can do it and share it as a friend. Some people seem to feel like they’re failing if they aren’t on track to become a teacher.
That said, if you do want to become a teacher there are lots of different ways to do that. Yes one way is getting authorized by another teacher. Sometimes that means spending X amount of months in retreat. Sometimes it means paying for a teacher training class which can come in many different forms. Some of those are incredibly expensive and almost resemble going to college.
But the truth that we don’t talk about much is this: some people just decide they’re teachers after they get a lot of experience. I’m not going to name names but I know of some really prominent teachers who weren’t given ‘permission to teach’ by anyone. And their students and the Buddhist publishing world don’t seem to be that bothered.
Now, I wouldn’t suggest that someone with really limited experience should just suddenly decide they’re a teacher and expect to get students and be respected. That is probably not going to work out and could be really problematic. BUT I will say that price tags in the range of $6000 aren’t the barrier that we tend to think they are.
If you feel inspired to teach there is teacher training out there that you can afford. Again, you just have to be willing to look for it. But, your focus should be centered on making sure you’re practicing a lot first, before you think about anything else.
Buddhism isn’t expensive unless YOU make it expensive. You can make it expensive if you want to. But that is NOT a requirement.