August 15, 2014

Financing Monkhood

One often overlooked factor in being part of the modern day sangha is finances. I've traveled all around Asia and had interactions with all kinds of traditions. When it comes to money, some are more supportive of the sangha than others. It is indeed true that according to the Vinaya the sangha is not supposed to possess money (or "carry or touch precious metals"), but the reality is that the vast majority historically in fact did so and continue to do so. Unless you maybe live in an accommodating society like Thailand, you need to use money.

Theravadin countries seem to unconditionally support sangha members. This includes basic food, shelter and medical care. Education expenses can also be covered if need be. This is quite commendable, but outside Asia such institutions don't exist in any significant size. Ajahn Brahm is trying to build the Thai Forest Tradition in Australia, but all things considered it is still not that large. Moreover, while he personally might not handle money, his organization still needs money to build and expand.

Chinese Buddhism might support their sanghas, though modern organizations tend to demand lifetime service, especially in Taiwan. If they pay for your training and other expenses, you repay them with service. From my observations, you sacrifice your autonomy and do as you're told until you're at a position within the hierarchy that you can issue orders yourself. However, senior sangha members in Chinese Buddhist organizations in my observations tend to be continually busy and deeply immersed in their communities. They might not have to worry about money, but it seems generally one must sacrifice personal autonomy and even spiritual freedom. This is why there's almost no westerners in Chinese sanghas.

Japanese Buddhism in modern times simply doesn't have a sangha in the traditional pan-Asian sense. After the Meiji restoration monks started marrying and producing offspring which came to inherit the temples in the same way estates were handed down. Nowadays temples in Japan are generally autonomous and finance themselves through the traditional system of benefactors, who basically pay money to the temple to keep their ancestral remains there and for the clerics to perform rituals on their behalf. In Japan monks often have a reputation as being well-to-do. Private Buddhist universities in Japan consequently can easily charge US$10,000 / year or more for basic annual tuition. There are usually scholarships, but their system isn't really established for poor seekers of Dharma. The degree is part of the certification process in the hereditary priesthood.

Tibetan Buddhism is an interesting case in that monasteries will generally provide basic food, shelter and maybe clothing, but not much else unless you're a tulku or have some other special cause for being pampered. Some monasteries might even fail to provide sufficient nutrition. There's often a perception that gonpa food is predictably continually awful. 

Parents will generally have to support their children in the monastery well into adulthood. This sort of system indirectly encourages an entrepreneurial spirit. Monks figure out ways to make extra money, whether it is doing pujas or getting sponsorship of some sort of another (perhaps from foreigners, who are easy to milk for money). There's also some monks who use the system to acquire some skills like English and then somehow or another get to a developed country and claim asylum. This has actually become a problem. One Nepali-Tibetan monk told me while in Delhi, where he was waiting a month for a visa to Taiwan, that so many monks have bailed out while overseas that getting a visa for western and developed Asian countries is an enormous hurdle now. It isn't uncommon for members of major entourages of eminent teachers to vanish.

Western sangha members, in my experience, usually struggle financially if they're in a Tibetan tradition or just independent. Older ones might have pensions and retirement funds, but they're rather exceptional.

If they're in Theravada in Asia, they're covered, but might not have any support if they return home. If they're in a Chinese tradition, they're covered, but the dropout rate of westerners in Chinese traditions is so high that there's little need to discuss westerners in the Chinese sangha. One monk I know through FB is in a Korean tradition and has lamented his lack of material support from anyone.

One way to secure an honorable income is to be an academic or translator, though these are not for everyone. Not everyone can get a PhD or wants to. Moreover, translation work can easily come and go.

If you live in South Asia where the cost of living is quite low, then you can maybe survive doing odd translation gigs here and there while living somewhere for free or really cheap (you could rent a decent room in Kathmandu, for example, for 100 dollars / month).

In my case, I've been fortunate so far to have had translation work up until now. I've also been able to either live for real cheap in South Asia or stay for free in places like Singapore and Malaysia when travelling. A number of people there were especially generous to me, which was quite humbling. For example, some folks generously pitched in and bought me a new laptop.

Nevertheless, you maybe only find that kind of support in small pockets, and you can't rely on it.

Recently the translation project I was a part of was suddenly suspended and hence my sole source of income was halted. I could potentially try to do commercial translation work, but I'd rather not, nor am I really in a position to do so logistically. I had been promised financial support in the past, but that never materialized. Again, this is an issue a lot of western monks face: you get promised support of some sort, but it never appears.

I know western monks who inevitably face the fact they're not getting any support and go to work as a result. This leads to an interesting question. If you're supposed to be a monk -- a representative of Buddhism -- and Buddhists don't want to support your occupation, then is your occupation necessary or even desirable? If you need to work, then you might as well ditch the costume and just live a stoic monk-like life as best as possible, no? Mendicancy isn't a realistic nor always legal option today depending where you live.

The hard reality is that a lot of westerners basically can't afford to be monks, but keep going anyway in the hope something comes along. A lot of times nothing ever does and plenty of Buddhist organizations just don't seem to care one way or another about your long-term welfare. This is probably a good reason why so many westerners who become monks disrobe within a few years. They just can't afford the lifestyle and nobody is going to toss them a bone worth chewing.

If this is what it is going to be, then I think the modern Japanese model might be optimal. That is to say, you can be a part-time monk and otherwise lead an ordinary secular lifestyle, working as you may to support yourself and your practice. I've met some ordained Japanese clerics (they're not really "monks" in the strict sense) who otherwise wear suits and go to work but still remain true to their beliefs, especially those without a temple in which to do funerals for income. In that respect, they're not a financial burden on anyone, nor do they have to rely on possibly unreliable benefactors.

Maybe there's no other alternative to this because frankly I don't foresee western Buddhists supporting a conventional sangha on any major scale in any country. Nobody wants to pay for it.


  1. I come from an Anglican Christian background where pastors are paid a salary so they are supported by their congregation. I've not given much thought to how Buddhist monks manage since I've started attending Buddhist classes and had always assumed they are being well taken care off by some community. This is an interesting post. Venerable Dhammika's recently wrote about the increasing number of monks disrobing. Yet many in do endend churches are functioning how h8ge commercial enterprises with big PR and fund raising machineries and capabilities. What a contrast.

  2. I think Dhammika Bhante's post was with respect to the Sri Lankan sangha. The western sangha is a whole other matter. Most of the western sangha members I know report having financial difficulties, unless they're in Theravada and living in Asia somewhere, but then the moment they leave they'll not have much support, if any.

    Even if you're experienced, educated, well-behaved and a decent public speaker and counselor, it is unlikely you'll be provided with much support. It is very different from the Protestant Christian and Catholic models in the west.

    I don't expect much to change in the foreseeable future. If monks want to live as monks long-term in the west, then they'll need to adopt a self-supporting model, such as producing goods for sale as some Christian communities have done and/or growing their own food (Chan farms so to speak). However, trying to organize such things and keep it working over time might prove problematic.

    1. Thanks for your additional thoughts. The self supporting model may be an option but as you have pointed out it is difficult to sustain. Also, I think that it may distract a monk if he ends up worrying about his basic needs much of the time and may even change the way he relates to the world (more commercial and business like) im which case, there is no difference from a householder. But your post was useful in helping me better understand the situation. Thank you. Hope you swing by Singapore again soom and drop by thw Buddha Dhamma Mandala Society.

  3. Bear in mind though that even with support, you still see plenty of sangha members in fact being quite entrepreneurial and providing services to the lay membership in the hopes of gathering more members and donations (one example would be daycare services and summer camp programs for kids). I've also seen "successful" monks basically spending their time getting closer and closer to eminent and rich persons. If you run a big operation that is capital intensive, then inevitably unless you have an endowment you'll have to cater to people with money.