Friday, October 20, 2017

the expense of what's free

A frequent burr under the saddle of those busy falling in love with spiritual practice is the costs associated with retreats and other ritual adventures. Many of those starting out have little money and feel that anything as grand as "enlightenment" or "heaven" or whatever ought to be free ... and then the price tags come into withering focus. "Where am I supposed to scrounge up $500 for a retreat?!"

A Zen teacher (Yasutani, maybe?) was once asked about what such newcomers might feel were onerous-if-not-downright-greedy demands. He laughed and said approximately, "Oh yes! Charge them a lot! That way they'll think the Dharma/enlightenment/heaven is worth something."

Strange how accumulating wealth and possessions can elicit enormous effort. It's an expensive business -- the car, the house, the family, the art work, the status ... pricey. What is costly costs a lot. Sacrifices must be made when achieving success.

But whereas success is often costly, the only thing more expensive -- the only thing that costs more -- is what is free. What is free requires more effort, more expenditure, more attention, more blood, sweat and tears than anything with a price tag.

If paying for a $500 retreat is expensive, not-paying for it will suck you dry.

The Zen teacher's comment is one of those slightly sneaky nudges that takes the ordinary sense of acquisition and success and puts it to some fruitful use. Most newcomers haven't yet got what it takes to accept what is free ... so let's pretend it costs a lot, the more ordinary approach.

This slightly-sneaky nudge opens the door to a lot of chicanery, of course, and helps to make the Vatican the richest corporation in the world, but it's a pretty good gambit, corruption and all.

What is free is expensive and requires a savings plan that some spiritual practices can provide... muscle building so that when what is free comes around and kicks you in the ass, there is no need to whine and whimper and wax wise.

Of course, if you've got a spare $500 burning a hole in your pocket, you could always send it to me. I need a new stove. Stoves aren't free.


  1. It's all really just change, common and guaranteed dependable. What was effort changes to pay. What was cash becomes a purchase. And as entropy would have it, it's all downhill, each exchange representing erosion. That may sound judgmental, but it does nestle comfortably in my own experience.

  2. Good issue for consideration.

    Perhaps the fees should be included in the evaluation of ones chosen practice group. Be sure to inquire into scholarships and the requirements to get one.

    I practice Zen with a what I considered a nice group. I had heard one of the leaders say one could do service to reduce the retreat fees. While I could have stretched the budget, I had time. I inquired and arrangements were made to perform service — cleaning, repairing, etc.I performed the required service with the best diligence I could muster.

    I went on the retreat. After the retreat a bought a box of nice incense. I put it on a credit card.

    That got back to my “mentor.” He was angry. He assumed I did service because I was truly broke. I didn’t argue my reasons. I did not say he wasn’t clear on who should apply. I just apologized for my misunderstanding. Instead it, rightly or wrongly, influenced my opinion of the mentor, the meddlesome bookkeeper and the culture of the organization.

    While not the deciding factor, I eventually decided to leave the organization. That kind of judgmental micromanagement went far beyond mindful practice.