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  • Writer's pictureallenbroadman

Donations Not Welcome

Updated: Jan 12, 2022

Some Thoughts on Money and Zen Practice


It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it. - Upton Sinclair


When I was first considering how to structure a Zen meditation group to start up, and which has now just begun a few weeks ago in Nyack, N.Y., I had to consider the question of money. I knew for certain that there would be no charge or fee of any kind to join the group, and some of the early event flyers have “Always Free, Donations Welcome” written on them. My thinking at the time was that this group would be a space for people to come together to meditate and explore Zen practice, and that money should never be an obstacle to joining or attending. There are enough obstacles, like busy schedules, work and family demands, fears and reluctance of all kinds – why add money to the already long list?



Money influences everything - it is both concrete and symbolic, and also relational. Living in a capitalist society it is impossible to underestimate money’s involvement in power, influence, class, and in the daily activities of everyday life. It’s a dire necessity for survival for some, to pay rent and put food on the table. It is status to others, as the means to purchase bigger and better homes, cars, boats, diamonds, or whatever one’s preferred class symbols are. It’s an investment in the future when put into retirement accounts or college savings plans, but is a means towards criminal action when it’s used because of the untraceability of cash.


Intentions and Effects


Money is the lubricant for power, and also corruption, when the actions and influence of other people are purchased with it, such as through political or organizational donations both legal and illegal. And yet money can also become a life preserver, when donated to charitable organizations which provide all kinds of essential services to people in need. Ultimately, the paper bills and digital account balances become whatever we do with them, and so it is the intention and force of the people who are spending it which transforms money into effects on the world.


I reflected on the “Donations Welcome” message of the meditation group and realized that although seemingly neutral, “Donations Welcome” does create an impact, one that I didn’t want to bring to the group. Such a policy raises all sorts of questions and thoughts for group members or anyone just dropping by: Should I donate something or not? If I donate, how much should I give? Am I expected to donate something even if it’s small? Will I look stingy if I don’t give or give too little? I’ll be great and donate a 20! And on and on.


I realized that my hope for the feel of this group was to create a space in which money would play the least role it might, and wishfully no role at all. It would be a space that was as far away from money’s influence as might be reasonably possible, while still taking place in a conventional suburban setting of a capitalist economy. So I changed those early flyers to now read, “Always Free” and there is never any kind of donations bowl put out.


This approach takes on the fact that the different ways our lives are structured create different influences on how thoughts and concepts will arise for us, and how we will then have to deal with them. How we structure home life and work life, how we structure our consumption and use of technology and media, or the structures of our romantic relationships, and more, lead to different thoughts, thinking and emotional responses within us. Those responses are exactly the mental-emotional content that in Zen we are practicing to let go of – to get untangled from. If we want it to be easier to get untangled, it makes a lot of sense to structure our lives to create less powerful objects of entanglement in the first place.


I am very fortunate that the costs for this Nyack meditation group are tiny, and I have the resources so that I don’t need to ask for any financial support to keep it going. So it is no burden at all for me to keep the group always free. I feel satisfied with the decision, in that I also get helpfully freed from many thoughts about money and donations – free to focus all my attention on being present with the group when it meets, with less on my mind about who has donated what, or why they did or didn’t.


Our life is frittered away by detail... simplify, simplify. - Henry David Thoreau

This approach to reducing the complexity of the structures in our lives, and their impacts on our mental-emotional life, is a simplifying act, one that has far-reaching effects on ourselves and others. These impacts have been known to spiritual practitioners and teachers for millennia. They are a driving force behind structures like monastic living, silent retreats, hermitages, and many types of secluded or austere and minimalist living which appear in the deeper practices of religions all over the world, and for many people leading secular lives too.


But we don’t need to become monks or live like hermits to benefit from the approach. It is exactly because our modern lives are so very complicated, that there are so many opportunities to change the structures and to reduce the complications, at least starting with the many unnecessary ones. I leave you with the advice of Henry David Thoreau, the 19th century American poet and philosopher, from his wonderful memoir Walden, in which he expressed this sentiment so simply: “Our life is frittered away by detail... simplify, simplify.”

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