In the previous episode of The Missing Conversation, Robert Strock explored the relationship between Buddhist spiritual teachings, their impact on students’ and teachers’ relationships, and the impact of a lack of personal transparency with money.
Most of the current Buddhist teachers tend to live simply and frugally, in relative simplicity, with a low income to moderate lifestyle. More often than not, they depend on donations or Dāna (alms) from their students or those who attend their spiritual services. In this episode, Robert talks about his conversations with several teachers who had mixed emotions about the degree of simplicity required to live according to the current donation system. This meant that the teachers often lived in different neighborhoods than their students. This ambivalence with the students was significantly uncomfortable for some of the teachers. There was concern that it might provoke resistance if the students were asked to evaluate their own relationship with money or the teacher’s desire to live in a more moderate way. Privately, most of these teachers agreed that it would be a good idea to deal with the great attachment towards money prevalent among their students in America. But there was also concern about the impact of this and that it might lessen the need for a role model in some students.
Sometimes we may feel the need to look up to or learn from teachers who appear as though they aren’t attached to money. Buddhist teachers often appear detached from money, which doesn’t encourage them to share any learnings from their own life or experience.
But money is a neutral asset, devoid of any religious connotation. Therefore, there is an open opportunity for Buddhist teachers to share more about their relationship with money to share learning and beneficial examples for their students.
Those blessed with money might benefit from a better understanding of their relationship to their wealth. This, in turn, may help transform the sensation of blessing into a feeling of generosity — the desire to give back and help humanity and those in need. After all, the core tenets of Buddhism and most other religions are to help others and live a life full of caring and understanding.
Mentioned in this episode
The Global Bridge Foundation
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The Missing Conversation, Episode 36.
Robert Strock: (00:05)
And I believe that this attachment to money is the biggest issue in the whole Buddhist community that is ignored in the Western world. And it’s not just an intellectually difficult situation. It’s actually a situation that is connected to the very survival of the world.
On this podcast, we will propose critical new strategies to address world issues, including homelessness, immigration, amongst several others, and making a connection to how our individual psychology contributes and can help transform the dangers that we face. We will break from traditional thinking, as we look at our challenges from a freer and more independent point of view. Your host Robert Strock has had 45 years of experience as a psychotherapist, author, and humanitarian, and has developed a unique approach to communication, contemplation and inquiry born from working on his own challenges.
Robert Strock: (01:10)
So, very happy to have you join us again for The Missing Conversation where we are doing our very best to address the most pressing issues that the world’s facing today. And we’re looking for the most practical, inspiring programs and innovative ideas to support a greater chance of survival for our planet. Today, we’re going to stay focused on which way the Buddhist community in particular would benefit immensely by facing and presenting the human challenges as a part of their teaching, and also deal with the attachment to money. And this is a follow-up on the last episode for those of you that joined us here. And I believe that this attachment to money is the biggest issue in the whole Buddhist community that is ignored in the Western world. And it’s not just an intellectually difficult situation. It’s actually a situation that is connected to the very survival of the world. So I’d first like to start off by introducing my partner at the Global Bridge Foundation, closest friend forever, Dave.
Thank you. Uh, Robert, I really, really, uh, look forward right now to continuing what we did in the last episode and, and hearing more.
Robert Strock: (02:54)
Great. So, starting off with one of the premier centers in the United States, where I’ve talked with probably 10 teachers about their relationship to money and this quite a bit of variety, which from my vantage point is good. Where many of the teachers are themselves living in balance and have succeeded in living a more moderate lifestyle. That’s the good news. The bad news is that’s usually tied into either being much more successful, written, many more books, or having a parallel business that has allowed them to live the life they want to live. So they’ve taken care of it in that way, but there are only a handful out of the many from my exposure, which I’ll grant left off about 10, 10 years ago, where they are in this situation, the conversations generally, however, when it went to well, what about the teaching and how much you integrate this teaching?
Robert Strock: (04:24)
Some of those teachers mentioned their own sense of moderation and enjoying living in the middle way, but still we’re hard-pressed to really lean into the community and say, you know, we all need to deal with this and this is how I’m dealing with it. So their own personal transparency of why they felt the need to do some other work, to live, what they considered to be a lifestyle where they could live in the communities where they taught or where they could live the life they wanted, but really dealing with it. As you know, we were raised in a world where money along with sex and various other key elements, popularity, loyalty, a lot of things that were defined as the key goals were distorted. They didn’t emphasize spiritual principles. And we want to be like a second childhood where we’re orienting you toward the wisdom of the Buddha, which was immense and comprehensive, not only in money, but really in everything.
Robert Strock: (05:53)
So, there were several teachers that in the conversations questioned what is called in the Buddhist tradition, Dana, where it’s just a voluntary donation. So, people will typically drop in a dollar or $2 or $5. And that was the way many of the teachers were receiving their lifestyle unless they had other sources of income. So, my suggestion to every one of them, which is the way I work my own practice was why not have it be on a sliding scale and have it be a strong suggestion and then have people talk about it if they didn’t agree with you, which is if you’re making X dollars or less, then yeah, $2 to $5 is fine if you’re really close to month to month. But if you’re in this next category, our next category, the next category, it would be appropriate to give increasing donations because you do it for therapists, you do it for doctors.
Robert Strock: (07:09)
Why would you feel the need to make us be poor? Do we have to be poor to prove to you something that you’re not proving to yourself? Is that really what you believe? Do I have to play a role as being one step underneath you? If you’re living a life of balance yourself, or in many cases for the wealthier group, do you not want me to be two groups below you so I can live a comfortable lifestyle? So, this was a very hot conversation, which almost invariably led to. Yeah, I think we need to reevaluate it. There was some envy, some frustration wrestling with it. It was irritation. It led to great conversation. And in some cases, the traditions, and I’m not saying particularly because of our conversations, but in some cases, the traditions started to loosen up in the last years that I was really actively involved in the Buddhist community, which I have immense gratitude by the way, for, for the many great retreats and values that they helped really inspire.
Robert Strock: (08:34)
So, I asked them pretty standardly, if they really believe the Buddha would have dealt with the attachment to money in the ways that they are, if he was here. And of course the question was absurd and I admit to probably sneakily a little bit hostile, um, or aggressive, uh, and just even asking the question, I mean, playfully, and it was in some ways painful and led to a gap of why do we not teach even close to what our core heart teacher taught us to teach? And the common answers that I got back were well, I am afraid that the students need someone to look up to that isn’t attached to money. I’m surviving. Okay. I’m okay. Yeah. I’d like it to be better, but I can live with it. Or, you know, what it probably is, are, and my grade is failing. And maybe I do need to be idealized or maybe the students need to idealize me.
Robert Strock: (09:57)
So, these were some of the common, what I viewed as rationalizations for not really shining the mirror to the students themselves. And frankly, I hold students responsible as much as the teachers are almost as much that, you know, well, if you’re in that area where you have enough money plus some extra now, for those that don’t have money, that’s an enormous challenge because it’s really natural and easy to see how angry you might be. If you see these wealthy people going to these holy services and thinking that they’re spiritual while they don’t care, if you’re homeless, they don’t care, if you’re poor. They don’t care if there’s two classes that have gotten wider and wider and wider for the last 50 years. And so the key for people that don’t have any money that are living either on the streets or living in month to month survival, maybe on credit cards, is to focus on discipline, perseverance, and recognizing that in many ways, if they can keep a good attitude and not fall prey to really just stay angry at the wealthy and put that energy into survival, into pride of having a healthy sense of optimizing their day. Into right action, right thought right speech and being able to stay with what Buddha was talking about.
Robert Strock: (11:46)
They may very well be, or more accurately. They are living more in accord with what the Buddha taught and it’s all too easy to stay negative and really just being a complaint and lose half their energy and make it that much more hard to survive.
Just as you’re speaking about the teachers in particular and the teachings and the emulation of Buddha as they perceived it and being a beggar, going from being a, a prince to being a beggar. And at that time quite different times, uh, teachers today cannot be, they would not be able to be homeless and on the streets with a ball like Buddha could be and like was in the time he lived his way. And so, they have a completely different set of values and culture to deal with and their teachings dictate. How much of that do you think is a conflict inside of them at all?
Robert Strock: (12:57)
My experience is it was a conflict and every teacher I talked to, I honestly can happily say that really it’s a dual conflict. There’s a conflict that they weren’t living more like the Buddha. And there was a conflict that they weren’t living more like there’s, there was a conflict in, in both directions for, especially for those that were living sort of below their ideals.
And so, explain that a little more, like, especially with the students.
Robert Strock: (13:32)
Um, the conflict with the students is how can I, not for those of you that have a comfortable lifestyle, how can I not talk to you about what the Buddhist says? How can I not really say to you, we are here to develop caring, brotherhood, sisterhood values, and I’m either wimping out because of fear. I’m not coming up with a strength to really hold you accountable to how much more important you think you are than those that are on the streets, countries that are in famines, or the earth that is endangered. I feel guilty that I’m not doing my part as a teacher by not really speaking to you, not only more, but with passion, with intensity, like life and death is what we’re talking about because life and death “is” what we’re talking about. How can I not do that? And I did see that spark in the teachers, but how much it converted quickly, not too often, occasionally, but the honesty was there.
Robert Strock: (14:56)
You know, the integrity to look at that was there, the implementation to actually do that in the teachings, in the meditations, in the retreats. And the tapes is very limited. I’ve, I look from time to time since I really was fairly actively involved in the Buddhist community, even though I would have never said I was a Buddhist, I would have said that was my strongest orientation in it’s time. And I still haven’t seen large teachings on attachment to money and especially with a teacher saying, and here’s my history over the last 40 years, including present time, where, how I view the way that I taught through the years to my students, which I think would be invaluable. This is an invitation to teachers and students in the Buddhist traditions alike to have this really be more central at such a crucial time for our planet.
Robert Strock: (16:05)
Billions, and I think trillions of dollars could be canceled towards those in need, towards the planet that’s in need. And the key is not out of guilt, not out of pressure. And hopefully the teachers would be able to talk about starting with quality of life, how important it is for money, not to just be used as safety and security and for your family and passing it down. So high of a percentage for people that have money and have the percentages of that kind of like tithing where it’s just a natural part of being raised. Not because you should, but because you’re blessed to be able to have a lifestyle. And can you feel a sensation of that blessing of having enough where this natural urge of generosity arises? And if not, can we keep talking about it to see that maybe why you’re not experiencing this is because you were taught, it was wise to save and to keep investing and to keep earning more and you get more respect for that.
Robert Strock: (17:20)
And a certain tradition of connections and other opportunities and freedoms and pleasures took the place of these core values. As you Dave said, with a Buddha being willing to be a beggar, not willing to be wanting to be a beggar because he did have trust in life. And he knew he’d be taken care of a few, it was that generous. He’d be invited into homes and if he wasn’t he’d make do. And I do think that there’s a change of times that if the Buddha were here today, yeah, he may have had a tent. He may, he may have had some humble surroundings that he would have been happy to be in, but he also, for those that really believe that he was who he was, he was living in a state of mind that really allowed him to be more safe, secure, blessed, no matter where he was.
Robert Strock: (18:21)
None of the teachers that I’ve talked with, except for some of the exceptional ones that we’ll deal with later, believe they were enlightened as he claimed to be. So, the mere mortal teachers that are generally teaching it’s natural for them to be more moderate. I’m not in any way saying that it would be natural to be beggars for the existing teachers. Quite the contrary, it’s more natural I believe, to live in moderation, which is really what he taught for the average teacher in, in the tradition that he was espousing. So, in my conversations with teachers, really none of them disagreed. They really wanted to integrate the teachings in some way and were, let’s say intrigued at the very least, some cases inspired, in some cases just contemplative, but it was a wonderful community. It is a wonderful community to at least have that conversation because for none of them, it was brand new news.
Robert Strock: (19:36)
All of them had thoughts, some of the thoughts, and it was just a question of how much more is needed to have it really be a part of what we’ll deal with in later episodes of the humanitarian community and a community that actually cares and views money as no different than a smile or a hand or a hug and a non-covered top. So, there are also some good examples of people. I had a teacher that was just living very casually. Didn’t really care about money, very intuitive, lived a balanced life and was noticing his internal reactions and was sharing quite a bit. So, along the way, there are many Buddhist teachers that have been imbalanced. But when I say many, that might mean 7%. That doesn’t mean know that, that close to half are in that way. So one of the extreme examples that happened with a client that is Buddhist, that practices there, it’s also a client happens to be a very wealthy client.
Robert Strock: (21:04)
So, in my own way, having only given up my license about six months ago, because I didn’t want to have to worry about dual agency and the goal, the pursuit, and the humanitarian direction created conflicts of interest. So, I wanted to be able to join some of the many people that had foundations or are doing good works and, and be able to be a uniter of many groups of people and many individuals. But this person came from, and I can only say this because I also came from a Jewish tradition and so we playfully call it, cause his father’s name was Mo that we always called it Mo well, of course, Mo is leading you this direction. And so, he had a lot of money, uh, as in a hundred million dollars. So, I did a 20 minute kind of spontaneous guided meditation. And we named it later, as we do many of the tapes that he takes from our sessions, which are usually one minute, two minute, three minute clips, but this was 20 minutes.
Robert Strock: (22:17)
We named this one $60 million on top of your coffin. And the key was where, where we have a great joking relationship. And he realizes that his relationship to money is idiotic, but it’s still what he feels and the feelings have changed. And he started to become generous, but he still hadn’t figured out how am I going to ever spend the $60 million. I only want to leave a certain amount of my kids and a certain amount to charity or to well-being. And I want to only have this amount. I haven’t figured out how I’m going to spend this money. So, we had this envisionment, you realize if you died tonight, which given that you’re not that much younger than me, you might die tomorrow night, you’re going to literally have $60 million. That is not, it’s really going to end up going to your kids, which you know, yourself would spoil them.
Robert Strock: (23:22)
And you, you know, you’re sophisticated enough to know that people that have inherited wealth have amongst the lowest self-esteem of people in the world. And so you need to give this contemplation. So, every single session we have, we weave that in and out, and we’re now a couple of years down the line, and it’s down to quite a bit less than $60 million. But the key in working with Buddhist teachers or Buddhist teachers working with students is not to evoke the guilt, but to start through quality of life, have you given yourself the absolute quality of life that you want, and one that you think still has some wisdom. So, there’s a bit of a check there. And when the individuals give themselves the quality of life and they have some wisdom, it’s an organic state of growth. It’s like Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, where you keep gaining from survival and to a sense of well-being, to some peak experiences.
Robert Strock: (24:36)
And then something he didn’t really talk about, but it really is the humanitarian or the spiritual spirit of generosity of I have everything I need for myself. So now I can get great joy from giving that to other people. And for those that are listening, whether it’s you as a Buddhist student to contemplate for the rest of your life, what would really be balanced given 20, 21? How do I want to teach, teach my kids? How do I want them to teach their grandkids? How do I want to talk to it with my friends, with my family, isn’t really balanced. And especially for Buddhist community, as they call are called sanghas to actually have this be a key part of the conversation so that the haves and the have nots start to have some role reversing, start to be able to really see what it’s like to have, what it’s like to not have.
Robert Strock: (25:43)
And see, as one of my close friends asked me, and I believe I might’ve mentioned it at another episode, do you feel entitled to have your bank account? Cause I’m not very wealthy, but I’m in a category of a have. And at that time 40 years ago, I said, yeah, I do. I w I feel like I need to be generous, but I’m not going to just turn my bank account over to you. So yeah, I do. But now as the decades have gone on that question has become so much more provocative at that time. I had what I would call fleeting awarenesses of feeling guilty and feeling spoiled, a bit greedy, but I also felt entitled, which is why I didn’t make any major moves at that time. But it’s led me to a continuous series of questionings that I think is so healthy for all of us in the Buddhist community.
Robert Strock: (26:45)
It needs to be a brand new primary motive in being a Buddhist student, a teacher, and have it be central, frankly. I think it needs to be central for every Buddhist teacher. I don’t think there’s any exception because we’re living in a world where it’s not only a habit, as I said earlier it’s truly an addiction. So, take a look at yourself right now and see, are you ready to stir it up a little bit, mix it up in your community, bring it up with your teacher. Notice what challenging feelings come up for you that stop you from doing it, whether it’s your own lack of integration, whether it’s the fear that your teacher will respond to you poorly. And if you are someone that’s ready as, as a student to approach your teacher, I was strongly suggest that you lead with your own internal conflicts and how much you would like to ask them to not only bring it up, but hopefully to be bringing it up with personal transparency as to what kinds of feelings they’ve had of being totally fulfilled or an, and I don’t think that would be the real answer for all of them, or for even close to all of, even half of them to having feelings of envy or guilt or inadequacy or fear of approaching students, just to try to do it for the benefit of each of us as individuals and for the world.
Robert Strock: (28:35)
And maybe to ask the teacher, what is your relationship to money and how do you believe that affects the purity of your teaching of faith that the original Buddha has and the practices. And if you really live true to your wisdom, how much would you reveal of your own relationship to it, and how much would you really bring it to your communities? And is it my deepest intention and prayer that this be a message that’s well-received and heard from the heart and truly hear it as a prayer, not as a judgment. Thank you very much.
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