Saturday, May 16, 2015

Dramatic Weight Loss and Other Money-Sucking Delusions

My husband plunked down around a considerable amount of money to buy me a bottle of Garcinia Cambogia pills in the hopes that I will be slim and trim for my trip to Rome for the Catholic-Buddhist dialogue in June (as if I’ll have a better chance of getting the Pope’s ear if I can catch his eye). I tried the routine for a half month and not much happened with my weight. Drinking a pill with a full glass of water before meals makes the stomach feel fuller and you’re likely to eat less, so in that sense it works. The actual substance Garcinia Cambogia might have fat-blocking power, but who knows if what you buy online or even in a reputable store is what the label says it is.

There are a lot of companies making money from selling this placebo. They know many people are so desperate for dramatic weight loss that they’ll pay anything. Besides weight loss, a lot of people are desperate to quickly get rich or find everlasting love – or reach that blissful state referred to as “nirvana.” I know many temples are wondering how they can cash in on the mindfulness craze – if people are willing to pay for expensive seminars, videos, books etc. why can’t we lure them in and get them to pay us?

At our temple, I’ve held the line against charging for classes and meditation sessions. A few classes ask students to pay for materials, such as when our retired minister used to teach Japanese calligraphy which requires special paper, ink and brushes. One time the recently deceased meditation leader advertised a charge for a special “introduction to meditation” course, but I told him that was against our temple’s policy. I told him he could request reimbursement from the temple for mileage or any of his expenses incurred and he could even keep any free-will donations instead of passing them on to the temple. But I don’t want our temple to be a place where you have to pay for the Path.

Our temple is fortunate to have a stable financial base of members who have contributed generously year after year. Besides paying for membership, these people make frequent donations in memory of their loved ones – parents, siblings, children, even the in-laws’ grandparents. Most of these people are first and second generation Japanese American, but we’ve had long-time members of various ethnic groups who keep up the memorial donations for their families.

Some cynics might say the temple is living off the guilt of the filial pious (“If I don’t make a donation in Grandma’s memory every year, her spirit will curse me”), but I’d like to think the donations are made in appreciation of the Buddhist teachings that inspired their loved ones and that continue to guide the survivors in their grief. It is not buying merit for the loved one to use in purchasing higher-level rebirths, as many people in the old countries might think.

My friends at the Orange County Buddhist Church in southern California tell me that we should charge for Buddhist education classes or people won’t value them enough to show up. But I think if anything, we need to make the teachings as accessible to people as possible, especially to those in our surrounding community where many are un- or under-employed. I’m surprised that some Buddhist groups charge fees close to or over $100 for a class or seminar (although one Zen group on their flyers will have a footnote that no one will be turned away if they can’t pay the full fee).

Another reason for not charging for classes is that I don’t want to be like the Garcinia Cambogia pill sellers, taking advantage of people desperately wishing for a great change in their lives. I know what it’s like to be desperately seeking a spiritual breakthrough – you’re willing to follow anyone marketed as a “wise master.” But like the bottle labeled “Garcinia Cambogia,” the actual contents could be capsules of do-nothing powder, and the claims for the real substance could be terribly exaggerated, based on a few anecdotes. My hope is that those who come to our temple – to attend services, classes, meditation etc. – will at least learn that the nirvana pointed to by the Buddha was not some quick-fix that suddenly gives you spiritual super-powers, to be as pure and calm as Superman is strong. If anything – and this is the lesson that hit me between the eyes – we learn from authentic Buddhism that our wish for that supremely blissful state is the delusion of our ego-attachment, the story we tell ourselves that somehow we deserve to become a superior being and just need to find the effective means to that transformation. What we receive from Buddhism is the path of liberation from our grasping self, to become more aware of the no-boundaries world of true Life. This path can’t be bought but only experienced through taking the time (months, years, kalpas) to listen to the teachings and to learn from our fellow seekers (Shakyamuni, Shinran, temple members past and present).