July the 11th, and a wonderful sunny morning as I drive to Gaia House. The satellite navigation system in my car has a habit of taking me down routes which barely qualify as roads; windy single lane tracks with high banks laden with lush vegetation and visibility of a few yards. Stress levels are high; will I meet any oncoming traffic; how fast will it be going and who will have to back up? I blame the routes on the navigation system, but it may just be that such roads are the norm in Devon.
Most of the time the roads are clear and I arrive at the place where Gaia House should be. Only to find that it is not there. Some phone calls later, I arrive at the real Gaia House a mile or so away. So much for postcodes and navigation systems.
Leya Ostell has been the Executive Director at Gaia for some years now and manages a staff of up to 11. Gaia has existed for some 23 years and runs a whole range of retreats and related events. The rule is that most of the house and grounds are silent. The practice is predominantly insight meditation and Gaia is affiliated with IMS in the US. The programme is led by many well-known leaders such as Yanai Postelnik, Christina Feldman, Sister Metta, Martine and Stephen Batchelor, and Thanissaro and Kittisaro.
Soon the conversation moves onto management issues. Leya is of the opinion that Buddhist organisations have reached something of a crunch point in the way that they run. The dana principle has been a strong factor with many centres, certainly those with Theravada roots. This relies upon generous donations from those attending an event. However, it has proven difficult to get a sufficient income from this method especially for organisations not linked to traditional Asian communities.
The bottom line is that centres have been subsidising those who use their services. Costs have been hidden through the occasional largesse of a few benefactors and by relying on volunteers to carry out the day-to-day centre maintenance and the cooking and management of events.
Running at a deficit eventually undermines the viability of any enterprise; it may give short-term benefit but can run down the property and people capital and starve future initiatives of investment.
Perhaps more so in the early days of Buddhism in the West, volunteers are motivated by idealism and inspired by the idea of establishing the Dhamma. It could be said that some organisations exploited the idealism and inspiration of volunteers.
The early flush of Buddhists emerged in the seventies and eighties; some are now getting middle aged and perhaps a bit grumpy. As well as the middle aged, young twenty first century Buddhists, although happy to offer their time and services generously, seem less inclined to work for little or nothing for long periods, and as people costs start to be factored in (including reasonable living costs for Dhamma teachers), together with escalating fuel costs and maintenance (often of big old properties), the charges for events look too low.
In addition to raw running costs, the complexity of running smallish charitable organisations is increasing. There are more rules and regulations to comply with of every sort, and the Inland Revenue also ask aggressive questions about organisation income and how it is used. The skills of those who run centres must include not only people management, but accountancy, law, fire regulations, health and safety, sewage and heating maintenance, marketing and publicity, project management and leadership. An increasingly tall order for centres accustomed to running on a somewhat day-to-day basis, and not responsibilities that can be easily discharged through using short-term volunteers.
Mixed in with this are strands of contemporary Western Buddhist attitudes. Dhamma teachers may hold the opinion that maintenance of bedrooms and the fabric of the Centre are of little or no importance and that ‘roughing it’ is part of the retreat experience. Or they may hold that organisational, management and administrative skills are worldly skills which are in some way contrary to the Dhamma because Buddhist practice is about letting go of worldly attachments and spending the maximum time in solitary meditation. So meditation and detachment are given the highest value, whilst skilful interaction in the world is devalued.
These attitudes are close to some traditional and contemporary Buddhist fault lines, but maybe the idea of ‘engaged’ and ‘quietist’ forms of Buddhism are just caricatures and the spirit of Buddhism is really about the intelligent discernment of what is required in any particular situation. So a Buddhist response may be entrepreneurial and energetic, or a decision to take time-out and relax the mind.