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Forum: Toughing It Out

How Practice Centers Are Dealing With the Recession: A panel discussion with Bob Agoglia, Jon Barbieri, Evan Kavanagh and Susan O’Connell.

By Lion’s Roar

Jon Tyson

When the Buddha first taught the dharma on the plains of the Ganges in India several millennia ago, he gathered mendicant followers who practiced retreat during the rainy season. In the dry season, they solicited alms to support their retreat. They saved for a rainy day, you might say. As Buddhism developed, royal and aristocratic patrons supported the development of large monastic institutions throughout the many Asian countries it travelled to, while laypeople continued to support monks and priests, sometimes in return for rituals and blessings.

When Buddhism came to the West, largely in the last half of the twentieth century, the pattern shifted. Instead of ordaining large numbers of monks and nuns and starting monasteries—a practice for which there was little cultural precedent in the United States—Asian teachers and their students established residential retreat centers where students could leave their lives in the cities for periods of intensive practice paid for by program fees and donations. The laypeople who form the majority of Western Buddhists immersed themselves in intensive practice at the Insight Meditation Society, Zen Mountain Monastery, Dai Bosatsu Zendo, Karme Chöling, Spirit Rock, Mount Baldy, Shambhala Mountain Center, Tassajara, and Green Gulch, among others.

The practice centers, many of them more than thirty years old, are the jewels in the crown of Western Buddhism (along with a number of small and vibrant monasteries that serve fully ordained practitioners and lay visitors). Operating these retreats and refuges has been a challenge from the start. As Sharon Salzberg has said of the founding of IMS, “None of us even knew what a mortgage was.” In the intervening years, the dharma students who have led these centers have learned the hard way about mortgages, insurance, workers compensation, fund-raising, endowments, recruitment, plumbing and heating, permits, capital costs, and a myriad of other details involved in running organizations that serve many thousands of part-time residents annually.

When the financial meltdown now called “the Great Recession” hit, we heard these centers were having difficulties. They have built capacity to serve a certain number of practitioners each year, many of whom found it difficult to pay the full price, or even attend at all. Also, like the Buddhist institutions of old, the centers rely on patrons, many of whom lost a lot of money last year. We decided to host a discussion among top administrators at four of the largest centers—Insight Meditation Society, Shambhala Mountain Center, San Francisco Zen Center, and Spirit Rock Meditation Center—to find out firsthand how they were doing, and what they were planning and thinking about in the face of the same difficulties we’ve all been facing.

What struck me as I listened to these leaders talk among themselves was how energetic and upbeat they remain, even as they talk about working much harder to survive in a tough climate and putting off cherished plans to supply better and more accommodations to practitioners. It’s impressive. The Buddha’s legacy survives. We’re still learning to make the best of a rainy day.

–Barry Boyce

Buddhadharma: Practitioners are naturally concerned about how the major dharma centers are being affected by the current economic troubles. Can each of you say something about what’s happening at your center?

Susan O’Connell: Before the economy shifted so drastically, Zen Center was engaged in a visioning and strategic planning process. We were looking at the ways we’ve done things in the past and making a commitment to widen our view and look outward more in response to the requests people are making now for the teachings.

Given that our vision was to offer more programs, we decided to do something we hadn’t ever done: actually ask people for money. When Zen Center started, we were some of the only Western Buddhists around, so there wasn’t a donor base. Now there are many more Buddhists, and more people interested in supporting what we do.

Then, right before the economy went crazy, we had a huge fire and lost the income from half the Tassajara guest season, one of our main sources of support. When people heard about the fire, they rallied to the cause. Almost losing one of the treasured parts of Zen Center brought out the generosity in people, and we actually started our fiscal year with close to a balanced budget, even with the fire. The net result has been that while the guest season was less subscribed, the donations were very robust.

Jon Barbieri: Almost everybody has to travel to get to Shambhala Mountain Center. When the economy started going haywire, we thought that with the travel costs involved, we would see a large decrease in attendance, maybe 15 to 20 percent. But so far it’s looking like it will be about half as bad as that, maybe 6 to 7 percent.

On the fund-raising side, there is more uncertainty than usual. Major donors, giving anything over twenty thousand dollars, have pretty much all said to us that they have to wait until the end of the year to figure out what they might be able to give. They’re waiting to see how their portfolio is doing. Right now, we’re projecting about a 25-percent drop. Some people who have been quite generous over the years were seriously hurt by the market drop and I don’t think they’ve recovered.

On top of that, the number of people with the wherewithal to pay us the full cost of a program has gone down. We instituted a generosity policy last year that has three levels of payment. This year we hardly see anybody choosing the full price, a few people choosing the medium price, and most people choosing the lower price.

Susan O’Connell: Interestingly, we made a conscious decision not to lower the prices at Tassajara. It didn’t make sense, given our vision of increasing our capabilities. Instead, as enrollment seemed to weaken, we decided to publicize Tassajara more, because we had never much done that before. We have been able to fill Tassaraja

Evan Kavanagh: It’s been quite a ride at Spirit Rock over the last many months. We feared we would suffer a 35-percent drop in donations as of about March. It looks like it will be more like 25 percent. The staff and community have come up with lots of creative ideas for how we can cut expenses. We’ve raised some fees and given people different kinds of opportunities to give, and those have taken hold really well.

It’s been a story of resilience and optimism and dedication by our donors, staff, volunteers, board members, and teachers. Everyone has pitched in to turn this around. We were afraid we’d have a half-million-dollar deficit, which would certainly strain our reserves, but with all the savings, and donations not dropping as much as we had feared, it looks like we’ll only have to take about a hundred thousand dollars out of our reserve this year to offset the effects of the downturn.

I have been encouraged by the fact that our enrollment is up 12 percent over two years ago. There are two sides to the story in an economy like this. Demand for our services and the wisdom that is offered here is way up, but what people are able to pay for it is way down.

Bob Agoglia: At Insight Meditation Society we engaged in a visioning process in 2007, and began instituting some pretty major changes. We aspired to make IMS a center where people can come based on what they can afford to pay, while also making some major improvements in our facilities and in how green our operations are. Just as this recession hit, we had planned to begin a capital campaign. All of that has been postponed. Our aspirations have been scaled back for the time being, and we have buildings where long overdue maintenance has been deferred.

In terms of operations, 2008 was a record year for IMS in just about every category: occupancy, number of participants, donations, teacher generosity, and so on. But 2009 doesn’t look so good. Occupancy is down by about 8 percent and giving is also down. However, if we compare 2009 with 2007, a different picture emerges. In fact, 2009 compares favorably in just about every respect to 2007.

One place we’re feeling the impact of the recession is our financial assistance programs. We have long had a sliding scale fee structure here at IMS, and we have a lot of different scholarship funds. About a third of the people who come here receive some form of financial assistance, and the amount of that subsidy has gone up 20 percent since 2007. On the other hand, the amount that people are paying above the base rate is actually up from 2007.

A little more than half of our revenue comes from registration payments, and the rest comes in the form of donations, some of which is earned income from past donations. Early this year we began to see that 2010 is going to be our challenge year, because earned income from our accumulated donations will be down. So we’ve taken some steps in advance. We froze all of our staff salaries and cut out any discretionary spending. We only buy what is essential. We are going to have to both spend less and raise more on an ongoing basis in 2010 to keep our heads above water.

Buddhadharma: Where do your long-term plans for building, development, and programming stand at this point?

Susan O’Connell: Plans are good, but it really lifts people’s spirits when they see movement on things like better housing and improved retreat space. It’s also inspiring to people that we continue to walk the talk in terms of the environment. We want to be environmental exemplars even more than we already are by virtue of our organic farming and other practices.

We did a master planning process for Green Gulch, which resulted in a seventy-five-year goal. We cannot expand the number of people who can stay overnight by much—it’s a very sensitive watershed—but we can make it more accommodating. Also, most of the buildings at Green Gulch are in the creek bed, so we’re going to move and alter them to let the creek go where it wants to go instead of fighting it. We’re going to build a dining room facility out on the main lawn and release the creek, and eventually, if we get the permissions, we’re going to allow the creek to go under the zendo. It will transform Green Gulch. We’re doing similar master plans for Tassajara and the City Center.

Jon Barbieri: In the last ten years, we added two lodges for accommodation and two decent-sized program spaces. Now, as a result of all of this growth, we need to completely redo our infrastructure. We’re being asked to put in a wastewater treatment plant that would serve a small town, and, like Zen Center, we’re using these necessary upgrades as an opportunity to look at a long-term site plan. We’re trying to figure out where we think we’re going to be in twenty years, and how we are going to be able to do that in an environmentally sensitive way. Our remoteness, which is a great benefit from the point of view of doing retreat, creates challenges for every system you can think of, from phone and electricity to water, waste, and transportation.

We’ve had to put off a capital campaign, but we’re going ahead with the planning stages. It’s a very interesting time, because we need to look at the immediate present because of the difficult economy, but we also can’t stop looking at the future. It’s a challenge balancing the resources we put to present concerns with those we apply to long-range planning.

Evan Kavanagh: Over all, we’re planning to expand our retreat center and add teacher and staff housing. We also want to add a long-term practice facility like the Forest Refuge at IMS, and enhance our community center facilities for our day and weekend programs.

In our lower campus, where we hold our popular Monday night class and daylong programs, we have six trailers stapled together to make one big meditation hall, and also a couple of trailers for offices. We’re talking about getting rid of all the trailers and building real buildings. We also want to ensure that we’re in right relationship with the environment. So even though we have approvals to build on a stream bed, we’re not going to do that. We’re going to return the site to its original condition.

Our original goals are still goals, and we feel quite optimistic about the long term. We continue to grow, and our teachers can’t keep up with all the demand for their time and programs. We know these teachings make such a difference in our society. People go out from here and change their community and the world. We continue to be inspired. Karma is a great thing, and even if it takes a little longer, we’re absolutely clear we’ll get to the next stage of our vision.

Bob Agoglia: Listening to all of you makes me grateful that IMS has been around for thirty-three years and some of the infrastructure investments like water and sewer have already been made. Everything is ready for us to expand if we want to, but what we have decided for now is to upgrade rather than expand, which is what we did with the Forest Refuge.

Among other things, our aspiration is to put in a dormitory wing to replace all the double rooms we have. We’ve received feedback from our yogis that people coming for a contemplative experience prefer to have their own rooms. We also need to renovate the dormitory that was built in the 1950s, and we would like to do some greening by having some active solar as well as having all buildings LEED qualified, which is the standard for green buildings.

When the recession hit, we scaled back our aspirations somewhat. We went out and talked to our major donors and learned in our feasibility study that the highest priority was to take care of what we have. We also have the aspiration to raise an endowment so people can pay what they can afford. But we had to scale everything back, so now we are looking simply to raise the money to renovate the existing dormitory. We have not let the rest of the vision go, but I guess you could say we’ve postponed it.

Buddhadharma: How has your financial situation affected your staff and volunteers?

Jon Barbieri: We have a year-round staff of sixty, almost all of whom live on the land. The labor pool in the area is almost nonexistent, so our staffing model is based on being a residential community at the same time that we are running a center. We’ve just started what we call a volunteer program, where we will pay people a stipend of one hundred and fifty dollars per month and they pretty much work full-time. We look for people who can do that for a year, although a number of them can only do six to nine months. We need continuity; otherwise, important tasks may go undone, which can end up costing more than if we’d paid someone a salary to look after it.

Turnover is a difficulty for us. Most of our staff is in their twenties, so most will stay for one to three years. We had about a 25 percent turnover this fall, which is not ideal. We’re trying to ask people for a minimum two-year commitment for regular staff and a three-year commitment for managers.

Bob Agoglia: IMS has a paid staff of forty people. We also have work retreat programs in which people work four or five hours a day instead of paying the retreat fee. Eighteen of our staff live on-site, which is great for them and great for IMS, since things are happening here twenty-four seven.

It’s a very caring place to work. I consider it a blessing to come to work every day, and I think most people would say the same thing. We’ve just had our most stable year for staff ever. We only have three people leaving, so turnover is extremely low. The average tenure of a manager is now creeping up on five years. That kind of stability really helps. We’re not retraining people all the time.

The number of volunteer hours here at IMS is extraordinary. The volunteers play many roles. We have some people who come and live here for one to three months and take on various projects. They become part of our housekeeping or maintenance department so we can accomplish projects we couldn’t otherwise accomplish with our paid staff. Volunteering is one of the ways that our sangha supports us with dana. We’re very grateful for all that work.

Evan Kavanagh: Spirit Rock is staffed very similarly to IMS, so I don’t have much to add.

Susan O’Connell: Zen Center is quite different from what’s been described. In Zen, work is our practice, in addition to zazen of course. The abbots do dishes. We don’t call the people who enter into residence staff. They’re students and we have a training facility. The purpose of our community is to train people to integrate the teachings of Zen into their lives and train future generations of Zen teachers. We get our training, our room and board, a small stipend, and then after a period of time, we do get insurance, which was a huge innovation for us.

There are also some short-term programs and we call the people who take part in them guest students, but everybody works, whether they’re long-term or short. We also have farm apprentices, mostly younger people wanting to learn organic farming and meditation. We have a long history of job rotation, which helps you to meet beginner’s mind, because when you enter into a new job, you fall into your habitual patterns. As you see them again and again—and when you live in community you get some feedback—you’re able to round yourself out better. However, we are considering having the top administration people and the top spiritual leadership stay in their positions a little bit longer, in the interest of continuity and stability.

Buddhadharma: To what extent are your centers broadening their programming in order to reach a wider audience and increase program enrollment?

Jon Barbieri: When people in our generation were first encountering the buddhadharma, I don’t think we were necessarily looking for Buddhism per se, or to become Buddhists. We were searching for reality, for spirituality.

There are a large number of people today looking to make a connection to their humanness, what we might call their buddhanature. We want to offer something to them, so we’ve been developing a wider variety of programs. We offer training in body disciplines such as Qigong, Tai Chi, and yoga. We want to expand into programs on leadership and compassion, programs out in the business community that help people bring sanity to the workplace and lead others in a more enlightened way. We are developing programs focusing on peace, sustainability and environment, and artistic expression. We feel these are all doorways for people to make a connection to a contemplative environment. It’s a more turned-out focus, which is a bit of a reversal of the original idea of a retreat center.

Susan O’Connell: The world is being very clear in its request for help, and to make sure we’re listening deeply we’ve done surveys and held focus groups to find out what people want from us. We have a range of offerings at Tassajara, such as Zen and money, body disciplines, wilderness walks, and interfaith dialogues. We now need to take what we’ve been doing there and figure out how to offer it year-round at our other centers.

There are a lot of people who want to explore this practice of Zen, and we want to provide them with an easy way in. Often for us it’s through food, given the reputation of the Tassajara cookbook and Greens restaurant. So we have baking classes and other food-related training. We have an outreach department that incubates innovative programs, because people really expect that we compassionate Buddhists are going to do something other than sit. The returning veterans program has already held some retreats at Green Gulch. We have a program for feeding the homeless and are developing a roof garden in the Tenderloin district, an underprivileged area of the inner city. We have a very popular meditation and recovery program. If we hear a cry for help, we try to find a way to offer the medicine that we have available.

These applied dharma programs represent an exploration phase for people. Then there’s the deepening phase. Once people come in one of those doors, there are longer programs where they can make deeper commitments. We think people want that deepening, because they tell us that they want to transform their lives, to sustain their health and well-being, and connect to community. So we want to foster smaller groups, whether they revolve around a location, a shared interest, or a topic. Once people begin to deepen in sangha, what started out as an exploration transforms their life, and their practice can go on forever. The deepening has no end.

Evan Kavanagh: We have a similar philosophy of offering both the broad and the deep. What we’re focusing on a lot now is connectedness. We’ve been talking a lot about how to make our practices relational in ways that they haven’t been before. We’ve had to change the nature of our building plans to accommodate the possibility of doing smaller groups, because we’ve been lacking the infrastructure for building community and connectedness. We have a great deal of work to do to redefine ourselves as a temple or a congregation, in addition to being the retreat center we’ve been so successfully for so long.

Bob Agoglia: My response may be completely the opposite of what everybody else has said. When we did our visioning process we deepened our commitment to doing what we do best, which is offering meditation retreats rooted in the Theravada Buddhist teachings of ethics, concentration, and wisdom. That’s what we have to offer to the world. While various forms like yoga and movement have been brought into our retreats as a complement to practice, we are deciding to stick to our knitting. We are reaching out to people from many different walks of life or different identities, but what we’re going to offer them is Theravada meditation retreats.

Evan Kavanagh: Spirit Rock is also focusing more on our Theravada roots in our retreat center programs and, over all, we are offering less programming from other traditions. The demand for our teachings is growing faster than we can keep up with, so we’re committed to offering what we know best, because we know it makes a difference in people’s lives.

Buddhadharma: The practice center as we know it is a new model in Buddhism. How do you think it will evolve to meet changing circumstances?

Susan O’Connell: When Zen Center started there weren’t many Buddhists around, so we ended up developing a kind of American entrepreneurial spirit. We started a lot of businesses and didn’t put much emphasis on relying on donations. The pool of people who understood what we were trying to do wasn’t there to support it. The entrepreneurial model remains for us and it lines up well with our idea of work as practice, but times have changed so we’re interested in developing what we’re calling a culture of philanthropy.

Donors will tell you if you’re doing what they think helps the world, so it’s actually a good feedback mechanism. It keeps us in touch with what people need. Over all, it will be important for Zen in America to be seen as being of use in such a way that people will want to donate.

Bob Agoglia: One of the visions we have is creating a place where we can bring the ordained sangha to both teach and practice. The Forest Refuge has become a place where Asian masters visit for various lengths of time. In terms of the future of dharma in the West, we need to make sure that we can maintain and even strengthen connections with the ordained sangha from the East, and to provide a center where they can pass on the teachings.

The other big aspiration, as I mentioned earlier, is that people can afford to come here and sit. The motivation to practice is so precious, so rare, that we want to make sure nothing stands in its way.

Jon Barbieri: We feel that the notion of coming to a retreat center to refresh one’s connection to practice is not going to diminish in importance, despite people’s lack of time and money. Offering that reconnection and a sense of community will always be at the heart of what we do.

Over all, I would say we are willing to explore and discover what makes sense, what maintains the integrity of the meditative tradition. We’ll learn which ones fit into a strong contemplative environment , which ones we’re not going to be working with, and which ones can be beneficial for all concerned. When people come to a program here, whatever their motivation, they can discover the strength of the container we’ve cultivated, and that may be our essential offering to the world.

Bob Agoglia is the executive director of the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts. He began attending IMS retreats more than thirty years ago, and has served on its board of directors since 2001.

Jon Barbieri is the executive director of the Shambhala Mountain Center in Fed Feather Lakes, Colorado. His professional background is in strategic planning and management consulting.

Evan Kavanagh is the executive director of Spirit Rock Meditation Center in Woodacre, California. He started practicing Insight meditation in 1995 and has taken part in Spirit Rock’s Dedicated Practitioners Program and the Sati Center’s Buddhist Chaplaincy Training Program.

Susan O’Connell serves as vice president on the board of directors of San Francisco Zen Center. She began Zen practice in 1987 and received priest ordination from Tenshin Reb Anderson in 1999. She has lived at all three of SFZC’s practice centers: City Center, Green Gulch Farm, and Tassajara.

Lion's Roar

Lion’s Roar

Lion’s Roar is the website of Lion’s Roar magazine (formerly the Shambhala Sun) and Buddhadharma: The Practitioner’s Quarterly, with exclusive Buddhist news, teachings, art, and commentary. Sign up for the Lion’s Roar weekly newsletter and follow Lion’s Roar on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Pinterest.