Buddhist temples struggle and change as “merit economy” dissolves in North America

Many Buddhist temples in North America have suffered financially because traditional Buddhist financial practices based on the concept of merit have weakened considerably, writes Jeff Wilson of the University of Waterloo in the Journal of Global Buddhism (Vol. 20). In an issue devoted to Buddhism and economics, Wilson looks at changes occurring in the traditional economics that have supported Buddhist religious life until recently, which involved laypeople donating money and goods to Buddhist temples and monasteries in exchange for a share of the spiritual merit believed to be accumulated by clergy and monks through their specialized religious practices and services. Because the priest and monk were seen as divinely chosen and gifted, they were believed by the laity to be powerful producers of merit and thus were able to draw a lot of donations to support their religious institutions. Although this merit-based economy is still in place in part of Asia and even in North America, Wilson observes that it is rapidly being altered or dissolved in much of the West. He provides case studies of a temple in southern Ontario and another one in British Columbia, finding that the former has maintained financial stability through a merit-based system that supports a large staff of monks and priests offering a wide array of religious services and material (statues) for veneration and donation to a large and fast-growing following. Meanwhile, the temple in British Columbia, mainly consisting of white converts, stressing meditation, and based on membership fees and fundraising, is in the throes of financial distress (having to fire its abbot), even though it has built a wide network of practitioners and established an impressive online system for teaching and building community.

Wilson writes that the dilemma in this loss of merit economies stems from the fact that while Buddhist resources are costly, the North American Buddhist community is not as wealthy as other religious minorities. Buddhists on average trail behind Hindus, Jews, and Muslims in wealth, sharing an economic status closer to Southern Baptists, Adventists, and Pentecostals. Even more than changes in ritual, gender relations, racial composition, and social activism, “the jettisoning of the central, pervasive, and economically crucial notion of merit is potentially the biggest and most significant transformation in certain Buddhist groups and networks that operate primarily outside of Asia.” New sources of income, “sometimes requiring significant investments of labor and capital, may become necessary—one example is the network of shops and publishing ventures established by the Triratna Buddhist Community (based in the United Kingdom).” What Wilson calls “post-merit Buddhism” is leading to new practices and effects in Buddhist communities, including the recasting of monastics as experts, something closer to lawyers and professors, rather than merit producers holding a special supernatural status.

This is leading to a devaluing of monasticism (and celibacy) and monks’ replacement with a class of lay professionals who may be “nominally ordained but live in family-bound patterns essentially the same as other members of society.” This may lead to “post-Buddhist professionals” who teach aspects of Buddhism in relation to secular forms of psychotherapy and who offer their services for fees, thinking of practitioners more as clients in a competitive marketplace. The loss of the merit-based economy will also diminish the value and need for sacred relics, scriptures, pilgrimages, and practices such as sutra chanting, which served as nodes between “mundane and invisible spiritual worlds wherein devout practitioners could receive merit in return for their worship.” Lastly, without merit, the notions of karma and rebirth may collapse, orienting Buddhists to the present life alone, which will require a “dramatic reimagining…The reality of powerful buddhas, saints, and gods becomes suspect, and, worse yet, irrelevant.”

(Journal of Global Buddhism, http://www.globalbuddhism.org/jgb/index.php/jgb/)