Money. Other than, perhaps, a comparable craving for sex, is there anything in this world which has so enticed and beguiled, corrupted and confused, engendered as much envy and rage, or stoked the fires of creativity and advancement more than the ubiquitous human desire for money? And, as is likewise the case with sex, are we not daily bombarded with continuous multiple and conflicting messages with regard to money and its proper place in our lives? “(The love of) money is the root of all evil” is but one example of just such a message that shares the same literal and metaphorical space in the cultural consciousness as “A penny saved is a penny earned” or, as the quote attributed to businessman Ted Turner says, “Life is a game (and) money is how we keep score.”
No area of human endeavor has been successfully immunized from the effects, both good and bad, of money’s influence, not even (perhaps even especially) the institutions and individuals that purport to service the needs of humanity’s spiritual health and needs. And churches, temples and the like are host to some of the most emphatic as well as ambivalent and contradictory messages concerning money; as such, they can be ripe targets for suspicion concerning their own motivation for its acquisition and use. Perhaps it is the ferocity of the denouncement of worldly riches that itself causes a wary eye to be turned when, at the end of just such a sermon or teaching, the collection plate is passed around.
Interestingly, the more mainstream and firmly ensconced in the local community a religious organization is, the less likely, generally, it is to be a lightning rod for controversy about matters of a fiscal nature. The church itself can be quite opulent (it does, after all, represent the glory of God, doesn’t it?…) and the pastor can dress nicely and drive a decent car (it wouldn’t do for the Man of God to go around representing the Almighty looking like a beggar, now would it?…), just so long as he’s not too demonstrative in his exhibition of the congregation’s largess.
While member organizations of the predominant mainline traditions and their leaders might on occasion be subjected to the scrutiny of a bothered parishioner or a concerned third party’s auditing eye, it is the more unconventional groups and those individuals who walk decidedly non-conformist spiritual paths that are the most likely to be on the receiving end of bluster and condemnation over their relationship to money. Oddly enough, this noisy disapproval more often than not arises most vehemently from within their own ranks.
There have been many teachers and practitioners of meditative, yogic, pantheistic, and Earth-centered disciplines who have historically disparaged money as worthy only of loathing and contempt. Their general stance is that one should be above such trivial and petty concerns. Then there are those within the community who accuse certain other spiritual teachers of selling the Dharma, or of being plastic Medicine people, or of operating pay-to-pray schemes that prey upon the ignorance of people in a time of need or distress. The farther one ventures from the prevailing winds of orthodox religion, it seems, the more apt is one to encounter the voices of resistance to what is perceived by the owners of those voices as the selling of spirit.
(As a momentary aside, it should not be necessary for me to acknowledge here that confidence men and women exist and operate in the world but, for the sake of due diligence, acknowledge their existence I shall. The unscrupulous and the fraudulent can be found everywhere and in all arenas; crooks, however, are not the present topic of discussion. As for those who have been or might yet be taken in by such scoundrels and their ilk, I will paraphrase and reword an old saw: “Let the seeker beware.”)
To substantiate their position that “real” spiritual teachers and/or healers would never require or accept payment for their services, detractors often point to examples of holy persons* of the past that seldom, if ever, traded in currency. What these detractors fail to consider (or at least publicly acknowledge) is the age and culture in which these teachers of note lived. One must ask, what was the coin of the realm at that time, in that place, and in that culture?
In many tribal societies and cultures of old it is very true that what we would recognize as money was never used, but that does not mean that a value-for-value exchange was never a part of the spiritual teacher/student (or healer/patient) equation in the past. Food, drink, clothing, livestock, and other objects of value given in support of and as compensation for a holy person’s work were quite common and often far more practical (and of a greater real worth) than any transfer of gold, silver, or paper bank notes. And as is frequently the case today, much of these materials were then summarily redistributed within the community as charity to those in need. But that was then and this is now. Today, money is the modern equivalent of the milk cow or the blanket.
It is a hard and cold fact that modern “civilized” societies would likely cease to function without some variant of capitalistic monetary exchange, and this fact does not suddenly become null and void when one crosses the threshold of a contemporary temple or church or meditation hall or other venue where activities of a spiritual nature take place. Money is not a necessary evil because money is not evil at all. Money is a tool. Money is a symbol, a place holder for value and it is this latter truth that is a central theme of this missive.
The sensible person would never demand that a physician or teacher give of their talents, knowledge, wisdom and skills without remuneration, yet the “spirit doctor” is very often castigated if he or she requests compensation. What follows here next is not a poorly disguised attempt at diversionary semantics, but a simple statement of fact: for the sincere and skilled spiritual teacher and healer, it is not the information or the healing proper which is being compensated. It is compensation both for the time spent during the actual healing and/or instruction provided and (as it is most unlikely that any teacher or healer is born gifted with an expertise so fully matured that training or an investment of their own personal resources has never been required) in recognition of the diligent effort and expense (in all of its definitions) the holy person has put forth in the past to acquire their knowledge and sharpen their skills. It is a value-for-value exchange. Such reimbursement allows the recipient to continue their work and their ongoing assistance of others. The same holds true if the direct recipient of the compensation through gifts or tithes or special event fees is a sponsoring body (a temple, zendo, etc.) for the reasonable upkeep of facilities, fixtures and support staff. (Yes, “reasonable” is admittedly a moving target and a legitimate topic for debate. Perhaps a good unwritten rule is, if you have to ask “is this reasonable?” then there is a very good chance the answer is self-evident.) One thing is for certain: no sincere (there’s that word again) holy person will ever turn away someone in need solely on the basis of an inability to pay.
Even with all this, there are those who will persist and demand, “Is there really any good reason at all that so-called ‘holy people’ should profit from what they do? If it’s their calling then is it not their sacred duty?” As was just explained, yes, it is only right that there is a compensation for time and space and effort. It says something very pointed, however, about the culture in which we live when people are willingly and without hesitation paid multiple millions of dollars to portray characters in a world of total fantasy but when organizations or individuals that endeavor to bring others to an unobscured awareness of the Real seek compensation or other support, they are as often as not castigated and vilified as greedy and perverters of the Way.
It is useful to now revisit in greater depth a concept contained in a previous passing comment. If the point of contention one has is with the notion of being expected to “pay-in-order-to-pray,” then I am steadfastly in agreement with such a contention. Stated bluntly, the day of the traditional religious institution and its self-appointed monopoly role as a place of worship and communion with Source is over. As a Dharma Teacher I have expressed stridently in the past that it should be the function of every modern religious establishment to seek earnestly its own immediate demise. I hold to the position that temples and the like should be centers of spiritual education and development, contemplation, and healing which long ago should have jettisoned their designation as sites for the worship of all makes and models of divinity, celestial or otherwise. Likewise, the job title of priest or minister (as is generally practiced and commonly perceived) delineates an occupation that should have in antiquity gone the way of the lamplighter. Giving monetary support to such as this is, in my view, a ridiculous and senseless waste of valuable resources. Being expected to support and sustain something which, by all measured reason, should be as extinct as the pterodactyl is an affront to good sense. This view does not in any way reject the Holy; it does, however, express a more sophisticated refinement of both the means to acknowledge and to commune with the Sacred. This is a return to things as they once were. No structure, physical or organizational, is required for one to engage in an act of worship, should one choose to worship. The Divine is quite capable of receiving any reverence and oblations you might choose to offer anywhere and at any time without the need of priests or intercessors or regal structures of any sort. All that being said, there will forever be a need for Educators and Healers. So long as an organization remains focused on healing and teaching, then it is good for that organization to abide and be supported by those who benefit from the Medicines to be found therein.
Historically, I have wrestled both with giving and being on the receiving end of payment with regards to spiritual undertakings. Looking back, I find that the times I was most concerned about paying were when I was adding to the coffers of those organizations or individuals which I came to suspect were not operating from the best of intentions, i.e. those I perceived as out of balance in their focus on the accumulation of money itself. I also have felt disquiet regarding my own receipt of money; consequently, I strive earnestly to be certain that I give people a value greater than what might otherwise be expected for the services I perform. A maxim I coined many years ago and have applied ever since concerning whatever fee I may ask is, “I’m not saying that this is all it’s worth; I’m saying that this is all I require.”
But what about those numerous occasions when I have paid (and many times paid handsomely) for teaching and/or healing of a spiritual nature and left feeling satisfied and contented that I had been enriched by the experience? Those were the times when I recognized a palpable benefit from the exchange between myself and the holy person in question. Those were the times when I invested in myself and received in return, at the very least, as much as I had given. More often than not, in cases such as those, I was the recipient of tools and insights, methods and mirrors of a value far exceeding what I had expected to encounter. And at those magical moments, had I been able, I would have gladly paid a hundred times more for the information, wisdom, and training I received. If the information you are seeking is not worth that then, perhaps, you might consider whether you are seeking the right thing in the right place with the right adept. This is a most excellent standard by which to judge the merit of a teaching or a teacher.
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Regarding this pecuniary quandary, it is doubtful that any uniform consensus will ever be reached between all the divergent camps. The best that can be hoped for may well be the agreement to respectfully disagree. It is incumbent upon the spiritual seeker to never let their judgement be clouded by unbridled emotion or bedazzled by assertions or promises that don’t align with ones goals or needs. What is right for others may not be equally as right for you. Due diligence, self-honesty, and personal responsibility should always be the compass that guides our choices in matters of spirit. Only you can with any certainty determine if the nourishment you receive is worth the price you pay. No one else can make that assessment for you. Even if they could, no one else should have that kind of power over you.
A final point worth considering: there is a saying among the Tzutujil Maya of Guatemala- “never trust a skinny shaman.” That such a shaman is “malnourished” is often viewed as compelling evidence that the shaman in question is lacking in skill or is otherwise not well regarded (and consequently not well rewarded) by the community for the quality of their work. This perspective certainly shines a very different light on the merits of reward for a job well done.
*Variants of the term “holy person” are used in this essay to signify those sincere and skilled spiritual counselors, educators, and/or healers whose bailiwick falls outside the boundaries of contemporary orthodox religion or healing arts. The adjective “holy” as used here should not be interpreted to imply any status of divinity or infallibility.
©Billy Red Horse