This message, composed by Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche in 2016, was originally intended for the international team of KF volunteers and staff, but we felt its message was so important and so clearly articulated, that we requested permission to make it public.
Offerings in Today’s World
The emergence of Khyentse Foundation has been a blessing for me in many ways. In the past, the old Tibetan labrang and monastic institutions relied largely on trust rather than professional accounting in handling the offerings of devotees. After all, Tibet was known far more for producing people who attained rainbow bodies than producing accountants and managers.
Yet, in the absence of proper accounting, that ancient trust system basically worked, mostly due to the strong, strict, and repeated teachings in sutras, shastras, and books, and by our gurus. These all instructed that offerings by devotees – whether a single coin or a mountain of gold – are sacred and must never be wasted.
Of course there are plenty of traditional stories and warnings of offerings being mismanaged for personal reasons or sheer lack of attention. But there were even specified rituals performed in the event of any violation or waste.
There were also practical reasons why it was easier to maintain checks and balances in those days. Offerings were often in land, yaks, and horses that were easier to track and count than in today’s far more precarious world of digits, accounts, and software, where miscounting can easily occur undetected.
Traditionally, for example, monks would have to disrobe not only for having sex but also for stealing an offering small enough to buy a meal. But today monks will unthinkingly download pirated software worth a lot more than a lunch and not even think of it as stealing. In today’s changed world, it is simply far easier for things of value to be misused, misplaced, forgotten, and misappropriated.
So for me, as a Buddhist struggling in this modern world, the advent of Khyentse Foundation, with its transparency, checks and balances, is a real blessing that I appreciate more every day. In fact, if Tibetan society a hundred years ago had this kind of transparency and such checks and balances, I am sure our present double and triple tulku claimant problems would be greatly reduced.
An Attitude of Richness Not Poverty
For nearly a thousand years, Buddhism has not been a “rich” tradition in the conventional sense. Think of the Vatican Bank’s $8 billion in assets, the more than $10 billion generated by the annual Mecca pilgrimage, the Hindu Padmanabhaswamy Temple’s $22 billion in treasure, or the Tirupati Temple’s Venkateswara deity clad in 1000 kilograms of gold. By comparison with any of the world’s major religions, Buddhism has long been struggling financially.
Romantics may charitably attribute this challenge to Buddhism’s philosophy and practice of renunciation, and imagine Buddhism’s historical heyday in terms of mountains full of renunciant meditators. They forget the major patrons who sponsored practice and study in those early days – Maurya Emperor Ashoka in the 3rd century BCE, Kushan Emperor Kanishka in the 2nd century, the Tang Empress Wu Zetian in the 7th century, and others. But that kind of official patronage ended centuries ago as Buddhism was virtually expunged from the land of its birth.
We see the result of this decline in support in Dharma centers today scraping and struggling on their own to pay the bills and renting out their premises to yoga and massage studios and fitness classes just to pay the rent. Those are the kinds of compromises Potala Palace, Mindroling Monastery, and Nalanda University never had to make in times past.
And with the resulting loosening up we see today, corruption inevitably creeps in. For example, highly questionable ‘teachers’ may try to authenticate themselves by saying they are offering their classes in a Buddhist centre. Yet, because they are so cash poor, our centers often have little choice but to rent out space to such dodgy people.
Today we do still see some traditional support for monasteries but virtually none for lay people, some of whom are better practitioners more genuinely interested in studying the dharma than many monks. It remains very difficult to raise money for urban Dharma centers and for teacher trainings and similar activities.
Assuming that lay people either have or should find their own means of support is actually a form of poverty mentality, just as when we view an offering of thousands of butter lamps as a showy sign of wealth rather than as a reason to rejoice. In fact, subtly resenting a wealthier patron’s support is as much a form of poverty mentality as pleading our own inability to afford contributions.
In this day and age and in our modern conditions, we must overcome such narrow views, and see wealth in far more than monetary terms. We can deeply appreciate our good fortune in encountering the dharma and its growing practice among lay people, and we can celebrate the richness of our world and experience.
And so, offerings too don’t need to be in money alone. In fact, Khyentse Foundation encourages people to offer their time, expertise, and services on their own and of their own volition to enable the dharma to flourish.
A Bigger Vision with Care for Detail
We can also nurture a much bigger and longer-term vision, seeing our work from many new angles in accord with today’s actual needs. So we have to support not only monks and meditators in caves as in the past, but also teach monastery cooks to prepare healthy, locally grown, environmentally sound food, and train tulkus and dharma centre leaders in unlikely places like business management institutes
But while we think big like this, Khyentse Foundation members must also ensure that every penny is used properly and not wasted. This may sound contradictory. But it means that even our biggest, boldest, and most visionary projects must be reasonable and affordable without being ‘cheap’ or compromising quality.
For example, if a project is accomplished under budget, we do not give in to the normal NGO mentality and practice of spending all we have. Because our endeavor is spiritual, we must always recall that such leftover project money is an offering of people’s devotion and can only be carefully spent in accord with their deepest aspirations and wishes.
This view has nothing to do with how much money we actually have. Even if we had $10 billion, and a budget had a $10 balance in it, we should save and not waste that $10. In fact, it is a personal practice for us always to see such savings as sacred donor contributions. Whenever we don’t waste, we too are equally contributing.
However generous and spendthrift we may be with our own money, Khyentse Foundation is custodian of others’ money and must therefore take meticulous care to use every donated dollar wisely. It helps that such responsibility and full accountability is not just a moral but a legal obligation for non-profits registered in the United States.
And so we carefully monitor recipients of Khyentse Foundation funds, including monasteries, institutes, and all the people and projects we support. It is also why we have always had a ‘no-frills’ policy on every expense from faculty stipends to travel, in order to keep our operations very simple and elegant.
Such diligence, including great care in allocating funds and the cutting of non-essential costs, is not always a pleasant task. But it becomes increasingly necessary as Khyentse Foundation receives ever more requests for support and as our activities grow.
—Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse