Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche talks about Khyentse Foundation, August 2011
What is Khyentse Foundation? Why did you start it?
The initial idea came from a few friends who work in finance and management. We were in Derge, Tibet, visiting my monastery there. Many lamas have to find ways to support their monasteries, and I suppose being there, and seeing how much responsibility this involved, my friends wanted to find a way to relieve the pressure. Once we started to consider the possibilities, the idea of a setting up a system of patronage began to take root.
The first step was to establish a monastic endowment to support more than 1,500 student monks in India, China and Bhutan. At the time, I didn’t even know what an endowment was, but now I see that this system really works well. We started with the monks because it’s so important to maintain excellence in traditional Buddhist colleges. This is where the future teachers will emerge. Once that was taken care of we could focus outwards, and think creatively about how to help as many people as possible.
Where is KF now?
That conversation in Dzongsar monastery took place ten years ago. Today the Foundation supports the study and practice of Buddhism in 30 countries. Because of the way these friends pooled the resources and managed the funds, we have been able to offer over US$6 million in grants. Someone has since calculated that the lives of more than 10,000 people have been affected, and my hope is that through their study and practice Buddha’s teachings are spreading. We have tried to identify people and projects dedicated to the study and practice of the authentic buddhadharma, those who can make a positive difference in the world. For example, some really good people cannot go on retreat for financial reasons, so our scholarship program now supports 200 students and practitioners around the world every year. And we also support the preservation, digitization and dissemination of Buddhist texts through organizations such as the Tibetan Buddhist Resources Center and Fragile Palm Leaves Foundation.
We have learned a lot, and this experience means Khyentse Foundation is in a position to meet even bigger goals, to have even greater aspirations. How can we promote the teachings of the Buddha for the benefit of all beings? As our activities extend and the service we provide expands, I hope that people will see the benefit and that we can earn the support of not only my friends and students, but all concerned Buddhists. In fact, we now receive support from some people who don’t even consider themselves Buddhists, but see the benefit of preserving and practicing Buddha’s teachings. I think they see supporting this effort as a rare opportunity to make a large-scale historical impact. All over the world interest in Buddhism is growing – and the Foundation is ready to meet that demand in new, forward-thinking ways.
The partnership with the University of California in Berkeley In 2006 seemed like a major step for the Foundation. Establishing the Khyentse Chair in Buddhist Studies at Berkeley made a big statement. First, that we are thinking big. But also that we are willing to support western Buddhists, not just Tibetans, and that we appreciate the value of academic rigor. Having seen the impact this had, we have continued to explore ways to strengthen Buddhist education at all levels. Last year we funded the setup of the Khyentse Center for Tibetan Buddhist Textual Studies at the University of Hamburg, Germany. And now we give awards for excellence to students at universities all over the world, from Sri Lanka to Vancouver. So far, I think there have been about ten of these awards, which encourage young academics to pursue their studies and perhaps become teachers in the future.
What are the main challenges facing KF?
There are many challenges. First, the concept of being a patron of Buddhism is waning; we no longer see these great patron leaders as in the past, people like Kublai Khan, the Indian king Ashoka, the Chinese Emperors and the Tibetan kings. Even though interest in Buddhism is growing in the West, there is no “grass roots” Buddhist patronage — in other words it’s rare to find everyday working class Buddhists who contribute in every possible way to a Buddhist cause. Except in a few countries like Thailand, Cambodia, and Sri Lanka, the practice of widespread patronage is almost unknown. Very few countries have a Buddhist majority and the existing ones are small and struggling.
In Western Europe, Buddhism tends to appeal to a more bohemian crowd; you could say they are renunciants of a sort. Of course, it’s not surprising that someone who is homeless and penniless should, as a last resort, become a Buddhist. And that’s good. But it is interesting to note that the practice of renunciation, as Buddha taught, was much more prominent during eras when there was a strong system of patronage. When there
were supporters of this message.
So at the grass roots level this is the challenge for any foundation — not only for Khyentse Foundation but for all kinds of Buddhist foundations. Westerners are more likely to say, “I want to study, to become a monk…” these days. But for this to be possible, you must also have people who are willing to say, “I cannot become a monk or a forest dweller, but I will work to support Buddhism and Buddhist practitioners.”
Of course, there are already some very generous donors. But many donors prefer visible, tangible signs of their contribution. People will readily donate to put gold on a temple roof, but who wants to contribute to health care or clothing for one of my volunteers? Yet we rely on these volunteers like people once relied on horses; they need to be kept in good shape so they can keep working. But offering to support a volunteer’s basic needs is almost unheard of. It’s not sexy. Donors don’t think like that. The idea of supporting a Tibetan refugee monk seems much easier. But much of Khyentse Foundation’s activity involves things like supporting an individual from Bangladesh trying to complete his or her education, or assisting a Croatian working on a translation. It’s a little harder to convince donors to support something like this, rather than something colorful and shapely.
How many people work for you?
There is a group of about 20 people who devote all of their free time to the foundation, and about 100 people working in the various committees and groups. But no one is paid a salary. We have managed to keep administration costs much lower than most organizations. I think our overhead is about six per cent, and people tell me that this is almost unheard of. We also try to save money on paper by printing less, because it seems to be good for the environment.
It’s tricky when asking for money for religious cause; for some reason it feels strange.
People seem to raise an eyebrow. Do we have to be careful when mixing religion and money? In a way, Khyentse Foundation may have been too cautious, for fear of that. So far we have not done any high-visibility fundraising. We rely more on word of mouth, particularly among my own friends and students. Ironically, because we don’t ask for money, people think that we are wealthy. This is how the human mind works.
But it’s not true that the Foundation is very wealthy. Not at all. In fact, there are many amazing things that we would like to do but can’t, not even if all my students and friends contributed. For instance, we would like to help establish a Chair of Buddhist Studies in various universities in Singapore, Sydney, and Eastern Europe. And we would like to help more students and practitioners finish their Buddhist studies and become translators. There are so many things we are presently unable to do because we don’t have the resources. We receive so many applications. There are definitely many more applications for support than there are donors or sponsors to meet them.
It’s important that those who empathize, who are followers of the Buddha, should have the attitude of giving and supporting — even if it’s just a few pennies. Why? Because it creates a meaningful connection. I find it so touching that some of the people we support, they also donate back to us. So it would be very good if people had an attitude of, “We are building Buddhism and I am one of the team players.”
The fact is that the smaller donors, those who give five to ten dollars per month, they are the lifeblood of KF. These small drops actually make a big difference. Of course, it helps that we also have a group of donors who match those monthly donations. And then we have a few donors who have made very significant legacy donations with complete selflessness.
Ultimately, we rely on people’s consciousness and awareness of KF, on having them observe our activities, on them seeing how much we benefit individuals and institutes. How much we do at the grass roots level. How we run on the bare necessities in order to help people live in accordance with the dharma, study and practice. How we avoid narrow-mindedly helping only a certain lineage, tradition, monastery, or specific ethnic group. And how we can actually rejoice, since so much is being done. By the way, I should stress that Khyentse Foundation is not designed specifically to support my personal projects. In fact, the majority of the Foundation’s funds are used on projects that support the Buddhist teachings as a whole, rather than my projects.
Naturally, we are also raising awareness among those people who may have benefited from the Foundation’s patronage. So far, we have managed to succeed in this manner. We have very generous donors, people who give matching funds — which of course double any donation — and very importantly, those people who support the Foundation through small donations that are steady and constant.
Then, of course, we rely on a truly dedicated team who give their time and skills freely. Without these volunteers, funding alone could not facilitate most of the Foundation’s activities. So while at some point we may have to engage in more visible fundraising efforts, we will always heavily rely on the goodwill of those individuals who share our vision and ideals.
Finally, while our endowments are maintaining secure levels, there is presently very little growth, simply because we have used our investment returns and donations to make generous annual grants, to institutions and individuals alike.
It sounds like you’ve taken a course in economics. What is the long-term plan?
Actually, I discussed some of these matters with one of my friends who is a visiting fellow of economics at Princeton University. I found what he had to say very interesting, and I now encourage all of my monks to have at least a basic understanding of global economics and the stock market. I tell them: this is the world that you live in, and global finance affects you directly. This is what pays for your daily bread. Making plans while trying to practice the dharma is very paradoxical. In order to make a plan, we need a certain amount of determination, we need to make certain assumptions. Yet life is so impermanent, so volatile, that clinging to and fixating on a plan will almost always lead to disappointment. This is certainly true with any so-called spiritual plan. That said, we still live in this deluded world. We’re used to speaking its language and abiding by its rules in order to maintain our membership. So, keeping in mind that not everything we plan will come to fruition, we can still make our plan visionary and farsighted.
It never ceases to fascinate me that when New York City was first planned, the city’s designers allocated hundreds of acres of land for Central Park. Such a visionary and non-limiting mentality! And when you visit New York City today, you can see that plan has really paid off.
So one of our far-sighted plans is to establish Buddhist academic chairs in once-Buddhist places like Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Indonesia, and in non-traditional countries such as Bulgaria, Poland and Hungary. We also need to think in terms of establishing respected children’s schools with Buddhist-based curricula, in the hope that one day there might be a US senator — or a Chinese premier, or a CEO of General Motors — who doesn’t have to hide the fact that he or she is a practicing Buddhist, and adheres to Buddhist values. I believe this would have a small impact on the world, and give it a little push towards peace and prosperity. And in so doing, it might erode the excessive greed that is gradually destroying the earth. As a world religion, Buddhism has a relatively good track record, historically speaking. If it has not contributed much to society, at least Buddhism has not created or planted seeds of hatred and aggression.
These are big ideas. While we don’t want to sound over-ambitious, we believe Khyentse Foundation should aim to create an endowment of US$100 million, in order to achieve some of these objectives. At first that may seem like an enormous project, but looking around us we realize it may even be a little timid. Harvard and Yale, for example, have endowments of US$27.5 billion and US$16.6 billion respectively, and these are the institutions that are poised to make an enormous difference in the academic world.
At this time I feel compelled to encourage everyone to be a Khyentse Foundation supporter. After all, even our grant recipients can be supporters. So even if you simply reduce your daily coffee consumption, for instance, the small amount of money that you save could go a long way to supporting Khyentse Foundation.