Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Is Kenneth Folk a "major" Western Buddhist Teacher? Findings of Fact:

I can see why those Speculative Non-Buddhists don't think Justin's being completely nonpartisan in their critique of folks like Folk:

  1. "Kenneth Folk vs the Speculative Non-Buddhists" - A major Western teacher takes on critics
  2. Really I'd refer to as a Western "Teacher" with other terms entirely, but that's just me.

Really? Kenneth Folk is a major Western Buddhist teacher?

From Mr. Folk's site:

Q & A on Private Instruction:
Q: Can I get personalized meditation instruction with Kenneth?
A: Yes! Working one-on-one with real people is my favorite thing to do. I’ve been teaching meditation via live video since 2008, and I find it a particularly effective way to coach meditators. My students make progress beyond what I would have thought possible even a few years ago.
Q: Which live video platform do you use?
A: I use the video teaching platform, which allows students to schedule sessions and make secure payments all in one place.
Q: How much do you charge?
A: My standard fee is $125 for a 45-minute session. Use this coupon code for a 20% discount: partridge-346
(The coupon sets the fee to $100 and you can use it as many times as you want, or until further notice.)
I look forward to working with you!

Now I'd be curious as to why Justin would characterize Mr. Folk as a major Buddhist teacher. OK, the Buddhist part, I get, because anyone who self-identifies as a Buddhist, yada yada yada.  And I kind of agree with that.  But a major teacher? Because he got a write up in Wired and was on Buddhist Geeks (see "Spy Magazine" and "Logrolling in Our Time.")

But $125???

Let me not go at this from a Marxist angle, but rather from the angle of the consumer who has choices about what he can buy.

Kenneth Folk is selling meditation coaching, which you probably don't need  because you can learn how to meditate from any number of other sources.  On the other hand, if you do feel the need to have some kind of teacher of meditation, a Buddhist teacher of Buddhist meditation, you'd come out far ahead by swinging by your local Buddhist temple.   The local Chinese Buddhist temples here, even those that are Pure Land focused, generally have literature that teaches some basics of Cha'an meditation (and in fact one head monk at a nominally Pure Land temple in the Portland OR area is trained in the Cha'an tradition).  

Did I mention he was from Taiwan?

Is Kenneth folk a major Western Buddhist teacher because he's not from Taiwan? 

Is that a selling point?

Kenneth Folk charges $125 ($100 with coupon!) for a 45 minute session.

By contrast:

  • My son's violin teacher is Concertmaster - a real master - of the Portland Columbia Symphony Orchestra.  She gets $80 for at least an hour. She's the real deal; you can see her play.  And she's also a wonderful teacher, who teaches kids something tangible.
Sorry Kenneth, she's not taking on any new students.

  • My Wing Chun sifu gets $100 per month.  He trained under Jiu Wan, who was a close associate if not exactly a descendent of Ip Man, who trained Bruce Freakin' Lee.  He tells us that he trained 4 hours a day, every day, back when Kenneth Folk and I were dealing with acne. Trust me, my sifu sells tangibly beneficial training you cannot get elsewhere within hundreds of miles (unless you manage to find his students, who charge about the same, from what I've gathered).
  • The Osho in my local very small Rinzai sangha is a direct 8th, 9th, or 10th - I forget which - descendent of Hakuin himself.  He's a 3rd generation descendant of Soyen Shaku, the first guy to bring Zen to America.   He doesn't charge anything but accepts donations.
You've never heard of these people (or anyone like them) unless you've went out of your way to find them. Those are among the best teachers in the way we have them in the United States.  There's probably people like this all over the place in the US, except, perhaps, in some parts of Alaska.   There's certainly such folks in and around Silicon Valley.  They may not have good PR, but that's not where their interest lies. 

And heck I could show you the basics of Zen meditation gratis. But  I ain't no teacher.

I've already written about my grave reservations about the ethical propriety of teaching meditation for money here, and the liability of the mystification of experience that can result therein, especially from some snake-oil salesman who claims to be enlightened.  That's got ethical warning lights flashing red, as far as I'm concerned, and in most Buddhist traditions, Western or Eastern, it'd be an ethical warning sign, as far as I am aware.

It's understandable why Folk is engaged in this schtick; like Genpo Merzel, there's things that have to be bought, and the advance of age is inescapable.

So, what else could make him a major Western Buddhist teacher? Market share? Really?  I don't think so, and I doubt he has any significant market share amongst Western Buddhists, let alone Buddhists who practice in America in Asian sanghas.

Thus it is my considered opinion that Kenneth Folk is not a "major Western Buddhist teacher," but rather a low-rent Genpo Merzel with good PR.

Justin, feel free to do some 'splaining.


scotty-dog said...

Kenneth (along with his friend Daniel Ingram) has been very important in developing the "pragmatic dharma" movement which I think has been influential in western buddhism (Vince Horn was a student of theirs, for example). So in that respect calling him a major teacher is not unreasonable.

Kenneth doesn't have a normal job (as far as I am aware). He makes his living as a dharma teacher. He has to pay the rent. I doubt very much his motivation in teaching and devoting his life to buddhism is to make money. Do you honestly think that is the case?

I haven't been personally involved with Kenneth but from my knowledge of these things I would guess that the interactions would last (sometimes much) longer than 45 minutes. Plus you get email support and so forth.

Some teachers work by donations and by "suggested" donations. Your buddhist temples survive by donations. The alternative to "donations" is to be up front about it, giving a price. Yes of course there are ethical issues involved, but actually I think some people prefer that model.

You may disagree, but it seems that whatever his flaws, Kenneth is a "master" of meditation (particularly in samatha-vipassana). You can read instructions about how to meditate in a book. Just as you can learn about wing-chun in a book, or how to play the violin. But it isn't just about giving some instructions. It is a process of guidance and support. The model is similar to a life coach - a meditation coach. And, by the way, not everyone lives near a buddhist temple.

Justin Whitaker said...

Heya Mumon. Good points. I'll remove 'major' from any future tweets.

I appreciate the overview you've given here as indeed, many great teachers out there just don't have the PR that Folk and others have. Part of the reason I was drawn in to the discussion was that the Secular Non-Buddhists were engaging with him. "If he's worthy of all that energy from them, he must be a pretty big deal" I thought. I could have said "well known" or "popular" instead of "major", but to be honest I don't know how well known or popular he is, either.

Then I remembered that I had seen his face in Arun's line-up of the Buddhist Geeks conference, so in terms of being seen by the public (or those interested in the stuff the BG crowd does) he is at least one of the poster-faces.

Anywho - as I said, it was a subjective choice of words on my part and it is removed now. I'm glad to see that a 'defender'/fan/friend of his has already commented here, as I was a bit disappointed that none did on my post.

Tutte Wachtmeister said...

Hi Justin,
There were several reasons why Kenneth Folk became the subject of the discussion over at my site. If you re-read the OP, you’ll probably understand what was going on. I could also add that Folk, as far as I know, is the only Buddhist teacher showing up at the SNB blog, where he actually asked for (and received) a non-buddhist critique.

I have no idea how ”important” or influential Folk is, but he’s certainly a good example of several x-buddhist trends.
Btw, there is a discussion about your post about Kenneth Folk, SNB, and Tutteji here. I wouldn’t dream of something as absurd as excluding you from it. In fact, your contribution would be much appreciated.

A final thing: It’s not ”secular” non-buddhism.

Mumon K said...


enneth (along with his friend Daniel Ingram) has been very important in developing the "pragmatic dharma" movement which I think has been influential in western buddhism (Vince Horn was a student of theirs, for example). So in that respect calling him a major teacher is not unreasonable.

So are you saying because he contravenes Buddhst ethics and he has good PR he's a major American Buddhist teacher?

I doubt very much his motivation in teaching and devoting his life to buddhism is to make money. Do you honestly think that is the case?

Yes, yes, I do. Perhaps unconsciously, but I do. And the very idea that somebody should "make their living as a Dharma teacher," at least in my tradition, contravenes the notion of right livelihood. Of course, in my tradition, a day in which you don't do actual work is a day you starve.

I understand the motivation: the guy took a big chunk out of his life that would otherwise put him on a trajectory for earning a nice chunk of change during the peak earning years. And when confronted with the possibility that his earnings won't peak, well...let's charge money for "coaching" in meditation then, right?

My Osho survives to some extent because, at least in Japan, at least in the Zen tradition, they do things on the side, in my osho's case, he's known for his ceramic works. His brother was a Living National Treasure Calligrapher.

And just how do you know, Ken is a "master?" Again, is it the money or the ethics that qualify him?

Mumon K said...


Thanks for your reply. And I really appreciate your attempts at objectivity; I didn't think, as I later said, it was necessarily any kind of endorsement of Folk.

It is interesting how the Logrolling in Our Time phenomena plays out. (If you haven't read the back issues of Spy Magazine on Google Books it's worth it, not just to see how they applied the term, but for the seminal graphic design).

Yeah, the logrolling: BG endorses Teacher X, who gets noticed by Tricycle, who endorses BG, and Teacher X trumpets in his media that he's been interviewed by BG, written up in Tricycle, in a positive feedback sustaining mutual branding of all of them.


Thanks. Re: secular, It was late last night.

scotty-dog said...

Just to note I am not a friend/supporter/student of Kenneth - I have had no interaction with him as I said. I think he has his strengths and weaknesses, and needed defending as I thought the post was unfair, and appeared just driven by the fact that whatever you do in your tradition is the "right" way to do buddhism, and anything else is "wrong". It also feels like you are using him as a scapegoat for anybody who charges for the dharma. I think a strong critique can be made but by taking such a black and white view it falls flat. There is a continuum between between donations, "suggested donations", and fees, and a lot of buddhism relies on donations and suggested donations. It would be great if buddhist teachers and temples were self-sustaining and didn't have to rely on donations by the public. But this is generally not the case.

> So are you saying because he contravenes Buddhst ethics and he has good PR he's a major American Buddhist teacher?

I am saying that he is important or could be described as "major" because he is influential in his sphere. It seems like you have a different definition of what counts a major - such that you think your local Osho is major.

Kenneth has claims at being a master in his particular field of accomplishment, for example, the jhanas of Theravadan meditation. Ok, so, I can't say for sure, and being good at jhanas is harder to rate than something like playing the violin. But the standards of his tradition, I would think that other teachers in his tradition would verify this, just as in the definitions of his tradition (e.g. mahasi school), some would agree that he is "enlightened" (given their particular model of what that means). You, in a different tradition, have a different meaning for that word. Obviously you think your meaning is the "correct" one.

Mumon K said...


1. I am speaking form my experience in my tradition. Within the broader East Asian Mahayana tradition, temples are self-sustaining. In other Western temples, a membership model applies. Fee for services is problematic though for reasons I've explained, and that's not a particularly Zen thing, but a power relation thing.

And in the Theravadan DO know how they get compensated, right?

Remember the saying: whenever they say "It's not about the money, you can be sure it's about the money."

2. I am not sure my Osho is a "major" teacher in the sense of good PR. But he did raise a family here, and they seem to have few regrets...and his Zen practice is more solid than mine, for sure. But..."influential in his sphere?"

That's rather circular: he's major with people who think he's major???

Anyway, if he's good enough, perhaps he can give a good answer to Hakuin's Death of Nan-ch'uan, even though it's not from his tradition:

Or, as Master Zappa said, "You could make more money as a butcher, so don't jive me with that cosmic debris."

Mumon K said...
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Mumon K said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Mumon K said...

BTW I can't imagine my osho would ever want to be described as a major teacher, which lends weight to his credentials as an osho.

In fact he does not claim to BE a teacher.

scotty-dog said...

If we are playing spiritual top trumps then I have no doubt your zen guy beats Folk. If we are looking for the "real deal", we should avoid those that want to teach, call themselves teachers, and charge for their services.

I think the idea that he is doing all this to make a quick buck absurd, but you are welcome to that opinion. My impression is that he is good at what he does, is passionate about it, and he his place. He is a snake oil salesman? I think he believes in what he is selling, so in that sense is not a huckster.

Ultimately though, it is wrong to call him a buddhist teacher (let along "major"). I am not sure he would call himself that. He teaches buddhist meditation along with other stuff like neo-vedanta, but in a model that is far removed from traditional buddhism. It is an appropriation of the life coach model.

If you want to get even more riled up, have a look at this $500-$700 "intensive" online retreat by one his former students Vincent Horn:

Mumon K said...


Thanks for your reply. I just cited that koan because its answer is a pretty good test of where one is, I think.

I did not mean to give the impression of one-upsmanship.

Belief in a product may not necessarily absolve the seller of being a huckster, though.

If you want to get even more riled up, have a look at this $500-$700 "intensive" online retreat by one his former students Vincent Horn:

I actually feel a great deal of empathy for Vincent,in that I have the feeling that "this can't end well."

Anonymous said...

Ah, the many benefits of Bodhicitta...

black hole zendo said...

Reading Mumon riff on is like hearing Miles Davis in Miles Runs the Voodoo Down.

Glenn Wallis said...

Mumon, you raise an interesting question: given the Wild West nature of these early days of the Internet, how do we determine who is a "major x-buddhist teacher"? By comparison to Kenneth Folk's "expertise," you cite examples of your own teachers, your daughter's music teacher, etc. But really these examples just serve to illuminate the old ways of determining expertise. (By the way, I don't say "just" dismissively. I myself come out of the "first comes discipline, then comes freedom" Zen ethos.) This further illuminates the fact that we now have a forked road to, and from, expertise: the ancient, institutionally-driven one, and the current, Internet-driven one. The fact is, many people see the former as having been supplanted by the latter. We see this thinking in Justin's response. I am not criticizing that way of thinking, I am just pointing out the distinction. Anyway, you have raised yet another topic that is in need of further treatment and dissemination.