Friday, September 20, 2013

Some Questions for Kenneth Folk

James Ford has offered some what I think is valuable perspective on my recent posts on "fee-for-service Buddhism" here. In particular, it was issues discussed regarding Mr. Kenneth Folk.  I used the quote marks back there because I wanted to specifically emphasize a bracketing of whether or not an economic system where a "teacher" or "coach" should be paid for services is a form of right livelihood.

James says:

So, given the complexities of the Japanese ordination models which have produced many Dharma teachers here in the West as well as the significant numbers of lay teachers, we have come up front and ugly, to confront that connection between money and teaching.
Among the options I see, we can 
1) scrap the non monastic ordained and lay teacher models.
2) keep these systems amateur (in the most positive use of that term), where the teacher is expected to make her or his living in some way unconnected to the Dharma.
3) revisit the “ethics” of financial support for non monastic teachers 
Frankly, I think the horse has been out of the barn vastly too long for option one.
Option two is what many are doing, myself included. I’m endlessly grateful for having stumbled into a line of work that has, I think, fruitfully, pushed me and challenged me as a Dharma teacher. I think those who have taken on various uniquely Western disciplines as psychologists, social workers, coaches and the various related, also fit into this option two adaptation. 
And, I think, as good as it has been for me, and a number of other teachers, it isn’t an ideal model. For one where is the line between a psychological counseling and Buddhist teaching? Or, coaching? Or, the rising discipline of “spiritual direction?” I find that line so movable depending on this or that as to be almost meaningless. 
So. Acknowledging it isn’t going to be easy, still, I think we need to go with all deliberation toward option three.

I'll also note before I go deeper into this  that the notion of fee for services is not unknown in Japan,  and one of the more lively debates/scandals etc. over there - at least as of several years ago - was  the fact that some temples were selling "better" Buddhist funerary names for more money.  And temples remained in the family over there, etc.   So these types of issues aren't even unique to the West.

And I'll state flat out, that my preference above is James' Option 2; it seems to have worked best to avoid so many attendant problems historically.

I'll also note before I go deeper here, that from a Zen perspective, "teacher" or "coach" seems a bit much, and "roshi," as I've noted before, is a bit over-the-top as well, mostly because it's applied in Japan to very old great or dead great widely recognized leaders in the field, though translated back into Chinese it literally means "teacher." 

So over there, you don't call someone a teacher unless they're pretty much not in a position to abuse their position, Sasaki-roshi notwithstanding.  The term of use in Japan is  oshō, "和尚"  which my dictionary says is composed of characters for "harmony" and "further." I like that.  That said, for purposes of this conversation, since many of the principals involved are not in the Zen school, or even possibly recognize where I want to go with this ethically, I won't quibble with others' use of the word teacher here, but note in passing that I would hope that those who use it stipulate to  possibly committing the same wrongdoing critics of Western Buddhism  have been accused of doing, which is the use of jargon for the purposes of mystification.  I, myself, maintain the position of my  和尚: There is no teacher.  Bodhidharma is the teacher.  The most neutral terms, I think would be "provider" and "client," and I'll use those terms in what follows. (I could use the more geeky and probably even better "server" and "client," but let's stick with "provider" and "client" for now, since it's a similar terminology used in the secular world.)

James wishes that the rhetoric might be a "toned down" in this.   I won't speak for others, but I can't see that right speech categorically might exclude rhetorical styles that are within the pale of Hunter S. Thompson or Mike Taibbi or at least a good old fashioned polemic.  But that's just me.  R.D. Laing's The Politics of Experience, is one of the best polemics I've ever read, and despite Laing's own failings as a human being, he made some points that echo down even to this conversation *.  And regarding the blog posts of others, as I said elsewhere, there's an internet version of active listening.  It works more often than you might think. Use it.  And for those who took umbrage at my use of the term huckster, I think I used the word properly in context, especially given the existence of a coupon code.

Anyway, that's just the prelude to this post.  Anyhow,  Al commented on James' post, that perhaps we might want to address questions to Mr. Folk directly.  Again I come at this post from the perspective of a professional who is well-paid for what I do but with that status comes a host of ethical obligations to which I adhere for purposes of right livelihood, and because it's my job, and because I don't need the trouble of going through legal disclosure.  I have never had that done but once (and that's an amusing story in and of itself which I can't go into the details in any great degree).  Trust me,  although it's never happened to me,  you do not want to be deposed for in relation to an anti-trust action.  Angela Davis was right: a fair trial is no trial at all if you're innocent, and Clarence Darrow was right if you're guilty.

And regarding ethical issues of pay-for-service professionals, I'll note that in the secular sector, there's issues that arise there too:

  • The abuse of fee-for-service by medical, psychological, and counseling  professionals is not unheard of, and I've known of several instances in my life (and one that affected me personally) where this structure's been abused.  The usual mode of abuse here is maintaining  a provider/client relationship and money flows from client to provider long after services from the provider are no longer needed.
  • There's also of the abuse issues that arise from the power relationship between provider and client, including but hardly limited to sexual abuse issues.  In fact the asymmetry of the power relation between provider and client is one of the big issues that arise in the medical field, in the US especially, especially when it comes to attempts to negotiate fees in an emergency room.

The secular sphere has put some safeguards in place but they are inadequate even there.

So based on all of the above, here's questions I'd ask to Mr. Folk directly:

  • What code of ethics would you adhere to? Is it published? If someone has a dispute with the services you rendered, how is redress effected?
  • How does the client know when he no longer needs your services?
  • From a Buddhist perspective, are you concerned with the ethical quandaries of teaching meditation without the corresponding instruction in right conduct?  If you feel it is not necessary,  why is that so, and why or why not, from your perspective, is that a Buddhist right livelihood? 
  • Aside from time constraints, under what circumstances would you refuse services to a client?
  • Do you offer pro bono services to those who cannot meet your fees?
  • How does the client have assurance that your claims of enlightenment are genuine?  How can you ensure that these claims have no bearing on any potential exploitation of the relationship between you and your clients?
  • Regarding your fees, are you aware that the motivation for certain pricing schemes and business transaction methods are structured precisely to encourage a sale? For example Publisher's Clearing House makes people go through a lot of effort to enter into their contests because they have found that it makes one more likely to subscribe to a magazine if one goes through a lot of effort to register for a "free, no obligation" contest.  Then there is  the well-known pricing with prices ending in "9," and there's more recent results on the use of numbers in context with other things to encourage certain behaviors.  Are you aware of how your "coupon code" discount might be construed?
  • How were your fees set at the levels they are? What factors, such as cost-structure and retirement planning were considered in setting them?

As I said on James' blog,  I'm pretty easy to find, and look forward to Mr. Folk's respsonse.  For that matter, other practitioners of "fee-for-service Buddhism" are encouraged to reply as well.

Update: Dosho Port answers the questions here.

*Speaking of active listening and R. D. Laing there's a story about how there was an incommunicative schizophrenic patient who spent his days sitting on the floor rocking back and forth.  Nobody had been able to speak to get him to communicate, until Laing sat down next to him, and rocked back and forth...until the patient spoke to him, if I remember the story correctly.


Glenn Wallis said...


Thank you for taking the time and trouble to think through, and to articulate, this very important issue (or really these issues, since those of ethics, authoritative structure, and accountability are bound up in that of fee-for-service).

I am looking forward to Folk's response. I will probably jump in again at that point with more pointed comments. Given my own experience with x-buddhist response to criticism, I do, however, have low expectations.
Really, we should hear not only from Folk, but from others figures, like Vincent Horn, Ken McLeod, Steven Schettini, and even the sensei's who hang their shingles at the zendo. Let's see...

Mumon K said...


I'll wait and see if and how answers come. It is in the interest of those involved to reply, of course, so maybe they will provide satisfying answers.

Stuart Resnick said...

I think those who have taken on various uniquely Western disciplines as psychologists, social workers, coaches and the various related, also fit into this option two adaptation.

Why in the world is being a psychologist (etc) more of a "right livelihood" than being a car salesman, a factory worker, or any other type of businessman? Elevating social workers and coaches above all other productive jobs smacks of "holy vs unholy" attachment.

Mumon K said...


I completely agree. I advocate James' Option 2 (" keep these systems amateur (in the most positive use of that term), where the teacher is expected to make her or his living in some way unconnected to the Dharma") in its general sense.

In a sense, psychologists, social workers, coaches, and various related, have nothing on sales people, woodworkers, calligraphers, artists, or, in my case, engineering managers.

People usually speak speak - espeically on the 'net - about where they're from, whether they know it or not, so I'd cut James some slack here.

He DIDN'T include "serial killer," after all, but that's my experiential deformation: I'm the kind of a guy who would write this reply.

Mumon K said...


Or landscapers, farmers, clerks, fast food workers, admins, MIS personnel, soldiers, unemployed...

Nikolai Halay said...


Don't now if this will trigger anything useful, but there were lengthy discussions on the old (now closed) KFD wetpaint forum (backed up in the following link) about money and charging for guidance.

Here is a thread titled "Learning About Money' were members discussed this issue.


Mumon K said...


Wow. Just wow.

Just that first comment by folk, equating the arrival of Dharma in the west with an ability to earn a middle class income for folks like Folk...that's just breathtaking in its sense of entitlement and privilege.

Nobody in this economy is guaranteed the ability to earn anything via employment. It's a feature of the system, not a bug.

Moreover, Folk doesn't address the fact that a plumber, etc. etc. is bound by the rules of capitalism, and/or whatever professional ethical codes they might have (as teachers, psychologists, etc.), and doesn't seem to want to disclose anything similar for himself from what I've seen. Maybe it's been hiding somewhere and I just haven't found it...but I haven't found it.

Nikolai Halay said...

Hi again,

Here is another thread I found from 2011 at the old KFD talking about this issue. It is titled "Right Bucks" and focuses on some essay Ken Wilber wrote.


Stuart Resnick said...

Example: you have a bicycle, and I want it. I have choices:

1) Begging. "I want, I need your bike so so much. Please please be a good generous person and give it to me." While this method sometimes works with close friends and family, it has an extremely low success rate with strangers.

2) Stealing. Either I take your bike when you're not looking, or if you're always watching it, I hold a gun to your head and take it. This is a highly effective method, but has well-known negative side-effects.

3) Negotiation. "I'll give you money in return for you giving me your bike. Let's see if we can find an amount I could pay you that would make us both happy."

Notice that option 3 -- the one that I personally find much more attractive than the others -- is the one that requires money. Option 1 may work for people you like, but the beauty of option 3 is that it works even with people you don't know, even with people you dislike!

Kenneth Folk writes: Almost all of us, including me, have a deep distrust of money

Which makes me wonder: if he doesn't like option 3, doesn't that mean he must prefer option 1 or 2? Therefore, I have a deep distrust of anyone who has a deep distrust of money.

Stuart Resnick said...

How were your fees set at the levels they are? What factors, such as cost-structure and retirement planning were considered in setting them?

In a casual conversation, a therapist acquaintance once told me about doing a number of sessions with a client, and telling the client to pay what she (the client) thought appropriate. The client gave $100.

The therapist was perplexed and upset, thinking the amount was far too low. The problem could be avoided by clearly establishing a set price for the sessions. But this therapist didn't want to do that, asking me, "How could I put a price on transforming someone's life?"

To my mind, it's not complicated. I told her, "The correct price for you to charge is $1 less than the guy down the street is charging to transform people's lives."

Mumon K said...


Thanks for the comment. I'll have to read that in more detail later.

black hole zen said...

As far as I can see, there is no way to "teach" the Buddhadharma except to point the way and I frankly feel that in most cases this is probably a sham. The limits of what is knowable exist in function of the conditioned mind. What else can be said about that? I am very suspicious of any teacher attaching fees to the Buddhadharma.

If direct experience is the modality of learning, again the teacher cannot truly be said to teach this, merely offer guidance on meditation technique and so forth -- non of which is so difficult as to be a real impediment to self instruction, given the widely available resources for free.

And by the way, meditation as a common lay practice is a relatively new phenomenon in Buddhism -- so if the monastic techniques are traditional, lay people in large numbers getting together to pay for and sit in meditation with a teacher is not.

While there may be exceptions, as a rule, if you are paying for spiritual advice, you are probably being swindled.

Stuart Resnick said...

As far as I can see, there is no way to "teach" the Buddhadharma

When people practice meditation and inquiry, we occasionally get really big experiences. Typically, people who get these experiences may get attached to the belief that they've gotten something special, or attached to concepts like "Everything is One."

The value of a teacher isn't so much to show Truth (since after all, we're all already experiencing it now). Rather, the value is that when the student gets attached to some belief, or to a memory of big temporary experience, the teacher can help challenge it.

In the case of some sketchy gurus (Lenz, Cohen, etc), maybe they really did once have extraordinary experiences of Oneness etc... but they didn't have a strong connection to a teacher who could disabuse them of their delusions of specialness.


black hole zen said...

Everything IS one. But if anyone gets attached to that then they just don't understand it. I still don't see how you can teach that though. Maybe by tweaking nipples or groping.

I'm glad Stuart mentions truth because I've been pondering it more deeply than usual. I think to know truth you have to be truth. Since we cannot be (in an active, karmic sense) anything more that what we are -- which is human -- whatever we call truth is what we are. Tattva=Truth=You+That.

Stuart Resnick said...

black hole zen said, Everything IS one. But if anyone gets attached to that then they just don't understand it. I still don't see how you can teach that though.

Just as people can get attached to money or fancy cars or a heroin rush etc etc, people also get attached to thinking. "Attachment to thinking" means believing in beautiful words like "Everything IS one."

Of course you COULD teach words/ideas like "Everything IS one," but why do that? It certainly has nothing to do with Zen, which by definition means NOT attaching to beautiful words and speech.

A good Zen teacher might be able to help someone clinging to beautiful words and ideas, by pointing directly to just-now experience (*before* words and speech).

black hole zen said...

Using words to show how useless words are?

Bah. I prefer Bukowski.

black hole zen said...

“He who is without craving and grasping, who is skilled in etymology and terms, who knows the grouping of letters and their sequence, - it is he who is called the bearer of the final body, one of profound wisdom, a great man.”

All have I overcome, all do I know. From all am I detached. All have I renounced. Wholly absorbed am I in ``the destruction of craving''. Having comprehended all by myself, whom shall I call my teacher?

The gift of Truth excels all (other) gifts. The flavor of Truth excels all (other) flavors. The pleasure in Truth excels all (other) pleasures. He who has destroyed craving overcomes all sorrow.
Dhammapada, Craving: 352-4

Stuart Resnick said...

Black hole zen wrote: Using words to show how useless words are?

Do you really believe that words are useless? Where did you get this idea? Your statement is of course self-contradictory, since you're using words to make it.

If you're just going to say "Bah," why do you create this odd idea to begin with?

black hole zen said...

Stuart, I waited some time to reply because the tone of the conversation shifted away from sunyata, and you and I were no longer connecting on any level of truth and understanding.

My point was it doesn't take a Zen master, teacher, or a subordinate relationship to some guru (i.e. hanging out the dharma shingle) to cultivate enlightenment.

This can only be accomplished on one’s own efforts. Reliance on a guru to point the way can actually be an impediment, as we have seen. Especially when teachers sell dharma by the pound.

What I am saying "Bah!" about is the idea so common in Zen circles that relying on "words and concepts" are "attachments" when words and concepts are exactly what Gautama used to relate his experiences under the Bodhi tree.

Mumon K said...

black hole zen:

Engaging in Zen with someone more experienced can be profoundly meaningfully helpful.

There's just stuff you won't see otherwise. About how really empty everything is.


But - if he's worth his salt - he's not somebody you'll blindly follow, not a "guru" in the sense in which it's commonly meant. In fact some of the experience is to challenge that notion and blow it to smithereens.

black hole zen said...

Well, ok. But engaging in Zen with someone who is _less_ experienced is also profoundly meaningful. It depends on what you reify as teaching. I am pointing to the teacher archetype, dipping into Jung a bit, to question and challenge this idea of looking to others to explain the unknowable, not to take away from what people learn or how they learn it.

I think it was Miyamoto Musashi, the great Zen swordsman, who said, if you want to learn how to weild a sword, study how to weild two, and it will make weilding one seem quite easy. If you see the unenlightened as teachers, learning from the enlightened becomes much easier.

Brian Eleven said...

I'm not sure if this has been answered elsewhere, but...
Kenneth Folk set his price(as stated on his old site) based on the fact that he has a Masters degree in education. If he taught for a living he would have made $75/hr(apparently), so logically that's how much he should be paid regardless of what he does.
Yes that was sarcasm, and no I'm not kidding. I'm not able to open his old site right now for some reason, but I'll provide a link to this explanation if I can in the future.
His prices have risen, so I guess teachers have gotten raises.

Mumon K said...

Brian Eleven:

Sorry, it's been a while, but I just saw your comment.

$75 an hour for a Masters in Education?

I think not, although I fault our society for that.

OTOH, I still don't see the justification.

Brian Eleven said...

It doesn't make much sense to me either, but that's what he had on his site for at least 1.5-2 yrs.
Apparently in his world whatever you are trained to do, you should then get paid for that job, regardless of what you actually do.
If I got a law degree I could go to McDonalds and expect to make $250 000 per year. I assume it will make more sense once I become enlightened like Ken.

Stuart Resnick said...

Say you have a law degree, and there are jobs available to you that pay $250,000/year. Further assume that your motivation for working is to make money (rather than for entertainment or charity etc).

If you went to McDonalds and applied for a job, it makes perfect sense that you'd ask for the same wage... because if McDonalds can't match what you'd earn from other options, you'll make a rational decision to not work at McDonalds.

It'd be crazy for you to talk about this in your McDonald's job interview. Though the line of reasoning above makes sense from YOUR perspective, it's profoundly irrelevant to the person who's paying you. All they should care about is the cost and benefit you'll bring to the job.

Likewise, if someone is entering the business of spiritual teaching, they should personally examine whether they'll need to sacrifice financially for it. But they ought to recognize that this doesn't -- and shouldn't -- have any significance to their customers. Any rational customer will choose a spiritual teacher based on whether they believe they'll get something of value, and how much it will cost them.

Brian Eleven said...

The Quote:

Why have I chosen $70 an hour? It is my goal to earn about the same as a New York City schoolteacher. I have not chosen this at random; I have a Masters Degree in Second Language Education from the State University of New York, so I am specifically trained to do that job. I prefer to dedicate my life to teaching dharma, however, a job for which I am even more qualified by reason of experience, accomplishment, and natural inclination. I believe that when Western dharma teachers can earn a moderate, middle-class income by dharma teaching alone, the dharma will have truly arrived in the West.

I am able to spend about twenty hours per week directly talking with students, and another twenty to thirty hours per week participating on the KFDharma forum; maintaining the website; writing; and doing administrative work related to teaching. Since nearly all of the donations to KFDharma come from the one-on-one work, if I can average $70 per hour for the twenty face-to-face hours, I will earn about $70,000 a year. (An entry-level New York City schoolteacher earns $52,000 per year plus a benefit package that includes retirement, health and dental insurance, etc., so $70,000 is a conservative estimate of a schoolteacher’s total compensation.)"

The link:


Brian Eleven said...

Re-reading the above posts it looks like my quote has already been read. Sorry about that.