All questions for Abby Dharma are subject to editing and will be published and answered anonymously. Questions may be addressed to Abby Dharma, Tricycle: The Buddhist Review, 163 West 22nd Street, New York, NY 10011.

I am searching for a place to practice in Wisconsin and have been asked for a donation or dues at every Buddhist center I have visited. This makes me wary, but is this just common protocol?

Dear Wary in Wisconsin, Some people have ideas about “pure” Buddhism which may translate into associating any mention of money with greed or vulgarity. Yet not only must centers pay for food, rent, electricity, etc.-all of which you, as a visitor, partake in-but Buddhist monasteries have traditionally been supported by the laity. Although most centers in North America are not true monasteries, they still function as a concentrated and communal source of training and dharma activity; they ask for contributions not only because they need financial help but also to continue the Buddhist tradition of providing people with an opportunity to give, to make an offering. On the other hand, if you feel pressured to donate money, or feel that a teacher or administrator is more interested in your financial contributions than in cultivating your Buddha-nature, then that center is probably not for you. Feeling comfortable with the way a center supports itself, or supports the teacher, or asks for money, or handles its financial dealings is an appropriate part of assessing whether or not it’s the right place for you to practice.

Recently during a course on world religions my teacher introduced Zen Buddhism by telling a story in which a ninth-century Japanese master once told a disciple, “Buddha is a shit stick.” The quote is not in the textbook he assigned, and many of us (high school seniors) think he was making it up. Was he telling the truth?
Dear Senior Citizens, No. The master was Chinese.

Last year I started attending meditation and sutra classes at a vipassana center. Now, every time I have a quarrel with my husband (who wants nothing to do with Buddhism) he says things like, “How come you’re so angry, I thought Buddhists didn’t get angry.” Most of the time, this just makes me more angry, but at times I really struggle with what to say to him. I am exasperated. Any suggestions?

Dear Exasperated, You can tell him it’s not true that Buddhists don’t get angry. But we do try not to harm anybody with our anger. The question for Buddhists is, When anger arises, what is a skillful way to relate to it? It’s impossible to live in a relationship like a marriage and not get angry. Things happen. But you can usually work through the anger more effectively by watching your own mind rather than “being” the anger, getting caught in your husband’s provocations and lashing out. As for explaining the practice to your husband, sometimes it’s best not to say anything. Over time, as your practice develops, you will communicate all you need to through example.

I live in an isolated, rural area, far away from any centers. Is there any danger in beginning a meditation practice solo? I have several books that discuss beginning meditation exercises but I have also read that beginning experiences-especially when one is alone-can be very frightening.

Dear Soloist, Many people have started a meditation practice on their own with nothing but beneficial experiences. Beginning exercises, such as watching your breath, or counting your breath, or paying attention to the rising and falling of the abdominal area are generally a harmless and useful way of getting acquainted with the process of taming the chattering mind, what Buddhists sometimes call “the monkey mind.” If, however, you find yourself very disoriented by the absence of a familiar mental landscape, or frightened by the prospect of dislodging the conventional experience of “self,” then it would be valuable to participate in a meditation retreat where you have access to an instructor. You should also note that isolated practice can easily become indulgent and too self-defined, and most teachers suggest periodic retreats for anyone engaged in practice.

Years ago I studied Zen. I would like to resume some kind of practice now but, as a single mother with two young kids at home, I’m discouraged. I’ve read articles by women complaining about how difficult this situation is because they feel unsupported by the community and the male teachers, and because of the traditional attitude that a monastic lifestyle is superior to lay practice. I cannot attend any early morning practice periods but I could arrange to go to a center one or two evenings a week and perhaps do a very occasional weekend retreat. Are there any communities that are supportive to women in my situation?

Dear Mom, Women in the West have been successful in bringing situations like yours to the attention of the teachers and the sanghas. Many centers will try to accommodate students in whatever situations they find themselves in. In some cases, parents will arrange for shared child care to create more time for practice. Some centers include children in community actvities more than others. In any event, it is unlikely that you would face the same harsh circumstances that often beset mothers of young children in the past.

If dogs have Buddha-nature, how come they’re not allowed near a dharma center or Buddhist temple? Me and my dog Buddy, a fully enlightened and very docile golden retriever-shepherd mix, spent part of last year hitchhiking around, visiting several meditation centers. Everyone was very hospitable to me, but not to Buddy. He had to be tied to trees, gates, lampposts, anything to prevent him from entering the dharma gates. But I’m not giving up.

Dear Dogged, Even dogs trained to sit without moving for thirty-five minutes have a Buddha-nature that includes fleas and unchecked flatulence, both of which are taken into consideration in the dogma pertaining to canine consciousness.

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