When you walk into MNDFL, the bustle of New York City melts away.
The meditation studio, in Greenwich Village, is fragrant, clean, white, minimal, and modern. Before class, practitioners sit on couches, mingle, and sip tea. The gray cushions are embroidered with MNDFL’s logo. There’s a small retail area where you can purchase scents and T-shirts, as well as books written or recommended by MNDFL’s nearly 30 teachers.
Is this what practitioners are paying for? The meditation center, which describes itself as “nondenominational,” charges $10 for a first-time class and $15 for a drop-in. Monthly memberships cost $150 (MNDFUL previously charged $200 but lowered the price in March), and if you complete a 30-day meditation challenge, your next month is free. A subscription also gets you unlimited access to one of the meditation rooms for self-guided meditation. Classes are either 30 or 45 minutes, and meditators can choose from more than 10 different themes, including breath, sound, movement, intention, and meditation for mothers and children. Students receive an introduction and a guided meditation and are encouraged to ask questions at the end of the session.
MNDFL opened its doors in November 2015. Chief Spiritual Officer Lodro Rinzler, who teaches in the Shambhala tradition, and Chief Executive Officer Ellie Burrows, a writer and personal development coach, think of MNDFL not as a dharma center but rather as a “midpoint” for those interested in learning meditation from a variety of teachers and techniques.
“We’re always in service, no matter what that means day to day,” Burrows said. “We want to service any New Yorker who struggles with practice and wants to explore meditation in a contemporary context.”
Rinzler and Burrows knew there would be criticism from the outside meditation community regarding the center’s fees.
“I think if people come in here they’ll know our intentions are not based on money; they’re based on making meditation as accessible as possible,” Rinzler told Tricycle. “We’re able to do a lot because of this model that nonprofits are not always able to do. It’s a little bit of a misnomer to say that dharma is free. If someone has a benefactor who would like to buy this location [for us], we would be happy to charge nothing. But this is a Western society, and there are people happy to pay what we think is accessible [affordable].”
MNDFL is likely New York’s first for-profit meditation studio (others already exist on the West Coast). Rinzler and Burrows said that subscriptions to the meditation center allow MNDFL to offer occasional free classes, including classes taught in Spanish, and to provide a place for recovering addicts to meet and meditate. Neither Rinzler nor Burrows takes a salary, but they say they are committed to paying all their teachers—including one monastic—in hopes the instructors will be able to teach meditation as a primary occupation.
“We want to create a space where people can come back every day,” Burrows said. “And that space has rent and lights.”
But—at least within the Buddhist community—the practice of charging for meditation classes has been frowned upon, whether or not the meditation center explicitly identifies itself as Buddhist.
“In terms of history there’s always been patronage,” said Roshi Pat Enkyo O’Hara, abbot of the Village Zendo, referring to the traditional structure of Buddhism in Asia, where monastics are financially supported by laypeople and political leaders in exchange for their religious services. “But patronage was based more on reciprocity than exchange. So I think that’s the huge difference, and we have to get used to it, and make distinctions and be clear about it. I think that’s why it’s so offensive to some people. . . . [It’s becoming like yoga] or your gym.”
Enkyo Roshi said that because we live in a capitalist and monetized society, it’s “incumbent on dharma centers, and not on MNDFL necessarily, to always make clear that this is not an exchange, but a reciprocal giving.”
At the Village Zendo, as at most other dharma centers, practitioners are asked at the end of every practice period to donate for the center’s rent and other expenses. “I think it would make a difference right there—call it a donation, call it dana. Then it’s less defined as a transaction,” Enkyo Roshi said.
For David McMahan, professor of religious studies at Franklin & Marshall College and author of Buddhism in the Modern World, the apprehension that charging for meditation provokes “might be rooted in a somewhat misguided idea” that many Western Buddhist practitioners have of an “idealized, pure Buddhism” of the past that “floated above all economic concern.”
“I’m working out my own attitudes toward it [paying for meditation classes], because it’s new, and it’s something that a lot of people are talking about and a lot of people are asking me to talk about,” McMahan said.
A larger problem might be that meditation without Buddhism, which is being taught in studios such as MNDFL, lacks a “wider context of attitudes, ethical orientations, or philosophical ideas,” according to McMahan. “Without some richer context about what we’re doing when we’re sitting there watching our breath, the effectiveness of mindfulness is diminished,” he said.
For Enkyo Roshi, a sense of community is another part of the context that is lost in an entrepreneurial meditation center. Walking through the Village Zendo, she points out photos of her teachers and members of the sangha who have died.
“This is community. . . . [When] someone’s uncle dies, we put his name on the altar for 49 days and have a memorial service. And sometimes we chant and light incense and give our condolences.” This, Enkyo Roshi said, is something that individualized meditation centers might not be able to offer.
Another issue with the “stripped-down” meditation taught in nondenominational studios, McMahan said, is that meditation has “been presented to the West and the general public like a dry sponge that then soaks up all the values of the mainstream culture.” The potential result, he explained, is that instead of being a “radical tool” for self-reflection, meditation reinforces existing mainstream values.
But the leaders of MNDFL feel that being able to offer a variety of traditions and practices can both help beginners try out what works for them and point those curious for more explanation in the right direction.
“The classes are like a translation process. If I’m sitting there and speaking about the six qualities of the paramitas [perfections], I’m not saying ‘paramitas,’ I’m saying these are six qualities that can help us cultivate compassion,” Rinzler said. “I’d like to think of us as making these traditions jargon-free. And in some sense, we’re totally acknowledging the fact that there are going to be people coming in for meditation who find a spiritual tradition and go deep with that. We may never see them again, or we may see them because they like to sit with us. And there will be some people who just want to do meditation, and we’re here for them. We’re here for both.”
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