illustration (attribution, if any possible, is at the end of the article)
Buddhism considers three "fires" which burn sentient beings, three "fires" which cause dissatisfaction: greed, aversion and ignorance (or confusion). Sometimes, these fires affect retreat bookings.
Someone who should not come to a retreat at (e.g. due to not agreeing with the ethical behaviour expected and required) might nonetheless desire to book attendance to a retreat… and the greed (for whatever they imagine they'd get) might be so strong that they'll try to bully us, try to force us to comply to their wishes, if the booking is not accepted fast enough for their taste.
Of course, anyone minimally informed about Buddhism will know that it is common for teachers to test the resolve of prospective students… Everyone's life is finite; wasting time and running into walls are unwise. There are many ways to get to know a person, and seeing how one reacts to "maybe" —or to "no", even— can often be instructive.
For the ignorant though, the frustration (dukkha) arising from a delay —or the rejection— might be enough to combine greed and ignorance in complaining and decrying a supposed lack of "professionalism". It might become the perfect occasion to lash out, based on projections and unexamined expectations.
Except, of course, it is in fact perfectly ethical to consider what consequences one's lack of restraint might have on other retreatants! Only self-obsession can make someone limit "professionalism" to accepting them regardless of their behaviour, regardless of others, regardless of circumstances, just because they ask.
The FAQ on Dharma.house's website clearly explains the reason for agreeing on some ethical standards for the duration of one's stay: « In training according to such rules, one offers to others the freedom from danger, freedom from animosity, and freedom from oppression. » The rules are key to “offer" physical and emotional safety to others (from our ignorance, our mistakes, our biases…): this is the first form of "offering", of "generosity", of dāna, which spiritually counts!
Ethics are not an optional part of the training provided at Dharma.house: several spokes of the eightfold path are about virtuous living, precepts are about virtuous living, i.e. the Dharma includes ethics!
The very idea that any booking should always be immediately accepted (no matter how disruptive the participant might be) is ignorant on many counts:
• 1/ there's nothing professional in compromising the safety of other retreatants for the sake of some extra audience or income — there's nothing ethical in letting greed override other concerns;
• 2/ Dharma.house is not a hotel, it's a training center: if someone's circumstances are clearly not supportive of learning, there's nothing wholesome in accepting a payment or alms for a service which cannot be provided;
• 3/ That reality doesn't comply to someone's wishes is not enough to cry wolf about "discrimination": not only "discernment" of dangers can be professional in any case, but also it is a "duty" when one offers anything in relation to mental well-being. Improvisation in relation to mental health is dangerous amateurism: at times, referring someone to another form of counselling might be the only valid option, whether the prospect likes it or not.
Dharma.house puts the safety of retreatants at the top of its priorities. This is because learning requires vulnerability: learning requires admitting that one doesn't know, it requires seeing and accepting one's mistakes, it requires lowering one’s guard and welcoming other perspectives… Thus, ensuring the safety of retreatants is supportive / constructive (to say the least): too few would learn while being on the defensive.
Therefore, Dharma.house will not be bullied into accepting whatever or whoever might endanger this safety; that's using our freedom wisely and taking our responsibility in relation to what we offer. If it displeases some, we'll do our best to minimise the anger, but we'll still not blindly accept the unacceptable: to condone the unwholesome is never helping anyone in the long run.
Some might suggest that "we should be the better people” when facing ignorant behaviours, or might call for “equanimity", for "restraint in judgement", for "unconditional acceptance", etc. This also is a confusion.
Equanimity is not indifference. On the contrary, equanimity is what allows someone not to accept the unacceptable because of ignorant bias, self-centred fear, unfounded guilt, peer pressure or simply greed. Equanimity is the relinquishing of the eight "worldly winds": gain, loss, status, disgrace, censure, praise, pleasure, & pain (AN 8.6). Equanimity is what frees from righteous stupidity, from expectations blindly attached to labels regardless of circumstances, from the “as a …, I should …” Equanimity is what allows not to let someone’s tantrum or threats sway a well-reasoned decision.
Discernment is not automatically judgemental: discernment is the root-cause of ignorance, yes, but it’s also the root-cause of wisdom. The difference lies in how one “grasps" what’s discerned, in particular how one might abusively generalise lessons out of context or ever stay mindful of current conditions (thus keeping lessons from the past in mind, but never applying them blindly —always checking first whether they’re appropriate for the situation at hand, or not). Blindness, blanket answers, prejudices, naïveness and lack of sensitivity to nuances are not signs of maturity or wisdom.
Unconditional acceptance is about accepting reality-as-is as the starting point of engagement: by focusing on engagement, it certainly doesn’t dictate passivity or blindness. To accept unwholesome phenomena doesn’t make them any less unwholesome: unconditional acceptance precisely requires not to brush unwholesome phenomena under the carpet —the good, the bad and the ugly are all equally considered! While we don’t have to condemn, we don’t have to condone either!
Unless explicitly stated, all retreat participants at are requested to train in accordance to the five precepts (pañca-sikkhāpada) during their stay:
• to refrain from killing (from harming),
• to refrain from taking what is not given,
• to refrain from sexual misconduct,
• to refrain from harmful speech,
• to refrain from intoxicants clouding the mind.
Any exemption from these precepts will necessarily be mentioned in the relevant retreat description; in such a case, either the bodhisattva precepts (from the Brahmajāla bodhisattva śīla sūtra) or the esoteric samaya precepts (from the Mahāvairocana tantra) are likely to be requested instead —and they're more demanding, not less, than the classical five above.
Image: a calligraphy of Bodhidharma, a Zen master who wasn't exactly renowned for his cheerfulness or for easily accepting the unwholesome… As it happens, the calligraphy hangs in the main room of , a gift from a generous Dharma friend.