Online Dharma and Cheese Sandwich Buddhism


One of my favorite stories from our San Quentin Sangha is of the guy who ended up in our group as part of a long and involved strategy to get a cheese sandwich.  In a nutshell: Buddhists can be approved vegetarians, approved vegetarians can get two slices of bread with cheese in between instead of two slices of bread with bologne in between, so the best way to get the cheese is to join the Buddhists.

I forget if he got the sandwich.  The point is, he got distracted once he arrived.  Distracted by the silence, and the Dharma, and the warmth.  He became a much appreciated member of the Sangha, practicing with us for a couple years before his eventual parole.

We don’t care why you come.  Cheese sandwich?  Ok.  Putting to rest agitated ancestral spirits.  Ok.  Protection of the State?  Ok.  Stress reduction?  Ok.  Enlightenment?  Ok.

Because the point is that once you arrive, something else can happen.

So my friend has coined the phrase “cheese sandwich Buddhist” – it’s the one who thinks they are there for the sandwich, and doesn’t yet know they are there for the Dharma.  (Or maybe they’re really, really just there for the sandwich…)

So should we advertise our Sangha as the ticket to cheese sandwiches?  A while back I did a post on proselytization, reflecting on how deep and old and central the tradition of Buddhist proselytization is, and how recent and Western this idea that “we don’t do it.”  In that spirit, maybe we should have a big cheese sandwich painted on the door.  Isn’t the point just to get you in the door, since once you arrive something else can happen…?

This is on my mind because I’ve been working with some great folks in charge of San Francisco Zen Center programs to try to spread the word about an online course on Breath that I’m launching in a week or two, and trying to find ways to spread the word, and even entice people to come, without offering too many cheese sandwiches.  Without reducing the Dharma to the deli.

Those of you involved with SFZC may have come across some of our efforts, past and present, and may have noticed that in the rush to “make available” the teachings we’ve fallen down from time to time on the cheese sandwich front.

Hot and crispy!  Come and get ‘em!  Today only!  Hot and crispy and stress reducing!  Just 99 cents!

To put it bluntly, we’ve been told that the way to get people interested in our programs is to tell them what they are going to get out of them.  We need to remind people of what they don’t have right now, and make sure they feel how awful that lack is, and then let them know that by doing our program, they too will get it!

Hot and crispy!

That makes a lot of sense.  Why would any of us do anything if not for the cheese sandwich?  When have any of us ever done anything other than for a cheese sandwich?

Of course I will only look twice if I’m promised something I want.  What’s in it for me?

The problem is that the actual promise of the Dharma is that we can stop needing to get what we want.  And the actual practice of the Dharma is to do something without trying to get something out of it.

We don’t practice for cheese sandwiches.  We don’t practice for ourselves, or, as Dogen has it at least, not even for others.  We practice for the Dharma, or for no reason, or for its own reason.  Or because we have no idea what else to do, or just because we have no idea.

“What can I get” is the root of suffering.  And “what can I get” is the mantra of our time.  So mayve “gaining nothing” is the very best medicine for our age.  But how do we pitch that?


2 thoughts on “Online Dharma and Cheese Sandwich Buddhism

  1. What we get is bodhicitta: Access to an inexhaustible resource that manifests as practices for cultivating generosity, loving-kindness, patience, energetic enthusiasm, focus and wisdom towards suffering and its causes and conditions.

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