The History of Dharma Treasure
Beginning to Teach:
I had never intended, nor did I ever want to become a meditation and/or Dharma teacher. Quite the opposite. Rather, I was gradually drawn into this role incrementally over several years, more by accident than anything else.
It began with my participation in online meditation discussion groups. I found I was often able to answer questions and provide advice to other posters, and more and more people were addressing their posts to me. At the same time, I discovered the amazing degree of contentiousness, egotism, and willingness to engage in personal insult meditators were capable of. Especially where some of the things I said were not consistent with others who had established themselves in these groups as “experts.” I participated in these groups anonymously using my Upasaka name and carefully avoiding saying anything that might reveal my identity and location. Blake Barton was a participant on some of these groups. At some point he became disenchanted by the aggressive behaviors on these sites and began a new Yahoo discussion group known as jhana_insight, and invited me to post there. I accepted the invitation, posting exclusively on that group, and eventually generating thousands of lengthy instructional posts over many years. Eventually I posted an early draft of what eventually became the first six Stages of TMI so that I didn’t have to keep repeating myself to new people as they joined the group.
Roughly coinciding with this, in 2000, Geshe Michael Roach arrived with his Diamond Mountain group of students on the West side of the mountains where Cochise Stronghold Canyon is located. Michael was erecting yurts on the other side of the mountain almost directly across from us in preparation for a three-year retreat. Local folks knew me as a Buddhist who meditated and lived in a yurt, so of course they heard about us, and we heard about them. Nancy and I went over to meet them. When they learned we had a yurt used for meditation, and Nancy and I had been setting aside a day a week for more intensive practice, some of them asked if they could come join us on that day. At first I strongly resisted any teaching role. Eventually, though, when I learned how long and saw how earnestly some of these people had been trying to meditate without success, I had no choice but to begin providing advice and instruction. Eventually this became a regular event that ultimately evolved into our weekly Uposatha Day observances.
Not long after, I also began teaching meditation to inmates at the maximum and medium security state penitentiary located in Douglas, AZ, about 50 miles to the south of where we lived. I still didn’t regard myself as a “meditation teacher,” but rather as someone who knew something about meditation and was willing to share it.
Then William, one of the participants on jhana_insight who was part of the Orange Count California Asian community and was completing a PhD in Buddhist Studies prevailed upon me to come for a visit. We spent many hours together in discussion and meditation. After he returned to California, he asked me if he could come back again and bring along some close friends who were serious practitioners, including Aaron and Freida who had sponsored William’s education. After their visit, I was invited to come to California for a visit, during which they invited dozens of people from the Chinese community to come talk to me at Aaron and Freida’s home. Ultimately, this led to our very first and very small group retreats (5 or 6 people) at Cochise Stronghold. I also began to lead frequent retreats in Southern California that were primarily, but not exclusively, attended by members of the large Asian community there. William had by then completed his PhD and joined the faculty of the University of the West, a Buddhist University in Rosemead California. My visits to California thereafter began to include teachings at U of the West as well. At this point, I could no longer deny it, and had to accept that I had become a meditation teacher.
When Blake Barton first set up the jhana_insight discussion group years earlier, he had no idea that I lived less than 100 miles away from where he lived in Tucson. Eventually, in about 2006, I revealed that to him, and we met for lunch. I learned about Tucson Community Meditation Center (TCMC) from Blake, who was very actively involved with the center, and he arranged for me to meet with the President of TCMC. This led to my doing a weekend teaching at TCMC in Fall of 2006, which in turn led to my offering meditation classes regularly at TCMC on Thursday nights as well as conducting two non-residential meditation retreats each year for many years to come.
Since 2008 I have been very active as a meditation Dharma teacher, doing pretty much all the different things meditation/Dharma teachers do, while at the same time dealing with ill-health of many sorts.
The Origins of Dharma Treasure:
In 2008, CC, one of my more dedicated students within the Southern California Chinese community, suggested that I form a non-profit church as a platform for my teaching. He had been to the Stronghold often enough and knew Nancy and I well enough to recognize the burden of making a living through running a bed & breakfast was limiting my ability to teach. He also saw how I was becoming progressively more disabled physically by the effects of Lyme disease. One of the benefits he proposed would come from creating a church, is that I might eventually be able to support myself through teaching and writing alone. If I was able to provide tax receipts, he and others would be able to make larger donations.
CC had considerable experience in this area. He was a professional accountant, and had created many non-profits in the past, both for himself and others. He guided and assisted me in the process, which was both daunting and time consuming. Thus, we created Dharma Treasure, or Fa Bau in Chinese. Fa bau is a common epithet used in reference to the arising of good fortune, but especially where either the nature or the cause of the good fortune was suggestive of some spiritual reward.
With CC’s help, I created Dharma Treasure Inc as a 501(c)3 non-profit corporation in July of 2008, and obtained recognition of Dharma Treasure as a church in a Letter of Determination from the IRS dated February 2nd 2009. The responsibilities of a non-profit designated as a church are to carry out its approved mission and provide spiritual support to the general community. Part of that community support is required to include weekly “services” open to the public. Dharma Treasure is also incorporated as an organization that has no members, as stated in the By-Laws originally filed with the IRS and in every Annual Report filed with the Arizona Corporation Commission since Dharma Treasure Inc’s inception in 2008. Having no members means that the board appoints itself and its successors rather than being elected by members.
Being a church differs from being a charitable non-profit, amongst other ways, in having one person in the role of “Pastor,” or as we have described it, Spiritual Director. The function of the Spiritual Director (or “Pastor”), in addition to fulfilling the Mission of the Church, is to oversee the Board. The purpose of the Spiritual Director’s oversight is to assure that all activities of the organization and decisions and activities undertaken by the Board are consistent with the Church’s approved mission, and the legal criteria for designation as a church. In this capacity, the Spiritual Director has the authority to override Board decisions that are not consistent with the mission and/or legal criteria of the church. The responsibility of a Church Board is to support the Spiritual Director in his/her work, and ensure the financial, legal, and general well-being of the Church. I fulfilled the responsibilities of the Spiritual Director until July of 2019, although the newly added Board members did not understand and were resistant to my authority as Spiritual Director from the time they became aware of it. Until my health became too poor, I also fulfilled the community support obligations by offering (and advertising) weekly Uposatha Day observances in the meditation yurt at the Stronghold. I offered teachings on Thursday nights at the Tucson Community Meditation Center (TCMC) that were open to the public as well.
My specific purpose in creating Dharma Treasure Inc was as a vehicle to spread the Buddhadharma, and my personal teachings on meditation and Buddhadharma in particular. It had the secondary purpose and intent of eventually providing me with ongoing employment by Dharma Treasure as Spiritual Director, in which capacity I would continue to teach and write. You will recall this is the reason CC had suggested creating a church in the first place.
Before it was very recently changed, this was the Mission and Vision of Dharma Treasure:
The mission of the Dharma Treasure community is to offer Buddhist teachings, clear and systematic meditation instruction, and retreat opportunities for all people pursuing spiritual development and awakening.
We offer online and in-person meditation and Dharma teachings, aimed at spiritual awakening, rooted in the teachings of the Buddha. Grounded in The Mind Illuminated meditation manual, well-trained teachers offer a practical synthesis of traditional wisdom and western thought. The Dharma Treasure Retreat center at Cochise Stronghold hosts individual and group retreats for practitioners of every level. We collaborate with other traditions interested in more effectively achieving insight and liberation of the heart and mind.
There had been previous iterations of the Mission and Vision of Dharma Treasure, and this one, formulated in conjunction with the sale of the property to Dharma Treasure and as part of our Strategic Planning process was the first and only one to make reference to retreats and a retreat center (note underlined sections).
From 2008 until 2018, although I was absolutely never in any way obligated to, I voluntarily chose to pass almost all of the donations I personally received from that point forward directly to Dharma Treasure Inc. I had created Dharma Treasure, and I chose to support it in this way in order to build Dharma Treasure Inc into a legal entity that could effectively support my teaching and writing efforts as described above. I also hoped Dharma Treasure could become a vehicle for my and my teacher, Kema Ananda’s, visionary concept of rebuilding the ancient order of Upasikas/Upasakas in support of a Western and global Dharma culture that predominantly involves lay practitioners and teachers.
The donations that I used to fund Dharma Treasure came from: retreats and other public teaching events I led at Cochise Stronghold B&B/Nature Retreat, and various locations in Arizona, California, Massachusetts, New York, and Colorado; my Thursday night teachings at Tucson Community Meditation Center (TCMC), and weekend Teaching Retreats given at TCMC; and
my weekly Uposatha Day observances and teachings at Cochise Stronghold B&B. (While the Uposatha Day observances met an IRS requirement for Dharma Treasure as a church, there is no corresponding requirement that donations made at those weekly services become the property of the church. The amount of money brought in on Uposatha Days was trivial, but it was again, my choice to turn that over to Dharma Treasure.)
I carried on these activities even when I was so ill that I couldn’t get up from my teaching cushion without someone’s help, and had to use a cane to walk more than a few feet.
Dharma Treasure Inc played no significant role in any of these events other than posting notices of them on the Dharma Treasure website. All of the organizational and promotional work for these events was done either by the sponsoring organizations: TCMC, the Redemptorist Renewal Center, Cochise Stronghold Consulting LTD, University of the West, individual students of mine in the Orange County Chinese community, ACI/ Cape Anne, Wisdom’s Heart, Omega Institute, BCBS, Shambhala MTC, NYIMC, etc., or by Nancy and I together with our friends and relatives and students of mine from Tucson who had volunteered to help. There were a few instances where members of the Dharma Treasure Board volunteered as retreat managers or coordinators for retreats at the Stronghold, but they were not Dharma Treasure events. Keep in mind that Dharma Treasure legally has no members who might provide services on behalf of the organization, just a Board of Directors.
Through my teaching, writing, and personal fundraising, I had been the primary source of funding for Dharma Treasure for over 10 years.
To repeat, I was never under any obligation to turn any of these donations over to Dharma Treasure Inc. People who attended these events knew who Culadasa was, but most had never heard of Dharma Treasure. Had I wished, I could have never bothered with a year and a half of work creating a church, or even having done so, kept all the donations I received for these events, reported them as personal income and put them in a retirement fund. Either of which, as it turns out, would have been much wiser. That benefactors would receive a tax receipt did, of course, make some higher income donors more generous. But for most, it was irrelevant. I didn’t take that money for myself, because I never expected to retire in the traditional sense. As was part of the original intent when CC suggested and assisted me in the creation of Dharma Treasure, I expected to continue receiving a salary for my role as Spiritual Director for the organization that I was building and funding for the rest of my natural life. The only thing I was concerned with continuing beyond my own lifetime was my teachings. The church could dissolve when I died, unless someone else wanted to keep it going. I never intended to create a lineage or appoint a successor.
On January 24th 2010, Dharma Treasure was financially healthy enough to provide me an annual compensation of $14,580.00 for my position as Spiritual Director and Administrator. Health insurance for both Nancy and I was eventually added as a benefit. Because I was turning 65 and would not benefit from the mandatory Social Security and Medicare contributions, but Nancy who was only 54 could, we decided to pay the salary in her name. One of our original purposes in creating Dharma Treasure was now beginning to come to fruition.
Over time, we developed some grandiose notions and did experiment somewhat with expanding the functions of Dharma Treasure and the size of the Board. In April of 2011, we amended Bylaw Section 4.02 (a), changing the number of Directors from 3 to a minimum of 3 and a maximum of 13. The additional directors were divided into various committees for things such as dealing with technical matters involving the website, alternative methods of fundraising, sangha building, etc. As was to be expected, coordinating a larger number of people in a greater variety of activities didn’t move very quickly, but we had some wonderful meetings and dreamed some big dreams.
However, this didn’t last very long. At a Board meeting held on June 28th 2012 it was decided not to purchase liability insurance because of the cost, and the majority of the members of our large Board decided the personal risk was too great for them to continue in that capacity. So, we divided the group into a 3-person Board of Directors and an Advisory Board. At the end of that meeting there were once more only 3 Directors and Officers: Culadasa (John Yates) – President, Chair of the Board, and Spiritual Director; Nancy Yates – Chief Financial Officer, and George Schneider – Secretary. Everyone else and their respective committees were now part of an Advisory Board.
At another Board meeting On January 8th 2013, we increased my annual compensation as Spiritual Director and defacto Administrator to $20,640 plus health insurance. My health had continued to deteriorate. By this time, I had been severely debilitated by chronic neurological Lyme Disease for 6 years, and since February of 2012 had undergone multiple abdominal surgeries for complete small bowel obstruction with no known cause. Several times in this period, I had shown signs of progress in my struggle with Lyme, but always fell back again to a more debilitated state. Throughout this period, I continued to maintain an intensive schedule of teaching, leading retreats, and writing. For a long time, concerns had been raised that I may not be able to continue working to fund Dharma Treasure at the level I had been.
On July 13, 2013, a fundraising committee was formed. One of its first activities was a Livelihood Campaign that brought in $32,060, almost exactly what it cost Dharma Treasure to pay my Spiritual Director salary and Nancy’s and my healthcare insurance for another year. It was decided to continue that campaign as an ongoing fundraising effort via online donations to Dharma Treasure. Thus, a donation category called “Core Support” was created for donors who intended their donations to become part of a fund with the specific purpose of assuring Dharma Treasure could continue to pay my Spiritual Director salary into the future, even after I stopped bringing in money in from all the activities listed above.
By January 2014, The Mind Illuminated was almost completed and ready for editing. At this time, I was very strongly encouraged by Nancy, Dharma Treasure Board members, and friends and students to slow down and give my body time to heal. When, if ever, I could resume that same level of activity was completely unknown. Because of the success of the Livelihood campaign, and the steady flow of donations into the Core Support fund, I agreed to slow down. The idea was I could continue working and writing while making my primary focus getting healthy again. The plan worked. The Core Support fund was established and continued to grow, and I did get well.
The money that was donated as Core Support went into a designated savings account also referred to as “Core Support.” I have no idea what has happened to those funds. As it stands, I have lost not only my vehicle for spreading my personal teachings on meditation and Buddhadharma (Dharma Treasure Inc), but my retirement in the form of an ongoing salary as Spiritual Director as well. One of my question for the new Board will be, what are to become of the Core Support funds that were intended specifically to pay my salary as Spiritual Director?
One of the other things we experimented with while we still had a substantial Advisory Board was organizing a retreat. The retreat was held at El Rancho Robles in Oracle, AZ over the New Year’s period spanning December 2013 and January 2014. The retreat was a success. However, the Advisory Board members were surprised by how much time and effort was involved in organizing such an event, even though the facilities and food were taken care of by someone else. During its entire existence prior to its purchase of the Cochise Stronghold property, this was the one and only retreat ever sponsored and organized by Dharma Treasure.
The Advisory Board eventually dissolved, and along with it the notion that Dharma Treasure might expand its vision and purpose beyond what it had been originally intended to be - a legal entity involving no more than three Board members to support my ongoing work. For the next few years, Dharma Treasure continued as before, with 3 Directors and officers and functioned almost exclusively to support me and my teaching and writing activities. As before, I also continued to provide financial support to the organization through those activities.
When the opportunity arose for Dharma Treasure to purchase the Stronghold property from Nancy and me, it became necessary to expand the Board once again so that Nancy and I could properly recuse ourselves from all Dharma Treasure decisions involving the purchase. We turned to people we considered our closest and most trusted friends, who had also been involved with my teaching for many years. I subsequently learned from far more experienced people that this was a huge mistake, and completely outside of the norms of good business practice. Bringing people onto a corporate Board with whom you have other personal relationships and other kinds of involvement is always a mistake. Those other aspects of your interpersonal relationships inevitably affect choices and decision-making processes that should come from as neutral and impersonal a perspective as possible. Furthermore, Blake Barton was the only person with any remotely relevant skills and experience.
It was never the intention that this Board expansion would continue past completion of the sale and establishing a retreat center.
Nevertheless, Dharma Treasure operating a retreat center did appear to have the potential to make a direct contribution to the primary purposes of the organization by supporting my teaching. It was, however, a completely new venture that went well beyond the intended purposes of Dharma Treasure as an organization.
Strategic planning meetings were held, and the Mission and Vision of Dharma Treasure were revisited. We defined the special niche for the retreat center as providing for solo retreatants and small, intimate group retreats, something that was not currently very available in the retreat center market. We could potentially accommodate up to 4 retreatants in the Casita Manzanita and Agave Suite, another 4 in the Dharmatory Yurt, two in the two trailers belonging to Nancy and me on the adjacent parcel, and even several more who brought their own tents and camped. Thus, we had a potential occupancy of 8 to 10 solo retreatants at any given time without even resorting to camping, which would require getting another permit. This was more than enough to assure financial viability. For group retreats, if there was a need to accommodate more than that, there were the same Forest Service facilities Nancy and I had used previously, as well as neighbors who had previously allowed us to rent space.
There was also adequate space in the main house for a retreat manager, resident teachers (including a retreat leader for group retreats) and space for me to occupy part-time on my visits to support both solo retreatants and resident teachers.
In particular, it could give my Teacher Training students an opportunity to develop their skills as teachers and guides for solo meditators under my personal tutelage. It also provided a small, safe venue for them to venture into the realm of leading their own first meditation retreats. The greatest obstacle to a new teacher offering a group retreat is the number of retreatants required and the financial risk associated with contracting to use a large retreat center. Someone offering their first group retreat doesn’t usually have an established population of students to draw on, and most retreat centers are designed to accommodate fairly large groups. Also, most retreat centers require a significant deposit based on a minimum number of retreatants.
One of the things that I set out to establish from the outset was the separation of Dharma Treasure proper (as a vehicle for my teaching) from the retreat center it would now be operating. We instructed our accountant to modify our accounting system so that all income and expenses could be designated separately as being either for Dharma Treasure or for the retreat center. There was, however, an understanding that, if necessary, Dharma Treasure might subsidize the retreat center initially until it was self-sufficient, at which time those funds could begin to be repaid to Dharma Treasure proper.
At this point in time, my impression is that this distinction has not been sustained, and that the Board now retiring has made the retreat center into Dharma Treasure’s primary activity. This was never the intention. Once the retreat center became self-sufficient, the two could become sister organizations, one operating primarily from a business model, as is most appropriate, and the other as the non-profit church it was always meant to be and had always been until quite recently.
I sincerely hope these histories provide everyone including the new Board of Dharma Treasure with a much clearer perspective on the organization they have come to be responsible for, and the affiliated business they have responsibility for until such time as it can function more or less independently with its own administrative structure.