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The 800-Year-Old Fundraising Letter

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b2ap3_thumbnail_Dogen.jpgIn 13th century Japan, Dōgen Zenji (also known as Eihei Dōgen) was a little fed up with the internal politics and schisms common among the various schools of Buddhism at the time. He was the kind of a man who thought that one should "prefer to be defeated in the presence of the wise than to excel among fools." So, in 1235, he packed his bags and moved to the mountains where he planned to open the Eihei-ji, a temple of the Sōtō Zen school of Buddhism.

“I will have no regrets even though what I have wished for and begun might not be realized," he wrote. "I do not mind if but one single pillar is erected, as long as people in later generations think that someone had the aspiration to carry out such a project.”

As it happened, Dōgen did not rely only on aspirations to make his dream come true because even a Buddhist needs money to build a temple. Because many of his writings still survive, we know exactly how he did it. Yes, a direct mail appeal. This is the earliest known example of a fundraising letter uncovered to date:

We respectfully make this announcement to all buddhas in the ten directions, sages and monks in the heavenly and human worlds, the eight types of beings in the dragon realm, and generous men and women. We wish to construct a training hall with small donations from people's pure heart.

For some years ever since I returned to Japan from China, I have vowed to establish a monastery. But there has not been a place suitable to support monks' formal practice using bowls and robes. Now we have acquired an excellent place … Although it is still covered with weeds and not yet functioning, we plan to build a training monastery there … We urgently need a Monk's Hall now. We plan to build one seven ken square [70 sq. ft.], with no interior walls. We will set up long platforms to reside on, where we will practice day and night without fail …

We will acknowledge gifts by installing the donor's names in the center of the sacred image. The myriad syllables of the seed wisdom will honor the donors and everyone.

b2ap3_thumbnail_Eiheiji.jpgThose who attain the way in this hall will be guiding masters of the assembly. Truly they will be knowledgeable and reach not only the human realm but transform beings in the heavenly realm and in the dragon's palace. Those in the realms of magic and darkness will also listen. Thus this dharma wheel transmitted from Shyakyamuni Buddha can reach everywhere.

Source: Sofii, Translation by Michael Wenger and Kazuaki Tanaka

I have not yet been able to discover how one finds addresses for and delivers direct mail appeals to beings in the heavenly world and the dragon realm, but apparently there were enough generous men and women of pure heart on the earthly plane to get this project funded. The Eihel-ji is still in existence almost 800 years later. Although there are no original buildings still standing, the current temple complex is located nine miles east of Fukui, Japan.

For me, fundraising and communications go together like peanut butter and jelly – delicious & filling!

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