June 29, 2012

Buddha Buzz: A Dog is a Pig is a Bear is a Boy

We're tackling the big issues in Buddha Buzz today: capitalism, vegetarianism, and Buddhist business. 

In an article reminiscent of Tricycle's own "Occupy Buddhism: Or Why the Dalai Lama is a Marxist", GOOD magazine's Kira Goldenberg examines Western yoga's relationship to capitalism in "Bad Karma: Can Yoga and Capitalism Get Along?" The short answer to the title is no—not really—if you care about keeping the tenets of yoga intact. Goldenberg begins the piece,

John Friend has always been an unconventional yoga teacher: A plump, pale 53-year-old Texan in a landscape of sculpted physiques, Friend was a financial analyst before becoming a full-time yogi in 1986. Now, he rakes in around $100,000 a year—a windfall in the yoga world—thanks to Anusara, the type of yoga he founded. Anusara employs flowery language about 'divine human nature' to foster a feel-good experience that has attracted hundreds of thousands of followers and spawned a multimillion dollar empire. In 2010, The New York Times Magazine heralded Friend as 'the yoga mogul' for his ability to grow a loyal following while extending his reach into salable goods like DVDs and branded yoga mats.

Last month, Friend was exposed as an even more unconventional spiritual leader when yoga bloggers aired anonymous allegations that Friend purportedly cheated on his girlfriends with married students, dealt pot, and secretly froze employee pensions. The scandal points to a deeper philosophical rift plaguing the practice of yoga in the United States: Is it a life path, or a business model?

Doesn't this seem familiar? One thing that I've always been uneasy with concerning American dharma is the way that some have approached being a Buddhist teacher as a career. And now that we know how much successful yoga teachers can make in the United States, is it really an unfair question to ask how much successful Buddhist teachers do? Is it hypocrisy or merely the result of transplanting Buddhism into a strongly capitalist environment that some American dharma teachers these days are more marketers than mendicants?

Hot on the heels of "Bad Karma" is this article in the Herald Sun: "Buddhist calm becomes big business." It's yet another article about the explosion of mindfulness. Usually I'd pass it over, but this article has something that I haven't seen before: statistics! Quite shocking statistics, actually. "Of the $US34 billion ($34 billion) Americans spent on alternative medicine in 2009," the article says, "$US4.2 billion—about 12 per cent—was spent in sectors that included mindfulness concepts, such as meditation-related classes or relaxation techniques, according to federal data."

Speaking of another multi-billion dollar industry, Australian philanthropist and former vice-president of Citibank Philip Wollen gave an impassioned speech against the meat industry last month at a St. James Ethics and Wheeler Centre debate called "Intelligence Squared: Animals Should Be Off the Menu." (Many thanks to Justin Whitaker, whose blog I spotted it on this week.) Though he makes some arguments grounded in environmental and economical reasons, most of his talk is morally-based. "A dog is a pig is a bear is a boy," he says. "Animals must be off the menu because tonight they are screaming in terror in the slaughterhouses, in crates, and in cages; vile, ignoble gulags of despair." Referencing the 600 millions vegetarians that exist in the world, he continues, "Despite this massive demographic footprint we are still drowned out by the raucous, huntin', shootin', killin' cartels who believe that violence is the answer when it should not even be a question." I'm with you, Wollen, even if them be fightin' words.



Image: By Chris Pavlich, News Limited.

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Richard Fidler's picture

Have watched with fascination how Buddhism and Western psychotherapy have merged over the last two decades--at least in America. The teachers I grew up with through reading and personal contact would be surprised, too. The Dalai Lama did not garner particular respect from Zen Buddhists thirty years ago. In fact, his form of Buddhism was considered deluded, emphasizing elements foreign to the core of Buddhist teaching. The Theravada schools of SE Asia seemed absorbed--then and now--with the accumulation of merit and the hope of better rebirths to come. Most important of all, meditation came to be seen as insufficient for proper development of one's person. Better that it should be wedded to Western notions such as cognitive therapy and psychological means of adjusting one's adaptation to society. Shamabala Sun in its latest issue went so far as to promote articles with the cover leads: I want to be wise.... I want to be kind....I....I....I.... Can anyone imagine statements less Buddhist in tone?

The fact is Buddhism is not one big happy family. Tibetan Buddhism is Tibetan; Zen is both Japanese and Chinese; Vipassana comes out of SE Asian traditions; American Buddhism is a recent conglomeration of many traditions. We should recognize that fact and not imagine we all subscribe to a single perspective. Very few Christians would read the same religious magazine. And so with Buddhists.

Dominic Gomez's picture

Post-cold war Buddhism? The practice reflects the times and the culture. Certain integral elements remain intact, e.g. the three treasures, mindfulness of the four sufferings, et al. But by its very nature, Buddhism absorbs cultural norms as facilely as it is absorbed by various cultures. This has enabled it to survive for nearly 3,000 years and spread throughout at least four major spheres of cultural influence, including the modern West.
It isn't surprising that a life philosophy centered on the human being would find compatibility with branches of science that investigate same.

Dominic Gomez's picture

The Sutra of the Great Assembly designates our present time as the Latter Day of the Law, an age in which "quarrels and disputes will arise among the adherents to my [Shakyamuni's] teachings, and the Pure Law will become obscured and lost." It's no surprise that people lose sight of the Buddha's true teaching and suffer from egoistic delusions.