Who's Zoomin' Who? The Commodification of Buddhism in the American Marketplace

Is consumerism the new American religion? Is the market itself determining not only the students, but the teachers of Buddhism?David Patt

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© A. Trayne

After the Buddha attained enlightenment under the Bodhi tree in Bodhgaya, he walked the dusty roads to the Deer Park in Sarnath, where he delivered his first sermon, The Sutra of the Turning of the Wheel of Dharma. Here for the first time he described life’s conditions in terms of the Four Noble Truths, declaring desire, craving, “thirst” as the driving force that keeps us stuck in the mire of suffering called samsara.

Much has happened to Buddhism in the twenty-five hundred years since that first sermon. It has settled in many lands, mingled with many cultures, and developed dramatically different forms of practice. But in every case, the renunciation of worldly attachments and sensory desires as inherently incapable of providing stable happiness has remained a cornerstone of Buddhist thought and practice. There is no Buddhism that does not hold that liberation from suffering involves the elimination of desire, hatred, and ignorance, the three root kleshas, or obscuring emotions.

Now, in the Americas and in Europe, Buddhism has once again landed on alien shores, and once again this ancient wisdom tradition is having to find its place in an alien culture. But this time, the dominant cultural context that Buddhism must adapt to is neither a religious nor a political worldview. It is consumer capitalism.

One of the fundamental premises of Buddhism, constantly repeated by the Dalai Lama, is that all beings want happiness and do not want suffering. There is no more fundamental question, addressed consciously and unconsciously by every being every minute of every day, than “how do I find happiness?” Buddhism is a method of transforming the deep misunderstanding of the world that causes unhappiness into a wisdom that recognizes the impermanent, changing nature of everything we grasp—most significantly our selves. This recognition alone frees us from compulsive desire and attachment: we no longer seek for happiness in external objects that are utterly incapable of bestowing the lasting satisfaction we crave. The cessation of desire, says the Buddha, leads to peace. Consumerism is the exact opposite idea. It is based on the notion that material well-being is the highest goal (or the only goal) worth aspiring to: happiness comes from having. Value resides in the stuff you possess. This path to happiness requires an endless indulgence of desire.

Karl Marx defined a commodity in Capital as “an object outside us, a thing that by its properties satisfies human wants of some sort or another,” and he described the wealth of capitalist societies as “an immense accumulation of commodities” (The Marx-Engels Reader, New York, 1978, p. 302f.). In describing the “commodification of consciousness,” analysts have shown how consumer capitalism commodifies every aspect of culture, including those that are alien to the marketplace, such as philosophy, art, and religion. In the last century consumer capitalism has captured the minds (if not the hearts) of people all around the globe to such an extent that David Loy, Professor of Philosophy and Religion at Bunkyo University in Japan, in an essay on “The Religion of the Market,” has described market capitalism as “the most successful religion of all time, winning more converts more quickly than any previous belief system or value-system in human history.” Consumerism, says Loy, is the true religion of developed capitalist countries, and “the discipline of economics is less a science than the theology of that religion, and its god, the Market, has become a vicious circle of ever-increasing production and consumption by pretending to offer a secular salvation. The Market is becoming the first truly world religion, binding all corners of the globe into a world-view and set of values whose religious role we overlook only because we insist on seeing them as 'secular’” (in Visions of a New Earth, ed. H. Coward and D. Maguire, Albany, N.Y., 1999, pp. 15-28).

Is modern Buddhism being unrecognizably reconfigured—or disfigured—by the power of the market? By involving itself in activities that are meant to ensure its propagation, is Buddhism in the West being co-opted and corrupted by the processes of commodification? And if consumerism really is the most powerful, most globalized ideology that human beings have yet devised, can Buddhism survive this latest encounter?

That Buddhism is being commodified is plain to the naked eye. In the “spiritual goods” catalog Mystic Trader, a $325 gold-leafed Buddha statue is offered with the recommendation, “If you ever desired to invest in a Buddha, here is a great opportunity.” Macintosh laptops and Patagonia parkas are advertised using the images of red-robed Tibetan monks. “Zen fashion” offers “a new level of inner peace,” and “tantric sex” spices up a boring sex life.

This commodifying of Buddhist elements for commercial purposes may be grotesque, but it does not cut to the core of the value system that Western Buddhists are creating for themselves. The real trouble begins in the processes through which Buddhists feel compelled to sell their teachers and the dharma itself in their effort to nurture it. If it is true that Buddhism has something positive to offer the world, a more profound solution to the problem of desire than “shop till you drop,” then Buddhists will naturally want to expose as many people as possible to this path that leads beyond compulsive acquisition to lasting peace. But in modern societies the only channel of communication to large audiences is through the mass media, and the media markets have their own hidden messages, which subtly subvert whatever “contents” they are apparently conveying. Such messages have become, in fact, the primary mode of indoctrination into the theology of the market.

In a commodified Buddhism, fame and fortune become the marks of a great guru, one who skillfully uses the techniques of advertising and clever marketing to attract great numbers of students. Is this a sure sign of corruption? It is not so easy to tell. Attracting students is, after all, one of the activities of a bodhisattva. And almost all the great masters of India and Tibet achieved fame and at least potential fortune in the form of vast offerings. What is different today is that the market can deliver both fame and fortune long before a teacher has earned the devotion of followers by offering spiritual sustenance, one changed heart at a time. Fame becomes a self-fulfilling validation of a teacher’s worth: following the law of the market, the more famous you are, the more students you get. This is a mode of natural selection of gurus, and it is easy to see how it would select those teachers who present the teachings in a market-friendly mode—clever, glib, easy, digestible, and unthreatening to the values of the market. The customer, after all, is always right.

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buddhasoup's picture

This is a fine article, and all serious practitioners should be mindful and aware of how the Buddha's message is being subverted and sold by the marketplace of the west. Tricycle is an excellent magazine, and it does more than its part to bring good teachers and souns scholarship to the marketplace of ideas. But, like any commercial enterprise, it needs to sell adspace, and magazines. As the article suggests, some of the better known "Buddhist" teachers are simply opportunists building brands for themselves. Meanwhile, there are serious teachers hidden in the woodwork who have very little recognition, and have much to offer the west in terms of true teaching. Tricycle might try to do a better job sourcing these quality lesser known teachers, and ignoring the rabbit-suit wearing brandbuilders ( ie : http://youtu.be/MIiCRGAZk0g ), with books to sell that offer little of true Dharma, and a lot of confusion.

selampert's picture

What a marvelous insightful article. I can feel your Passion about the Dharma and how it has affected your life. I contend that consumerism is just one challenge Buddhism will encounter in the West. Another is feminism. No one knows at his time how Buddhism developed by, supported by and perpetuated by men for centuries will evolve in countries where women have made substantial inroads to equality. I feel the influence of women actively involved in the Dharma’s expansion will lead to the expansion to the Buddhist HEART. This is the world of feelings, emotions, spiritual bliss actively felt and experienced in daily life – not subdued through a mental process of control or understanding “them” (emotions seen as the “other”). I think we are seeing the leading edge of this through some of the current Buddhist teachers. Jack Kornfield’s “The Wise Heart” speaks to us in words of the heart and tells us we have unlimited capacities for love, for joy, for communion with life. Pema Chodron’s teaches us we continually get the teachings that we need to open our heart . His Holiness the 17th Gyalwang Karmapa encourages us to identify ourselves by our inner qualities (Love, Kindness, Compassion, Peace, Trust etc) instead of by our possessions. Maybe this is really the test of Buddhism’s survival. East meets West, boy meets girl and they fall in Love.

melcher's picture

Marxists, Capitalists, Buddhists, Catholics...everyone suffers and everyone dies. In the end we are all the same and in the end it's only ones' personal path that matters. Whatever our position in society, however 'famous' or infamous we become, only our own personal transformation can effect transformation in the world. To be overly concerned with the position and circumstance in which we find ourselves in an incredibly complex and ever shifting collective organism is perhaps merely shifting our attention from one form of control and false security to another. The key to renunciation in a consumer society, or in any society, may be less connected with outer circumstance than to our letting go of preoccupation with it.

matthazelrigg's picture

Very well said. Thank you.

buddhaddy's picture

Thank you. Refreshing simple truths

myers_lloyd's picture

I laughed myself silly when David Pratt described a Zen retreat: " At the Zen retreat you will be yelled at if you move"--because for the first many years of those sesshins one of my chief interests during sitting was how to move my ankle or toe a micromillimetre in order to gain minute relief from pain. Naturally, cheating like this, I was ever wary of the monitor. Midafternoon one time, during one of my big toe creeping activities, the monitor commanded, "No moving!" - and I was suddenly back in grade two or three, ready to call out "It wasn't me!"
I had mastered stealth and was busy now with lying...

sallyotter's picture

Oh, thank you. I'm still chuckling in empathy. Have been there, done that. Self awareness, ugh!

Dominic Gomez's picture

The accompanying photo shows a special transaction outside the scriptures.

TriExpert's picture

"Apostasy!" cried the Sayadaw.

enronal's picture

In Western, capitalist societies we have the freedom to teach and the freedom to follow teachers who inspire us with no interference that I have ever seen or experienced. In Maoist China after the Chinese revolution, Tibetan Buddhists were murdered and today they continue to be persecuted and repressed. Yet Patt thinks capitalist America is a threat to Buddhism and that Marx offers insights on what's wrong with Buddhism in America. Where would he rather practice Buddhism? I think that sort of politicization of Buddhist teachings is not only silly but unproductive. Let's practice politics in more suitable venues.

buddhaddy's picture

Agreed. I'vebeen caught up in these discussions myself. The struggle for Personal enlightenment is the key to changing the world

celticpassage's picture

Not that there aren't a lot of issues with the article, but I think what the author means about capitalism being a threat is that it is more of an existential threat. That is, that Buddhism won't be overtly destroyed as much as absorbed and in that process be fundamentally changed so that it is no longer Buddhism at all. So that in the end, the marketplace may succeed in destroying Buddhism through absorbtion where more repressive regimes like you mentioned may only succeed in pushing it underground where it may actually gain strength.

buddhaddy's picture

Yes Those who seek the truth mindfully will find it, wherever they look. The Buddha asked us to seek our enlightenment through practice and mindfulness, not the written word. And yet there are probably more written Buddhist gospels than any other religion.

TriExpert's picture

Riffing on this reply: translating an observation that's been made before into modern marketer-speak, "Mao delivered more eyeballs, in a wealthier demographic, to Buddhism than anybody else in 2-1/2 millenia."

celticpassage's picture

" a Buddhism that is so otherworldly and self-absorbed that we withdraw from the struggle to build a better world"
But isn't that what Buddhism has always been?
Seems to me that Buddhism builds into its practice and outlook and unparalleled degree of self-absorption.
That's why it fits so well with a consumer culture.

buddhasoup's picture

"Seems to me that Buddhism builds into its practice and outlook and unparalleled degree of self-absorption"

Quite the contrary. Fundamental to the Buddha's teaching was the not-self doctrine, and the path of liberation from attachments; these attachments and clinging that bring about suffering/stress. Anyone who practices to cultivate the self is missing the point of the teachings in a big way. Consumerism is contradictory to the path taught by the Buddha, which was one of mindfulness, release, and renunciation.

jacquic37's picture

I suspect that we have to start with ourselves..we cannot accurately transmit the essence of Buddhism until it has firmly seated itself in the here and now..and to the Western mindset the challenge is to know when to take the practice further. Even so, my dissatisfaction with consumerism led me to the study of Buddhism more than any other motive. I wan't necessarily trying to grasp happiness as I was attempting to find meaning. We just have to stay alert and focused guys and trust that consumerism will implode under the weight of Buddhist influence.

pjl0404's picture

In all the universe there is nothing worth clinging to – just anicca, dukkha, anatta. That's basically what the Buddha allegedly taught. Seems to me that very few people are selling this message in the west, and fewer still are buying it.


marginal person's picture

I would think that a more fundamental question then"how do i find happiness?" would be" how do i survive? " In an environment of scarcity, hostility and violence all energy is consumed making it through the day. Happiness is not part of the equation.

JoseBuendia's picture

Buddhism concerns itself with much more than survival. In fact, the question of survival assumes that something exists that is unchanging, but somehow requires protection. So, the question of survival is intrinsically bound up in a mundane, worldly viewpoint. Buddhism offers a radical alternative to this view.

Dominic Gomez's picture

What would be "a radical alternative" to the world?

hostsipes's picture

I wonder if wanting Buddhism in the West to be pure right now is also part of our desire for everything to happen immediately. It makes sense to me that we in the West will take a long time arriving at the truth just the same as everywhere. People will give up desire as the answer to everything when they discover for themselves that it is not working--not when they hear a teacher talking about it. The West is engaged in a grand project of trying to solve everything with materialism and if this truly is a dead end we will discover it for ourselves. It seems to me that buying up the latest brand of Buddhism is a first feeble step in the right direction.

kinesthetictiger's picture

This is a challenging issue. I have been pursuing a career in professional blogging for two years now and have chosen the topic of understanding Buddhism for my theme.

On one hand, I truly wish to continue to get to the heart of what Buddhism is about; the core teachings vs. the religious additions, the cultural differences, the different types of meditation, and how it all relates to us in modern society.

On the other hand, I am determined to create a sustainable, location independent income from my blog in order to live the life of my dreams.

I have renounced the life of a consumer choosing to live as a transient in order to devote all my time to traveling to different sanghas and learn the wisdom of the Buddha. All the while, growing a business that will provide me with an income to live how I want.

As a result, I find myself with one foot in each of those worlds; that of a Buddhist ascetic and a student of capitalism.

This article is a great reminder of the challenges I will face as I become successful with my endeavors.

Omar Von Gimbel
The Kinesthetic Tiger

D. Anderson's picture

Omar has his finger on the pulse of this issue but he is only one blogger. There are so many versions of Buddhism belief and practise out there that to make Buddism a core belief system a person must first understand the subject. So herein lies the problem: how can we provide information on a scale that will appeal to people of average intelligence? We need many people to join us to ultimately mitigate the power of the Market and it's hight priest Advertising. Why not fight fire with fire and use Advertising to promote an understading of the Buddha's teachings to those who need them the most. Could an organization such as Tricycle with it's readers take the lead in such an advertising campaign?

Dominic Gomez's picture

Early on Shakyamuni addressed this issue and taught the middle way: letting go of extremism and following the path of wisdom and common sense.

Dominic Gomez's picture

Hunger is one of the ten life-conditions inherent in human life. Consumerism cannot exist without it. Spiritual hunger motivates many to seek Buddhism. Buddhism cannot exist without it.

joliminor's picture

A very good point. Like throught the ages people will come from all different paths either searching or stumbling upon the Dharma. And we can never tell what leads us to it....

starpathmontana's picture

Great article! So glad someone is addressing this issue with such detailed thoughtfulness of how we can completely miss the point of the real goal of Buddhism in a capitalist society.

cathy.catherinekerr's picture

Look at all the ads sitting next to this essay. I eagerly clicked on Dharmacrafts because I wanted to see if there were any new Jizo statues that I could give my mother (who finds them soothing). Is this the commodification that Patt is talking about?

jmysin1's picture

My son, a computer scientist, helped me install adbuster on my PC. Now the space where all of those ads showed up is empty. Your form is my emptiness!

sallyotter's picture

I don't see "bitterness". I certainly see things to consider and contemplate. I have been a Buddhist seeker for over 10 years now. This article made me look at the reasons I have found Buddhism so compelling. I honestly don't think that I was drawn to Buddhism for personal peace. I am now in the process of exploring my self centeredness and greed, my agenda, n layers. It sounds grim but it's a relief. I can say, "Oh, yes, there is the source of my (our) suffering." My current dilemma is action, where do I go from here? Oddly, tho, it's all OK.

ultrapeg's picture

Sally - I am sooo with you! Where do we go from here? I do recognize the irony of the advertising that is meant to lead us to the "right" path. But I also feel really confused by all of it. I know I really need a teacher and I think I'm ready so I regularly explore all those ads (and these articles, podcasts, etc., etc.) hoping to find the right connection for me. So the advertising can be a useful source of information, but I also find it troubling how much everything costs, how far I have to travel, how difficult it is to discern where the real wisdom is, what's worth my time and what's not, etc. etc. I do understand that everyone needs to make a living (me, too!) and this is the method of our current world. But it's really confusing. So for now I just take advantage of the many resources available at no or low cost and just keep trying to incorporate practice into my every day life. And, despite all the problems, disfunction and illness, the good news about our modern world is that there are so many free and low cost resources available and accessible to all. I do believe the old tenet "When the student is ready, the teacher will appear". Right now I try to look for teaching in every thing, message and person I encounter. And I also agree with you that "oddly, it's all OK". Interestingly, I have noticed that the more I try to learn and practice, the less likely I am to be seduced by the siren song of cultural frenzy and fear currently plaguing our world. This is nothing I'm working at, it just seems to be happening naturally. Suddenly I'm finding myself more of a passive or amused observer of peripheral noise rather than an active participant concerned for potential effects of the noise on my life. Maybe I'm just getting older and realizing that my remaining time on this planet is limited and I need to be more selective about where I focus my attention. Anyway thanks for sharing and for indulging my rambling.

mfwilsonelm's picture

It is helpful to consider and think about what has been said here. I have thought about these issues more than once. I do sense a strong feeling of bitterness in the writing which detracts from the message. Is it possible that sincere followers can sense the "hype" immediately-for the true path teaches that we should question everything.