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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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. 

But these judgments are subtle, and all swords are double-edged. The bodhisattva always tries to teach in language that is easy to understand and absorb—another way of saying useable and useful. When the real bodhisattva settles in the beautiful landscapes of California, Colorado, or New York, how is he or she going to communicate with the world except by projecting a voice through the mass media? The real bodhisattva will naturally co-opt the instruments of market manipulation to propound the pure Buddha-dharma, by skill of means turning the energy of the desire-driven market back on itself, transmitting a message that ultimately will cut desire at its root.
Or is it the other way around? Do the compromises themselves, the quest for air time, for column inches, for book contracts, for a bigger media footprint, a grander name, more students, more centers, more better bigness, subtly subvert the true message of the Buddha?
And beyond the quest for fame, what about the marketing strategies that have been employed to package and sell the dharma itself? Pick up the latest Tricycle or any other spiritual publication, and the allure of teachings and retreats offering the transcendental bliss and emptiness of Buddhist wisdom beckon like the siren song of a week in the hot tub at Esalen.

© Anjali Jacques OuleYou never see an ad that says, “At this Zen sesshin you will be yelled at if you move,” or “At this Vipassana course you will experience severe pain,” or “At this tantric retreat you will not know what the heck you are doing.” It’s not false advertising to point to the higher goal rather than the obstacles on the path. But doesn’t one cross the line into hype and pandering when only the positive is emphasized? Advertising your dharma event is marketing it, commodifying it, selling it. Why not dress it up, put it in the most attractive terms, smear it with honey? Any marketing wizard will tell you that fast and easy enlightenment will sell better than banging your head on the ground and circumambulating stupas for countless aeons. And as long as we are trying to put bums on cushions, why don’t we not only advertise the easy parts of the dharma, but only teach the easy parts as well? The hard parts are so inconvenient and can be written off as cultural artifacts that should have been left behind in Asia.

Is it the case, then, that Buddhism commodified is Buddhism lite, Buddhism with a happy face? It’s easier to sell Buddhism translated into terms that “suit the Western mind,” but isn’t the Western mind the mind that has merged inseparably with the consumer ideal? the mind that expects to get what it wants, expects to get it now and to get it fast? Of course it is. That’s precisely why fast and easy enlightenment is easier to sell than the old-fashioned, hard-won variety. This process has led to the inflation factor: the advertising and teaching of the highest practices of Vajrayana Buddhism with less and less regard for the preparation of the student. One lama in Kathmandu ruefully joked that his center had to advertise the highest teachings because if they announced a course merely on cultivating compassion no one would come.

And what about the adoption of Buddhist techniques in extra-religious contexts, to produce results other than liberation from samsara and perfect Buddhahood? What about the marketing of meditation techniques to relax and improve productivity of corporate workers? The bodhisattva has compassion for all beings, but did the Buddha teach meditation so that the designers of cruise missiles, the dealers of genetically modified corn, or the marketers of Pokemon could relax and feel good about themselves? Does a meditation club at the Pentagon represent the pacification of the military-industrial complex or the concentration of the warrior mind?

What about the ethically unassailable use of such techniques, such as the use of visualization in psychotherapy and medicine? No one could object to the application of Buddhist methods to alleviate temporary, worldly sufferings. But when these core techniques of internal transformation become commodities that can be lifted and applied to worldly goals, sold as patent medicine, marketed as methods to feel good right now, aren’t we in danger of losing sight of what the Buddha was really talking about?

When the great Indian pandit Atisha arrived in Tibet in 1042 C.E., his task was to reestablish the ethical basis of Buddhist practice after a century of darkness and degeneration. He composed The Lamp for the Path to Enlightenment, which condensed the sutra teachings of Indian Buddhism into a practical guide to practice, and there he described three levels of motivation for pursuing a spiritual path. The spiritual person of small scope practices to insure a good rebirth in the next life. The person of intermediate scope practices to attain his or her own liberation from samsara. The person of great scope practices to attain Buddhahood in order to be able to lead all sentient beings out of suffering and into the peace of enlightenment—this is the Mahayana practitioner, the bodhisattva path.

Feeling good right here and right now is fine. Much better than feeling bad, sunk in the depressed stupor of negativity. And easing the present physical and mental pain of people in the world is wonderful, and can become pure dharma when done with the bodhisattva motivation. But using Buddhist techniques to make yourself feel good right here and right now does not even get you past the first cut of Atisha’s three types of spiritual beings. When you analyze it, the motivation to “just feel good right now” is really just indulging our desires. The motivation to immediately gratify desire is what has driven most of our actions throughout our beginningless sojourn in samsara—all it has accomplished is to perpetuate our confusion, pain, and habitual inability to pull ourselves out of this mess. This is precisely the problem that Buddhism was invented to solve.

In the Lam Rim tradition, based on the teachings of Atisha, it is said that the unexamined life of mindless sensory indulgence is no more meaningful than the life of an animal. As my old landlord at Black’s Gaslight Village in Iowa City used to say, “My philosophy is the same as a dog’s. If you can’t eat it or fuck it, piss on it.”

From the Buddhist point of view, even to sustain the modest goal of happiness in this world, the way of life of consumer capitalism is a self-defeating path. Consuming objects to fulfill desire can never bring lasting happiness. But what happens when the commodity we aim to consume is Buddhism itself, neatly wrapped and cleverly packaged as the shortcut path to feeling good, a pop-top can of the elixir of bliss?

Today all the great religions are struggling to remain relevant in a modern world intoxicated by the appeal of consumerism. Buddhism, a quiet, apparently weak religion, has been losing ground over many decades in its own Asian homelands. Though evidently overmatched, Buddhism may well have hidden resources, adaptive features that could counteract the subtle messages of the Market. For one, today’s global village of consumers, increasingly alienated from their traditional world, may turn out to be fertile soil for the seeds of Buddhist thought to take root. We live a decentered existence, alienated from our natural environment and disembedded from our traditional communities, interconnected instead by invisible networks of communication, information, and trade in a virtual world that is at once inescapably present yet utterly insubstantial. The constantly shifting ground of this “advanced economy” has become a kaleidoscope through which we directly experience the insubstantiality, the transitoriness, and the dissatisfactory nature of all worldly life.

And it isn’t just the virtuality of modernity that offers itself to the Buddhist view. The very unleashing of desire that fuels the consumerist vehicle can end up driving individuals down two possible Buddhist roads. For many, like Shakyamuni himself, the unhindered indulgence in objects of desire leads to the discovery that sensual gratification is not a reliable path to happiness. For the mind that is ripe and self-reflective, affluence undermines its own false promises, and many Westerners have come to Buddhism from disillusionment in the successful pursuit of worldly gratification. That disillusionment is the first phase of renunciation.

The second road is the tantric path, where the fuel of desire—produced in such abundance by the perpetual pump of consumerism—is poured directly into the fire of emptiness blazing in the furnace of a wisdom consciousness. As Lama Yeshe, who had a deep understanding of the Western context, put it, “The path of tantra is essentially one of transformation, and the principle of transformation of energy—on a material level at least—is well understood in the West. While the great explosion of desirous energy in this century is considered to be a serious obstacle to most spiritual paths, it is actually helpful for the practice of tantra, where desire is the fuel propelling us to our highest destination” (Introduction to Tantra, London, 1987, p. 26).

Does the dharma really need our protection? Does the ultimate truth need protection? If we really understand the dharma and its transformative power, isn’t every seed planted in every mind—regardless of the medium that delivers it—one more opportunity for awakening? When the consumerist beast bites down on this jewel, what will break, the diamond or the demon’s teeth? In the end, the question of the commodification of Buddhism comes down to a question of “who’s zoomin’ who”? Which way of life, Buddhism or consumerism, is stronger, vaster, more stable and encompassing? Which has the expansive power to co-opt and use the other to reproduce itself without itself mutating into the other?

Are there any guiding principles that can help contemporary Buddhists influence the direction of this process? Though the mantra of those engaged in creating modern Buddhism is “preserve the essence, abandon alien cultural artifacts,” the truth is that no one controls the outcome, because religions, like languages, evolve along their own unpredictable paths. Only time will tell what forms Western Buddhism will take. What is demanded of those who seek to preserve the authentic teachings is continuous mindfulness of the central values of the tradition, and a present awareness of the context in which we live and practice.

The values of renunciation, altruistic concern for the welfare of others, and realization of interdependence are by their very nature a revolutionary threat to consumer capitalism. The Market responds by co-opting and commodifying the social structures that express those values. Waking up to this tension leads us to questions that the monotheistic religions have been struggling with for centuries, but which most modern Buddhists have avoided: Is modern capitalism, with its retinue of social injustice, militarism, and environmental destruction, ultimately incompatible with the Buddhist way of being in the world? And if it is, what is a good Buddhist to do about it?

Those who work in the arena of socially engaged Buddhism have begun to grapple with these issues, but for the most part Western practitioners have sought in the dharma a refuge from the painful and seemingly intractable social ills that surround us. For Buddhists in the developed world, waking up to our true nature may have to include the recognition that our very leisure and fortune to pursue the dharma is dependent on a global economic system that leaves hundreds of millions of other people—with whom we are inseparably interconnected—wretchedly poor, hungry, and exploited. To turn our face away from the homeless beggar on our street corner because we are late for meditation may illustrate the most elegant finesse of the Market: to sell us a Buddhism that is so otherworldly and self-absorbed that we withdraw from the struggle to build a better world, and by default leave the Market to reign in every realm save that one little corner of our own mind.

Based on a wise understanding of our circumstances, we must bring skillful means to bear on the project of actually leading all beings out of suffering. This means drawing on the precious resources that Buddhism offers the world: its penetrating analysis of the sources of greed, self-grasping, and hatred, and its powerful methods for transforming the ingrained delusion that we are isolated from other beings into the direct experience of our interconnectedness.

If contemporary Buddhists wish to preserve the values that lie at the core of the tradition, if we seek to create a Western Buddhism that is at once true to the intention of the Buddha and appropriate to modern conditions, we must proceed with a clear-eyed awareness of the social, political, and economic context in which we live and practice. Once we awaken to where we are, we must take the responsibility to transform that world into a matrix of opportunity for wisdom and compassion, not just for ourselves but for all others. To purify and transform both our inner and outer conditions in this way is of course a very long-term project, one that faces many obstacles and will require continuous vigilance and persevering effort—not unlike and not separate from the struggle for personal liberation.

David Patt is the author of A Strange Liberation: Tibetan Lives in Chinese Hands. He is currently editing Steps on the Path to Enlightenment: The Lam Rim Chenmo Commentary of Geshe Sopa, for Wisdom Press.

Image 1: © A. Trayne
Image 2: 
© Anjali Jacques Oule

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Sara Isayama's picture

They moment they quoted Karl Marx, is the moment they lost all credibility with me. Seriously, Marx was a nutter, who's economic theories have long since proven to be complete failures. He's completely discredited.

The whole purpose of this article is the shameless promotion of Marxist ideology, and using Buddhism as a disguise to put it in.

Anyone who's ever read the Sigalovada Sutra, understands that running a business, with it's requisite buying and selling and trade, are not anti-Buddhist. In fact it's often Right Livelihood.

This sad promotion of Marxism, is really embarrassing. While I think most Buddhists would agree that a mixed-market economy (with government regulation and involvement) is far better than the extremes of Laissez-faire capitalism; It's also far better than the complete failure that is Marxism.

There is a middle path between those two unworkable economic extremes, (Laissez-faire and Marxism; they both lead to great destruction) and Marxism is a completely unworkable economic extreme.

Danny's picture

"The number of people who understand Marx today, really understand Marx, is very small. That may sound arrogant if I say that just about everybody is wrong except for me and a few others. I don’t mean to be so sweeping in my judgement, but I do feel most Marx experts overlook the fact that Marx’s thought is essentially religious, though not “religious” in the sense that it posits any faith in God. Buddhism isn’t religious in that sense either. Buddhism does not recognise a god, but it is religious in its central belief that we have to transcend our narcissism, our egoism, our inner isolation, and open ourselves to life, that we - as Meister Eckhart would put it – have to make ourselves empty so that we can be made full, so that we can become whole. That belief, expressed in different words, is at the heart of Marx’s work. I’ve often had a little fun reading selections from Marx’s economic and philosophical manuscripts to various people. I recall a meeting I had with Dr Suzuki, an eminent figure in Zen Buddhism. I read him some passages without telling him who had written them, and then I asked him: Is that Zen? Yes, of course, he said. That’s Zen. Another time I read some similar passages to a group of very learned theologians, and their guesses ranged from all kinds of classical authors, such as Thomas Aquinas, to the most modern theologians. Not one of them suspected that the author was Marx. They simply didn’t know Marx."
(Fromm, Eric, For The Love of Life, The Free Press (1986), Pages 103-104)

alexramosart's picture

With all respect I had never read so many foolish things about Marxism together in my life as the things you are saying about Karl Marx, please be honest Sara, how many pages from Das Kapital have you ever actually read??

Sara Isayama's picture

It was required study actually. Part of my degree.

And that in no way changes the fact that it is delusion.

That's what we call something that leads to the creation of harm in Buddhism: delusion.

And vast amounts of people have been directly killed and harmed as a result of the influence of his writings. Literally hundreds of millions. Hitler's party was the National Socialists. They combined Marxism with nationalism. 60 million people died as a result of that war. Stalin killed 50 million of his own people. Pol Pot nearly 2 million. North Korea has also put nearly 2 million people to death in it's camps. Mao Ze-Dong killed 78 million.

And what they all have in common is heavy influence by Marx's writings.

Intoxicant's don't just take the form of heroin or alcohol. They also take the form of delusional views, or ideas or false ideologies.

Marx is not wisdom. His writings have proven to be powerfully delusional.
And as a Buddhist who's taken the Precepts, I am bound to not sell the wine of delusion.

If you've taken the Precepts, you should consider the same.

Sara Isayama's picture

You know,
Money is not evil. Buying and selling things is not evil. It's what you do with these things that make it good or bad; harmful or helpful. Money, and trade, and markets and such things are just resources: It's how we use them that makes them good or bad.

Money, is just a tool that we use to trade for things, because it's more convenient than carrying bags of rice around, and trying to trade that for a vacuum cleaner. And "the market" is just the collection of the sum of all the buying and selling and trading that is going on all the time.

Some things should not be on the private market. Like healthcare; I would argue that should be a public good. Other things, like resource consumption of environmental resources, should be heavily regulated, to prevent over-extraction and use, so as to establish sustainability.

But communist countries were not any more environmentally friendly, nor were they bastions of religious freedom. Nor was any sort of political freedom allowed. They were basically single-party tyrannies.

What's the difference between a society ruled by business barons, that exploit their corporate workers, and a society ruled by party elites, who exploit the workers while calling them "comrade"? Not much.

You're still just getting a few people in power, while everyone else basically gets the shaft. And that's supposed to be more "equitable"? At least in the market system, there's some upward mobility that doesn't require ascribing to a political ideology, or joining a political party.

And then of course, there's the secret police, and all the other monitoring systems needed in a communist state to monitor the people to keep them in line from developing anti-communist thoughts. And that means people have to disappear... and then there's the collectivist work camps, and all the other things that are required to support a communist economic system.

Individual rights disappear, and you're essentially left with a fascist, single-party system, that can only remain a single-party by tyrannical force.

Private property is siezed (i.e. Stolen) from people and families who have owned and worked land for generations, without compensation, to make way for "collectivist" management and rule.

Sounds marvelously Buddhist. Oh wait, no it doesn't.

There's a lot of problems with our current economic situation in America. As our population of the planet is increasingly larger, and more resources are consumed as a result, we're going to need a lot more regulation, (that's enforced), and better management; especially in areas of the environment. But suggesting that Marxism is a viable alternative is worse than ridiculous: It's delusional.

Mat Keel's picture

Hi Sara. If you discredit this article based on so much as a mention of Marx, you would probably have to do the same for the Dalai Lama who has explicitly proclaimed his own Marxist sensibility. That said, I am glad you point out that communist countries were just as environmentally exploitative as putatively capitalist ones. Any kind of dualistic reverie for historical communism as capitalism's other is painfully shortsighted and for many of the reasons you cite here. But most Marxists today are admirers of Marx's critique of capitalism, not advocates of state communism. Check out, for example, autonomist Marxism, a strand of thought which basically agrees with Marx's analysis of why capitalism inherently ends up causing violence and exploitation but is more similar to anarchism in its actual suggestions for how people should organize together. Also, while this article includes a brief definition of the commodity, Marx's theory of commodity fetishism is a lot more complicated (and sophisticated) than the space of the article probably permitted. I think it resonates even more deeply with the dharma than is conveyed in this short article.

Sara Isayama's picture

.

Sara Isayama's picture

The Dalai Lama has also made some comments that could be construed as homophobic. I liked his book "The Universe in a Single Atom" but that doesn't mean he's a spiritual leader to me. I'm not a Tibetan Buddhist, who practices in his lineage. He seems to have a wonderful personality, but that doesn't mean that him an expert on economics, anymore than it makes him an expert on LGBT issues. He may genuinely be a nice person, (and legitimately seems to be), but that doesn't mean he has no ignorance.

Marx's views have been shown to be deeply flawed. Anyone can criticize, very few have the understanding to propose a workable solution. Anyone can take a look at how workers are exploited, and say "exploitation is wrong" It takes minds like Thomas Piketty and his team's to propose actual, workable solutions.

All Marx really observed is that greed exists (we already knew that) and essentially described the problem of the tragedy of the commons, where self-interests grouped on a large scale leads to destruction of the common resources.

But Marx had no real understanding of economics, nor an actual solution to the problems he saw.

He was a philosopher, more than anything, and his philosophical views were flawed. As were the conclusions he drew from them. There's a reason why most economists don't take him seriously, it's not because he wasn't historically influential as a politicizing figure: it's because his economic views have no real merit.

Sara Isayama's picture

Not to mention, hundreds of millions of people have been killed as a result of Marx's writings. Hitler and his National Socialist's killed at least 12 million people in concentration camps alone, plus 3 million Russian POW's left to die. And at least 60 million people died as a result of WWII. Stalin killed 50 million of his own people. Pol Pot, nearly 2 million of his own people. Mao Ze-Dong killed 78 million, including massacring Tibetan's and Tibetan Buddhism. North Korea has put nearly 2 million people to death in it's concentration camps. And that's not even getting into what Cuba did with it's land seizure's and all the other people killed as a result of Marx's writings.

Most of the worst atrocities and violence of humankind were directly influenced by his writings. Not by capitalism. When an ideology, or views, or writings lead to the creation of harm; we call that "delusion" in Buddhism.
In Buddhism, the Fifth Precept is do not sell the wine of delusion.

There have been more people killed as a direct result of the influence of his writings, than have ever been killed as a result of Christianity, or Islam; combined.

sanghadass's picture

It would seem a bit odd when no apparent distinction is made between Marxist theory and a totalitarian Communist state. There have been - and there still are - Communist political parties that contest democratic elections. There are political parties who identify themselves as socialist - who have some appreciation for Marxist analyses - that are not Communist. Important reforms have been brought about in India by Communist parties that came to power through the 'ballot box' - and subsequently lost power. No violent revolutionary activity. Winning power on the basis of their economic and social agenda. No persecution of rival political parties, no secret police, no suppression of religious freedoms etc. The state of 'Kerala' in India, is a classic example of how Marxist principles have helped vast numbers of people through land-reform, the establishment of a social 'safety net', literacy programs, and various other progressive social reforms. The truth is rarely black and white! There are many shades of grey.

Sara Isayama's picture

The basic problem, with Marx's views, is that he blamed social inequality, on the existence of a market system. While it's certainly true, that unchecked capitalism (i.e. Laissez-faire) indeed does lead to inequality, (Thomas Piketty and his team proved this, with his now famous economic theory; r>g ) that doesn't mean that there aren't actual, workable solutions to this, that are economically effective. For instance, a global tax on capital, as proposed by Piketty, or a sliding scale minimum wage, (that I myself wrote a paper on), etc, etc.

The problem with Marx, is his view was overly simplified to the constraints of his day. He looked at inequality, and blamed it on a scapegoat. We have always had inequality in human societies. In India, they have long had the caste system, and a market system did not create that. The Catholic church at one time was the ruling elite in Europe. At other times in history, it has been royalty, and aristocracy. In more primitive times it was clan leaders, tribal chiefs, and their family. In other societies, different sects throughout history have had ruling elite power. The Samurai in Japan for instance.

There has never been a time in history, where we have had social equality. The only thing that can be said to be true, is that as our population has grown as a species, the gap between the ruling elites and the lowest of global society, has grown accordingly.

But by that metric, one can just as easily (and perhaps more accurately) blame social inequality on population size. We could even propose a formula for this that says as population (P) grows, global Social Inequality (Si) grows as well. Or P ∝ Si.

Marx blamed this on markets. As though vast differences in social equality never existed before the invention of the more modern market system.

His ideas are a failure. Human beings gravitate towards inequality socially, because it's a necessary part of our social structure. As group animals, we elect leaders to enact decisions for the group. In business, we have managers, because people require leadership to coordinate their activities.

The reason for inequality, goes hand in hand with the need for leadership. Even horses have a pecking order. Bonobo's and Chimpanzee's, our closest relatives have pecking orders too. There is always a "most dominant" member of a group, and a "least dominant" member. This is not new, this is basic zoology.

Marx's ideas are a fantasy, because people are not equal. They are not equally wise, they are not equally experienced, they are not equally intelligent, and they are not born with equal access to resources that are always scarce.

The basic definition of economics, is the study of how resources are used in conditions of scarcity. All resources that we use as humans (except the Buddha Nature Itself) are scarce. This is because of the basic fact that our planet is finite in size, and can only replenish even renewable resources at a finite rate. While at the meantime, our population and demand for those resources is growing exponentially. And so, because of that, there is competition, and struggle for control over those resources, and who will use them, and for what purpose. And who controls them. And because of that, some groups of people will always win out more control and influence than others. Because there isn't enough for everyone to use however they wish. Some people must make do with less, and some people because of their cunning and skill will acquire more. Sometimes much more than they need.

But that's greed. And the Buddha long ago, identified that greed, anger, and delusion are the sources of our suffering.

And that's not even getting into karma, and the influence that has on rebirth. One's station at birth, after all, has the most factor over anything, over how much resources one has. After all, just by being born as humans, we all have access to more resources than animals do. And we *could* have been born as an animal.

Marx understood very little. He was a spiritual child. Most people who call themselves socialists, simply use him as a rallying cry for addressing problems of greed that they see. That in itself can be helpful. But that his economic views were not correct.

sanghadass's picture

Hey dude thats just your opinion! xxoo

jackelope65's picture

Here! Here! Thank you. I am not only profoundly aware of the commodification of Western Budddhism, but also Western medicine. Despite practicing as a MD for 40 years, I was bankrupted at the end of my career by multiple illnesses and surgeries requiring me to live disabled on Social Security. However, my wife and I, now married 46 years, lived poor for our first 15 years through Vietnam and medical education with our 3 children. We find that living simply makes it much easier to be considerate of the environment and our Buddhist principles and remain very happy. I am now struck by our first retreat with Kechen Thrangu Rinpoche, many years ago, which was located in a setting where camping was free yet the teachings were so profound. Tricycle is similarly economical and beneficial and allows a writer to criticize the nature of its advertisements. But I ask why so many retreats are given in hotels and resorts that so many Buddhists in the USA cannot afford the lodging, let alone the retreat itself? Is this Buddhism for the most successful capitalists, the elite, the richest donors? Even with scholarships, the poor cannot afford to attend, just like modern US medicine. Most of my medical career, I had to fight for the poor,often those bankrupted by profound illness and accidents(MS and traumatic quadriplegia,etc.), and gave away over 50% of my care, needing to beg for necessary medical services and supplies. Despite the huge amount of taxpayer money poured into US healthcare, it does not even rank close to countries that spend a lot less per capita in countries such as Denmark or even relatively poor countries such as Costa Rica where I now reside economically in one of the world's Blue Zones. Certainly I am well aware and appreciative of the many "free" online sites. But I am also well aware of many capitalist US Buddhists addictively collecting retreats like silver and gold amulets, many at remote and expensive retreat centres such as Martha's Vinyard. I am very appreciative now of the present Pope's focus on the poor in the Catholic Church where real change is occuring. Western Buddhism needs to make real change where there is less talk and more action such as President Obama is attempting, amid much criticism, with US healthcare.

georgeaquinas's picture

Very interesting article about a very challenging topic.

How does Buddhism fit into the power structures that exist in our culture (which is fast becoming the world's culture)? How do we be of the world and not of the world? Especially if I am a practitioner of privilege.

I've been reading some Trungpa lately and like this quote about society, as I think it is appropriate here:
"Once a person is involved with meditation practice and with working on the spiritual path, then the problems encountered in engaging with society are not hang-ups anymore. They are creative opportunities. These everyday-life situations become part of meditation practice."

However, if one of the major values of Buddhism is "to do no harm," how should we act when we realize that our very consumption creates pain and suffering the world over? How should we act once we know that the food we eat was harvested by people housed in deplorable conditions and poisoned by pesticides? How should we act when I know that the materials we consume create great harm to the environment? These are not rhetorical questions, but are questions that need to be answered by every practitioner.

I think that is where Buddhism can have a great (and subversive) impact on society.

Otherwise, Buddhism may just become a temporary salve for the trouble consumerist's soul.

Dominic Gomez's picture

According to SGI Pres. Daisaku Ikeda, "The world will never get any better as long as people themselves--the guiding force and impetus behind all endeavors--remain selfish and lacking in compassion. In that respect, human revolution is the most fundamental of all revolutions and, at the same time, the most necessary." Buddhism will not "just become a temporary salve" if its practitioners can help it.

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.

buddy's picture

Very well said Mr. Melcher. I feel the author did an excellent job taking us through the risk factors when we look at the "big picture", however he misses the mark when it comes towards turning inward to solve the real problem of our subjective view itself. That's an inside job... so we best get on with it. It's the world we are creating in our minds... isn't it? and the Buddha, himself, didn't return home until he answered the appropriate questions.

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.

PJL
www.trustinginbuddha.co.uk

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.