Is consumerism the new American religion? Is the market itself determining not only the students, but the teachers of Buddhism?
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).
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.
You 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