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