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