June 20, 2008

To be a Good Buddhist is to be a Bad American?

Not long ago, at a Vipassana meditation meeting I attended, a practitioner described to the group a conversation he'd had over dinner with a Zen adherent.  As he explained, "We decided that to be a good Buddhist is to be a bad American.  Because to be a good American is to be a consumer, while to be a good Buddhist is to see through that consumeristic mindset."

The other people at the sitting agreed or disagreed to various degrees.  Their conversation brings up many good questions.  Is there a conflict between Buddhist and American values?  How are each of those defined?  Can one be a good American without being a "consumer?"  Can one be a consumer and still be a "good" Buddhist?  Is this conflict inherent, or might it change in the future?  Is there something about being American that conflicts with Buddhism, or might other countries/cultures experience similar conflicts?

Of course, there's no single answer to any of these questions.  But please share your thoughts on the subject, if you wish.

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solitary monk's picture

It is your feelings that matter...

Here's a disturbing article on the smuggling of Buddhist relics in India I came across while googling.
Might interest you.

Erick's picture

Historically speaking, Buddhists have throughout world history been very good consumers (and producers). The tradition rose in India on the back of an expanding mercantile elite and its growing trade relations. And the religion spread throughout the rest of Asia in part by relying on those linkages. The cultivation of increased consumption was necessarily part of that phenomenon. While it is true monastics ideally consumer little or in moderation, we also know that historically speaking Buddhist monasteries as institutions often became fantastic centers of wealth, lending, etc. And while the Buddhist laity were enjoined to moderation, those injunctions were subject to considerable interpretive leeway and / or disregard.

Given the character of modern (middle-class, liberal, affluent and engaged) American Buddhism, it is not surprising that Buddhism would be read as anti-consumerist. And it is also true that similar anti-consumerist readings of Buddhism have proliferated outside of first-world American, Europe and Japan given the failed promise(s) of twentieth century economic development, now magnified by global ecological crises. That said, however, the vast majority of Asian Buddhists would likely still stick to the idea that moderate consumption is the goal, rather than a more radical anti-consumerism.

Don't get me wrong. Given the twin challenges of global development and global ecology, I think the more radical ideology of asceticism and reduced consumption contained within the Buddhist monastic tradition is a vital and even necessary ethical orientation. But one should not imagine that such a moral perspective has been the natural or dominant ethical perspective of most actually existing Buddhists in world history, or even of its elite theologians and interpreters. It is, rather, a quite (important and necessary) modern innovative interpretation. I also am suspicious as to whether most American Buddhists "seeing through" consumerism are willing to advance that ethical vision towards its more necessary and radical conclusions in practice, such as the current global situation demands.

William Harryman's picture

As a Buddhist, my first reaction is that America is an illusion, so who cares if I am good at buying in (pun intended) to the illusion?

Seriously, though, national identity is a big part of what is wrong on this planet (not to mention tribal and ethnic identities). We should be seeking a worldcentric viewpoint if we are to be engaged in cultural/social issues. Anything less simply is part of the problem, not the solution.


scott's picture

My initial reaction to this question is that surely there are more ways to be a "good American" than merely being a consumer. And therefore there must be a way to be both a "good Buddhist" and a "good America."

But "American" is a moving target. It's always something different depending on who you're looking at, who you're talking to, in what circumstances. (I'm reminded of those two living in a yurt in the Arizona desert, American, and yet... not?)

I think it's very difficult to distill "American" into one, essential category. On the flip side, I also think it's dangerous to distill "Buddhist" into one, essential category.

My first thoughts. Excellent questions.