American Folk Buddhism (14)

Full Moon, Uposatha, July 3, 2012            Series Index

Consumerism in American Folk Buddhism.

If anything characterizes American Folk Culture it is consumerism, the boundless commercial advertising whetting and then drenching our appetites for more and more, the commodification of everything under the sun, the common regard of financial wealth as one’s greatest spiritual aspiration and of poverty as the most abysmal failure, the mall shopping experience as one of our greatest cultural achievements and on-line push-button instant gratification as one of our greatest technological triumphs.

It is a cinch that consumerism will have colored American Folk Buddhism, the popular understanding of American Buddhists, and will compel me to write about it here.

If anything characterizes Essential Buddhism, the Buddhism as understood, maintained and transmitted by the adepts, it is the equation of craving with suffering, the imperative to let go of lust and greed, envy and competition, instead to cultivate contentment and to disentangle oneself from the samsaric snarl of impulse, and the embrace of renunciation as a way of life.

It is a cinch that American Folk Buddhism, nestled as it is between the general American Folk Culture and Essential Buddhism will find itself in a process very much like trying to mix oil and water in a bowl or like trying to eat a snow cone in the shower.

Let’s look at consumerism in Folk Buddhism today at three levels: first, Buddhism as an object of consumerism, second, consumer behavior as template for structureing Buddhist practice, and third, Folk Buddhism’s confrontation with the unwholesome aspects of consumer behavior.

Buddhism as an object of consumerism.  Folk Buddhism is often a shopping experience: statues, malas, incense, artwork, cushions, sitting robes, Zen mindfulness bell clocks, books, fountains and chimes, subscriptions to magazines full of ads for more Buddhist paraphernalia, Buddhist mood music, luxury retreat experiences, any product with “Zen” scrawled on it (curiously “Vajrayana” does not seem to work and “Theravada” even less so). Of course people have always spent a lot of money on Buddhism; consider the million dollar pagoda we just build here at our monastery, whose motivation belongs to Burmese Folk Buddhism. Western consumerism involves primarily expenditures for oneself and lacks a community spirit.

But in either case, consumerism about Buddhist stuff doesn’t worry me so much. First, it probably just offsets some other material distraction like fashions, power tools or hang gliding and therefore brings one no further from actual Buddhist practice, as long as the shopping experience is not misconstrued as real Buddhist practice. Second, some positive influence might actually come out of Dharmic shopping that might bring one closer to Buddhist practice: Once all of these things are purchased there is a bit of an obligation to offer the beautiful jade Buddha a stick of fragrant Japanese incense in the elegant ceramic incense holder or to actually take a book with its glossy cover of the shelf  and read it. True inspiration might with some luck ensue.

Consumer Behavior as Template for Structuring Buddhist Practice. Consumer behavior seems widely to serve as a model in American Folk Buddhism, for how we to treat practice and for the way we to integrate practice into our lives. It probably also becomes a model for other aspects of our lives as well, such as our personal relationships, but we will focus on the way entering and integrating Buddhist practice parallels our consumer behavior with predictable consequences.

To begin with, American  offers a veritable marketplace of  teachings, practices and teachers from which American Folk Buddhists are free to select those that appeal most, mixing and matching the various options much as they do with home furnishings or kitchen utensils.  Many teachers and authors correspondingly fall into the role of promoting and selling particular practices and teachings as commodities, often adapting them to increase their market appeal, for instance, favoring reassurance over challenge or ease over effort, and to to take care how they are packaged and presented, for instance, in the form of popular self-help books, lectures, seminars,  CD’s, stage performances, personal hourly consultations.

These teachings and practices are then integrated into Folk Buddhists’ lives much as products are used to enhance those lives. Rather Buddhism is integrated piecemeal as enhancements into the old pre-Buddhist life, for instance, adding a meditation practice much as one would add a regular gym workout or skydiving lessons without otherwise changing any other parts of one’s life. Just as American homes and lives become cluttered with market products, Folk Buddhist lives become more cluttered with the accumulation of practices and teachings. Progress in Buddhist practice adds but rarely subtracts these. There is, for instance, generally no mention of renunciation as a practice in American Folk Buddhism, and only cursory mention of the practice of virtue or precepts, since these generally involve abstention from certain behaviors. A practice like meditation, on the other hand, fits well with the consumer product model as something we can add, devote time to and later even supplement.

It seems to me that the consumer model of Buddhist understanding and practice distorts the content of Essential Buddhism in some profound ways. First, mixing and matching of freely selected teachings and practices damages the coherence of Essential Buddhism in which all the parts of the practices are intended to work together as a unified whole. For instance, the Buddha taught that you cannot have Right Samadhi without first establishing the previous seven factors of the Noble Eightfold Path, without, for instance, Right Intention, Right Action and the others. This is almost impossible to achieve by mixing and matching whatever has appeal to the spiritual shopper.

Second the actual presentation of teachings and practices as saleable products or services with actual market values violates the Buddha’s principle that teachings should be offered freely. For instance, once when a layperson declared he was offering a meal in recompense for the Buddha’s offered teaching, the Buddha refused to teach! Or to eat. Furthermore selling Buddhism in this way tends to  bias what is taught in the direction of saleability and away from actual efficacy. Although I have no doubt that this bias is substantial in American Folk Buddhism, there does seem to be some restraint in this regard as well, presumably under the influence of Essential Buddhism. The crass promotion found in much of American religion through open proselytizing and TV programming is almost entirely absent.

Third, the piecemeal accumulation of spiritual products largely excludes plunging boldly into a new way of life or taking on a Buddhist way of being in the world as the defining framework in which the details of one’s life are to be integrated. There is accordingly generally little mention in American Folk Buddhism of faith or vow, nor of aspects of Buddhism as a community project, nor a deep understanding of the Triple Gem. There is little opportunity for Buddhism to shake one’s life to the core.

Fourth, “renunciation” and “restraint,” fundamental to Essential Buddhist practice, are relegated to the fringes of the Folk Buddhist vocabulary. But in fact virtually all of the progress one is likely to make on the Essential Buddhist Path will be directly correlated with what is given up or curtailed: the physical trappings of life, relations and obligation like debt and car ownership, self-view, identity or being somebody, behaviors like partying flirtatiously or channel surfing, and particularly the clinging emotions rooted in greed or anger. Practice in Essential Buddhis is no more and no less than a long process of disentanglement strand by strand from soap-operatic existence, of renunciation. Meditation has an ancillary role in this larger task; it provides a magnifying glass so that we may see and then disentagle the subtlest aspects of the clinging mind.

Fifth, I fear that a Folk Buddhism built on the consumer model is very commonly a selfish Buddhism, one about self-enhancement, about making oneself special and envying others’ attainments rather than about the total selflessness encouraged in Essential Buddhism.

Folk Buddhism’s Confrontation with the Unwholesome Aspects of Consumer Behavior. According to Wikipedia, “Consumerism is a social and economic order that encourages the purchase of goods and services in ever-greater amounts.” It is an order that goes beyond satisfying human need to feeding human greed, which Buddhism teaches will never ever be satisfied. Consumerism in some form has probably been a part of almost all folk cultures, but took on a particularly virulent form with the rise of the commercial marketing industry and public relations starting in America in the early Twentieth Century, which beginning with the great pioneer Edward Bernays developed the art of mass manipulation of human drives to specific ends. It was discovered that desire and craving could be stimulated to increase market demand and fear and hatred could be stimulated to promote a war or a political movement. Stimulation largely played upon the irrational, emotional and delusive aspects of human cognition rather than upon clear rational thinking, which was discovered to be not only harder to manipulate but in much shorter supply than anyone had ever imagined.

Now, from the perspective of Essential Buddhism this is all an abomination. For Buddhism craving with its manifestations in greed, hate and delusion is the root of suffering. Buddhism is fully in accord with satisfying fundamental material needs, but the relentless intentional stimulation of dissatisfaction must for Essential Buddhists lead bottomless human misery. This conclusion is borne out in the modern world, particularly beginning in America as evident in the generally feeling of impoverishment even in the midst of wealth, the enormous degree of drug and alcohol abuse, the rate of suicide, the huge market for antidepressants, the ubiquity of daily fear, the widespread unraveling of social networks, the dissolution of  families and the renewed strength of class and racial oppression. And so much stuff, we are choking on it. Ultimately this order has produced endless war, poverty for much of the world’s population and brought us to the brink of ecological collapse, all driven by greed, hate and delusion.

David Loy writes that

“… our present economic system should also be understood as our religion, because it has come to fulfill a religious function for us. 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.” — “Religion and the Market”

Loy suggests that consumerism is displacing all of the world’s other religions in providing the answers to life’s problems. People are almost universally aware that something is dreadfully wrong in the world, but respond in different ways. For many the resolution is more consumption! For others it has been to turn to Buddhism. I think many people in the West are initially drawn to Buddhism because it conveys an image of simplicity, of not seeking happiness in worldly things, of refuge from the rat race of life. The British economist E.L. Shumacher who proposed an alternative “economics as if people mattered”in the 60’s and 70’s, and wrote the book Small is Beautiful, named his system “Buddhist Economics,” and he was not even a Buddhist. I am all for interreligious understanding, but it is clear that the values of the religion of consumerism is in actual fact almost entirely diametrically opposed to the values of Essential Buddhism.

American Folk Buddhism, nestled as it is between the general American Folk Culture and Essential Buddhism, is right in the thick of this seismic contradiction of values. This is perhaps comparable to the situation within the Catholic Church in Latin America at various times and places faced with choices ranging from cozying up with the landed wealthy class thereby securing its own financial backing and safety, to becoming relentless advocates of the poor and dispossessed in accordance with the model of Jesus. American Folk Buddhists individually are faced with choices ranging from  practicing a stripped-down Buddhism that does not challenge the dominant religion of consumerism, to living according to Buddhist principles and (probably gradually) disentangling themselves from participation in the consumer culture. I think that since Essential Buddhism is so clear on this matter that the latter will be potentially among the greatest contributions of Buddhism to American culture.

2 Responses to “American Folk Buddhism (14)”

  1. Dean D. Says:

    Thank you for this!

  2. Hickersonia Says:

    Yes, thank you Bhante.

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