I’ve been reading a book lately called Selling Spirituality: the Silent Takeover of Religion by Jeremy Carrette and Richard King. I’m reading it to help me collect my thoughts about a piece I’m working on about Buddhism and pop-culture, the commodification of Buddhism, and how Dharma Burgers will ultimately destroy Buddhism and take down the whole world in the process. (That’s about 75% hyperbole, by the way.)
Carrette and King wrote this book to counter the notion that “spirituality” or “religion” are separate, compartmentalized aspects of our lives, that there is some essence, some real spirituality out there that is being corrupted by the evils of capitalism. They’re not saying that at all. They’re saying something much more frightening. They’re saying that the more commodified spirituality/religion become, the more accommodationist they are to a consumer, capitalist economy. The more accommodationist spirituality/religion is to capitalism, the less revolutionary it is, the more it merely supports the status quo and does nothing to effect real social or political (let alone spiritual or existential) change in anyone’s life.1
The book was first published in 2005. In the introduction, the authors talk a great deal about neoliberal politics (think Reagan and Thatcher) and how their systematic deregulation of businesses and corporations and everyone who followed them moving steadily toward “the Center” allowed the spread of a global economy that treats a handful of powerful international corporations as people. As I was reading it just now, I kept thinking, Christ, the current economic meltdown has been a long time coming, hasn’t it? The policies put into place twenty or thirty years have finally bared fruit.
They quote one theorist, Leslie Sklair, who points out that the real political division in our world is not between “the Left” and “the Right” (because everyone’s in the Center, remember?) but between, on the one hand, the forces of economic globalization which seek to advance their own interests despite the common good, and, on the other hand, the local community-centered interests of the folks resisting the homogenization of world culture which seeks to promote human rights and the common good.
You may be thinking to yourself, what’s this got to do with Buddhism? With pop-culture? With the commodification of Buddhism? I’m glad you asked.
It seems ever-more apparent to me that instances of Buddhism in pop-culture (or for-profit consumer Buddhist products) are little more than a perpetuation of the colonialist/Orientalist project which seeks to define “the Other” for “us” and in the process emasculates and neuters the other. If Buddhism is something that is kitschy and cool and “for sale,” it’s not “real religion”; it’s a fad, it’s something you “experiment with in college”; and at the end of the day it fails to threaten the status quo.
But I’ll not bore you with post-colonial theory. Not yet, anyway.
On the other hand, it also seems painfully clear to me that Carrette and King are right on the money. A quick survey of popular Buddhist books, of the way Buddhism is presented through marketing and advertising for non-Buddhist products, or the way that “Buddhist” ideas are described in self-help or New Age books, reveals the accommodationist tendencies I alluded to up top. Without belaboring that point, just check out books like Buddhism at Work or Zen and the Art of Business. These “Buddhist” teachings are telling us that we can (and should) “live the good life,” that “mindfulness” and “compassion” aren’t ends in themselves or, for that matter, epistemological frameworks diametrically opposed to the individual-centric modern capitalist society they’re strategies for how to get a promotion. They’re not telling you how to change your life. They’re telling you how to succeed in business.2
And we (as Buddhists) let it happen. All of us. We’re all guilty.
By brushing off these instances of Buddhism-as-commodity as nothing to get to attached to, by making the claim that any exposure to the “wider culture” is good exposure, by believing that perhaps if people encounter “incorrect” Buddhism in this way that they’ll be tempted to discover “real Buddhism,” I believe greatly underestimates the larger social, political, and economic systems we’re up against. Do you really believe that your local temple (member population two-dozen) has the media savvy and connections, let alone the financial resources, to counteract Madison Avenue’s multi-trillion dollar ad budget?
By brushing off the commodification of Buddhism as nothing to get all worked up about we lose something. We lose something central to the whole project of Buddhism. Frankly, we lose the whole point of Buddhism. The point of Buddhism, I believe, is to help suffering sentient beings uncover the reasons for their suffering and then, ultimately, help them change their behavior so that they stop causing more suffering for themselves and others.
The discourse inherent in the commodification of Buddhism allows someone else to define Buddhism. But not saying anything, we’re letting the discourse continue unchecked and unchallenged. We’re letting someone else define Buddhism. We’re letting Buddhism become more and more associated with a banal sort of every-day happiness. More and more we’re letting Buddhism be defined as a passive, non-threatening, therapeutic panacea for life’s daily stresses.
Is it that? Sure. What the hell. Why not? But Buddhism is more than that. Buddhism also teaches us that we’re never going to completely get rid of those daily stresses until we unravel their root causes, until we come to grips with the fact that it is our own actions actions almost always motivated by greed, hatred, or ignorance that cause us to suffer from those stresses. Should you be mindful at work? Of course. But if you want to get technical about it, you should quit your job. You want financial advice? Don’t buy anything. Ever. (And that includes zafus.) You want to promote peace? Well then, you’re going to have to come to grips with the fact that you, as an individual, don’t exist. You are inextricably interrelated to every other single living thing on the planet, and as a result, you’re going to have to stop worrying about buying the new iPhone and start promoting the greater good. This means donating your time, your money, your food, whatever you can, to the billions of people on this planet who suffer greater than you do every single day. Because until we alleviate all that suffering, there ain’t never gonna be peace.
And we need to get it back.
- Not convinced? Consider the fact that the mid-century U.S. Civil Rights movement was made possible by religious leaders, by spiritual leaders. Ask yourself who the great spiritual leaders are today and what they’re doing and why they are fundamentally unable to create any lasting change in this world on the same scale as Martin Luther King. Or, for that matter, Gandhi.[ back ]
- By the way, please don’t leave a comment about how Trungpa Rinpoche talked about “spiritual materialism” thirty years ago. I know. I know he did. You know he did. We all know he did. However, to the extent that Buddhism’s commodification by the forces of capitalism is ever-increasing, to the extent that the larger Shambhala community benefits from either their own capitalist projects or through advertising revenue sharing, we didn’t get whatever it was that Trungpa was trying to tell us. We haven’t learned that lesson yet. So let’s stop simply quoting him and start acting differently. [ back ]