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Thread: Consumer Buddhism?

  1. #1
    Member Christopher's Avatar
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    Consumer Buddhism?

    I saw this in today. The whole piece is at

    Comments anyone...?


    It’s times like these when I am reminded of Slavoj Zizek’s summary dismissal of “Western Buddhism.” Zizek cautions that while meditation may seem to come from an edgy counterculture, in fact Americans practice it in a way that is often consistent with consumerist capitalism:

    “… although ‘Western Buddhism’ presents itself as the remedy against the stressful tension of capitalist dynamics, allowing us to uncouple and retain inner peace and Gelassenheit, it actually functions as its perfect ideological supplement … One is almost tempted to resuscitate the old infamous Marxist cliché of religion as the ‘opium of the people,’ as the imaginary supplement to terrestrial misery. The ‘Western Buddhist’ meditative stance is arguably the most efficient way for us to fully participate in capitalist dynamics while retaining the appearance of mental sanity … ”
    In other words, rather than helping yogis become more socially conscious spiritual warriors, Buddhist meditation can get hijacked by the status quo. It only brings us a shallow peace that makes us less likely to question what counts as normal.
    For the last seven years I have dedicated myself to a Buddhist meditation practice, and I believe that there is some truth to Zizek’s harsh critique. As I have become more skilled, I have enjoyed moments of sublime bliss. And the more mindfulness I developed, the better I got at daily activities. I got a little better at surfing, playing poker, driving; the truth is, meditation helps me achieve whatever goals I set for myself, whether that’s being kinder to my friends and family, or earning more money.
    One problem with a capitalist-inflected Buddhism is that it can lead us to a kind of spiritual cul de sac. I found that my practice was in an uneasy tension with my leftist politics. I found myself attracted to a glamorous Santa Barbara lifestyle that left me feeling unfulfilled and disappointed. I found that it became easy to deal with disturbing images in the news by dismissing the suffering of others as the karmic products of their own poor decisions. (They’re just not being positive enough!)

  2. #2
    Hi Chris,

    It is a bit of a strange and extreme article, and I am not sure how "Zen" got in the title of what he describes. However, I will respond a bit ...

    Yes, not just now but throughout Buddhist histories, many folks have argued that one is born into a "low" station in life ... as a serf, as a slave, as a woman ... because of past Karma and that one should just accept this fact. Karma was used as a means of social control to keep the masses in their place. However, I think such views these days are extremely rare among most modern, western Buddhists who tend to hold more democratic, progressive views encouraging social fluidity, sexual and other equality and the like. One's "Karma" can be changed, and one is not a prisoner of one's birth.

    I agree that Buddhism can be used as a kind of opium to numb us to our lives of excess, consumerism and the like as we start into our own navels and blind to the suffering around us, driving our BMW to the Zen meeting. But Buddhist practice also can serve to raise Compassion, charity, generosity and social concern much as can any religion. It is a two edged sword, and depends how it is wielded. The Bodhisattva Vow is that we do not Practice for ourselves, but to rescue all the Sentience Beings.

    I sometimes say ...

    The Buddha did not discriminate between rich or poor among his followers. If anything, he depended on the rich. In fact, one might say that without the rich, from the Buddha's time until today, there might be no vehicle for the Teachings ... because the rich overwhelming provided the land and shelter and clothes and food and other support for the Buddha's followers, Dogen's monks at Eiheiji and the capital for the monastery of about every other Buddhist Teacher in history from Thailand to Tibet to Toronto. The Buddha did teach one path for homeleavers ... having nothing much besides a robe on their back and a begging bowl. But he also taught another path for lay folks on whom Buddha & the Band depended to supply the robes, offer land for the monasteries, put food in those bowls. The Buddha taught laypeople that having a bit of wealth and opportunity is not a problem. HOW YOU USE THE WEALTH, RESOURCES AND OPPORTUNITY IS WHAT IS KEY (whether selfishly and wastefully, or for good and for the great society and others, family and community), as is not being a prisoner or driven by wealth and excessively attached to what one has. Buddha's basic point comes down to ... if one has wealth, use it for good purposes ... for social good ... don't live to excess ... and don't be attached. For such reason, Zen traditionally values the simple, intangible treasures of life ... the things which money cannot buy.

    I think it is hard for some of us to truly practice non-attachment and renunciation while owning so much valuable property. There is one story told in the discussion that really says it for me. It tells of a Tibetan Rinpoche who was staying at the home of one of his wealthy students in California. The student was saying, "I really enjoy having beautiful things around, I like having a house in this beautiful valley ... but I'm not attached to any of it. I enjoy it, but if it weren't here, I wouldn't mind." At that point, the Rinpoche picked up a coffee pot and started to tilt it over a $35,000 Persian carpet. There was no description of how the story ended, but I think the point is clear.

    For those of us with some "stuff" and some money in the bank, we have to be really careful that we do try to maintain simplicity, are not overly attached and greedy, and truly live with the "if it weren't here, I wouldn't mind" attitude. I feel I have that attitude but, looking around my room, I know that I could live more simply than I do. As someone who came to Japan 25 years ago with all his belongings in two suitcases, I now have a house filled with "stuff" that I would need a couple of trucks to move! I don't think we live in an opulent way (by modern Western standards), but I live like a king by the standards of ancient India, China or the 'Third World' and "stuff" seems to build up slowly with every trip to the store. Maybe most is for my wife and kids, and I haven't bought new underwear in 5 years ... but I have a computer, an e-book reader, new blue jeans, a cell phone and flat screen tv in my electrically heated office, and it is a long long way from a grass hut in the mountains living on berries.

    It is tricky for us in the West to balance such a life simultaneously with values of non-attachment to "stuff", simplicity, moderation and charity. However, we must find a way.
    By the way, even though it seems that most Buddhists in the West tend to be rather liberal and progressive in their political views, that does not mean that there are not also conservative, "Republican/Tory" voting Buddhists who are not also seeking to manifest Compassion, and social concern in their own way.

    Although many in Western Buddhism tend to associate Buddhist Practice and the Precepts with having to hold rather 'Lefty' political views (probably because so many convert Buddhists in the West seem to be Latte drinking, Prius driving political liberals ), that is not necessarily the case. I have many Western Zen friends who are politically conservative, favoring, for example, George W. Bush to Obama, thinking the war in Iraq justified and in keeping with the Precepts as an action ultimately intended to preserve human lives, opposing relaxed Abortion laws as the taking of life, opposing Gay Marriage, large scale government funded social programs and the like ... all in keeping with their personal view of the Precepts. In fact, any politics which the person sincerely believes is the best ... although folks will engage in ethical debate on such topics, much as Christians might have opposing views on "What would Jesus do?"

    In fact, the only political views that clearly should not be combined with Buddhism are, for example, to be a Buddhist Nazi, K.K.K. member, Trotskyist, bomb throwing Anarchist or a like violent path because of the violent, divisive, hate-filled content. course to help this world and its people, to avoid harm and benefit sentient beings.


    The prevalent interpretations found in Asia of the Precepts might be considered rather "conservative" to many Westerners on certain topics, very progressive on other topics. ...

    In much of Asia, Buddhism has traditionally been, at various times in its history, both a social revolutionary force ... and (probably for most of its history) a very conservative force unwilling to overly "rock the boat" in the traditional, feudal and otherwise undemocratic societies in which it has found itself, ranging from old Samurai Japan to the modern People's Republic of China. Just as in the Catholic Church, there are clerics who are far far to the right in their views, and far to the left ... often inspired by Marxism and the like ... and many who just stay out of politics altogether.

    In my case, I do not think that my political views are much different from my younger days, except I do make the effort to run my views through the lens of the Precepts, Wisdom and Compassion. They guide me in forming opinions on questions such as on abortion, going to war after 9-11 and the like ... but yet there remains much room for discussion on so many of these issues, and various sides.

    I do look forward to a world which, someday in the future, is filled with the peace, non-violence, love, environmental concern for the world, avoidance of excess consumerism and materialism, building schools and hospitals instead of bombs, and better sharing and caring for our fellow sentient beings that I believe is at the heart of Buddhist values (and so many other religions and humanist philosophies too).

    ... I believe that when such a revolution comes, this world will leave behind so many of its current problems and excesses.
    Gassho, J
    Last edited by Jundo; 10-27-2014 at 05:55 AM.

  3. #3
    I think the problem with the article is that the author is unknowingly exactly the same as the people he is criticizing. He says:

    For the last seven years I have dedicated myself to a Buddhist meditation practice, and I believe that there is some truth to Zizek’s harsh critique. As I have become more skilled, I have enjoyed moments of sublime bliss. And the more mindfulness I developed, the better I got at daily activities. I got a little better at surfing, playing poker, driving; the truth is, meditation helps me achieve whatever goals I set for myself, whether that’s being kinder to my friends and family, or earning more money.
    It seems that the reason he is doing "a Buddhist meditation practice" is, in part, to play poker better and earn more money. So as long as he's practicing meditation as a tool to attain something, he's not really doing it right.

    This said, I wouldn't fault anyone for meditating for a concrete reason. Perhaps not to make more money, but to feel better (health benefits) or be a better person (calming effects).

    This is nothing new; it's just become a bit more mainstream. When I was in my 20s, "new agey" people were everywhere in New York City. But not many of them practiced meditation; in fact, I'm surprised that I never encountered any Zen people back then. I did yoga, and met lots of people who also did yoga, but meditation wasn't a big deal.

    And, in my opinion, tossing Zizek into that article shows a lack of creativity on the part of the author. Zizek is just tossing out the same platitudes about "Western Buddhism" as he does about everything else he doesn't understand.

    But the article did remind me to go back and read Trungpa's Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism; an essential book, in my opinion. I'll go start re-reading it later today.

    One last thing: the use of the word "spiritual." I know what it's supposed to mean, but it doesn't mean anything. Every time I see that word, it makes me cringe... :-)



    I know nothing.

  4. #4
    Hi, I would say that nobody (at least in the West) starts meditating with no goal in mind.

    Of course many people, like me for example, over the course of time, learn about goallessness and adopt that motivation (or lack of), but when one starts a spiritual practice it is because one wants something. Call it peace of mind, health, wealth or whatever.

    I started meditating after reading a lot of self-help books. The Secret was the last of them, and there I read a couple of Buddha quotes that lit my interest in this path, and now here I am.
    Fortunately I came to understand that (if we assume for a while that one can in fact manipulate the universe to satisfy one's wishes) it would be so selfish to do so and just ignore all the suffering around us, which is most of the time WAY worse than ours.

    I thought that book was a miracle, even gave one to my wife, and now I see it like a pile of selfish chatter (not to call it a piece of crap).
    At least it did me the service of waking my interest in the Buddha's teachings.

    Anyway, I think it is something to have always in mind, not to practice out of interest, out of greed or desire, but to be able to save others and leave the world at least one inch better than it was before we stumbled on its surface.
    Fortunately our zen path is very sound about it.


  5. #5

    What you've said makes sense to me.

    When I was very young, I wanted to change the world.

    As I got older, I became more cynical and just wanted to change my little part of the world to be more comfortable while I died.

    A bit later, I realized that it was actually the world that was changing me.

    Then, just now, the distinction became moot: world-changing, me-changing, just unchanging changing.

    Then I looked at the clock and realized it's almost time to go to work.


  6. #6

    " . . . the article did remind me to go back and read Trungpa's Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism; an essential book, . . . " - kirkmc

    "Recognize suffering, remove suffering." - Shakyamuni Buddha when asked, "Uhm . . .what?"

  7. #7
    Quote Originally Posted by delphizealot View Post
    Then I looked at the clock and realized it's almost time to go to work.


  8. #8
    Member Christopher's Avatar
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    Thanks to all for providing the background that might enlighten my confusion. So, the well-to-do atmosphere in BuddhaDarma worries many others. The Buddhism we see in the west is a function of our privileged lifestyle. I guess these are all obstacles we must surmount.

    My worrying if I am too selfish to 'make it here' seems miniscule when I read many of the replies in the thread.

    If Conservatives find a way to practise Buddhism...of some sort...even though the very idea of conserving is alien to a doctrine that starts with impermanence tells me that the Dharma is stronger than all the pin-pricks and distortions humans invent around it. This long term socialist (a person whose every achievement ultimately followed from the social advances the 1945 British Labour Government introduced into the society where he was born) may even learn how to wish Metta to these strange creatures. He will still fight for a radical change in our post 1980 distopia, but will learn to respect those who are proud to live as rentiers. (Perish their non-existent souls.)

    It really is true...humans only ever believe what they need to believe.


  9. #9
    Member Christopher's Avatar
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    By the way...Marinaleda, Spain's Communist/Anarchist village is the prototype for the World Sangha. LOL.


  10. #10
    Quote Originally Posted by Christopher View Post
    By the way...Marinaleda, Spain's Communist/Anarchist village is the prototype for the World Sangha. LOL.

    It has been pointed out by some that Dogen, in creating his monastery at Eiheiji, built a kind of commune, free of personal property, with labor from the abilities of each, housing, food and care according to the needs of each. That was not Dogen's original creation by any means, but the system of Sangha living since the Buddha's time, and all monasteries in China and elsewhere. The person traditionally credited with first writing monastic regulations in China, Master Baizhang ...

    ... is quoted as saying, "A day without work is a day without food".

    It seems that these Buddhist Communities were built as a kind of utopian response to the dust and duties of the outside world.

    HOWEVER, it is important to realize that the Buddha's community in India and about every monastery from Thailand to Taiwan to Tokyo to Tibet was built on the labors of serfs and sometimes slaves (not considered socially unacceptable in most of the traditional agricultural societies of old Asia), and with the money of wealthy patrons. Somebody had to pay for "Utopia"

    As I mentioned above, most of the lay supporters of Buddhism in India, China and Japan were people of means ... and even many or most of the great Zen and other Buddhist monks of old, if one reads their biographies, seem to have been the sons of wealthy families. While leaving the palace for a life of renunciation, the Buddha himself was the son of a king and a man of connections ... ... and many kings and wealthy folks were his sponsors. The Buddha built his Sangha on donations of food and land primarily from kings and other relatively wealthy and socially powerful individuals. Dogen was the lesser son of an aristocrat, and built Eiheiji with the financial support of his rich patron Lord Hatano Yoshishige ...

    I believe that capitalism is a very good system that has freed the power of progress and ingenuity to build a better world ... with advances in medicine, science, education and social/economic equality ... at least, compared to how things were in the past, throughout all human history. Even the poorest people in Western countries these days typically will live with greater safety and comfort than emperors of old. On a related thread I said ...

    I often reflect that I live like a king compared to how even kings lived in centuries past. If one ever has a chance to visit the Palace of Versailles or any of the great homes from 200 or more years ago, one will first notice the absence of electricity, indoor plumbing (the servants would bring in chamber pots), refrigerators and microwave ovens, modern heating and air conditioners, televisions, radios, computers. One might also notice the absence of general sanitation, automobiles, modern medicine and the like. Please don't even ask how the servants lived in their homes! (In fact, much of the world outside the west ... even sometimes in it ... still lives so).

    So, it is hard for me to feel sorry for the little drafts and inconveniences in my own home which is big and more than spacious enough, with a garden (not quite the size of Versailles) and having all of the above. The fact is that even the typical home of a family under the poverty line these days in the west will still usually have many of the things that kings of old never dreamed of ... a fridge, electric lights, a microwave, constant entertainment on the tube, heat (hopefully), a phone, toilet, shower, recorded music at one's fingertips. Our rising expectations cause us never to be satisfied even when we live better than kings!

    That does not mean that I think it perfectly fine that many in my own country still live in violent and drug filled neighborhoods, in rat filled housing where kids live in terror. I do not, and it is the great disgrace of America that so many live in such way. I also dream of the day when everyone in the world can have access to the basics of life ... a warm place to sleep, health care, education, safety. We must keep striving until all our fellow human beings are so. I think it also fine that most of us might want to move to a home or neighborhood cleaner, quieter, safer than where one now finds oneself (my gosh, I think back to some of the horrible noisy and run down apartments I used to live in in rather dangerous neighborhoods. I am glad to be out).

    However, it is also so easy for us to have ever rising standards of what we "need", never realizing and satisfied with what we already have even if far from "perfect". Most of us live better than Louis XIV.
    Maybe what Buddhism can help us do is to focus and fine tune our system, keeping the best aspects but losing the excess, waste, environmental degradation, remaining social inequalities and injustice and the like ... knowing when to be satisfied with what we have even as we strive to make the world better ... knowing the intangible treasures of life are the true jewel, and not the stuff in stores for which we yell "more more more!" ...

    ... finding the best of both worlds ... a world in which we keep the best of our present economic system striving for advances in health, science, education and general living standards, yet infused with more of the simplicity, moderation, balance, non-consumerist values, generosity, sharing, peace and satisfaction of Buddhism.

    David Loy, the great Buddhist "futurist" and commentator, writes on such topics frequently.


    Gassho, J
    Last edited by Jundo; 10-28-2014 at 04:15 AM.

  11. #11
    "Recognize suffering, remove suffering." - Shakyamuni Buddha

    (response when asked what he does)

    With gratitude.

    "Recognize suffering, remove suffering." - Shakyamuni Buddha when asked, "Uhm . . .what?"

  12. #12
    There are Buddhists all over the political spectrum. It's just hard to imagine how a practicing Buddhist can be an ideologue of any stripe, or cling to views at the extremes of right and left, because of the way practice explodes views. Zazen takes away the need to fill an inner hole through Consumerism, but it doesn't deny the market, or create ideology.


  13. #13
    I actually think it's a thoughtful, moderate article, where most of them are way, way over the top. We do have a commodified and commercialized "spiritual" market, but that doesn't have anything to do with practice, with zazen, with the four noble truths. This is why, if someone asks me, I almost never say I'm a Buddhist - instead, it's always, I sit zazen. It's something I do; it's a practice; it's not about a word or some specialness because of a label. As for the Zizek stuff, if you really read some of his articles, you'll find that what he's attacking is what I call "consumer Buddhism," and at the same time, his thoughts on Buddhism come from a pretty superficial understanding of it all, both Theravada and Mahayana.

    Last edited by alan.r; 10-29-2014 at 01:31 AM.

  14. #14
    I thought that Van Valkenburgh's piece was shallow and didn't really didn't make a point; I also mistrust people who are keen to tell everyone about their blissful spiritual progress... Zizek seems to just like hearing the sound of his own voice; he also rambled on without making a point. Dinner conversation with him would surely be torture...



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