Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Consumer Buddhism?

Continuing with the anniversary posts, this one (originally published April 3rd, 2009) echos sentiments all over the Buddhist blogosphere in recent weeks. And it shows that I've had this topic in my mind for a while now.

Lately, I have been reflecting on how, if you really dig deep into any spiritual path and actually do the work it's calling for, then how can it not radically change who you are and how you live. Given this, there is a great rub, then, between that belief and the level of consumerism and capitalistic influence on Buddhism here in the U.S.

This issue goes beyond the cost of classes and retreats at Buddhist centers, although it includes that as well. It goes beyond the mindless buying of things we don't need, although it includes that as well. What I see as a great rub is the collective and individual efforts to maintain a sense that the lifestyles we have built here in the United States are compatible with the dharma. In other words, we can become kinder and more aware through our practice, and keep our exploiting, over-consuming economic patterns as well.

Now surely there has been a lot of hand wringing in Buddhist circles over all this. And there has been a lot of efforts made support increased recycling, buying less, restoring damaged landscapes, and increasing use of "green" products, among other things. Also, there has been more discussion about fees for dharma teachings, and the impact of money on the make up of sanghas(communities). All very good steps.

Yet, at the end of the day, how often do we subvert the power of our own teachings in the name of keeping the economy going, or supporting leaders and policies that keep greed and exploitation front and center (but give some of us cheap products), or going along with the way things are because we are too afraid of really looking at how we live as "economic beings" and making changes?

Buddhists in the U.S., including both Asian-centric sanghas and convert sanghas, still are a small proportion of the overall population. Any effort to change the economic structures of this society, as well as the way we related and interact as economic beings, will only occur in coalition with other groups, secular and spiritual, who wish to create a new economics.

So, I'm not suggesting that somehow we in the Buddhist community are responsible for changing everything. But what I do find odd is how rare it seems that anyone, let alone large groups of U.S. Buddhists, steps outside of the capitalist box and articulates an alternative economic vision that is informed by Buddhist teachings. Are we just so individually and collectively blind to the need for something greatly different than what we currently have? Is the fear of falling into the old communist/capitalist trap still holding people back? Are people just too comfortable, or too busy to worry about such things?

Surely all the concerns about global warming, pollution, and disappearing 401ks have to be sinking in at a deeper level somehow. But beyond that, how about the old adage that money can't buy happiness? Doesn't it seem like there's an awful lot of anxiety, depression, and misery here in the U.S., despite the fact that we have this powerhouse economy that has brought us tons of material wealth and support?

I guess I don't believe it's enough to just become kinder and more compassionate. Now, the more of us that do, the better. But if we do so, and maintain this out of control economic system - one that now is truly global and must be looked at globally as well as locally - then it might not matter much in the long run that we're kinder and more compassionate.


Max said...

It's a great topic, but it sure brings up some tough questions. My personal feeling is that the hardest step on the eightfold path is right livelihood. It brings everything else into focus. My situation is that I make just as much as I absolutely need to make to support my lifestyle doing what I do. I know it's not "right" in that my employer is in an advertisement industry driving, or at least supporting, a lot of what you describe as the problem. It disturbs me, but I'm not willing to do what is necessary to move on to something more in accord with my principles.

In short it always seems that right livelihood can wait a little while longer.

Nathan said...

Well, the awareness is a step in the "right" direction. I also think that as another blogger Richard wrote about being in a similar job, how you conduct yourself in that job is also major practice. Maybe you end up moving on to something that "fits better" in the future, but I think right action within whatever context we are in is extremely important to keep front and center.

Max said...

It's probably not right action to be reading your blog rather than doing what they're paying me for.

Again, I suppose the awareness is a tiny first step.

Nathan said...

"It's probably not right action to be reading your blog rather than doing what they're paying me for."

Maybe yes, maybe no :)