The appraisal is a familiar one by now. Contemporary spirituality has become a commodity, easily bought and sold—and the “spiritual but not religious” are not so much seekers as consumers.
The 2005 book Selling Spirituality, by Jeremy Carrette and Richard King, is a prime example of the tendency to reduce spirituality to a sellout. In a powerful critique of the “big business” of spirituality, the authors, both professors in religious studies, focus on the sociopolitical consequences of the “spiritual marketplace,” which they frame as the capitalist “takeover,” “commercialization,” and, maybe most significantly, the “replacement” of religion.
What’s most interesting to me about this is the way in which—although this is not their specific aim—the authors’ zero-sum opposition between the marketplace and religion amounts to an assessment of what counts as real religion: “What is being sold to us as radical, trendy, and transformative spirituality,” they state, “in fact produces little in the way of a significant change in one’s lifestyle or fundamental behavior patterns.” In a similar vein, Buddhist scholar David Webster has written in these pages (January 2013) about the risks in assuming an identity as “spiritual” while avoiding affiliation with a specific tradition. Practices that are categorized as spiritual, in this view, cannot also function as religious practice.
Along with Buddhist-influenced New Age practices, Carrette and King pick yoga as an especially apt example of capitalist society’s replacement of religion. By relying exclusively on physical practice instead of a “complete” lifestyle, they write, postural yoga ignores the selfless ethical agenda of ancient yoga: they claim that “yoga essentially became a form of exercise and stress-relief to be classified alongside the other health and ‘sports-related’ practices and fads of the late 20th century.”
I find it frustrating to repeatedly encounter this assumption— that we can’t have it both ways, that we can’t take “spiritual people” seriously as religious practitioners and simultaneously evaluate them as agents of contemporary consumer culture. Spirituality is described by these scholars as “banal and vague” and as representing a usurpation of religion by market forces. But it is far from banal; in fact, it is rich in religious substance.
In my own work as a religious studies scholar, I explore the religious dimensions of pop-culture yoga in particular. Consider the unlikely example of Bikram Choudhury, the self-proclaimed guru of Bikram Yoga. A multimillionaire who can be said to have exploited the cultural and economic capital of yoga, claimed copyrights on yoga postures, pursued litigation against rival franchises—and who recently lost the first of several sexual harassment suits in a Los Angeles court, to the tune of $6.4 million in punitive damages—Bikram is one of contemporary spirituality’s most controversial figures.
Still, the commodification of Bikram Yoga has not been at the expense of yoga’s ritual dimension. Bikram’s Yoga College of India, for example, provides teachers with “basic guidelines” for constructing and managing a predetermined ritual space and ritual process. All Bikram Yoga-approved studios are required to meticulously follow a particular format, and all teachers are required to memorize a 45-page script known as the “dialogue,” to be recited verbatim so that classes across studios are equivalent to taking a class with Bikram himself.
Bikram Yoga is a commodity, but it also offers a radical form of healing. “We are fully dedicated to the wellness of the millions of people around the world,” the website proclaims. As Bikram himself has said, “The spirit is nothing without the body. And the body is nothing without the spirit. Our body is God’s temple. We must take care of it, keep it healthy, by coming to yoga class every day.” Healing requires hard work. Although critics are quick to write off spiritual consumers as hedonistic or utilitarian, asceticism is at the center of Bikram Yoga, performed as a series of 26 onerous postures in a room heated to 105 degrees.
All this suffering is for the sake of miraculous healing, enhanced life expectancy, and self-perfection as embodied by Bikram himself. His muscular body clad in little more than his signature Speedo, his diamond-encrusted watch, his 8,000-square-foot Beverly Hills mansion and luxury car collection— all this is a far cry from what we envision when we think of the classic Indian master yogi, poor, celibate, and (as a consequence of his asceticism) possessing remarkable powers. But Bikram, the entrepreneurial guru, also claims just such powers. He says he eats only one meal a day, drinks nothing but water and Coke, and sleeps only two hours a night. He once determined, according to calculations of the average time human beings spend sleeping, that he was approximately 220 years old.
From one perspective, Bikram is hawking a product. Yet from a traditional yogic perspective, his claim to ownership of a specific yoga style can also be read as an attempt to control the transmission of salvific knowledge. What I have found is that yoga entrepreneurs can be both frontline agents of commercial empires and gurus venerated by adoring disciples.
The religious dimensions of popular yoga do not stand apart from the complex sentiments and practices of the modern marketplace. Any linear narrative that imagines “religious” yoga inexorably giving way to a market-driven rival is misleading: it underestimates the authentic religious ambitions held by practitioners who gather under the banner of Bikram (or any of a number of other such movements).
The “sellout” critique is not the only one that denies the religious force of contemporary spirituality. The findings of a 2012 Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, suggesting that religious “nones” are “on the rise” and are “less religious than the public at large,” has loomed large in public discussion of the changing face of religion. But this focus on the so-called rise of the nones misses much of what is significant about the direction of religion as it is done, as people do religion.
Failings of the Pew report—for example, asking respondents to define their religiosity in negative terms (“none”), suggesting they are in no way religious, or defining religious community in terms of “shared values and beliefs”—suggest that these increasingly frequent efforts to quantify religion distract from more nuanced understandings. Respondents were asked, for example, not whether they do yoga and to what religious or spiritual effect, but rather whether they “believe in yoga.” This fixation on shared belief obscures what is in fact the diverse religious landscape of the yoga industry and the “spiritual but not religious movement” at large. Many yoga practitioners, although they probably would not describe themselves as “believers in yoga,” do in fact hold religious beliefs and engage in a range of religious practices.
As we study the surge of “spiritual but not religious,” we will gain nothing by pitting commodified spiritualities like Bikram against an imaginary “pure” traditional religion—pop spiritualities, just like traditional religions, can be transformative. And when we argue that the discourse of spirituality is simply a cover for the operations of the marketplace, we are blinded to the rise of the full and complex range, from consumerist to countercultural, of 21st-century spiritualities.
BOOKS FOR GODLY BUDDHISTS
Christianity and Buddhism
By Tan Ajahn Buddhadasa Bhikkhu
Thai progressive Buddhadasa Bhikkhu (1906–1993) finds common ground between Christianity and Buddhism.
Spiritual Advice for Buddhists and Christians
By His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama
Four talks given by the Tibetan Buddhist leader at a meeting of Buddhist and Christian monks.
Living Buddha, Living Christ
By Thich Nhat Hanh
Celebrated Vietnamese Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh cautions against rigid dogma while highlighting the virtues of each tradition.
Without Buddha I Could Not Be a Christian
By Paul F. Knitter
Christian theologian Paul F. Knitter’s personal account of how Buddhism helped resolve his spiritual doubt.
Common Ground Between Islam and Buddhism: Spiritual and Ethical Affinities
By Reza Shah Kazemi
Jordanian scholar Reza Shah Kazemi welcomes Buddhists as “People of the Book,” a designation traditionally limited to those of the Abrahamic faiths.
One God Clapping: The Spiritual Path of a Zen Rabbi
By Rabbi Alan Lew
Innovative rabbi Alan Lew (1944–2009) traces his steps from Judaism to Zen and back again.
That’s Funny, You Don’t Look Buddhist: On Being a Faithful Jew and a Passionate Buddhist
By Sylvia Boorstein
Buddhist teacher Sylvia Boorstein shows how to walk the path of both Judaism and Buddhism with passion and integrity.
Healing Breath: Zen for Christians and Buddhists in a Wounded World
By Ruben L. F. Habito
Former Jesuit priest and Zen teacher Ruben L. F. Habito points to Christian and Buddhist perspectives for personal, social, and ecological healing. [See this issue’s dharma talk on p. 34 for Habito’s latest on Christian-Zen teachings.]
Letters to a Buddhist Jew
By David Gottlieb and Akiva Tatz
Novelist David Gottlieb poses a series of questions about his interest in Buddhism to Orthodox rabbi Akiva Tatz.
Christians Talk About Buddhist Meditation, Buddhists Talk about Christian Prayer
Edited by Rita M. Gross and Terry C. Muck
Christian and Buddhist scholars-practitioners learn from each other’s practices.
Sign up for Tricycle’s newsletters
Thank you for subscribing to Tricycle! As a nonprofit, we depend on readers like you to keep Buddhist teachings and practices widely available.