desire 50 (2) fall 1999
Photos by Dora Handel.
desire 51 (1) fall 1999
Photos by Dora Handel.
desire 51 (2) fall 1999
Brooklyn Lager label courtesy of Milton Glaser.

 

 

 

 

For several years Michael Attie has been practicing Buddhism under conditions that, depending on your point of view, are either enviable or insane. Attie, who studied Zen with the Japanese masters Shunryu Suzuki Roshi and Soen Nakagawa Roshi, has been holding weekly meditations above Playmates, a lingerie store on Hollywood Boulevard. Attie, its proprietor, took the business over from his father in 1983. The store caters to strippers, transvestites, x-rated models, and suburban housewives. As redecorated by Attie, Playmates of Hollywood resembles an explosion involving a stripper’s costume trunk and the temples of several religions. Amid racks of underwire bras and gauzy panties are altars to the “Lingerie Goddess” and the Hindu monkey god Hanuman, who embodies the cosmic principle of playfulness. This was what meditators had to pass through on their way to a sitting. As an added incentive, Attie offers them a 15 percent discount on store merchandise. He also has held dharma talks in the store itself.

Is it possible to follow a practice of non-desire in an environment that virtually sparkles with thousands of little sexual beacons?

“Anyone who’s excited by those beacons already has desire in him,” says Attie, who recently gave up managing the business. “At Playmates he has the opportunity to examine it.” He describes the store as an informal temple of tantric Buddhism, the school of Indian, Himalayan, and Tibetan practice in which physical passion is rerouted into a highway of liberation. Instead of viewing sexuality as a distraction from meditation, Attie sees it as something to be drawn forth and mindfully investigated so that its energy can be moved around. In a memoir he is writing entitled Dharma Play—Meditation for Enlightenment and Fun, he challenges readers: “I invite you to take a comparison test. Go to a ‘straight’ meditation hall, and then come to the Playmates lingerie and meditation hall. In one you’ll find half the meditators falling asleep, and in the other everyone is wide awake. Need I tell you which is which?”

Attie’s ideas about meditation and merchandising may sound preposterous to traditional Buddhists, and they will be challenged by anyone versed in tantric Buddhism. But they point to a quandary that is becoming increasingly urgent as the dharma gains a deeper foothold in the United States. The Buddha posited desire as one of the bases of human suffering. It is the second of the Four Noble Truths: Now this, monks, is the noble truth of the cause of pain: the craving, which tends to rebirth, combined with pleasure and lust, finding pleasure here and there; namely, the craving for passion, the craving for existence, the craving for non-existence.

Christianity and Judaism may judge desire in terms of its objects (most notably sex), but Buddhism exhorts practitioners to pay attention to desire itself, to be mindful of where it comes from, how it enters the mind, how it is dissolved, and how its illusions estrange us from absolute reality. It’s not just sexual craving that is suspect. In Buddhist teachings desire is so inherently tricky and destructive that they cast a critical eye on all its modalities: the desires for money, power, self-aggrandizement, and even love. Only the desire for enlightenment is exempt (although the old Zen masters were notorious for busting disciples who got stuck inside the desire for satori), for only enlightenment offers the transcendence of desire.

 From Rato, a company founded by Buddhist monk Nicholas Vreeland, a large silk "Ahimsa" (no harm) pillow cover in patchwork pattern like monks' robes and made without killing silkworms, $250; a shoulder bag, machine-made cotton with Rato logo, $40; candlestick in traditional Indian metal called bidri, $40; and monk's bag in handloomed cotton in traditional style and mustard and maroon colors, $65.
From Rato, a company founded by Buddhist monk Nicholas Vreeland, a large silk “Ahimsa” (no harm) pillow cover in patchwork pattern like monks’ robes and made without killing silkworms, $250; a shoulder bag, machine-made cotton with Rato logo, $40; candlestick in traditional Indian metal called bidri, $40; and monk’s bag in handloomed cotton in traditional style and mustard and maroon colors, $65.

Yet in America, Buddhism has encountered a republic of desire, a place where appetite and ambition are so pervasive that transcending them seems impossible. This is a country that includes the pursuit of happiness among its citizens’ basic rights and goes on to treat this pursuit as a sort of sweaty moral decathlon: As a summation of our national ethic, “In God We Trust” is a lot less descriptive than “Have It Your Way.” Thus, just when Buddhism is becoming part of the American mainstream, America is embracing a civic cult of desire whose fundamental assumptions seem radically opposed to Buddhist dharma.

To understand the ascendance of this national cult, one has to follow the tectonic shifts of the global economy. For most of this century American industry gloried in its ability to make products that the rest of the world wanted: automobiles and television sets, steel beams and machine tools, refrigerators and blue jeans. Increasingly, however, those products are being manufactured elsewhere, in countries whose cheap labor and flimsy environmental laws make it possible to produce goods at a fraction of the going American cost. The initial result was a crisis in our national economy. The long-term result was its transformation. The recent shift in American capitalism is commonly portrayed as one from manufacturing to services and information.

But it may be just as accurate to say that America has given up making things and is now in the business of manufacturing demand itself. A growing range of our businesses take merchandise produced in Korean factories, Indonesian sweatshops, or Mexican maquiladoras and make them appealing to an ever more jaded and fickle consumer public. The economy of manufacture has given way to an economy of desire whose object is the arousal, manipulation—and maybe even the creation— of human want.

In contrast to the old rust-belt enterprises, the desire industry is oddly disembodied. In it the factory floor has been supplanted by runways and recording studios, and engineering blueprints have given way to storyboards and marketing surveys. Some of these enterprises trigger desire in blatant ways. The advertising copywriter who came up with the slogan “Just Do It” was simultaneously peddling Nikes and promoting an entire ideal of competition and personal excellence. The aestheticized sleaze of the ck one billboards intimated that a flask of fragrance was the ticket to a nonstop orgy. But elsewhere the appeal to desire is subtler and more ambiguous. How does a woman’s magazine convince readers that they can’t be happy without a given shade of lipstick? Through what process does a record company turn a group of photogenic boys into next year’s superstars?

For this country’s Buddhists, such questions aren’t merely academic. In some ways we are antennae tuned to the frequencies of desire, and it may no longer be enough for us to track its oscillations in our own minds from the shelter of our meditation halls. We live in a society—perhaps the first in recorded history—that is dominated by an industry of desire, whose output Buddhist teachings might define as a spiritual toxin. At the very least we need to understand the way that industry works. We need to consider the play of illusion and temptation that occurs every time we turn on the TV or flip through the pages of a magazine, the humbling ease with which we can be induced to crave.

For Buddhists employed in advertising, media, or fashion, there is a further question: Do our livelihoods make us complicit in the suffering of others? Are those of us who work for Desire, Inc., so many little Maras? Can Buddhists who work within the economy of desire help transform that economy into a means of enlightenment? Is this, in fact, what Buddhism requires of them?

Of the men and women interviewed for this article, some are Buddhist scholars and practitioners. All seem to recognize that the desire industry represents a unique and morally charged development in the history of commerce, determining not just what people buy, but what they want.

Milton Glaser—who is familiar with Buddhism but does not call himself a practitioner – has been a graphic artist and designer for more than forty years. In the course of that career, he has mapped out lighting schemes for supermarkets, designed a poster of Bob Dylan that became a counterculture icon of the 1960s, and originated the logo “I heart NY,” an emblem so typographically simple and semiotically resonant that one now encounters it, in different variations, in societies with no prior conception of the valentine heart, including Indonesia and Vietnam.

Registered trademark and service mark of the NY State Department of Economic Development, used with permission.
Registered trademark and service mark of the NY State Department of Economic Development, used with permission.

The logo came into being in the mid-1970s, when New York was suffering from a stagnant economy and a spiraling crime rate and Glaser was contracted to design a campaign that would stimulate the moribund tourist industry. His job was to turn the slogan “I Love New York” into a catalyst for increased tourism.

But how does a slogan translate into increased tourism? To explain, Glaser invokes something called “the halo effect.” “It’s the imputation of virtue through proximity. For example, you manage a supermarket and you discover that if you offer fresh herbs in the produce section and take a lower markup on them, your customers will buy more produce on the unconscious assumption that the produce is also fresh and cheap. That’s the halo effect. ‘I heart NY’ served as a trigger for multiple associations. It wasn’t just the slogan or the logo. There was a song; there were TV commercials with Broadway stars. They surrounded New York with a halo of glamour and excitement. And, at least in theory, they could prompt someone who hadn’t thought of visiting New York to choose it as a vacation destination.”

The halo effect is the quintessential feature of postmodern advertising, marketing, and public relations campaigns. For Buddhists it constitutes a virtual Rosetta stone, a means of deciphering the thousands of cryptic seductions strewn across our cultural landscape. The halo effect helps us understand how an automobile can become a symbol of adventure and transcendence and why Diesel sells its blue jeans with ads that ridicule everyone over thirty. A practitioner who wants to meditate on the causes of a particular desire might choose as his mandala one of Apple’s “Think Different” ads—not so much for the image of the Dalai Lama as for the complex visual algebra by which a personal computer is equated with celebrity, individualism, and social responsibility.

The agents of this new economy are not just advertising executives: They also include designers and magazine editors, fashion photographers, film studios, and record companies. Amy Gross, a former editor-in-chief at Mirabella and a Buddhist practitioner, describes how women’s magazines function as engines of desire: “The magazines take a desirable perso—a model or a celebrity—and show them with objects they seem to desire, and those objects themselves become desirable. You say, with the authority of your magazine, that you like this product, and you anoint it, the way a queen dubs a knight.

“All these magazines use hyperbole. It’s never, ‘These hair products aren’t bad.’ It’s always ‘The Hundred Best Products Ever.’” In 1997, Gross left the fashion magazine industry to become a writer (affiliated with this publication).

One might argue that fashion magazines have always been sales vehicles, but thirty years ago pop music prided itself on its defiance of the marketplace. Rock ’n’ roll didn’t sell anything: Even the clothes the bands wore were scavenged from thrift shops. Nobody could have imagined a time when pop songs would be used to sell Toyotas and a Rolling Stones tour would be sponsored by Tommy Hilfiger.

When Judy (not her real name) started working for record companies in the early 1970s, it was because she loved the music and wanted to be a part of it. “For me making money was always secondary,” she says. We’re sitting in her office overlooking lower Manhattan, surrounded by autographed photos of the performers Judy has signed during her career as an A&R—or Artists and Repertoire—executive for a major label.

 From Rato, a company founded by Buddhist monk Nicholas Vreeland, a large silk "Ahimsa" (no harm) pillow cover in patchwork pattern like monks' robes and made without killing silkworms, $250; a shoulder bag, machine-made cotton with Rato logo, $40; candlestick in traditional Indian metal called bidri, $40; and monk's bag in handloomed cotton in traditional style and mustard and maroon colors, $65.
From Rato, a company founded by Buddhist monk Nicholas Vreeland, a large silk “Ahimsa” (no harm) pillow cover in patchwork pattern like monks’ robes and made without killing silkworms, $250; a shoulder bag, machine-made cotton with Rato logo, $40; candlestick in traditional Indian metal called bidri, $40; and monk’s bag in handloomed cotton in traditional style and mustard and maroon colors, $65.

Today the fifty-year-old Buddhist practitioner feels that the music industry is dominated by its sales and marketing departments. Obsessed with units and profit margins, the people in charge of the bottom line are determining which acts get signed and sometimes fabricating the acts from scratch: “They conduct their surveys and decide that the 11- to 25-year-olds, who are the biggest audience for popular music, are looking for such-and-such kind of an act. So they create the act. ’N Sync is exactly that kind of group, the Backstreet Boys, the Dixie Chicks.”

It’s easy to turn up one’s nose at bands assembled by sales and marketing departments. But are these phenomena actually “un-Buddhist”? Buddhism, after all, arose in a society that practiced the most primitive kind of capitalism and had no notion of advertising. “I definitely think that if you look at the history of Buddhism in India and other cultures, you’ll find that it had a generally friendly relationship with merchants,” says Robert Thurman. “It preferred commerce to warfare, even though the Buddha himself came from the warrior caste. Inasmuch as Buddhism has any monolithic views on the subject, which I would stress it doesn’t, it finds desire a lot less toxic than hatred.”

Thurman is Jey Tsong Khapa Professor of Indo-Tibetan Buddhist Studies at Columbia University, President of Tibet House, one of the leading American authorities on Tibetan Buddhism, and the father of actress Uma Thurman. “On the foundation level,” he says, “the desire industry is antithetical to Buddhism. Any industry that tells people that they’re incomplete unless they have a particular product, that encourages them to constantly want more, is the antithesis of detachment and contentment and living minimally. The Dhammapada says, ‘Contentment is the most precious jewel.’ Which means that if you have one hundred jewels and yearn for a hundred-and-first, that craving negates the one hundred jewels you do have. In that sense, the desire industry is the archenemy of contentment.

“But I also want to stress that Buddhism is not puritanical. Buddhas possess beauty marks. The bodhisattvas are depicted as sexy androgynous beings. I used to look at the women in fashion magazines and think, ‘That’s Mara’… Maybe at some level an issue of Vogue could introduce an element of respect for female beauty. Fashion can be the dharma. The great fashion editors may have been teachers of the dharma without realizing it.”

Of course fashion does offer a vision of beauty whose vibrancy, frivolity, and unapologetic hedonism are often exhilarating. But is it liberating in any Buddhist sense? That same vision can also be restrictive and even cruel, since it is one that few women can ever conform to. Fashion implicitly defines life as a collection of strobe-lit moments, perfectly composed, perfectly photogenic, perfectly static. It endorses an ideal of stasis and superficiality. The Dalai Lama himself purportedly said in a recent TV interview what he thought about fashion shows: With all respect for your culture, from a Buddhist perspective these things are completely silly.

The common wisdom is that consumption doesn’t lead to happiness. Now a series of studies conducted by two psychologists, Richard Ryan of the University of Rochester and Tim Kasser of Knox College in Illinois, has confirmed it: People who value money, fame, and beauty are likely to be unhappier than others. They are more prone to depression, report more behavioral problems and physical distress, and score lower on scales of vitality and self-actualization. The researchers found that a preoccupation with money bodes ill regardless of how much money one already has. “The more we seek satisfactions in material goods, the less we find them there,” says Dr. Ryan. “The satisfaction has a short half-life.”

Studies like these only affirm what the Buddha taught twenty-five hundred years ago. Buddhism has always regarded desire as an obstacle, and the path offers ingenious strategies to work with it. A common denominator of these strategies is that they teach us to view desire as something to be interrogated.

 From Rato, a company founded by Buddhist monk Nicholas Vreeland, a large silk "Ahimsa" (no harm) pillow cover in patchwork pattern like monks' robes and made without killing silkworms, $250; a shoulder bag, machine-made cotton with Rato logo, $40; candlestick in traditional Indian metal called bidri, $40; and monk's bag in handloomed cotton in traditional style and mustard and maroon colors, $65.
From Rato, a company founded by Buddhist monk Nicholas Vreeland, a large silk “Ahimsa” (no harm) pillow cover in patchwork pattern like monks’ robes and made without killing silkworms, $250; a shoulder bag, machine-made cotton with Rato logo, $40; candlestick in traditional Indian metal called bidri, $40; and monk’s bag in handloomed cotton in traditional style and mustard and maroon colors, $65.

But what about those Buddhists who actually work in the desire industry? Even as they negotiate, and sometimes struggle, with their own wants, such people must assume some responsibility—and who can say how much?—for the cravings of others. Judy says that she would never sign a Marilyn Manson or a gangsta rap group. “In the beginning, rap and heavy metal were wonderful. They spoke for people who’d never had a voice before. But later they both became sensationalized. The rappers and the rockers learned that the worse they got, the more shocking they got, the more money they’d make. In Buddhism the most important question is, What’s the motivation? Well, what’s the motivation behind this music?”

“Tantric Buddhism would say that it’s impractical to suppress the consumer’s desire and the greed of the producers,” Thurman suggests. “You can’t be a Luddite screaming,’The end of the world is at hand!’ What you can do is try to aim desire at ends that are less destructive. You can try to create an aesthetic in which people take pleasure in goods that are simple, affordable, and less destructive to the environment. You can harness the poetry of advertising—because advertising is a kind of poetry—to useful ends. You can take a poison, which is discontentment and desire, and turn it into an elixir.”

One person who seems to have come close to realizing this ideal is the Venerable Nicholas Vreeland, a Buddhist monk who divides his time between the Tibet Center in New York and Rato Monastery in Mundgod, a Tibetan refugee settlement in the state of Karnataka in southern India. Vreeland’s grandmother Diana was for many years editor-in-chief of Vogue and special consultant to the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. His monastery produces a line of home furnishings based on traditional monastic designs, which are sold through a Lower Manhattan showroom called Talavera.

Rato’s objects are beautiful and simple: bowls and incense boxes made from an oily-looking black alloy called Bidriware, after the Indian city where it is traditionally forged; richly colored piecework bedspreads patterned after a fully ordained monk’s upper robes called namjars; and silk and cotton shoulder bags based on monks’ bags. Vreeland is proud of the fact that Rato harvests its silk without killing silkworms.

“At the time I joined the order in 1985 we had only twelve monks,” Vreeland says. “There are over seventy there today. When you have that many people, it becomes harder to feed them. And because, as Tibetan refugees, we were strangers to the community, we didn’t have the usual option of being supported by our community. As the only Westerner at Rato, I was the one who knew about the world and about ways of making money. It wasn’t what I wanted to do, but I couldn’t turn my back on my fellow monks. Some Benedictine monks from England came to visit us, and the abbot told me, ‘We live in a time when even monks have to stand on their own feet.’”

Perhaps the most unusual aspect of this operation is the way in which the products are distributed. Although Talavera sells Rato’s and other selected home furnishings to some of the country’s most exclusive stores, it doesn’t advertise; it doesn’t even have a catalog.

“The word Talavera is Latin for ‘a true circle,’” explains Aurora Lopez, the showroom’s owner. “And I think of this business as a circle of like-minded people. Everything we do is through word of mouth. Our designers come to us through personal recommendation, and we sell the same way. We place our products in the right stores, and customers just gravitate to them. We don’t advertise. I don’t think we need to. The business has a way of growing in a natural and stable fashion.”

One can, of course, object that businesses like Talavera are special cases: Vreeland’s goal was not to turn a profit but simply to feed and house his community, and Talavera turns most of its proceeds on Rato products back to the monastery. The fact remains that they have found a way to market desirable objects without manipulating the desires of the consumer public. “If an object is elegant and practical,” says Vreeland, “it will sell.”

Aurora qualifies: “It happens a little more slowly, but it happens.”

 From Rato, a company founded by Buddhist monk Nicholas Vreeland, a large silk "Ahimsa" (no harm) pillow cover in patchwork pattern like monks' robes and made without killing silkworms, $250; a shoulder bag, machine-made cotton with Rato logo, $40; candlestick in traditional Indian metal called bidri, $40; and monk's bag in handloomed cotton in traditional style and mustard and maroon colors, $65.
From Rato, a company founded by Buddhist monk Nicholas Vreeland, a large silk “Ahimsa” (no harm) pillow cover in patchwork pattern like monks’ robes and made without killing silkworms, $250; a shoulder bag, machine-made cotton with Rato logo, $40; candlestick in traditional Indian metal called bidri, $40; and monk’s bag in handloomed cotton in traditional style and mustard and maroon colors, $65.

Yet such a detached way of doing business is probably impractical within a global economy. To make a profit most companies have to sell their products to millions of consumers, who may or may not actually need what those companies have to offer. Absent real need, businesses must stoke the furnace of desire by advertising, by promoting, by planting associations between the products themselves and the things people have always really wanted, like security, beauty, sex, and power. It seems likely that as long as America remains a capitalist economy, the industries of desire will flourish and American Buddhists will have to formulate a stance toward them. Should we turn off our TVs, tear up our subscription forms, and generally draw a line against the inroads of consumer capitalism? Should we just accept a future as consumers among consumers? Are we meant to do our consuming in a detached manner, and what would such “detached consumption” look like? Should we avoid working for businesses that teach people to crave? Or should we gravitate to them because they offer us a unique opportunity to confront and transform the root causes of human suffering?

When Arthur (not his real name), a cab driver in a town in upstate New York, informed me that he was a practitioner of Tibetan Buddhism, I asked how he thought the dharma would survive in a society saturated by constant appeals to appetite. “The Buddha taught that it was possible to attain enlightenment no matter what the external circumstances,” Arthur replied, “because those circumstances are illusions. The Tibetan people have maintained their practice under fifty years of oppression we can’t even begin to imagine. If they can manage that, a few TV commercials shouldn’t be a problem for us here.”

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