Consumer culture has spawned a class of spiritual shoppers who bring their acquisitive instincts to the practice of the dharma.
When we turn to spirituality, we may think that we’re leaving the corruption of the world behind. But our old ways of thinking do not disappear; they follow us, coloring the way we approach spiritual practice. Since we have all been raised to be good consumers—getting the most while paying the least—as dharma students and teachers we carry our consumer mentality right into our spiritual practice.
How does consumerism manifest on the part of the student? First, we shop for the best product—the best group, the most realized teacher, the highest practice. We go from this place to that, seeking the best spiritual product to “buy.” We want the highest teachings, so we neglect foundational practices. Viewing ourselves as fully qualified disciples, we don’t see much need for basic practices such as ethical discipline and restraint of our senses; instead, we jump into the most advanced tract.
As consumers, we want to be entertained. We’ll attend a center as long as the teacher is entertaining, but when we hear the same teachings over and over again, we get bored and look for the exotic. Coming from the Tibetan tradition, I can say that Tibetan Buddhism obliges us. While in Tibet many of these practices and accoutrements are part of the culture and not seen as exotic, in the West they have become so. There are high thrones for the teachers, brocade seat covers and tablecloths, robes, long horns, short horns, bells, drums, processions, deep chanting, and, oh yes, hats! Yellow ones, red ones, black ones. With all the paraphernalia, how could one ever get bored practicing Tibetan Buddhism? Yet after a while, these become old, and we’re left with our own mind, our own suffering. Having little endurance or commitment to our practice or our teachers, we seek fresh stimulation. We fail to notice that our teachers still do foundational practices and attend basic teachings given by their spiritual mentors. We neglect to see that repetition may be just what we need or that exploring the reason for our boredom could yield fresh insights.
Consumer culture is modeled on instant gratification. We say we want a close relationship with a spiritual mentor, but when that mentor’s guidance challenges our desires or pushes our ego’s buttons too much, we stop seeking it. At the beginning of our practice, we profess to be earnest spiritual seekers, aiming for enlightenment. But after the practice has remedied our immediate problem—the emotional fallout of a divorce, grief at the loss of a loved one, or life’s myriad setbacks—our spiritual interest fades, and we once again seek happiness in possessions, romantic relationships, technology, and career.
In past ages, spiritual aspirants underwent difficulty to meet teachers. Tibetans traversed the high Himalayas to meet wise mentors in India; Chinese crossed the Takla Makan Desert and Karakoram Mountains to attend monasteries and bring back scriptures from India. But our consumer attitude has led us to expect results with little effort. We think, “Why should we have to travel to attend teachings? Our teacher should come to us! We have jobs, families, such busy lives. We don’t have time to cross town, let alone go to another continent.” Forgetting that the seeker’s very effort and struggle open him or her to the teachings, we resent that our spiritual practice should impinge on our preferences.
In addition, receiving teachings or doing spiritual practices takes time, which we don’t have. We ask our teachers to “modernize” the teachings and practices—to shorten and simplify them—so they will conveniently fit into our lives. As consumers functioning in a world of supply and demand, we take our business elsewhere if our wishes aren’t satisfied. Asian Buddhists make offerings to the monastic community to accumulate merit that brings a good rebirth. Looking at them, we Westerners say, “They’re doing spiritual business. They’re practicing dana—generosity—to get something for themselves.” Thinking that we’re superior to Asians following old traditions, we don’t give to the monastic community. Holding to our work ethic, we want would-be recipients to go out and get a job.
And when we do give dana, what is our attitude? At the end of a retreat, someone gives a “dana talk,” saying dana is generosity freely given but that we should think of all we’ve received from the teacher, who has a family, car, mortgage, credit card bills, and needs our financial support. Hasn’t dana, then, become another way of paying for services rendered? Engaging in rigorous mental calculations to determine what amount is reasonable for such services, we miss the point of dana, which is to take delight in giving and to give from the heart. We should give because we want to be free from the hindrance of miserliness, appreciate the dharma, want others to be able to hear teachings, and wish to support practitioners who live simply and devote their time to spiritual study and practice.
Consumerism breeds self-centeredness, and our spiritual practice centers on me, my needs, my preferences, what works for me. We think, “What can I get from this? How will it benefit me?” Thus a dharma center, temple, or monastery becomes a place where we go to receive, not to give. If we don’t think an activity meets our needs, we don’t have the time or money to support it. I regularly visit an Asian temple where parents and nonparents work in the kitchen during the dharma summer camps for kids. Why? Because they enjoy being part of a community. They care about children and the future of society. They want to support activities that benefit others. Giving is part of their spiritual practice, and they enjoy it.
In a consumer society, we derive status from using certain products. Being close to a famous teacher uplifts a student’s spiritual status. Having that teacher stay in our home, ride in our car, bless our religious objects, or sign a photo elevates our status. One of the best ways to become close to a teacher is by being a big donor, obliging teachers to see us in order to show their appreciation. We don’t want to give anonymously and miss a possible reward.
We also get status by possessing valuable spiritual items. We buy beautiful statues, exquisite paintings of religious figures, and lovely photographs of our teachers, which we display on an elaborate altar in our home. When our spiritual friends visit, we make sure they admire our collection of artifacts, but when our relatives visit, we discreetly cover them to avoid their inquiries. We have the latest spiritual books (preferably autographed by the author), a comfy meditation cushion, and the requisite prayer beads (made of crystal or stone, not plastic, and blessed by a holy being).
In addition, we collect spiritual events. We can rattle off a list of retreats we have attended or initiations we have taken. We have become connoisseurs of retreat centers, which we critique for newcomers. We boast of attending large teachings by famous teachers. And we pat ourselves on the back for being such sincere practitioners.
The consumer mentality infects teachers as well. Notices of dharma events don’t just announce an event, but actively sell a product, in this case the teacher or the teaching. Most ads display an enticing photo of a spiritual master who is smiling radiantly or looking wisely into the distance. He or she is, the ads declare, a highly realized, well-respected, fully accomplished master. The topic being taught is a secret teaching that in the past was given to only a select number of qualified disciples. It is the supreme teaching by which previous masters have attained enlightenment. You can receive this for a mere $99.95 plus dana for the teacher. Register early to reserve a seat. What happened to the age-old custom of humble masters who keep their qualities hidden?
With a sincere motivation, letting people who could benefit from a spiritual teaching or retreat know about it is valid and necessary. We need to consider how to do this without hype in a culture that thrives on hype.
In a consumer economy, success is measured by numbers. Thus many spiritual teachers hope attendance at teachings is large, dana continually increases, their books sell well, and invitations to speak on television and radio programs are plentiful. To what extent do we decide where we teach based on the amount of dana we will receive? Is it just coincidence that many teachers go to wealthy communities? How many teachers go to developing countries or to lower-income areas in our own country, where dana is meager?
Finances are necessary to spread the teachings. How can teachers procure support consistent with right livelihood? Do we drop hints, flatter, or subtly coerce people so that they will offer money to us or to our organization? Do we give donors extra perks that are denied to other devotees who may be more sincere but not as well-off? To market a product, it must be appealing to potential buyers. Buddhism says that skillful means—teaching according to the disposition and interests of the students—are necessary to guide people on the path. But when do our skillful means degenerate into marketing?
Do we omit certain ideas or teachings, or explain them away because potential students don’t like them and will stop coming? How much do we water down the scriptural teachings in the name of skillful means, when our motivation is actually attracting and maintaining a large following?
Our consumer mentality as spiritual students and teachers draws us away from actualizing our deepest spiritual aspirations. In Buddhism the distinction between spiritual and nonspiritual actions is made primarily in terms of motivation. Motivations seeking only the happiness of this life are considered worldly because they focus on our own immediate happiness; motivations aspiring to good future rebirth, liberation, and enlightenment are spiritual because they seek long-term goals that benefit self and others.
When describing a mind that seeks the happiness of only this life, the Buddha outlined eight worldly concerns. These eight fall into four pairs: (1) attachment to having money and material possessions; displeasure when we don’t have them, (2) attachment to praise, approval, and ego-pleasing words; displeasure when we are criticized, (3) attachment to having a good reputation and image; displeasure when they are tainted, and (4) attachment to pleasurable sense objects—sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and tactile objects; displeasure when encountering unpleasant sense objects. Personally speaking, when I examine my mental states, most of them consist of these eight, so that having a pure dharma motivation is quite difficult.
Spiritual consumerism clearly falls into the eight worldly concerns. While it is often masked by clever rationalizations, it still enslaves us to the happiness of only this life and sabotages our noble aspiration so that no true dharma practice can actually occur.
Perhaps most distressing is the harm spiritual consumerism has on others. It threatens the purity of our spiritual traditions by enticing us to “adjust” the meaning of the teachings, thus depriving future generations of pure spiritual instructions. It causes others to lose faith in the efficacy of practice because they see us teaching one thing but acting oppositely. It leads spiritual institutions to create structures that harm the very people they promise to help.
We must become aware of how the consumer mentality functions in us and in our spiritual communities and institutions. We need to revive appreciation for the traditional model of a practitioner who lives a life of simplicity and humility, sincerity and endeavor, kindness and compassion. We must choose teachers with these qualities, cultivate these qualities in ourselves, and guide our students in developing them. We must remember that the purpose of a spiritual institution is not to preserve itself, but to facilitate the teaching and practice of a spiritual tradition. We should have only as much institutional structure as needed to do that, no more. This is essential to maintain the vitality of our spiritual traditions and to prevent them from becoming empty shells.
Buddhists are attempting to introduce dharma values and establish a substantial role for the dharma in Western culture, but consumer mentality impedes this. Our collective challenge is to practice and teach the dharma in ways that benefit contemporary culture and at the same time preserve the purity of the teachings.
Thank you for subscribing to Tricycle! As a nonprofit, we depend on readers like you to keep Buddhist teachings and practices widely available.