Much has happened to Buddhism in the twenty-five hundred years since that first sermon. It has settled in many lands, mingled with many cultures, and developed dramatically different forms of practice. But in every case, the renunciation of worldly attachments and sensory desires as inherently incapable of providing stable happiness has remained a cornerstone of Buddhist thought and practice. There is no Buddhism that does not hold that liberation from suffering involves the elimination of desire, hatred, and ignorance, the three root kleshas, or obscuring emotions.
Now, in the Americas and in Europe, Buddhism has once again landed on alien shores, and once again this ancient wisdom tradition is having to find its place in an alien culture. But this time, the dominant cultural context that Buddhism must adapt to is neither a religious nor a political worldview. It is consumer capitalism.
One of the fundamental premises of Buddhism, constantly repeated by the Dalai Lama, is that all beings want happiness and do not want suffering. There is no more fundamental question, addressed consciously and unconsciously by every being every minute of every day, than “how do I find happiness?” Buddhism is a method of transforming the deep misunderstanding of the world that causes unhappiness into a wisdom that recognizes the impermanent, changing nature of everything we grasp—most significantly our selves. This recognition alone frees us from compulsive desire and attachment: we no longer seek for happiness in external objects that are utterly incapable of bestowing the lasting satisfaction we crave. The cessation of desire, says the Buddha, leads to peace.
Consumerism is the exact opposite idea. It is based on the notion that material well-being is the highest goal (or the only goal) worth aspiring to: happiness comes from having. Value resides in the stuff you possess. This path to happiness requires an endless indulgence of desire.
Karl Marx defined a commodity in Capital as “an object outside us, a thing that by its properties satisfies human wants of some sort or another,” and he described the wealth of capitalist societies as “an immense accumulation of commodities” (The Marx-Engels Reader, New York, 1978, p. 302f.). In describing the “commodification of consciousness,” analysts have shown how consumer capitalism commodifies every aspect of culture, including those that are alien to the marketplace, such as philosophy, art, and religion.
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