Two wool coats, one windbreaker, two backpacks, one messenger bag, one stove-top coffee maker, a dozen party hats, one bluetooth speaker, one cordless power drill (with zero batteries), two black curtains, eight lightbulbs. These were the things we gave away. One antique china cabinet, two upholstered chairs, two nightstands, and one handmade wooden trunk. These were the gifts we received. I had only recently heard the name Buy Nothing, but now it was constantly coming out of my mouth. Just married, my wife and I were still receiving gifts as our roommate was moving out, and we found ourselves with a lot of stuff we no longer had any use for (or possibly never did have) as well as an empty and unfurnished room. The gift economy created through The Buy Nothing Project was the seems-too-good-to-be-true-but-it’s-actually-true solution. The Buy Nothing groups aren’t for bartering or reselling—such activities will get one kicked out of their local group. Rather, they are hyperlocal gift economies, where everything is freely given. It does not matter how much one gives or receives or what the dollar value of an item is. Wealth is moved not by an invisible hand but by a kind of karmic alchemy.
The project began in 2013 when Liesl Clark and Rebecca Rockefeller formed a group on Bainbridge Island, Washington, as a challenge to themselves and their community to “buy less and share more.” Today, the organization counts 13,000 volunteers, millions of members, and groups in 44 countries. The cofounders have also written a book, The Buy Nothing, Get Everything Plan: Discover the Joy of Spending Less, Sharing More, and Living Generously (2020). For Liesl Clark, there is also a spiritual dimension to Buy Nothing. As a filmmaker who has documented Buddhist life and the restoration of religious art and recently unearthed temples in Nepal, she drew inspiration from many of the Buddhist ideas she encountered and took to heart. I spoke with cofounder Liesl Clark about her interest in Buddhism, her travels in the Himalayas, and the continued growth of the global organization.
After joining my local Buy Nothing group, I started to notice a lot of parallels between the project’s mission and Buddhist teachings, like those on nonattachment and the renunciant traditions. I had a suspicion that maybe there was something Buddhist about the Buy Nothing project, and I was thrilled to hear that you’re a Tricycle reader. Could you tell me about your Buddhist background? My first exposure to Buddhism was through Sherpa culture. I was a filmmaker in my twenties documenting the first all-Sherpa expedition on Mount Everest in 1991. My now-husband, Pete Athans, who’s a climber and a student of Buddhism, was leading the expedition and providing support to the team. In this region of Nepal, spirituality was everywhere—I was living, breathing, and enacting it as I traveled through the villages, circumambulating the chortens [reliquary shrines] and stupas. Also there were real living deities—lamas [teachers] and tulkus [reincarnated masters]—who were so open and happy. Living on some of the highest peaks in the Himalayas, I learned about my connection to the world and how to understand impermanence, because in the Everest region a lot of things are impermanent, including people’s lives. It was a very hands-on introduction, and there weren’t a lot of books involved. Then it was lovely to continue learning about Buddhism from Pete and the Sherpa lamas, who have become dear friends, as well as through my exposure to Buddhist cultures while making other films.
In your book, you write that Buy Nothing had over 1 million community members, but since it was published in April 2020, that number has jumped to over 8 million. What caused that recent growth? A lot of that is because of the pandemic. The longer it continues, the more people feel the need to create a social safety net and to have these hyperlocal gift economies. What has struck a chord with people is not only sharing their goods and services but also connecting with their neighbors. For most people, that sense of community begins as a bonus but then becomes the main benefit.
We were isolated even before the pandemic—storing our stuff in our homes and not sharing it, at least not in the joyful way that a gift economy enables you to.
The community, or sangha, along with the Buddha and the dharma, is one of Buddhism’s three jewels. Did this Buddhist emphasis on community inspire or influence your thinking when Buy Nothing was starting out? Absolutely. One of the key teachings for me was when my husband, our two children, and I arrived in the Nepalese village of Samdzong, near the Tibetan border, and brought with us five duffel bags filled with clothing and some toys to give to the families there. We were separating everything into piles for each household and trying to figure out what they needed—for example, we set aside baby clothes for families who had newborns—when the head of the community, the mukhia, walked over, looking at me like I was from outer space, and said, “No, you should divide it up evenly.” Even when I tried to remove baby clothes from a pile going to just one 68-year-old woman to make room for more adult clothes, she stopped me. What I didn’t understand at the time was that it was important for the survival of the village for even homes without young children to have baby clothes so that they would be able to give them as gifts to the other homes. These gifts weren’t for us to distribute. The gifts were for the villagers to use to create a collective commons. Now the 68-year-old woman had baby clothes to share so that she could become a part of their family and their lives, and the family was able to be the recipient of the clothes and make a new connection with the woman. That interconnection is so important. It helps them create a stronger and more egalitarian community.
That experience showed me why giving and receiving are equally important. It was also a teaching about how unhealthy attachments can cause so much suffering, and how important it is to accept impermanence. Often when people first join a Buy Nothing group, they’ll offer something up, but when they see how much everybody loves it, they start to want it back. You can see these things happening in our minds. But then there are moments when people start to ask themselves “Can I just let go? Can I just accept that I am going to be able to fall into the arms of my community—that if I ever need something like that again, I’ll just be able to ask, and they’ll take care of me?” That has been a dynamic that plays out over and over again. Once people can let go of stuff, they discover that they can rely on their communities, just as we saw in so many villages in Nepal where the land and the livestock and so many other things are part of the collective commons. In the United States, this idea has been harder for people to accept, but through participation in these gift economies and constantly seeing the offering of the gift and the acceptance of the gift, people learn through repetition that the community will take care of them; they’re learning about the power of human connection and the value of group reliance rather than self-reliance.
“Everybody loves to be generous. But it’s just as important to accept gifts with humility.”
That story makes me think of the Pali word for monk, bhikkhu, which literally translates as “beggar.” What do you think of the idea that it can be noble to be a beggar and the related Buddhist notion that giving, especially to a monastic, is not just a charitable act but an ennobling act, a practice in and of itself? I love the idea that it is noble to be a beggar. We’ve found that for most people it is easy to give. Everybody loves to be generous. But it’s just as important to accept gifts with humility, and people have a much harder time asking for something. It makes them feel vulnerable or as though they’re showing their weakness if they say something like “My kid is really into basketball and would like new sneakers, and I can’t afford them” or “I thought I’d see if anybody has shoes before I go to the store.” It is so hard for someone to show that they have a need, but to the community it doesn’t really matter whether it’s a need or a want. Nobody’s going “Why did you ask for that?” What usually happens is this gleeful moment when somebody says, “My 10-year-old just outgrew that exact size of shoes, and I was just going to throw them out.” There’s joy for the giving person, and by asking you enable that person to give to you. It’s positive for everyone. So it is noble to ask, because if you don’t ask, you’re not giving people an opportunity to connect.
You’ve written that in a consumerist culture, people overidentify with their possessions to create a sense of meaning that shared stories used to provide. What role do stories play in the Buy Nothing project? In that first year, people said that the posts in the Buy Nothing group were the best reading of the summer. You can just log on and read all these quirky stories about people’s stuff, why they’re getting rid of things, and why they might need something. Very early on we saw that the stories around the objects were much more meaningful than the objects themselves. People have given away cars. There was a house given away. But when everything has equal value—when people are thinking that way—then it’s much more about the stories than the actual object. The things take on a life of their own as one person passes an object and its story to someone else, and then it takes on a new meaning for the recipient who becomes the steward of that item and story. It’s all tied to what it means to be human.
One of the steps in your book is about looking at one’s own desires. You write that the things that drive us to consume are sometimes aspects of ourselves that are difficult to face. Is there a Buddhist practice that informed that idea? I wish I could say yes. But the main Buddhist idea that has helped me with the project is about Mahakala, a wrathful protector deity in Tibetan Buddhism. Our groups are on Facebook, and the time I spend on Facebook has been really difficult. Even though the actual gift economies can be full-on kumbaya, we’re still using the master’s tools to run these mindful communities. Now we are finally able to custom-build our own platform, but for the past eight years and still now as we continue to roll out our new app, my main practice has been to deflect some of the very hurtful things that people can do to each other on Facebook. So while my meditation is one of constantly giving and being available, it also has to involve being protective. And it’s OK to be—well, I’m not necessarily a wrathful person—but to know that you can rely on that deity to protect you and your family in the face of this maelstrom of social media.
Our new app will hopefully offer an alternative to Facebook, and that’s also why we wrote a book, so people could participate outside of social media. Ultimately, our goal is to get off social media and to have this behavior ingrained in our everyday lives, so that we’re thinking in terms of sharing wherever we go.