21 February 2014

Commodification and the Buddhadharma

image: moneysister
In the world of modern Buddhism there seems to be a growing concern about commodification of the Buddhadharma. I'm seeing more and more complaints about it from Buddhists. Commodification is a process in which something which is not usually considered to be bought and sold is transformed into a product with a monetary value. I have for instance argued that the re-packaging of our thoughts and emotions by websites like Facebook to help them sell advertising constitutes a commodification of the self. I argued that this was a bad thing. "Our online persona becomes like a soap opera that is processed and sold as entertainment and enriches those who facilitate the process, with little or no real benefit to us despite the hype." However when one looks more closely at the concerns one often sees that they are based in a Romantic picture of Buddhism and they generally ignore our history. Buddhist ignorance of Buddhist history is something to be really concerned about. We tend to believe the lovely stories about our chosen religion that are completely unrealistic. We don't see the problems that we face in the light of how earlier Buddhists faced them, we don't even see that they faced them. This makes us and our age seem much more different from the past than is the case. 

The Romance of Buddhism.

In an interview in Tricycle Online Mu Soeng, said "Most people forget that they began practicing [sic] for the sake of liberation." Really? Because in twenty years of practising Buddhism I've rarely met anyone who confessed to begin practising for the sake of liberation. We usually have no idea what liberation is at the beginning. Of course some people are attracted by notions of transcendence, especially if they've taken hallucinogens, but most people I meet are simply looking for ways to suffer less or to live better (i.e. to make the most of saṁsāra). Liberation is a concept internal to Indian religions, it's not a concept we can understand prior to beginning to practice. Even the idea that, having become Buddhists, each one of us is striving for liberation is a Romantic conceit. Most of us are far too settled and comfortable to be taken seriously as genuinely seeking liberation. We seem loath to admit to this, but it is natural and entirely consistent with our history. It takes a particular personality and temperament to really take on the challenges involved and most of us are not up to it. 

The idea that every Buddhist might be actively striving for liberation is one that has no history. The number of people genuinely striving for liberation has always been dwarfed by people of less inspiration and less commitment, who are none-the-less sincere in their support for the Three Jewels and their attempts to live good lives. Most of us are just hanging around with Buddhists and though quite pious in our own way, cannot realistically expect to be liberated.

I begin to wonder if this idea that we can all be liberated is in fact part of the commodification of Buddhism in the West: the selling of Buddhism as a cornucopia and universal panacea. Sure, in theory we can all be liberated, but in practice most of us won't be. We make our contribution in other ways - be it making donations, helping to organise a teaching centre, or even just being a positive presence in the community (or writing essays). Being a member of a vibrant and supportive community of people with a common goal and sense of purpose can make us a great deal happier. It will bring out the best in us and help actualise our potential, whatever our potential is. For Buddhism to thrive it is quite important to have such a community around the more serious practitioners in order to support and sustain them.

But most of us are people are towards the middle of the bell curve. This "we're all Buddha's" stuff is like saying "We're all capable of getting a PhD and should all be enrolled in a program and pursuing research". No one would take this idea seriously. Some people do very well to get a bachelors degree, while others do fine with a basic education.

So Buddhists say things like "Most people forget that they began practicing [sic] for the sake of liberation" and it keeps the punters on the hook (and this may not be conscious because we unconsciously pick up on what the people around us are saying and repeat it to reinforce our group membership). Buddhists worry about not practising enough or in the right way and they become consumers of what Buddhist "teachers" are selling: they buy books, attend expensive seminars and retreats, and mālās, and little vajras to wear around their necks, and get a tattoo of a mantra and so on. As long as they are not at ease with who they are, they keep spending money on more teachings, more initiations, and more paraphernalia. Burn more incense, light more candles. There's a kind of anxious piety about many Buddhists, linked to an exaggerated concern for authenticity. The anxiety that the "true teaching" will be lost in the crowd of "false teachings" is visible in every layer of Buddhist literature, but quite pronounced in the voices of Buddhist converts from societies which have been largely Christian for centuries. Heresy is a particular anxiety for Christians as they only have one shot at heaven and they've left their mark on our psyches. Maybe we're getting spillover from that.

The Mindfulness Heresy

One of the problem areas that has emerged recently are the so-called Mindfulness Based Therapies (MBT) spawned by John Kabat-Zinn's application of Buddhist awareness techniques to managing pain. One sees and hears a great deal of bitterness, resentment and/or contempt towards practitioners of MBT from supposedly tolerant and pacific Buddhists. But let's be clear, the reason we've heard of JKZ is because his approach to pain management was incredibly successful in helping people with with chronic pain. And as someone who suffers from chronic pain I have nothing but respect and admiration for JKZ.

There seem to be two main complaints about MBT. That it is incomplete; and that it commodifies the Buddha's teaching.

Some Buddhists imagine that MBT is being touted as an alternative to Buddhism (it isn't) and that MBT is positioning itself as a competitor to Buddhism (it isn't). When martial artists claim to use Buddhist principles and practices in order to better defeat opponents in combat, we Buddhists have not complained that they are trying to undermine Buddhism or steal our ideas. If anything most Buddhists seem attracted to the idea of a martial wing to our culture as the fascination with samurai persists. As Buddhists we apparently see ourselves as in possession of a (the) panacea that we must retain control over. And the popularity of MBT compared to tradition Buddhist teachings has threatened our control over the ideas and practices of Buddhism. MBT has escaped from the hegemony of Buddhist orthodoxy. This is something to laugh about. It's hilarious.

The apparent commodification of Buddhism by practitioners of MBT seems to be a more problematic issue. MBT is generally speaking quite expensive. In the UK it is much more expensive than a beginners meditation class. But not more expensive than other types of pain management or psychological therapy. The idea behind this complaint seems to be that Buddhists have always taught for free. But this is simply not true. At the very least, as is shown at some length in Reginald Ray's book Buddhist Saints in India, Buddhist teaching was part of a social contract in which laypeople agreed to provide for all of the material needs of the entire monastic and forest-dwelling community in return for pastoral care and instructions. I will say more about the funding of Buddhism below, but we need to be clear that sustaining a group of people who do no productive work requires resources to be diverted from the productive part of society. Buddhist teachers have always been supported. And historically this has lead to massive accumulations of wealth (and therefore power) in monastic communities.

So it seems to me that Buddhists complaining about the success of MBT is bizarre and laughable. But complain they do. Indeed the backlash against MBT may be growing if rumblings in the blogosphere are anything to go by. 

Naïveté and Romanticism

This is not to say that consumerism is a good thing. Consumerism is not a good thing. But neither is it an entirely new thing. One of the problems Mu Soeng sees is the rise of the teacher who wants to be a teacher for the kudos. Becoming a Buddhist teacher is a source of social standing and charisma (in the sense of the ability to influence one's social group and perhaps beyond). It's a way for some people to climb the social ladder. But again this has always been true. There are Pali texts reflecting just this problem - bhikkhus who went forth because they got a better living as a monk than their previous life. In Japan in the late 8th century people were pretending to be Buddhist monks in order to avoid forced labour. People become Buddhists for all kinds of reasons; they become "teachers" for all kinds of reasons; they become followers for all kinds of reasons. Some followers are only satisfied by a charismatic and ambitious teacher, which is why such people are able to succeed.

The general assumption seems to be that the teacher-pupil relationship is an asymmetrical power relationship - that it is characterised mainly by the exertion of power by the teacher. Typically, for some reason, as followers we expect to give up responsibility for decision making to our guru, even when the main teaching is take responsibility for yourself. Most people seem to be hopelessly naive and puerile when it comes to the religious life. Many are looking for a parent substitute and easily slip into a subordinate, childlike state in the presence of their teacher. Traditional Buddhist teachers do seem to encourage this unfortunately, though I think many Asians have been tripped up by how puerile we Westerners really are.

At present the fashion is to blame the teacher when something goes wrong. I'm not quite sure where the ideology of asymmetric power relationships comes from, but it is stated as an absolute fact time and again in the various sex scandals. It seems to me to be incredibly unhelpful in sorting out the problems that ensue from abdication of responsibility to a parent substitute because it completely ignores that side of the problem. One positive thing one can say about theism, is that at least the parent substitute is an imaginary figure in the sky, rather than a human being. Imaginary friends seldom let us down in the way that humans are wont to do. It really is unfortunate when people prey on naivete. But how else are the naive going to grow up except through betrayal? Naivete is positively dangerous in adults. We see the disastrous results all around us.

It is only when we realise that our parents are not omniscient and omnipotent, that they make mistakes, that they are not always kind and good to us, that we begin to grow up. If we reject that transition and go looking for a guru to play God, then we should not be surprised by the behaviour of the gods. In fact if we read mythology we discover that Gods are often immoral in the extreme. Greek myth for example is often bowdlerised for consumption by children, but the adult versions show how capricious, unsentimental and amoral (not to say immoral) the gods can be. One subjugates oneself at one's own risk.

Historically Romanticism was a reaction to the perceived mechanistic worldview of the Enlightenment thinkers. In Nietzsche's terms the dominant paradigm had become decidedly Apollonian. Romantics embraced Dionysus partly as a way of disrupting that. Certainly Romanticism is valuable in the way that it revalorises nature and the environment. In the present day, however, I see Romanticism as encouraging escapism and naivete. It's all too easy for us to escape into the world of imagination these days and to fail to engage with the practical problems facing us: from the baleful influence of Neolibertarianism (with it's roots in a dehumanising Utilitarianism and Game Theory) to the increasingly urgent problem of climate change. These problems of the material world are too remote for those who see themselves as spiritual beings, floating above the turbulence and uninvolved. Rather like our idealised Buddha figures who float above the world on pretty flowers, depicted as eternal youths and damsels.

Disengagement is the besetting problem of the last few generations. Present day Britain is once again dominated by Victorian thinking because successive generations of have either bought into the Neolibertarian lie, or simply dropped out of political life (the term for such a person in Greek was "idiot" from idios 'one's own'). The Romantic sees themselves as standing alone against an uncomprehending world. My own teacher has described the True Individual as characterised by "frequent aloneness". Romantics see the True Individuals as possessed of a refined soul in contrast to the gross materiality of the world. By contrast I argue that more than ever we need to see ourselves as inseparably interconnected with others and functioning better in groups than alone; and as rooted in the material world and willing to get our hands dirty to solve problems in the material world. What's worse is that Neolibertarians exploit the tendency to disconnect, encouraging and facilitating escapism while continuing to accumulate wealth and power. 

The Funding of Buddhism

If the legends can be believed the first Buddhists were rather extreme ascetics by out standards. There were more extreme lifestyles available at the time, but these people lived on one meal a day which they begged at the doors of whatever settlement they were near, made their clothing from discarded rags, and wandered from place to place. But if they did live this way it doesn't seem to have lasted long. Wealthy patrons already feature in the earliest literature and many of them are very wealthy. Maybe having your generosity immortalised in a sutta was a bit like today's naming rights? Anāthapiṇḍika's Ārāma (garden) as the Pāḷi equivalent of the "O2" arena? Soon the incrowd and socialites of ancient India were donating many expensive gifts and large sums of money to Buddhist beggars. They went from being possessionless beggars in rags, to being substantial property and land owners in silk robes in a relatively short space of time. And they have remained in this position ever since. People donated over and above what was needed in to gain merit for a better rebirth. Why Buddhist monasteries accumulate wealth is open for discussion.

When Kūkai visited Changan, the imperial capital of China in 804-6 CE, there were some 90 Buddhist temples, alongside substantial buildings belonging to other religions. Some of these temples recorded huge donations (e.g. a billion copper coins) and were possessors of incalculable wealth. What's more they were involved in usury and owned productive land. And as ever they were not subject to the usual taxes. The imbalance was so great in China that, much like Britain in the 16th century, the Imperium, on the verge of bankruptcy, turned on the Buddhists and took all that wealth by force, sacking the monasteries. Having a large Buddhist establishment in your economic sphere is a vast drain on resources and history shows that supporting such a large unproductive sector frequently leads governments into economic difficulties. This may be why Zen monks ended up having to work for a living in Japan, where they had plenty of experience of wealthy and powerful monks interfering in government. In Tibet the monks solved this potential problem by becoming the de facto government and convincing peasants that a revered religious leader reincarnated time and time again to be their king. This produced an isolationist, stagnant, despotic feudalism that was largely disinterested in solving problems in the material world, while at the same time selling the story that they were engaged in saving all beings from suffering using supernatural means. The irony with Tibet is that had the Chinese not invaded we might still never have heard of Tibetan Buddhism. 

One of the features of the work of Professor Gregory Schopen has been to show how ancient monasteries, to the extent that they have been excavated, were always involved in direct economic activity. From donating cash to monumental building programs to minting their own coins, all the evidence points to Buddhist monasteries as domains of power and wealth. The massive "university" at Nalanda was not built for free. We tend to forget that every building must be paid for. Land and bricks have to be bought, builders have to be paid and so on. All the evidence is that Buddhists were active in this sphere, though not productive. They simply accumulated wealth and property. And they still do. And what they offer in return is a little teaching, rituals to ward of misfortune, and the promise of a better rebirth for the donors. Buddhist monasteries have always been centres of wealth and power. Celibacy stops that wealth leaking away to children. 

It's clear that a great deal of effort these days is going into producing Buddhist consumer goods: "Dharma" books, DVDs, paraphernalia, cushions, statues, apps; and Buddhist services: retreats, seminars, workshops, pilgrimages and initiations. This seems, historically speaking, to be business as usual. Running Buddhism and expanding it is not cheap and Buddhists have more or less always had to generate a huge amount of cash to fund it. Perhaps our culture of consumerism is more intense than before. Perhaps the average person is considerably more affluent than before. But the basic pattern of attracting donors to fund the maintenance and spread of Buddhism, involving the material support of a large unproductive clergy, as well as the accumulation of wealth and power by ruling elites, is nothing new. Commodification is the historical norm from the earliest textual and archaeological records. The Romantic idea of Buddhists living "pure" spiritual lives unconcerned with the material world is a story that has never been true in Buddhism history. Unproductive priests require the material support of their followers.


I was listening to the radio recently and someone said that one can tell the health of a religion by whether it is looking for converts or heretics. The implication was that looking for converts is a sign of health and looking for heretics a sign of ill-health. Clearly different parts of the Buddhist world are at different places on this spectrum. It's partly this that makes the reaction to MBT as a heresy alarming. But also it's another reminder that Buddhists don't really understand their own history and they don't understand economics. And isn't this because these are "material world" subjects that are considered to be below the spiritual aspirant who has renounced the world?

Isn't this another manifestation of the ontological dualism outlined in my essay, Metaphors and Materialism, this split in our minds between matter and spirit. Don't we, as Buddhists, long to belong to the world of spirit, free of the corruptions of matter? Aren't we simply disgusted by bodies, money, and sex? Don't we imagine ideal worlds in which we have bodies of light, all our wants fulfilled with no effort; where everyone loves each other but no one has sex? And isn't that really the problem we have with the supposedly new, but in fact ancient phenomenon of commodification and the practical application of our techniques? It spoils the illusion that we are part of something so spiritual that you can't buy it over the counter.

The production of food involves costs - it require input from the three factors of production: labour, capital and land. We would probably add a fourth factor these days: knowledge. These costs must be met or food production becomes unsustainable. So labour generates wages, capital generates profit, and land generates rent. What knowledge generates in compensation I don't know (my Marxist economics is a bit out of date!). If someone gives up their spare time to teach then maybe they can do so at little cost, except for the lost opportunities to do something else with that time (and the preparation time). But if someone gives up their working time to teach then we must provide them, one way or another with the means to survive or even to thrive. Since in the West we have no culture of supporting people in the traditional Buddhist manner, teachers must charge a fee or go get a job. And if they have a job they'll do a lot less teaching. We either have to create a culture in which ordinary Buddhists give up a substantial portion of their own income to support teachers (the tithe of old) or reconcile themselves to paying fees. History suggests that this has always been the case.

In any case, if we're going to have a discussion about commodification let's do it with some awareness of our own history and the politics of our day!


Some views of Mindfulness etc. in no particular order
  • Why Mindfulness isn’t a Good Thing (…or New) The Naked Monk. (13 July 2013)
  • TIME's Beautiful, White, Blonde 'Mindfulness Revolution', Huffington Post (29 Jan 2014) though generally the Huff is a HUGE FAN.
  • Corporatist Spirituality. Richard K. Payne. (18 Feb 2014) See comments from me and RKP.
  • Protesters crash Google talk on corporate mindfulness at Wisdom 2.0 conference. Tricyle. (17 Feb 2014) Though note that the protest itself was not about Mindfulness, but "about Google and other Tech giants" forcing up rents in some areas of San Francisco. [Read the comments also]
  • Mineful Response and the Rise of Corporatist Spirituality. Speculative Non-Buddhism. (17 Feb 2014). SNB specialises in angry and reductio ad absurdum arguments.
  • The mindfulness business: Western capitalism is looking for inspiration in eastern mysticism. The Economist. 16 Nov 2013.
  • Beyond McMindfulness. Huff Post. 7 Jan 2013.
  • Enlightenment Engineer: Meditation and mindfulness are the new rage in Silicon Valley. And it’s not just about inner peace—it’s about getting ahead. Wired.  (18 Jun 2013)
  • Mindfulness is Political: Viśvapāṇi and other posts on his blog. (ca. 20 Feb 2014). A bit of balance. 
  • diy dhamma drama or here we goes agin. 108zenbooks.
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