Hooked: Buddhist Writings on Greed, Desire and the Urge to Consume edited by Stephanie Kaza is just what its sub-heading promises it to be. It is an exciting collection of papers expressing the concerns of the contemporary practicing Buddhists regarding issues of consumerism. It deals with the way in which the culture of consumption is affecting society and individual identities in general as well as that of the Buddhist community. Most of the papers also try to explore the possibilities of negotiating them in terms of Buddhist principles.
Kaza's introduction to the volume sets the agenda for the papers to come. She points out that the current rates of consumption in the developed countries are not sustainable as it has significant irreversible ill effects on the state of the natural condition of our planet. Moreover, the market economy displaces the ecological identity with the consumer identity of individuals, where they get marked in terms of their brand preferences and material possessions. She characterizes a consumerist society as one in which people use their leisure time to spend money and belief that owning things is the primary means to happiness. Everyone needs to consume but consumption becomes problematic only when it becomes an end in itself. She also provides a peep into the history of the development of the present consumerist world order and into the thoughts of those with an unsympathetic reading of economic globalization. Understanding the ego-centric and desire-satisfaction oriented consumerist economic and socio-cultural situation to be undesirable, she goes on present the volume as an exploration into the Buddhist alternative.
Joseph Goldstein in his paper 'Desire, Delusion and DVDs' comments that 'wanting to want' is a disease of the present , something which goes against the Buddhist way of life. The driving force behind consumerism is greed fed by 'delusion of a separate, independently existing self'. Buddhists believe in the impermanence of things desired as well as of the one who desires. This realization of the impermanence of being might help one to overcome the desire to possess. Hence the freedom sought from addiction to food, television and consumption itself is internal. One may live in a palace and be free of desire, he points out. The practice of generosity and non-harming may be helpful in achieving this freedom.
Pema Chödrön in her paper 'How We Get Hooked, How We Get Unhooked' claims that attachment is something that we develop to things from a feeling of insecurity about the changing nature of the world. We feel secure in clinging to things and understanding ourselves in terms of those. Yet this understanding of ourselves is limiting and false. So what we need to give up is attachment or clinging and not the things that we are usually attached to like food, or relationships. The procedure she suggests is to recognize the clinging and then not to act on it.
Ruben L. F. Habito in 'The Inner Pursuit of Happiness' understands the constant desire to have more as arising from a deep sense of lack. Yet the desire to have more always keeps us dissatisfied. He suggests replacing the acquisitive with the contemplative mode of being. Sumi Loundon in her 'Young Buddhists in shopping Shangri-la' recounts her experiences of growing up in an anti-consumerist Buddhist Zen commune and uses that to address the issues in question. She brings in a classification among the Buddhists as non-consumerist, at-ease and conscious consumerists and says that the young Buddhists are shifting towards conscious consumerism. She also talks about 'boutique' Buddhism which comprises buying and selling of dharma beads and so on. Thubten Chödrön in 'Marketing the Dharma' deals with the issue of negotiating consumerism affecting the Buddhist community: its members and practices and the commoditization of Buddhism itself. The students and teachers carry their consumerist sensibilities with them when they start practicing Dharma. As consumers the students want things to be easily available and the teachers if they want to have students may feel obligated to compromise the length of the spiritual practices. He also deals with the dilemma of dana or gift and the questionable motivations behind it which may be that of buying status or of paying back for the service received. Diana Winston in 'You are What You Download' tries to tackle the issues relating to the internet and its evolution into a 'time-wasting, greed-inducing, glorified shopping channel'. She cautions that every tiny bit that enters our mind affects us. As we feed our minds so shall we reap from it.
Judith Simmer-Brown in 'Cultivating the Wisdom Gaze' analyses the external and internal causes of the phenomenon of globalization and lays stress on the importance of practicing 'engaged Buddhism' as a way of countering it. Every phenomenon depends on various causes for its emergence, according to Buddhism. Hence it is significant to understand those causes in order to change the nature of the phenomena. Pracha Hutanuwatr and Jane Rasbash in 'No River Bigger than Tanha' deal with the rise of consumerism in Thailand based on the works of Ven. Buddhadasa Bhikkhu and Ajahn Sulak Sivaraksa. They say that 'for most Thai these shopping malls are the new temples…' (p.105). Consumerism is based on the amplification of craving and the urge towards its satisfaction. These feeling of tanha or craving is real. Happiness can be achieved by 'satisfying tanha more often or by reducing tanha itself' (p.110). Buddhism argues that craving is the root cause of suffering and pain. According to it, craving can never be satisfied and hence one should explore ways of getting rid of it rather than trying to satisfy it. They propose a Buddhist alternative model of development based on primacy of self-respect as opposed to the consumerist model which is based on a personal sense of lack. They also document the work of some Thai Buddhist NGOs in this regard in providing an alternative in education and community practices. Sunyana Graef in her 'Taming the “I Want” Mind' talks about consumerism as an addiction as well as how to counter the challenges that it provides to parenting and family life with the help of sangha principles. Stephanie Kaza in her paper 'Penetrating the tangle' investigates how Buddhism can contribute to the existing critiques of consumerism. The Buddhist critiques, she points out, focus on the undesirable effects of consumerism in terms of personal identity formation (“I am what I have”), rationalization of harming ( deforestation, pollution, worker rights abuse) and promotion of dissatisfaction.
Rita M. Gross in her 'Form and Elegance with Just enough' brings to the fore the Buddhist stress on the phrase “not too little”. She says that self-denial is also to be forsaken along with self-indulgence. One should make 'the beauty and delightfulness of the phenomenal world …an ally' (p. 165) in the search for enlightenment. What is required is to have a real understanding of how to do deal with the phenomenal world.
David Loy and Linda Goodhew's paper 'Consuming Time' is about the commoditization of time. Following Nagarjuna's philosophy he presents the notion of objective time as a social construction. According to the Buddhist principles one needs to realize that 'I am not in time, because I am time' (p. 173). Such realization would free one from the limitations that time imposes on one's being.
Ajahn Amaro in 'Three Robes Is Enough' relates the monastic life style and its principles to that of the common man today. He presents in the concluding section a set of simple principles that may be followed by any one; those of putting in persistent effort to better oneself at ones craft, valuing good friendship, leading a balanced life and so on. Santikaro in 'Practicing Generosity in a Consumer World' explores the dynamics of dana as a Buddhist practice and examine its role in undermining consumerism. Dana is one of the meritorious activities (punnakiriyavatthu) according to Buddhism. Norman Fischer in 'Wash Your Bowls' sheds light on the Zen stress on the mundane, pragmatic aspects of life. The answers to most of the profound questions are often not propositional. By giving utmost attention to every action one performs and treating the bowls and the spoons as if they were sacred objects, it is possible to develop a more meaningful relation with the material objects. Duncan Ryuken Williams in his paper 'Green Power in Contemporary Japan' explains Buddhist environmentalism that focuses on mottanai, “not wasting”. With examples he illustrates how the alternative models suggested by engaged Buddhism have worked for creating ethical consumerism in Japan. David W. Chappell in 'Mutual Correction: Seeing the Pain of Others' offers five principles for a Buddhist ethic of consumption which include open disclosure of the sources of production, an atmosphere of mutual correction where the media may play a crucial role, including in decision making those to be affected by those decisions, preserving the local cultures and modes of production as far as possible and connecting with the suffering.
© 2007 Anirban Mukherjee
Anirban Mukherjee is a PhD student at the Department of Philosophy, University of Reading,UK and Lecturer in Philosophy, University of North Bengal, India