Buddhism, Consumerism and the Pursuit of Self in America 6 December 2014

Anju Kanwar reflects on whether the teachings of Buddhism are being lost in the modern world.

In the wake of vast shifts and permanent changes in the world economy, environment and way of life that we have known, people have inevitably turned to various religions and spiritual paths to seek shelter from the onslaught of loss and perhaps find some way to either hold on to what’s lost or to restore it in some way.

Buddha statueBuddhism is one such path.

As the world Buddhist population grows, many Americans appear to be on a personal journey away from the restrictions of their material culture and practices. Various media channels, including The Huffington Post, focus on why Buddhism and America need each other, and explore the possibility of a female spiritual leader.

But what does Buddhism mean for the masses? For the last several years, vegetarian foods have gained popularity, yoga studios have cropped up in mini malls, and the number of meditation centres has grown. As numerous busts of Buddha, musical water drains, and thangka paintings have flooded the market, there has been something to please everyone at every level of discipleship.

This feverish and almost-gluttonous consumption of objects and their conspicuous display is contradictory to the basic tenet of Buddhism: to end suffering through detachment. Such mindless focus on Self only leads to people modifying eating habits and periodically visiting meditation centres – with temporary results, at best. Speakers at mushrooming spiritual conferences may replace holy relics and become synonymous with the message, but in due time and circumstance, the positive effect lapses. And so, what remain are more questions than answers surrounding the public face of Buddhism. Importantly then, one must determine the relevance of Buddhist principles in contemporary America, and how best these can be adapted to fit one’s life.

In a material world, in a time of crisis such as now, it is perhaps natural to seek a spiritual understanding of truths, to even see old truths in new ways. Many people self-medicate with things; consumerism is here to stay. Certainly, Buddha’s teachings and truths may be gleaned through art, however genuine or fake. Some parallel here to the value of the psychogenic effect of the placebo in medicine notwithstanding, current consumption behaviours are essentially a passive focus on Self. For true agency, autonomy and democratic action—all appealing to the American spirit—a mindful re-focus on the higher Self is necessary.

We need to acknowledge what we are truly seeking – being on-trend or at peace? If the former is the goal, then acquisition and proximity will be as good as it gets; if, however, the goal is to gain a measure of freedom from suffering/peace, we must surely break the limitations of miming spirituality.

While many question whether we can successfully live a spiritual life in an essentially material world, the two need not be incompatible – especially if we harness the purposeful Self at the cusp of Science and Humanities, Politics and Religion. While science does not have all the answers, if we marry it with the wisdom residing within ourselves as well as the wisdom of our ancestors (be they poets or elders or other thought leaders), we can then begin to make sense of our own lives.

In real-life terms, as people search for restitution of physical health, mind-body physicians offer some hope. For instance, in PBS broadcasts based on her book, Mind over Medicine, Lissa Rankin admits patients are usually prescribed three key ingredients: good nutrition, exercise, and medicine. However, perhaps more significant is the fourth ingredient: the Self. The power of a person’s mind in overcoming what ails them can be used either in conjunction with the three factors, or as the underpinning. For the person still focused on finding a ‘cure’ versus ‘healing’, this path would still be fraught with dissatisfaction. They fail to understand that healing can occur separate from being cured of whatever ails a person; in fact, it may happen in concurrence with disease.

These mind-body concepts, when applied to emotional health, can work in similar ways. Measurable results provide the material cause-and-effect sequence between living the Buddha-dharma (or other religious/spiritual path) and quality of life; thus making it relevant, and incentivizing people to meaningful action.

Achieving peace in the political or public sphere appears more difficult. Even so, King Ashoka, following Kalinga, remains an outstanding (albeit distant) example of this possibility in Eastern tradition. The Western tradition of social justice also comes with its own history and merits.

As the American economy recovers, what will people do? The past is gone. And the only way to restore peace in ourselves and in our surroundings is to live within the change. Breaching the traditional divide between science and spirituality—working in cooperation with diverse people and disciplines—can help move us beyond automatic ritual into meaningful and life-affirming practice.

Human history is strewn with examples that showcase people’s ability to be resilient. The power of the Self to transform, and to create its own reality, harks back to the principles of independence and self-reliance on which America stands. The real appeal of this movement today thus rests on the potential to heal both the body politic and the human body and mind, while simultaneously participating in the ultimate experiment in democracy. Through balancing the passive and active energies of ‘being’ and ‘doing’, one can overcome the bounds of separation and move into cooperative and harmonious living.

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About Anju Kanwar

Born and brought up in India, Anju Kanwar, PhD, has studied and worked in both India and the United States. She is the author of The Sound of Silence (Peter Lang) and the Introduction to D.H. Lawrence's novel, The Lost Girl (Barnes and Noble).

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