Buddhist practitioners as Consumers
… How does consumerism manifest on the part of the student? First, we shop for the best product—the best group, the most realized teacher, the highest practice. We go from this place to that, seeking the best spiritual product to “buy.” We want the highest teachings, so we neglect foundational practices. Viewing ourselves as fully qualified disciples, we don’t see much need for basic practices such as ethical discipline and restraint of our senses; instead, we jump into the most advanced tract.
… Consumer culture is modeled on instant gratification. We say we want a close relationship with a spiritual mentor, but when that mentor’s guidance challenges our desires or pushes our ego’s buttons too much, we stop seeking it. At the beginning of our practice, we profess to be earnest spiritual seekers, aiming for enlightenment. But after the practice has remedied our immediate problem—the emotional fallout of a divorce, grief at the loss of a loved one, or life’s myriad setbacks—our spiritual interest fades, and we once again seek happiness in possessions, romantic relationships, technology, and career.
… In past ages, spiritual aspirants underwent difficulty to meet teachers. … In addition, receiving teachings or doing spiritual practices takes time, which we don’t have. We ask our teachers to “modernize” the teachings and practices—to shorten and simplify them—so they will conveniently fit into our lives. As consumers functioning in a world of supply and demand, we take our business elsewhere if our wishes aren’t satisfied.
… And when we do give dana, what is our attitude? At the end of a retreat, someone gives a “dana talk,” saying dana is generosity freely given but that we should think of all we’ve received from the teacher, who has a family, car, mortgage, credit card bills, and needs our financial support. Hasn’t dana, then, become another way of paying for services rendered? Engaging in rigorous mental calculations to determine what amount is reasonable for such services, we miss the point of dana, which is to take delight in giving and to give from the heart.
… In a consumer society, we derive status from using certain products. Being close to a famous teacher uplifts a student’s spiritual status. Having that teacher stay in our home, ride in our car, bless our religious objects, or sign a photo elevates our status. One of the best ways to become close to a teacher is by being a big donor, obliging teachers to see us in order to show their appreciation. We don’t want to give anonymously and miss a possible reward.
We also get status by possessing valuable spiritual items. We buy beautiful statues, exquisite paintings of religious figures, and lovely photographs of our teachers, which we display on an elaborate altar in our home. … In addition, we collect spiritual events. We can rattle off a list of retreats we have attended or initiations we have taken. We have become connoisseurs of retreat centers, which we critique for newcomers. We boast of attending large teachings by famous teachers. And we pat ourselves on the back for being such sincere practitioners.
… When describing a mind that seeks the happiness of only this life, the Buddha outlined eight worldly concerns. These eight fall into four pairs: (1) attachment to having money and material possessions; displeasure when we don’t have them, (2) attachment to praise, approval, and ego-pleasing words; displeasure when we are criticized, (3) attachment to having a good reputation and image; displeasure when they are tainted, and (4) attachment to pleasurable sense objects—sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and tactile objects; displeasure when encountering unpleasant sense objects. Personally speaking, when I examine my mental states, most of them consist of these eight, so that having a pure dharma motivation is quite difficult.
Spiritual consumerism clearly falls into the eight worldly concerns. While it is often masked by clever rationalizations, it still enslaves us to the happiness of only this life and sabotages our noble aspiration so that no true dharma practice can actually occur.
… We must become aware of how the consumer mentality functions in us and in our spiritual communities and institutions. We need to revive appreciation for the traditional model of a practitioner who lives a life of simplicity and humility, sincerity and endeavor, kindness and compassion. We must choose teachers with these qualities, cultivate these qualities in ourselves, and guide our students in developing them. We must remember that the purpose of a spiritual institution is not to preserve itself, but to facilitate the teaching and practice of a spiritual tradition. We should have only as much institutional structure as needed to do that, no more. This is essential to maintain the vitality of our spiritual traditions and to prevent them from becoming empty shells.