Consumer Buddhism

M. Steingass —  18.1.12

Buddhism is lifestyle. I realized this soon after I began being interested in buddhism and especially in buddhist meditation practice in Zuerich in 2005. Because of my interest the buddha-figure was not longer filtered out from my perception. I began seeing buddhas all over Zuerich. I realized how much tibetan prayer flags can be seen in this town, how the buddha was present everywhere. I saw him on big advertisement posters, in all sorts of places, he was for sale in expensive antique shops, in cheap outlets, in wellness boutiques (especially there). He was present in the strangest places. Obviously he functioned as an eye catcher and as an buyable symbol for … a certain lifestyle?

I began photographing the phenomenon because of the obvious absurdity of a lot of the displays. The decontextualized sitting, meditating figure in the noisy hotchpotch of everyday city life. And it was the same in other cities. One day, scanning through my photos I even realized that I photographed the same plastic buddha in Milan, Zurich, Frankfurt and a few other cities. I never tried to find out where it was produced. But probably it was Made in China. At least I fantasized this – and why not. Nowadays china will even determine the next Dalai Lama. This is law in China. This all is serious business. It is about generating a return. Selling a product.

At some point I stopped taking pictures because the pattern, incarnations, absurdities began repeating itself. What I keep is the curiosity when I come to a place where I haven‘t been, where and in what circumstances the first buddha will appear. Now, recently I have been on a very remote island on the archipelago of Cape Verde. I was joking to my partner when we arrived where we would see the first buddha – well knowing that the part of the world we were visiting had other problems then keeping life style buddhas. And truly we have not seen one.

On the way back we had one day in Praia which is the capital of the Cape Verdean islands. The shops you see here are nothing in comparison to the rich cities of europe. They sell the basic stuff for everyday life which is way below the standards we are used to and there are few eccentricities one can get hold of. There is little tourism and all in all the city is just another place where people try to get along – and one must say the Caboverdeans are a very friendly warmheartedly people. Much more smiles then in germany.

Then finally, you know what happens now, there was this furniture shop. It was clearly much more extravagant then everything we saw. And there, in the showcase he was, my beloved buddha. Just as if he came right form Zuerich. He greeted me with his typical smile. A perfect replica, just like beamed over from good old europe to grant me my blessings.

The shop he was residing over was clearly an expensive one and for the well off. It sold the typical furniture and accessories for above average living rooms in which you find, for example, the Vogue on the coffee table – or whatever.

There is a lot of evidence that the buddha and buddhism is a life style product. One can look at how books are produced and promoted, how the figure appears in every other wellness oasis, yoga shop and incense outlet, how it is sold at the great happenings when the great Lamas come, how it is used as an eye catcher for adds and in an endless array of absurdities you can look at here. On this island in the atlantic, the buddha was clearly nothing but a life style product, just another accessoire, nothing but a cute little meaningless disposable something – representing buddhism in the west.

So here is my question: Do buddhists really like that, that nothing else but a cute little meaningless disposable something is exported when it is about their savior? Is this really all buddhism has achieved when it comes to being present in the remote places of this planet? Isn‘t this kind of globalization ringing a bell in regard of what is going on with the buddha in the hands of consumer capitalism? Is this all, the buddha as a consumer product? What does this tell us about buddhism?

11 Antworten zu Consumer Buddhism

  1. 

    I think it tells us more about:
    (1) the pervasiveness of icons for the religious
    (2) the marketing of paraphernalia
    But it does not help us understand how images inform the inner life of different believers. The images are tools, and the same tool can be used differently for different people.

    BTW, not everyone thinks „capitalism“ or „consumer“ is a dirty word. Both of those are tools also.

  2. 

    Yes, but an icon has an aura. At least the german word „Ikone“ connotes this. It is displayed in a certain setting. One would not see the jesus-icon be displayed in such decontextualized and disrespectful settings like this for example (look at the doormat). I don’t think believers buy this… or at least the believe must be very different from what it was.

  3. 

    Sabio, I may be sarcastic in this short article. Thinking about the „inner life of believers“ you mention I must say I do respect believe – if it has a certain quality. Some examples come to mind. Johnny Cash was a strong believer. I know songs by him which are such warmhearted prayers that it touches me – although I have strong reservations against christianity. Then there is the film „Dead man walking“. It shows what repentence is and how it is complemented by forgiveness– and that only the two together can appear.
    Last there is the recent film by Terrence Malick, „The Tree of Life“, which is about the theodizee and how a young boy realizes how the evil comes into the world. In every instance it is about believe and how humans experience and express something important which has to do with there problemsituation in live. In view of modern buddhism I must say, I yet have to see expressions like the ones mentioned. In comparison buddhism is at least the victim of the kitsch-industries. I simply want to ask how buddhists feel about this?

  4. 

    @ Matthias

    (1) That was interesting about „Auras“ — I probably chose the wrong word. Perhaps „statue“ or „picture“ would have been better.

    (2) I finally understood your article when you wrote this in your comment:

    buddhism is at least the victim of the kitsch-industries. I simply want to ask how buddhists feel about this?

    The kitsch-industries are unavoidable, of course. Consider these possible offenses:

    (a) People in the USA put sports stars with comical bobbing heads on the back of their car. Are sincere sports fans offended by the kitsch?

    (b) I wonder if Christians get upset when they see people wearing crosses as mere jewelry — not because they believe.

    If one is trying to spread „Buddhism“, the common sense kitsch notions make discussions difficult. Cartoons showing magic power of meditation probably do far worse damage than kitsch products.

    But maybe it helps believers stop worrying about spreading Buddhism and instead helps them to share useful practices.

    I too liked the films you mention — for all the deep reasons.

  5. 

    PS – I noticed that you changed pictures – I liked the first one better, but perhaps you felt it confused the purpose of the post.

  6. 

    There is obviously a huge variety of responses among Buddhists to the situation you describe, just as there are many different approaches to Buddhist icons (what they are, what they signify, how they should be displayed and handled, et cetera).

    However, I can’t imagine anyone agreeing that kitschy and/or decontextualized Buddha figures is all there is to globalized Buddhism. If your interest is Buddhism in consumer capitalism, perhaps a more fruitful (and potentially provocative) field of inquiry would be the commodification of Buddhist contemplation.

  7. 

    Sabio, I put in both pictures.

    Your offense (a) convinces me: Maybe I am beginning to morph into a grumpy old german. I have to think about a cure.

    Have a good day!

  8. 

    @PerD.

    Thanks for leaving a comment. Normally I try to abstain from this theme. The circumstances of this episode just provoked my sarcasm. The other theme you mention has actually much more to do with what I am thinking about right now. Can you specify a bit what you mean? Is it for example what I see, when I go through the Snow Lion catalogue and on every page there are multiple lamas offering their initiations?

    Greetings, Matthias

  9. 

    @ PerD,
    PerD — that is a great point. It would be fun to start other posts discussing that. Glenn Wallis discusses this too, as does David Chapman.
    Do you have a blog?

    @ Matthias

    a grumpy old german

    Damn, that put a smile on my face, thanks !
    Thanks for putting up both pictures.
    I would love to see more comments by you over at David Chapman’s site. He just did an excellent post on Tantra. I’d love to hear your criticism, reservations and thoughts.

  10. 

    Hi Matthias,

    I’m not familiar enough with the Tibetan scene to say much about the business (in both senses of the word) of intitiations to say much about it, although I’ve noticed quite a few critical voices.

    What I had in mind was rather the market of meditation paraphernalia (e.g. http://www.dharmacrafts.com/105xBS/Our-Best-Selling-Products.html or http://www.klang-stille.de/), or the aggressive marketing of certain teachers and their expensive retreats. Of interest here is also how Buddhism has become an important part of the self-help industry in recent decades.

    Cheers,
    Per D

  11. 

    @ Sabio. Thanks for the hint to David’s last posting. I will come over and read it.