The Religion of Consumption: A Buddhist Perspective

Jonathan Watts & David Loy

for the Think Sangha

Thematic Section: Consumption
and Sustainable Development
v. 41 n. 1 (1998.03)
pp. 61-66
ISSN 1011-6370

Copyright (c)1998 The Society for International Development.
SAGE Publications. London Thousand Oaks, CA and New Delhi

p. 61


Taking up an engaged Buddhist framework, Jonathan Watts and David Loy chart individual and community changes and suggest how transforming consumption patterns needs to be a complete and fundamental transformation of our human psyche and society.


Expanding the discourse on social change

Perhaps the most disturbing trend in our public debates over issues like economic globalization and development, democracy and human rights, is the very framing of the issues themselves. Four hundred years into the scientific, rational experiment, this method of discourse has effectively come to dominate how we envision and address the way we live in our world. Though such 'social engineering' has its material merits, it lacks a complete view, such as one that takes into account the very basis of material development, which is human happiness.

Religious and spiritual viewpoints of personal and social transformation are important resources in expanding the arena of discussion on social issues. To assert the importance of a religious perspective is not to argue for committing to Buddhism or some other traditional faith. The point is simply that we cannot escape religious questions insofar as we cannot escape the deepest questions about the meaning of our lives and where we derive that. Rather than dismiss religion as a narcotic for the politically-unaware, we should not overlook the potentials for self-transformation that reside in its traditional teachings and institutions. A truly human, loving politics has in itself an important spiritual aspect, one that can be immensely empowering if not subsumed and lost under concerns of power, means, and ends. Religion and politics are not antagonistic but rather are complementary, overlapping and inter-penetrating. Religious engagement, therefore, remains an enormously powerful social force that should not be surrendered to fundamentalists.

This highlights the importance of self-transformation (including techniques to assist that) as much as group or structural transformation. To pursue the



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latter without the former is to risk re-enacting the social tragedies of the last two centuries, in which revolutions merely replaced one gang of thugs with another.

From an 'engaged Buddhist' perspective, it is critical to look beyond mechanistic approaches to the larger question of the role of consumption in the way we construct the meaning of our lives. Today we cannot talk about consumption without discussing consumerism, that way of living which locates the meaning of one's life in acquisition and consumption. The problem is not simply that our present economic system exploits people in underdeveloped countries and destroys their traditional economies. From a Buddhist perspective,globalization is far more insidious than that. In that sense, the problem of most underdeveloped societies today is not so different from the problem of the 'developed' world: an impoverished world view which privileges consumption over other values and meaning-systems. We may be skeptical about religion, and there is good reason to be suspicious of most religious institutions but we also need to realize that consumerism functions as a religion for a rapidly increasing number of people worldwide.


The distortions of consumerism

Buddhism is unique among the major religions in the way it focuses on demystifying the construction of the ego, or 'self'. This anatta (not-self) teaching has been problematic to western sensibilities, and it has often come off as a nihilism. Yet conceptualizing anatta as a method of understanding rather than as a static state of existence reveals a way of slipping between the polarities of egomania and nihilism to experiencing life free of narrow, self-interested perspectives.

Seeing how this sense of self is constructed is the first step in an unfettering process. Buddhism takes the western psychological sense of repression (like fear of death) one step further. Fear of death is fear of what will happen in the future; but fear of not-self -- that my sense-of-self is not real -- is fear of what 'I' am (or am not) right now.

Perhaps all of us have some sense of this problem, but our feeling of being 'unreal' is repressed. In other words, our sense of self, because it is a fragile construct, is inherently insecure and uncomfortable. The result is that we become obsessed with constructing our own identity -- that is with making ourselves real in one or another symbolic fashion. In other words, my fear of death recurs as a preoccupation with symbolic immortality, with making my mark on history so that I will not be forgotten. The relevance of this for consumerism becomes obvious. In the past self-identity was usually a matter of one's religion, community race, class, occupation, etc. All of these markers have been intimately tied to place and often formed an important form of personal and social grounding.

Yet as they have also involved intolerance of other religions, communities, races, etc., we can be pleased that such forms of self-identity seem to be declining, mostly in the more developed parts of the world. This does not mean, however, that what is replacing them is satisfactory. Today, increasingly we are conditioned to construct our self-identity through consumption.

From a Buddhist perspective, our lives are now constantly saturated with a religious message that promises a different kind of salvation -- that is, a different way to become truly happy. The primary agent of its proselytizing is, of course, advertising which now envelops us so completely that we tend not to be aware of its effects. The basic problem, however, is that consumerism doesn't work and can't work, in the deepest and most important sense, as a way to give our lives satisfactory meaning. Essential to any solution, therefore, is the process of becoming more aware of how the false promise of consumerism distorts our own lives and the lives of those around us.

Buddhism sees desire or 'greed' as a fundamental motivating factor in our consumer societies. Through the ever-increasing domination of 'market' values like competition and hyper-individualism, the principal way of relating to the world comes through the acquisition and conquering of things and people. With the market perpetually designing new 'needs' for the individual, the terms 'need' and 'want' have become virtually synonymous. Poverty has taken on a purely quantifiable meaning of material underdevelopment. Those in poverty suffer from underconsumption of



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the essentials of a developed lifestyle, i.e. cars, TVs, expensive university education, etc. We have become blind to what our real needs are. So we see teenagers in the United States living on food stamps acquiring $150 Nike basketball shoes, or squatter families living in corrugated steel shacks in Jakarta owning televisions and motorbikes.

Buddhist psychology sees that greed naturally leads to 'dispersion' and 'delusion'. With the loss of a discriminating mind which distinguishes between need and desire, the door is open to the ocean of delight and numbness in consumer goods and experiences. The media, principally TV, is the foremost component of this dispersion and delusion. It not only offers myriad worlds of entertainment without depth or meaning, but it is fuelled by advertising dollars that spread the ethic of greed incessantly through commercials. The consumption of experience in the booming leisure industries another major area of delusion and dispersion. From mega-media to tourism to sports, leisure activities have become a major component of most national economies. The foreign exchange made by governments on tourism and the building of entertainment empires like Time-Warner and Disney make the business of dispersion and delusion key components to solidifying ever more centralized power structures.

The consequences of this dispersion and delusion are thus twofold. First, it leaves us distracted and disconnected from our surroundings. With so many games to watch, so much shopping to do, so many trips to take, we have less and less time to check in on our families, our relationships, our neighbours and, most importantly, ourselves. From turning on the TV first thing in the morning to spacing out to the car stereo or walkman on the way to work to collapsing in front of the TV at night, the time to constructively ponder and plan a more meaningful life is washed away. Then, with the ever increasing speed of technology, the disconnections deepen into the next level in the Buddhist causal chain, despair and disempowerment. There remains little hope for changing our lives when the 'democratic' politics of 'developed' countries involve image adjustment rather than policy adjustment, and from Bangkok to New York people fear for their livelihoods as corporations shed employees in the race for a competitive edge. The political effect of this consumer world dominated by market and state leads ever more deeply into the dispersion and numbness of consumer experience.


Transforming from the personal

Buddhism has a number of integrated practice systems for the 'structural adjustment' of the spirit. Perhaps the most straightforward yet profound encapsulations are the three interconnected practices known as sila-samadhi-panna (proper conduct-mindfulness-wisdom). First, in the face of unlimited greed and the loss of qualitative distinctions between needs and desire, sila offers a starting point in a system of discipline and ethics. This is a quite detailed system in Buddhism, yet one powerful aspect for our present consumer societies is the idea of 'renunciation'.

Renunciation is an experience rich in diversity from culture to culture. Its essence is letting go of certain pleasures for the chance to experience a higher meaning or to perform a higher task. A travelling musician renounces a settled home in search of the muse. A student limits his/her 'partying' to graduate on time. The expressions are endless and beyond the stern admonishments of the starving recluse in the woods. The purpose of Buddhist practice is not extremism but instead a middle way of moderation.

By adopting basic practices of renunciation, we begin to reassert the value of simplicity into our societies. When those in 'poverty' are no longer seen as half-human underconsumers who paternalistically must be brought into the fold of consumer values, they may discover an identity of self-worth and self-empowerment to form true priorities in their quest towards material and spiritual stability. The rich are transformed as well.

Traditional Buddhist society evaluated a person of wealth not by how much they had accumulated personally but by how many soup kitchens or shelters they had established. With renunciation as an active social value, it becomes clearer to the rich what they actually need for a comfortable life. The rest is excess to be shared with others, especially those of lesser means among one's associations and community.



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In the space and simplicity created from a life with a certain level of renunciation, the second component of Buddhist practice enters, namely, samadhi, a key aspect of which is mindfulness. With the Walkman and TV cleared away or used only at certain times, the reality of our place comes streaming in. We begin to notice how other family members spend their time. Intricacies in a loved one's state of being become apparent. Neighbours become like colleagues or extended family rather than faces next-door. Most centrally, our body,mind, emotions and our interactions with the world become more conscious. Connections between physical well-being and emotional and mental well-being arise. In short, connections in a disconnected world begin to be restored. In the most basic method of Buddhist meditation, mindfulness with breathing (anapanasati), long, slow breathing yields greater mindfulness, awareness and well-being. As a very basic awareness technique, we can experience that the action films, multi-media entertainment, caffeine and nicotine, sports excitement, and shopping mall dazzlement of our consumer culture all make our breathing shorter and quicker and in turn make our thoughts faster, less connected, less aware.

With the building of some restraint (renunciation) and some mindfulness, the third component of the practice develops, panna or wisdom. Renunciation opens our life up to deeper experiences in the present. Mindfulness enables us to penetrate them ever more deeply. When this occurs, we begin to see the delusion of events surrounding us. We begin to see the bite of our greed and dispersion which had seemed so pleasurable before. We begin to see the non-lasting nature and instability of these pleasures and the frustrations they concoct as they fade and as we squirm and writhe to re-light them. Wisdom, however, does not end just here.

Buddhism may seem like some value free system for gaining mental power. The system is indeed a very powerful tool for becoming aware of values and attachments and cutting them. However, a Buddhism which uses sila and mindfulness to train corporate workers to accomplish their tasks more ruthlessly does not lead to true wisdom. Wisdom may enable us to see the causes and conditions of events in our environment, yet it also includes the critical use of this wisdom for the benefit of others. Wisdom in the service of greed or power is not true wisdom. True wisdom harnesses the operative imperative of the human being, to spend a life in supporting others as a vehicle free of defilement. Being free of attachments allows us to help ourselves as we help others.

Moving from the individual to the community

A truly beneficial global society can only arise where community, bio-region, land mass, continent and world are united in a cooperative social project.

In Thailand, the dislocations of rural communities by economic globalization are myriad. The people have lost their traditional mode of livelihood, farming, through the development of corporate agriculture and the exposure of their food staples to the pressures of international markets and the distortions of government policy. Further the invasion of consumer products like electronic appliances and soft drinks have broken down traditional systems of cultural sharing and health while further enticing villagers to abandon their farms for the bright lights and wage labour of Bangkok. Traditionally, Buddhist monks have been leaders of the community while their temples have acted as community centres. In the past twenty years, a charismatic group of 'development' monks have begun to apply the Buddhist system of practice as outlined above to the social level. Working with groups of dedicated lay followers, they have sought to regain a modicum of community autonomy by using the power of consumption.

Based at the village temple, the establishment of buffalo banks and rice banks have enabled villagers to disengage from purchasing unnecessary mechanized farming equipment and chemical fertilizers from national and international corporations as well as seed rice at inflated prices from their own government (sila). The financing systems for acquiring these goods made necessary by outside economic manipulations of the local economy had further indebted the farmers, forcing them into deeper poverty and eventually off their land. Such temples have integrated these community


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initiatives with personal development of the community (samadhi). By establishing meditation classes, gambling and the consumption of expensive (and economically debilitating) national and Foreign liquors have been reduced. By adapting traditional social events at the temple, such as robe offering ceremonies for the monks, monks and lay leaders use these occasions to raise the awareness of villagers. They also use them to raise funds for community development projects. Such initiatives like cooperative stores divert money back into the community in a twofold form of right consumption. They promote the diversion of excess money into community projects as opposed to competitive, private consumption, and also develop and maintain locally run businesses which can be accountable to the community (panna). Finally, the expansion of such a vision beyond village empowerment can be seen in the co-ordination of the 'development' monks into an emerging national network called Phra Sekhiyadhamma. The network at present co-ordinates and shares material and spiritual resources, mostly on local and regional levels, while national co-ordination beyond yearly meetings is just developing. Concerning consumption specifically, the network has campaigned throughout the country on the destructive use of styrofoam.

Moving beyond skepticism

The results of such 'Buddhist' initiatives towards community regeneration and social transformation still present a number of questions.

The above examples from Thailand largely constitute rural responses from relatively lesser economized societies. Further, such attempts and others like the well known Sarvodaya initiative in Sri Lanka have not been immune from the powerful forces of market dissolution and advertising. Two important questions, therefore, remain. How effective can religious, and specifically Buddhist, responses be in fully economized societies? And what is the actual place of this kind of engaged Buddhism in the larger world of institutionalized Buddhism?

In more economized Buddhist societies, the prospects of such Buddhist engagement seem more doubtful. In Japan, although a number of consumer movements exist, they are rarely related to or informed by Buddhist teachers or communities. In general, Japanese Buddhism is more of a supporter of modern consumption patterns with expensive and elaborate funerals (Japan's third largest industry) and temple tourism. Indeed, throughout the Buddhist world, both east and west, mainstream Buddhism is usually a supporter of the present drive for material wealth and spiritual sanctification through conspicuous consumption. From massive donations to temples and monks for religious blessing in Southeast Asia, to 'meditative consumerism' in expensive retreats and ritualistic paraphernalia in the West, to the rise of new schools which teach that material gain is a sign of spiritual blessing (Sokka Gakkai from Japan internationally, Fu Kwan Shan in Taiwan, and Dhammakaya in Thailand), Buddhism as a practice for personal and social transformation of our present economic and social injustices seems highly specious.

Yet Buddhism is not alone in this situation. The co-opting of every aspect of our humanity and spirituality by this consumer 'religion of the market' raises questions about how much any method of social transformation can resist market and consumer forces. This highlights the importance of religion and spirituality generally, because religions offer visions of life that can serve as meaningful alternatives to the religion of consumerism. One of the strengths of the engaged Buddhist approach is its basically non-sectarian character. Engaged Buddhism has formed within itself a nurturing ground for people of other faiths as well as people lacking any faith to discover a systematic method of personal and social transformation. Engaged Buddhism has been able to link with and to be enriched by similar movements in other religions and other secular forms of human interaction.

In conclusion, consumption and consumerism is a vital issue whose implications are as much religious as economic and political. Buddhism as a spiritual resource has much to offer this issue. When we move from engineering towards transforming, we see that consumption cannot be treated as an isolated variable. Once we begin to



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examine engaged Buddhism and other spiritual approaches we begin to see how transforming consumption patterns is part of a much more complete and fundamental transformation of our human psyche and society.


Further Reading

1 Tawney, R. H. Religion and the Rise of Capitalism. New York: Penguin Books, 1938/1984. Classic history of the development of Protestantism and capitalism in Europe since the 16th century. A companion reader to Max Weber's (1958) The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons. 5 Buddhadasa, B. (1986) Dhammic Socialism. Bangkok: Thai Inter-Religious Commission for Development (TICD).
Seminal work influential on most of the above monks and many engaged Buddhists.
9 Payutto, Ph. P. (1995) Buddhadhamma: Natural Laws and Values for Life. Grant Olson trans. Albany, NY: SUNY Press.
An accessible text on the fundamental Buddhist teachings found in this article.
2 Loy, D. (1997) 'The Religion of the Market', in Journal of the American Academy of Religion. Vol. 65, No. 2. Summer 1997.
6 Watts, S. and B. Santikaro (eds.) (1997) Entering the Realm of Reality: Towards Dhammic Societies. Bangkok: International
Network of Engaged Buddhists (INEB).
Details more 'Buddhist' initiatives for sustainable societies.

Homepage resources:
* The Think Sangha

* International Network of
Engaged Buddhists (INEB) (

* Buddhist Peace Fellowship (BPF) U.S.A.

* Suan Mokkh
(for information and resources on the 'development' monks of Phra Sekhiyadhamma and Buddhadasa Bhikkhu).

3 Loy, D. (1996) Lack and Transcendence: The Problem of Death and Life in Psychotherapy, Existentialism, and Buddhism. Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humanities Press. 7 Sachs, W. (ed.) (1992) The Development Dictionary: A Guide to Knowledge as Power. London: Zed Books.
4 Phongphit, S. (1988) Religion in a Changing Society: Buddhism, Reform and the Role of Monks in Community Development, Hong Kong: Arena Press. Profiles eight such Thai 'development' monks. 8 Jones, K. (1993) Beyond Optimism: A Buddhist Political Ecology. Oxford: John Carpenter.