There’s a well-known store where I live in Idaho that imports and sells New Age artifacts, eastern spirituality goods, and bohemian apparel. You’ve probably been in a place like this before. When you enter, the smell of burning sage and patchouli floods your senses, tapestries stretch across the ceiling in multi-colored waves, and the shelves are adorned with everything from crystal balls to salt lamps.
Truthfully, I used to be one of their most loyal customers. They were my dealers for a fix that I didn’t know I needed. Now that I’m older, I understand that it’s an immensely popular store for a particular reason. Somewhere among all the material goods, they are selling the one thing money can’t buy: a sense of identity. For $19.99, you can become someone who stands for something, for $29.99 you can prove it, and for the small price of $49.99, you can forgo years of dedicated practice and study and become spiritually enlightened.
In 2014, I had bought a copy of The Three Pillars of Zen, read a few excerpts, and decided to call myself a Buddhist. I understood the core principles of the religion but didn’t necessarily want to practice them. It was much easier (and more socially satisfying) to buy prayer beads, and adorn myself with hamsa and light incense, than it was to follow the eight-fold path. After all, if I didn’t do these things, how would anyone know that I identified as a Buddhist and had become spiritually superior?
Several hundred dollars later and no closer to nirvana, I found myself wondering: where does all this consumerism and showboating fit in the Buddhist, or even Hindu, belief system? What I discovered upon more thorough study is that it doesn’t. In fact, it actively works against many of the principles that Buddhism aims to uphold, such as freedom from materialism, vanity, and, most importantly, Ego. Once the overarching belief that attachment is the root of all suffering sets in, the whole commercial Buddhism thing begins to feel a bit oxymoronic, not to mention appropriative.
Though there are those in the community who acknowledge that wealth can accomplish great things— Buddha himself was a very wealthy man—the vast majority of white Westerners are, in regards to Eastern religions, not using their prosperity to serve a greater good, but rather to outsource their identity and become a counterculture. They get mandala tattoos because they look exotic and cool, they buy spiritual teachings to decorate their bookshelves, and they practice yoga to gain likes on social media. In other words, their interest in Buddhism only goes so far as their interest in themselves.
"The vast majority of white Westerners are, in regards to Eastern religions, not using their prosperity to serve a greater good, but rather to outsource their identity and become a counterculture."
This phenomenon has been described by Buddhist teacher Chogyam Trungpa as spiritual materialism, a type of materialism justified by the ego as a catalyst of spiritual growth. However, whatever satisfaction and peace there is to be gleaned from spiritual materialism is illusory. When we consume and practice for the purpose of affirming our identity to ourselves and others—in this case as Buddhists—we are fortifying our sense of Self rather than approaching true enlightenment. We cling to the Ego with labels: “I am a Buddhist because I meditate daily,” “I am a Hindu because I tattooed an Om symbol on my wrist,” “I am spiritually enlightened because I joined this course,” and in doing so we hinder ourselves from growing spiritually by feeding into the illusion of the Self.
In our consumerist country, we are taught to prioritize this sense of personal self and our individualism above all else, and we use other cultures’ icons, styles, and belief systems as a means to achieve that end. This is dangerous in a variety of contexts because what comes across to the ignorant consumer as celebratory actually threatens the erasure of the contextual meaning and history of many stolen ancient practices and pieces of culture. Not to mention the added insult when the robbery is commodified for profit. Using the example of Buddhism in the Western world, commercialization of the religion actively works against the tenets of the faith by encouraging attachment and entertaining the idea of the Self. It is reduced to nothing more than a mask that helps us to be seen the way we want to be seen.
In American society, where consuming comes as naturally as breathing and is championed as the cornerstone of civilization, it is difficult not to give into the commodification of minority cultures, especially when it promises happiness and the furthering of our uniqueness. It is therefore our responsibility to consume mindfully, so as not to make a mockery of the ideals that these Eastern religions are trying to uphold. That is not to say that no one should buy tapestries, or prayer beads, or statues of Buddha, but that they should do so with awareness and when possible, while supporting the cultures from which they came. Otherwise, we only risk hurting the principles that those objects stand for.
The greatest weapon we have against mindless consumerism is knowledge. The desire to further ourselves through the accumulation of things is deeply ingrained in us, so to stand a chance in this struggle, we must go against what we’ve been taught to so deeply believe about our habits and lifestyles. This is especially important when dealing with alternative cultures, because if we don’t, our own ethnocentric biases and customs are likely to force themselves onto minority cultures and peoples and take up their space, rather than merge together with them. Before we recklessly ascribe ourselves with labels, it is our duty to first do our research and, more importantly; ask questions. Members of the community will be happy to share their knowledge and stories. After all, what is an identity except an accumulation of experiences, shared with other people?
Christina Lewis is a long-time student of the literary arts and of life, a hooper and dreamer with an insatiable curiosity for the unknown. Through her writing, she explores the nuances of the human condition, the unifying threads between people of all cultures that connect us to ourselves and each other. Follow her on her journey on Facebook, on her writer’s page, and on Instagram (@openpandorasfox).