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Sunday, 9 February 2014





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Consumerism - the Buddhist point of view

Over the past century, we have witnessed the spread of a new kind of belief system that started mostly in Western Europe and the United States. Like other ‘religions’, this new doctrine has its own priests and places of worship, and has its beliefs about what a ‘meaningful’ life is and how to get it.

By living your life free of greed, hatred, and delusion, you allow for the release of ignorance and the way of wisdom

This new religion is known as consumerism, its priests are the marketers and advertising agencies, its places of worship are the shops and supermarkets and internet sales sites. Its main beliefs are that happiness and success come from attaining wealth and buying the goods and services available in the market in ever-greater amounts.

Consumerism has been fantastically successful in converting people, in spreading quickly to almost every corner of the globe, and in colonising humans’ minds, environments and social institutions.

Consumerism provides an artificial means of defining our existence by suggesting that identities in the society are boosted through the process of acquisition. The more you consume, the more you possess, the more you are accepted in the ‘elite circle’. At the most fundamental level, consumerism owes its vitality to the psychotic belief of the autonomous individual self that exists independently of social relations and of human relations.

Buddhist view

What is the Buddhist viewpoint on consumerism? In contrast to the modern notion of frantic, ceaseless consumption, the Buddha said that tranquillity meditation or Samatha Bhavana is the most important prerequisite for self-cultivation and self-criticism. In terms of meditative practices, Samatha refers to techniques which assist in the calming of the mind. Its major goal is detachment from the external world and a consciousness of joy and tranquillity.

Samatha means equanimity, equilibrium and balance. Don’t move to the extremes, avoid extremes. Pain and pleasure are two extremes - don’t choose. Don’t avoid either and don’t cling to either. Just remain in the middle of it, watching, looking at it, unattached.

Such understanding helps an individual to recognise his or her limits and to be more humble. At the same time, it promotes loving kindness and compassion. The individual will be in a better position to witness the suffering of others and to help eliminate the cause of suffering.

“Yes, it makes sense,” one might ask, “Yet, how could I practise Buddhism in a culture fuelled by intense desire?” Actually, it can be done. Basically, it is a simple equation. To live is to want. When we are hungry, we want food. When we are tired, we want rest. When we are alone, we want the company of friends and loved ones.

Buddhism doesn’t ask us to renounce companionship or the things we need to live comfortably. The challenge is to distinguish between what is wholesome - taking care of our physical and psychological needs - and what is unwholesome.

We don’t have to run away from all of life’s pleasures. We should learn to distinguish between the wholesome and the unwholesome - what supports our practice and what hinders it. This in itself is practice.

Certainly, Buddhism does not teach that there is anything wrong with working to earn money. Although monastics give up material possessions, lay people do not. The challenge is to live in a material culture without getting snared by it.

It isn’t easy, and we all stumble, but with practice, desire loses its power to jerk us around. Finally, it can be done.


Through the ever-increasing domination of ‘market’ values such as competition and hyper-individualism, we become bewildered about how to relate to the world. With the market perpetually designing new ‘needs’ for the individual, the terms ‘need’ and ‘want’ have become virtually synonymous.

Buddhist systemic psychology sees that greed naturally concocts Avidya or delusion. With the loss of a discriminating mind which distinguishes between need and desire, the door is open to swim in the ocean of delight and numbness in consumer goods and experiences.

The media, principally television, is the foremost component of this delusion. It not only offers a myriad of entertainment without depth or meaning, but is fuelled by advertising millions, thereby spreading the ethic of greed every 10 minutes with commercials.

The consequences of this delusion is multi-fold. It leaves the individual distracted and disconnected from him/herself and his/her surroundings. With so many teledramas and variety shows to watch on television, 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 the turning on of the television first thing in the morning to the car stereo or mobile bluetooth on the way to work, to passing out in front of the television at night, the time to constructively ponder and plan a more meaningful life is washed away.

Sila, Samadhi and Panna

Buddhism has a number of integrated practice systems for structural adjustment to avoid the ill-effects of consumerism. Perhaps, the most straightforward yet profound conditions are the three inter-connected practices Sila-Samadhi-Panna (morality-concentration-wisdom).

Shopping has become a pastime among youth, even those with a limited income

Firstly, in the face of unlimited greed, Sila offers a starting point in a system of discipline and ethics. The essence of Sila is the letting go of certain pleasures for the opportunity to experience a higher meaning or to perform a morally higher task. For example, a student limits his/her ‘partying’ to graduate on time. The expressions are endless.

By adopting the basic practices of Sila, we begin to reassert the value of simplicity into our lives so that those in poverty are not seen in the right perspective. Our traditional Buddhist society once viewed a person of wealth, not by how much they had accumulated personally, but by how many dansalas and ambalamas they had established.

With the renouncement of consumerism as an active social value, it becomes clearer to the rich what they actually need for a basic comfortable life. The rest is excess, to be shared with subordinates and those of lesser means among one’s associations and community.

In the space and simplicity created from a life with a lower level of material desires, the second component of Buddhist practice enters, namely, Samadhi or concentration. 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 interaction with the world become more conscious. In short, connections in a disconnected world begin to be restored.

We realise that the action films, multi-media entertainment, caffeine and nicotine and shopping mall dazzle of our consumer culture all make our breathing shorter and quicker and, in turn, make our thoughts faster and less-connected.

Sila opens our life to deeper experiences in the present. Samadhi enables us to seize on these moments and 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 which had seemed so pleasurable before.

We begin to see the non-lasting nature and instability of these pleasures and the frustrations they dream up as they fade and as we wrestle and writhe to re-light them. This is Panna or wisdom. It does not end just here. It will enable us to see the causes and conditions of events in our environment.


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