Sunday, May 31, 2015

The Commercialization of Buddhism, or Eaten Any Dharma Burgers Lately?

I was talking recently with my friend Doug Todd, the spirituality and ethics columnist at the Vancouver Sun,  about how trendy Buddhism has become for many Canadians—even though few people know very much about what it really is or entails. It reminded me of a column I wrote a few years ago about how western society has appropriated Buddhism to achieve fitness, health, self-fulfillment and to sell stuff. Also check out my columnon this blog about how Hindus want to take back yoga and help people understand its religious roots. 

Have you heard about the Buddha Bar?

According to an ad in the Winnipeg Free Press, people who patronize Winnipeg’s newest drinking establishment can expect to find “chic interiors” and “exotic electronic beats” to go along with the usual cocktail, beer and wine specials.

One thing they shouldn’t expect to find there, though, are actual Buddhists.

At least, they won’t find any who take their faith seriously—adherents of this ancient religion are forbidden to drink alcohol.

Winnipeg’s Buddha Bar is just one more example of what has come to be called “Dharma Burgers,”  a phrase made popular by Rod Meade Sperry of the Buddhist pop and culture website The Worst Horse. 

According Perry, a Dharma Burger is “any example of Buddhist ideas or imagery in the marketing or production of (usually non-Buddhist) services and consumables.”

Other examples on Sperry’s website include Guru energy drinks, Buddha beer, Buddha briefs, “Zendough” (a new way “master your finances”) and Karma soap, to name just a few.

How do Buddhists feel about seeing their religion used to sell stuff? I posed that question to Sensei Fredrich Ulrich of the Manitoba Buddhist Temple.

“Most Buddhists don't relish them, but seldom take offense,” he says.

They did draw the line a few years ago when Victoria’s Secret introduced a “Buddha bikini,” with an image of a Buddha-like figure on the crotch.

“Using the Buddha to sell erotic garments is a misuse of the Buddha image,” Ulrich states.
As for all the other “Dharma Burgers,” Ulrich is resigned to seeing more businesses using his religion to make money.

“As Buddhism becomes more popular, such things will become more numerous,” he says.
Some Buddhists, like Scott A. Mitchell of the Institute of Buddhist Studies, are worried by the growing trend.

“Far from being harmless kitsch, these products “redefining Buddhism in terms palatable to a consumer driven, capitalist culture,” he says in his essay, “Buddhism, pop-culture, and the homogenization of the Dharma.”

One of the ways Buddhism has been redefined by non-Buddhists is by the way it is so often linked with meditation.

“What these representations of Buddhism do is reinforce the stereotype in the West that all Buddhists meditate,” he says, noting that it is just one practice among many for Buddhists.

At the same time, it promotes the idea that Buddhism is a passive and detached way of life characterized by “not rocking the boat, not upsetting the status quo,” he says.

In fact, as he points out, Buddhism promotes a serious critique of consumerism and materialism. 

“If Buddhism were to stand its ground, to so speak, and define itself in its own terms, it might suggest something radically contrary to the capitalist system,” he states.

It’s not just Buddhism that is being co-opted by consumer culture; it’s happening to other eastern religions, too, as British religion scholars Jeremy Carrette and Richard King point out in their book Selling Spirituality: The Silent Takeover of Religion.

“From feng shui to holistic medicine, from aromatherapy candles to yoga weekends, spirituality is big business,” they write.  

What bothers Carrette and King is how these great religions have been cheapened by using them as ways to personal self-fulfillment, health and fitness.

In fact, Asian religious traditions can be “easily read today as profound critiques of
consumerism and a ‘spirituality of the self’ rather than an endorsement of them,” they say.

But instead of looking for that critique, they have been adapted by a “western society that is oriented toward the individual as consumer and society as market.”

For Christians, all of this is old hat. The Christian faith has been used and mis-used for centuries in the service of commercialism.

Who hasn’t seen ads for what is called “Jesus junk”—things like the Stock Car Racing Edition Bible, “fruit of the spirit” health drinks, Christian flip-flops, a Jesus air freshener, Gospel shoes, Jesus guitar picks, disciple sunglasses, biblical breakfast cereal and the Jesus night light (not only is he the light of the world, but now he lights up bathrooms, too).

What—if anything—can be done?
The simplest course of action is not to buy anything that cynically trades on religion to sell merchandise.
Which means that if you feel like having a drink, don’t go to any place called the Buddha Bar.

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