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  • Good Work:An Engaged Buddhist Response to the Dilemmas of Consumerism
  • David Landis Barnhill

Consumerism is such an ingrained part of our culture, it is paradoxically difficult to avoid and easy to ignore. Sometimes it seems like the water we modern fish swim in.But the Buddhist call to awareness of our state of mind and the nature of reality leads us to reflect on it, to encounter it as directly as possible. When we do, it is all too clear that consumerism goes directly against virtually everything Buddhism stands for. In thinking about a Buddhist response to it, what first comes to mind is the rich monastic tradition, with its trenchant analysis of the pervasiveness of desires, the ideal of life lifted free of craving, and the inviting simplicity of the communal life. But as an engaged Buddhist, I almost immediately feel that, compelling as it is, this monastic tradition is insufficient, particularly at a time when consumerism has become so devastating on a global scale. While the monastic tradition offers a model of a nonconsumer lifestyle, it does little to affect the industrialized world's accelerating exhaustion of natural resources. I sometimes put this point in mythical Buddhist imagery by saying that we live in a culture of hungry ghosts.1 But that would be optimistic. While hungry ghosts have a bloated stomach of insatiable cravings, their throats are as thin as pins. Modern culture has a gargantuan mouth and throat, and yet we still act as if our bellies are empty.

So what can we as Buddhists do about such a destructive culture? Engaged Buddhism is a way of confronting social, political, and psychological poisons that threaten our world, and it offers an effective counter to consumer culture in at least three main ways. There is the extension of the Buddhist analysis of reality beyond the psychological and the metaphysical to the social, structural dimension of life of economic systems and political institutions. In the social context, the Buddhist truth of the mutual co-arising of phenomena takes on a more immense scope than the mere conditioning of consciousness, and a more concrete—and thus soiled—quality than Huayan Buddhism's mesmerizing metaphysics of Indra's net. The interpenetration of life (pratītya-samutpāda) includes billboards and boardrooms, peasants uprooted from their land as coffee is planted in their place. I live not just in interrelationship with the postglacial hills of Wisconsin but also with the mountains of toxins spewed [End Page 55] into the air to give us cheap, but very costly, energy. As Stephen Batchelor has said, "the contemporary social engagement of Dharma practice is rooted in awareness of how self-centered confusion and craving can no longer be adequately understood only as psychological drives that manifest themselves in subjective states of anguish. We find these drives embodied in the very economic, military, and political structures that influence the lives of the majority of the people on Earth."2 Engaged Buddhism gives us an incisive way to comprehend and critique our situation, and we stand on more solid ground as we view the vast and painful interconnections.

Second, engaged Buddhism also can give us a vision of a social and political alternative, one that is based not on the three poisons of greed, hatred, and delusion but on generosity, compassion, and wisdom. But in doing so Buddhism must go beyond the limits of its own tradition and draw on the insights of contemporary social and environmental philosophies, from anarchism to bioregionalism. A creative merging of Buddhism and such ecosocial thought can help us work toward a modern life of communalism rather than consumerism, of contentment rather than self-perpetuating desire.3

Third, engaged Buddhism gives us a basis for directly responding to a world of craving and suffering. Activism against the rising tide of consumerism—and against the social, political, and military structures and the deafening ideologies that support it—can emerge from a meditational steadiness. Contemplative activism avoids rage, burnout, and psychic numbness and allows us to meet greed and hatred with peace in a spirituality of resistance. Such a religiously based activism, however, needs to join hands4 with social philosophy and...