issue 25 Winter/Spring 05
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Keeping Mammon out the temple

Consumer values influence us even while we're practising spiritually, says Tibetan Buddhist nun Thubten Chodron. How can we avoid compromise?

My first teacher Lama Zopa Rinpoche talked continually about 'attachment to the happiness of only this life'. He stressed motivation as key to the difference between an action that was Dharma and one that wasn't. Did we act with a motivation that looked beyond our own temporary pleasure? An action seeking only our own gain resembles the actions of animals, he said. These were not easy words to hear. Previously I'd thought of myself as a good person, even a compassionate, spiritual one. But when I began to meditate and was honest about my motivations I was shocked and horrified. But I was grateful to Lama Zopa Rinpoche because right from the start he imprinted on my mind the importance of being aware of motivations and consciously cultivating beneficial ones.

When we come to spirituality we may think we're leaving behind the corruption of the world for higher purposes. But old ways of thinking colour the way we approach spiritual practice. Since we have been raised to be good consumers - getting the most while paying the least - we carry our consumer mentality as teachers and students of religion right into our spiritual practice.

One element of consumerism is seeking the best product. Many of us shop around for the best group, the most realised teacher, the highest practice to 'buy'. We want the highest teachings and neglect foundation practices, such as ethical discipline and restraint of the senses. Instead, we jump onto the most advanced track.

As consumers, we want to be entertained, so a teacher must be entertaining these days to attract students. We like to hear interesting stories told in an amusing way, and we want new and fascinating teachings. When we hear the same teachings over and over we get bored and set out to find something new and different.

Our practice environment should also be interesting, so we seek out exotica. Practising in the Tibetan tradition obliges this. While in Tibet many of these practices and accoutrements are simply part of the culture, in the West they have become exotic lures. High thrones for the teachers, brocade seat covers, and robes, long horns, short horns, bells, drums, processions, deep chanting, and, oh yes, hats! Yellow ones, red ones, black ones. With all the paraphernalia, how could one ever get bored practising Tibetan Buddhism? Yet after a while we become jaded and are left with just our own minds, our own suffering. Having little endurance or commitment to our practice or our teachers, we move on ... seeking something more interesting. We neglect to see that repetition may be just what we need or that exploring the reason for our boredom could bring fresh insights. We also fail to notice that our teachers still do foundation practices and attend elementary teachings given by their spiritual mentors.

Consumer mentality insists on instant gratification of our desires. In the spiritual life we say we want a close relationship with a spiritual mentor, but when that mentor's spiritual guidance challenges our desires or pushes our ego's buttons too much, we stop going. At the beginning of our practice, we profess to be earnest spiritual seekers, aiming for Enlightenment. But after the practice has remedied our immediate problem - upset from a divorce, grieving the loss of a loved one - and we are happier, our attention shifts once again to seeking happiness from possessions, romance, technology or career, and spiritual interest fades.

Today's consumer expects things to be easily obtainable without much effort. In ages past spiritual aspirants underwent difficulty and hardship to find teachers. Tibetans traversed the Himalayas to meet wise mentors in India; Chinese crossed the Takla Makan Desert and Karakoram Mountains to attend monasteries and bring back scriptures from India. But nowadays we think, 'The teacher should come to us! We have such busy lives we don't have time to go across the country, let alone to another continent'. Forgetting that the seeker's very effort and struggle opens him or her to the teachings, we prefer spiritual practice not to disturb the flow of our life.

Receiving lengthy teachings or doing complex spiritual practices takes time that modern consumers seldom have. Our time is taken up with families, jobs, hobbies and sports; spiritual practice should not impinge on those pleasures and responsibilities. So we ask our teachers to 'modernise' the practices, to shorten and simplify them so that they will fit conveniently into our lives. As consumers functioning in a world of supply and demand, we take our business elsewhere if our wishes are not satisfied.


Why do westerners have trouble creating community? Most of us feel a deep longing for community, but still we keep our distance and maintain our autonomy. My guess is that this has to do with commitment. If we commit ourselves, shopping around ceases. We have responsibility not just to others but to ourselves. In order to nourish our hearts we commit to a daily practice, to attending regular Dharma classes, to attending yearly retreats. We commit time to plan activities at the Dharma centre. We commit goodwill to serving our teachers and fellow practitioners.

This cuts into our time to be with family, watch TV, go to the gym, talk on the phone, write e-mails, browse catalogues, frequent the mall and go on vacation. Somehow we mistakenly think that commitment means being trapped. Whereas when we make wise, well thought-out commitments, they free us. They enable us to enter deeply into our practice and shed our defences before our teachers and fellow practitioners. We develop trust in others and ourselves and learn to be fearlessly open. And most of all, we stick with a teacher and a practise long enough that the Dharma can actually transform our minds. As one student said, 'We keep showing up, whether we're happy or unhappy, whether we understand the teaching or not. We keep coming, instead of getting discouraged or distracted.'

The Enchantment of Status

In a consumer society people derive status from using certain products. Similarly, being close to a famous Dharma teacher seems to uplift a student's spiritual status. Having that teacher stay in our home, ride in our car, bless our religious objects or sign a photo gives us something to display to others. These days one of the best ways to become close to a teacher is by being a big donor, thus obliging teachers to see you in order to show their appreciation. We wouldn't want to give anonymously and miss a reward.

We also gain status by possessing valuable spiritual items. We buy beautiful statues and exquisite paintings of religious figures, which we display on elaborate altars in our homes. On the altars, too, are photos of ourselves with various spiritual masters. When Dharma friends visit, we make sure they admire our collection of artefacts, but when relatives visit, we discreetly cover them to avoid their inquiries. We have the latest spiritual books (preferably autographed by a famous author), a comfy meditation cushion (or two), and the requisite prayer beads (not plastic but made of crystal or stone, and blessed by a holy being).

In addition, we collect spiritual events. We proudly rattle off a list of retreats we have attended or initiations we have taken, and advise new students about which events and teachers are mediocre and which they must not miss. We boast of attending large teachings by famous teachers and mention that as a teacher was making his way through the crowd, he stopped to greet us, or while he was sitting on the Dharma throne, he smiled directly at us. Meanwhile, we pat ourselves on the back for being such sincere practitioners.

Similar to the status-seeking attitude is one that idolises great figures. For a while we are in love with our guru: he's so wonderful; his compassion makes the room shine. She's so humorous and warm. He's an incarnation of a high yogi. She's clairvoyant. We drink tea and talk about our teachers, reciting tales of their great qualities. Sometimes there is subtle competition over who has the highest teacher or the greatest stories to tell. We revel in newcomers' wide-eyed fascination as they listen to us. When our teachers do things we don't agree with or, worse still, when their behaviour appears all too human, we feel betrayed. We are disappointed or indignant, just as when we discover politicians' scams, movie stars' mental illnesses, and sporting heroes' greed. But we don't realise our previous attitude was a set-up for our present feelings.

What is it in us that makes us seek someone perfect? And what does 'perfect' mean? Does it mean the person does what we want when we want him to? Does it mean she agrees with all our opinions and ideas and lavishes praise on us? I believe this tendency toward idolisation relates to the consumer mentality that seeks 'the best, or your money back'. We have a steady diet of advertisements that condition us to become enthralled with grand expectations of happiness when we buy this product, vote for this candidate, see this film, or attend this game. We bring our unrealistic wishes for perfection and satisfaction into our spiritual practice, projecting them onto teachers and meditation practices.

Marketing the Dharma

Consumer mentality influences teachers as well. In a consumer culture, advertising boasts about the excellent qualities of a product. Notices of Dharma events can actively sell a product - that is, the teacher or teaching. Most ads display an enticing photo of a spiritual master who is either smiling radiantly or looking wisely into the distance. He or she, the ads declare, is a highly realised, well-respected, fully accomplished master. The topic being taught is a secret teaching that in the past was given only to a select number of qualified disciples. It is the supreme teaching by which previous masters have attained Enlightenment. You can receive this for a mere $99.95 plus dana (donations) for the teacher. Register early to reserve a seat or you'll be left out!

What happened to the age-old custom of humble masters who bore their qualities discreetly? With sincere motivation, informing people who could benefit from a spiritual teaching or retreat is valid and necessary. Can this be done without hype in a culture that thrives on hype? This is a dilemma for many of us because we came to the Dharma partly because of a dislike for the hype and hard-sell of consumer society. We want to let people know about Dharma events so that they can benefit from the teachings, but we prefer simple announcements. However, these get lost amid the many attractive ads and fascinatingly designed flyers.

For teachers to draw people to Dharma events, they need to have a title or two, and they must appear 'high' or important. His Holiness the Dalai Lama has remarked that people who were unknown in Asia come to the West and suddenly become lamas and rinpoches with a string of titles and a retinue of devotees behind them. Personally I find this issue difficult. Venerable or bhikshuni indicates I'm a monastic. That's fair enough, because I've been ordained since 1977. However, I have nowhere near the qualities of my teachers and therefore do not want people to address me as 'lama', a title that in my tradition is reserved for well-respected teachers.

On the other hand some people who are much newer to the Dharma are sometimes called 'lama' because their tradition uses the word differently, sometimes for other reasons. So people ask me, 'How come you're not a lama?' When I explain why I don't use that title, they think I'm odd, because in a western consumer culture we are taught to display our qualities and make ourselves look good.

To market a product, it must be appealing to potential buyers. The Buddhist teaching of Skilful Means, teaching according to the disposition and interests of the students, is necessary to guide people on the path. But when do Skilful Means degenerate into pleasing students so that teachers will draw more students? Do we omit particular ideas or teachings or explain them away because potential students don't like them and may stop coming? How much do teachers water down the scriptures in the name of Skilful Means, when our motivation is actually attracting and maintaining a large following?

There is much danger in this because it is easy to teach something that looks like Dharma but is a mixture of Dharma and our own ideas and preferences. Sometimes we aren't even aware we do it, because we receive great praise from numerous students. And since more people are coming to our talks and more people are buying our books and tapes, we imagine what we're doing must be good.

Success lies in numbers

In a consumer economy success is measured by numbers. Thus many spiritual teachers hope attendance at teachings will be high, dana will continually increase, their books will sell well, and invitations to speak on tv and radio programmes will be plentiful. To what extent do teachers decide where to teach based on the amount of dana they will receive? Is it just coincidence that many teachers go to wealthy communities? How many teachers go to developing countries or to lower-income areas in our own country where dana is meagre?

Financial resources are necessary to spread the teachings. How can teachers procure support consistent with Right Livelihood? Do we drop hints, flatter, or subtly coerce people so that they offer money to us or to our organisation? Do we give donors extra perks that are denied to other devotees who may be more sincere but not as well off?

As someone trying to set up an abbey in North America, I struggle with this. I didn't need much income as an individual monastic. I was careful not to view people in terms of who had money and who didn't. But to begin a monastery, more is needed. Many people have suggested fundraising ideas that I have vetoed because they involve pressurising, schmoozing, or giving perks to those who give. I would like people to donate to the abbey because they value the Buddha's teachings, appreciate monastics, and want to see the Dharma flourish in the West. I want them to give because they take delight in giving and feel good about contributing to worthwhile projects. How can I share my enthusiasm for the abbey in a way that is respectful and accords with my own principles?

While consumer mentality in spiritual seekers is often masked by clever rationalisations, it still enslaves us to the happiness of only this life. When that mind is operating, spiritual progress cannot occur. We may come to the Dharma with sincere aspirations and devotion but, when old self-centred habits creep in, we lose what we cherish the most. We may put a lot of time and energy into activities that look spiritual while actually our motivation is tainted with worldly concerns. In this way our consumer mentality can sabotage our spiritual practice and noble aspirations.

Whether our consumer mentality functions in the shopping mall or the meditation hall, I propose that we try to catch it when it arises and bring our minds back to what is truly important - compassion and wisdom. Buddhists are attempting to introduce Dharma values and establish a substantial role for the Buddha's teachings in western culture. The consumer mentality is a great obstacle to reorientating people toward spiritual values that would benefit them. Our collective challenge is to practise and teach the Dharma in ways that not only benefit contemporary culture but also preserve the purity of the Buddha's teachings.

From HOOKED!, edited by Stephanie Kaza, 2005.

Reprinted by arrangement with Shambhala Publications www.shambhala.com