Consumerism and the Precepts

Taigen Leighton
Green Gulch Farm - September 9, 2001

Those of us who are dharma teachers in the Zen Center lineage, and all the people who live at Green Gulch and practice here, and all of you who come for Sunday morning dharma talks as well, are all involved in the project of bringing Buddhist practice and teaching into our lives in 21st century America. Throughout the history of Buddhism in Asia, Buddhism has adapted and developed and grown as it has moved into different countries and different cultures, and interacted with native religions and traditions. In China with Taoism and ancestor veneration, in Japan with native Shinto spiritual ways, in various different countries (Tibet, China, Japan, Korea, Southeast Asia) Buddhism has been a living tradition and developed and interacted with the culture, and has itself been transformed. This has been happening in America over the last fifty years as well.

I have been very involved in Buddhist-Christian dialogue, through various Buddhist-Christian conferences and dialogue workshops, and teaching Buddhist studies at Berkeley Graduate Theological Union, where many of my students are Christian seminarians. From the point of view of Buddhism, studying different religious traditions is very informative in terms of what Buddhist practice is about. There are many American Buddhists now who are very involved also in interactions with Judaism, with Native American religions, with science, for example with modern physics and neurobiology, and of course very much with western psychology. There are many former Zen Center students who are now therapists or counselors, and I sometimes think of Northern California Zen as Jungian Buddhism.

Interfaith dialogue has great value. As we find our own seat as American Buddhists, we bring our experience and our awareness of American traditions and culture to Buddhism, and Buddhism is naturally transformed. I have taught college courses in world religion and enjoy studying comparative religion, as I find something of value in every religious tradition. This is all background to what I want to talk about today, which is the one major American religion whose fundamental values are in conflict with Buddhism; that is, the "religion" of consumerism.

I want to talk about this from the point of view of Buddhist precepts, which are guidelines for how to express our Buddhist awareness in our everyday activity. A lot of Buddhist practice is about balancing wisdom and compassion. Simply put, in our meditation practice, in zazen, we get a sense of the wisdom side as we get in touch with the possibility of wholeness, the possibility of seeing deeply our interconnectedness with all being; and with the fundamental emptiness of all distinctions. On the side of compassion we use the precepts not as commandments but as guidelines to help us express Buddha's awareness in the various kinds of difficulties in which we find ourselves in our ordinary everyday activity.

Trying to lead compassionate lives informed by the precepts there is a fundamental conflict with some basic social values in our society. It appears that in our mainstream media, especially in terms of the religion of consumerism, the fundamental values are greed, material acquisition, and even vengeance. All of the television commercials and all the other ads we see are designed very skillfully to create more needs and more desires. The three thousands ads that the average American is exposed to each day create desires that can never be fully satisfied.

This state of affairs in which beings are never satisfied is expressed in the Buddhist realm of Hungry Ghosts, who are depicted with tiny throats, and huge stomachs that can never be filled. No matter how hard they try they can never satisfy their desires, a very sad situation. The Hungry Ghost realm is one of the six levels of existence into which a being can be born. The other reams include the human, the heavenly realms and the hell realms. These realms can also be considered as psychological descriptions of different potential aspects of our inner life. One of the most ornate and important ceremonies we do here is called Segaki, which means feeding the Hungry Ghosts. We usually do it here at Halloween. We have a big altar, opposite the main altar, with many offerings. This is done in Japan around August, during the Obon time when the spirits are invited back. We make offerings and try to appease the Hungry Ghosts and help them to find some peace and some satisfaction. Eventually maybe they will find their way back to the human realm.

That is one of the important Buddhist ceremonies, but on the other hand, it seems like in our society we are trained by advertising to become hungry ghosts. The major holiday in the religion of consumerism has been appropriated from Christianity. It is called Christmas, and its purpose is to create hungry ghosts who are obliged to buy many gifts, more and bigger, and more expensive.

The idea of looking at consumerism as a religion has been discussed by a couple of very fine Buddhist scholar/philosophers. One of them is David Loy, who lives in Japan, and another is Stephanie Kaza, a former Green Gulch resident, who teaches in Vermont. David Loy discusses religions from the point of view of how they function. He says that a religion grounds us by teaching us what the world is, and our place in it. In this way consumerism functions as a religion, just as Buddhism and Christianity do, by providing basic assumptions about who we are and about the world around us. It teaches us how to live, what to do, and how to find fulfillment. David Loy says there are two tenets or items of faith to consumerism. One unquestioned item of faith in consumerism is that growth and subsidized world trade will benefit everyone. The second is that growth does not need to be constrained or limited by the limited resources of this finite planet. The economy can just keep growing indefinitely. Basically self-fulfillment and self-realization in consumerism is based on how much we consume. This basic philosophy or goal, expressed by the bumper sticker, "Whoever dies with the most toys wins," is an unquestioned, often unconscious value of our society.

In Buddhism the basic value is to be content with what we have and to enjoy this world as it is. We are grateful for Green Gulch, for the ocean, for the birds in the trees, for our friends and family, for the situation we are in. This does not mean that we should be passive and accept everything as it is. One aspect of the precepts is that we do respond to suffering, we do try to not harm but benefit all beings, to see what we do in the context of many beings, benefiting not solely my own profit margin, but all beings. We work to foster awakening and awareness. There is a kind of satisfaction that also can be dynamic and active and responsive, and that is not about creating craving for more material wealth.

In the Buddhist tradition, in the Zen tradition, there are many examples of characters who are non-consumer extremists. It is actually possible to be extremist about not having desires, and not having property, and not having needs. There is a wonderful Soto Zen monk and poet who lived in Japan around 1800 named Ryokan, who is still very popular in Japan. After he finished his training, instead of becoming the abbot of a temple or a formal Zen teacher, he just went back to his hometown and lived in a tiny little hut outside the town. He made his living by doing begging rounds, which is traditional in Asian Buddhism. He took as his name Daigu, "Great Fool," and there are many stories about his foolishness and forgetfulness and his playing with children all the time. I do not want to tell you all the stories, because he was such a non-consumer extremist that a few of you might just walk out if you heard some of these stories. One well-known story describes Ryokan sitting at home in his hut looking through the window, or maybe the holes in the roof, at the full moon, which is an image of wholeness, perfection, and peacefulness in Zen. A thief came into the hut, but could not find anything to steal. Ryokan, thinking that the fellow must be really needy, gave the thief his only thin blanket. The thief took it (a little embarrassed) and left. Then Ryokan wrote a poem about how he wished that he could give this person the moon.

Ryokan wrote many wonderful poems, one of which speaks to this issue of consumerism in terms of the values of Buddhism.

Without desire everything is sufficient.
With seeking myriad things are impoverished.
Plain vegetables can soothe hunger.
A patched robe is enough to cover this bent old body.
Alone I hike with a deer.
Cheerfully I sing with village children.
The stream beneath the cliff cleanses my ears;
The pine on the mountain top fits my heart.

There are many examples in Zen history of people like this who went to extremes to not need any toys: to just live simply, appreciate the world of nature, appreciate their meditation, appreciate playing with children, and just to live open-heartedly.

In Buddhism, however, we practice the Middle Way. I would say for us the alternative to consumerism is not necessarily that we should give up all of our property, or come to Green Gulch and support the dharma by living like monks and offering our labor for the benefit of the community. Here we practice the middle way. In fact in the Green Gulch office we have some Buddhist toys for sale. You can get Buddhist beads, and Buddhist books, and wonderful Buddhist statues. Get 'em while they're hot.

Consumerism goes back a while in world history. Ryokan was, along with everything else, a great calligrapher, whose work was considered very valuable, even during his own lifetime. Among the many stories of how people tried to trick him into writing calligraphy is an account of some children asking Ryokan to write something on their kites to help them fly. He wrote, "Heaven-Up-Great-Wind." The kids were very happy. But actually it turns out the parents had put them up to it because they wanted to get the hot commodity of Ryokan calligraphy.

The real danger of consumerism to Buddhism is that we might think of spiritual practice as another commodity to consume. We have been trained by advertising and by our media to want the best, quickest, and fanciest of everything. Some people who travel around visiting different Buddhist centers and teachers want the quickest path or the best teacher, the fast track to enlightenment. This is the consumerist approach to Buddhism, and it is not so helpful. This practice is basically about finding the way to express our deepest self, our deepest truth. To do that it takes some time; it takes some settling in, some willingness to just be here in this body and mind. This is what we do in our meditation. Our practice is not about gaining anything that we do not already have. It takes some time, some patience and a willingness to just be here, upright, inhabiting our body and mind. It is not about acquiring some fancy new state of consciousness.

Having wealth and material resources is actually a great opportunity, and a responsibility. There is a "Middle Way" between extremes of consumerism and asceticism. In Buddhism there are many examples of wealthy "non-consumers" who have used their wealth and power to help the poor and needy, to help develop culture and the arts and even to foster awakening in others. One famous example of this in Buddhist literature is Vimalakirti, the legendary laymen who supposedly lived during Shakyamuni Buddha's lifetime, 2,500 years ago. He had great business skill, and vast resources. But he used his wealth to benefit beings and help lead them toward the path, toward finding their true self. There is a middle way between not needing, like Ryokan, and using our resources beneficially, while not being consumed by them. Buddhism is not necessarily about getting rid of material wealth, but about using the phenomenal world to help support awakening.

Returning to the context of precepts and values, the root of the problem of consumerism has to do with how we see our basic values. In this regard I think of Thomas Jefferson, not about his notable flaws, his being a slave owner, but how he specifically rejected the idea of acquiring material wealth and property as an "inalienable" right to be protected by the government. There is a story that one of the founding fathers, John Adams or Franklin perhaps, had originally written in the Declaration of Independence that we are, "endowed with inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of property." Jefferson insisted on replacing "property" with "happiness." Happiness does not necessarily mean wealth and property. We have a right to be happy just as Ryokan was happy, walking on his begging rounds, playing with children, meditating, and looking at the moon.

Returning to precepts, the sixteen bodhisattva precepts that we use in the Soto Zen tradition are not seen as commandments, but as expressions of how awakened awareness acts in the world. Each of the precepts is a kind of problem or a question; each has many aspects and many sides. The first of the ten grave precepts is, "A disciple of the Buddha does not kill." In terms of consumerism, I would say that we kill the life of the world when we make things into dead commodities. Do we see the world and each other as alive, or do we see the world, each other, and ourselves, as just commodities to be consumed? Is the world an array of dead objects or is it alive, dynamic and interactive as Buddhism teaches?

How we respond to these questions has effects both in terms of our society and personally in terms of our own hearts and minds. For example, people in positions of power, believing that the world is just a commodity to be consumed, feel entitled to cut down old-growth forests, or drill for oil in the Alaskan wildlife reserve or up and down the shores of the Caribbean or the California coast. They are just liquidating their assets. Based on the values of consumerism, organizations like the FTAA, the Free Trade Association of the Americas, and the World Trade Organization, run by multinational corporations, are arranging treaties and laws for globalization that make the corporate right to profits legally supersede human rights, labor rights, or reasonable environmental protections. These organizations treat our world, our ecosystems, as a bunch of dead commodities to exploit.

This relates to the precept of not killing. How do we see our world as alive? How do we see each other as alive? Do we see ourselves as separate from the world–separate from the ocean, from nature preserves, birds and trees–separate from each other? If so, then nature and people and everything we see are all just dead objects that can be manipulated by us to get the most out of them for our own profit. We consume everything, even people. This is the logic of consumerism.

There is a line from my favorite American dharma poet, Bob Dylan, which says that people sometimes "Do what they do just to be nothing more than something they invest in." When we follow the tenets of consumerism, we are investing in ourselves. We are all familiar with this process of creating ourselves and even marketing ourselves in our resumes as commodities. We become commodities ourselves. We lose this other joy, that is not the happiness based on the pursuit of property, but the happiness to just enjoy our lives, to respond positively and constructively to the situations in our world, in our life, in our everyday activities, and to enjoy what we already have.

The fifth grave precept is that a disciple of the Buddha does not intoxicate mind or body of self or others. In some Asian countries it is given as, "A disciple of the Buddha does not sell wine or alcohol," but I think that it is about more than just alcohol or drugs. This precept refers to our basic practice of awareness, paying attention to the situation right now, which is the opposite of intoxication. Whether or not you have had a glass of wine or sake, the important practice for us is just to be present in midst of our life.

Contrary to this, based on the values of consumerism, the advertising and entertainment industries very skillfully distract us from being present in our body and mind. They aim to increase our desires and cravings, in effect making us hungry ghosts. This is a kind of intoxication. Of course it is nice to have shiny new toys. I admit that I am a consumer of Buddhist beads and statues. But we can get carried away. To paraphrase Descartes, who said, "I think therefore I am," in consumerism it is, "I shop therefore I am." In Buddhism we are trying to find a middle way. How do we take care of the things we have and the tools that we use without ourselves being consumed by the drive to have more and bigger and better? Are we avoiding our lives by our addiction to acquiring material objects?

The founder of Soto Zen in Japan, the Japanese monk Eihei Dogen, in one of his most famous writings, Genjokoan, "Actualizing the Fundamental Point," says, "When dharma does not fill our body and mind we think it is already sufficient. When dharma fills our body and mind we realize that something is missing." This something missing is exactly our life problem; this is our sadness, our frustration. In Zen practice we sit right in the middle of that. We face the reality that something is missing, as Dharma fills our body and mind. I think the problem with consumerism is that it tries to fill up this "something is missing" with new toys. It tries to distract us from our own fears, and sadness and frustrations, and to take us away from our life. It is an escape.

Most of us are not soaked in the Dharma like Ryokan. When we feel a little frustration, a little suffering, instead of facing who we are and settling into that, we may attempt to feel better by buying new toys. This is very tempting. It is often very painful to sit upright in the middle of who we are, our world and our situation. And sometimes it is all right to take a break, to go enjoy a movie or buy a new toy. But how do we find the middle way, where we do not attempt to intoxicate ourselves to the point that we are not aware of that "something missing," that sense of lack. Dylan has another line, "Each of us at times we might work too hard, too heavy, too fast, or too much. And anyone can fill his life up with things he can see but he just cannot touch." I feel that in consumerism we try to fill our life up with things that actually do not touch the reality of our lives. In Buddhism we are willing to not possess everything. We can stay in touch with Ryokan's happiness, and enjoy the moon. We do not have to conquer the moon.

I recently heard somebody on the radio talking about how he had a wonderful new plan that he had devised while working on laser projection. He was actually trying to raise funds to develop and market his plan to have corporate logos projected on the moon through laser projection. He was very serious. This entrepreneur, an interesting fellow, was making the case that actually the technology is already here. Do you think that Ryokan would have wanted to give the moon to this thief if it had said, "Drink Coca-Cola," on it? Can you imagine all those paintings of the moon in Asian culture with corporate logos on the moon. [Holding out his robe sleeve,] I hope as Buddhism develops in America we do not have patches on our monk's robes available for corporate logos, "Drink Coca-Cola." I wonder how much I could get if I had "Drink Coca-Cola" tattooed on my bald head? [Leaning forward to show his headtop.]

Buddhist meditation practice is about learning not to be addicted, not to consume our world. It is about appreciating the forest, the wildlife, and our lives as they are without needing to accumulate more and more toys. If we do have a lot of toys, then how can we use them beneficially? We can enjoy the toys we have, following the middle way, and not be consumed by needing more and more, bigger and better.

I do not have any answers or a "Buddhist policy" about how to deal with the damage being caused by consumerism all around the world, but I do want to emphasize the basic value Buddhism places on awareness and attention in our lives. I want to encourage us all to pay attention to these issues, to ask ourselves, "Do we really need this? How can I most beneficially use that?" If we all keep paying attention, and are aware of these values as they impact our society, and our own lives, then eventually I believe these patterns of addiction will change, and consumerism may stop harming the world.

I will end with a couple of poems by Ryokan, who really was a fool in terms of consumerist values.

All my life, too lackadaisical to stand up for myself;
Buoyantly, I leave everything to the harmony of reality.
In my sack, three scoops of rice;
Beside the fire, a bundle of firewood;
Who would ask about traces of delusion and enlightenment?
How could you know the dusts of name and gain?
Evening rain; in my thatched hut
I casually stretch out my legs.

This last one is about his attitude toward his begging rounds:

Ringing a monk's staff, I enter the eastern town.
So green, willows in the garden;
So restless, floating grass over the pond;
My bowl is fragrant with rice from a thousand homes.
My heart has abandoned splendor of ten thousand vehicles.
Yearning for traces of ancient Buddhas,
Step by step I walk, begging.