Tuesday, November 16, 2010
"I’ve got some stuff to say that I think and hope will be of use to some of you out there. But I have to warn you, a lot of what I have to say is gonna sound like I’m ANTI-Buddhism. In a way... I am. But only because I believe that the thing we in America label as Buddhism is really nothing more than a shrink-wrapped, pre-packaged, mind-fuck that’s been engineered to maximize consumer interest."
This quote is from John over at Buddhism Sucks. I just discovered this site and it has a lot of great shit. Unfortunately, the last post was dated April and it's more or less November now. So that means it's been about 7 months since the last entry, which sucks. Hopefully he'll get back at it.
This attitude, this notion of destroying what Americans believe Buddhism is, happens to be very important to me. John is right that Buddhism has been entirely co-opted in order to sell shit, up to and including Buddhism itself. For every good, cogent, intelligent book about the subject published, there are at least 100 more that are utter trash. The shelves in every bookstore groan under the weight of ridiculous volumes, many of them by the folks John calls Buddhism's "All Stars": the Dalai Lama, Thich Nhat Hanh, Pema Chodron and Lama Surya Das. There are tons more, of course, but these 4 are at the top of the food chain. And he means "All Stars" pejoratively, by the way. I have no doubt that 3 of these 4 authors are really trying to represent Buddhism to the best of their abilities. Mr. Lama, Ms. Chodron and Mr., uh, Nhat Hanh, I guess, are deeply entrenched in monastic forms of Buddhism and are conveying their highly specific points of view. Lama Surya Das, on the other hand, is mostly an idiot. His books are the epitome of pop-culture Buddhism and should have absolutely no bearing whatsoever on people's lives. With titles like "Buddha Is As Buddha Does" he can't honestly imagine that people will take his work seriously. And yet, his books are bestsellers. The drivel that he peddles is exactly what Americans have come to expect from Buddhism, which is why it's in such a sorry state of affairs in this country.
One of my teachers, Brad Warner, titled his third book "Zen Wrapped in Karma, Dipped in Chocolate," which is goddamn hilarious. However, it's a parody of a Yoplait yogurt commercial that claimed its product was that very thing. It really doesn't matter what you're selling here in America; if you can cover a few "Buddhist" basics, people will buy your product simply because it appeals to our nature to covet other culture's (misunderstood) spirituality. Since our entrenched Judeo-Christian mentality has proven over and over again that it's no match for the rigors of real life, we are captivated by age-old Eastern ideas. It doesn't matter that people don't COMPREHEND those ideas. Matter of fact, Buddhism in the West DEPENDS on our lack of comprehension.
Here are the "Buddhist" basics that convince people to buy things:
1. Master On The Mountaintop
This one is a classic. The commercial, or full-page glossy in a magazine, will generally feature some kind of common slob (American) at the end of his trek to the peak of a daunting mountain. The common slob wants something, he NEEDS an answer or advice or a tip for buying a fucking used car. When he reaches the mountaintop, there's a guy there hanging out in robes with an unmistakable aura of wisdom. Now, the people that handle these ads do absolutely no research into the types of robes worn by the various sects of Buddhism. Often it's just a carbon copy of the Dalai Lama's daily threads, though it can be any bastardized combination of the Big Three: the maroon of Tibetan monks; the bright saffron of Theravadin monks, or the black/brown color scheme of Zen monks.
Whatever they decide on, the idea is the same. At the top of a cloudy mountain, far removed from the world of material concerns, sits a man (always a man) who can prescribe answers for anything. It doesn't matter that the ostensible purpose of a practitioner removing himself from the world is so he won't be bothered by worldly concerns. Here in the West we believe that if someone has attained a certain kind of wisdom, it extends to every facet of everyone's life. Do you know what would have happened if someone had asked the Buddha what the best way was to maximize profits and minimize losses as it pertained to business? He would have had a blank fucking look on his face. The Buddha didn't know shit about business. He took himself away from shit like that to concentrate on meditation and ethics. Would you approach a PhD in ancient Greek philosophy to get his opinion on the best way to lose 40 pounds by spring? No. Of course you wouldn't. And why not? Because a PhD in ancient Greek philosophy does not specialize in diet and exercise. Likewise, a master of meditation would not have the appropriate tools to help you renegotiate your mortgage. Nonetheless, the image of a starry-eyed monk on a mountain will captivate the American conscious because we believe him to be a magical fortune-telling machine.
2. The Word Zen At Any Time, In Any Place
This has become an American staple. One of my favorite episodes of King Of The Hill features Hank sitting on Henry Winkler's porch on his Montana ranch. Henry is going off about his love of fishing. Hank states that he fishes, too. Henry talks about how fishing is a washing machine for your brain. "It's so deliciously Zen," he says. Hank says he thinks he might do a different kind of fishing.
Indeed. The word "Zen" simply means "meditation." But it's become a catch-word for anything that seems paradoxical, peaceful or contemplative. "Zen" invokes so many complex things in the brain of an American, it doesn't really matter what the word actually MEANS, it's only important what we IMAGINE it means. This is why Yoplait used the phrase "It's like Zen, dipped in Karma, wrapped in chocolate" to describe their product. The phrase itself makes about as much sense as saying "It's like pig fucking, coated in mascara, drizzled with HIV-positive semen." Asinine. But Americans ate it up because the words "Zen" and "karma" were thrown in there and those are exotic words. We have notions about those words. Those notions usually don't bear any resemblance to what the words actually MEAN, but that's not the point.
You can use "Zen" to describe anything you want. A laptop, a car, an espresso machine; it doesn't matter what the fucking thing is. "Zen" connotes certain images in our brains that the media have tapped into. When the TV says "Zen" we perk up because we imagine that, whatever this thing is, is brings with it the wisdom of the East. It is simply BETTER than what we have here. A Zen laptop will propel me toward enlightenment with every keystroke, and probably help save the planet at the same time. A Zen car will make me more aware while driving, and probably help save the planet every time I fill up. A Zen espresso machine will jack me up on pure spirituality, with none of the side effects of regular caffeine, and probably help save the planet every time I brew a cup. We seem to think anything that bears the "Zen" label will automatically have salubrious effects without our having to actually do anything.
3. An Image Of Meditation
Meditation can mean many things. In Buddhism, it means something specific, and, in Zen, it means something more specific still. It has absolutely nothing to do with the common American idea of meditation. We think meditation is a kind of panacea. Stressed out? Try meditation. Love life in the toilet? Maybe meditation can help. Confused about the myriad problems that life throws at you in the normal course of human existence? Sit down and meditate on it. Absolutely flummoxed by the idea that someone who considers himself a Buddhist is sitting here writing such inflammatory shit about the very philosophy that means so much to him, yet will wake up tomorrow and sit down in front of an altar and meditate? Well, by God, you should meditate, my friend.
Whatever is going on, no matter how bad it might seem, meditation can help you. Well, that's actually true. But not for the reasons that you may think. Meditation doesn't help you TRANSCEND what's going on. It doesn't elevate you to a higher place where you don't worry about the $247.50 that you owe Verizon. It doesn't remove you from normal responsibilities like having your nasty teeth cleaned or taking out the trash or getting to work on time. You still have to do those things and you always will. What meditation does is make you realize that the normal aspects of life, the things we hope religion will help us overcome, are all that we have. They are the most important things in your life. You can't ignore all your late fees at Blockbuster because you're concentrating on your spiritual practice. Switching to NetFlix isn't gong to solve your problem. There is no higher plane where a collection agency isn't going to find you because you've understood the nature of the universe. Jimmy the Spoon isn't going to NOT break your kneecaps because you finally get that everything is interconnected.
Yet images of meditation remain in our culture for one major reason: they portray something that you should be doing if only you had the time. We are a busy people, there's no doubt about that. We have Facebook and Twitter and Android phones. I personally just had to check my DVR to make sure I'm all caught up with Sons Of Anarchy. We have Levitra and Ambien and Lunesta to make sure all our dicks are hard and we're getting a good night's sleep. We have MySpace to remind us of just how far we've come and GPS to show us just where we're going. We've got checking accounts and IRAs and 401(k)s and the imminent collapse of Social Security to keep us worrying. If we could only find some time to meditate, like the barefoot asshole in the yoga ads maybe we could finally find some peace.
We'll buy the IDEA of meditation, but, for the most part, it's just something that other people do. We will never be those people because we have shit to do. However, it's comforting to see visual interpretations of people doing it, because it reminds us that it's out there. That makes us feel better.
In the meantime, we are still a culture searching for that thing that will save us without us having to do any work at all. It still seems like Buddhism can be that thing because it's just so goddamn foreign. Maybe mala beads and eco-friendly Tibetan meditation cushions and documentaries on the Dalai Lama will just do it all for us. Maybe we'll wake up one day and the whole world will be a better place just because Buddhism exists.
But probably not. So fuck it.