There is a rise of a certain kind of philosophy that has been called New Age Buddhism. From the perspective of political economy, it is the commercialization of Buddhism. Buddhism is being sold in self-help books, in products (that increase our well-being) produced in conditions that aren’t bad for the workers and the environment (eco-friendly sustainable, fair trade), and in centers of spiritual regeneration. These sites serve as the updates of Buddhism to make it more suitable for our current times. We take the good things out of Buddha’s philosophy, leaving out anything that might be hurtful to minorities and anything that might be too difficult or unacceptable to society. From Buddha we have learned the art of rebellion with the acceptance of society.
We have done to Buddha exactly what we want his philosophy in a lobotomized form to do to everybody. We have taken the traumatic kernel out of Buddhism, we have rendered it empty, into a sort of feel good philosophy. Buddhism has not only become a lifestyle like many others but it is the primal lifestyle that gives the form to all others. Remove the substance and keep the empty shell.
From a more sociological perspective, the question arises, why do we need Buddhism? If it is being sold in the market on its exchange value, some use value has to be constructed around it. This fiction of use value that the advertisers of Buddhism build is based on the liberation of a need; the need for a ‘good life’ which is enshrined as the right to life for the poor. Like any other product in the capitalist system, entrepreneurs make a new commodity and then actualize a latent potential in ourselves to sell us that commodity.
We are as culpable as the people who sell us this crap. We want easy solutions, we want to somehow get over this really uncomfortable situation we are in, where the world appears shittier by the day but our fear of death only gets stronger. We can’t give up life and we are very uncomfortable living it like we are, in a state of sleep walking where nothing really matters. So in come these one stop solutions which tell us how we can live life. And we listen to them, licking our lips like tired dogs.
The world is too overpowering, too much to handle, we want it how it is but we want to somehow not take it for what it actually is, and new age Buddhism serves to severe that link between how we actually live and how we perceive our life. It makes commodities things again, it tells us the products that we use are just things that we shouldn’t be attached to. Now it is wonderful how this is exactly the reverse of what Marx wanted us to do with commodities. For him commodities were the very center piece of capitalism, every commodity had such an awe inspiring history that it could enthrall us. Each commodity was not just a thing, but an entire system of social relation congealed in a physical form. So this is what treating commodity as thing does, it makes us forget the social relations that lead to the production, distribution and consumption of the commodity.
Now we all know that actually existing social relations are deplorable, they are unacceptable, the ideal world for all of us is one where social relations are not this horrible. But we don’t know what to do about the state of things, so we are afraid of confronting the reality, instead we choose to let things be as they are and to ignore them. If we can’t change something, our responses vary around not bothering about it or what is the same thing, leaving it to the mysterious entity called the experts.
Some varieties of new age Buddhism also tell us to be passionately attached to the objects around us, to feel them all alive with spirits that connect us all into a grand whole; but that is just another sort of illusion. For if treating them as mere things is putting a veil of empiricism on us, then treating them as spirits is putting on a veil of mysticism. If anything, it is a regression even from empirical blindness. We ignore social relations because we are unable to deal with totality, with the consequences of our actions. It is an irrefutable fact that today we are all implicated. We are all being exploited and we are all exploiting, there is no one who is not a sinner. Or as Sweeney Todd would put it, there is no one whose shoe is not in someone else’s face. We are as a rule unable to deal with this guilt, for it requires acts of redemption that are beyond our capacities. So instead we are told to focus on the small things.
We are to focus on our jobs, our little circle of friends. We are told to set small achievable goals everyday so that we feel good about ourselves. We are not even above manipulating our chemical hormonal information to manage our bodies. When we achieve a small goal, some chemical is released that makes us feel good. This information is not only used by video games that give us small easy tasks to fulfill to keep us hooked, but also by us on our own bodies to keep ourselves in a state of lulled sleep.
They tell us things like desire is the cause of suffering so stop desiring. The idea is to stop personal suffering, to separate oneself from the order of materiality which chains us to the seemingly irreducible suffering of others. Let others suffer, the individual can only save himself or herself. Again individuality has been picked up from Buddhism but in an empty form. This is individuality without the attendant suffering that actual realization of individuality brings with it. The abyss of individuality, the abyss that individuality opens up between different individuals is here skipped over. Buddha is here painted as a happy person, but we have to assert that to achieve what is better called contentment, he had to go through a period of intense pain and suffering, a period of intense unhappiness.
We want to be individuals without actually feeling the cut, the burn of our ties. It is only when we feel the burn that we decide to form new ties, more comprehensive ties. Without the cut, without the realization of pain, we just become self-absorbed. And where there is no cut, there is no actual realization of individuality either. There is only the cover up, the ideology of individuality that puts a cloth over our ties so we can believe that we are individuals without ever actually being ones.
We get so absorbed in ourselves that we can’t see anything else and so we assume we are individuals. While actual individuality is a process also of looking out, of realizing the individuality of others and then relating to them on this new basis.
‘The Secret’, one of the highest selling artefacts of new age Buddhism tells us that the secret to a happy fulfilling life is self-confidence. In a complete reversal of Descartes’ position of beginning from doubt, it asks us to begin from confidence. In these times of utter confusion and increasing chaos, where anything and everything is believable and can be true, where spin has become the new form of news, where reality has this unreal tinge around it, why we should be self-confident is beyond my comprehension. Seeing something like this around him in early 1800s, the Danish philosopher, Kierkegaard said of people in his time that they thought of themselves too highly. They thought that they could achieve what took Descartes almost an entire lifetime of concerted thought, the position of doubt, in one reading of his meditations. They found it too easy to transcend things and to assume that they had conquered them. Isn’t that the case with new age Buddhism?
What took Buddha an entire lifetime of unimaginable suffering and torturous meditation, we should somehow be able to achieve by reading a book and setting manageable goals for ourselves. And all this in confidence that we can do it; instead of being in severe doubt about the world and its relation to the self, we should instead focus on smaller things of our daily lives that we can understand, so as to make enough sense of the world for a functional living.
New age Buddhism is rendering us functional in our new environments, in environments which do not allow us to actually live and think. So the mantra is, enjoy the small things. And we see it everywhere, on bill boards, ad hoardings, tv screens, books, ‘Enjoy the Small things in life’. There is not a person who has lived in a city that has not encountered this new dictum of our age.
Why should we enjoy the small things? Precise because the big things will force us to confront the misery around us, they will make us confront the Other without converting her into a partial object. We are rendered immobile by the Other, by seeing the whole, and so the whole is lobotomized into partial objects so we can at least be functional. Not being functional is one of the great fears of our age and an entire industries are devoted to nothing else but keeping us functional.
Another one of these blockbusters is Shiv Khera’s ‘You can Win’. Against the title of that book, it should be asserted again and again that you can’t win. If there is anything that Buddha told us, it was that we can’t win. The conclusion he drew out of this is famously enshrined in what we take to be his life. We cannot win, and it is only when we confront that fact head on, when we decide to accept the impossibility and yet throw ourselves against it, it is only then that we start waking up. This is the leap of faith we have to make today, not one where we cover the impossibility in small sub groups of possibility, but one where we are heroic enough to accept our fate and still live in contradiction to it.
(Akshat Jain is a graduate of School of Media and Cultural studies, TISS, Mumbai)