“Buddhism and American Consumerism: Religious Identity as Protest” by Natasha L. Mikles

The First Truth of Buddhism, realized by the Buddha when he sat beneath the bodhi tree and attained enlightenment, is that life is suffering. All life, anywhere and at any time, is suffering. While this may seem to be a rather pessimistic view, the Buddha went on to teach that suffering has a cause and therefore an end, inspiring Buddhist thinkers for centuries to find ways in which Buddhist doctrines and teachings can stop the causes of suffering.

As Buddhism has become an increasingly American religion, Buddhist converts have focused their efforts on uniquely American problems and concerns, transforming the practices and doctrines of traditional Buddhism in response. How do American convert Buddhists conceptualize the suffering of all beings and work through Buddhist doctrines to end suffering? How does this idea of suffering integrate into Buddhist religious practice? How are American Buddhists transformed by Buddhist religious teachings, teachings that they themselves transformed?

In order to explore the ways in which American convert Buddhists use their new-found religious identity to engage with American society, I undertook a period of intensive field work at the Green Gulch Farm Zen Community in the summer of 2007. Located in Marin County, Green Gulch Farm is a residential community operated by the San Francisco Zen Center, an influential American Zen practice center founded in the 1960s by the Japanese priest Shunryu Suzuki. Today, Green Gulch Farm is a fluid community of about fifty residents staying anywhere from three months to twenty-five years, with constant streams of shorter staying guests, guest students, retreatants, and volunteers. In return for room and board—and in some cases health insurance and a small allowance—residents work in a variety of programs during their stay. True to its name, Green Gulch is a working organic farm, though it also offers extensive retreat, conference, and religious services.

For those who live and practice at Green Gulch Farm, Buddhist doctrine has become radically re-interpreted. The cause of suffering is no longer identified solely as ignorance of the central truth of no-self, but rather as the larger American consumer society and its effects on both the individual and the world. In the rhetoric of Green Gulch Farm, Zen Buddhist practice is offered as the antidote for consumer culture—the end to suffering. Green Gulch Farm residents re-interpret the work of the great Mahāyāna Buddhist hero, the bodhisattva, to be the creation of a place of reeducation, a means to change the mentality of Americans by presenting an alternative lifestyle to consumer culture. In Green Gulch Farm’s constructive doctrinal project, therefore, the heart of Buddhist compassionate action is radically re-conceptualized as an act of extreme social reeducation through Zen Buddhism.

In interviews, Green Gulch Farm residents consistently connected their decision to adopt Zen Buddhism with their rejection of America’s rampant consumer culture. Shunryu Suzuki, the founder of Green Gulch Farm, wrote that “if your true nature is covered by ideas of economy and efficiency, Dogen’s way [Soto Zen Buddhism] makes no sense.” [1] Suzuki’s distrust of traditional capitalist values is mirrored in residents’ perceptions of American society. Ivan Richmond, a second-generation American Buddhist raised by his parents at Green Gulch Farm during the late 1980s, describes what he was taught as a child at the farm:

The “outside” America was viewed by the people of Green Gulch as the world of unenlightened slaves to the delusions of their society and culture. Outside, people were thought to be intemperate. Their minds, we were led to believe, were cluttered with empty ambitions and materialistic desires. In effect, we were taught to think of the world outside as the opposite of Green Gulch in every respect.[2]

While Ivan was reared at Green Gulch Farm in the 1980s, many of the emotions he describes still pervade the community. During meal discussions, it was common practice to criticize the material culture of America. Amy specifically called American culture a “disposable culture,” and mourned the loss of workmanship in goods produced by mass-market companies such as Wal-Mart and Target. During a work break, a resident explained to me how American children today are raised in captivity and placated with consumer products. Edward spoke of American society’s conflation of happiness with comfort, connecting this relationship to his perception of Western religion’s ineffective engagement with modern society:

“I think now we are living in a religion of materialism…They [Christians] define happiness with comfort—a cozy house, a nice car, a nice job, lots of money in the bank. And this is happiness for them. So, the sense of religion is lost. In the Western churches, you cannot find happiness. It is the opposite; everything is gloom and sad.”[3]

In daily conversation and life at Green Gulch Farm, American society is negatively described as resting upon a foundation of consumerism in direct contrast to the Zen Buddhist community. In response to this perceived consumer culture, Green Gulch Farm residents offer Zen Buddhism as an antidote and alternative lifestyle. Residents defended the farm in interviews as entirely other to American consumer society. Cameron explained Zen Buddhism as completely antithetical to consumer culture:

“I think Buddhism’s pretty much diametrically opposed to consumer culture.  I mean, so much of the teachings are about renunciation and kind of giving up worldly attachments that I think if one is practicing the teachings, it would be really hard to live a regular, consumer lifestyle, like driving an SUV and buy, buy, buy and still be true to the teachings.”[4]

When describing the value of Japanese Zen meditation, Ash, a young priest who had been practicing Buddhism since graduating college, specifically emphasized its sharp contrasts to the consumer-driven world: “To do nothing [i.e. meditation] in a world where everything is more than ever so production oriented, to just radically be with things as they are, is so wonderful and such a break from the world.”[5]

This total opposition to American capitalism makes Zen Buddhism a uniquely powerful tool to address and fix consumer culture. During a formal discussion with beginning students at Green Gulch Farm, the guest student coordinator explained that people often think fondly of new things to buy—a car, a house, or clothes—but she described Zen Buddhism as jumping in and breaking the cycle of desire.

Read the rest of the article here.

Image from Wikimedia Commons, by Vera Devara.

[1] Suzuki, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, ed. Trudy Dixon (Boston: Weatherhill, 1970), 93

[2] Ivan Richmond, Silence and Noise: Growing up Zen in America, (New York: Ataria Books, 2003), 7

[3] Edward (resident 2 months). Interview by Author. Digital Recording. 29 June 2007.

[4] Cameron (resident 3 years). Interview by Author. Digital Recording. 5 July 2007.

[5] Ash (resident 17 years). Interview by Author. Digital Recording. 13 June 2007.

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One thought on ““Buddhism and American Consumerism: Religious Identity as Protest” by Natasha L. Mikles

  1. This was a lovely article. Thanks so much for sharing! I hope I get a chance to visit Green Gulch someday!

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