Hooked! Buddhist Writings on Greed, Desire, and the Urge to Consume is a collection of seventeen essays by mostly American Buddhist teachers on the nature of consumption and consumerism. Its editor, Stephanie Kaza, is a longtime Zen student and associate professor of environmental studies at the University of Vermont.
In her introduction, Kaza quotes President George H. W. Bush’s famous line from the 1992 Earth Summit in Brazil: “The American way of life is not up for negotiation.” This statement typifies the American attitude toward the way we use resources and the problem of consumerism—it’s simply a non-issue. This attitude seems to have only grown worse. George W.’s global “war on terror” appears to be no more than a thinly veiled movement to secure the natural resources and economic conditions Americans continue to “need” for their nonnegotiable way of life. Thus, we could very well regard the issue of consumerism as the most pressing one of our time, integrally connecting the environmental crisis, economic globalization, terrorism and militarism.
In Kaza’s book, there is a great variety of perspectives, emerging primarily out of the three main Buddhist communities in America: the vipassana/Theravada, Zen and Tibetan. But aside from these denominational distinctions, I found the essays tended to diverge into two types based on how the issue was approached. One group of authors, in the general majority, tended to problematize consumption and consumerism. Drawing on traditional critiques of sense desire and attachment, they saw Buddhism as offering various reflective tools as antidotes to the largely unconscious destructiveness of “the American way of life.” For example, Joseph Goldstein in the opening essay offers the traditional Theravada mindfulness training of examining the impermanent, suffering and not-self qualities of things we cling to. Pema Chödrön introduces the title concept of the volume in the Tibetan word shenpa, meaning “attachment” or “hooked.” She then counsels us to recognize shenpa, refrain from its lure, relax amidst the urge, and resolve to move on in our lives.
Another group of authors, however, takes a counterintuitive approach to the issue. Drawing on the equally traditional Buddhist viewpoint of nonduality based in the teachings of not-self (anatta) and emptiness (sunnata), they seek to deproblematize consumerism. This does not mean they fail to recognize the problem of consumerism. Rather, they see that the solution to the problem lies not in a reactive approach of renouncing our various relationships with the material world, but in transcending an either-or mentality and articulating a new “middle way” relationship.
As with the Buddha’s own articulation of the middle way between sense indulgence and extreme asceticism, this approach does not locate the problem in form or in some outer force. Rather, it reveals the problematic way we relate
to form and attempts to liberate both ourselves and form by articulating a new transformative relationship with it. Rita Gross perhaps best expresses this insight:
Too little appreciation of beauty and elegance is counterproductive, and, in a situation in which material goods are abundant, underappreciation actually encourages consumerism and overconsumption. Thus, counterintuitively, one of the ways of discouraging consumerism may well be to encourage love of beauty, elegance and dignity, so that we know how to enjoy the right amount.
Certainly, the first path of renunciation is an essential step, as it was for the Buddha, in confronting the addictive quality of consumerism—and Gross recognizes this too in her essay. However, the second, nondual perspective strikes me as a very significant and unique part of a Buddhist approach to consumerism. In 1997, the Think Sangha group, with which I work and to which a number of contributing authors in Hooked! belong, held an international meeting focused on a Buddhist response to consumerism. From our work since then, I think many of us have found that while renunciation and the power of Buddhist mindfulness help us to take a step back from consumerism, we desperately need alternative models to take the next steps forward in creating a society beyond consumerism—one that still takes advantage of the material achievements of the last several hundred years.
Although most of the essays in Hooked! don’t explore concrete alternatives, one essay on Buddhist environmentalism in Japan offers an incredibly inspiring effort by a Jodo-shu priest in Tokyo. Rev. Hideto Okochi has used his temple as a base for a citizens’ environmental movement. The roof of his temple was rebuilt with solar panels, with appeals to members to pay for individual tiles as a sort of merit-making activity. Once the new construction was completed, the temple generated enough electricity to become a local power generator, enabling the community to take itself off the main Tokyo power grid, which is largely supported by nuclear power and fossil fuels. The temple power plant has become not only self-sufficient but creates excess power that is sold back to the city. The profit from this project has allowed the citizens’ group based
in Rev. Okochi’s temple to create a local currency for community services and a microcredit bank from which members can obtain interest-free loans to buy the more expensive ecofriendly models of consumer goods such as refrigerators.
Hooked! offers an excellent compilation of both perspectives that will speak to different readers at different stages in their practice and engagement with the world. This book can have an important impact on the Buddhist community itself, and hopefully be part of not only a dialogue but a praxis of renegotiating the American way of life.