English articles > Spiritual Materialism and the Sacraments of Consumerism

Spiritual Materialism and the Sacraments of Consumerism:
A View from Thailand
Phra Paisal Visalo

The distinction between religious faith and consumerism is becoming increasingly vague these days. Although religious worship may involve physical objects such as Buddha images, living within a moral discipline to keep oneself grounded in Dhamma is required in every religion. Nowadays, religious faith has been altered to the degree that it means purchasing auspicious objects to worship. One's faith (saddha) is no longer measured by how one applies it, how one lives life, but by how many holy or sacred articles one possesses.

Many Bangkok monasteries as well as those in the provinces have transformed into trading centers for such auspicious objects. In these temples, it's not just a few ordinary photographs, encased amulets, and yantra (lucky cloths) that are bought and sold, but an incredible diversity of products, like protective lockets to hang from your rear view mirror, fancy matted pictures, figurines, and signs with magic phrases (like "The House of Richness"). Before long there may be specially blessed watches and consecrated calculators for sale. No doubt there are willing buyers already; it's just a matter of who will start producing them.

If we examine some religious rites which have developed recently, we can see clearly how infatuated people become with sacred objects. Some phenomenon, although they spring up quickly and last only a short while, nonetheless turn into big business overnight. In one instance, people developed a belief about the special powers of a certain kind of bamboo from one village in Thailand. More than 20 different kinds of sacred objects made from this bamboo were available within a few days of the "discovery" of its potency. Soon, hundreds of thousands of baht (Thai currency - 40baht/$1) were being generated each day in more than 200 shops that mushroomed in the once sleepy, peaceful little village.

Consumerism rests on the principle that happiness and success come about through consuming or purchasing things, not through creating or realizing it by oneself. This belief causes people to see religion as merely another aspect of consuming, rather than something which should be applied and practiced. The result is that religion has become superstition, and a low form of superstition at that. (Higher forms of superstition, while they too rely on sacred objects as well as special vows made with the hope of receiving worldly happiness, at least retain some basic morality or moral practice.)

There are many people "seeking" religion who are bothered by all the fuss surrounding auspicious objects but unfortunately they are still influenced by consumerism. Some go to temples seeking peace of mind, but in terms of their expectations, they are more like tourists at a resort: "If we have money to pay for the service, then tranquillity will just come on its own; we don't have to actually do anything!" When they realize that the "for peace to be possible one has to make efforts that" involve staying in a tiny, lonely sleeping hut with no running water or electricity in the middle of the forest, and a good long walk to get there as well, their determination fades quickly, and they turn tail, get back in their cars and go home.

Another form of religious consumerism is the desire to rack up spiritual experiences, like seeing nimitta (signs, images), visiting heaven and hell realms, and going into deep meditative states of absorption. This is no different than tourists who visit all the famous national parks, but who are happy just to drive around and check out the view from behind the windshield and stay in air-conditioned hotels, rather than walking in the forest, pitching a tent and experiencing peace and quiet. Such people only want strange and new experiences; it never occurs to them to work away at the illusion of "self". They are interested in the "instant coffee" kind of religion where the results are quick and immediate. They won't commit themselves to a single long-term practice or stick with a single teacher, but hop around from this temple to that practice center, and often wind up being deceived by some charismatic phony, who promises quick liberation.

A superficial comparison of this kind of person with those whose primary concern in life is money -- thinking always of profit, following stock prices during the week, going out shopping on the weekends -- indicates that these two groups are exactly the opposite. The first group is religious in a strict way; the second are materialists. But looking more deeply, we see that they both are composites of religion and consumerism, and it is difficult to separate the two. The first group professes their religion in a consumeristic way. The second is religious about their consumption; in fact they are so religious about it, that we can call it a new religion: The Religion of Consumerism.

Broadly defined, a religion is a system of thought and beliefs which meet deep human needs, particularly that of security in our hearts. We can achieve security on one level through various means. Lots of possessions, money, our health, success at work, being honored or famous -- these are all primary factors (although not so long-lasting) for our security. Each religion has the initial function of providing hope or a promise to people that if they do good, make merit, give alms, trust in God, pray to or beseech him in the proper way, then they will have longevity, good standing, power, good health and prosperity. On a higher level, religions help provide meaning for people's lives, or at least help them know who they are, how to lead their lives and what direction to go. In another sense of the word, religions help people to get beyond their confusion and doubt. Those who have faith or trust in their religion are likely to have resolute strength and energy.

Consumerism functions, up to a point, in the same way that religions do, starting with answering physical needs. People today are obsessed with accumulating wealth and property. And it's not just a matter of how much you have; what or what kind is equally important. There are loads of people who are willing to spend 100,000 baht on a Rolex watch, and invest millions in a Mercedes Benz. This is all because of their basic insecurity. For such people, ten leather handbags from the Banglampoo flea market do not provide the same security as a single one of the "real thing" made by Louis Vuitton.

Similarly, people are even able to buy false certificates and degrees without feeling any thing is wrong, because the satisfaction that comes from being called "Doctor" outweighs any guilt. (But if their phoniness is exposed, well then it's another story.)

Consumerism gives purpose to life as well. People who are completely submerged in it will have no hesitation or doubt because they are very focused -- focused on looking for things to consume. The newly graduated have no confusion; they know that they are working towards getting a car within two to four years. And the businessman has his sights set unwaveringly on the billion baht house. There are all kinds of things that obsess people, even to the point where they work so much that they sleep less than strict meditation monks. When it goes this far, we can rightly call it religion. What should we call this kind of strong faith, if not religion.

There was a period when communism performed this function for many people, who treated the Party like God, committing their lives to it. So it was no surprise that when the ideals of communism were destroyed, they felt directionless and didn't know what to do with their lives. For many, the confusion was quickly alleviated by embracing consumerism. The energy and vitality they once gave to the party was now directed towards the stock market and figures in accounting books. Life took on meaning once again.

We should understand that it is not desire alone that drives consumeristic behavior. People's beliefs or world view is a crucial factor. One reason that consumerism has power is due to the set of (seemingly rational) ideas, which say that happiness comes from consuming, and that the more one consumes, the more happiness there is. At the same time, this set of ideas holds that all problems have material solutions. The city has traffic problems? Just buy a computer to design a traffic system. You're putting on weight? Buy some diet pills. Your figure is starting to sag in places? Just get some plastic surgery. Want to be more popular and respected? A Benz is the thing you need. The sacred power of technology lies in more than just its ability to provide rational backing for materialism and consumerism, making them "scientific"; it also transforms technology itself into one of the components used in the rituals of consumerism.

Apart from security in their minds, humans have a deeper need, and that is to transform into a "new person." The Religion of Consumerism has both rituals and practices which bring about this transformation. In the past, young Thai men who had passed through the monkhood would be known as kohn sook, literally "ripe people" (with connotations of being ready or seasoned). Some religions even try to build a new character, by giving the person a new appellation. But for deeper change, one must follow religious principles, for example, the practice of meditation.

Consumerism goes far in answering this deeper need. A great, great number of people use consumerism as a way to build a new ego or become a new person by purchasing those products which support their self image. Taste is not the only thing which draws young people to buy soft drinks, but it is also the young consumer's desire to be one of the "New Generation" or to have personality like the pop star on the commercial. Ads these days do not try to sell the qualities of the products, but sell the qualities of the star or the model hired for the job. An image is being peddled to the consumer, an image that is obtainable by using that particular product.

Just as the advertisements aren't really selling a product, the producers aren't really creating a product. They are creating a brand name, which interests consumers far more than the benefits and quality of the product. If there isn't some chic or elegant image associated with it, that brand will be worthless. For this reason some companies are able to reap ridiculous profits by selling the rights to attach their name to products when they have nothing whatsoever to do with their production. For example, the clothing company Pierre Cardin makes an incredible amount of money by selling the rights to use its name on over 800 different products, from perfume to sunglasses. And it is for reasons of image that Nike has announced publicly that it is not a "shoe company"; it is a "sport company." Shoes do not have the appeal to consumers that sports do. People don't just want a pair of shoes; they want to be an athlete like Michael Jordan. So people buy the brand of shoes which will link their sense of self with that of their favorite star. In terms of the effect in one's mind, the purchase of a pair of shoes is actually not so different from the purchase of an amulet of Luang Paw Goon. Luang Paw Goon is one of the more popular monks in Thailand these days, famous for his squatting position, a propensity for smoking, and superb fund-raising skills. Many believe that wealth, health and other worldly benefits are assured to those who don amulets with his image.

So consumerism has more than just a material aspect; people's trust, beliefs and views play a very important role as well. When you consider consumerism in terms of the functions that it performs as well as the attitude and understanding of people who are under its influence, it is not so different from other religions. But in the final analysis, the Religion of Consumerism cannot truly answer the deeper needs of humanity. It will never make its followers feel completely satisfied. One who never feels like he has enough will never be able to quit striving and struggling, and will never be able to find real peace. Even worse, when one gives oneself over to the doctrine of consumerism, it is very difficult to realize the fact that it is peace which is the deepest aspiration and need for life. The desire for material things covers and obscures that deepest and finest wish, leaving one ignorant of life's real needs.

The Religion of Consumerism provides only temporary fulfillment, giving meaning to life only in the short-term. No matter how much stuff you have, in the end it will all seem rather empty and meaningless, because fulfillment in life cannot arise when one is entangled with and overusing material things. Life's meaning is revealed not through building a new ego, but by delving deep until seeing that "self" is illusion. Consumerism offers no refuge for our lives, whereas even consuming religion itself cannot satisfy our deepest wish.

Previously published in Seeds of Peace Vol. 14, No. 3 (Sept-Dec), 1998 (2541)
Phra Paisal Visalo is Abbot of Wat Pa Sukhato and Wat Pa Mahawan in Chaiyaphum, Thailand and on the Executive Committee of Phra Sekhiyadhamma, a nationwide network of socially concerned monks.

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