The Western Adaption of Eastern Spirituality

Download PDF

The Western Adaption of Eastern Spirituality: Fetishism, Conscious Consumerism, and Global Capitalism

 

Abstract

As Slavoj Žižek asserts in his 2001 article “From Western Marxism to Western Buddhism,” “Western Buddhism” serves as a fetishistic means of existing in the age of global capitalism. This Western fetishism of Eastern spirituality is suiting in coping with the ferocity of contemporary capitalism. Furthermore, such Asiatic thought provides Westerners with a way to fill the gap between succumbing to capitalism and its social injustices as an invincible global force, and the belief that absolute social change in the face of capitalism can and should occur if we are to take proper action.

 

Keywords

Eastern spirituality, fetishism, global capitalism, Buddhism, Žižek, Lacan, Marx

 

            While the heightened circulation of goods and services is an inexplicable feature of the Global Era, the exchange of distinct ideologies amongst the international community has become quintessential to it as well. A notable consequent of this exchange is the influence of Eastern spirituality on the Occident. Slavoj Žižek poses Eastern spirituality as a matter of capitalist fetishism in the Western world.[1] Intrigued not only by the ingenious, but more significantly the soundness of Žižek’s suggestion, I have been compelled to further investigate and expand on his original claim. Due to the brevity and specificity of Žižek’s article, he reasonably refrains from providing detailed context for both Eastern spirituality, or “New Age ‘Asiatic Thought,’”[2] and fetishism as a whole. These are details I find significant in bettering our understanding of the subject at hand, and have therefore elected to expound on these particulars in the following.

To begin with a disclaimer, let it be known that I have intentionally chosen to utilize the terminology “Western adaption of Eastern spirituality” rather than what is often referred to, and as Žižek refers to, as “Western Buddhism”. My aim in doing so is, for one, refraining from the use of the term “Western Buddhism” leaves close to no room to offend self-described Western Buddhists. Furthermore, “Western Buddhism” proves itself too vague a notion, with the potential to include matters ranging from consumer products like the iPhone app ZenView (an app that creates “relaxing wave-effects” over photos of bamboo and bonsai trees) to revered and meticulous Western Buddhist practitioners. On the other hand, “New Age ‘Asiatic’ Thought,” as Žižek eloquently words it,[3] allows us to consider a broader spectrum of Eastern influences on the Occident while omitting profane facets of Western Buddhism, such as ZenView, which prove trivial in the discussion at hand. However, while I have chosen to abstain from the term “Western Buddhism,” we cannot deny that Buddhism does account for a significant amount of the Western intrigue with the philosophy of the Far East. This being said, some universal Eastern influences to take into consideration include the notions of the illusory nature of reality, or maya, the aspiration to eradicate human suffering, and enlightenment, or nirvana. The ideologies are present in Eastern religions and philosophies including but not limited to East Asian and Indian Buddhism, Hinduism, Sikhism, and Taoism, all of which have a notable presence in the Western world.

Most consequential in the discussion of the appeal of Eastern philosophy in the Age of Global Capitalism is the common Eastern understanding of the world we live in as an essentially illusory realm of temporal adversity. In various sects of Buddhism maya can be literally translated as “self-deception,” i.e. while we can recognize the physical world as one of significance, we cannot regard it as absolute truth.[4] Maya, through its extensive Hindu etymology, it is best summarized in Hinduism as the origin of the human conviction that the illusory, finite world in which we exist is Absolute.[5] In Sikhism, maya refers to the sentient experience of the corporeal world as that of a dream world.[6] While these philosophies do not endorse nihilism, it is clear that a common theme amongst them is a general denunciation of the physical world.

            A second vital feature of Western New Age Asiatic Thought is its emphasis on the pursuit of alleviating human suffering. (Bear in mind that while Judeo-Christian doctrine does mandate an ethic of altruism, it does so specifically from a theistic authority, or in other words, an authority that has undoubtedly lost its leverage in the post-Enlightenment, post-Modern world. On the other hand, the appeal of Eastern mysticism is not bound by such theistic limitations and thus proves itself more attractive than Judeo-Christianity to a growing number of Westerners.)  The third of the Four Noble Truths, or the pith of Buddhist doctrine, is the Truth of the Cessation of Dukkha, or The Truth of the Cessation of Suffering. The objective of the Truth of Cessation is to bring an end to sentient affliction, both for oneself and for humankind in its entirety.[7] Similarly, selfless service, or sewa is considered an indispensable tenet of the Sikhist faith. In fact, Sikhs go so far as to prioritize aid for those in need over devotional worship.[8] In Jainism, Ahimsa, or non-violence, functions as the first of the Five Great Vows, or the cornerstone of the Jainist doctrine. Ahimsa forbids all violence spanning from torture and killing to oppression and enslavement.[9]

            Finally, Eastern spirituality more often than not presents enlightenment as the remedy to human affliction. Enlightenment, or nirvana, is the ultimate aim of Buddhist practice in which a person existentially trivializes his/her ego, and in doing so, achieves liberation from human despondency. In nirvana “with remainder” the only discomforts that persist post-enlightenment are the banal yet inevitable, such as physical malaise and the regular fluctuating of one’s sentiments. However, an individual having achieved nirvana allegedly undergoes these wavering experiences without lingering lust or animosity.[10]  Similarly, in Hinduism, moksha, or liberation from the cycle of rebirth (samsara), is characterized by the practitioner’s devaluation of the finite mind and body. Like nirvana, the attainment of moksha allows the individual to accept and embrace the temporal world as secondary to that of the absolute.[11] It is imperative that we recognize the unifying themes of Eastern philosophy not only as those that emphasize the existence of a non-temporal reality, but that also those that assert that gaining access to such a realm relieves us of our terrestrial tribulations.

In the contemporary era, the Occident can boast an extensive history of Eastern philosophy and religion. In addition to expounding on the basic tenets of Eastern philosophy, spelling out the origins of such Eastern credos in the West proves crucial in recognizing the contemporary allure of such notions, particularly in the Age of Global Capitalism.

            As many baby boomers know first-handedly, a seemingly sudden influx of Eastern spirituality reached the United States in the late 1950s and 60s. Although the Beat Generation, including quintessential Beat writers Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac, is often credited with the popularization of such philosophies and practices, it was figures like D.T. Suzuki and Alan Watts who first made these Eastern ideologies palatable to educated, generally well-off Westerners. (On an aside, it is noteworthy to mention that while both Suzuki and Watts are often referred to as Zen masters, both are considered controversial figures amongst Buddhist practitioners; Suzuki for his notorious skewing of Zen philosophy to condone violence, and Watts for candidly criticizing Zen doctrine.[12]) Since this time, the Occident’s interest in the philosophies of the Far East has grown and continues to grow at an exponential rate.

But who are these Westerner believers and just how prominent are these Eastern ideologies in West? According to a 2015 study conducted by the Pew Research Center, self-identified Hindus and Buddhists alone account for approximately 1.4% of the population of the United States, or in other words, about 4.5 million Americans.[13] Of course this excludes demographics including but not limited to New Agers, the “spiritual but not religious,” those embracing aspects of numerous Eastern ideologies, and even atheists and/or secularists. As Jan Nattier draws attention to in her 1997 article, “American Buddhists: Who are they?” while Western Buddhists exist as an assortment rather than a homologous collective, there does exist one indisputable split amongst them: that between hereditary Buddhists and converts. Of course the same goes for any and all Western Hindus, Sikhs, New Agers, etc. who were either born into or have adopted Eastern philosophies. Pertinent to our discussion here is the latter of the two breeds: Western converts. These converts are overwhelmingly Caucasian and from the upper-middle class, but why?[14]

Here I argue that Eastern spiritualty serves a similar function to that of social entrepreneurship, for example. While social entrepreneurship debatably exceeds the capacity of a concise definition, in so many words it is a now more or less hegemonic mode of capitalist functioning in which companies appeal to consumers’ salacious urges to contribute to social reform, and in doing so, maximize profitable consumer demand. Toms Shoes is often cited as the archetype of contemporary social entrepreneurship, advertising that for every pair of shoes purchased, another pair will be given to “a person in need.” Such practices exist not only through corporations dedicated specifically to social enterprise, but have also seeped into the operations of companies notorious for their perpetration of social injustices. For example, Starbucks’s “Oprah Cinnamon Chai Tea Latte” … “helps give kids a brighter future.” The 2011 documentary, Pink Ribbons, Inc., exposes yet another quintessential model of social entrepreneurship, bringing to light the devastating consequences of the Think Pink! “consumer awareness initiative,” in which consumer products ranging from SunChips and Beanie Babies to Kentucky Fried Chicken and 5-hour Energy are fixed with pink labels and images of pink ribbons, all in the name of raising awareness for breast cancer. Of course the general public, as well as the media outlets of the financial elite (Forbes, the Wall Street Journal, etc.) applaud social entrepreneurship, viewing social enterprises as a matter of giving rather than guzzling.  While the benefits reaped by social entrepreneurship might seem inherently valuable to some, it’s difficult not to fantasize about the alternative, i.e. an economic order in which the social injustices generated by consumerism are remedied with something other than consumerism.

So here I argue that the function of New Age Asiatic Thought in the Western world is uncanny in its similarity to that of social entrepreneurship. It operates, as Žižek so eloquently phrases it, as a “most efficient way for us to fully participate in capitalist dynamics while retaining the appearance of mental sanity.”[15]  While “conscious consumers” are often aware of the shortcomings of their contributions to social entrepreneurship, they nonetheless continue to condone it, and in doing so display characteristics quintessential to that of fetishism.

Sigmund Freud in his 1927 essay, fittingly titled, “Fetishism,” argues that the origins of sexual fetishism arise in a boy’s childhood, where he understands his mother’s so-called “lack” of a penis as a representation of his fear of castration. However, by the time most males approach puberty, they successfully transform this horror of castration, manifested in the vulva, into an object of desire, a means of coping with the boy’s original terror. Fetishism, however, comes into play when a man cannot and does not make this transformation, but rather replaces the desire for the vulva with a seemingly arbitrary substitute. Freud refers to this object(s) of desire as a “permanent memorial” to a boy’s original fear of castration.[16] Nevertheless, the fetishist is more often than not aware of what he is doing. He is capable of and often does immerse himself in his fetishistic desire, or phantasy, while consciously dismissing it as just that, a phantasy. Therefore the fetishist remains seemingly helpless to the jurisdiction of his paradoxical, rationalized desire.[17]

Karl Marx’s “commodity fetishism,” on the other hand, presents itself in society’s value of commodities in and for themselves, rather than the labor and social relations “between men” that are required for their production in the first place. Through commodity fetishism, capitalist societies welcome a “fantastic form of the relation between things” rather than embracing the value of simple commodities, or those which are inexplicably connected to the work required to produce them, also known as a commodity’s labor-value.[18]

 

Žižek’s interpretation of fetishism, however, is most pertinent in the consideration of Eastern thought as a capitalist coping mechanism. In the following, Žižek provides an articulate definition of fetishism through measuring it against the customary notion of the symptom:

 

The fetish is effectively a kind of symptom in reverse. That is to say, the symptom               is the exception which disturbs the surface of the false appearance, the point at                           which the repressed Other Scene erupts, while the fetish is the embodiment of the                            Lie which enables us to sustain the unbearable truth.[19]

 

While fetishes and symptoms are often mutually exclusive, a simple instance of the two might exist through an ex-lover’s t-shirt, for example.[20] In the case that the t-shirt functions as a symptom, the subject’s contact with the shirt provokes the jolting trauma of a lover lost, a trauma that remains repressed until exposure to the t-shirt. However, as a fetish, this article of clothing functions as means by which the subject can existentially, rationally accept the loss of his/her lover. This rational solace is sustainable for as long as fetishistic object is accessible to the subject. Therefore while such a fetishistic object is seemingly reliable, the consolation it provides lasts only as long as it is literally accessible. Upon the loss of the fetishistic object, via destruction, misplacement, etc., the person whom it previously comforted is subjected to the trauma that the object allowed him/her to suppress via rationalization.

So here we can ultimately pose the Occident’s intrigue with Eastern philosophy as a fetishistic mode of coping with the trauma of global capitalism. Of course global “capitalism” is an indulgent term, seeing that the world government is oligarchical in nature at best. The Western world is slowly but surely coming to terms with this matter, as seen through grassroots movements such as Occupy Wall Street and its international counterparts, March Against Monsanto, and even the preliminary success of allegedly socialist politicians such as Bernie Sanders in the United States. It is evident, to say the least, that the global community has finally recognized and is infuriated with the global oligarchy. This being said, many well-educated, affluent Westerners are catching themselves red-handed, self-aware of their privilege, and more significantly, of the injustice it perpetuates. As Žižek often writes, in contradiction to Marx, “they know very well what they are doing, but still, they are doing it.” Of course, we loath to imagine ourselves directly contributing to the monumental sacrifices and near-slave labor that go into the production of our iPhones, our Olive Garden breadsticks, our underwear, etc. However we knowingly sustain such atrocities with every ordinary purchase we make. So outside moderated, “responsible” consumerism (which proves far from flawless, to say the least), how should us comfortable Westerners approach the capitalist civilization in which we exist? Should we break down in tears, overwhelmed by the barbarity of capitalism every time we go grocery shopping? Should we commit ourselves to lives of austerity and solitude? Of course not, and Eastern spirituality provides us with a model of existence in the face of such capitalist horrors.

            To further develop this claim, let us consider an analogy. Here let us compare the aforementioned ideologies of nirvana and maya with the notions of complex commodity and simple commodity, the latter two existing as a microcosm of the former two. Complex commodities, or those isolated from their labor-values, and nirvana successfully allow the individual to act from a position of disavowal, permitting and even encouraging attitudes of existential disengagement. In Eastern philosophy, the individual is able to liberate him/herself from the illusory, temporal sphere of human suffering by dwelling in the “true” realm of nirvana.  Similarly, and as proves evident through commodity fetishism, the complex commodity allows the consumer to disengage from the brutality that goes into the making of an otherwise simple commodity, or a commodity that remains intrinsically affiliated with its labor-value. In both circumstances, nirvana and the complex commodity function as fantastic facades for the atrocities present in the profane world. In so many words, the simple commodity is to maya as the complex commodity is to nirvana.

Furthermore, Žižek claims that New Age Asiatic Thought is the fetish that allows its participants to “(pretend to) except reality ‘the way it really is.’” I am in full agreement with this contention, and have but only one alteration, or addition, rather, to Žižek’s assertion. I claim, for one, that nirvana serves as the fetishistic object of universal human suffering, while “conscious consumerism” functions as the fetishistic object of the horror generated by capitalist social injustices. In order to elucidate this argument, allow me to fit both circumstances into Žižek’s fetishistic framework. Here we can liken the t-shirt of an ex-lover, from our previous example, to first nirvana and then conscious consumerism. Just as the subject is permitted to cope with the trauma of love lost through clinging to this article of clothing, conscious consumers similarly cling to the notion of being able to do good via consumption, allowing them to cope with trauma, in this case with the guilt, of sustaining the capitalist brutality which they intend to combat. In the same way, Eastern philosophy permits the subject to cling (a term practitioners would surely abhor in this context) to his/her state of nirvana, thus allowing the individual to endure the weight of the suffering world.

Moreover, and more pertinent to the discussion at hand, I maintain that Eastern Spirituality, in addition to conscious consumerism, also serves as a fetishistic object used in coping with trauma rooted in capitalist atrocities. In fact, Eastern philosophy arguably functions as a more reliable fetish than conscious consumerism. Again, and as mentioned in the previous example of the ex-lover’s shirt, New Age Asiatic Thought can only serve its fetishistic function for as long as it is accessible to the subject. With this is mind it becomes evident that nirvana is an exceedingly more sustainable fetishistic object than conscious consumerism, seeing that it remains unscathed by the market, corporate decision-making, misallocation of funds, etc.

            Still, with or without a fetishistic means of enduring the world in which we live, we find ourselves confined to a realm in which our attempts at acting righteously seem consistently unsatisfactory. While consumers find themselves in a domain in which “they know very well what they are doing, but still, they are doing it,” this may not necessarily serve as the ideological pith of the global age. A more suiting essence of the contemporary era might be manifested in this question: “They know very well what we are doing, but what better alternative is there?” While some argue that the pressing matters of the present day require thinking over action, abstaining from taking part in the market is not only impractical, but also nearly impossible. With this in mind, we might condone, or even embrace the fetishistic purpose Eastern spirituality serves in the West.

            So here the age-old problem of free will manifests itself in our reactions to capitalist obscenities. Taking opposing extremes into account, that is of hard libertarianism and hard determinism in this case, we are left with two ideals. From the hard libertarian perspective we have the utopian ideal that the global community can collectively combat and maybe even over throw the capitalist hegemony, and in doing so, replace it with a more charitable, humanitarian institution. On the other hand we have the equally impractical hard determinist position, that is that the momentum of global capitalism is assuredly invincible, and therefore leaves us with no choice but to fully consent to and immerse ourselves in the violence of the market. Eastern philosophy grants Westerners with the ability to avoid both extremes, permitting us an arguably satisfactory compromise between these perspectives. At first the fetishistic use of nirvana in coping with maya might seem to condone the deterministic course of action, i.e. the idea that “the temporal world exists only as an illusion, therefore I may as well disengage from it, acting in it only as if it were a trivial game, etc.” In his 2012 European Graduate School lecture, “The Buddhist Ethic and the Spirit of Global Capitalism,” Žižek refers to this notion as the “minimalist attitude” of moral responsibility in Buddhism. This minimalist attitude, as he puts it, reflects the radical conception of nirvana as a perspective from which “everything is different but nothing changes.”[21] However, this drastic approach is neutralized through Eastern philosophy’s call to altruistic action, in which humanitarian efforts are encouraged in the allegedly trivial world of appearances in which we reside. (As a disclaimer, it should be known that I maintain, as Žižek does in his EGS lecture, that this call to altruism does not rationally follow from, and even contradicts Eastern ontology. However it is only pertinent here that Eastern mysticism complies with this precept, despite its logical shortcomings.)

When it boils down to it, whether or not we utilize our capital to purchase an Oprah Chai Tea, its egomaniacal counterpart, customary Chai Tea, or none at all, ultimately makes negligible to no headway in combating global social injustices. While means of coping with consumer guilt do exist, such as conscious consumerism, such approaches prove far from adequate. Therefore Eastern spiritually functions as both a fetishistic coping mechanism and a code of conduct for Western partakers. As a means of fetishistic coping, Eastern philosophy allows us to substitute our horror and shame regarding capitalist atrocities with the disengagement nirvana permits us. As a code of conduct, the philosophy of the Far East requires that we aid in the alleviation of human affliction, thus presenting us with a middle ground between succumbing to the violence of global capitalism and fruitlessly, but incessantly striving for an Eden void of it.

All and all, Eastern spirituality grants us the ability to further diminish the weight of capitalist enormity, which without, we would find ourselves incapacitated by remorse.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Notes

 

 

[1] Žižek, S. (2001, March 21). From Western Marxism to Western Buddhism. Cabinet.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Maya. (2014). In New World Encyclopedia. New World Encyclopedia.

[5] Maya. (2015). In Encyclopedia Britannica. Encyclopedia Britannica.

[6] Maya. (2014). In New World Encyclopedia. New World Encyclopedia.

[7] Velez, A. (2015). Buddha (c. 500s B.C.E.). Retrieved July 24, 2015.

[8] Sikhism: Poverty and Wealth. (2014). Retrieved July 24, 2015.

[9] Shah, P. (2015, January 21). Five Great Vows (Maha-vratas) of Jainism. Retrieved July 21, 2015.

[10] Velez, A. (2015). Buddha (c. 500s B.C.E.). Retrieved July 24, 2015.

[11] “Moksha.” World Public Library. 2015. Web. 24 July 2015.

[12] Victoria B. Zen as a Cult of Death in the Wartime Writings of D.T. Suzuki. The Asia-Pacific Journal: Japan Focus. 2013 May [cited 2015].

[13] “Religious Landscape Study.” Pew Research Center: Religion and Public Life. Pew Research Center, 12 May 2015. Web. 10 July 2015.

[14]Nattier, J. (1997). American Buddhists: Who are they? Retrieved July 20, 2015.

[15] Žižek, S. (2001, March 21). From Western Marxism to Western Buddhism. Cabinet.

[16] Freud, Sigmund. “Fetishism.” The Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud. Standard ed. Vol. XXI. London: Hogarth and the Institute of Psychoanalysis, 1927. 147-157. Print.

[17] Felluga, D. (2011, January 31). Terms Used by Psychoanalysis. Retrieved July 24, 2015.

[18] Felluga, D. “On Commodity Fetishism.” Introductory Guide to Critical Theory. 31 Jan. 2011. Web. 23 July 2015.

[19] Žižek, S. (2001, March 21). From Western Marxism to Western Buddhism. Cabinet.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Žižek, S. (Director) (2012, August 10). The Buddhist Ethic and the Spirit of Global Capitalism. European Graduate School Lecture. Lecture conducted from The European Graduate School.