12/21 – Western Buddhism’s Political Challenge

Russ Volckmann

In a recent online posting –( – Shawn Van Valkenburgh offers “The dangerous American myth of corporate spirituality: How invocations of “karma” and Zen are being used to justify deeply unequal systems of power,” (accessed 10/27/14). There he wonders about the spiritual materialism of adoptions of Buddhist meditation and philosophy (note The Secret). He sites examples of how this religious approach leads to ignoring the implications of institutional corruption and issues like climate change and the growing economic inequality in Western societies. He recalls his own challenges with spiritual materialism and the pretenses of spiritual meritocracy. One such story involves the response of the presumably Hindu CEO of Microsoft, Satya Nadella, to a woman who complained about pay discrepancies and being passed up by men in the company for promotions. His advice to her was to trust in karma and all would be well.

I particularly appreciated his quote from Slavoj Zizek’s summary dismissal ( of “Western Buddhism.” He warns us that meditation can come from an edgy counterculture, Americans engage in it to support consumerist capitalism:

“… although ‘Western Buddhism’ presents itself as the remedy against the stressful tension of capitalist dynamics, allowing us to uncouple and retain inner peace and Gelassenheit, it actually functions as its perfect ideological supplement … One is almost tempted to resuscitate the old infamous Marxist cliché of religion as the ‘opium of the people,’ as the imaginary supplement to terrestrial misery. The ‘Western Buddhist’ meditative stance is arguably the most efficient way for us to fully participate in capitalist dynamics while retaining the appearance of mental sanity … ”

Take a look at this refreshing piece. I, for one, do not think the Marxist cliché is that far off base.

Russ Volckmann

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