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Marketing Superstitions & Invisible Demons

The idea that life can be explained and mastered is a superstition. So’s the idea that it’s possible to live without doubt, or that existence is meant to be joyful, that someone or something out there is watching out for us. Do you hope to be enlightened by your Buddhist practice, or saved by your God? Okay. Why?

You’ll probably never fully answer this question, but that’s no reason to stop asking it. We need to be reminded that we can’t know, not just intellectually but viscerally. To abandon mystery is to lose our potential for change. Worse, to think we can manage that change is to be lost in superstition.

the cycle of branding, marketing and consumption
mirrors our instinctive attempts to buy into happiness

In one sense the Roman Catholicism and Tibetan Buddhism in which I was immersed for my first thirty years were more superstitious than the plain life I lead now, but in another sense, I’m more tempted than ever to believe in impossible things. I watch TV and find myself thinking that fame and fortune would make me happy. I browse the Internet and hope that a new app will solve my poor time management. I read about the Dalai Lama’s latest trip and feel pangs of regret for leaving Tibetan Buddhism and my illustrious friends.

You might consider the Tibetan belief in invisible demons a superstition. So literally are they taken that Ganden monastery in South India is divided by a wall, separating those who believe that Dolgyal is a good demon from those who believe he’s an evil one. There’s no place for those who don’t believe in him at all.

One day I woke up and realized I’d been consuming
Buddhism as greedily as a box of tasty chocolates

By contrast, the Tibetan teacher Thubten Yeshe’s favourite example of superstition was: supermarkets. A maverick lama, he was fascinated by consumerism and used comedy to break through our defenses and deliver subversive truths. He was right though: the cycle of branding, marketing and consumption mirrors our instinctive attempts to buy into happiness.

Beguiled by his great style, I barely glimpsed the explosive potential of the seeds he was planting. In time they completely undermined the cozy niche I thought I’d established in the Tibetan community. One day I woke up and realized I’d been consuming Buddhism as greedily as a box of tasty chocolates. Madhyamaka philosophy was elegant; tantric ritual was cool; Enlightenment was like a hazelnut swirl, my favorite.

Buddhism is just another product — contingent,
malleable and repeatedly misrepresented

Trying to align ourselves to a set of tenets, rather than exploring them, turns us into extremists and the tenets into superstitions. Dogma is belief abused; superstition is its bastard offspring. The problem begins when beliefs take on a life of their own, as if they’re separate from how we see them. Dharma is not a set of teachings and rituals. It’s something you do, and everyone does it differently. We need to tear down our perceptions of it again and again until it becomes our own, based on experience, able to absorb all doubt and challenge. To effect change it must become flexible. Without a spirit of open enquiry, we’ll never reject old interpretations in favor of new insights; they’ll never help us move along.

To embrace Buddhism sincerely means to recognize it as just another product — contingent, malleable and repeatedly misrepresented by people who think they know best. It nourishes us only when we have no illusions about it.

How easily those illusions take root, though. We can all use the guidance and support of a good mentor, but are easily lulled into the superstition that the relationship itself will save us — especially if the mentor is renowned. We can practice mindfulness of the breath hoping it will transform us, but without mindfulness of our motives it won’t, and that’s a tricky, never-ending meditation.

According to the Oxford Dictionary, superstition is unreasoning awe or fear of something unknown, mysterious, or imaginary. Living realistically then is to no longer be awed or frightened by the unknown, the mysterious and the imaginary. You will experience happiness, and you’ll sometimes feel secure, but you’ll never manage either one. Don’t let anyone convince you otherwise.

The most dangerous superstition of all is that if we stop trying to make everything right, we’ll have no reason to live, love or prosper. The great leap of faith is to let it be.

 

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12 responses to “Marketing Superstitions & Invisible Demons”

  1. Pat Snow

    The great leap of faith is to let it be.
    A daily, often hourly practice on my part.
    The odd time I try modeling my cat, who, most of the time is a master of that.
    Reminding myself that this moment has nothing to do with that moment.
    What I find also helps is remembering I am not my mind, my feelings nor my body.
    Thank you for this superbly written article, and reminding me of my freedom to create from nothing, not attached to outcome.
    For a results oriented person, this is my challenge.

  2. Jeffrey

    Superbly written. concise, clear and visceral.

    When I experienced Satori, was at a moment in my life when everything was falling apart. I had taken up meditation again after giving it up because the form I was using (Trance) had left me with problems. When I took up Zazen, I was astounded at how simple but how dramatic it was. To go back to the breath again and again to simply watch what was going on in my body, mind and emotions.

    In moments of consumerism, I pull myself out of the feelings and perceptions (which are linked) and return to that place within myself where I sit in equanimity. it is a challenge and one which demands constant vigilance. When I free myself of the constraints of consumerism, materialism and egotism (i.e. Narcissism/individualism) I am able to enjoy life and its wonders.

    Being free I enjoy my sensual (sensory) pleasures with grace and dignity. I am satisfied with a good meal, a hot bath, a simple glass of wine, a cup of tea or any other simple but nourishing/nurturing pleasures that feed our bodies, minds and emotions with joy.

    How do I free myself from my perceptions and feelings, I put them aside. I do not try and stop them, I simply put my mind in the Hara and watch and truly “feel” (viscerally) what I need in the moment. Usually it is not what I think I need.

    The key to my freedom came from putting my feelings aside. Not trying to squelch them, override them or ignore them, but to simply move them to a place where I can observe them. I didnt’ know what I was doing at the time but later I learned it is called putting your mind in your Hara. This was also the key to mastering meditation for me.

    To sift through and work with what is real, takes time and as you have said a willingness to constantly be open and explore what Buddhism means again and again.

    Thank you again for a great post.

  3. Robert Schenck

    Wonderful post, Stephen, thank you. It reminded me of something Thich Nhat Hanh said in one of his books, I forget which. “When you catch yourself wanting something, ask yourself, ‘Is a breath enough?'” Buddha and Socrates are the sages that I return to again and again. It seems they never fail me. Patience, curiosity, inquiry, repeat.

    Robert

  4. Mark Knickelbine

    The most dangerous superstition of all is that if we stop trying to make everything right, we’ll have no reason to live, love or prosper. The great leap of faith is to let it be.

    To encourage everyone to embrace the great perplexity of anicca and anatta, I propose we put the above saying on a poster and sell it at a nominal charge (all procedes to charity, of course).

    But seriously, great article!

  5. Rosie

    Amazing article Stephen, very profound. This bit particularly resonated with me…

    So’s the idea that it’s possible to live without doubt, or that existence is meant to be joyful, that someone or something out there is watching out for us…

    Thank you.

  6. Spanish translation

    This post is also available in Spanish, thanks to Bernat Font at the site Budismo Secular: Supersticiones de mercado y demonios invisibles

  7. Boeddha Blog & Bladwijzer – 28 augustus 2013 - Boeddhistisch Dagblad

    […] Marketing Superstitions & Invisible Demons (The Naked Monk) Bijgeloof begint wanneer je meent dat het mogelijk is controle uit te oefenen over verandering, ook die van jezelf. Het consumentisme zit zo diep in ons dat boeddhisme een artikel kan worden dat tot uitdrukking brengt wie we willen zijn. De auteur vertelt dat zijn ogen pas geopend zijn voor de dharma nadat hij eerst aan deze verleiding ten prooi was gevallen. Link […]

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