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How Corporations Attempt to Co-opt Buddhism
In the Superman comic books of the 1950s and ’60s, Bizzaro was a sad, sometimes sympathetic, but always dangerous Superman doppelgänger, a distorted double, like Howdy Doody’s evil twin Double Doody. (The Jungian shadow was ever present in the American 1950s; Compare Richard Nixon’s five o’clock shadow to fresh-faced JFK.) Bizzaro was a sort of Frankenstein figure, not so much villainous, like his creator Lex Luthor, as tragic. In more recent decades, American Buddhism has encountered its own disturbing double, what we might call a “Bizarro Buddha.” It’s a Frankenstein stitched together from corporate greed, secular resentment, and science delusion, an American version of what the Buddha defined as the “three poisons.”
Is this hyperbole? Perhaps, but the situation is basically this: There is an American version of Buddhism that has been removed from its proper spiritual context; grounded in the sciences, especially neuroscience; and then made useful to a predatory techno-capitalist economy. This secularized Buddhism has no shortage of apologists. As B. Alan Wallace writes in Buddhism and Science: Breaking New Ground, “Buddhism, like science, presents itself as a body of systematic knowledge about the natural world. … Buddhism may be better characterized as a form of empiricism rather than transcendentalism.” Or, as Jack Kornfield of Spirit Rock Meditation Center remarked tersely in a recent talk, “Buddhism is not a religion. It is a science of the mind.” This is also the conclusion of Google’s Search Inside Yourself Leadership Institute, which offers mindfulness training “born at Google and based on neuroscience.”
Tell that to the workers in Amazon warehouses who have repeatedly complained of dangerous and stressful working conditions but have been offered only the cold solace of a “ZenBooth” (or “despair closet,” as some have called it) where employees can go to “focus on their mental wellbeing.” Amazon’s AmaZen program is just one instance of a broader strategy to use yoga, meditation, and mindfulness to limit damage to the corporate brand and improve productivity. It may be based on science, but it is also thoroughly hypocritical.
Our triple-headed corporate Buddha is not about theology. It is about ideology. There is a liberating adage on the left that says, “Capitalism understands that it will have enemies. But if it must have enemies, it will make them itself, and in its own image.” In other words, when confronted with a social movement that is hostile to its interest, capitalism will simply co-opt the movement. And so, when the hippie lifestyle presented a threat in the ’60s, corporations turned it into a style, a fashion commodity. It’s “the conquest of cool,” as Thomas Frank wrote. This conquest is achieved, in Steve Bannon’s terms, by “flooding the zone,” so that there is water (or Buddhism) everywhere, and yet there’s not a drop to drink.
It is shameful to use something as noble as Buddhism for something as ignoble as workplace stress relief, especially when it was the workplace that caused the stress in the first place.
As Tricycle editor Andrew Cooper and I argued in Salon in 2014: “Buddhism has its own orienting perspectives, attitudes and values, as does American corporate culture. And not only are they very different from each other, they are often fundamentally opposed to each other. Indeed, one of the foundations of Buddhism is the idea of right livelihood, which entails engaging in trades or occupations that cause minimal harm to other living beings. And yet in the literature of mindfulness as stress reduction for business, we’ve seen no suggestion that employees ought to think about—be mindful of—whether they or the company they work for practice right livelihood. Corporate mindfulness takes something that has the capacity to be oppositional, Buddhism, and redefines it. Mindfulness becomes just another aspect of ‘workforce preparation.’ Eventually, we forget that it ever had its own meaning.”
The confounding thing is that when Buddhism spread beyond Asia and Asian American communities in the 1950s and ’60s, it was associated not with mammoth corporations and neuroscience, but with the counterculture. What was it within the counterculture that made it so receptive to Buddhism? The answer, I would suggest, is that the West had already been preparing to embrace Buddhism as far back as the late 18th century through Romanticism’s dissident culture of art, music, literature, and philosophy. In the 1950s, Beat poets, writers, and jazz musicians made Eastern philosophy and spirituality a public part of their artistic practice, in works like Jack Kerouac’s Dharma Bums and Allen Ginsberg’s “Wichita Vortex Sutra.” Ornette Coleman, John Coltrane, Alice Coltrane, Pharoah Sanders, and Sun Ra brought jazz and spirituality emphatically together.
These art scenes hearkened directly back to Romanticism’s anarchic tradition of nonconformity: the poet visionary, the dandy, the bohemian, the mystic, and the utopian, misfits all. It was German and English Romanticism that first suggested that humanity did not stand opposite nature as Cartesian dualism had insisted. It didn’t even suggest that humanity was a part of nature. It said humanity was nature, “Rolled round in earth’s diurnal course / With rocks and stones and trees,” as Wordsworth wrote in “A Slumber Did My Spirit Seal.” Put differently, the Romantics discovered that there is no self and no nature, there is only change, what they called “mutability.”
The counterculture’s confidence in art and spirit was intended to open upon possibility, the possibility of other possibilities, counter-worlds. Unfortunately, it is capitalism’s purpose to limit the possibilities on hand to one: You are a labor commodity, and your proper place is the labor market. From a corporate perspective, the counterculture and its alien religions were enemies in need of secularization—and brother, that was swiftly on the way. The counterculture and Buddhism needed to be managed. All that was required was an inspirational manager. As if on cue, along came Steve Jobs in 1976 with his omnivorous Apple I microcomputer. Jobs adapted both Zen and the counterculture to the purposes of a cutthroat corporate monopoly, co-opting the name of The Beatles’ production company, Apple, in the process.
If thinking about American Buddhism’s problems as ideological has a Marxist air to it, that shouldn’t be surprising. Marx’s criticism of capitalist exploitation proceeds from his assumption that there is a human requirement for compassion and generosity that is more important than profit. Marx was not really much of a political activist; he spent most of his waking hours studying philosophy (his dissertation was on the Greek philosopher Epicurus) and, later, working in the Reading Room of the British Library. In Buddhism’s terminology, Marx was not a “worldling”; he was an “insider,” a contemplative.
For me, Marx is the books he wrote: the early essays on alienation, and then his life project of describing the mechanisms of exploitation in Capital. For both Marx and the Buddha, the goal was liberation from what constrains us, and openness to the possibility of what Marx called “a higher form of society, a society in which the full and free development of every individual forms the ruling principle.” Like the Buddha, Marx’s only god was liberation from a world of self-inflicted suffering, liberation from what humans do to themselves.
Bizarro Buddha is a strange destiny for something as simple as Buddhism. The purpose of Buddhism is not to offer plugged-in therapy for the technologically addled. It offers something more humble, a three-legged stool. It offers ethics first (sīla), then meditation/mindfulness (the calm of samādhi), and lastly wisdom (pañña), all thriving within the healing context of family, the sangha, Buddhist community.
Of course, it is shameful to use something as noble as Buddhism for something as ignoble as workplace stress relief, especially when it was the workplace that caused the stress in the first place. But in the end, Buddhism is Buddhism, whatever the billionaires do. It cannot be harmed, never mind the hot mess that is this world. As Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote of God’s grandeur, “Nature is never spent; / There lives the dearest freshness deep down things.” Buddhism resides in its hard-won wisdom, always available to any of us in yoniso manasikara, the womb of attention, our awakened minds. This womb is not something that constrains us. Rather, it is something that liberates us so we can go forth and, like Marx, speak truth to power.
Curtis White is a novelist and social critic whose latest book is Transcendent: Art and Dharma in a Time of Collapse (Melville House, 2023). His other works include Memories of My Father Watching TV, The Middle Mind, The Science Delusion, We Robots, and Lacking Character. He taught English at Illinois State University and is the founder (with Ronald Sukenick) of FC2, a publisher of innovative fiction run collectively by its authors.