Postmodern consumerist hallucinations

I just finished reading a fascinating book: The New Buddhism, by James William Coleman who is a professor of sociology and a long-time practicing Buddhist. The book is basically a sociological study of how Buddhism has evolved and adapted to Western culture (well, is evolving and adapting, anyway). I found much of the book fascinating and about as neutral and unbiased as it is possible to be in matters of religion (though I wish he’d given more attention to dedicated practitioners whose practice is based more at home and in everyday activity, rather than in participation in an organized Buddhist center). The last paragraph, in which he speculates about the future of Western Buddhism, is anything but unbiased, but I found it to be especially intriguing, so I’ll share it:

Despite its gentle mien, Buddhism is a profoundly subversive force in postmodern consumer society. The structure of our economy, our psychology, our whole social reality is built around the unquestioned assumption that we are each of us separate, autonomous selves. Selves with endless appetites for consumer goods to set us off from the crowd, make us feel good about who we are, and give us a sense of identity. Selves that identify with a particular ethnic group, political party, or ideology. Selves driven by a sense of inadequacy, driven by the desire to be better, richer or wiser people, driven by the need to prove their worth, driven by dark fears about the future and the fate that awaits us. What would happen if enough people saw through all that? If there was a critical mass for change? Perhaps these are just hypothetical questions about the unlikeliest of events, but then again perhaps not…

I hope those questions are not hypothetical.


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