05: Buddhism under Capitalism: Who's to blame?

Sat., Aug. 23rd, 09:00-10:30

Touring Mount Putuo: Commodification, Buddhism, and State Capitalism in China

Bruntz, Courtney (University of Nebraska-Lincoln, Lincoln, USA)

China’s economic reforms following its 1978 opening up have ushered in new market strategies and industries that are shaping religious landscapes. Historically, its four sacred Buddhist mountains have always held interactions with surrounding market economies, as inns, teahouses, and commercial shops upheld the pilgrim’s journey. However, with an expansion of China’s economic market and an establishment of state capitalism, the nation’s Buddhist mountains are contemporarily commodified in ways that promote certain practices of Buddhism over others. Using field work I conducted at Mount Putuo in China’s Zhejiang Province, I argue that in its state capitalist system, government-owned tourist corporations have revitalized Buddhist practices at the mountain, with the determining factor being whether or not that practice resembles values of nationalism.

China’s economic reforms and adaptation of capitalism resulted in a system in which markets are tools for national interests – or at least the interests of the ruling elite. In state capitalism, the means of production are often privately owned, but the state has much control over investment and the allocation of credit. Often the interests of large-scale businesses are advanced and protected – including corporatized government agencies. Pertinent to the study of contemporary Buddhism in China, one of these industries that has been advanced is the tourism one that is dominated by government-owned agencies. By investing in tourism at China’s four Buddhist mountains, government companies are in the position to protect the locations as cultural relics and embed the sites with Party ideology, and they are also in the position to determine which Buddhist locations and practices are more heavily advertised than others. This in turn affects the cultural value of a location, and its associated activities. Investigating Mount Putuo, I argue such government investments in tourism have resulted in a commodified space where the mountain’s: 1) Buddhist identity and connections to the Bodhisattva Guanyin are promoted and rebranded under nationalism; 2) abstract and concrete qualities are secularized; and 3) temple complexes and auspicious locations are re-configured to meet current standards of tourism.

This work contributes to the panel “Buddhism under Capitalism” reinforcing the necessity to evaluate the ways that economic structures, and their corresponding consumerist frameworks, modify Buddhism’s cultural value. Furthermore, it evidences how the emergence of capitalism in China has resulted in a competitive market where Buddhist sites compete with one another and with other religious and entertainment opportunities. This competition is generated by a state monopolized tourist industry that institutionally supports Buddhist landscapes while restructuring locations to meet values of nationalism. For studies of contemporary Chinese Buddhism, this work pointedly evaluates where in economic activity restructuring occurs, the exchange parameters through which Buddhism is consumed, and the cultural values embedded within such exchanges.



Consuming Nothing: Psychotherapy, Capitalism, and Buddhism

Payne, Richard (Institute of Buddhist Studies, Los Gatos, USA)

This presentation explores how from the second half of the nineteenth century into the present the three way relation between Buddhism, capitalism and psychotherapy has affected the representations of Buddhism. Although frequently considered a recent development, the interaction between Buddhism and psychotherapy dates from the earliest popularization of Buddhism in Europe and the United States. Consequently, Buddhism has always been “psychologized” in its Western representations, which I have addressed previously. This essay extends this line of inquiry by giving particular attention to the role of capitalism in the formation of this psychologized Buddhism.

The inquiry will develop over four topics. The first considers “Buddhism as an Object of Consumption.” This may be the most familiar dimension of the relation between capitalism and religion generally, having been subject to several critiques. This section considers aspects of consumption, such as commodification, class, communication, and celebrity, as interconnected parts of the marketing of Buddhism.

The second topic, “Instrumentality and the Denaturalizing of Meditation,” examines the capitalist portrayal of technology as value- and context-neutral. This understanding of technology molds the representation of Buddhism by treating meditation as a mental technology. Thus “denaturalized,” that is, both decontextualized and dehistoricized, meditation is easily integrated into a medicalized therapeutics. The ironic consequence of the instrumentalization of meditation is that it reinforces the ego’s sense of being an autonomous agent, though its control may only be over one’s own emotions. Thus, rather than moving toward a realization of anātman, the instrumentalization of meditation as mental technology reinforces the sense of the ego’s autonomy.

“Puritanism and the Project of Buddhist Self-Help” is the third topic. Puritan notions regarding the moral obligation for self-improvement provide the background for analysing the links between Buddhism as psychotherapy and Buddhism as self-help. The culture of self-help plays an important role in the construction of the self under late capitalism. The morally obligatory character of self-improvement nests with the self as consumer to create a completely open-ended project of self-perfection through the consumption of morally acceptable “spiritual” goods. Thus, “transformative experience” becomes socially accepted as an object of desire. Necessarily evanescent, and therefore requiring repeated consumption, makes this a perfect product. Here we also see the commercial utility of the Romantic conception of religion as experience, which dates from the beginning of the nineteenth century, and has become widely accepted dogma regarding the nature of religion.

Last, the question of how capitalist commodification is transforming systems of authority is examined under the fourth topic, “Degrading Hierarchy, Longing for Authenticity.” While faux-populism degrades traditional hierarchical claims to authority, e.g., those based in the Vinaya and other monastic codes, consumer capitalism employs rhetorics of authenticity. Authenticity also engages nostalgia for an idealized Other. Frequently this is in terms of stability, harmony and an “enchanted world,” created as the semiotic opposite to the present as unstable, conflictual and a “disenchanted world,” i.e., characterizations of traditional versus modern, employed as claims regarding authenticity.


Early Buddhist Critiques of Capitalism in Japan: Sada Kaiseki and Uchiyama Gudō

Rambelli, Fabio (University of California, Santa Barbara, California, USA)

Japan's process of modernization that began in the second half of the nineteenth century involved the adoption of Western cultural and institutional formations, including current modes of production. This adoption took place together with a systematic repression of traditional forms of religiosity, including Buddhism. Those modes of production can be summed under the general term “capitalism.” At the time, capitalism was almost synonymous with modernization—a complex process that involved institutional and political restructuring, transformation (and often, abandonment) of existing trades and modes of production, and the import of foreign commodities and services (with the depleting of Japan's resources in currency and precious metals and resulting inflation); this process also accelerated economic differentiation in terms of class. This paper explores some of the ways in which Buddhist intellectuals living in those complex times interpreted and critiqued capitalism and tried to propose alternative economic models. We will focus in particular on two Buddhist intellectuals, Sada Kaiseki (1818-1882) and Uchiyama Gudō (1874-1911). Both are now minor figures in the history of modern Japanese Buddhism, but their works offer us interesting views on the early interpretations of “capitalism” from a strongly critical perspective. Sada Kaiseki lamented the potential destruction of traditional modes of production and technologies, with consequent phenomena of de-culturation; he organized a large-scale campaign of boycott of foreign imports and wrote books on economics from a Buddhist standpoint. On the other hand, Uchiyama Gudō came to be involved with the rising socialist movement in Japan, and eventually joined the group of anarchists led by Kōtoku Shūsui. He wrote a scathing critique of private property, wealth accumulation, and selfishness which he considered related to capitalist economy and society. The paper will conclude with a critical discussion of the works of these two authors, by contextualizing their ideas and activities within the social and historical situation of their times and also by comparing them with positions expressed by contemporary “engaged Buddhism,” also as a way to formulate a Buddhist critique of capitalism from within. 


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