Jesus Saves, Buddha Recycles: A Spiritual Perspective on Consumerism

Buddha and Recycling BinsDavid Loy, a Buddhism scholar, presented a lecture at Vanderbilt University recently describing a spiritual perspective on the challenge of consumerism.

There is a video available that is worth watching if you have a free hour and, like me, are into this kind of stuff! Otherwise, I will give an overly simplistic summary below.

The basic spiritual crisis we face as individuals is our failure to recognize that the sense of self is a construct. The construct creates a feeling of alienation. This causes us to try to find meaning in accumulating wealth and things to verify our existence, creating further anxiety and sense of lack. The solution to the problem is to realize that the sense of self is indeed a delusion. This results in a caring attitude toward everyone else because of the recognition that we are not separate but part of a whole.

Then Loy parallels the individual’s basic problem with the delusion of humans as a species. Since the ancient Greeks, human beings have thought of themselves as separate from the rest of the natural world. This has resulted in uneasiness about our role in the world. The discomfort causes us to try to verify our existence by endless technological growth for the sake of growth. But this has not eased the anxiety.

The ecological crisis is inevitable because of this need for endless growth. The solution, like the solution for the individual problem, is found in the realization that the human species is not separate from the rest of nature. When the human species recognizes its relationship with the Earth, we can address the need to exploit resources and begin to heal the injuries we’ve caused.

What I think David Loy does well in this lecture is remind us that technology alone is not the answer to ecological destruction. The solution will come from identifying the root of our consumerist and exploitative impulses.

Photo credit: Flickr

  1. greenskeptic

    What if we HAVE recognized our “relationship with the Earth” and it IS to “exploit resources” for our own benefit?

    That may sound more cynical than skeptical, but perhaps we are “separate from the rest of the natural world” and that is our fate.

    Perhaps we just need to get comfortable with that fact rather than beat up ourselves over it. And work towards finding an “endless technological growth” that simply causes less injury to the rest of the natural world.

  2. Chad Crawford

    I guess you could do a lot worse, but the goal of sustainability is to use the resources we need and give back in a mutually beneficial way. How can nature support our endless growth? Causing less injury might be all we can do right now, but I think in the long run we can do better than that.

  3. Bobby B.

    “technological growth for the sake of growth”

    Not really. We grow to expand our horizons. We grow to improve our methods of communication. We grow to improve our methods of growing crops and raising cattle. We grow to better combat the diseases that originate in the “natural” world so that human suffering can be minimized and life lengthened. We grow for an infinite number of very valid reasons.

    Should we give up our “separate from the rest of nature” belief system? Should we live in darkness, both literally and metaphorically? Should we return to hunting and gathering to eke out a meager existence? Should we abandon medical research currently seeking cures for cancer, aids, etc. and let polio, malaria, leprosy, typhoid, etc. resurge to thin the human herd? What does The Bible say about the believer’s relationship to this world? I found a few excerpts:

    I have given them thy word; and the world hath hated them, because they are not of the world, even as I am not of the world. – John 17:14

    Jesus answered, My kingdom is not of this world: – John 18:36

    Love not the world, neither the things [that are] in the world. If any man love the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that [is] in the world, the lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life, is not of the Father, but is of the world. – 1 John 2:15-16

    Chad, keep these good discussions going.

  4. Chad Crawford

    This doesn’t require hunting and gathering, abandoning medical research, or eking out a meager existence.

    It questions how much growth is necessary. It asks, how much is enough? Is this healthy for the ecosystem? What is the cost of our need for domination and control? Most importantly, why do we need to have more control in the first place?

    I’m not sure I agree with you that what these passages are calling “the world” is synonymous with the Earth/ecosystem. I’m sure you know there are two different words for these ideas in Greek (kosmos, gaia), just as in English, and they have different nuances.

    I think Jesus’ teachings concerned a spiritual worldview that values material possessions less. “Don’t store up treasures” kind of stuff. Being “not of the world” means not subscribing to the selfish, individualistic, money grubbing mindset of the rest of society (“the world”). So sure, there is a sense of separateness in Christianity, but it’s about being holy rather than separate from nature.

    But enough about Jesus. Loy’s presentation was about Buddhist philosophy. πŸ™‚

  5. Piperon

    Yes, indeed mortal human shouldn’t be obessed with this mortal world – but doesn’t mean we have the right to trash or harm this world. This world is given to us to learn our spiritual lesson.

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