Buddha, Inc.

By Glenn Wallis

Is it just me, or does American x-buddhism resemble Corporate America more and more with every passing day? Slick websites touting cutting-edge technology (in the service of The Dharma, of course). Packaging of meditation as a means, like deodorant and fresh breath, to increase happiness and effectiveness. Buddhist community as product: something to be had at a price—liking, joining, registering, signing up, paying. Most of all, the promise of something continually NEW AND IMPROVED!

Perusing the bodhiblogosphere, I can’t help but wonder whether this identification is intentional. The corporate world, after all, presents sterling examples of sprawling social influence and huge profit margins. So, why not mimic it? Is that the case here? Are our x-buddhist entrepreneurs consciously imitating their American capitalist masters for the obvious reasons?

Or is it a case of unconscious identification? A major activity of all varieties of American x-buddhism is to bemoan the debilitating stress caused in no small part by the role played by Corporate America in our society. How curious, then, to observe x-buddhism mimicking the corporate daddy. Or is this to be expected? Freud observed a tendency in his patients to punish themselves “in a hysterical fashion” after the death of a parent, and to do so, crucially, “with the same state [of sickness]” suffered by the parent.

Come to think of it, another way of viewing the x-buddhist tendency toward the censorship and intolerance—known in x-buddhist circles as “right speech”—is in light of this movement toward corporate clubbiness. Try an experiment. I suppose you’ve had to deal directly with organizations like Verizon or Facebook concerning some grievance. Do the same with some x-buddhist online teacher or organization. I predict that everything will be nice and chummy for a while—until the critical nature of your interaction sinks in. Then you will meet the cold, distant, and controlling core that lies beneath the compassionate façade of these x-buddhist hucksters.

Anyway, think about it, will you? Collect your own examples and comparisons. Here’s the email that got me thinking about it. As you’ll see, it’s from an intelligent and discerning reader.

Help! Am I grossly under-caffeinated (quite possible) or has Buddhism in American just taken a lame turn? Have you seen Buddhist Geek’s new online enterprise, a private by application community?


I went to post it on my newspage with minimal commentary but lapsed into the rant below instead. Is this common in other online spaces? Do you have a different, more positive impression? Please share, I feel like a mean-spirited grouch!


If I wanted to be in an exclusive in-club, I’d have joined a sorority in college. Oh wait, after a fit of open-mindedness, I eventually did – and then later quit in dismay.

I quite enjoy the Buddhist Geeks podcasts and appreciate the comprehensive and interesting contributions this group has offered to people thinking about the intersection of meditation, Buddhism, and American culture. But I can’t stomach this. A forum by application? Followed by a membership invitation and yet-to-be-disclosed dues? Is everyone offered an invitation following the one-month trial period, or is there a secret vote by BG leadership? Can they blackball a wannabe member for their unpalatable positions or rhetorical style? Irregular practice? What about sleeping with an ex-girlfriend? Is there a secret point system or a BG prep course offered by Kaplan? If I attend certain retreats and slip in the right Buddhist jargon, will that help my application? Once in, do I get similar authority to silence or include people that ruffle or flatter my own feathers? Will members receive exclusive access to mixers with geeks of other contemplative persuasions? When do I learn the handshake?

One of the primary social and intellectual advantages of online discourse is its accessibility. Humility, creativity, and critical thinking and analysis are undermined, not fostered, by exclusivity and top-down policing of conversation. The website claims it’s a new space to “connect, practice, and learn,” and continues, “Think of it as the conversations that have been happening in the Podcast and at the Conference, but opened up to geeks everywhere. We’d love for you to join us.” But the private infrastructure suggests what is really meant might be: “Think – but not too hard or too differently or without dollars attached, or we don’t actually love for you to join us. We want to connect, practice, and learn from geeks just like us.”

I don’t actually imagine the intention of the BG creators is elitism. I suspect their ambitions are much simpler: financial growth or sustainability. Such practical concerns don’t offend me. BG offers a resource many find valuable. Everyone has to pay the bills, and few services are free. But I have a lot more respect for an organization that suggests dana or requests paying for a podcast download than one that requests paying for community access in a false spirit of camaraderie. Say it like it is. Isn’t that kind of transparency what all the time spent on the cushion is supposed to encourage? Grumblings about McMindfulness and the commercialization of meditation are already audible. Welcome to what appears to be its latest, greatest permutation. Delta Delta Delta, can I help ya help ya help ya? NO.

10 responses to “Buddha, Inc.”

  1. Tom Nickel Avatar

    Just like there was a kernel of something fresh and necessary in the very earliest Hippie ethic, which was almost drowned by the Summer of Love and then substantially co-opted by the apparently inexorable culture of the oligarchical American Empire, so was there something fresh and necessary in earliest vestiges of Buddhism in the western world. But when you read great analytical stories such as “Shoes Outside the Door,” (the story of the San Francisco Zen Center from birth to frighteningly corporate growth), we see that it’s the same same old.

    I believe that “Speculative Non-Buddhism” does a great service in pointing out this largely unseen, poisonous evolution. I’m not sure that the stridency I sometimes see here is the “best response” to the insidious patterns which have emerged, but since I have no idea what a better response would be, I have no criticism, only an observation like, “don’t be surprised when x-Buddhists have no wish to engage in the passionate discourse you invite — they, correctly, see no upside in it for themselves.”

  2. rkpayne Avatar

    Dear Glenn, et al., Another explanation is that corporatized consumer capitalism has been so profoundly naturalized that it is the only model of social organization that can be thought. So, people wind up doing things this way not by conscious choice, but simply because “that’s the way things are done.” The rhetorical degradation of both government and non-profits (unless the latter is simply at tax dodge) is so pervasive that corporatism is the only model that is available for thinking.
    best, Richard

  3. Akilesh Ayyar Avatar

    One slightly more sympathetic way of looking at what the x-buddhists do is to notice that it is extraordinarily difficult to get your message out there in today’s cacophonous information bazaar. Perhaps, they think, by packaging wisdom attractively, in the lifestyle mode of advertising that Apple so aptly deploys, that they can get their more serious message down in sugar pill form.

    This is, to be fair, a time-honored marketing ploy for organized religions and esoteric groups both: promise the sun, moon and stars to lure the person in, and then over time introduce them to the more qualified and substantial ideas (though I agree with SNB that the substance is hardly all that either). The only problem is that sometimes when you wear a mask long enough, you forget that there is anything underneath.

  4. Duncan Cardillo Avatar
    Duncan Cardillo

    If you want further evidence of the affirmation of the corporate ethos at Buddhist Geeks, check out Rohan Gunatillake’s video podcast “We Need More Buddhist Startups.” Curious to hear your response to this.

  5. tuttewachtmeister Avatar

    Hi Glenn,

    I’m breaking character again, to add a couple of quick thoughts that seem to connect with what you brought up in this post.

    Tricycle [link] ran an interview with Vince Horn, Buddhist Geek extraordinaire, a couple of months ago. The interview itself was fairly predictable (“imagine if Shantideva or Dogen could’ve recorded their teachings on YouTube”, et cetera), but it did provoke some critical comments from Patricia I (who was also kind enough to link to Tutteji’s take on digitally enhanced contemplation). Hardly surprising, her critique was met with the usual x-buddhist passive-aggressiveness.

    I wanted to post a comment there myself, but every time I try to create an account at the Tricycle Online Community, I’ve been met by a ”We were unable to create your account at this time. Please try again later” message. I suppose this is an example of preemptive banning. Now, I can’t really muster enough righteous indignation to get upset about this. After all, my rhetorical strategy (“mock them, ridicule them, troll them”) deviates from x-buddhist “right speech”. But it makes you wonder, again, about the norms regluating these online fora.

  6. nick walser Avatar
    nick walser

    I seem to remember a talk from last years BG conference by one Rohan Gunatillake, who explicitly talks about and condones dharma as product, brand awareness in Buddhism and other repellent notions…he was there basically to promote his new app “Buddhify”…

  7. wtpepper Avatar

    RE #2: It does seem to be the case that the capitalist way of doing things is thoroughly naturalized. It is our ideology, and is part of even our language and our sense perceptions of the world. We assume that if something isn’t making any money for anyone, if it isn’t attracting huge audiences, it must not have any real worth–truth is determined by opinion polls and profit margins.

    So, wouldn’t this be a good way to tell, in advance, whether a particular x-buddhist teacher is at all “awakened”? If he or she is still completely interpellated in this capitalist ideology, and so can only think of Buddhism in terms of profit, popularity, and benefits to personal comfort, then this is a sign that he or she is not yet getting the point of Buddhism, and won’t be of any help as a teacher or leader of Buddhist community. Nobody who cannot see their own ideology as an ideology can hope to be of any help in awakening anyone else from delusion.

  8. Ananda Avatar

    This Tutteji Wachtmeister is just as monarchical. Did you know he offers no franchises or public stock. I could sweat it out in 26 postures with that other gender half nude with a Bikram Yoga franchise for reasonably less big bucks and my “member” ship is bound to enter uncountable new homes.
    I’m not saying Morris Berman is right but not entirely wrong.

  9. Bodhivata Avatar

    I couldn’t agree more with Glenn in this post. In fact, here is my contribution from my upcoming book “The Book of Life”
    Eager to hear your comments and thank you for sharing. Bodhi

    As I mentioned before, Mindfulness has become a product that is being sold like soda, you can find it in a many different tastes. And here allow me to unleash my rebellious spirit for a moment.

    Several Asian Gurus, Masters, Tulkus, Teachers, Enlightened Beings and more got wind of the amazing marketing machine called America and decided to take the long trip, traveled to San Francisco or The Catskills in NY, found some beautiful secluded land and a donor who gave a huge amount of donations for a monastery/center/training school and sat themselves on a throne. Many of them brought us valuable teachings from the lands of the perennial snows, but many started to sell the Dharma as if it were a commodity.

    There are some exceptions, some beyond admirable, like Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, Suzuki Roshi, Jack Kornfield, Joseph Goldstein and more, who have taken wonderful Asian teachings of the mind and made them accessible to the spiritual hungry Americans. Unfortunately, the majority just brought a thick fog of confusion, to the point where today you find mindfulness written all over the places with courses available to any person willing to spend, sorry donate, $10. As many have setup operations in large buildings and estates, which are costly to maintain, they started to require that “followers’ turn into “donors’ of any kind and the beautiful concept that the Dharma should be offered for free went down the drains. Now…

    The Buddha never charge one rupee for his teachings.

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