“Namaste,” Maggie Gyllenhaal coos, without a note of irony in her voice. She acts the perfect caricature of the “new age” hippie in the film Away We Go. She plays the role flawlessly – a wealthy woman espousing new age philosophy, blissfully unaware of her own hypocrisy. The stereotype embodies itself in that very greeting: Namaste, which refers to a gesture of respect, a bow to the other. But Gyllenhall’s character uses it instead to establish her own sense of cultural superiority, setting herself apart from the other.
Buddhism, yoga, Taoism, Zen – we see their influence everywhere. (For the sake of clarity, I’m going to refer to them here as “Western Buddhism.”) Western Buddhism has been branded and sold, reinterpreted through a Western lens and marketed to the masses. Today, more and more North Americans are flocking to it as a means of self-help. Part of the reason for this is that these ancient philosophies provide a means of self-preservation against the consumption-oriented and materialistic motivations that run rampant in the modern world. The philosophies serve the same purpose as more conservative religious practices prevalent amongst other groups do – except of course, they are much, much hipper.
The promise of self-help drives such practices. However, unlike self-help, the spiritual transcendence offered by these philosophies requires a certain detachment from the self and the ego. Membership does not necessarily require worship or membership in a religious institution, even though it remains part of many other of the religions. By contrast, self-help only feeds the ego and the self. This switch in priorities changes the very meaning of the philosophies: Western Buddhism becomes self-serving rather than transcendental.
This much is obvious: relieving anxiety and stress through the return to one’s centre is a self-absorbing activity. While there is not anything inherently wrong with such a practice, it becomes self-serving if it is not expounded upon – i.e., if the focus does not move beyond the self, detaching from it. In fact, the West has a long history of fetishizing Eastern practices, and Western Buddhism is really no different. Perhaps most damning of all, as practitioners of Western Buddhism turn their backs on the perverseness and spoils of the modern capitalist system, they stop fighting it in order to focus on themselves and their spirituality. They become passive in the face of suffering. Thus, they play an important function in the continuation of capitalist ideology: to detach from the ideology – from market materialism – means one fully participates in capitalism as a system, without the oft-accompanying sense of guilt.
I’m not advocating the end of Western Buddhism: I think that there is beauty and value in every religious philosophy, and for many people Eastern philosophies resonate more forcefully than others. I just think that practitioners must recognize their privilege, and the cultural and economic practices, that allow Western Buddhism to exist. For a practice that is so overwhelmingly focused on the self, its adherents often lack an extraordinary amount of self-awareness. Namaste.
Molly Korab is a U2 International Development and Political Science student. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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