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It's wrong to cheapen great eastern religions

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Have you heard about the Buddha Bar?

According to an ad in the Free Press, people who patronize Winnipeg's newest drinking establishment can expect to find "chic interiors" and "exotic electronic beats" to go along with the usual cocktail, beer and wine specials.

One thing they shouldn't expect to find there, though, are actual Buddhists. At least, not ones who take their faith seriously -- adherents of this ancient religion are forbidden to drink alcohol.

Winnipeg's Buddha Bar is just one more example of what has come to be called "Dharma Burgers," a phrase made popular by Rod Meade Sperry of the Buddhist pop and culture website The Worst Horse. According to Perry, it refers to "any example of Buddhist ideas or imagery in the marketing or production of (usually non-Buddhist) services and consumables."

Other examples on Sperry's website include Karma golf balls ("When golfers need more good KARMA to carry [their ball] over a lake, bunker or any other obstacle..."), Buddha briefs, "Zendough" (a new way to "master your finances"), the "Ommwriter" (a new word processing program that promises a "Zen-like meditative focus") and Karma soap, to name just a few.

How do Buddhists feel about "Dharma Burgers"-- seeing their religion used to sell stuff? I posed that question to Sensei Fredrich Ulrich of the Manitoba Buddhist Temple. "Most Buddhists don't relish them, but seldom take offence," he says.

He did draw the line a few years ago when Victoria's Secret introduced a "Buddha bikini," with an image of a Buddha-like figure on the crotch.

"Using the Buddha to sell erotic garments is a misuse of the Buddha image," Ulrich states.

As for all the other "Dharma Burgers," Ulrich is resigned to seeing more businesses using his religion to make money. "As Buddhism becomes more popular, such things will become more numerous," he says.

Some Buddhists, like Scott A. Mitchell of the Institute of Buddhist Studies, are worried by the growing trend.

In his essay, Buddhism, pop-culture, and the homogenization of the Dharma, he writes that "far from being harmless kitsch, these products are redefining Buddhism in terms palatable to a consumer driven, capitalist culture."

One way Buddhism is being redefined by non-Buddhists is by how it is linked to meditation -- images of people sitting cross-legged with their eyes closed in ads for various products. "What these representations of Buddhism do is reinforce the stereotype in the West that all Buddhists meditate," he says, noting that it is just one practice among many for Buddhists.

At the same time, it promotes the idea that Buddhism is a passive and detached way of life characterized by "not rocking the boat, not upsetting the status quo," he says.

In fact, as he points out, Buddhism promotes a serious critique of consumerism and materialism.

"If Buddhism were to stand its ground, to so speak, and define itself in its own terms, it might suggest something radically contrary to the capitalist system," he states.

It's not just Buddhism that is being co-opted by consumer culture; it's happening to other eastern religions, too, as British religion scholars Jeremy Carrette and Richard King point out in their book Selling Spirituality: The Silent Takeover of Religion.

"From feng shui to holistic medicine, from aromatherapy candles to yoga weekends, spirituality is big business," they write.

What bothers Carrette and King is how these great eastern religions are being misused to sell personal self-fulfilment, health and fitness. These religions can, in fact, be "easily read today as profound critiques of consumerism and a 'spirituality of the self' rather than an endorsement of them," they say.

For Christians, all of this is old hat. What Buddhists call "Dharma Burgers," we call "Jesus Junk." We have been besieged by copious amounts of it for decades -- things like the Stock Car Racing Edition Bible, "fruit of the spirit" health drinks, Christian flip-flops, Jesus air freshener, Gospel shoes, Jesus guitar picks, disciple sunglasses, biblical breakfast cereal and the Jesus night light (not only is he the light of the world, but now he lights up bathrooms, too) -- to name just a few.

What, if anything, can be done about the way religion is being co-opted to sell stuff today? We can begin by deciding not to buy anything that cynically trades on Buddhism, or any religion, to sell merchandise -- no guru energy drinks, no satori ("enlightenment") soup and no Zen hiking shoes ("reach the summit of calm.")

And if you feel like having a drink, don't order a Buddha beer, either.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 3, 2010 H13

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