First, thank you NellaLouise for allowing me to post here at your wonderful blog as part of Nate’s blog swap. What a great opportunity for us buddhobloggers to connect with each other and share ideas and blog space.
After looking through Enlightenment Ward, and talking with NellaLouise, I thought I’d talk a little bit about the buying and selling enlightenment. So first I started by clicking on “shopping” at Google, and then searching for “enlightenment”. Much to my relief, all that showed up were a bunch of books and a Van Morrison CD. I was hoping to find something fairly ridiculous to write about there, but for once in my life Google seemed to fail me. But then, out of the corner of my eye, I spied something hokey. I couldn’t believe that I forgot to look at the Ads. If you’ve ever been to a Blogger site with Adsense, and it even hinted at something spiritual, you’re familiar with these ads. They all promise enlightenment, the secret of the Universe/happiness/spiritual awakening or whatever the New-Age buzzword is that month. Isn’t it wonderful living in a time in which it will only cost you 3 easy payments of $29.95 to “get” what millions have spent entire lifetimes struggling to realize? Thank God for Mastercard and Paypal.
Here’s one site I clicked on. Check it out, scroll down. My favorite is the hat:
That’s right! wear the key to spiritual enlightenment on your head at all times! It’s like the Hard Rock Cafe of spirituality! There are plenty of other sites out there that offer similar promises and crappy merchandise. Now, you’ve probably already read a million times how enlightenment can’t be found outside of yourself and yadda yadda yadda. So, I don’t want to talk about enlightenment and how to achieve it, I’d rather talk about how NOT to achieve it, and avoiding snake-oil salesmen in the process.
A task that is sometimes undertaken in certain cultures and religions is a pilgrimage. The largest in the world is the Hajj, where Muslims from around the world make the trip to Mecca. There are strict rules one must follow when undertaking the Hajj, all of which have merit and reason within the Islamic faith. Jews make trips to the Western Wall, and Hindus have like 30 different holy places and cities to travel to. The list goes on and on.
In Buddhism, there are 4 main places that one might travel on a Buddhist pilgrimage. There is Lumbini, Bodh Gaya, Sarnath, and Kusinara. These are places in which important events in the life of Siddhartha Gautama took place. In visiting them, one doesn’t hope to reach enlightenment, but rather to pay homage, or possibly gain some perspective or feel some sort of connection to the Buddha. It’s all about the experience.
So if these pilgrimages aren’t a free pass into Heaven, or a quick trip to nibbana, what purpose do they serve? I suppose the experience would have to speak for itself. I have personally never went on any sort of spiritual pilgrimage, so I can’t provide any first-hand knowledge. I have known a couple of Muslims that made the Hajj, and enjoyed it. They did it out of obligation at first, but throughout the journey they were able to connect to members of their religious community, and strengthen their own faith. It was a wonderful experience for them, and they both had plans to make the trip again in the future.
So it’s the connection to their faith, their practice, their community that becomes the fruit of the journey. I imagine it’s the same for people of other faiths on their various pilgrimages, or even the crazy Elvis fan making their way to Graceland after a lifetime of collecting the dead rocker’s memorabilia. But I also imagine that the experience of the journey itself (not just reaching the destination) has much to do with its significance. Maybe it is that experience that keeps generation after generation returning on these long pilgrimages, fasting and prostrating and dressing in a certain way. It’s another one of those intangible things not easily described in print, something a blog post will never do justice.
So back to the selling of enlightenment. Most Americans have never made a religious pilgrimage. This country is mainly composed of Christians, and any pilgrimages in Christianity are marginal and neither required nor regularly made. There are a few holy sites that some may decide to visit, but this isn’t the norm. A holy pilgrimage is not in our country’s culture or DNA. Our parents and grandparents haven’t passed that down to us. Obviously, there are people of other faiths living here in which that is part of their culture. But the networks and media outlets really don’t care about them. They aren’t the target demographic here. The target demographic is that middle section of America. It’s those people who have turned away from their respective faith because of an aversion to the extremism that is taking hold in the various religious (and non religious) organizations they were brought up in or converted to. There is a growing section of Christians in America that are getting fed up with Christianity, and they need stuff to buy to fill the void.
Enter Ekhart Tolle, Oprah, The Secret, Deepak Chopra and fill in the blank with the latest New-Age craze author or speaker. Now, I’m not saying that these people don’t have anything of value to say. I actually really liked The Power of Now. I thought it was a great read, and certainly held plenty of value. My issue isn’t with the message, it’s with the people who have taken over the delivery of the message. People have taken that one word “Now” and blown it into a multimillion dollar industry. Google “The Secret” or “law of attraction” and see what you come up with. Be sure to pay attention to the ads over on the right hand side as well. It’s looking more and more like “the secret” is to talk about “the secret” and make a ton of money doing it. The Law of Attraction really does seem to work for those that are selling you the Law of Attraction (hint: it’s because you forked over your money for it). Again, I want to reiterate the fact that I don’t have an issue with any of the New Age beliefs out there. I have my own theories about the law of attraction, but this isn’t the place or the post for that. My issue is with those that are promising to unlock those secrets for you.
You can’t buy enlightenment. You can’t watch a DVD and transform your life. You can’t read a few books and suddenly change your luck. You can’t chant your way to enlightenment, nor can you just sit on your zafu and *poof* you’re a Buddha. I also have no plans on blogging my way to Shangri-la either. It won’t happen. Sorry. It is only through diligent practice and experience that any transformation can occur. Is enlightenment possible? Yes. Probable? No. And that’s the sad truth. You may devote your entire life to realizing enlightenment and never achieve it. That’s what happens most of the time. Enlightenment isn’t easy. Awakening yourself spiritually isn’t easy. Anyone that tells you otherwise is probably just trying to get rich off of you.
The ad wizards are targeting the upper-middle class because they know they have money to throw away on anything that offers a glimpse of a better version of you. And these people are rich! I suppose that’s a lesson in attachment and impermanence right there. When even the rich suffer, and look to the supernatural and spiritual for fulfillment, what’s wrong with all the poor people who are suffering daily in their attempts to get rich quick? But I digress. And while I digress the publishers and advertisers are targeting the lower class because they know how the poor suffer and will do anything (fork over $$$) to get away from their plight. People have been getting rich off the hopes of others since we started using currency as a means to exchange goods. And they’ve only gotten better over time.
But that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t look to others to help us on our paths. I’ve read The Celestine Prophesy, but I didn’t start seeing auras around everything. What I did was use the book to gain a new perspective on my life. A lot of people want to talk about these types of books and seminars, but few put them into action, or integrate them into their lives for any significant period of time. Why? Because a DVD is easy. An audiobook on your iPod is easy. Reading a few books is easy. And Americans love their easy. Rather than gaining a little insight and putting it into practice, we want it all, we want it now, and we want it to work or we demand a refund.
So where does that leave us Buddhists here in the US? Where “easy” Buddhism seems to be sold in bulk at Costco, leaving the mom-and-pop Buddhists in the shadow of mainstream America? How does Buddhism get away from the convenience and super-sizing of the other religions in this country? I certainly wouldn’t encourage anyone to start calling someone else’s practice “not authentic” or anything along those lines. Clearly that is divisive speech, and won’t lessen anyone else’s suffering. I suppose the answer might be to point out that Buddhism isn’t easy. It isn’t easy to understand, and it isn’t easy to practice. The Eightfold path is not easy, but such is the nature of the path. It’s through that struggle and difficulty and regular practice that we are able to figure out a way to deal with Samsara and continue on our path.
I’m just beginning on my path, and already it’s challenging. I have a hard time practicing everyday, staying mindful, trying to cultivate compassion instead of road rage, and maintaining right speech. These are just a few of the things I’m trying to focus on in my life to deal with the suffering I’m causing myself and others. But it’s that experience of my own personal, inner “daily pilgrimage” that is helping me deal with it all, and become more skillful. A weekend retreat sure as hell isn’t going to get me there. And while I doubt I’ll ever get to visit Sarnath, I’m trying to make each day my own inner Hajj. If you want the real secret, it’s that it’s hard as hell to realize enlightenment, and you’ll probably fail if you try. But anything in life worth “having” doesn’t come easily, unless what you want is a hat with the secret of life on it. That will only cost you 19.99 plus tax. Cheers.
*If you found this at all interesting or if you thought it was pure rubbish and want to yell at me for ruining NellaLouise’s perfectly good blog , you can find me over at Home Brew Dharma