Not infrequently, one hears the claim that “Buddhism is not a religion, it is a way of life.” This lies in the historical background to any secularizing interpretation of Buddhism, which in turn depends on the false dichotomy of religion and secular (see earlier discussion here).
Historically, this rhetoric of Buddhism as a way of life seems to have two closely intertwined motivations. (1) I suspect that the older one, dating from the earliest days of the introduction of Buddhism to American society toward the end of the nineteenth century was camouflage. As a tiny minority faced by well-entrenched, and well-financed churches, along with a vehement identification between being American and being Christian, specifically mainstream Protestant, one quite natural response was to focus on meditation as a form of mental self-improvement (a “mental hygienics” in a now old-fashioned terminology), and to de-emphasize doctrine in favor of a rhetoric of experience (mystical or transformative).
By the time of the entry of Buddhism into American society the conception of a mental practice as a form of self-improvement was already an established form of discourse, most broadly at that time via New Thought. And the rhetoric of experience as personally foundational has roots in the democratizing character of the Protestant Reformation, runs through the Enlightenment, and becomes secularized and individualized in the Romantics and neo-Romantics—these last being the proximate source of this rhetoric in secularizing forms of Buddhism today.
Thus, despite going largely unnoticed, and indeed unquestioned, these ideas—mental practices toward self-improvement and the transformative power of religious experience—have socio-historical roots in Western culture, and are a choice by which a particular view of Buddhism can be constructed. This is the representation that allowed a tiny minority to camouflage itself and survive in an aggressively Christian society.
(2) The second motivation for the claim that Buddhism (or—as sometimes characterized—true Buddhism, original Buddhism, the pure Buddhism of the Buddha before his disciples messed it up with metaphysics and ritual, or whatever other self-serving representation is employed) is a way of life and not a religion is the potential market in the unchurched. While those alienated from established churches for one reason or another and in varying degrees might seek out an alternate church, many would not—though they might be interested in alternate social institutions, such as meditation groups.The increasing numbers of unchurched in mid-twentieth century United States is also the context in which the Perennialist rhetoric of a universal wisdom tradition outside or above or beyond any specific religious tradition was broadly popularized. To not-be-a-religion in this setting simultaneously empowered a spiritual and a secular understanding of Buddhism, as in D.T. Suzuki’s “claim for seeing Zen, not as a Japanese tradition but as a universal form of spirituality that could potentially be brought into secular spaces like psychotherapy offices” (Anne Harrington and John D. Dunne, “When Mindfulness is Therapy: Ethical Qualms, Historical Perspectives,” American Psychologist, Oct. 2015, 621–631: 624). Note that this Janus-like simultaneously spiritual and secular constitutes an important rhetorical strain in present-day promotion of mindfulness.
In such an environment, to stand outside mainstream Protestant Christianity with its presumption of exclusive membership reinforced representations of Buddhism as one resource from which the individual could construct their own personal identity. The representation of Buddhism as not mutually exclusive of other forms of religious identity takes expression today as the issue of dual or plural religious belonging—both/and, as examined for example in Rose Drew’s Buddhist and Christian? (The notion of “belonging” itself and the judgemental qualifiers such as “authentic” often found in these discussions deserve separate attention of their own.)
So if Buddhism was to be not-a-religion, much less a church, what was it? Two enduring responses have been that it is a philosophy and that it is a way of life. The former is itself not unproblematic (vapidly meaningless, trivially true, etc.), but will be set aside for more focus here on the second answer.
The meaning of the phrase “a way of life” opens up through a set of cognate phrases: moving from “way of life” in a neutral (anthropological or sociological) sense, to “style of living” with more aesthetic connotations, including issues of style in the sense of fashion, to “lifestyle” which offers the self reflexive self-definition—the control and autonomy provided by consumption and the exercise of choices within the range of choices on display.
Melding these in this fashion might strike some as almost maliciously distorting. For their part they would advocate perhaps distinguishing way of life as an expression of values. As one website explains:
Our Buddhist lifestyle may be described as the daily living in simplicity, peace, gratitude, wisdom and compassion. However, we do not just decide one day to live in this special way, it is the natural result of a process of faith, devotion, practice and then more practice.
The dynamic of constructing Buddhism as a way of life, even one expressive of such values as “simplicity, peace, gratitude, wisdom and compassion,” involves the conscious constitution of a personal lived-world that simultaneously reflects back a specific self-identity. Every decision, every choice is simultaneously expressive and constructive of the self. The subject is constructed as the agency at the center of this self-reflexive way of being.
While it may be the case that despite living in a consumerist society many people do not consciously make such decisions in awareness of this self-reflexive dialectic, it is then only an unconscious process instead. In terms of the function of advertising I am, of course, saying nothing new or surprising here. What I would like to suggest though is that however one chooses to describe the range from lifestyle choices to way of life choices, the underlying dynamic in a consumerist society is the same. (The subsumption of democracy beneath consumerism is evident in the reduction of the former to matters of choice on a par with those of the latter.)
Jayne Raisborough (Lifestyle Media and the Formation of the Self, Palgrave/Macmillan, 2011), citing the work of Anthony Giddens, describes the self as the site of intense labor. This analysis, by Raisborough, Giddens and others, participates in the characterization of modernity as somehow uniquely fragmenting and disruptive, as if prior to some point in the mid-nineteenth century identity was simply and unproblematically given, while today everyone is impelled to the project of self-constitution. I would suspect that the dynamics of self-constitution as much as the sense of disruption is not unique—that wars, revolutions, epidemics, invasions, enslavement, earthquakes, floods and the like have always disrupted the sense of personal identity. The Lisbon earthquake of 1755 had profound effects on the presumption of God’s benevolence (theodicy). It is, I believe, misleading to depend too much on the rhetoric of rupture in describing the “modern” condition (industrialized, urbanized, globalized—all coming after 1755). Rather than a sharp rupture, it would seem to have been a steady, incremental transformation.
That said, however, the project of self-constitution, of “‘building up a life’ demands a construction of a coherent self-narrative” (Raisborough, 32). This construction is never complete, and indeed can never be completed—until death, but then ironically one’s self-constitution is in the hands of others. Raisborough points out that the labor of self-constitution
becomes a portal through which the self comes into contact with experts and their mediatised expertise….A battery of expert help mushrooms around lifestyles because…the process of self-construction ‘is fraught with risk, insecurity and uncertainty’—we could be getting it wrong: experts direct our aspirations and motivate us to realise them by offering ‘guidelines and reassurance (as well as goods and services) to individuals in search of better selves’. (Raisborough, p. 32, quoting Jennifer Smith Maguire [reference not given in full])
Creating an insecure self is, therefore, part of the function of lifestyle media, including the Buddhist ones. Rhetorical questioning along the lines of “Is your meditation good enough?” instill insecurity, and motivate further acquisition. Raisborough goes on to point out that
once the self is a site of labour, of choice and agency, it is increasingly intelligible to then assess whether that labour is good enough and to ask whether the choices were the right ones made: once life is about ‘doing’ it is a small step to ask if one is doing enough. In this regard ‘making something of one’s self’ speaks not only to self-construction (being) but to a project of betterment (being better). (p. 34)
One kind of response to this analysis is that “this is the way it has always been”—that Buddhism always has been a program of self-improvement, with expert knowledge available for those who could avail themselves of it. Indeed medieval Indian tantric Buddhism as displayed in the biography of Marpa was very much a commercial enterprise. Marpa spends a great deal of time and effort gathering gold in Tibet to take to the plains of the subcontinent in order to acquire tantric initiations and teachings. Fair enough, but does this kind of thing justify claims of inevitability regarding the commodification of teachings and the subsumption of Buddhism under neoliberal ideology? Monteiro/Genju asserted that rather than the question of how mindfulness is being commodified, there’s “a more important question: Can mindfulness can [sic] be commodified? It always was, has been and will be. The exchange of goods for services has been part of every culture no matter whether we dress it up in robes or three-piece suits.”
This seems to presume to interpret the long history of Buddhist praxis as
• uninterruptedly moving into the modern/postmodern and
• that the economic relations of fifth century Magadha are fundamentally the same as those found today, and
• that the commodification of mindfulness and Buddhism that we see today is inevitably continuous from the time of the Buddha.
In this regard we should, however, call attention to Raisborough’s noting that
the philosopher Axel Honneth (2004 [“Organized Self-Realization,” European Journal of Social Theory, 7: 463–478]) warns against seeing self-transformation as a tool strategically developed by a neoliberal progressive agenda. Rather than the result of a ‘deliberate strategy,’ self-transformation and self-realisation have a longer and quite diverse history which has been gradually appropriated or ‘transmuted’ to become an ideology of neoliberalism. (Raisborough, p; 13)
That some of the critiques against commodified mindfulness/Buddhism may have portrayed, or been represented as portraying, a “deliberate strategy” that did not exist does not mean that nothing has changed and that commodification as known in contemporary consumer society is inevitable—and that its effects are therefore vanishingly negligible. The gradual appropriation that Raisborough refers to in fact does constitute a radical transmutation of the tradition of Buddhism into an expression of neoliberal ideology. That this is taken as unproblematic and inevitable is evidence of the pervasive formation of contemporary life by that very neoliberal ideology itself. It has become largely unquestioned so as to be largely unquestionable. Because the transmuted forms are presented against the ideological background of neoliberal ideology, those changes are invisible—they do not stand out against the ideological background. Since the majority of the current debates regarding mindfulness and morality take place within the almost invisible defining framework of neoliberal ideology, the possibilities for answers outside that framework—outside the values implicit in self-reflexive construction of the self through lifestyle choices—are effectively made literally unthinkable. This is not “stealth Buddhism” creeping in to transform society into a more fair and just version of itself, this is “stealth neoliberalism” constraining mindfulness/Buddhism to transform itself in order to find a place in consumerist social order.