Buddhism holds out the promise that enlightenment is possible in this very life. Indeed, according to the texts of the tradition, it is only in a human life like ours, endowed as it is with all the freedoms and opportunities, that the attainment of perfect happiness can be reached. For those of us living in the modern Western world – with the tremendous wealth we enjoy, the free time, the education, and the access to the authentic teachings and teachers – the conditions are perfect.
There is only one caveat: we must dedicate our lives to this quest if we expect to reach our highest and final destiny. We cannot be diverted and we must not be seduced by the siren song of samsara in the form of consumer capitalism. Giving up on the idea that samsaric life will work out is the precondition for the renunciation that makes possible true happiness.
This is perhaps harder for us than it would be for someone living a marginal life in the Third World. Renunciation doesn’t really seem necessary. Things seem to be working out so well for most of us much of the time.
But as Jesus said, “No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon.” (Matthew 6:19-24) A religious life and a life dedicated to the pursuit of money, new cars, bigger homes, fancier holidays, and the latest gadgets are mutually exclusive.
A true spiritual practitioner in the modern, Western world is first of all a consumer capitalist drop-out. A serious seeker has given up on the idea that more consumer goods, better vacations, and more entertainment options or cooler and newer gadgets, will provide the true and lasting happiness we all seek. It is only a person like who has begun treading on the real path to happiness by practicing that rare virtue called “contentment” – the opposite of the endless desires and discontentment the manufacturing of which is the very heart of the consumer capitalist machinery.
In a recent article for the London Review of Books, reprinted in Harper’s Magazine, Slavoj Zizek writes despairingly of the “defeat of the left” in the face of the overwhelming and ubiquitous power of global consumerism. “One of the clearest lessons of the last few decades,” Zizek claims, “is that capitalism is indestructible. Marx compared it to a vampire, and one of the salient points of comparison now appears to be that vampires always rise up again after being stabbed to death.”
But consumer capitalism is not “indestructible” for any individual. Samsara, in whatever form it takes, can be defeated by practitioners who strongly desire to be free, recognize the true nature of the chains that bind them, and then learn and practice the time-tested methods that will free the mind from the samsaric matrix.
But this requires radical measures. The spiritual life is a revolutionary uprising against the samsaric status quo. A good practitioner must be a guerrilla insurgent in an on-going resistance movement. A spiritual warrior must be a desperado – desperate to escape from suffering. From the samsaric point of view he or she must appear as a dangerous criminal. He or she must be an “outlaw” – pitted against the “rules” of samsaric life (“You will only be happy if you make money, buy a house, get promotions at work,” etc.).
A Buddhist is supposed to recognize first and foremost that samsara is a dangerous place. It is suicidal to try to make friends with it, to try to “fit in” and “play ball” and be a “pillar of the (samsaric) community.” A real practitioner is a dissenter, in mutiny against the oppressive regime of suffering life.
Be a rebel with a cause. Drop out of and pit yourself against the designer form of samsara consumer capitalism has brought to us. Get serious about your spiritual life. Get radical.
Oppose shopping mall culture and the way it and its values have insinuated themselves into your mind. Don’t try to appear “reasonable” or “moderate” when it comes to suffering and its causes. As Jawaharlal Nehru once said, “The policy of being too cautious is the greatest risk of all.”