Buddhism Was Only for Rich People—Until Now
Dear David Chapman:
I’ve read several posts in your series (“We Matter to Buddhism“) and you’re missing the fact that Boomer Buddhism is also Upper Class Buddhism, the purview of people who make over $60,000 US a year. Gen X’rs and Millenials are much poorer. A large pecentage don’t have salaried jobs or regular employment. We are the precariat. Those under age 60 can’t afford the tens of thousands of dollars for retreats and empowerments that lead to the upper echelons of practice. Or the leisure time, because even though we don’t make much money, we’re always working.
What you’re seeing is the virtualization of Buddhism into a form that can be spread globally, through mass printing and the internet. What you’re also seeing is that younger generations don’t have the money, time or inclination to spend months on retreat or pay for the professional services of a lama or guru.
We’re not inclined to shell out the big bucks anymore because we don’t have to: Buddhism is ubiquitous. It’s accessible to everyone. That’s only a “bad thing” if you’re one of the salariat who shelled out the $50,000 to get exclusive access to secret esoteric teachings only to find out now that “everybody is getting in.”
What attracted the upper class to Buddhism in the first place was the unspoken sense that it was “exclusive,” that only “the best people” (white and rich) could afford it. Buddhism is not dying out in Asia either: young nouveau riche Chinese are also spending tens of thousands to get exclusive access to Dzogchen lamas, empowerments and rituals.
What you are seeing is not the demise of Buddhism per se, but the demise of Buddhism for the rich, which is mainly tantric Buddhism. What you’re seeing is the demise of tantric Buddhism, and that’s obviously the deep fear that your many blog posts barely conceal.
Tantra is not dying out because it’s being attacked by the Dalai Lama or ‘Consensus Buddhism’ as you’ve complained in dozens of posts. It’s dying out because fewer people can afford it and still fewer people want to blow that kind of money on it. And frankly it’s being outcompeted by its new virtual form.
Now that Buddhism is becoming virtualized, it’s available to everyone for free, for the price of an internet connection or a library card. It’s not “exclusive” any more. Once Buddhism becomes globally available and free to everyone, the Upper Class Boomers will lose interest. They’ll move on to some other exclusive big bucks ‘spiritual practice’ that denotes their upper class status.
Buddhism is a form of intellectual property and it’s being revolutionized in the same way as all other forms of information, text, and intellectual property; it’s becoming virutalized and globally distributed. As dharma becomes virtual, ubiquitous and free, it does the same thing that it does in every other market for intellectual property: it destroys the market for proprietary ownership and delivery of intellectual property.
Tantra is going out of style and out of business because it depends on exclusive proprietary ownership and distribution through exclusive proprietary channels. It is being out-competed in the global market that is now dominated by virtual dharma. The organizational form of virtual dharma is P2P and small self-organized groups. Sorry, David, in the globally networked world, tantra loses, virtual dharma wins. Perhaps tantra will find some way to adapt to the world of virtual dharma. Your idea for tantric video games might actually be a good way to keep tantra alive.
As Jayarava pointed out in one comment (on your series of posts), Buddhism is growing like crazy in India. But what kind? Not tantric Buddhism—Ambedkar Buddhism, which is primarily Theravada Buddhism, the most simplified and text-ready form. (Also the kind you hate the most). Theravada is the form that can be mass-printed, distributed widely and understood by people who have enough basic education to know how to read.
All I can say is: Buddhism for the rich is dead. Long live Buddhism for the rest of us.
You will probably choose not to publish this comment because I tend to disagree with you on many points and you don’t like that. But I’m going to publish this same comment as an article at engagedbuddhism.net, so, like it or not, you’ll have to deal with it there.