Hooked by Kaza

Stephanie Kaza, ed. Hooked! Buddhist Writings on Greed, Desire, and the Urge to Consume. Foreword by Paul Hawken. Boston, Mass.: Shambhala, 2005. Paperback, ix + 271 pages.

The 17 essays included in this anthology look at various aspects of what in Buddhism is called “thirst” (Pali: tanha; Sanskrit: trishna) and what in contemporary parlance we would call “consumerism.” While “thirst,” or desire, captures a generic existential aspect of human life, “consumerism” highlights a particular and particularly pernicious form of this tendency inherent in our species.

All socially and environmentally aware people have come to understand that consumerism is a major destructive force in postmodern life. It wreaks havoc in our individual lives and causes untold suffering among the underprivileged countries of the world, whose resources are exploited and whose blight is largely ignored by the wealthy nations.

Thus this volume is not just timely but urgent and vital. The overconsumption rampant in a few countries cuts severely into the welfare of other nations and, more importantly, into the health of our planet as a whole. In the final analysis, this is now a matter of preserving the human species and thousands of other species. One only needs to read the growing literature on environmental destruction and mass extinction to realize the magnitude of this problem.

Kaza’s anthology, which brings together spiritual leaders and scholars (often in the same person) from around the world, is an important voice for recognizing the urgency of deep-level personal and collective change. Buddhism has a long respectable record of treating other beings and the environment with appropriate care. Therefore it has won the right to now speak out against the free-wheeling cult of self-centered desire that marks conventional life, and the destructive ideology of consumerism to which it has led.

Stephanie Kaza, an associate professor of environmental studies at the University of Vermont in Burlington, developed a course entitled “Unlearning Consumerism” in which she asked her students to make a list of all their belongings, to assess their total energy consumption in planetary terms, and then for a period of three days to abstain from using one or the other technological gadget and examine the impact of this abstention on their life and mind. I believe every single person should be obliged to go through such an exercise. People would, one hopes, be suitably horrified at their massive “ecological footprint.”

The essays are arranged into three parts. Part One focuses on the mechanism of desire and how we get hooked on things out of sheer spiritual ignorance, as opposed to finding inner satisfaction and happiness. Even the Buddhist teachings can become a consumer product, which effectively negates their transformative power. Part Two contains essays that give out Buddhist “tools” for taming desire and creating a balanced life in which we don’t “run out of time.” Part Three deals with the Buddhist “ethics of consumption,” which essentially means following the ideal of voluntary simplicity.

Shambhala Publications must be congratulated for adopting this anthology into its program. At the same time, however, I must confess I would have liked to see this book printed not merely on acid-free but fully recycled paper. New Society Publishers, among others, have demonstrated over the years that it can be done!

Copyright ©2006 by Georg Feuerstein. All rights reserved.
Reproduction in any form requires prior permission from Traditional Yoga Studies.

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