After reading Mark Carrigan’s article in the Chronicle of Higher Education on “Social Media IS Scholarship” about the benefits of writing a blog post as a way to keep track of research ideas, as well as to force oneself to write research ideas in a coherent, i.e. readable, fashion, I feel inspired to write this blog post about the writing/thinking that I am engaged with in relation to my research on Buddhism and economics. In particular, I am working with how Buddhism has been marketed and branded within the context of tourism in Ladakh (Northwest India) where Buddhism has been recognized as the region’s Unique Selling Point (USP). In my earlier writing on this topic, I looked at how the reason why Buddhism as the region’s USP works so well is due to the imaginative values that Buddhism brings to marketing strategies. These values rely on widespread conceptions of Buddhism as peaceful and spiritual, as a non-religion, and as a non-materialistic or non-economic religion. Much of my work, in both my writing and teaching, addresses these conceptualizations of Buddhism- not necessarily in debunking these ‘myths’ about Buddhism, but adding complexity to the often over-simplified images that float around the world about Buddhism, popping up in popular culture narratives and marketing strategies.
Since my work relates to Buddhism and economic relations, and I am not an economist, I have been reading work written by economists to become familiar with well-known yet complicated terms, such as capitalism, neo-liberalism, consumerism and commodification, in addition to marketization and branding. While these terms often get thrown around with presumptions that the audience knows what one is talking about, as an anthropologist I find myself stubbornly asking myself and my colleagues, “What do you mean by capitalism?” “What do you mean by consumption?” In my attempts to understand Capitalism (no easy feat- yet I am content to rely on the key term ‘profit’ or ‘profit-seeking ventures’ as one of the main characteristics of capitalism), I have been reading the work of economists. Today I turned towards the work of John Kenneth Galbraith- a prolific Canadian economist who has written twenty books, with titles such as American Capitalism (1952), The Affluent Society (1958) and The New Industrial State (1967).
I came across Galbraith’s work, especially from The Affluent Society, through reading the work of Jochen Hirschle which addresses how to conceptualize value within the marketization of religion (Hirschle 2014). In particular, I have been inspired by how Hirschle conceptualizes imaginative value, and the ‘values’ that religion brings to marketing strategies- something which I attempt to analyze in my own work on the branding and marketing of Buddhism in the context of tourism in Ladakh. Hirschle refers to Galbraith’s (1958) Affluent Society when he writes:
“Galbraith argued… the central problem of capitalism is no longer that of rationalizing and increasing production, but rather that of selling the huge amount of commodities it produces (Galbraith 1975: 149). … in the modern context, the natural order of production and consumption has been reversed. Production no longer satisfied the original wants of individuals; rather, to keep economic growth stable under conditions where these wants are already fulfilled, “production creates the wants it seeks to satisfy” by itself (Galbraith 1975: 149).”
“While Galbraith clearly understood that the “institution of marketing” (Sheehan 2020: 32) plays a crucial role in these attempts to control demand (Galbraith 1975: 150), he barked up the wrong tree when it came to explaining how these measures actually operate (Baudrillard, 2009: 74). Galbraith argued that marketing measures actually create the wants that are necessary to sell a product under conditions of affluence (Galbraith, 1975: 151)… Conversely, contemporary sociologists and marketing experts agree that marketing is hardly able to seduce consumers by means of designing and implementing new wants; rather, they try to attach positive connoted cultural value to a profane “use-value product” in the hopes that a fusion of the two enhances a product’s desirability.” (Hirschle 2014: 127)
What was that wrong tree that Galbraith was barking up? In order to find out more about these marketing measures and whether or not producers of goods are in the business of producing wants and desires, or if they merely attach already existing desires, or cultural values, to their goods, I started reading Galbraith.
In reading The Essential Galbraith (Galbraith 2001) as a non-economist with limited time, and a long list of literature I would love to read, I came across a chapter on “The Concept of Conventional Wisdom,” a chapter which gave me one of those ‘aha’ moments which are so gratifying in academic work. In this brief chapter, he vaguely explains what conventional wisdom is, how it comes to be, and the importance of conventional wisdom for business executives- both in their role as not only business but also social and political leaders, but also in marketing the goods they produce. In addition, and here is where I get to the point of writing this blog post, he writes:
“The enemy of the conventional wisdom is not ideas but the march of events. As I have noted, the conventional wisdom accommodates itself not to the world that it is meant to interpret but to the audience’s view of the world. Since the latter remains with the comfortable and the familiar while the world moves on, the conventional wisdom is always in danger of obsolescence…. The fatal blow to the conventional wisdom comes when the conventional ideas fail signally to deal with some contingency to which obsolescence has made them palpably inapplicable. This, sooner or later, must be the fate of ideas which have lost their relation to the world”(Galbraith 2001: 24).
In my own writing about the marketing and branding of Buddhism in Ladakh, I have often been confounded by the widespread, conventional wisdoms regarding Buddhism that I mentioned in the beginning of this blog post: Buddhism as peaceful, spiritual, a non-religion, non-economic and non-materialistic. Throughout my work in Ladakh, when I am confronted by these conventional wisdoms that tourists often repeat in conversations and interviews, I am always a bit confounded by how these conventional wisdoms are not becoming obsolete- especially in the confrontation with Buddhists in Ladakh who :
1) are not always peaceful (Buddhist/Muslim clashes frequently break out, as recently as last month due to a Buddhist woman marrying a Muslim man) (Gettleman 2017)
2) engage with ritual practices, dogma, clerical elite in what to me is clearly a form of institutional religion that is often rejected by Westerners seeking a spiritual alternative to institutional religion (most often Christianity). Buddhism is, in the ways in which Westerners discuss how Buddhism is a non-religion, clearly a religion, and not merely a philosophy, world-view or spirituality
3) engage with economy and materialism- how else would these magnificent monasteries be built, filled with monks who have to eat, sustained and expanded upon?
Throughout the past month or so I have been wondering what impact the Rohingya crisis in Burma might have on the tourism industry in Ladakh: will this crisis impact the conventional wisdom that ‘Buddhism is peaceful’? Here you have a very prominent example of non-peaceful Buddhists engaging in what leaders have termed genocide and ethnic cleansing of Muslims in Burma. Will this work to destabilize the ‘Buddhists are peaceful’ conventional wisdom? While the 14th Dalai Lama is often recognized as the global face of Buddhism, especially as the recipient of the Nobel Peace prize and his global tours promoting non-violence and peace, images of angry monks and desolated villages now seem to be the current global face of Buddhism as the news of the Rohingya crisis dominate the media. Already I have been noticing a rise in the number of popular media articles which take a critical stance towards Mindfulness- which rests on the understanding that one can attain peace and well-being through meditation (which although not explicitly is implicitly a Buddhist-based practice). This seems to be an about-face from the widespread praise filling newspapers, magazines and blog posts (just do a search for Mindfulness on the Huffington Post and a long list of Mindfulness- heralding articles will surface). Will the Rohingya crisis be the fatal blow to the conventional wisdom that Buddhists are peaceful? Is this the “march of events” which proves this conventional wisdom to be “palpably inappropriate”? If that is the case, then multiple livelihoods will be impacted, since the Buddhism is peaceful conventional wisdom has long been that imaginative value attached to use values of uncountable goods and services. Think about the adjective ‘Zen’ and how many products are marketed on this imaginative ‘peace’ value- cars, MP3 players, perfumes, hotels, resorts. Is this moment when Buddhism loses it’s Conventional Wisdom status as a peaceful religion in exchange for a more complex view and understanding of this ancient religion?
Galbraith, John Kenneth. 1958. “The afﬂuent society.” Nova York, New American Library.
Galbraith, John Kenneth. 2001. The essential galbraith: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
Gettleman, Suhasini Raj and Jeffrey. 2017. “On the Run for Love: Couple Bridges a Buddhist-Muslim Divide.” New York Times, October 12, 2017, Asia Pacific. Accessed October 13, 2017. https://mobile.nytimes.com/2017/10/12/world/asia/india-buddhist-muslim-marriage.html?mwrsm=Facebook&referer=http://m.facebook.com/.
Hirschle, Jochen. 2014. “Adding Imaginative Value: Religion, Marketing, and the Commodification of Social Action.” In Religions as Brands, New Perspectives on the Marketization of Religion and Spirituality, edited by Jean-Claude Usunier. Farnham: Ashgate Publishing Ltd.
 See the recent blog posts by Michael Jerryson for a Buddhist Studies scholar perspective on this crisis: https://berkleycenter.georgetown.edu/forum/religion-and-the-persecution-of-rohingya-muslims/responses/buddhist-inspired-genocide