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Buddhism in the News


Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Samsara: In a Bag!!

As a guy who breaks out in hives at the very thought of shopping, I don't have a problem equating samsara with handbags/purses and/or shopping!! However, I think the makers of Samsara handbags weren't thinking of torment and suffering when they set out to market their product. Sadly, their research department left them, "holding the bag" so to speak (Sorry, about the pun; I couldn't resist. If you're wondering what "holding the bag" means, just click here for an explanation). That's because according to the products website, "Matt and Nat" the phrase samsara is Sanskrit for "rebirth."

This, however, is only partially true. I'm not an expert on Sanskrit but what I believe the term Samsara means something along the lines of "perpetual flow." Meaning, the cycle of life, death, rebirth. Taken by itself, the idea of "renewal" after death can sound appealing but Buddhist teachings go deeper with the concept by showing that this cycle isn't something to desire. It's like a roller coaster that looks like a good time at an amusement park but once you get on it you find out that the coaster has no brakes!! The fun would disappear like a fart in the wind after about the 3rd, 4th or 10th time you vomited from the endless looping. And by the 1 millionth time it would become full-blown torture right out of the Medieval period.

That's, true samsara. Yes, rebirth is apart of it but rebirth isn't the ideal because it's only a brief respite. Once you are born again you're plopped right back into the same mess of greed, desire, delusion and suffering that was there in the last lifetime. So, rebirth is less of a goal than it is a "do-over" card. It's like the teacher saying you failed a course but the good news is that you get to retake it. It's nice that you get another chance, but do you really want to spend the rest of eternity retaking that same course? So, in Buddhism samsara is something to free ourselves from--not desire. We practice Buddhism to liberate ourselves from the consequences of our past karma that keeps us locked into the incessant cycle.

As with many fashion products, the makers of this handbag are looking to cash in on the latest fad in pop-culture; to incorporate anything Buddhist into marketing a product. I'm sure they mean well but the cynic in me has to chuckle a bit at the idea of using the phrase "samsara" to sell products that don't bring lasting happiness; and thus, keep us locked in samsara!!

At least they are donating some of the money to charity; and it is made from non-leather products. But, overall this handbag is a good reminder to how the desiring mind feeds off of marketing signals in our modern consumer culture. How many times have we bought something that just sounded essential to our wardrobe or lifestyle, yet realized a bit later that the product no longer satisfies us? The longer time passes we realize that we have too much stuff!! At that point the mind feels frustration on how to get rid of it!! Thus, the cycle of suffering from materialism continues. I'm certainly no saint when it comes to materialism. I try to be conscious in my purchases but I don't always resist that urge to splurge. Still, it's worth trying because over-consumption can lead to a nasty hangover.

P.S. - Yes, I do see the irony that in raising this topic I'm giving this company free advertising and thus propelling consumerism. However, the only people that can avoid total consumption are monks in monasteries. Yet, even then they still have to buy things for up-keep of the monastery. So, I think the key is to be conscious of what we buy and learn not to attach to those products; because clearly we can't live in this world and never buy anything.

PHOTO CREDIT: Matt and Nat

~Peace to all beings~

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BD said...

I find that there is a plethora of Ads that are using Zen and Zen-isims to market product lately. From Zen condos to Buddha everything else. Me thinks Christianity might take issue if all of a sudden a major manufacturer was selling Jesus condoms or something of the sort. We are not to be attached(in theory) so would it be decidedly un-Buddhist to speak up against this misuse. ?

They call him James Ure said...

@BD...It's a point well taken. I use to get really angry over the marketing of Buddhism to sell stuff. But, then I realized that all that does is cause me suffering. Does it still sometimes annoy me? Yes, of course. I'm still in samsara like everyone else.

And while I still find myself getting irked from time to time; I'm more amused these days than obsessed by it all. It's good to laugh I think at the irony of all these things because otherwise life would get pretty miserable.

Writing this post was a good chance to remind myself of the dangers of consumerism. And, like I said, to have a chuckle at ourselves, (me included). I do a lot of reassessing of the way I view life through writing.

I think in the end we can't let the misuse of Buddhist icons and concepts enrage us. Because then, as you said, it becomes another thing to attach to; another obstacle to true and lasting peace.

Still, there will be times when all of us will falter. Also, however, it is important to not be too critical of ourselves when we find ourselves attaching to things. Otherwise that becomes another form of causing ourselves undue suffering. And I should know as I often over-punish myself for every little misstep in life.

I am working little by little to over-come a deeply ingrained guilt-complex tied to a lot of things that happened in my early life.

As with all things in life I think that balance and following the middle-path is the key. Thanks for raising the issues you did in your comment. You made me think, which is good. I like having a dialogue with my readers. As I said, I talk things out but online that comes in the form of writing--a lot as you can see with the length of this comment!! ;)

michelle said...

Hate to say it but the monks in monasteries...when you go by a cell phone store in Dharamsala, India, all you see inside is maroon. And the monks aren't buying the simplest, cheapest phones. I've even seen Theravaden monks with phones and the latest electronic gadgets. But I think the most interesting was when I was out early one pre-dawn morning doing kora and...what's that coming from a monastery dorm window? Is that, why yes, it's the blue screen light of a television...sigh.

I'm fascinated by all the bars popping up with names like 'Buddha Bar' and 'Lotus Pad'...peace, ani

Tullik said...

Well said James & BD ..... i too have been irked by the commercial use of such terms and wanted to kick some bum but realizing its only stuff soon calmed me down .... a bit!
With Christmas coming with its built in excesses and excess of false cheer its tough enough to get through these holiday periods without seeing "Dharma" Christmas Crackers!

They call him James Ure said...


Oh, yeah. I've seen some pictures of monks holding cell phones and such.

I don't doubt that many monks are attached to materialism too. I don't think that being a monk means you are automatically, and instantly freed from attachments upon walking through the monastery gates. It shows us the egalitarian nature of suffering.


Thanks for the compliments. :)

I choose to celebrate Bodhi Day in early December as my way of surviving the holidays without becoming too bitter and angry. It helps me channel that energy into something positive.

Anonymous said...

Not just marketing of Buddhism's terms such as Samsara, zen, and etc... The word "Yoga" is also overused for personal/business gain. Have you guys watched the documentary called " " ? You should watch it.

Sonja said...

I like your description of Samsara as a roller coaster :) I can definitely relate to that vision!

It's so ironic when people use Buddhism to sell stuff, but nothing is immune to fashion trends. Nowadays, people want mystical sounding things to make them feel better, so they season their shopping with a bit of Buddha magic. It always makes me cringe a little.

Thanks for sharing this story!

PS. Come visit my blog! :)

Anonymous said...

Honestly, I like reading your columns. However, since you brought up this Samsara bag it seems you are less focussed on the main topic of your blog, which is not even related to buddhism at all. The name Samsara can even be, like others already mentioned, quite disturbing to those who take buddhism seriously. Shopping is one thing but I believe for this kind of topics you should either change the name of your blog or make a new one focussed on fashion.

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