Taking Karma and Consumerism Seriously

By Colin Simonds

Karma has come to be a ubiquitous concept throughout the world, and is often watered down to the pithy saying “what goes around comes around”. Unfortunately, its use is often accompanied with malice and usually references a harmful situation coming to someone who has done wrong in the past. While ultimately this situation may indeed be a result of karma, the implications of the concept go far beyond the generalized universal mechanism of give and take. In its Buddhist context, karma is the process through which all things come into and out of being and applies not only to human action but all existent phenomena. One such object that deserves much more attention is money. It may seem like a truism to state that our purchases have real world effects, but often our consumption is distanced from its repercussions. From the ontological perspective of Buddhism, there is no such thing as an independent or inconsequential action, and yet most purchases are conducted under the premise that the transaction only has ramifications between the buyer and seller. In the same way that a Marxist analysis looks at the alienation of labour, we can conduct a Buddhist analysis that seeks to lessen the alienation of one’s consumption. Thus, it might be time to reconsider karma in light of consumerism. 

In order to conduct such an exercise, a basic understanding of karma in Buddhism is necessary. Karma (T: las) is the basic metaphysical concept of cause and effect. One of the textual sources of the concept is the Nibbedhika Sutta which states, “One does karma by way of body, speech, and intellect.”[1]While certainly some actions will affect the individual performing them, this idea is better understood as in the frequent Pali canon phrase “when this arises, that arises; when this does not occur, that does not occur.”[2]Karma is tied up with another Buddhist concept, dependent origination (S: pratītyasamutpāda, T: rten cing ‘brel bar ‘byung ba), that implicates each phenomenon in every other. In this rhizomatic view of the world, every action is the cause of future happenings and is a condition for the completion of other happenings. This isn’t a Newtonian ‘for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction’, but rather an understanding that each cause has a subsequent, commensurate, and unknowable consequence. Moreover, these consequences only come to be through a confluence of constant and complex conditions that must be in place for a consequence to come to fruition.From this ontological perspective we might begin to wonder how money functions as cause, condition, and consequence.

Take for example, the purchase of a t-shirt. To first make this purchase, one must obtain money.  There is a reason that right livelihood is included in the noble eightfold path – making money occupies the majority of an average person’s waking life and thus directs much of a person’s thought, speech, and action – setting in motion a great number of karmic events that will lead to future happenings. It is imperative, therefore, that one’s livelihood is ethical, compassionate, and creates future good through its goals, methods, inputs, and outputs. More importantly, one can look at the company to whom the money is being given.  Similar to how one should investigate the goals, methods, inputs, and outputs of one’s livelihood, one should also take into account these aspects of the company they are giving to. Should one buy a fast fashion t-shirt from H&M, for example, their money would act as a condition for the company to continue abusing underpaid labourers (inputs) in the name of profit margins (goals), creating short-life products (outputs), and cutting up unsold merchandise (methods).[3]Contrastingly, should one buy a t-shirt from Patagonia they would be supplying the supporting condition for the continuation of the use of materials that improve soil quality and support biodiversity (inputs), Fair Trade Sewing partnerships (methods), creating durable products (outputs), and whose core principles include contributing to the flourishing of the natural environment (goals).[4]

In the former case, one’s money becomes a supporting condition for the ongoing creation of dukkha (dissatisfaction,unease, suffering) by the company, while in the latter case one’s money serves to lessen the dukkha of sentient beings. This is obviously a simplification of the complexity of karmic cause, condition, and effect. Nevertheless, it serves as a stepping-stone to an individual inquiry into the consumption of a product by individuals before they purchase an item. Moreover, this process of inquiry becomes a way to directly connect with the effects of consumption in a way that is not ordinarily considered. While a Buddhist analysis of this situation would look at how this process perpetuates or ameliorates the dukkha, or suffering, of all sentient beings involved, even if one doesn’t subscribe to this metaphysical principle one can still conduct this analysis using different concepts. The word dukkha could be substituted for inequality, unsustainability, injustice, or negativity.                                                                                                                

In his book Peace is Every Step, Thich Nhat Hanh shares a wonderful meditation on interbeingthrough an analysis of the book’s paper: 

If you are a poet, you will see clearly that there is a cloud floating in this sheet of paper. Without a cloud, there will be no rain; without rain, the trees cannot grow; and without trees, we cannot make paper. The cloud is essential for the paper to exist. If the cloud is not here, the sheet of paper cannot be here either… If the sunshine is not there, the forest cannot grow… And so, we know that the sunshine is also in this sheet of paper… Suppose we try to return one of the elements to its source. Suppose we return the sunshine to the sun. Do you think that this sheet of paper will be possible? No, without sunshine nothing can be.[5]

Such a meditation can, and should, be done with our purchases. It’s time we try to see the coffee farmer in our latte and the Amazonian animals without homes in our soybeans.  By taking karma seriously and applying it to our everyday consumption habits, we gain the opportunity to engage with the world of causes and conditions with every purchase we make.


[1]Nibbedhika Sutta: Penetrative (AN 6.63), (Trans. Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight, 2013).<https://web.archive.org/web/20140813042845/http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/an/an06/an06.063.than.html>

[2]Quoted in Jay Garfield, Engaging Buddhism(New York: Oxford University Press, 2015), 25.

[3]See: Jim Dwyer, “A Clothing Clearance Where More Than Just the Prices Have Been Slashed”, The New York Times (5 Jan. 2010).<https://www.nytimes.com/2010/01/06/nyregion/06about.html>

[4]See: <http://www.patagonia.ca/company-info.html> , and <http://www.patagonia.ca/product/mens-oily-olas-organic-cotton-t-shirt/39150.html?dwvar_39150_color=SPTG&cgid=mens-t-shirts#start=1>

[5]Thich Nhat Hanh, Peace is Every Step (New York: Bantam Books, 1991), 95-96.

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