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.

Contemplative Ecologies 14

Happy first of June! This week, I was driving from L.A. to Seattle, so all five of my top posts are podcasts I listened to along the way. They include: a beautiful Dharma talk on Eros (love) and environmental activism, a playful dialogue about Dark Ecology, a lecture on ecodharma, an interview with the author of The Patterning Instinct, and a discussion on Robert Keagan’s stages of development and Buddhism. Hope you enjoy!

1. This four-part Dharma talk, called An Ecology of Love, given by Rob Burbea at Gaia House, is one of the best dharma talks I’ve listened to in a while. It highlights the relationship between Eros and our love for the Earth. Rob explores how the erotic dimension of experience relates to the imaginal (Psyche) and conceptual (Logos), explaining how each can deepen and expand the others in a life-affirming and sacred vision of environmental activism.

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Contemplative Ecologies 13

Today is my move-out day. I’m leaving L.A. (after 4 years) and looking for apartments in Berlin next month (let me know if you have any leads!). This week’s top 5 posts include: a lecture on spirituality and systems change, a dialogue with a preeminent contemplative philosopher, a futures study on the societal impacts of climate change, an essay on art and climate trauma, and two web portals for envisioning positive futures. Hope you enjoy!

1. This lecture by Jonathan Rowson for Theos (a Christian think-tank) explains the philosophy informing Perpectiva. He “argues that cultivating ‘spiritual sensibility’ across society is essential for solving the world’s most complex political problems – and that the spiritual could and should be pivotal in this process. In his recent publication Spiritualise, co–published by the RSA and Perspectiva, Rowson argues that our public debates aren’t working because we are far too coy about discussing human nature, meaning and purpose. He believes that spiritual matters underpin all of our most urgent shared living questions – how we wake up, grow up and wise up to the challenges of our time, not least the slow death of democracy, technological overreach and ecological insanity.”

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Contemplative Ecologies 12

This week, I was caretaking, hosting family, and recovering from shingles, so I made very few posts. Still, I managed 5 posts about eco-Marxism, biopunk, contemplative ecology, eco-democracy, and mindfulness for sustainability. Hope you enjoy!

1. The Ecologist published a short history of ecological Marxism:

“…in the closing decades of the twentieth century an ecological Marx was unearthed, thanks to the work of David Harvey and many others. Then, at the turn of the millennium, Paul Burkett – in Marx and Nature – and John Bellamy Foster – Marx’s Ecology – presented Marx as a thinker whose core concerns were ecological… These authors, together with the recently departed scholar-activists Joel Kovel and Elmar Altvater, as well as Jason Moore – Capitalism in the Web of Life – and Andreas Malm – Fossil Capital – have ‘brought capitalism back in’ to discussion on nature-society relations, sparking a sustained regeneration of ecological Marxist thought. Moore – alongside Marxist feminists such as Carolyn Merchant – have helped the renascent ecological Marxism converse creatively with feminist and social reproduction theory. The upshot has been a radical rethinking of Marx’s project. No longer can ‘nature’ be seen as playing a bit part. His anthropology, after all, is premised on the understanding that human creatures fashion their relationship with the rest of nature through the production of their means of subsistence.”

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Contemplative Ecologies 11

Hello everyone! This week, my favorite 5 posts are about the commons-based phase transition, affective ecology, transition design, Theory U, and solarpunk. Hope you enjoy!

1. Michel Bauwens has a new interview and article on the postcapitalist commons-based phase transition. The Symbiosis Research Collective also published a nice article on the topic. Here are excerpts from the former:

“Our best hope is to strengthen the social forces aligned with p2p and the commons during the brief intermezzo in which our civilization prepares for major catastrophes, and to have enough seed forms ready to attract those that will be vitally interested in resilient economic and social alternative forms. Things will probably get a lot worse before they can get any better, but we hope the ‘imaginal cells’ of the commons will be a significant factor in diminishing the amount of damage in the transition period.”

In his interview, Bauwens mentioned the contemplative commons, saying “We need to work on a culture of cooperation for a ‘more-than-human-commons’ (i.e. Zack Walsh in the Arrow), that has strong spiritual and ecological aspects, and overcome the subject-object split introduced by the Enlightenment, but without abandoning the aspirations for human equality.”

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Contemplative Ecologies 10

Happy May Day celebrations and Happy 200th Birthday to Karl Marx! My favorite 5 posts this week are about building climate resilient social infrastructure, a meditation on deep time, a thermodynamic critique of the circular economy, an essay on environmentally induced epigenetic trauma, and a report on this year’s Ecological Civilization conference. Hope you enjoy!

1. This article about the importance of building community resilience for climate adaptation tempers the mainstream emphasis on economic and technical solutions to climate change:

“…the variable that best explained the pattern of mortality during the Chicago heat wave was what people in my discipline call social infrastructure. Places with active commercial corridors, a variety of public spaces, local institutions, decent sidewalks, and community organizations fared well in the disaster. More socially barren places did not. Turns out neighborhood conditions that isolate people from each other on a good day can, on a really bad day, become lethal.

This is important, because climate change virtually guarantees that, in the next century, major cities all over the world will endure longer, more frequent, and more intense heat waves—along with frankenstorms, hurricanes, blizzards, and rising seas. And it’s inevitable that cities will take steps to fortify themselves against this future. The first instinct of urban leaders is often to harden their cities through engineering and infrastructure, much of which is indeed pretty vital. But research keeps reinforcing [that]… it’s the strength of a neighborhood that determines who lives and who dies in a disaster.”

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Contemplative Ecologies 9

I made several big data dumps this week. My favorite 5 posts were about cyborg urbanization, urban resilience, regenerative capitalism, the astrobiology of the Anthropocene, and an animated short film on consumerism. Hope you enjoy!

1. An artificial intelligence named Michihito Matsuda is running for this year’s mayoral elections in Tama city, Japan. The AI mayor’s platform consists of 3 selling points: “(1) The ability to discover and analyze relevant petitions pertaining to Tama City, as well as break down the positives and negatives and statistically dictate whether this would have a positive or negative effect; (2) Intake the dialogue and wishes of residents, carefully calculating what the best way to implement them would be if they match the people’s desires; (3) Find level-compromise in common interest conflicts amongst the people of Tama City.”

This is yet another example of how smart cities could become increasingly conscious cities. Another blog post I read explored this evolution from smart cities to posthuman architecture. I’m increasingly interested in how cyborg urbanization (see here and here) would evolve what it means to be ‘human’ as biological and digital worlds become enmeshed.

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Contemplative Ecologies 8

I posted much less last week, because I was at the American Association of Geographers (AAG) conference in New Orleans and a symposium on Ecological Civilization in New York. So, this week’s top 5 posts will include more excerpts:

1. Last week, the BBC reported that “You’re more microbe than you are human’… Human cells make up only 43% of the body’s total cell count. The rest are microscopic colonists… [which] includes bacteria, viruses, fungi and archaea.” At AAG, I attended sessions on postgenomics, which is an emerging way of thinking about living organisms as open, malleable, responsive multiplicities based on sciences like epigenomics and microbiomics. The image below is from an article reviewing epigenetic influences from various environmental sources.

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Contemplative Ecologies 7

This week’s top 5 posts from my daily feed include frameworks for systems thinking, a buddho-philo-fiction called Xenobuddhism, several papers on the psycho-social dimensions of sustainability, a critical review of the circular economy, and an interview exploring the politics of pixelisation and collage. Hope you enjoy!

1. I posted several rubrics for understanding system dynamics, including: Donella Meadows’ twelve leverage points to intervene in systems (of which, shifting goals, mindsets and paradigms are most effective); Rob Hopkins’ three key design principles to enhance community resilience (incl. increased diversity, modularity, and tightness of feedback); and a transdisciplinary framework for addressing health issues (pictured below).

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Contemplative Ecologies 6

This week’s top 5 posts from my daily feed include a VR meditation on aural ecology, a typology of eco-mental landscapes, a history of degrowth, photographs of the Anthropocene, and an article on space junk. Hope you enjoy!

1. Last week, the New York Times featured a fantastic virtual reality Op-Doc that “provides an immersive experience into the Hoh Rain Forest, told from the perspective of the acoustic ecologist Gordon Hempton.” He says, “Silence is the poetics of space— what it means to be in a place. A whole topography of the surrounding landscape is revealed to me in the many layers of the echo that comes towards me. And I think to myself, I know exactly where I am. Silence isn’t the absence of something, but the presence of everything… Silence is the presence of time undisturbed. It can be felt within the chest. It nurtures our nature. And silence is on the verge of extinction… When I listen, I have to become quiet. I become very peaceful. And I think what I enjoy most about listening, is that I disappear. *I* disappear.”

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Contemplative Ecologies 5

Happy Friday everyone! Here are this week’s top 5 posts curated from my daily feed:

1. Mary Woodbury published a three-part series on New Weird fiction. She argues, “[The Weird] is as much ‘a sensation as it is a mode of writing’… ‘because the Weird exists in the interstices, because it can occupy different territories simultaneously… Weird stories can take any subject and bend it around into non-Euclidean geometry… Weird fiction has permission to go outside our usual perceptions.”

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Contemplative Ecologies 4

It’s been a busy week! I just completed 4 qualifying exams in 7 days (yippee!). And I still managed to curate plenty of content for y’all! Here are this week’s highlights:

1. Eurozine published a review of archaeological and anthropological data that contests fundamental assumptions about cultural evolution. The authors argue, “it no longer makes any sense to use phrases like ‘the agricultural revolution,’” considering that the transition “to a life based on food production typically took something in the order of three thousand years.” Even more surprising, they claim it “makes even less sense to talk about agriculture as marking the origins of rank or private property… Egalitarian cities, even regional confederacies, are historically quite commonplace… and there is absolutely no evidence that top-down structures of rule are the necessary consequence of large-scale organization.” These are bold claims, so I’m curious to learn more. A friend directed me to this manifesto explaining Foundations of an Anarchist Archaeology and this text on An Introduction to Anarchism in Archaeology, which I plan to read later. If you have other resources or opinions, feel free to post them in comments (below) or email me.

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Spiritual Education in the Twenty-First Century: Ethics, Mindfulness, and Skillfulness

A public conversation between Prof. Deborah Orr and Galen Watts

By Rohit Revi

“Action based in wisdom/prajna and compassion/karuna is moral action. Enlightenment is living a moral life based on moral actions.”

On the 7th of March 2018, the Spirituality, Nature and Culture Laboratory organized its fourth public conversation. Dr. Deborah Orr (Associate Professor at York University) spoke with Galen Watts (PhD Candidate in Cultural Studies at Queen’s University) about Spirituality, one of the four grounding themes that are central to SNCLab.

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Contemplative Ecologies 3

Happy Friday everyone! I’ve been busy completing qualifying exams, so this week’s post will feature more excerpts and less links. Hope you enjoy it:

1. I recommend two recent Aeon articles. One on The African Anthropocene:

“[There is] a common critique of the Anthropocene concept: it attributes ecological collapse to an undifferentiated ‘humanity’, when in practice both responsibility and vulnerability are unevenly distributed. While the Anthropocene continually inscribes itself in all our bodies – we all have endocrine disruptors, microplastics and other toxic things chugging through our metabolisms – it manifests differently in different bodies. Those differences, along with the histories that generated them, matter a great deal.”

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Contemplative Ecologies 2

This is the second blog post in a new series by Zack Walsh. Each Friday, I highlight the top 5 posts curated from my personal Facebook page. I hope you enjoy this week’s highlights:

1. The Great Transition Initiative just ended their round table on Vivir Bien / Buen Vivir. I recommend reading the original article and follow-up discussion which explains both the relational aspects of its cosmovision and how an alliance of autonomous movements supported by the commons can prevent its co-optation by state legislators. If like me you’re interested in the spiritual culture of degrowth, I’d also recommend this earlier article comparing the non-dual cosmologies of Buen Vivir and Theravāda-Buddhism. To stay up-to-date with publications, subscribe to GTI’s bimonthly bulletin or Facebook page.

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Contemplative Ecologies 1

This is the first blog post in a new series by Zack Walsh. Each Friday, I highlight the top 5 posts curated from my personal Facebook page. I hope you enjoy this week’s highlights:

1. There are several new pieces related to my #ContemplativeCommons project. Peter Doran published a new article, Towards a Mindful Cultural Commons. Uneven Earth published a cli-fi about the psycho-social affects of enclosures. My favorite quote: “The fences were strongest in the mind.” For those unfamiliar with the commons, I’d recommend David Bollier’s accessible introduction, Think Like a Commoner; and for a more contemplative perspective, check out Ugo Mattei’s First Thoughts for a Phenomenology of the Commons.

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A Pedagogy For Change

By Victoria Sicilia

One of the key questions at SNC Lab is: How do we develop modes of education to equip future generations to face challenges still unknown? We seek to foster pedagogical experimentation and innovation within humanities and social sciences. Using a piece by Amelia Jorgensen, I’m interested in discussing the ways in which pedagogical practice can be [re]constructed in order to encourage the growth of critical and adaptable student populations.

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Pedagogy: Teaching and Learning for a Flourishing Planet

A public conversation with James Miller and Jason Kelly

By Rohit Revi

“A flourishing human society is dependent upon a flourishing planet. This should be the structuring principle of education.”

The 21st century brings unprecedented challenges to human wellbeing. Ranging from rapid environmental destruction and the threat of an impending nuclear disaster, to growing economic, social and psychological crises, these challenges exist at a global scale, demanding great urgency. At the same time, universities appear to not only be fundamentally unsuccessful in addressing them, but even instrumental in their perpetuation. In the light of this specific problem, the Spirituality Nature Culture Laboratory organized a public conversation between Prof. James Miller and Prof. Jason Kelly, titled Pedagogy: Teaching and Learning for a Flourishing Planet, on the 31st of January, 2018. Continue reading “Pedagogy: Teaching and Learning for a Flourishing Planet”

What does it mean to be spiritual?

Galen Watts, Queen’s University, Ontario

Spirituality has become a kind of buzzword in today’s culture, especially for the millennial generation. Increasingly, North Americans identify as spiritual as opposed to religious.

What is behind the rising popularity of spirituality without religion? Some critics have suggested it is a byproduct of the self-obsessed culture of today, evidence of a narcissism epidemic. This criticism is similar to that launched at the millennial generation (born between 1980-2000) in general, what some scholars have called “Generation Me.

Although I don’t disagree with these characterizations, I believe there is more to the story. Since 2015 I have conducted in-depth research with Canadian millennials, interviewing 33 Canadian millennials who self-identify as spiritual but not religious — in order to better understand their beliefs and practices.

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Eight Billion Bodhisattvas

By Joshua Noiseux

Though our lives are beset by misery and suffering, and though we are constantly faced with delusion and ignorance, according to the Buddha we are incredibly lucky to be human. Indeed, being born human requires vastly more luck than winning the lottery. This is exceptionally hard to believe in 2017, but it is a perspective worth considering.

Tradition has it that the Buddha put it this way:

Monks, imagine a limitless ocean in which a turtle, blind in both eyes, swims incessantly in random directions. Only every 100 years does this turtle surface for air, always in a random location. Floating on the surface of this ocean is a golden ring which is carried away in all directions by tides, currents, and winds. Even in an incalculable space of time, how likely would it be for the turtle to rise in such a place as to put his head through the golden ring?

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