We've talked a lot about gurus who require money, live in opulence or otherwise exploit followers. But there's a whole industry of making money off spirituality, and it comes in many forms for different faiths. (We pagans have our own versions [Pyramid!], there are Christian bookstores selling all sorts of books and paraphernalia, and I'm sure this exists for every belief system out there.)
Today I encountered the Buddhist centered DharmaCrafts catalog.
I couldn't believe my eyes. They had everything an upper-middle-class aspirant could require if they had a spare room set aside just for meditation. You could spend 4 or 5 hundred dollars for a nice altar (a cool tansu chest or other asian inspired table), another 30-50 on an altar cloth, 30 for a meditation cushion or small chair-like support promising the utmost lumbar comfort, 30 bucks for an incense holder, hundreds for amazing statues of Kuan Yin, Avalokiteshvara or Buddha (and an extra for your garden, of course), malas, prayer flags, special curtains, $160 for a meditation robe (when a shawl just won't do), and so on. Having spent all that, I can only imagine that once you sat down to meditate you might be just a bit distracted with worry about your impending credit card bill!
Sure, the statues were very beautiful and unlike the simple resin ones I normally get, they were made with fine materials like brass, porcelain, and so on, with wonderful craftmanship. (I may use some photos in collage.) But the whole mood of the catalog was that of course you NEED these accessories in order to meditate, completely ignoring the fact that this is incompatible with true spirituality and that the native practitioners of these meditative disciplines often live very simply and frugally or even in poverty-stricken areas.
I recall in the 80s I used to see a variety of spiritual workshops, mostly aimed at women, new agey stuff like "Soul Retrieval" and "Vision Quests." Weekend retreats, they were designed to sell quick fix spirituality to middle class women who felt empty in their lives of consumerism and soccer momhood. I used to just laugh at the descriptions of these weekends (where has your soul gone that you need to retrieve it and how could you really expect to do such a thing in one weekend?) but people were just getting ripped off. I couldn't decide, however, if they were allowing themselves to be sold this idea that paying for a seminar over a weekend was going to fill this empty space for them because it was easy and they wanted to avoid the hard work of really achieving some progress on a spiritual path, or whether they were just too naive to know that this was impossible. Maybe some of each, I don't know.
These days the marketers have switched names (though it seems the "vision quest" is a perennial favorite because it's always cool to rip of Native American spirituality) but the scam continues and the companion books roll out steadily from New Age presses. These catalogs are just spirituality's version of the kind of promotion movie makers do with action figures and Happy Meal figurines and so on. Capitalism at its most sickening...
Along with this goes the Name dropping...it's hip to be familiar with all the New Age and Eastern teachers and gurus, and it's all cool, all one, all equally for sale.
I can sometimes see why the fundie Christians find it so easy to dismiss minority religion, because this kind of thing is the most visible form of it and they will never really come into contact with genuine, heart felt and devoted spiritualists who are not publicly leading these workshops or hawking books.
It's easy to mock, but really it's just very sad.
Please excuse any incoherent wording...I'm on migraine meds tonight.