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Materialism: A Conscientious Crisis

Updated: Jan 12

Buddha famously said, “Attachment leads to suffering.” The ambiguous nature of this statement creates a realm of many possibilities - physical, emotional, material, sexual, intellectual, and many more. Buddhism preaches the highest order of unattachment, where one only has oneself to look after and care for. But the attainment of this kind of spiritual prowess is impractical if taken at face value. While the definition of complete intangible independence can be slightly altered to fit the modern context, it is still a herculean task. So to make the boundaries between what is materialism and what isn’t a little more univocal, I divide materialism into two different types.

The first kind is utilitarian materialism. The owning of items that one needs to work, live, be productive, and survive. However, these items are very few in number. For instance, if a cellphone counts as an essential material possession for someone, they only purchase the best of the best and use it for as long as possible. The key here is that despite being costlier, those who believe in utilitarian materialism only purchase items that are second to none. Not only are they getting the maximum use out of their products, but they are also saving themselves the trouble of repeatedly buying more items, which in the long term is more expensive anyway. However, there is a catch. To say that a product or a service is a utilitarian materialistic need, it not only has to have a significant practical use, but it should also guarantee the happiness of the buyer and make sure it is not impairing anyone else. In line with what Buddha says, “I teach one thing and one thing only: that is, suffering and the end of suffering.” The conundrum here is that what Buddhism says is capable of harming oneself or anyone else is obscure. The smallest of mistakes, the slightest of mishaps, and the softest behaviours can cause unspeakable injury to others.

The second kind is emotional materialism. The purchasing of items one doesn’t need but still wants, such as luxury cars, bags and much more. The purpose of these purchases is selfish, even dubiously negative - external pride, public demonstration, earthly pleasure and so on. While the line between necessary and unnecessary may seem blurry, it actually isn’t. The purchase of a single car from a pricey company such as Ferrari will be deemed utilitarian because it is a requirement. It will be used for transport, and it is a one-time acquisition of an item that provides excellent returns. However, buying expensive lipstick from a brand like Christian Dior will be conceived as emotional materialism. While one might argue it is crucial for specific situations, such as when one needs to be dressed in complete formal attire, it is nevertheless something one can survive without. Moreover, the purpose of cosmetic-related commodities are perceived as luxury items one only needs for appearance’s sake in Buddhism. Thus, one might argue that for an asset to be considered emotionally materialistic, it has to be bought with the intention of self-fulfilment or detriment to others.

Gautam Buddha said, “Happiness does not depend on what you have or who you are. It solely relies on what you think.” Buddhism does not encourage utilitarian materialism any more than it discourages emotional materialism. However, it encourages developing one’s conscience without relying on generally accepted ideas of right and wrong. How does one decide if a purchase is crucial or bought with a random or even malicious intent? It is by the gradual augmentation of one’s own conscience and a sense of right from wrong and ego from gratitude. If there is any division between the kinds of materialism, it is within our hearts.

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