One of the major teachings of the Buddha is that desire is suffering. The point of advertising is to create a desire for a product or service. So how do good Buddhists deal with that inherent contradiction? Do they avoid the profession? In predominantly Buddhist countries is advertising farmed out to non-Buddhists (like money lending was the province of Jews in the Middle Ages because it was forbidden to Christians)? Is Buddhism so secularized (like Christianity in the United States) that its simply not an issue? Do Buddhists rationalize the contradiction like good Christian businessmen who pollute and exploit their workers? Or are Buddhists just not hung up about rules and prohibitions like Christians and Jews?

Just something I was wondering while I was daydreaming this afternoon.
Perhaps we can make fanciful use of "church attendance statistics" to answer this question.

Many Buddhists have equally strong ties to the Confucian and Taoist1 traditions.2 Perhaps when they go to the office, they shift gears, and say, "That was Zen - this is Tao."3


  1. Not to mention Shintoism, shamanism, or animism.

  2. This kind of syncretism is a well-established phenomenon in east Asia, which of course is home to the vast majority of Buddhists.

  3. Of course, some religionists regard Zen as a separate tradition from Buddhism, and Zen Buddhism as syncretistic practice in its own right.

I am a Buddhist, and I used to work for a small company that made advertising products.

We made vinyl signs and custom-made T-shirts. I designed quite a few of them.

My work had nothing to do with creating desire. What it did was produce information about what local company made what products. It helped the companies to find customers, and it helped prospective customers to find competent companies.

I would have never accepted a job for any kind of misleading advertising whose purpose was to get people into buying something they do not need, or to lie about a product.

Deceptive advertising would certainly be unwholesome karma: It would hurt both the advertiser (since it might attract customers in the short run but would destroy the company credibility in the long run) and the customer. Doing that would be irresponsible. It would also be illegal.

I would also not design any advertising for a product whose purpose was to hurt someone. An example of advertising I did would be a magnetic sign for a well drilling company to attach on the doors of their trucks. So, if the truck was driving near someone who needed a well drilled, they could easily see their phone number and order their services. Not only did my work not cause any suffering, it helped alleviate it: The well drillers were able to continue feed their families, their customers were able to get water to drink. All in all, quite the Buddhist thing to do.

By the way, it was my Zen master (Buddhist teacher) who told me about the job, and encouraged me to apply for it.

Incidentally, the Buddha did not teach that "desire is suffering". He taught that craving is the cause of suffering. The craving he was talking about he compared to a fish out of water gasping for air which it cannot get. It had to do with attachment to things we do not need. The Buddha never taught that people should hide their abilities from others, nor that they should not be paid for their work.

In my political science class, we watched a film on the Vietnam War. In South Vietnam, there was much protest to the war as is to be expected, and as is known. In a protest, and as a way to draw attention to the crisis, Buddhist monks set themselves aflame, sitting crosslegged in the middle of the city, and this was transfered to the world in the first "television war".

These were good Buddhists who burned to death and advertised very effectively what they needed to. I cannot see a democratic capitalist ever going to such an extreme to advertise. Well, hm, I can conceive of a heavy-handed businessperson setting some Buddhist monks on fire, with Donovan's "Mellow Yellow" playing in the background. Wow. Everyone can meet their karmic pull in advertising!

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