It is said that on the eve of his enlightenment, the Buddha sat beneath a tree and was assailed by the demon Mara. Mara is literally “Death,” the personification of temptation and distraction. Using seductive images and ultimately doubt, Mara challenged the Buddha, distracting him from his goal of enlightenment. After several unsuccessful attempts, Mara retreated. By knowing and seeing Mara with unhindered attention, the Buddha could turn the demon away.
Mara is always within us. The demon represents everyday experiences, such as fear, temptation, anxiety, relationship difficulties, and addiction. These are just some of all of the afflictions we meet in the landscape of our minds: restlessness and anxiety, desire and craving, aversion and delusion, and finally, doubt. Mara urges us to avoid all the unpleasant mind states that accompany the path towards healing and awakening and instead engorge in all temptation for pleasure.
It is not foreign to draw parallels to fashion. Like fashion, Mara is what tempts us, and cannot be overcome with simple denial. Rather than applying brute force, which is useless against temptation and craving, the Buddha’s example suggests approaching Mara with the spirit of listening and transformation. Mara can be won over with weapons of compassion, equanimity, appreciation, and ultimately insight, in order to establish sovereignty of our own minds.
Fashion is fueled by our desires, and in many ways, we dress to become our desires. But uncontrolled desire combined with our hunger for attachment easily turns into craving. We spot an attractive friend crossing the road in just that right thing, making him or her stand out as a mirage of perfection. We may not spell it out, but the rush in the body cries “I need that too!” The look appears to us as a ticket to that world, a signature texted at a postcard from a place of allure. A low-level fever runs through my body; “I need to find that outfit!” Passion can be almost indistinguishable from a fever, so no wonder fashion is such an incubator to that pleasant sickness of consumerism.
Not unlike how Mara bedevils the Buddha, it can be fruitful to think that fashion is not entirely chosen by us, but it assails us, is inflicted upon us. But does that necessarily mean we are “victims” or “slaves” to fashion? The idea that consumers are subjects to some forms of submission to aesthetic power may not be inaccurate. However, the framing of the relationship as master/slave may shy away from the complex social relationships fashion and consumerism flourish in.
“I was absolute master in my old dressing gown,” philosopher Denis Diderot famously had it, “but I have become a slave to my new one,” as he felt the need to update his whole wardrobe because of one new piece. We may think we choose fashion from our free will, but with just a little bit of self-observation, we find ourselves subjected to the tastes of our peers, our habits and confused minds. And as with a new dressing gown, our desires creep upwards, ever wanting more.
But today’s fashion consumers don’t see themselves as slaves. Instead, we are continuously sold aesthetic rebellion and independence. We do not submit to fashion, we crave fashion. We celebrate impulse buying and happily engage in retail therapy. Fashion is not about subordination as much as a site for tension, anxiety release, and soothing from stress.
And even as we cannot escape the news of environmental impact of mass consumerism, we keep shopping. Perhaps it is true, as Buddhist ecologist Stephanie Keza argues, that we are stricken by a “sickness of consumerism,” a spiritual disease of unquenchable consumption, poisoning and denial?
But don’t we also crave fashion because it is a little forbidden, that it flirts with danger, the gamble of the passions? Fashion is the antipode to frugality, and some shame is still bound to the blatant egotism of fully and flamboyantly celebrating one’s desires, which may still be the model of orgiastic pleasure. Indeed, isn’t fashion partly about the pleasure of challenging virtue, gluttonous delight and a thrill in greedy jealousy, to envelope ourselves in virtuous sin, taking sartorial risk and challenging the fates? It is the kick that makes me feel more alive, if only for a short while.
We shop, dress up, feel the hungry eyes of our peers, and the brain’s reward system runs on the highest levels. As I leave the store with the new goods, I feel like a conqueror and experience the emotional kick that comes with gaining a few notches in the gamble of attention. As Buddhist scholar Robert Thurman points out, even when wearing masks, the sense of “I” is still in its own world of sensations,
“When ‘I’ feel proud, I soar above others. When ‘I’ feel jealous, I am brought down into a nagging dislike of another. Guilt, fear, greed, confusion, even determination — all these energies seem to take hold of ‘me,’ or seems to emanate from ‘I.’ But as I think then through, observe them in actuality or in memory, they seem fully bound in relationships.”
This focus on the “I” not only leads to self-identification and self-indulgence, but to the prejudice that all others are non-self, that they are wrong or worse than the universe of the self-centered “me.” Being at the center of the universe makes it seem perfectly normal to be drawn into greed, envy, and jealousy. Yet these mental processes of comparison feed the judging aspects of our mind. For a self-centered mind, the success of others becomes easily translated into a sense of threat, a fear hindering our own sense of appreciating what we have.
Through consumption, grasping generates both the safety of identity as well as the thrill of becoming anew. As I consume, my sense of identity becomes tightly knit to my feeling states. “Shopping is a way that we search for our selves and our place in the world,” psychologist April Benson argues, “a lot of people conflate the search for self with the search for stuff.” As I wear sophisticated Japanese designer-clothes, my whole cognition speaks to me as if I am a sophisticated person. I want to feel like a queen or king again, and I crave more. As what I acquire arouses me, I am also seduced into believing I am what I consume. The mantra of consumerism is I crave, therefore I am.
Perhaps we can find ways to deal with our cravings for the new, for the latest kick of dressed affirmation? A first step may be to start relating to fashion, rather than from fashion; to grow a sense of self-knowledge with fashion. When we are not paying attention, we let our cravings motivate our actions, whether we like it or not. By paying better attention to our emotions, we can better unpack what fashion does to us and how to respond to these emotions in a more wise way.
Even after the Buddha’s victory, Mara did not disappear. Instead, Mara continued to live with the Buddha, kept returning with new temptations and doubts. In some traditions he eventually becomes a disciple of the Buddha. A possible task is to make friends with our desires, our self, at the most profound level possible. The task is not to resist or deny our experiences, but willingly invite Mara. In the moment of burning desire, and with this clearly recognize the reality of craving we may try to open a dialogue of understanding with Mara, examining the roots of our temptations to overcome Mara’s intimidation.
Otto von Busch is Associate Professor of Integrated Design at Parsons School of Design. This essay is an excerpt from Otto von Busch, The Dharma of Fashion: A Buddhist Approach to Our Life with Clothes (Schiffer Publishing, LTD, 2020).