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The yin and yang of credit

How to sort this out? The Buddha says desire is bad. The Zen card says, "Just charge it."

It turns out I am an Explorer of Life. And that I Continually Seek Out Abundance and Serenity. And that I take a Holistic Approach to Life.

I discovered these things about myself when I got a letter offering me the Zen card. Actually, it's a MasterCard _ platinum, no less _ with no annual fee and a very attractive interest rate of 9.9 percent. Evidently my credit rating is as good as my karma.

Here, at last, is a credit card tailored to my deepest beliefs. Its design, a "hypnotic ripple of sand," looks like one of those Zen gardens that are supposed to put you in a meditative state. The people at Capital One, who made this once-in-an-incarnation offer, assure me that using this card will identify me as someone who "embraces alternative means of unlocking my potential," not to mention unlocking my wallet. A person dedicated to "the inner journey . . . as well as good financial sense."

Wow. Ethereal and practical. I am overcome by abundant serenity.

But in the interest of Exploring Life, I am compelled to ask: What does revolving credit have to do with Buddhism?

Good question.

"A core Buddhist teaching is overcoming desire," said Asian scholar Nathan Katz of Florida International University in Miami. "And a device such as this card, which is seen to encourage desire, would seem to be very un-Buddhist."

In other words, a low minimum monthly payment does not equal Nirvana.

In our commercialized culture, nothing is sacred, Katz said, not even a 2,500-year-old faith. Witness the Re/Max TV ad with a saffron-robed monk dispensing real estate advice, or the SUV commercial that talks about the vehicle's karma.

Using Zen to sell credit cards is like hiring Mahatma Gandhi to hawk suits for Men's Wearhouse or getting Jenny Craig to peddle the Gordita Supreme at Taco Bell. Less, less, less is being used to sell more, more, more. Somehow, in our overstimulated consumer brains, it all makes sense.

Capital One, a bank based in Virginia, is among the top 10 issuers of Visas and MasterCards. It has mastered the art of selling so-called "affinity" cards, credit cards that identify the holder as a Rolling Stones fan or Ball State alumnus or whatever. Some of the cards have a charitable bent. Every time you charge a purchase on them, a few cents are donated to the National Wildlife Federation or the Elton John AIDS Foundation, for example. Labor unions have their own affinity cards. So do Star Trekkies and the American Bar Association. The Rainbow Visa advertises gay pride.

About 8-million Americans have affinity cards. We like them. They give us a sense of belonging. Which, evidently, is why Capital One decided that I, as a Seeker of Truth, would be delighted with the Zen card.

"Oh, do you like it?" chirped Capital One spokeswoman Diana Don, when I got her on the phone.

Don said she didn't know how many of my fellow Explorers of Life had signed up for the Zen card so far. Four other designs are available: Rainforest, Meditation, Serene and Balance. Balance features a yin/yang logo. A day at Saks is yang; the $25-a-month late payment fee is yin.

I asked Don how Capital One identified me as a potential Zen card user. Was it the toe ring I ordered from a New Age catalog? The aromatherapy kit I bought at the health food store? The Enlightenment-in-One-Weekend seminar I signed up for?

Don wasn't sharing.

"That's kind of our secret sauce, so to speak. We look at different sources of data that are available to us, to see what people's passions are. Maybe you subscribe to a certain magazine, or you're on a list that says you're into . . . um . . ."

"Meditation?" I suggested. "Yoga?"

"Yeah," she said. "Exactly!"

Still, before I sign up for the Zen card, there's that nagging problem of Buddhist detachment vs. consumer spending. Can shopping be a spiritual practice?

It's all in how you look at it, said Franz Metcalf, a comparative religion professor at California State University and author of What Would Buddha Do? 101 Answers to Life's Daily Dilemmas (Ulysses Press, 1999).

On Page 60, Metcalf examines the burning question: "What would Buddha do if his credit cards (were) maxed out?"

We're never satisfied, he writes. One purchase leads to another, and another. It's desire dominoes, creating an unquenchable thirst.

"The First Noble Truth the Buddha taught is dukkha," Metcalf said by phone from his Los Angeles office. "That's usually translated as suffering, but a better translation is dissatisfaction. We just don't get satisfied in this world. Our desires are endless. And the credit card people have a penetrating understanding of that."

Even so, the whole concept of buying on time aligns with Buddhist principles, Metcalf said.

"What is karma but a kind of credit/debit balance? Good things get rewarded, bad things get punished. And that's what credit cards do. They're kind of a reward and punishment system for fiscal management."

The irony is that the company issuing the Zen credit card makes more money if people use the card in an un-Buddhist way _ that is, if they rack up a big bill and then pay only the minimum every month.

Would the Buddha go for the Zen card, if he got an invitation in the mail? There was a moment of silence as Metcalf meditated on that.

"Well, Buddhism is about being practical, having the right mind-set and then doing right," he said. "Living in this culture and having a credit card _ and trying to use it carefully _ that is being Buddhist."

So I guess I'll have to use the Zen card wisely if I want a better rebirth.

_ Times staff writer Helen Huntley and Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.

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