Spiritual materialism was a concept Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche introduced when he brought Buddhism to America. It seems to be me absolutely essential to address this topic, especially when dealing with foreign and exotic forms of spirituality. This is so because often times people engage exotic and/or foreign traditions for all the wrong reasons, either for their lavish appearances or due to resentment toward their indigenous faith. So it becomes necessary to address the motives or reasons for embarking upon the spiritual journey, otherwise we run the risk of merely changing our wardrobe and continuing on in the same direction.
Spiritual Materialism is a dangerous and corrosive thread that has the potential to infect and spoil our whole spiritual life. It enables the ego to masquerade around in a monk’s robe, pretending to be a wise and pious example of spirituality. Unfortunately when a self-centered perspective governs the spiritual life it is little more than a charade. Our actions are merely attempts to mimic what we consider to be spiritual behavior. Our speech is saturated with the vain repetition of slogans and lingo, no matter how sophisticated, which we collected by acting out our delusional impression of what it means to be spiritual, namely the reading of wordy books and engaging in lofty philosophical discourse. We run around saying, “Everything is like a dream, It is impermanent, or This too shall pass.” There is nothing wrong with the statements themselves, they are true, but if they are not established in our lives through direct experience of the principle truth underlying the words, then they have no real authority, as we are not the authors. Finally, we become overrun by self-delusion when the spiritual path, a path that is in truth established on the basis of experimentation and direct experience, is relegated to little more than ideas and opinions about spirituality. The path is transformed into an intellectual endeavor, a mere thought construct, enabling the ego to keep spirituality at a safe distance. Perhaps this intellectual world is sophisticated, but it is nonetheless intellectual in nature, devoid of direct experience and therefore not the original article. Make no mistake, the problem does not lie in external behavior, such as changes in diet or reading religious books, but in our insistence upon replicating or acting them out. We try to duplicate or reproduce the enlightenment experience of others by convincing ourselves, via confirmation received through our interactions with others, that the experience belongs to us.
These three phases of spiritual materialism are held together by a common thread. The common thread is confusion, which gives birth to the idea that happiness is some ‘thing’ that ‘I’ must produce. Spirituality is hijacked by the ego the moment we succumb to the temptation to try and produce enlightenment. Spirituality is concerned with sanity, which is to say that thought conforms to reality, and not the other way around. Truth simply is. We cannot produce it, as it exists beyond the realm of production. Trying to produce enlightenment with intellectual speculation limits us to the very same causes and therefore the same results that invited us onto the spiritual path in the first place.
If we are honest with ourselves we will have to admit that our plans of production have been nothing short of insufficient. We were delivered to the doorstep of spirituality by our own discontentment. Though varying in severity, this discontentment gave rise to a fundamental feeling of dissatisfaction, which in turn invited us to search elsewhere for content. So to say that our ideas about happiness, and our plans and systems for producing happiness fall short would be a gross understatement. Spirituality is about questioning whether or not production is necessary, and this basic assumption is challenged by the practice of meditation. Accepting that our ideas about happiness and the means we have used to produce it do not work, as evidenced by the fact we are now investigating new avenues by which we may discover happiness, begins to open other doors.
This gut level honesty is no doubt a bit scary, as we are forced to scrap many fundamental conceptions we have held for along time, conceptions about ourselves and the nature of our relationship with the world we live in. This creates a sort of vacuum, but nature abhors a vacuum. So, out of this vacuum the most important resource for the spiritual journey is begotten, fuel. This fuel, which is a sort of curiosity or a childish inquisition, is born out of the recognition that what we think about the world is limited, as thinking about something and tasting it are quite different. A far cry from recognizing that we are stupid or crazy, this recognition is a stroke of sanity or genius. As Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche once said, “Being willing to be a fool is one of the first wisdoms!”
The incalculable value of this curiosity has two dimensions. The first of which is that childish quality, the quality that forces a child to walk through a house and pick up everything they see in order to look a little bit closer, to touch it. Only instead of our Grandmother’s china or porcelain figurines, we begin to pick up and pull apart ideas, conceptions and assumptions we have long held onto but never challenged. We begin to question our habitual systems and the perception that supports these systems. This is the fuel that propels us forward. The second quality is that which makes us receptive to the spiritual path and a teacher, in other words it is what makes us a student. As a result of genuine honesty or a moment of sanity we let go of the belief that what I think about the world is the alpha and omega. In other words, we accepted the fact that the value of an idea or a statement is not established by my opinion of it, but whether or not it is validated by reality. As a result, we began to be open to possibilities we had never before considered. This is an important point to understand. If we are unable to honestly question the limitations of our own thought life, then we will be stuck in a situation where the problem is being asked to judge the solution, like putting the criminal in charge of the crime scene. We cannot allow our own conceptions to be judge and jury in their own case, that is the job of silence- the before mentioned void. The problem is not thought itself, but rather the misunderstood nature of thought. Thought is currently mistakenly understood to be the voice of some solid/separate ‘I’ lodged within the confines of our skull constantly spouting out its opinions about the world revolving around it. Having forgotten that Reality was their source of content, in rapid succession these opinions recognize themselves as the infallible word. When in a moment of honestly we see that thought is just a medium, another way of reflecting reality, and not the source of truth itself, then we become open-minded. Close-mindedness suggest a state where the validity of information is determined by whether or not it supports what I thought before I came into contact with the information. When we allow all information, our thinking included to be challenged and established by reality we are open-minded, and this spacious state of mind opens us up to a whole new world.
In this spacious state of mind not only are we more open to the suggestions of a personal teacher, but the world itself becomes our teacher, which is to say that open-mindedness is the essential ingredient in being restored to a teachable condition- fertile soil for enlightenment. From this point of view the whole world is transformed into Grandma’s living room, full of things for us to fool around with and investigate! Our ego-centered world of answers is transformed into a world of questions. A series of “What if’s?” and “Wows!” Questions are penetrating, as they enable us to cut to the core and find the common denominator. Eventually our questions make as their object this common denominator- the one who asks these questions or the one this world has revolved around for so long. Eventually the questioner, the ego, or the self is called to the forefront. Am I a solid/separate entity? Is there really some ‘I’ at the core of this existence charged with the task of directing this life? Who is it that is asking all of these questions??? Unable to find or locate this self we begin to ask questions such as, “Is this self illusory or the product of a fragmented mind? Is it possible that life is really so open and so free that there no-thing in charge of it?” The flow of life, the tradition of spirituality, and the teacher all begin to suggest seemingly absurd possibilities. What if the mind and therefore the self were empty of any intrinsic characteristics, notwithstanding emptiness? What if the true nature of the mind was spacious and forgiving like the sky? Abhorring a vacuum, what if this openness invited a dynamic to ensue where all things of this world were but reflections or the wondrous display of mind, like many waves emerging without beginning or end from an infinite ocean of awareness? What if the pressing out or expression of this dynamic transmuted us into a reflection so pure and familiar that our presence felt to others as though it was calling them home? What if? What if? What if?
If we do not test these questions through experimentation we are destined to plummet to the depths of spiritual materialism, as they will remain nothing more than lofty philosophical constructs. Perhaps you do not want to pursue them, because they seem impractical or idealistic to you. I once heard such an objection put forward to the American nun Thubten Chodron. She replied, “There have been many people throughout history who have suggested that the attainment of enlightenment is indeed possible as they had reached such a state themselves. How many people have you heard of that suggested they had figured out the key to perfectly arranging the world in such a way that it works to produce happiness for them?” This objection is really just an elaboration of the before mentioned point about honesty. Furthermore, there is nothing wrong with questioning the practicality of such propositions, provided that we actually question them. Saying, “That is not practical” or “That is idealistic and absurd!” is not a question. It is a statement. In order to question it we must experiment and first see if it is true. If it is absurd then it is to be discarded just like any other ridiculous idea, but there is no way of knowing for sure unless we are willing to test our claims against silence.
We are not talking about articles of faith when we speak of view in Buddhism. We are talking about possibilities to be explored. To try and accept an idea without direct experience to support the claim would be the third level of spiritual materialism or self-deception. What we are dealing with here is a hypothesis, a testable assertion. The laboratory we test such claims in is our lives, and especially the practice of meditation.
By meditation nothing fancy is meant, simply sitting and watching. Looking to see what is real, instead of standing back at a comfortable distance for the ego and saying what is and what isn’t. Meditation is an internal atmosphere of exploration. Let your curiosity get the best of you. Silence is the space that accommodates those ideas and beliefs we so hastily cling to and identify with. Penetrate the ideas, and return to silence. Allow silence to reveal the true nature of thought, as opposed to using thought to contrive and establish a false viewpoint or sense of self, and therefore consistently arrive at erroneous conclusions. To allow your curiosity to get the best of you means to succumb to that primordial longing to recover silence. This silence begets the most the most basic form of intelligence, sanity. At the end of the day the view is a basic proposition; is it possible that within us is the potential to simply reflect reality to such a degree that we are truth? What if we are so whole and complete that we are in need of nothing? What if hearing, smelling, seeing, tasting, touching, and thinking are but waves emerging from an ocean of awareness? Wondrous!!!
It is all about questions, inquiry. We must search within ourselves for the answers to such questions, not in books, lectures, our teacher, etc. Books, lectures, workshops, and teachers are helpful to the degree that they can provide us with inspiration to search, and in the case of a teacher can even provide us with a degree of guidance as we set out on this internal journey, but no one can traverse the path for us. On this journey we are all alone. This is a fact that we cannot ignore, and any attempt to keep ourselves entertained with the company of our books, ideas, etc. will end in nothing more than the realization that you still all alone on this journey. The spiritual life is not created. It is not something we are going to establish or produce through fancy philosophical constructs, because it is not constructed. The spiritual life is discovered. The whole path, every single facet prayer, study, meditation, and conduct has to do with interior excavation, and when coupled with honesty and persistence excavation always leads to discovery.