Thursday, July 28, 2005

On Spiritual Materialism

Spiritual materialism . . . is the tendency of the ego to appropriate a religious or spiritual path to strengthen, rather than dismantle, our sense of self-importance. Chogyam Trungpa, who popularized this term, often used it to point to the self-congratulatory use of Eastern religions and New Age philosophies, especially in the sixties and seventies in North America. It can, however, refer to the tendency within any religious movement to use spirituality to reinforce rather than reveal.

We often avoid authentic spiritual engagement that involves humbling ourselves or giving in. A pernicious form of spiritual materialism, orchestrated by the Lord of Mind, is to imitate or ape spiritual experiences, rather than to actually engage them. We get high, we get absorbed in nothingness or the godhead, we have a cathartic religious experience, but all on our own terms. God loves us, the universe loves us, we love ourselves.

Genuine spirituality offers various paths to investigate what we might call the real mysteries of life. It offers the opportunity both to look more deeply into life and to open out further into the world. It offers exploration, it offers communication, it offers investigation. It offers genuine questions. Spiritual materialism, on the other hand, says: You don't have to question. Do this and you'll be fine. Believe this and you'll be fine. When you die, you'll be fine.

Carolyn Rose Gimian, "The Three Lords of Materialism," Shambhala Sun (Sept 2005)

Trungpa wrote Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism in response to his experiences after coming to teach in America in the late sixties. Even moreso now, spiritual materialism is the dominant form of spiritual and religious expression in this country. Whether we are talking about Sunday Christians, who believe that attending church once a week, saying a prayer or two, and voting Republican is a sufficient form of religious practice to get them into heaven, or Buddhists who have a bronze statue of the Buddha on a shelf, go to a meditation class now and then, and believe that volunteering at a food bank will produce a good reincarnation, or any other group who engages in external behaviors rather than internal transformation and calls it religious practice, the result is the same -- spiritual materialism.

True spiritual practice, as Gimian suggests, is not about having all the answers, feeling good about ourselves, or feeling secure that we won't go to hell (in whatever form that might take). True spiritual practice is about learning to live within the question, in a state of liminality. It's about learning to be comfortable in ambiguity, in paradox, and finally, in that realm of Spirit where our sense of self expands beyond personal identity into something uncontained, unbounded, infinite.

This doesn't happen in a weekend retreat, although one might get a taste of it there, but rather over the course of a lifetime of practice and investigation. The more we investigate the meaning of our lives -- the meaning of existence -- the closer we come to knowing God, and the less we are tied to moral absolutes, static identity, or any other manifestation of the material world.

Monday, July 25, 2005

Ryokan: Two Poems

You stop to point at the moon in the sky,
but the finger's blind unless the moon is shining.

One moon, one careless finger pointing --
are these two things or one?

The question is a pointer guiding
a novice from ignorance thick as fog.

Look deeper. The mystery calls and calls:
no moon, no finger -- nothing there at all.


I never longed for the wilder side of life.
Rivers and mountains were my friends.

Clouds consumed my shadow where I roamed,
and birds pass high above my resting place.

Straw sandals in snowy villages,
a walking stick in spring,

I sought a timeless truth: the flower's glory
is just another form of dust.

[Translations by Sam Hamill, from A Dragon in the Clouds]