Monday, November 16, 2009

Readings on Pluralism: a Response

Mason Brown
Professor Miller
Contemplative Learning Seminar, Sec. F
Preparation Paper 6

I found all the readings from “Speaking in Silence,” very interesting and instructive. I didn’t have a strong response to Chogyam Trungpa’s chapter, having read it repeatedly and being in complete agreement with it. This is my tradition: internalized from my youth—but, as always—Trungpa’s words remain fresh and inspiring. He delivers another concise, elegant description of the practice and process of meditation in absolutely ordinary language: mindfulness and awareness join together (200), aggression subsides (201), and we are able to help others (201). Of course, it’s not always so simple in the real world, or “on the ground” as the current phrase goes. This process seems to have a lot of ebb and flow to it; it has the inevitable backsliding. The kind of insights Trungpa describes have happened for me as flashes of perception which, if anything, have slowly grown closer together in frequency over the years, but still sustain me through long intervals of ignorance. I don’t see any real discussion in the text itself of “exclusivism, inclusivism, pluralism, diversity, relativism and/or syncretism,” But I can relate my own feeling that I do have a twinge of exclusivism in myself when I read these teachings: so much more correct than any others I have encountered. I don’t necessarily buy into the twinge, and it soon fades. I do think that the process Trungpa describes, if followed completely, will unavoidably lead to inclusivism and pluralism, and honest acceptance of the diversity which surrounds us, without reliance on the dubious compromises of relativism and syncretism.

I have always loved and respected the Quaker tradition. With its uncannily Buddhistic silent meditation, justice-based social activism, and community values of respect for the individual as a part of the whole, it strikes me as one of the most beneficial forms of Christianity. I have even visited the oldest continually used Quaker church in the United States, said to be America’s oldest frame building, in Easton, Maryland, and seen its rough wooden benches; its spare interior, devoid of an alter of any kind. Quakers I have known have been very inclusive and embracing of diversity—often to the point of putting their bodies in harm’s way to stand in solidarity with people of other faiths and cultures—but I suspect that, like many Buddhists, they harbor unspoken feelings of exclusivism. The relative superiority of their spiritual tradition almost demands it. However, They probably also go through those feelings and do not rest on them. They have too much to do, and that doing includes not-doing. I think that the problem with Quaker contemplative practice is its lack of any real methodology or pedagogy of consciousness. There is no concrete description in this text of how to do it [Quaker scholars were even persecuted for trying to syncretize such methodologies (Yungblut 203)]. Practitioners are simply told to “wait upon the Lord in silence (202).” It would take a true spiritual genius to reach the highest levels of understanding through this system—which is strikingly like Zen—and I imagine that it was founded by such geniuses.

I have long been acquainted with the contemplative traditions within the Catholic and Orthodox Churches, and I have great respect for Tessa Bielecki, David Stendl-Rast, and George Timko. It is not surprising that the meditative techniques developed by the Church are the some of the most thorough, subtle, and refined in the European culture. In spite of this, I feel my exclusivism: Their contemplative practices are somewhat advanced, but their explanation of reality is utterly fanciful. This fact makes pluralism problematic, especially when one considers that the contemplative Christians featured in these readings, although representing a spiritual elite within Christianity, and holding some of the religion’s oldest and deepest forms, are a tiny minority of Christians in the world. Most adherents of Christianity take inflexible-belief-in-the-Bible-as-literal-Truth, and “faith in Jesus” as comprising the “practice” of Christianity, with nothing but a telephone call with God for their prayer (215), and disdain for true internal investigation. Bielecki describes a process of syncretization of her own (209), and I think it’s a good thing. She is taking knowledge which was discovered and transmitted by Buddhists to enrich her Christian practice, which is obviously deep and penetrating, but she is not giving up her Christianity; on the contrary, it seems to be strengthened.

How do I, who have acknowledged strong opinions about the shortcomings of other religions, and expressed visceral exclusivist tendencies also claim to be a pluralist? Because while I do hold those opinions and, on occasion, defend them, I do not really believe them. I know that my understanding is imperfect, and that inasmuch as my belief system does not perfectly depict reality, it is just as flawed as any other, no matter how primitive or outrageous that other might seem to me. Judith Simmer-Brown says that “in learning lessons of openness, the great yogis failed again and again (Simmer-Brown, n.p.).” This gets to the heart of the issue: “They were willing to risk, willing to fail, and willing to learn (Simmer-Brown, n.p.).” If we open to others as no different from ourselves, we will eventually realize the truth of that condition experientially, and, in the words of the Baptist hymn, there will “be no distinction there.”

Work Cited:
Simmer-Brown, Judith. “Chapter 6/Commitment and Openness: A Contemplative Approach to Pluralism,” in Glazer, The Heart of Learning, pp. 97-112.

“Natural Dharma,” “Corporate Mysticism,” Long, Loving Look at the Real,” and “Letting Go if Thoughts,” in Speaking of Silence:Christians and Buddhists in Dialogue, First Edition. 200-203;206-221.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Spiritual Materialism

Mason Brown
Professor Miller
Preparation Paper 5

Reading the introduction to “Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism,” I can almost mouth the words. I have read this material at least a dozen times, starting when I was about ten years old. The contours of the prose are familiar; utterly known to me. I feel I could find my way through this text in the dark. It’s like returning to my own home at night and walking through the unlit halls with complete confidence—no matter how long I have been away. At the same time, the words are absolutely fresh and current. They are amazingly relevant to my life right now. I am reminded what a genius Trungpa Rinpoche was. He was able to put the Buddhist teachings into words—in a foreign language—with total efficiency, moving beauty, and crystalline clarity.

Spiritual Materialism is a very useful term coined by Trungpa to describe the phenomenon of the use of spiritual practices, forms, or traditions to enrich one’s own ego; to do the exact opposite of what these forms were intended to be used for. Trungpa generously allows that all spiritual traditions are aimed at the same target: ego. He says that the “differences between the ways are a matter of emphasis and method”(4), and that the “basic problems of spiritual materialism are common to all spiritual disciplines”(4). I would argue here that many of our dominant traditions (Christianity and the other theistic religions) are simply wrong—their descriptions of reality are patently untrue—but that would be nitpicking and is beside the point. The point is that these traditions are supposed to teach us to think and act for some purpose greater than ourselves, and that the very processes they initiate can be hijacked by ego for its own selfish ends. Trungpa has put his finger on the main problem of spirituality throughout history. Despite the good intentions that lead us to seek out and cultivate spiritual practices, ego’s Trojan horse is inevitably brought in with us, sabotaging our efforts to escape its hold. Trungpa reminds us to be ever on our guard against the pernicious vampire of ego, which will feed on anything, wholesome or profane, to satisfy its insatiable hunger to be.

Jack Kornfield’s chapter, “No Boundaries to the Sacred,” is insightful and well-written. He approaches the topic of Spiritual Materialism from another angle. He talks about our tendency to create different spaces and separate aspects of our lives for sacred and profane activities, cutting our prayer or meditation off from our indulgences like sex or drugs. He calls this process “compartmentalization” (184). Kornfield cites Trungpa, correlating the concept of Spiritual Materialism with the “Golden Chain,” an Indian concept that defines “the notion of attaining a pure and divine abode” which

fits unfortunately well with whatever neurotic, fearful, or idealistic tendencies we may have. To the extent that we see ourselves to be impure, shameful, or unworthy, we may use spiritual practices and notions of purity to escape from ourselves. By rigidly following spiritual precepts and forms, we may hope to create a pure spiritual identity. (186)

Kornfield gives several moving anecdotes of people in various stages of spiritual paths—some of them quite advanced—who nevertheless run in to trouble in their lives which he traces back to this compartmentalization. I can’t disagree with anything Kornfield says—he seems to be a powerful and inspired teacher—but I find myself a little suspicious of him. It seems a little too easy in his world. He talks of “an opposite shadow, an area that is dark or hidden from us because we focus so strongly somewhere else” (193), but I wonder what Kornfield’s “dark shadows” are? He says “periods of holiness and spiritual fervor can later alternate with opposite extremes—binging on food, sex, and other things—becoming a kind of spiritual bulimia.” Something in Kornfield rings puritanical—the Thai monk he speaks of who was a dedicated activist and teacher; who fell in love with a student and tortured himself to the point of contemplating suicide, is redeemed by breaking off the relationship and rededicating himself to his vows—and one wonders where Kornfield is coming from. Who am I to say what this monk should have done? Apparently, it all worked out out alright, but somehow I suspect Kornfield of a little Spiritual Materialism of his own. It seems to me that Kornfield is on dangerous ground when he worries about “drinking, promiscuity and other unconscious conduct” (193), since I know from my teachers that those kinds of superficial value judgments of behavior are some of the most insidious traps of Spiritual Materialism waiting to snare us. I do agree with Kornfield, however, that

we must bring a deep attention to the stories we tell about these shadows, to see what is the underlying truth. Then, as we willingly enter each place of fear, each place of deficiency and insecurity in ourselves, we will discover that its walls are made of untruths. Of old images of ourselves, of ancient fears, of false ideas of what is pure and what is not. We will see that each is made from a lack of trust in ourselves, our hearts, and the world. As we see through them, our world expands. As the light of awareness illuminates these stories and ideas and the pain, fear, or emptiness that underlies them, a deeper truth can show itself. By accepting and feeling each of these areas, a genuine wholeness, sense of well-being, and strength can be discovered. (194)

For my own part, I have struggled with Spiritual Materialism for many years, and continue to pay attention to it; to look for those blind spots where it hides. My relationship to my robes and vows as a priest are a sensitive area. The accouterments of a Zen priest are costly, fine, and beautiful, and easy to either get attached to or develop feelings of aversion to. I have sometimes embraced them wholeheartedly, sometimes shied away from them and sometimes felt conflicted, embarrassed or ashamed of them. It's easy to see these vestments as a separating wall between me and other people who either practice Buddhism or don’t. It's tempting to project their perceptions for myself: what do they think of me, a white American, in this funny-looking Indo-Sino-Japanese costume?
After all this time, I no longer care. The attitude I have arrived at in recent years is one of gratitude to my teachers. They went to a lot of trouble to give me these robes; to hand this lineage to me, and it is my duty and obligation to carry that forward, However, I can’t be attached to the external properties of that obligation, and I am fully willing, at any moment, should it become necessary, to throw these robes into the fire and completely give them up, never looking back. In the same way, I am prepared to say goodbye to my very life, friends, family, and most of all, to music, to which I am most deeply attached. I am reminded, however, By Kornfield and especially by Trungpa, to examine those stories I so easily tell myself and to make sure I am not deluding myself: building up my ego with the mortar of Spiritual Materialism.

Work Cited
Kornfield, Jack. “No Boundaries to the Sacred”, Chapter 13 from Path With Heart. n.d, n.p.
Trungpa, Chogyam. Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism. Boston: Shambala, 1987.