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.


  1. Beautiful writing here--your line being able to find your way through Trungpa's book "in the returning to my own home at night" was really powerful. That book is a true classic (I'd say that at different times in my life I have been the poster child for spiritual materialism, but that would just be another half-assed way to say "Ain't I special.")
    Seriously, though, the compartmentalization thing is something that I find to be a really difficult problem, to the point where I am convinced that part of my path might be to figure out how to remove that particular safety net. "Just don't" comes to mind - as Suzuki Roshi (I think-it was either Suzuki or Katagiri) once said to Ed Brown, "it's perfectly all right to be angry; just don't." It's perfectly all right to compartmentalize everything; just don't!

    As far as Kornfield goes, I don't remember which book this was in, but he does talk about coming back from an intense time of spiritual "quest" and realizing that a lot of his personal relationship problems and other "junk" was still in full force. If I can find that passage I'll pass it on.

    Love reading your blog!


  2. Thank you for your insightful comments. It all sounds vaguely familiar. ;)
    Just when you begin to think your practice is "getting you somewhere" smash headlong into humility via some large wave of reality that spits you back out onto the sand.
    It is not about becoming pure or getting somewhere else other than where you are right this second. It is being here matter what happens. The goal is not to escape reality but to be one with it. No on said it would be easy or that it will get easier. It isn't and won't. All we can do is try to hone our tools to help limit the amount of sand we take into our mouth when we land on that beach. Thanks again- a great read.