Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism – “It is important to see that the main point of any spiritual practice is to step out of the bureaucracy of ego”. Dharma is applicable to every age, to every person; it has a living quality. It is not enough to imitate your master or guru; you are not trying to become a replica of your teacher.
The inspiration to find the truth, to see what is real, and to lead a genuine life—the culmination of which can be enlightenment—is what underlies every spiritual journey. However, embarking on this journey is rarely as straightforward as we may wish.
The journey toward enlightenment ultimately may be both profound and simple, yet the process of understanding that simplicity tends to be multidimensional, if not downright complicated.
For in order to understand a spiritual path, we must acknowledge and understand our own mind, now, as it pertains to the journey. What misunder-standings and concepts we may have about a spiritual practice, we must overcome so that we’re not merely practicing according to our own conceptualized idea.
Ego, and the myriad games it plays to unravel our inspiration for enlightenment, must always be monitored. To understand the essential qualities of the spiritual path, especially what obstacles or conundrums might lie ahead, we need a clear sense of direction. We need teachings, instructions, and guidance from someone who has traveled the path and therefore can give valid and confident advice about how others could travel this same path.
Cutting Through Spiritual
Materialism has become a classic. For those in the audience who were experimenting with rejecting society in order to pursue an idealistic, transcendental path, his teachings shed new light onworking with themselves in the context of their own country, family, and culture. As an enthusiastic newcomer to the West and a spiritual elder as well, he was able to introduce to them the basic workability of their own situation as part of the spiritual path.
Rejecting everything was not the solution. Training one’s mind, body, and speech in accordance with the truth would bring about the understanding and wisdom that produces peace.
Many of those students followed his advice, continuing on their spiritual journeys and at the same time becoming parents, teachers, business people, and even dharma teachers. These people have now become the elders for a new generation of inquisitive minds.
Even though the message of this book was addressed to a particular group at a particular time in history, it is not only for that generation. These teachings will never be dated or pigeonholed. In the last thirty years, in our continuing pursuit of whatever will distract us from the truth of pain and suffering, we have become even more materialistic.
Although the Bud-dhist way is not theistic, it does not contradict the theistic dis-ciplines. Rather the differences between the ways are a matter of emphasis and method. The basic problems of spiritual materialism are common to all spiritual disciplines. The Bud-dhist approach begins with our confusion and suffering and works toward the unraveling of their origin. The theistic ap-proach begins with the richness of God and works toward raising consciousness so as to experience God’s presence. But since the obstacles to relating with God are our confusions and negativities, the theistic approach must also deal with them. Spiritual pride, for example, is as much a problem in theistic disciplines as in Buddhism. According to the Buddhist tradition, the spiritual path is the process of cutting through our confusion, of uncovering the awakened state of mind. When the awakened state of mind is crowded in by ego and its attendant paranoia, it takes on the character of an underlying instinct. So it is not a matter of building up the awakened state of mind, but rather of burning out the confusions which obstruct it. In the process of burning out these confusions, we discover enlightenment. If the process were otherwise, the awakened state of mind would be a product, dependent upon cause and effect and therefore liable to dissolution. Anything which is created must, sooner or later, die. If enlightenment were created in such a way, there would always be the possibility of ego reasserting itself, causing a return to the confused state. Enlightenment is permanent be-cause we have not produced it; we have merely discovered it (p.4).
In the Buddhist tradition the analogy of the sun appearing from behind the clouds is often used to explain the discovery of enlightenment. In meditation practice we clear away the confusion of ego in order to glimpse the awakened state. The absence of ignorance, of being crowded in, of paranoia, opens up a tremendous view of life. One discovers a different way of being. The heart of the confusion is that man has a sense of self which seems to him to be continuous and solid. When a thought or emotion or event occurs, there is a sense of someone being conscious of what is happening. You sense that you are read-ing these words. This sense of self is actually a transitory, dis-continuous event, which in our confusion seems to be quite solid and continuous. Since we take our confused view as be. ing real, we struggle to maintain and enhance this solid self. We try to feed it pleasures and shield it from pain. Experi-ence continually threatens to reveal our transitoriness to us, so we continually struggle to cover up any possibility of dis-covering our real condition. “But,” we might ask, “if our real condition is an awakened state, why are we so busy trying to avoid becoming aware of it?” It is because we have become so absorbed in our confused view of the world, that we consider it real, the only possible world. This struggle to maintain the sense of a solid, continuous self is the action of ego Ego, however, is only partially successful in shielding us from pain. It is the dissatisfaction which accompanies ego’s struggle that inspires us to examine what we are doing.
Since there are always gaps in our self-consciousness, some insight is possible. An interesting metaphor used in Tibetan Buddhism to describe the functioning of ego is that of the “Three Lords of Materialism”:
the “Lord of Form,” the “Lord of Speech,” and the “Lord of Mind.” In the discussion of the Three Lords which follows, the words “materialism” and “neurotic” refer to the action of ego.
The Lord of Form refers to the neurotic pursuit of physical comfort, security and pleasure. Our highly organized and technological society reflects our preoccupation with manipu. I sting physical surroundings so as to shield ourselves from the irritations of the raw, rugged, unpredictable aspects of life. Push-button elevators, pre-packaged meat, air conditioning, flush toilets, private funerals, retirement programs, mass pro-duction, weather satellites, bulldozers, fluorescent lighting, nine to five jobs, television—all are attempts to create a man-ageable, safe, predictable, pleasurable world.
The Lord of Form does not signify the physically rich and secure life-situations we create per se. Rather it refers to the neurotic preoccupation that drives us to create them, to try to control nature. It is ego’s ambition to secure and entertain it-self, trying to avoid all irritation. So we cling to our pleasures and possessions, we fear change or force change, we try to create a nest or playground.
The Lord of Speech refers to the use of intellect in relating to our world. We adopt sets of categories which serve as handles, as ways of managing phenomena. The most fully developed products of this tendency are ideologies, the systems of ideas that rationalize, justify and sanctify our lives. Nationalism, communism, existentialism, Christianity, Buddhism —all provide us with identities, rules of action, and interpretations of how and why things happen as they do.
Again, the use of intellect is not in itself the Lord of Speech. The Lord of Speech refers to the inclination on the part of ego to interpret anything that is threatening or irritating in such a way as to neutralize the threat or turn it into something “positive” from ego’s point of view. The Lord of Speech re-fers to the use of concepts as filters to screen us from a direct perception of what is. The concepts are taken too seriously; they are used as tools to solidify our world and ourselves.
If a world of nameable things exists, then “I” as one of the name-able things exists as well. We wish not to leave any room for threatening doubt, uncertainty or confusion. The Lord of Mind refers to the effort of consciousness to maintain awareness of itself. The Lord of Mind rules when we use spiritual and psychological disciplines as the means of maintaining our self-consciousness, of holding onto our sense of self. Drugs, yoga, prayer, meditation, trances, various psy-chotherapies—all can be used in this way.
Ego is able to convert everything to its own use, even spiri-tuality. For example, if you have learned of a particularly beneficial meditation technique of spiritual practice, then ego’s attitude is, first to regard it as an object of fascination and, second to examine it. Finally, since ego is seeming solid and cannot really absorb anything, it can only mimic. Thus ego tries to examine and imitate the practice of meditation and the meditative way of life. When we have learned all the tricks and answers of the spiritual game, we automatically try to imitate spirituality, since real involvement would require the complete elimination of ego, and actually the last thing we want to do is to give up the ego completely.
However, we cannot experience that which we are trying to imitate; we can only find some area within the bounds of ego that seems to be the same thing. Ego translates everything in terms of its own state of health, its own inherent qualities. It feels a sense of great accomplishment and excitement at having been able to create such a pattern. At last it has created a tangible ac-complishment, a confirmation of its own individuality. If we become successful at maintaining our self-consciousness through spiritual techniques, then genuine spiritual de velopment is highly unlikely.
Our mental habits become so strong as to be hard to penetrate. We may even go so far as to achieve the totally demonic state of complete “Egohood.” Even though the Lord of Mind is the most powerful in sub-verting spirituality, still the other two Lords can also rule the spiritual practice. Retreat to nature, isolation, simple, quiet, high people—all can be ways of shielding oneself from irri-tation, all can be expressions of the Lord of Form.
Or perhaps religion may provide us with a rationalization for creating a secure nest, a simple but comfortable home, for acquiring an amiable mate, and a stable, easy joh. The Lord of Speech is involved in spiritual practice as well. In following a spiritual path we may substitute a new religious ideology for our former beliefs, but continue to use it in the old neurotic way. Regardless of how sublime our ideas may be, if we take them too seriously and use them to maintain our ego, we are still being ruled by the Lord of Speech.
Most of us, if we examine our actions, would probably agree that we are ruled by one or more of the Three Lords. “But,” we might ask, “so what? This is simply a description of the human condition. Yes, we know that our technology cannot shield us from war, crime, illness, economic insecurity, laborious work; old age and death; nor can our ideologies shield us from doubt, uncertainty, confusion and disorienta. tion; nor can our therapies protect us from the dissolution of the high states of consciousness that we may temporarily achieve and the disillusionment and anguish that follow. But what else are we to do?
The Three Lords seem too powerful to overthrow, and we don’t know what to replace them with.
The Buddha, troubled by these questions, examined the process by which the Three Lords rule. He questioned why our minds follow them and whether there is another way. He discovered that the Three Lords seduce us by creating a funda-mental myth: that we are solid beings. But ultimately the myth is false, a huge hoax, a gigantic fraud, and it is the root of our suffering. In order to make this discovery he had to break through very elaborate defenses erected by the Three Lords to prevent their subjects from discovering the fundamental deception which is the source of their power.
We cannot in any way free ourselves from the domination of the Three Lords unless we too cut through, layer by layer, the elaborate defenses of these Lords.
The Lords’ defenses are created out of the material of our minds. This material of mind is used by the Lords in such a way as to maintain the basic myth of solidity. In order to see for ourselves how this process works we must examine our own experience.
“But how,” we might ask, “are we to conduct the examination? What method or tool are we to use?” The method that the Buddha discovered is meditation. He discovered that struggling to find answers did not work. It was only when there were gaps in his struggle that insights came to him. He began to realize that there was a sane, awake quality with-in him which manifested itself only in the absence of struggle.
So the practice of meditation involves “letting be.” There have been a number of misconceptions regarding meditation. Some people regard it as a trancelike state of mind. Others think of it in terms of training, in the sense of mental gymnastics. But meditation is neither of these, although it does involve dealing with neurotic states of mind.
The neurotic state of mind is not difficult or impossible to deal with. It has energy, speed and a certain pattern. The practice of meditation involves letting be—trying to go with the pattern, trying to go with the energy and the speed. In this way we learn how to deal with these factors, how to relate with them, not in the sense of causing them to mature in the way we would like, but in the sense of knowing them for what they are and working with their pattern.
There is a story regarding the Buddha which recounts how he once gave teaching to a famous sitar player who wanted to study meditation. The musician asked, “Should I control my mind or should I completely let go?” The Buddha answered, “Since you are a great musician, tell me how you would tune the strings of your instrument.” The musician said, “I would make them not too tight and not too loose.” “Likewise,” said the Buddha, “in your meditation practice you should not im-pose anything too forcefully on your mind, nor should you let it wander.”
That is the teaching of letting the mind be in a very open way, of feeling the flow of energy without trying to subdue it and without letting it get out of control, of going with the energy pattern of mind. This is meditation practice. Such practice is necessary generally because our thinking pattern, our conceptualized way of conducting our life in the world, is either too manipulative, imposing itself upon the world, or else runs completely wild and uncontrolled.
Therefore, our meditation practice must begin with ego’s outermost layer, the discursive thoughts which continually run through our minds, our mental gossip. The Lords use discursive thought as their first line of defense, as the pawns in their effort to deceive us.
The more we generate thoughts, the busier we are mentally and the more convinced we are of our exis-tence. So the Lords are constantly trying to activate these thoughts, trying to create a constant overlapping of thoughts so that nothing can be seen beyond them. In true meditation there is no ambition to stir up thoughts, nor is there an ambi-tion to suppress them. They are just allowed to occur spontaneously and become an expression of basic sanity. They become the expression of the precision and the clarity of the awakened state of mind (p. 10).
We have come here to learn about spirituality. I trust the genuine quality of this search but we must question its nature. The problem is that ego can convert anything to its own use, even spirituality. Ego is constantly attempting to acquire and apply the teachings of spirituality for its own benefit.
The teachings are treated as an external thing, external to “me,” a philosophy which we try to imitate. We do not actually want to identify with or become the teachings. So if our teacher speaks of renunciation of ego, we attempt to mimic renuncia-tion of ego. We go through the motions, make the appropriate gestures, but we really do not want to sacrifice any part of our way of life.
We become skillful actors, and while playing deaf and dumb to the real meaning of the teachings, we find some comfort in pretending to follow the path. Whenever we begin to feel any discrepancy or conflict be-tween our actions and the teachings, we immediately interpret the situation in such a way that the conflict is smoothed over.
The interpreter is ego in the role of spiritual advisor. The situation is like that of a country where church and state are separate. If the policy of the state is foreign to the teachings of the church, then the automatic reaction of the king is to go to the head of the church, his spiritual advisor. and ask his blessing.
The head of the church then works out some justification and gives the policy his blessing under the pretense that the king is the protector of the faith. In an individual’s mind, it works out very neatly that way, ego being both king and head of the church.
This rationalization of the spiritual path and one’s actions must he cut through if true spirituality is to be realized. How. ever, such rationalizing is not easy to deal with because every-thing is seen through the filter of ego’s philosophy and logic, making all appear neat, precise and very logical. We attempt to find a self-justifying answer for every question.
In order to reassure ourselves, we work to fit into our intellectual scheme every aspect of our lives which might be confusing. And our effort is so serious and solemn, so straight-forward and sin-cere, that it is difficult to be suspicious of it. We always trust the “integrity” of our spiritual advisor. It does not matter what we use to achieve self-justification: the wisdom of sacred books, diagrams or charts, mathematical calculations, esoteric formulae, fundamentalist religion, depth psychology, or any other mechanism.
Whenever we begin to evaluate, deciding that we should or should not do this or that, then we have already associated our practice or our knowledge with categories, one pitted against the other, and that is spiri-tual materialism, the false spirituality of our spiritual advisor. Whenever we have a dualistic notion such as, “I am doing this because I want to achieve a particular state of conscious-ness, a particular state of being,” then automatically we sepa-rate ourselves from the reality of what we are. If we ask ourselves, “What is wrong with evaluating, with taking sides?”, the answer is that, when we formulate a secondary judgment, “I should be doing this and should avoid doing that,” then we have achieved a level of complication which takes us a long Nay from the basic simplicity of what we are. The simplicity of meditation means just experiencing the ape instinct of ego.
“It is important to see that the main point of any spiritual practice is to step out of the bureaucracy of ego”.
If anything more than this is laid onto our psychology, then it becomes a very heavy, thick mask, a suit of armor. It is important to see that the main point of any spiritual practice is to step out of the bureaucracy of ego.
This means stepping out of ego’s constant desire for a higher, more spiri-tual, more transcendental version of knowledge, religion, vir-tue, judgment, comfort or whatever it is that the particular ego is seeking. One must step out of spiritual materialism. If we do not step out of spiritual materialism, if we in fact prac-tice it, then we may eventually find ourselves possessed of a huge collection of spiritual paths.
We may feel these spiritual collections to be very precious. We have studied so much. We may have studied Western philosophy or Oriental philosophy, practiced yoga or perhaps have studied under dozens of great masters. We have achieved and we have learned. We believe that we have accumulated a hoard of knowledge.
And yet, having gone through all this, there is still something to give up. It is extremely mysterious! How could this happen? Im-possible! But unfortunately it is so. Our vast collections of knowledge and experience are just part of ego’s display, part of the grandiose quality of ego. We display them to the world and, in so doing, reassure ourselves that we exist, safe and secure, as “spiritual” people.
There is a saying in the Tibetan scriptures: “Knowledge must be burned, hammered and beaten like pure gold. Then one can wear it as an ornament.” So when you receive spiritual instruction from the hands of another, you do not take it uncritically, but you burn it, you hammer it, you beat it, until the bright, dignified color of gold appears. Then you craft it into an ornament, whatever design you like, and you put it on. Therefore, dharma is applicable to every age, to every person; it has a living quality. It is not enough to imitate your master or guru; you are not trying to become a replica of your teacher. The teachings are an individual personal experience, right clown to the present holder of the doctrine.
One of the difficulties in surrendering to a guru is our preconceptions regarding him and our expectations of what will happen with him. We are preoccupied with ideas of what we would like to experience with our teacher: “I would like to see this; that would be the best way to see it; I would like to experience this particular situation, because it is in exact accordance with my expectation and fascination.”
So we try to fit things into pigeonholes, try to fit the situation to our expectations, and we cannot surrender any part of our anticipation to all. If we search for a guru or teacher, we expect him to be saintly, peaceful, quiet, a simple and yet wise man. When we find that he does not match our expectations, then we begin to be disappointed, we begin to doubt.
In order to establish a real teacher-student relationship it is necessary for us to give up all our preconceptions regarding that relationship and the condition of opening and surrender.
“Surrender” means opening oneself completely, trying to get beyond fascination and expectation. Surrender also means acknowledging the raw, rugged, clumsy and shocking qualities of one’s ego, acknowledging them and surrendering them as well. Generally, we find it very difficult to give out and surrender our raw and rugged qualities of ego. Although we may hate ourselves, at the same time we find our self-hatred a kind of occupation. In spite of the fact that we may dislike what we are and find that selfcondemnation painful, still we cannot give it up completely.
If we begin to give up our self-criticism, then we may feel that we are losing our occupation, as though someone were taking away our job. We would have no further occupation if we were to surrender everything; there would be nothing to hold on to. Self-evaluation and self-criticism are, basically, neurotic tendencies which derive from our not having enough confidence in ourselves, “confidence” in the sense of seeing what we are, knowing what we are, knowing that we can afford to open. We can afford to surrender that raw and rugged neurotic quality of self and step out of fascination, step out of preconceived ideas.
We must surrender our hopes and expectations, as well as our fears, and march directly into disappointment, work with disappointment, go into it and make it our way of life, which is a very hard thing to do. Disappointment is a good sign of basic intelligence. It cannot be compared to anything else: it is so sharp, precise, obvious and direct. If we can open, then we suddenly begin to see that our expectations are irrelevant compared with the reality of the situations we are facing. This automatically brings a Jeeling of disappointment. Disappointment is the best chariot to use on the path oJ the dharma. It does not confirm the existence of our ego and its dreams. However, if we are involved with spiritual materialism, if we regard spirituality as a part of our accumulation of learning and virtue, iJ spirituality becomes a way of building ourselves up, then of course the whole process of surrendering is completely distorted. If we regard spirituality as a way of making ourselves comfortable, then whenever we experience something unpleasant, a disappointment, we try to rationalize it: “Of course this must be an act of wisdom on the part of the guru (p. 23-25)
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Spiritual Materialism I3
The Guru 3I
The HardWay 77
The Open Way 9I
Sense of Humor III
The Development of Ego I2I
The Six Realms 138
The Four Noble Truths I5I
The Bodhisattva Path 167
Prajna and Compassion 207