The 20% richest of the world’s population consume 60% of its resources. We in American do more than our fair share of the damage whether it is oil, food, or narcotics. After the economic downturn that followed the terrorist attacks of 9-11, President Bush urged Americans to “go shopping.” Being in such a consumer culture are we also at risk for consuming our spirituality. Is Buddhism immune from such consumption? Thubten Chodron (writing in Hooked: Buddhist Writings on Greed, Desire, and the Urge to Consume) warns us that “when we turn to spirituality, we may think that we’re leaving behind the corruption of the world for higher purposes. But our old ways of thinking do not disappear; they follow us, coloring the way we approach spiritual practice.”
Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche says in his classic, Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism,
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. 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. This rationalization of the spiritual path and one’s actions must be cut through if true spirituality is to be realized.
Buddhism is not exempt from such concerns. Just look at any issue of the Shambhala Sun. It is filled with beautiful and enticing adds for teachings and dharma paraphernalia — meditation cushions, bells, statues, you name it. We can become attached to non-attachment. We can become identified with non-identification. We can get lost in spiritual materialism. A cartoon in The New Yorker magazine depicts a mother and her child exiting a burning house via an emergency ladder. The mother urges, “Simon, don’t forget Mommy’s yoga mat.” The Hindu guru, Ragneesh was infamous for having over 80 Rolls Royces in his collection and Buddhist monks have been spotted wearing Gucci slippers and gold Rolexes. No one is immune from the allure of having things, the problem arises when our sense of OK-ness is dependent on having these things. We all must proceed with eternal vigilance, as John Philpot Curran warned, if we want to be free.
Buddhism in America is inextricably entwined in marketing. Teachers must sell themselves and their services, must raise money for their centers, must sell their books and CDs. Spirituality is a product like any other product, right? We are also looking for the “best” spritiual experiences — the highest states, the rarest teachings, the coolest teachers. Spiritual materialism may drive us to strive in a desire-laced way. We may get bored with following the breath because it is not as exotic as following some terma (secret teaching). We may be afraid that we’ll miss out (see entry on FOMO). If we fall into this trap we’ve lost sight of something elemental — the Buddha worked with his breath to awaken and that practice can take us to awakening too, if we can give ourselves permission to do so. And if we do so, that awakening won’t be accompanied by fireworks. It will be an ordinary moment of clarity. It’s been said that “enlightenment is the ego’s biggest disappointment.”
The sheer abundance of teachings that are now available in the West may be both a blessing and curse. The blessing is the accessibility of the dharma in unprecedented ways, including the Internet. The curse is that such abundance may encourage conusmerist attitudes. We can find ourselves dining at the spiritual smörgåsbord, taking a little of this and a little of that and creating a pastiche of teachings that serve our ego’s needs and not the needs of true awakening. Instant gratification can be a trap. We don’t have to work hard to get to the teachings. We don’t need to walk across a high Himalayan mountain pass; we don’t need to sit outside the gates of the Zen temple for days waiting. We are consumers with spiritual “dollars” and we can spend these dollars wherever we choose. In urban centers the choices can be dizzying and the customer is always right. The danger is that if we don’t like what we see in ourselves working with one teacher, we’ll just go down the street to another. We love to idealize and the honeymoon period can be ecstatic, expansive, and promising, But just like a good marriage, to get any spiritual attainment we need to stick around past the idealization once disillusionment sets in (and it WILL set in and if it doesn’t we’re not really paying attention). All teachers, including the Buddha, are human.
Convenience is another consideration for spiritual materialism. In a sense, our entire consumer culture is designed to make life more convenient or more of something (faster, cooler, healthier, etc.). It is said there are no atheists in foxholes and we may be the equivalent of fair-weather friends, except in this case it is foul-weather practice. When we are in distress we may recognize the increased need for practice, but can we sustain this commitment without a crisis? Let’s face it, meditation is hard. It takes time and if we practice for prolonged periods can be physically uncomfortable and mentally make us face things we did not want to face. There is no quick fix and we need to be careful about seeking short cuts.
And if we do put in the effort, a final aspect of spiritual materialism to consider is what might be called “spiritual olympics” or “the one with most spiritual toys wins.” We can identify with how prodigous we are sitting, how many retreats we’ve been on, how many vows we’ve taken and teachings we’ve received. Is this any different than showing off your BMW to your neighbor? Is this any different than keeping up with the Jones’s? Thoreau warned us not to identify with the “clothes” of
any new activity but to try to be different in how we engage with activity. I’ll leave you with his words, “beware of any activity that requires new clothes, rather than a new wearer of clothes.”