4. Varieties of Spiritual Materialism

A Buddhist Heaven?

Spiritual materialism is a perception of spiritual phenomena arising from a delusive and egocentric mind state, which appropriates and falsifies ideas of spirituality the better to fill its sense of existential lack, Spiritual materialism is therefore where we practitioners start from, some more and some less, depending what kind of genetic and karmic hand we were dealt at birth and by our upbringing. It is important for us to beware of the typical delusions encountered on our spiritual journey if we are not to lose our way. Many have done so, including a few who reached positions of some spiritual eminence.

In Talk Two in this series I drew attention to the distortions arising from acquisitiveness and achievement in pursuit of the much prized goal of "enlightenment". Here I shall introduce four other varieties of spiritual materialism.

Faced with a deepening awareness of the impermanence and insubstantiality of what passes as "reality", and of the futility of the struggle to fill our sense of lack in the more gross and obvious ways, the self tends to cling to more subtle assumptions that hover on the edge of awareness. Surely there must be something to provide the support? It might be "Buddhism", "the Dharma", the hope of "Enlightenment", or maybe just an undefined "something". For many years, following D.T. Suzuki, I assumed there was some "authentic" reality out there temporarily obscured and distorted by my delusion.

Behind these anxieties of the individual practitioner lies the ancient and widespread belief in an underlying, eternal, transcendental unity called God, the Tao, the Absolute. In more sophisticated Dharma, this becomes the reification and solidification of emptiness, into something more real and reliable than the world of manifest reality, of form. This apparently dominant view in Japanese Buddhism provoked the Critical Buddhism of the nineties, which argued that seeing the mundane in terms of the absolute diminishes distinctions and values. This defines that, good defines bad, and ethical values are disembedded. At worst such a perspective can become an accessory to social injustice, as in the case of Japanese "Imperial Way Zen". Unfortunately the rejection of this metaphysical caricature of emptiness led some of the Critical Buddhists to reject emptiness itself as opportunistic mystification.

There is a memorable passage in Dogen's Genjo Koan arguing the absence of any ultimate reality beyond our shared, variegated and fragile experience. He observes that when we are in a boat and out of sight of land, for us there is only a circle of ocean, and that for us is how it is. Yet for a fish or a bird it is experienced very differently. Arising from their impermanence and insubstantiality phenomena are infinitely variable and contingent. And, as Wittgenstein reminds us in our own day, indefinables like "self", "time", and "death" have no substantive existence, but nonetheless we can recognise and discuss them. As bodhisattvas we become at home and at one in the impermanence and insubstantiality of all phenomena and not least of ourselves. It is this that releases us into the playfulness of life, so it is said that bodhisattvas can go down into hell as if it were a fair ground. Released from the structured solidifications which conventionally fortify our selfhood, we are opened to infinite possibilities. As Oscar Wilde observed, our world is in too serious a state to be taken seriously. In Zen, the people of faith are the people of play. The Japanese call this lightness karumi and it is much valued in their art and literature. However, as the underlying sadness of clowns reminds us, this is not the whole story...

Akin to the spiritual materialism which solidifies emptiness is a no less escapist version for which the world of form is no more than maya - illusion, a passing dream. This, also, devalues humanity, its sufferings, and its values, as no more than a passing show. Socially engaged Buddhists are all too familiar with such nihilistic proponents of "emptiness".

The Chan and Zen masters anticipated this tendency to cling to emptiness. Thus Sengcan, in his celebrated poem On Trust in the Heart, warned: "If you get rid of phenomena, then everything is lost. If you follow after the Void you turn your back on the very substance of things." And the world emptied of self-construction does indeed have a vivid suchness a thusness, a pungent reality which contrasts with the pale, devitalised world which reflects our root existential fear. The fifteenth-century Zen master Ikkyu exclaimed

If your eyes see
And your ears hear
Not a doubt will you cherish -
And how naturally the rain drops
From the eaves!

Thus, instead of clinging to emptiness we embrace the paradox proclaimed in the Heart Sutra that "form is no other than emptiness, emptiness no other than form." As the old song has it "Row, row, row the boat, gently down the stream, verily, verily, verily, verily life is just a dream." It is indeed, but rowing is hard work; it raises blisters on our hands. The Zen master bangs his stick on the floor, and we return to our stricken planet. As haiku master Issa reminds us: "We walk on the roof of hell and view the flowers". And so, emptied of self-need, in wholehearted acceptance, and liberated from our long law suit with reality, we pass through the gateless gate and we get to work.. As Gary Snyder reminds us: "Knowing that nothing needs to be done is where we start from." Nothing matters, everything matters.

Peace, Perfect Peace

Of the versions of the Blessed Other (above) peace, a peaceful mind, is particularly longed for. As the Zen saying has it, for we who are fleas on the hot griddle of life, the fleas that jump must fall, and the fleas that fall must jump. The struggle to sustain an adequate self can be a wearying busyness. For many outsiders, this is what Buddhism is all about - the tranquil Buddha rupa, the still figure on the meditation cushion.

There is no question about the need to still the busy mind so that its surface becomes less ruffled and agitated , and we can observe the monsters that breed at lower depths. Some contemplative detachment from the feelings and thoughts which customarily drive us is essential. Hence the practice of samatha, stilling the mind, is, in one form or another, essential to all meditation traditions. The other aspect of meditation is vipassana, looking deeply into the still mind, whether posing a question, or simply in bright and active awareness. Some of us are better at one, some at the other, but we all need at least a bit of both. Unfortunately, it seems that, for many, samatha, stilling the mind, is as far as it goes. A meditation retreat is for them a kind of therapy, a merciful, though temporary, relief from the turmoil, conflict and busyness of their working week. It is certainly not seen as an opportunity to confront and befriend their personal demons, to which they may not even so far have managed an introduction. "My mind was in turmoil ... I just couldn't sit properly." On the contrary, when the shit hits the fan, and the defences are temporarily breached, is the best time to sit. It's prime time for that emotional awareness which can spin straw into gold. A well rooted calmness and imperturbability of mind cannot be willed. But gradually it can be nurtured through the practice of bare emotional awareness.

"Becoming a Buddha" - the Idealised Self

Many are drawn to Buddhism - and quite properly - by the image of the Buddha: good, peaceful, wise, and, in a word, perfect. The hungry self longs to be like that, for here, as elsewhere, the start of the Great Way lies in a spiritual materialism. There is no better filler of lack than righteousness and the invincibility of perfection. We badly want to be like that, we want our spiritual guides and exemplars to be like that, and we want others to be like that. (and especially when they appear to threaten us in some way). And so, we resort to the only ready tool which appears to be available - the exercise of the will. There are plenty of paramitas to perfect. As a consequence we can become dismayingly priggish and patronising These self-conscious role players are not difficult to spot. They try too hard. They don't ring true, much like a counterfeit coin. Probably they fear that if they allow themselves to become intimate with their underlying feelings and desires then self-indulgence and a host of vices will flood forth. Spiritual practice is equated with quietism and self-effacement and desiccation of the passions is seen as a virtue.

The will is valuable for ethical emergency stops "Just don't do it!". But it cannot alone press into shape a moral personality of character and integrity. Its real job is to sustain those spiritual practices which, over time, can ripen a moral personality. Where we are faced with some difficult moral dilemma, where what needs to be done goes slap against our emotional imperatives, this ripening may take patience and time (if time there is). Ripeness is all.

In all this I sense some difference in emphasis between different Buddhist teachers and traditions. For example, on the one hand there is the exercise of the will in beaming loving kindness towards our enemies (or ourselves). Some seem to find this comes readily enough; others sense some resistance and inauthenticity. Some teachers evidently have reservations about this time-hallowed practice (perhaps those, like Mark Epstein, with a psychotherapeutic background). Arguably it smacks too much of behavioural conditioning. For my part, and at least as a preliminary, I would prefer first to turn the search within. Our feeling of enmity is our problem, and not that of the other towards whom we feel it. When we expose it to a well practiced bare awareness it softens, changes character, becomes less self-obsessed. And it is then that we may be better placed to experience the other more positively. (There are interesting echoes here between different wider spiritual practice traditions, like via negativa contrasted with via positiva).

In Zen, and, indeed, in Japanese culture, there are warnings about the delusive nature of our longing for perfection, whether in ourselves or elsewhere. Thus there is the saying that "the Buddha is still practising with us". The authenticity of the Zen bowl on my mantelpiece is marked by an imperfection, which I am told was made deliberately by the potter as a finishing touch. The beautiful heroine in a Nō play always has a hair deliberately out of place. If there were perfection here could be no suchness. If there were no suchness there could be no liberation from the tyranny of longing for this as against that , in a word, for perfection.

If we are attached to some "spiritual" ideal about what a Buddhist teacher should be like this is to confuse the inevitable differences in personality and temperament with spiritual maturity. Some our cheerful and easy going, others cantankerous and demanding. Some are passionate and excitable, others are slow and mindful. And so on, in endless variety. Indeed, one result of being free of the struggle to become a secure, well defended and generally accepted self and, instead, just being open to our emotions and who we really are, is that we become more utterly ourselves and hence more unique than ever.Jack Kornfield has remarked on what an eccentric lot areBuddhist teachers. And Ram Dass observed that years of spiritual discipline had left his quirky personality intact but had enabled him to become "a connoisseur of my neuroses." It is thus hardly surprising that Buddhist teachers are such a variegated and eccentric lot.

A different-or just a more extreme - case is where an excellent teacher fails, in his or her conduct, to live up to their teachings. There are numerous instances of effective teachers who fail to teach by example. These doubtless include worthies in the history of Buddhism whose biographies have been long ago cleaned up and made more presentable. In such cases it is possible to speculate endlessly why it was they ran off the rails. When I first encountered this as a student I wondered whether I should quit an otherwise helpful teacher. Eventually I stayed. And I have never forgotten my self-centred moralising, the absence of an open-hearted compassion, and my futile anxiety to find a satisfying explanation and do "the right thing."

It should be added that the idealisation of teachers has sometimes led to their community turning a blind eye for too long to abuses to do with sex, power and money.

Buddhist Fundamentalism

The essence of spiritual materialism lies in the delusive struggle of the self to sustain a secure identity by clinging to ideas and behaviours which are believed to possess a spiritual validation. This is particularly evident in the field of ethics and morality.

The sense of inadequacy experienced by many gives rise to a clinging to being GOOD and RIGHT as a self-centred affirmation rather than a compassionate response to the demands of a situation or problem "out there". Thus, arguments are commonly less about the merits of this or that position in a dispute and more about being in the right oneself and demonstrating how wrong one's adversary is - and the more black and white the better. Fortunes have been squandered in legal process to secure the right to ownership of some trifling bit of garden along a disputed boundary. But this is as nothing when set against the opposing "wars against evil" of the twenty-first century.

Faced with the uncertainty and complexity of many ethical problems and situations there are Buddhists whose need for righteousness makes a dogma out of the ethical precepts. These literalists treat Buddhism as if it were a "religion of the book", where the precepts must be applied literally no matter what the circumstances. There is a strong attachment here to "the letter of the law," seemingly arising from a desire for absolute moral certainty. Yet even when trying to keep one precept we may violate another, as, for example, if we were to lie in order to save a life ("No, there's no one hiding here !"). Moreover a great many situations arise in public and private life which are sufficiently complex as to put us in some moral perplexity. Abortion, medically assisted suicide for the terminally ill, and armed peacekeeping are examples which have attracted some controversy in Buddhist circles.

As opposed to the literalist (or scriptural fundamentalist) for the situationist the ethical precepts are the valued starting point for an investigation requiring meditative clarity, freedom from the itch to be absolutely certain, and the courage to risk making what may turn out to be the wrong decision. We can only act out of our compassion for all involved (including ourselves) and do our honest best.

The majority of Western Buddhists appear to be situationists, but there are prominent Asians also, and not least the Dalai Lama. For example, the second issue of Raft (Winter 1989/90) was devoted to a wide ranging symposium on euthanasia, designed to represent a spectrum of opinion. In fact, of the five prominent Buddhist teachers who contributed four assumed the situationist position. One of these, Ajahn Sumedho, wrote as follows:

We seem to want to take absolute, moral and fixed positions on such questions as "How do you feel about euthanasia?" Our minds tend to be conditioned to take a fixed view on [such] issues, and we interpret life morally. But the Buddha-mind is not fixed on a position and is able to take into account all the things that are affecting a given situation. This means that sometimes it seems a bit wishy-washy and we would like Buddhism to come through with a strong moral position; and yet what Buddhism has to offer is not moral positioning but real morality; the opportunity to take responsibility for your own decisions.

This is not some quandary of contemporary Western Buddhism. In all the Buddhist traditions examples can be found of situational morality. The great 13th century Zen master Dogen, for example, observed that "Good and evil arise with circumstances ... What is good and what is bad are difficult to determine ... Good is understood differently in different worlds" (Hee-Jin Kim, Eihei Dogen: Mystical Realist, Wisdom, 2004, pp221-223). The present state of the world offers many examples. Anarchic states are increasingly common, with much random butchery of the helpless by drug crazed soldiery or ideologically crazed fundamentalists. Such situations require multi-skilled peace making teams of mediators, aid workers and others. These must of necessity include specially trained soldiers able to make a judicious use of force where it is clearly essential to protect the innocent and enable more peaceful remedies to be applied. For some Buddhist situationists even the Christian definition of the Just War may be helpful. These are perennial problems, going back to the Buddha's time. In the Cakkavatti Sihanada Sutta of the Digha Nikaya he is said to have justified the existence of military force for the purpose of protection as long as it is done "according to dhamma".