2. Spiritual Materialism, Enlightenment, and the Buddha Nature

Spiritual Materialism and Acquisitiveness

Chogyam Trungpa defined spiritual materialism as "a distorted, ego-centred version of spirituality; we can deceive ourselves into thinking we are developing spiritually when instead we are strengthening our egocentricity though spiritual techniques." (1) From this viewpoint, spiritual materialism is where the beginner in spiritual practice begins, and progress might be measured in terms of progressively seeing though increasingly subtle self-deceptions.

Indeed, virtually every Buddhist starts out as a Buddhist ideologue, for whom "Buddhism" is an idea which makes self and the world more understandable, and which provides assurance, consolation and self identity. This helps to get started! There are plenty of warnings in the scriptures about getting stuck there for the rest of one's life, as in this one, from the Vimalakirti Nirdesa: "He who is attached to anything, even to liberation, is not interested in the Dharma [Buddhist teaching] but is interested in the taint of desire ... The dharma is not a secure refuge. He who enjoys a secure refuge is not interested in the Dharma but is interested in a secure refuge ... The Dharma is not a society. He who seeks to associate through the Dharma is not interested in the Dharma, but is interested in association." Similarly, Ch'an (Zen) Master Seng ts'an warned: "Do not search after the truth; only cease to cherish opinions."

Spiritual materialism has various manifestations. For example, the precarious self may endeavour to fortify itself with righteousness by championing an absolute and literal ethical stance even in problematic situations where the rights and wrongs may be uncertain. Or, again, the nirvanic goal of spiritual endeavour may be conceived as liberation from impermanence and insubstantiality into a secure and enduring "reality". Or the spiritual goal may be seen as release from one's perceived inadequacies and imperfections into a new and perfect personality of lobotomised "enlightenment" of the kind implied by the traditional idealised images of the buddhas and bodhisattvas. Or, yet again, in terms of socially engaged Buddhism this can mean being sucked into the mentalities of secular activism which unconsciously predominate in the activist's awareness and behaviour. This makes for socially engaged Buddhists without much socially engaged Buddhism, which may be reduced to a veneer of "mindfulness" grafted onto a conventional radical activism.

The spiritual materialism with which we are concerned here has to do with acquisitiveness and achievement. These mentalities, combined with individualism and competitiveness, are deeply ingrained in the modern Western psyche. The goal of enlightenment into a higher sphere of consciousness all too readily becomes the crowning ambition of the ever hungry ego.

And so the received Buddhist training practice is translated into the familiar terms of individual mastery. A course of training is undertaken (and paid for) on retreats which transplant an Asian monasticism into a radically different culture. Here as elsewhere, instruction is provided by a qualified expert who monitors the aspirant's progress, hopefully through successively deepening insights (and corresponding promotions within the traditional hierarchy). Meditation becomes a fetishistic technology, mastery of which can lead ever upwards to the supreme goal of the enlightenment experience. Here, as in other walks of life, there is a tacit spirit of competition, of success and failure, which in some cases may deepen an already existing anxiety and sense of inadequacy. And attempts to do what good Buddhists are supposed to do can create more rigid personalities than before.

That trenchant Zen teacher and writer, Ezra Bayda, has remarked in this context, that "the crux of the human problem is that we don't want to have any problems" He believes that strong emphasis on personal enlightenment as the goal of practice tends to come with two corollaries: charismatic teachers and status-driven religious driven religious hierarchies. The higher ups have more enlightenment, and the teacher has the most of anybody (Tricycle, Fall 2008, p.64).

The pursuit of "enlightenment" may be followed as an activity extracurricular, as it were, to other parts of the aspirant's life, -- as a glorified hobby confined to regular periods of sitting meditation and one or more quasi-monastic retreats each year. Or, at the other extreme, it may become a cultic obsession, with household, family, employment and the lay social life all abandoned. Either scenario is sufficiently common to have attracted the term "spiritual bypassing", that is to say, a bypassing of the ups and downs of ordinary life which can provide a well grounded field of spiritual practice.

The enlightened or "awakened" state refers to opening to a higher level of consciousness, in which there is a dropping away of the previous sense of self, a falling away of craving, and a living more in the present than in the imagined future or the recreated past. However, in the first place the deluded self can only imagine enlightenment delusively, at its own present level of consciousness, and in terms of spiritual materialism as ego's ultimate acquisition.

Secondly, what is supposed to be the ending of desire becomes itself an all-enveloping and obsessive desire. Thus, in the Diamond Sutra, the Buddha asks Subhuti: "When I got supreme unexcelled enlightenment, what did I get ? Did I get supreme unexcelled enlightenment ?" "No, Teacher", Subhuti replied "You did not get anything when you got supreme unexcelled enlightenment." "Correct", the Buddha continued, because if I had got anything it would not be supreme, unexcelled enlightenment."

Thirdly, enlightenment is always just around the corner - the ultimate escape from the discomfiting present. The Tibetan teacher Gendun Rinpoche writes:

Only our searching for happiness

prevents us from seeing it.

It is like a rainbow which you run after

without ever catching it.

Although it does not exist,

it has always been there.

and accompanies you every instant

Sooner or later the aspirant may wake up to the inherent ridiculousness of the above triple irony (though others may leave, or else remain perpetually stuck, or even have insights which are nonetheless appropriated by ego - a phenomenon identified by Jung as "spiritual inflation"). In place of disappointed belief he or she may find sufficient faith -- and even a kind of relief-- to sustain patience, perseverance and acceptance of whatever does or doesn't come up in their practice. He or she is no longer a "spiritual failure" or "a third rate meditator" but is now able quietly to rejoice in the "suchness" of just being themselves. It was on their behalf that Master Dogen proclaimed that "every creature covers the ground its stands on, no more nor no less. It never falls short of its completeness." (2). They are released into the spirit of Alan Watts's rendering of a passage in that Chan classic, the Xinxinming: (3)

Follow your nature and accord with the Way; saunter along and stop worrying.

When your thoughts are tied, you spoil what is genuine.

Do not be antagonistic to the world of the senses, for when you are not it turns out to be the same as complete awakening.

The wise person does not strive; the ignorant tie themselves up; if you work on your mind with your mind, how can you avoid complete confusion?

Faith in our Buddha Nature

Each of us has a True Nature, a Buddha (Awakened) Nature revealed when we become aware that mortal fear is not a necessity of the human condition. More, or less, masked in each of us, this True Nature is always there, always our potential, and always capable of manifesting itself. In each of our lives, what we do out of self-need may indeed be alloyed with a relatively selfless fellow spirit which partakes of our True Nature, in service and in friendship. One expression of the Buddha Nature is that everything is basically alright, something proclaimed by mystics from Mother Julian of Norwich to T.S.Eliot. Of course, the universe is also a hellish place as well. This is one of those paradoxes which you either know or you don't, and grinding away at it with logic wont help. The only way is to deploy poetry or other ways of getting in round the side , seeing things out of the corner of your eye. And beyond lies another koan - "nothing matters, everything matters". This, in turn, relates to the more direct question which the great Japanese Buddhist humanist Hisamatsu Shin'ichi put to his activist followers in the wake of the Second World War: "Right now, if nothing you do is of any avail, what do you do?"

Dogen Zenji was not the first to maintain that we - and, indeed, all things - are the Buddha Nature (see, for example, Hui Neng's Platform Sutra), but his writings on it are particularly penetrating and extensive. He struggled with the question that, if practice and enlightenment are one, and we are already intrinsically enlightened, why then should we exert ourselves to practice at all ? There is an analogy here with learning to play the piano or to swim; we all have the potential, but we still need to practice chords and strokes. Desire here is necessary , whereas in the realisation of our Buddha Nature it is desire itself which is the obstacle - not attainment itself, but the desire for attainment. Thus, in his Zuimonki, Dogen emphasises that "if you practice the way of the Buddha ... you should expect nothing, seek nothing. Cut of the mind that seeks and do not cherish a desire to gain the fruits of Buddhahood.." Similarly, in Gyoji, "Ceaseless Practice": "This present continuous practice is nothing other than just committing oneself to continuous practice for no other reason than to practice continuously." And, again, in Gakudo Yojin-shu, "Guidelines for Studying the Way", Dogen demolishes all motivations:

"Students! Do not practice Buddha Dharma for your own sake... Do not practice Buddha Dharma to attain blissful reward. Do not practice Buddha Dharma with the thought that it might benefit others... Those who study the Way seek to be immersed in the Way. For those who are immersed in the Way all traces of enlightenment perish. Those who seek to practice the Buddha Way should first of all trust in the Buddha Way. Those who trust in the Buddha Way should trust that they are in essence within the Buddha Way, where there is no delusion, no false thinking, no confusion, no increase or decrease and no mistake. To arouse such trust and illuminate the Way in this manner, and to practice accordingly, are fundamental to studying the Way."

In short, "the realm of the Buddha is inconceivable and beyond the reach of the intellect ... Only a person of great motivation can attain it. For the person who is lacking in faith it is impossible" (Bendowa).

Hence the eminent Dogen scholar Frances Cook maintained that "Dogen's Zen is the Zen of Faith, that is, a religion in which faith is the very mechanism by which the goal is achieved, and in the absence of which the door to the truth remains closed. It is therefore not simply one important element among others; it is the essential prerequisite. (4) (How to Raise an Ox, p22). This is so because how else can one sustain one's practice if not practicing for something ? Practicing just for the sake of manifesting and enjoying one's Buddha Nature requires a strong faith in the existence of such a nature - and also of the inherent need to actualise it. It requires a deep faith that it is not this aspiring little self that sits on the cushion, but Buddha who sits.

I know a lot of people who have practiced Buddhism for many years and I have sangha friends going back for decades. Some of these people have never had any profound insight. They have worn out the sandal of samsara attending countless retreats. They keep coming back. They have faith. They are quiet, kindly, basically sound sort of people. What is their faith?

In some ways faith is the most mysterious of the foursome of belief, faith, insight and internalisation. Belief is a mental construct powered by the emotional need to find meaning and make sense of life. We commonly begin by reflecting on our reading of books or listening to talks about Buddhism, and deciding that what we have read or heard makes sense in the light of our experience of life. The self tends strenuously to hang on to belief and can become quite dogmatic about it. Or, if belief does not appear to be delivering its promise it may be abandoned. But sometimes when the grip on belief is relaxed there is space for faith to grow. "Faith" however, as it is understood by the outsider (including the believer), is a word that gives a misleading impression. For the person of faith, faith is no more than a matter of fact, and not some exalted belief in a future revelation. Faith intuits what is beyond belief, and in the person of faith dogmatic and proselytising fervour diminish, to be replaced with a wry smile and a shrug of the shoulders. It is simply felt to be no longer necessary to sustain one's position by argument. The person of faith who has clarity of understanding joined to a mature strength of character may have more wisdom and compassion to offer than one who has experienced striking spiritual "openings" but has not yet been able to internalise these insights into his or her life and character. Indeed, D.T. Suzuki and others have thought of faith itself as a form of satori in the sense of a self-forgetting.

In his "Arousing the Supreme Thought" (Hotsu Mujō Shin) Dogen lists a great many activities which "arouse the thought of enlightenment", such as taking the refuges, bowing to the Buddha even "while you are being disturbed by demons", "practicing good to even the slightest extent possible to you", doing zazen, reading the sutras, making a stupa even "with a blade of grass", and so on. In short, in all these activities, however modest and limited, one formally acts as if one were Buddha - one just gets on with it. This suggests the relevance of liturgy, robes, and other traditional outward manifestations to engendering that faith which is so indispensable for Dogen Zen, and which go-getting Westerners might be inclined to dismiss as mere distractions from the great goal...

Dogen's faith appears to have much in common with the power of punya in the Tibetan tradition, described as follows by Rigdzin Shikpo:

If we want to follow the Mahayana...we need to develop two kinds of accumulation. The first is the accumulation of insight, or jnanasambhara, through which we see the empty nature of things we cling and grasp at. The second is punyasambhara, the accumulation of punya, or power. This is a difficult word to translate. It is a somewhat mysterious strength which can accomplish many things. Punya is a force that can be used to change the set of our mind and emotions, the way we feel about the world. Punya may be directed by our intention or wish. We need its power to transform our emotions, and to move the grasping, clinging mind away from self-centredness. (5)

Evidently punya can be created by various possible aspiratory practices, ranging from doing good in the world to the actual word of Dharma which can inspire and create punya. Rigdzin Shikpo continues: "Having developed punya we then need to associate it with an intention of some kind. This is often verbalised in a kind of vow, although intention is perhaps a better way of putting it..."

Finally, at the least there is always the negative motivation that, while we see through the folly of hungering after enlightenment, yet still we suffer. It only remains either to practice in humility - and faith -- or else abandon the practice altogether.


The goal of enlightenment as a single stupendous, transformative, lifetime event was given undue prominence by D.T. Suzuki, the great Zen populariser of the 1960s. In fact, his perspective was only that of the Rinzai sect of Zen, which uses the great goal of enlightenment to precipitate a life and death kind of struggle to precipitate awakening. A more typical Buddhist view is of a personality change over a period of years, usually accompanied by insights of varying intensity. There is no doubt, however, that such existential awakening the soteriological project is absolutely central to Buddhism, as the path of the "Buddha" or Enlightened One.

Enlightenment is a word used with at least two different meanings. The first is that of kensho, a sudden and profound revelation in which "body and mind are dropped off". This can be hugely valuable in the subsequent cultivation of a wise and compassionate personality - in short an "enlightened person"( the second meaning of the word). However, we have already discussed earlier the manifold dangers of a misunderstanding and over-emphasis of enlightenment, both is distorting the whole culture of Buddhist practice and increasing the possibility of the ego-charged pseudo-spirituality of individual spiritual inflation.

In this connection, the testimony of John Crook, head of the Western Chan Fellowship may be of interest, writing out of a long experience of the problems of Western Zen practitioners:

"We need to seek wisdom more than enlightenment and to get to know the presence of enlightenment as a basis to our lives - a form of knowing rather than short lived ecstasies. I mean that, although enlightenment experiences provide the opening insights of Dharma, few of us can attain them -- simply because the natural egotism of the average Westerner gets in the way. Such experiences cannot be attained by desire or any kind of wanting. Usually they crop up almost accidentally or when one is surprised while in a highly focussed state and the ego happens to have dropped its guard. It seems clear that one cannot train directly for such an experience. One can however train in wisdom. Meditation practices, retreat experiences, self-confrontation and encounters with teachers, the problems of life and our quest to manage ourselves all yield wisdom if one cultivates mindfulness of their meanings... Whether one can cultivate selfless kindness and compassion -- that's what matters. Whether one can manage one's life wisely -- that matters. Whether such understanding can be used in wise judgements in worldly affairs -- that too is what matters." (6)

On several occasions Dogen made the point that "you should know that arousing practice in the midst of delusion you attain realization before you recognize it." There is a nice story about this. Someone goes out of a friend's house on a misty, rainy evening, typically British or Japanese damp weather, and wanders about rather disconsolate. Then comes back to the house, and knocks on the door. The friend lets them in. "Oh" says the friend " you are soaking wet. Look at the water all over your clothes." And the wanderer says " Oh, I didn't know." This is a nice analogy of the experience of a lifetime of practice. The changes may be quite subtle, particularly the enduring changes in our personalities. Long term friends or partners may recognize this though may not talk about it. Dogen is referring to these subtle changes which we may not realize have taken place.

All this puts me in mind of something which Shunryu Suzuki, one of the wisest of Japanese Zen teachers who came to the West, used to say:: "If you have great faith and great acceptance there is no need to worry about enlightenment. That will come along sometime as an optional extra; it doesn't matter".


1. Chogyam Trungpa Cutting through Spiritual Materialism Shambhala, 1973. p.3.

2. Dogen Zenji Genjo Koan.

3. For the Watts and other translations, see Mu Soeng Trust in Mind Wisdom, 2004.

4. Francis Cook How to Raise an Ox Wisdom, 2002, p.22.

5. Rigdzin Shikpo Never Turn Away Wisdom, 2007. p.132.

6. John Crook "The Circling Birds" in Chan Comes West Dharma Drum Publication (New York), 2002, pp. 39-40.

I am grateful to Hilary Richards for her transcript of talks given at a Dogen retreat at the Maenllwyd - the Western Chan Fellowship centre in Wales.