Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Spiritual Materialism

You'll Never Find The Answer
By Shopping Around

Once people discover that sense of something missing in their lives, in themselves, there is a tendency is to shop in the spiritual marketplace and to pickup pieces from here and there that  “feel right.” It’s much like shopping for a shirt and tie, or a blouse and skirt. We pickup colors and patterns that we like. Which means that the new ideas we are seeking have to agree with what we already know. And therein lies the first problem of spiritual materialism. We want something new, but only if it confirms the old ideas. Being that’s not possible, we are fundamentally doomed from the beginning. Longterm we won’t get anywhere, although perhaps in the short-term we will feel a little better.

What we are confronted with, in the vast marketplace of spiritual literature and religious institutions today, are beliefs and belief systems that are confusing and contradictory, even when it appears they saying the same thing. The idea of “no killing” in the Abrahamic faiths, for example, is very different from “no killing” in Buddhism. In the Abrahamic faiths, there are exceptions to the rule and different interpretations of its meaning, in Buddhism it is not so.

The eclectic approach to solving our spiritual dilemma by picking and choosing from various faiths whatever seems amenable to our needs and then forcing those pieces into a whole that is personally satisfying, in the end, never solves the problem. What we end up with is not a cohesive whole, not a path that leads us to peacefulness, but a road to nowhere, albeit in place nicely paved.

Bhikkhu Bodhi writes: “There are two interrelated flaws in eclecticism that account for its ultimate inadequacy. One is that eclecticism compromises the very traditions it draws upon. The great spiritual traditions themselves do not propose their disciplines as independent techniques that may be excised from their setting and freely recombined to enhance the felt quality of our lives. They present them, rather, as parts of an integral whole, of a coherent vision regarding the fundamental nature of reality and the final goal of the spiritual quest. A spiritual tradition is not a shallow stream in which one can wet one's feet and then beat a quick retreat to the shore. It is a mighty, tumultuous river which would rush through the entire landscape of one's life, and if one truly wishes to travel on it, one must be courageous enough to launch one's boat and head out for the depths.

“The second defect in eclecticism follows from the first. As spiritual practices are built upon visions regarding the nature of reality and the final good, these visions are not mutually compatible. When we honestly examine the teachings of these traditions, we will find that major differences in perspective reveal themselves to our sight, differences which cannot be easily dismissed as alternative ways of saying the same thing. Rather, they point to very different experiences constituting the supreme goal and the path that must be trodden to reach that goal.”

To give peacefulness a chance, we need to find a system with a proven track record of producing peacefulness in its followers and we need then to walk its path, period. The search for a spiritual path is born out of suffering. We cannot end our suffering, or even reduce it significantly, by creating our own special system from an eclectic assemblage of others’ ideas.

For a deeper look into this topic, consider reading Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism by Chögyam Trungpa. Rinpoche is the late 20th century Tibetan monk who coined the phrase “spiritual materialism.”