In a previous commentary, we highlighted common manifestations of overt, vulgar spiritual materialism—the desire for material gain through “spiritual” means, such as charging for blessings or empowerments or selling religious paraphernalia for a profit. But there is a more personal, subtle variation of spiritual materialism that Buddhists need to guard against. In his seminal book Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism, Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche (1939–87) identified this as the diversion of spiritual practice into an ego-building, confusion-creating exercise. In some ways, subtle spiritual materialism is more dangerous than its more easily recognized, vulgar parallel. Charlatans and frauds can generally be identified and exposed, and greedy money-grubbers can seldom maintain a pretense of spiritual piety. Subtle spiritual materialism has less to do with material ambition than with the aggrandizement of the ego—a powerful illusion, and far more insidious.
You may yourself be acquainted with a student of Buddhism who brags about his teacher’s seniority and influence, assuming this makes him special by mere association. Perhaps you practice with someone who can’t resist reminding you how many thousands of mantras she recites daily, or who boasts of having attained a high level of realization. You might have witnessed members of a community fighting to take credit for the success of an event or ritual, or had your access to a teacher blocked by the protective fawning of others. These are just some of subtle spiritual materialism’s ego-driven manifestations. As Trungpa Rinpoche so succinctly expresses: “There are numerous sidetracks which lead to a distorted, ego-centered version of spirituality; we can deceive ourselves into thinking we are developing spiritually when instead we are strengthening our egocentricity through spiritual techniques. This fundamental distortion may be referred to as spiritual materialism” (Chögyam Trungpa 1973, 3).
The ego is dangerous because, as Chögyam Trungpa highlights, it confuses the objective of the spiritual path. It misdirects our energies and muddles our priorities. We lose our way because our practice has become a means to the end of self-gratification. It helps us justify our materialism by convincing us that we are not really materialistic. In the practical sense, succumbing to ego’s desires renders us unable to leave materialist values in the sphere of business or work; instead, we import them into our spiritual lives—ego-powered values, like aggression, competitiveness, or the hunger for social prestige. But as Chögyam Trungpa explains:
“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. . . . This sense of self is actually a transitory, discontinuous event, which in our confusion seems to be quite solid and continuous. Since we take our confused view as being real, we struggle to maintain and enhance this solid self. We try to feed it pleasures and shield it from pain. Experience continually threatens to reveal our transitoriness to us, so we continually struggle to cover up any possibility of discovering our real condition” (Chögyam Trungpa 1973, 4).
Tied to this false idea of ego is a widespread misconception of what constitutes happiness. We think we can achieve it through social validation, fulfilling relationships, or sense gratification, but as these depend on impermanent, external conditions and our capricious expectations, any happiness we derive from them can never last. Our experiences, as perceived through our ego’s filter, condition us to fear the freedom of the unbounded, open mind of enlightenment—we are fooled into dreading the spaciousness of realization and the complete absence of anchors, the loss of our identity as a fixed and independent entity. We are pulled away from real happiness by thinking it lies in shiny objects, or in superficial feelings of self-righteousness and superiority.
So how can we be on the alert against and counter spiritual materialism in our practice? At the existential level, we should keep in mind Chögyam Trungpa’s teachings about the ego. When understanding our own spiritual materialism in the broader context, we can also recall what the Catholic writer Thomas Merton said during a speech in Kolkata on 23 October 1968: “Are monks and hippies and poets relevant? No, we are deliberately irrelevant. We live with an ingrained irrelevance which is proper to every human being. The marginal man accepts the basic irrelevance of the human condition, an irrelevance which is manifested above all by the fact of death. The marginal person, the monk, the displaced person, the prisoner, all these people live in the presence of death, which calls into question the meaning of life” (Merton 1975, 306).
This humility in the face of mortality, which renders us all irrelevant, is shared among the world’s great religions. Whatever tradition we follow, we must accept that the spiritual life is effectively a rejection of the value we would normally place in material things. This does not mean turning our back on the world or abandoning our obligations or responsibilities, but it does mean asserting a worldview in which far greater value is placed on that which transcends the materialist interpretation of life.
Yet we should not treat spiritual achievement as a goal to be attained or a treasure to be acquired—in fact we should go further. We should invert our mindset altogether and treat our everyday values of attachment and achievement as irrelevant to our spiritual path. With a gradual surrendering of what we once presumed important, we will see the ego’s urges for what they are—unproductive and, indeed, illusory—and transmute them into a more wholesome desire to benefit all beings. We are not here to gain anything more than insight. We are not here to feel good. Once our own detours into spiritual materialism become obvious to us, we will be clear-eyed enough to abandon them.
Chögyam Trungpa. 1973. Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism. Boston and London: Shambhala Publications.
Merton, Thomas. 1975. The Asian Journal of Thomas Merton. Edited by Naomi Burton Stone, Brother Patrick Hart, and James Laughlin. New York: New Directions.