Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Cutting Through Spiritual Hucksterism: Part 1.

(Sorry for the long post, but it seems that a few posts on this topic might be useful. First, because it should help clarify my thoughts on this subject, and secondly, because it occurs to me that it could become a book someday...)

One day I was in a comment thread on a Buddhist blog and it occurred to me that I was arguing a position, from within a Buddhist viewpoint, I was arguing quite counter to the notion of Chogyam Trungpa's "Spiritual Materialism."

The approach presented here is a classical Buddhist one -
not in a formal sense, but in the sense of presenting the heart of
the Buddhist approach to spirituality. Although the Buddhist way is
not theistic it does not contradict the theistic disciplines.
Rather the differences between the ways are a matter of emphasis and
method. The basic problems of spiritual materialism are common to
all spiritual disciplines. The Buddhist approach begins with our
confusion and suffering and works toward the unraveling of their
origin. The theistic approach begins with the richness of God and
works toward raising consciousness so as to experience God's
presence. But since the obstacles to relating with God are our
confusions and negativities, the theistic approach must also deal
with them. Spiritual pride, for example, is as much a problem in
the theistic disciplines as in Buddhism.

According to the Buddhist tradition, the spiritual path is
the process of cutting through our confusion, of uncovering the
awakened state of mind. When the awakened state of mind is crowded
in by ego and its attendant paranoia, it takes on the character of
an underlying instinct. So it is not a matter of building up the
awakened state of mind, but rather of burning out the confusions
which obstruct it. In the process of burning out these confusions,
we discover enlightenment. If the process were otherwise, the
awakened state of mind would be a product, dependent upon cause and
effect and therefore liable to dissolution. Anything which is
created must, sooner or later, die. If enlightenment were created
in such a way, there would always be the possibility of ego
reasserting itself, causing a return to the confused state.
Enlightenment is permanent because we have not produced it; we have
merely discovered it. In the Buddhist tradition the analogy of the
sun appearing from behind the clouds is often used to explain the
discovery of enlightenment. In the meditation practice we clear
away the confusion of ego in order to glimpse the awakened state.
The absence of ignorance, of being crowded in, of paranoia, opens up
a tremendous view of life. One discovers a different way of being.

The heart of the confusion is that man has a sense of self
which seems to him to be continuous and solid. When a though or
emotion or even occurs, there is a sense of someone being conscious
of what is happening. You sense that you are reading these words.
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. "But," we
might ask, "if our real condition is an awakened state, why are we
so busy trying to avoid becoming aware of it?" It is because we
have become so absorbed in our confused view of the world, that we
consider it real, the only possible world. This struggle to
maintain the sense of a solid, continuous self is the action of ego...

Ego is able to convert everything to its own use, even
spirituality. For example, if you have learned of a particularly
beneficial meditation technique of spiritual practice, then ego's
attitude is, first to regard it as an object of fascination and,
second to examine it. Finally, since ego is seeming solid and
cannot really absorb anything, it can only mimic. Thus ego tries to
examine and imitate the practice of meditation and the meditative
way of life. When we have learned all the tricks and answers of the
spiritual game, we automatically try to imitate spirituality, since
real involvement would require the complete elimination of ego, and
actually the last thing we want to do is to give up the ego
completely. However, we cannot experience that which we are trying
to imitate; we can only find some area within the bounds of ego that
seems to be the same thing. Ego translates everything in terms of
its own state of health, its own inherent qualities. It feels a
sense of great accomplishment and excitement at have been able to
create such a pattern. At last it has created a tangible
accomplishment, a confirmation of its own individuality.

If we become successful at maintaining our
self-consciousness through spiritual techniques, then genuine
spiritual development is highly unlikely. Our mental habits become
so strong as to be hard to penetrate. We may even go so far as to
achieve the totally demonic state of complete "Egohood."...

Most of us, if we examine our actions, would probably agree
that we are ruled by one or more of the Three Lords, [(a metaphor for ego)]. "But," we might ask, "so what? This is simply a description of the human
condition. Yes, we know that our technology cannot shield us from
war, crime, illness, economic insecurity, laborious work, old age
and death; nor can our ideologies shield us from doubt, uncertainty,
confusion and disorientation; nor can our therapies protect us from
the dissolution of the high states of consciousness that we may
temporarily achieve and the disillusionment and anguish that
follow. But what else are we to do? The Three Lords seem too
powerful to overthrow, and we don't know what to replace them with."

The Buddha, troubled by these questions, examined the
process by which the Three Lords rule. He questioned why our minds
follow them and whether there is another way. He discovered that
the Three Lords seduce us by creating a fundamental myth: that we
are solid beings. But ultimately the myth is false, a huge hoax, a
gigantic fraud, and it is the root of our suffering. In order to
make this discover he had to break through very elaborate defenses
erected by the Three Lords to prevent their subjects from
discovering the fundamental deception which is the source of their
power. We cannot in any way free ourselves from the domination of
the Three Lords unless we too cut through, layer by layer, the
elaborate defenses of these Lords...

Whenever we begin to feel any discrepancy or conflict
between our actions and the teachings, we immediately interpret the
situation in such a way that the conflict is smoothed over. The
interpreter is ego in the role of spiritual advisor. The situation
is like that of a country where church and state are separate. If
the policy of the state is foreign to the teachings of the church,
then the automatic reaction of the king is to go to the head of the
church, his spiritual advisor, and ask his blessing. The head of
the church then works out some justification and gives the policy
his blessing under the pretense that the king is the protector of
the faith. In an individual's mind, it works out very neatly that
way, ego being both king and head of the church.
This rationalization of the spiritual path and one's actions
must be cut through if true spirituality is to be realized.
However, such rationalizing is not easy to deal with because
everything is seen through the filter of ego's philosophy and logic,
making all appear neat, precise and very logical. We attempt to
find a self-justifying answer for every question. In order to
reassure ourselves, we work to fit into our intellectual scheme
every aspect of our lives which might be confusing. And our effort
is so serious and solemn, so straight-forward and sincere, that it
is very difficult to be suspicious of it. We always trust the
"integrity" of our spiritual advisor.

It does not matter what we use to achieve
self-justification: the wisdom of sacred books, diagrams or charts,
mathematical calculations, esoteric formulae, fundamentalists
religion, depth psychology, or any other mechanism. Whenever we
begin to evaluate, deciding that we should or should not do this or
that, then we have already associated our practice or our knowledge
with categories, one pitted against the other, and that is spiritual
materialism, the false spirituality of our spiritual advisor.
Whenever we a have a dualistic notion such as, "I am doing this
because I want to achieve a particular state of consciousness, a
particular state of being," the automatically we separate ourselves
from the reality of what we are.

If we ask ourselves, "What is wrong with evaluating, with
taking sides?", the answer is that, when we formulate a secondary
judgment, "I should be doing this and should avoid doing that," then
we have achieved a level of complication which takes us a long way
from the basic simplicity of what we are. The simplicity of
meditation means just experiencing the ape instinct of ego. If
anything more than this is laid onto our psychology, then it becomes
a very heavy, thick mask, a suit of armor.

It is important to see that the main point of any spiritual
practice is to step out of the bureaucracy of ego. This means
stepping out of ego's constant desire for a higher, more spiritual,
more transcendental version of knowledge, religion, virtue,
judgment, comfort or whatever it is that a particular ego is
seeking. One must step out of spiritual materialism. If we do not
step out of spiritual materialism, if we in fact practice it, then
we may eventually find ourselves possessed of a huge collection of
spiritual paths. We may feel these spiritual collections to be very
precious. We have studied so much. We may have studied Western
philosophy or Oriental philosophy, practiced yoga or perhaps studied
under dozens of great masters. We have achieved and we have
learned. We believe that we have accumulated a hoard of knowledge.
And yet, having gone through all this, there is still something to
give up. It is extremely mysterious! How could this happen?
Impossible! But unfortunately it is so. Our vast collections of
knowledge and experience are just part of ego's display, part of the
grandiose quality of ego. We display them to the world and, in so
doing, reassure ourselves that we exist, safe and secure, as
"spiritual" people.

But we have simply created a shop, an antique shop. We
could be specializing in oriental antiques or medieval Christian
antiques or antiques from some other civilization or time, but we
are, nonetheless, running a shop. Before we filled our shop with so
many things the room was beautiful: whitewashed walls and a very
simple floor with a bright lamp burning in the ceiling. There was
one object of art in the middle of the room and it was beautiful.
Everyone who came appreciated its beauty, including ourselves.

I have quoted at length from this because its point, while in a deep sense valid, is only one side of the coin.

The other side of the coin is addressed by examination of the lives of people like Chogyam Trungpa, and include myriad forms of dissolute Buddhist teachers of Americans, pedophile Catholic priests, fundamentalist snake handlers, atheists of convenient resentment, 12 Step fanatics, rabbis who hate Arabs, imams, mullahs, and other followers of Islam who hate westerners, Hindutva extremists, Tamil suicide bombers, Moonies, Falun Da Fa extremists and who knows what else in Russia, Japan, and elsewhere.

One can easily find devastating criticisms of the "American Dharma" whether through Stuart Lachs or Brian Victoria, or even some of the more local stuff that is more innocuous: the conflation of Large Group Awareness Training psycho-dynamics with Zen, allegations of sexual impropriety, and down to and including various types of pressures to conform to a "group mentality" or "group conscience."

There are folks out there that want to mix the Dharma with everything imaginable: Christian Buddhists, "JuBus," Buddhism without beliefs (full disclosure: OK, that actually makes more than a smidgen of sense to me) "12 Step" Buddhists (I can't begin to tell you how this is not the Dharma) and so on, and so on.

I have been very fortunate to study Rinzai Zen Buddhism with an osho who was more or less a "normal" Japanese family man; in the dozen or so years I've known him, I have not encountered any closet skeletons, scandals, scams, schemes or even oddball interpretations of the Dharma that don't comport with what a reasonable person reading Dharma texts in a straightforward fashion might infer. Somewhere here a digression into koans and how to read them might be appropriate, but even here, my story is that it's relatively straightforward to read them and I'm sticking to that story.

I am not sure how things got so that I have been so fortunate to have such a "teacher," (who does not teach anything) but suffice it to say that somewhere along the way I must have acquired a spiritual skepticism along the same lines in which the Reverend Jim of "Taxi" long ago must have acquired the ability to play piano.

I have had people put pressure on me to conform to their manner of spiritual thinking on several occasions in my life, and at times I have suspended relations with folks over stuff like this. It hasn't been easy, but likely my instinctive actions here protected me from greater harm. I don't really know. But suffice it to say that I am where I am now, and where that is, is:

Yeah, you have to watch out for "spiritual materialism," and "excessive scrupulosity" as they say in the Roman Catholic Church, but:

Do Not Check Your Brains at the Door.

How one might be able to do both: checking spiritual materialism while practicing caveat emptor for all beings, and how do I write it without being as dense as Nagarajuna are the subject of future posts...

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