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Buddhadharma : Spring 2006
spring 2006| 58 |buddhadharma sPIRITuAl MATERIAlIsM One of the fundamental ways we go astray and become engulfed in the currents of hope and fear is by succumbing to a malady that Trungpa Rinpoche famously termed “spiritual material- ism.” As Trungpa saw it, the American spiritual scene was going through a major upheaval; young people were leaving Judaism and Christianity in droves, experimenting with hallucinogens, and dabbling in a plethora of Eastern religions, mys- ticisms, and philosophies. He regarded this as a critical moment in American history, one that was pregnant with spiritual possibilities. On the one hand, there was the ubiquitous danger of degen- erating into spiritual materialism, seduced by the myriad spiritual promises that proliferated and still abound. On the other hand, there was the very real possibility of a proper and complete reception of Tibetan Vajrayana Buddhism in the West. Trungpa Rinpoche set himself the task of intro- ducing young Americans to the authentic teach- ings of Tibetan Buddhism. He did so in his own unique fashion, creating a completely novel, yet strictly traditional, style of presentation. He was convinced that to make any spiritual progress we have to begin with ourselves, with what he char- acteristically referred to as “our own neurosis.” In his inimitable style, Trungpa Rinpoche describes it this way: “If you are utterly confused, you are confused to the point of seeming to yourself to be unconfused. This is what we call ‘spiritual mat- erialism.’ ” Trungpa Rinpoche’s enduring message was that it is only through meditation practice that we can entertain any possibility of eradicating our neuroses. Any spiritual journey has to begin with oneself and one’s own neurotic mind, or else there is the danger of turning our spiritual yearnings into a form of materialism. He warns his students in Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism: “It is important to see that the main point of any spiri- tual 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 transcen- dental version of knowledge, religion, virtue, judgment, comfort, or whatever it is that the par- ticular ego is seeking. One must step out of spiri- tual materialism.” HOPElEssnEss Trungpa Rinpoche presented a unique and con- temporary approach to dealing with our neurotic tendencies. For him, a truly spiritual journey toward basic sanity has to begin with a sense of hopelessness – the recognition of the complete and utter hopelessness of our current situation. He assured his readers that they are required to under- take a major process of disillusionment in order to relinquish their belief in the existence of an exter- nal panacea that can eliminate their suffering and pain. We have to learn to live with our pain instead of hoping for something that will cause all of our hesitations, confusions, insanity, and suffering to disappear. This theme is elaborated upon in Illusion’s Game: “Creating this kind of hope is one of the most prominent features of spiritual mater- ialism. ... There are so many promises involved. so much hope is planted in your heart. This is playing on your weakness. It creates further confusion with regard to pain. you forget about the pain altogether and get involved in looking for some- thing other than the pain. And that itself is pain. ... That is what we will go through unless we under- stand that the basic requirement for treading the spiritual path is hopelessness.” To make any advance on the spiritual path, according to Trungpa Rinpoche, we have to real- ize that there is no savior, no such thing as a divine hand that will reach down and lift us out of our malaise. In fact, he claimed that being hopeful is simply a form of neurotic confusion, a symptom of self-deception, of not being true to oneself. A fundamental sense of fear and dread lies at the basis of this approach, for to think that there is something other than ourselves, something to be found outside ourselves, that will rescue or save us from ourselves is completely misguided, to say the least. We are compelled to pursue this kind of intervention because of the painfulness of our existence. As Trungpa says in Dharma Art: “The experience of I, me, a personal existence, ego, self, whatever you want to call it, has a sense of immense fundamental pain. you don’t want to exist, you don’t want to be, but you can’t help A truly spiritual journey toward basic sanity has to begin with a sense of hopelessness – the recognition of the complete and utter hopelessness of our current situation. We have to learn to live with our pain instead of hoping for something that will cause it to disappear.