Spiritual Materialism

Spiritual Materialism

Dennis Bradford

389 Posts



Spiritual materialism is a common obstacle that undermines trainings that promote ego attrition.

Because spirit and matter seem antithetical, the name itself seems self-contradictory. After all, extreme materialist doctrines claim that to be real is to be matter, in other words, nothing exists except material objects, their states and relations. So what appears to be spiritual or nonmaterial is “reduced” to matter.

By way of contrast spiritualist doctrines claim that reality includes spiritual or nonmaterial entities; extreme spiritualist doctrines claim that to be real is to be spiritual; what appears to be material is ultimately spiritual.

Although neither the concepts of matter nor spirit are clear, whatever their exact nature they do seem antithetical, which initially makes the phrase “spiritual materialism” problematic.

Nor is the concept of ego clear. What, exactly, is an ego or a self? There is thoughtful disagreement about that as well as about the concepts of matter and spirit.

The ego is what is behind our tendency to use words like “I”, “me,” “my,” and “mine.” Since concepts are principles of classification, the ego is a concept: it separates what is mine from what isn’t mine.

Since the ego is separation and since separation is always the cause of dissatisfaction, ego attrition is the way to reduce dissatisfaction. The less that what is identified as mine is separated from what isn’t identified as mine, the less separation there is. The less separation there is, the less dissatisfaction there is.

Sages [saints, buddhas, successful philosophers] are masters at ego attrition. Sages live better than the rest of us because they have broken the chains of egocentricity. Because they are more selfless than the rest of us, everyone recognizes them as more loving than the rest of us. All sages overcome spiritual materialism.

Spiritual materialism is an obstacle on the way to living well. If you have adopted some training or other such as some form of meditation (such as zazen) or Aliveness Awareness or absolute prayer as a means of ego attrition, beware of the danger of spiritual materialism.

(If you have not adopted some such training, how could it be possible for you ever to become less dissatisfied? Do you really think you are going to receive something valuable for nothing?)

Spiritual materialism is a fundamental obstacle to living well. There are a number of other such obstacles, but none are harder to uproot than spiritual materialism.

For example, several obstacles have to do with thoughts. One is the all-or-nothing thought: if I haven’t yet awakened spiritually, my practicing must be useless. If the ego can get you to attach to that thought, it will succeed in getting you to stop practicing and thereby save itself.

Another is the perfectionist thought: since I haven’t yet awakened spiritually, my practicing must not be correct, in other words, my technique must be wrong. If the ego can get you to attach to that thought, it will also succeed in getting you to undermine your faith that your spiritual practice is working.

Yet a third is a comparison thought: since I’ve been practicing longer than S and S has succeeded while I haven’t, I must be doing something wrong.  If the ego can get you to attach to that thought, it will again succeed in getting you to undermine your faith that your spiritual practice is working.

Such thought-based obstacles to practicing well are actually grounded on spiritual materialism. That is because they share a common assumption, namely, that spiritual practice is supposed to produce something. In particular, it’s supposed to enable the practitioner to gain something important and valuable, namely, a breakthrough (awakening, enlightenment) [however that is interpreted].

What’s wrong with that? Isn’t awakening the goal of spiritual practice?

If you think it is, you are thinking that it is. That means that you are thinking (judging, conceptualizing).  Spiritual materialism requires thinking. However, what is required for awakening is letting go of thinking!

Therefore, as long as you remain stuck thinking that the goal of your spiritual practice is awakening, that attachment to thinking itself will block detachment from thinking.

Another way to say this is that the ego is essentially characterized by acquisitiveness or greediness. It is never satisfied for long with whatever it has; it always wants more and more and more. It is never at peace; it is always restless.

This is why sages, beginning with the Buddha himself, repeatedly warn us against spiritual materialism, which is the idea that the purpose of a spiritual practice is gaining something.

Kosho Uchiyama: “You can’t practice true zazen if your practice is for the sake of seeing positive results . . . just sit, throwing out discriminating thoughts. . . It is a big mistake to think that the practice will open up in you a special state of mind or a unique environment . . . there isn’t any special state of mind.“

Kobun Chino Roshi: “One must disappear in the sitting; that is the only way. . . The end of desire is the appearance of wisdom.”

Avalokiteshvara, the bodhisattva mahasattva: “Form is emptiness; emptiness also is form. Emptiness is no other than form; form is no other than emptiness. In the same way, feeling, discrimination, formation, and consciousness are emptiness.” What else is emptiness? According to the Prajna Paramita Hridaya: “all phenomena are emptiness, without characteristics, without arising, without ceasing . . .” Therefore, “in emptiness there is no form, no feeling, no discrimination, no formation, no consciousness; no eye, no ear, no nose, no tongue, no body, no mind; nor form, no sound, no smell, no taste, no tangible object, no phenomenon . . . no ignorance, no termination of ignorance up to no aging and death and no termination of aging and death; no suffering, no origin, no cessation, no path, no wisdom, no attainment, and no nonattainment” [Karl Brunnholzl, tr.].

If there is no wisdom, it is impossible to become wise.  Wisdom is emptiness.

Eknath Easwaran retells the following story: “Someone once asked the Buddha skeptically, ‘What have you gained through meditation?’

The Buddha replied, ‘Nothing at all.’

‘Then, Blessed One, what good is it?’

‘Let me tell you what I lost through meditation: sickness, anger, depression, insecurity, the burden of old age, the fear of death. That is the good of meditation. . . “

If you want something, anything, from meditation or any spiritual practice, you are guilty of spiritual materialism.

Remember that the ego wants you to want to gain something from spiritual practice.  As long as you are attempting to gain, you are being egocentric. The ego wants you to be guilty of spiritual materialism!

The ego is the opponent. The problem is attachment to ego, which is ego delusion. It blocks realization of fullness. To uproot that attachment is to let go of spiritual materialism. To become empty of ego, a separate self, is to open to everything else.  Emptiness is fullness.


As always, if you know someone who might benefit from this post, please pass it along.

Recommended post:  Seeking.

Recommended reading: My The Three Things the Rest of Us Should Know about Zen Training and “Heart of Perfect Wisdom” (Pranja Paramita Hridaya) from The Heart Sutra. (Red Pine has an excellent translation and commentary.)  Some of the direct quotations in this post are from recent issues of “Buddhadharma” magazine.

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