Monday, December 19, 2011

Becoming Spirit: Spiritual Materialism and Transformation (Part 3 of 5)

This post is third in a five-part transpersonal theory series on spiritual unfolding and Vipassana meditation practice, originally presented in 2004 at the Institute of Transpersonal Psychology. Read Part One: Introduction and Part Two: Vipassana first, if you like. Enjoy! ~ ER


Spiritual Materialism, Transformation, and Vipassana

As Osel Tendzin, teacher of the Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche lineage, puts it so bluntly, “We look for a path, a teaching that is not based on accumulating further neurosis and confusion” (Tendzin, 1982, p. 32). Vipassana, or 'insight meditation,' fits the bill.

Spiritual Materialism

It bears mentioning that Vajrayana master Trungpa himself states, in discussing the trap of spiritual materialism, that 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” (Trungpa, 1973). In contrast, repeated experimentation with the spiritual marketplace – again and again seeking “yet another technique” – would represent the empty trappings of ego, a seed of spiritual materialism with all its pitfalls. As Trungpa warns, “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.” He goes further to explain that, having accumulated a huge hoard of knowledge, there is still something to give up: “Our vast collections of knowledge and experience are just part of the 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” (Trungpa, 1973).

Translation v. Transformation

Trungpa’s cautionary teachings on spiritual materialism coincide with Ken Wilber’s important delineation between translation and transformation. Translation can be defined as the way of spiritual practices and/or religions as a way to create meaning. In contrast, transformation, which a very, very small minority actually undertakes, transcends the self and facilitates true liberation. Here is the quote that made me a Wilber-lover: “For authentic transformation is not a matter of belief but of the death of the believer; not a matter of translating the world; not a matter of finding solace but of finding infinity on the other side of death. The self is not made content; the self is made toast” (Wilber, 1997, emphasis added).

In his delineation of translation and transformation, Wilber explains, “If translation is too quickly, or too abruptly, or too ineptly taken away from an individual (or a culture), the result…is not breakthrough but breakdown, not release but collapse.” He gives the example that we must introduce “lesser” practices that lead up to the radical and ultimate “no practice.” As Wilber reminds us – in the words of Chogyam Trungpa – “There is only Ati,” (i.e. Spirit, God, nondual Consciousness) but “there is a need to introduce and translate lesser practices in order to prepare people for the obviousness of what is” (Wilber, 1997).

To me, this conveys the importance of embracing the practices of the Buddhist Noble Eightfold Path (right view, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration) as one way to bridge the gap to transformation. Ultimately, these practices – including insight meditation as “right concentration” – lead to the “’no practice’ of always-ready Ati,” as Wilber puts it. Achaan Lee Dhammadharo, a Buddhist monk from the Thai Forest lineage, explains it as such: “Right views and wrong views are an affair of the world. Nibbana [Nirvana] doesn't have any right views or wrong views. For this reason, whatever is a wrong view, we should abandon. Whatever is a right view, we should develop -- until the day it can fall from our grasp. That's when we can be at our ease” (Dhammadharo, 1998). Clearly, this exemplifies translation falling away, ultimately into transformation and “no practice.”


Works cited in this series of posts:

Dhammadaro, A. L. (1998). Inner strength: sixteen talks Translated from the Thai by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Valley Center, CA: Metta Forest Monastary.

Smith, H. (1991). The world’s religions: completely revised and updated edition of The religions of man. San Francisco: Harper.

Tendzin, O. (1982). Buddha in the palm of your hand. Boulder, CO: Shambala Publications, Inc.

Trungpa, C. (1973). Cutting through spiritual materialism. Berkeley, CA: Shambala.

Wilber, K. (1997). A spirituality that transforms. What is Enlightenment magazine, 12.

Wilber, K. (1999). One taste: the personal journals of Ken Wilber. Boston, MA. Shambala.

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