Confessions Of A Buddhist Dumb-Ass.


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My Life As A Spiritual Materialist.

The first book I ever read by Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche was “Glimpses of Abidharma.” About half way through the book I put it down. I hadn’t the faintest idea as to what he was talking about. I never questioned my own intellect; instead I jumped striaght to the conclusion that Chogyam Trungpa didn’t know his ass from a hole in the ground. Fast forward five years…

I am pillaging the Buddhist selection of a bookshop in northern India. As my finger runs from spine to spine a nun approaches me and asks, “Have you ever read Chogyam Trungpa?” I told her that I had, and didn’t care much for the experience. She seemed surprised, and asked me what book I had read. I answered, and she replied, “Well… That’s a pretty advanced book. You should try Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism.” Once I overcame the offense I suffered as a result of her assuming I was not an advanced practitioner, I heeded her suggestion, and purchased the book.

I returned to my room, and began a love affair with Chogyam Trungpa, that still to this day is alive and well.

The book hit me right between the eyes! I loved it and hated it simultaneously. I couldn’t stop reading it, but periodically I had to sit it down and take a break. As the words leapt off the pages, I became aware of a depth and simplicity that I had been ignorant to all along. I was still in the introduction!

As I read Trungpa’s explanation of the Three Lords of Materialism it became evident that I had not been living, but playing a game. My very identity and the life I had been living was built upon deception.

On page 5… (Page 5 people!) Trungpa Rinpoche begins to describe the movement of the Lord of Form. He says, “(The Lord of Form) does not signify the psychically rich and secure life situations we create per se. Rather, it refers to the neurotic preoccupation that drives us to create them, to try to control nature.” I sat the book down, my mind awakened to its own deception. I had to take a walk— soak it all up!

When I was first introduced to Buddhism it was nothing more than a fashion statement. I was 17 years old, and incredibly immature. I had just moved from Keithville, LA to South Florida. The only Buddhist I had ever seen was the Dalai Lama. So… I shaved my head, and began to wear a maroon bathrobe and flip-flops. I remembered reading that the Dalai Lama was a vegetarian. So, I gave up meat immediately. I would step over bugs on the sidewalk, and maybe swoop in from time-to-time to remove a bug from the path of a less mindful pedestrian! It isn’t that there is anything intrinsically wrong with this per se; although a 6’8 redneck walking the streets of South Florida in a bathrobe is quite the site! The problem rested in the fact that I was acting out. I was playing a part, and someone else’s life was the screenplay.

Meditation scared me. The idea of entering a spacious atmosphere that invited me to discover for myself what was true and important, and then allow my actions to be an expression of this insight frightened the hell out of me. It all boiled down to the fact that I lacked the courage to live my own life.

My whole life had been reduced down to a role. Of course, few people (if any) accepted this ridiculous and extreme persona. Therefore, I was forced to adapt. Overtime the character became more and more sophisticated, but on an essential level failed to change. As a result, I would be forced to revisit this issue at a later date.

I came walking back into my room. I picked the book up from my bedside table, and managed to read two more paragraphs before I was forced to sit it down once again.

I came to India in order to escape. Not escape from a materialistic or militaristic society, but from myself. I was at Mardi Gras with my girlfriend at the time. Our relationship was sketchy to say the least. Her previous relationship was unresolved, and this lack of closure seemed to loom over our relationship. On one of the floats was a man that she said was cute. I turned around and saw his face. At first glance he looked an awful lot like her ex-boyfriend, so I spit in her face!

Spitting was not a decision I made; rather it was a fear-based reaction to the past! At this point, I had been Buddhist-ish for about 5 years, but none of this mattered. Regardless of how many times I had returned to the breath, or how well I articulated spiritual principles, I had no control over my mind. The malas around my wrist seemed to be impotent in times of distress! Go figure… I was still ignoring the spacious quality of the present moment, and as a result was a slave to my impulses.

All of this was a huge blow to my ego. I had fancied myself an advanced practitioner of the Buddhist way for quite sometime. I had used my intelligence and oratory skills to convince others that I was some authority on spiritual matters. In a split second all of this came tumbling down— it is hard to be mindful and compassionate when you are spitting in the face of those you love. Truth is, I was neither mindful nor compassionate. I was ignorant and afraid. Mindful and compassionate were just words or tools that the Lord of Speech had picked up. I was simply using spiritual concepts to keep any real inquiry at a safe distance. As Chogyam Trungpa said at the bottom of page 5, “The Lord of Speech refers to the use of concepts as filters to screen us from a direct perception of what is.” This was a frightening proposition. I was neither what I said nor what I thought. In fact, I was so afraid that I bought a $2,000 plane ticket!

Interestingly enough, ignorance and fear manage to make it through all the groping that goes on at airport security check points…

I managed to convince myself that my trip to India was an inspiring tale of one mans journey to distant lands in search of a spiritual master. One night while listening to a tape set by the American Buddhist teacher, Reggie Ray, I became convinced that what I really needed was a teacher that could pull down in me the essential meaning of the Dharma. This was both a genuine motive and a flat out lie. I did need an honest relationship, and in the past I had demonstrated an inability to be honest. So, I did need to meet someone who refused to be in a dishonest relationship, someone who lived honestly. I was in need of a true friend, someone who wouldn’t play my games. However, there was also an element of confusion in play. I blamed not having a teacher for all of my troubles. I said my inability to be honest was not really my fault; rather it was because I didn’t have anyone who could teach me how to be honest. In order to articulate this motive in less pathetic terms, I romantically translated my intentions, and pretended I was traveling through middle-earth in search lofty spiritual wisdom. I bought into the idea that a trip to India was a magical solution. So, disappointment was inevitable…

My arrival in India was a shock to say the least. Within one hour I was caught up in what amounted to a kidnapping, scammed for $700, and forced to reconsider the budget I had for my trip. The first 72 hours were very hard. I tried to put all of this behind me, and begin my search for a personal teacher. When I asked around everyone told me that all the teachers leave northern India during the winter months. I was devastated.

I was studying like crazy. I walked to the Library of Tibetan Works and Archives everyday to take classes on Buddhist philosophy with the world renown, Geshe Sonam Rinchen. I hiked up the mountain to do a solitary retreat, which turned out to be everything but a solitary retreat. I got caught in a hailstorm. Pitched an emergency camp that a passing Sheppard told me wasn’t safe. He said, “You stay here, you will die the Black Bear death!” So, I set up camp with him and his uncle. That night the temperature dropped below freezing. I pulled my sleeping bag out only to learn that the experts at Bass Pro Shops sold me a sleeping bag intended for children 12 and under. I am the size of two 12 year olds— that night I nearly froze to death. Plus, the Sheppard’s warning didn’t aid me in my efforts to get some sleep. I spent most of the night peering out the flap of my tent to see if any black bears were snooping around.

Upon returning to town, I dabbled in yoga, meditated several times a day, studied relentlessly, and took classes. None of it made any difference. I was absolutely miserable— so mad I just wanted to cry. It had gotten to the point where I was ready to call the whole thing off. I was going to hit up the Taj Mahal and Rajastahan on my way back to Louisiana. My attempts to spiritually beat my mind into submission only made me more rigid and bitter. Chogyam Trungpa referred to the ‘use of spiritual and psychological disciplines as the means of maintaining our self-consciousness, of holding onto our sense of self,” as The Lord of Mind.

Just before I bought a bus ticket to Delhi I took a walk up the mountain to Tushita, a retreat center for westerners founded by the late Lama Yeshe. I went to see if they knew of anyone who could help me. They did not. The last remnants of hope shattered, I began to mope down the mountain like a bag of skin. On the way down, a whimsical sort of monk came around the corner. He walked straight up to me and said, “I will teach you to meditate.” He had a way about him, a certain sort of freedom. He wasn’t dirty, but he wasn’t well kept either. He certainly wasn’t what I was looking for, or so I thought…

He was a hermit who had lived in the mountains above Dharmsala for about 12 years. His name was Jetsun Thubpten. He introduced me to meditation by showing me what it wasn’t. The whole of his teaching could be summed up in our first conversation. He asked, “Where do you meditate?” I replied, “On my cushion.” He shrugged his shoulders and smirked. Then with his sense of humor intact he asked, “And what would you like to get from meditation?” I thought about my answer for a moment, and then very solemnly said, “Enlightenment!” Jetsun Thubpten started to laugh hysterically. I didn’t want to seem rude so I cautiously asked, “What is so funny?” He said, “If you think meditation happens on a cushion, and you want to attain enlightenment, then you will have to sit on a cushion for the rest of your life!”

The time I spent with Jetsun opened my mind to the practice of meditation. He showed me that true meditation was nothing more than the realization that the present moment and basic awareness are one in the same thing. Meditation can happen anywhere! I realized that it was not some practice I could use to mold myself into some super duper spiritual juggernaut. Meditation was about observing the mind. In meditation I learned to be honest about my deception and neurotic energy, and in doing so deception was transmuted into honesty. The moment I saw and accepted that I was a fraud I was revealed to be genuine and sincere. Man, that was the greatest release…

Spiritual Materialism is an expression of pervasive dissatisfaction. We assume that we are broken or missing something. So we set out in search of something to repair or complete us. Eventually we believe we have found the answer. I thought the answer was to be found in my physical appearance, my intellectual prowess, and finally through introversion. Regardless of how the problem manifests, the answer is always the same. It is not about changing the behavior, but seeing it for what it is. Insight is transformation!

“We have a fear of facing ourselves. That is the obstacle. Experiencing the innermost core of our existence is very embarrassing to a lot of people. A lot of people turn to something that they hope will liberate them without their having to face themselves. That is impossible. We can’t do that. We have to be honest with ourselves. We have to see our gut, our excrement, our most undesirable parts. We have to see them. That is the foundation of warriorship, basically speaking. Whatever is there, we have to face it, we have to look at it, study it, work with it and practice meditation with it.” ~Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche


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Benjamin Riggs

Ben Riggs is the author of Finding God in the Body: A Spiritual Path for the Modern West. He is also the director of the Refuge Meditation Group in Shreveport, LA and a teacher at Explore Yoga. Ben writes extensively about Buddhist and Christian spirituality on Elephant Journal, and his blog. Click here to listen to the Finding God in the Body Podcast. To keep up with all of his work follow him on Facebook or Twitter.


25 Responses to “Confessions Of A Buddhist Dumb-Ass.”

  1. Carlston says:

    It’s all inspiring when;

    A young lad follows his heart;

    When your friend tells you he is thinking about moving to Indian to inquire about becoming a Buddhist monk. You think to yourself, ‘follow your heart’, and you tell him, “Go for it”. And you assume you will be talking about his desire to leave for years as he plans his trip. Talk is cheap until he gives you his Xbox because it doesn’t fit in his back pack and he has quit his $70,000 a year job. Now you’re thinking…F*&k that’s freaky cool dude. Or I was! And then he is gone, and that’s not so cool especially when their plan is not to return.

    But then while in a foreign land, it seems to strike out at him;

    When you get messages from him about how to pack 50,000 rupees in water bottles or being kidnapped by sinister tourist jackers. Then of course there is the wisdom of making sure your $200 sleeping bag isn’t for a 12 year before you leave the U.S.A. and find yourself on the top of a mountain freezing. And then there is my personal favorite, heeding the warning, “you will die the death of the black bear.” (These are serious follies that his close friends spent countless hours…laughing about till it hurt and then some….)

    And of course, the return of a Jedi;

    He returns home, bringing the same smile but an entirely different man, who you just know has been touch by his own scared fire (how’s that for creative pose). And he tirelessly gives all he has to teaching a way of life that is indeed a creative productive all inspiring direction of creation (defending the week, caring for the infirmed, building the future…fighting the forces of evil)…

    But hey…I am just an southern man, writing about what he saw, what the hell do I know!

  2. Moving story, Ben. Thanks for sharing it with us in such a vividly written and illustrated way.

    Bob W.
    Yoga Editor

  3. Jules Mack says:

    Loved this! Thanks for writing it.

  4. Chris Randall says:

    holy crap i see exactly what you were talking about that day we spoke about my "supposed" Buddhist ideals thanks Ben i needed that i was pissed that day at you for calling me out and it was just my uncertainty and ego that was the issue i was pissed about i have some things to work on i guess thanks

  5. tamingauthor says:

    Oh my, you spit in her face! Still trying to figure out if that was your past karma as a camel coming through or a signal that you will be spending your next lifetime as a camel spitting at tourists in some Egyptian desert town.

    Great article. Thanks for taking the time — I know it does take time to write such a wonderfully scripted piece — to share the details of your journey. What a magnificent spiritual conversation you continue to inspire here at Elephant.

    So many gems from Trungpa to pick up along the trail and inspect… a few pieces to hold up against the sun to see how they glisten.

    Thanks, Ben.

  6. Ramesh says:

    Ben, beautifully written and many gems of wisdom. I can relate to your time in India, as my first few months were similar. The deprivations of ashram life made me hallucinate what I thought I needed and missed for several months. Once you don't have anything, you still have it in your mind. But when the clinging subsided, I loved the crazyness of India and the simplicity of yogic life and stayed for nearly three years… I will share some of those days in a blog some time.

  7. Sarah says:

    You are such a beautiful soul… Thanks for sharing with such openness and honesty… It hits home with me… where my heart is…

  8. Rhea Morales says:

    I love this story, the classic hero's journey. You remind me of Bruce Leroy from the movie, The Dragon, but without the Kung Fu. My story is very different. I was never a materialist. I looked through those things since i was a kid. My task was to look within and find the strength to overcome the violence that beset the home I was raised in.
    Still, I went on a similar journey, not to seem cool or find a master but to escape the environment that was suffocating me so I could see who I truly was and what my purpose is. We all start out quite immature and when we go on our journey and for many different reasons. We are often slapped in the face. It is part of the learning process. Life is funny like that.

  9. tamingauthor says:

    Ben, question came to mind. How would you capture Trungpa's (working) definition of materialism? He is not talking about consumerism, but rather philosophical materialism, correct? How would you capture what that means? Was he being ironic in using the oxymoron spiritual materialism? (As materialism does not include the spiritual in its view of the world.)

    Oh, btw, you do look a bit spiritual on that mountain. It is the hat that cries out "enlightened."

  10. YesuDas says:

    Beautiful and bold, Ben; great stuff.

  11. 13thfloorelevators says:

    Can someone say subjunctive?

  12. Jay says:

    You have inspired me. I love your writing talent/skill. I will be looking for the book you mentioned. Thank you very much.

  13. John Kernell says:

    Ben, this is really neat, resonant stuff. Thank you. In the 'Sixties' Trungpa urged my teacher, Lama Shenpen Hookham, an Englishwoman, to go to India to become "a Buddhist nun." She did! For six years. Returned to complete her doctorate at Oxford (Published as "The Buddha Within"). Her husband, Rigdzin Shikpo (Michael Hookham, "Never Turn Away") was one of Trungpa's early student's in England.

    Trungpa's influence in the west, including the founding of Narops University in Colorado, cannot be measured yet. Now his eldest son, the Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche), whose site i follow) presides over the Shambhala "Kingdom" There's now a meditation center near Atlanta I hope to visit.

    Best wishes for the New Year from Ocean Springs, MS. May you be happy. May you be well. May you be safe.

  14. Lisa says:

    But the seeker was always there, even in the bald-headed 17 year old in a robe and flip flops! Beautiful and funny story, thanks.

  15. […] you learn, the more you can enrich your life and practice. You could confine your study to just Buddhism and the Bhagavad Gita, but when you have a good knowledge of cultural history, you can see […]

  16. R. says:

    I guess that sometimes its takes a trip to India to get the insight needed, to lay at rest some demons. Well good for you, to have this opportunity to move deeper into yourself. I think that meditation training is wonderfull. Sometimes I think that if only i could get training, then i could sit on the cushion longer that 3 minutes at a time. While I relaize that many of the obsticles are right here in this brain of mine, I continue to let the inner voices disturb my motivation in meditation practice. But really i appreciate the readings that Rinpoche offeres us; glad that you gave the advice on the best one to read (and even page numbers; I put down the first one that i read after a few pages.
    Thanks for the article, i enjoyed it. Maybe one day i will submit my article on "Finding Buddhism in Deep South- With NO Guidance/ Teacher". Thx R.

  17. […] through the wilderness of Northern Washington. More often than not, I am staring up at a dauntingly steep incline, and I can’t help but wonder if this will be the one that finally bests me. But out here where it […]

  18. […] the west are participating in Buddhism as if it were a hobby. I have suffered from this delusion (click here to read about my adventures as a Buddhist Dumb-Ass). I tried to keep the path of transformation at a safe distance by convincing myself that the east […]

  19. […] first, Buddhism was just another transition or development of my ego. I was drenched in spiritual materialism. I had only seen one Buddhist in my life and that was the Dalai Lama. So, I did everything in my […]

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