I remember it like it was yesterday: I was sitting in this small reception room while my dad was in the back talking to someone from the intake staff.
As I sat waiting, I made it a point to let anyone that so much as made eye contact with me know I was not happy about being there. My chest was poked out and I was talking like a tough guy—but inside I was scared sh*tless.
Eventually, my dad emerged from the back. He was accompanied by this tall, older man named Larry. Larry had long, straight, white hair. His keys were clipped to the loop of his Rustler blue jeans. He made his way over to me and said, “You can run 12 miles in any direction and you won’t find a thing. So don’t try to escape.”
Then he grabbed my suitcase, threw it up onto a chair, and began to rummage through it. Nestled in the center, hidden amongst my clothes, he found a roll of Copenhagen. He looked at me and asked, “How old are you?” I said, “Seventeen.” He turned and threw the roll of chewing tobacco into a nearby trash can saying, “I guess you won’t be needing this then.”
I jumped up. He said, “Sit down.” Then looked at my dad and told him, “It is time for you to go.” He tried to hug me and say goodbye, but I was having none of it. My dad got in his car and made his way down the long driveway until he was no longer in view. For the next three months, Sundown Ranch Treatment Center was my home.
I was a good kid. I loved school and church; I had a kind heart and cared for others. But all of that ended when my parents got divorced in the second grade. I’m not blaming them for my problems. I think they did the best they could. It is just one of those unfortunate things that happen, but the fact is I didn’t know how to deal with it. I became angry and afraid. I went from being a model student to a problem student.
My problem was that I didn’t know how to deal with life. When I arrived at Sundown Ranch I was a petulant, immature brat. One day, the tech on duty—Joe, I think—pulled me to the side and handed me a book. He said, “It is time to grow up. Maybe this will help.” It was a book about Buddhist meditation.
I read that book, but didn’t understand much of it. However, there was something about Buddhism that attracted me. I didn’t know why, but I felt drawn to Buddhism. I read several other books, but just like the one Joe gave me, they all went over my head. I do remember this one book, though. It was called the Art of Happiness. On the back cover was a picture of this serene Tibetan man, Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama.
In the Dalai Lama, I saw what I wanted. I saw peace, inner-peace. I didn’t know how to get it though and no matter how many of his books I read, they all still went over my head. I was pretty thick as a teenager. But one day, while at the library, I saw a series of lectures by the Dalai Lama on VHS tape. His lectures were no more comprehensible than his books, but I liked to watch him. His laugh was infectious. I must have watched that tape a thousand times.
I wanted what he had more than anything, but just didn’t know how to get there. I tried to meditate, but couldn’t sit for more than three or four minutes at a time. I stuck with it, but didn’t believe that three to four minutes of meditation was going to do the trick. Since every word out of his mouth went in one ear and out the other, I just started to mimic him. I didn’t know how else to get what he had, so just tried to look and act like him.
When I left Sundown Ranch my dad sent me to a sober living home in South Florida. Here I am—this 6’8’’ Buddhist redneck from Louisiana—walking down the streets of Boca Raton with a freshly shaved head, wearing flip flops, counting the beads on my mala while I dramatically step over ants on the sidewalk and mindlessly recite Om Mani Padme Hung. I had no idea what I was saying or doing. It didn’t matter. I didn’t know the difference between inner reality and outer appearances. I thought the appearance of transformation and actual transformation were one and the same. This is spiritual materialism.
Spiritual materialism is a term first coined by the great pioneer of Western Buddhism, Chogyam Trungpa. It is a strange concept when you think about it. In common speech, materialism refers to a preference for material objects over spiritual principles and values. Simply put, it is the belief that happiness is an outside job rather than an inside job. So how can one be spiritually materialistic?
Spirituality is materialistic when spiritual principles and practices are used to remodel our self-image, rather than transcend it. All the world’s great contemplative traditions are in agreement on one point: selfishness and self-centeredness are the root cause of suffering. The theistic traditions seek to make God bigger, whereas non-theistic traditions like Buddhism seek to make the ego smaller. Either way, our spirituality is authentic only when it works to reveal that the ego is not the center of the universe.
Walking the streets of Boca Raton with my monkishly shaved head and mala in tote, my “spirituality” was ruled by what Chogyam Trungpa referred to as “The Lord of Form.” The nucleus of spiritual materialism is ego. When I say ego I mean an assortment of discontinuous thoughts, feelings, and behaviors bundled together to create a false sense of self. Since the ego is a false-self, deception is a core component of the ego structure.
The Lords of Materialism are manifestations of this deception. The Lord of Form blurs the line between inner reality and external appearances, generating the facade of transformation in order to bypass the path of actual transformation, thereby preserving the basic ego structure. However, spiritual materialism does not stop with The Lord of Form.
Fast forward five years: I’m back home in Louisiana. As I recounted in my book, Finding God in the Body:
“My girlfriend and I were at a Mardi Gras parade. I had been practicing meditation for a while and had read a number of books about spirituality. As a result, I thought the mysteries of the universe had exposed themselves to me. This inflated self-image came crumbling down when my girlfriend uttered two simple words: “He’s cute.” Those two words triggered an explosive reaction in me. In front of God and everyone, I turned and spat in her face.”
Then, I met The Lord of Speech.
Relationships were difficult for me. I was incredibly insecure. I was certain she was going to leave me, and the guy she was calling cute looked an awful lot like the guy I thought she would leave me for—her ex-boyfriend. But instead of using spiritual practice to address my insecurity, I used faux-spirituality to mask my insecurity. I hid my insecurity by dropping the occasional Sanskrit word, quoting spiritual books, pretending to be emotionally detached, and advertising my advanced placement on the spiritual path—all standard fare for The Lord of Speech.
The Lord of Speech rules over the realm of psychological materialism, which is a subtler style of deception than the realm of form. When the intellect is turned inward and study and practice are used to transcend the ego (jnana yoga), we are engaged in authentic spiritual practice. When, however, spiritual practice is co-opted by The Lord of Speech and used to prop up ego, we are engaged in a psychological form of materialism.
Our practice, the books we’ve read, and the teachers we have studied with are used to project an enlightened persona. This projection may appear to be detached and intellectual or it might manifest as an unnaturally peaceful persona adorned with empty smiles and cliché spiritual rhetoric, but behind the mask is fear and insecurity, not serenity and wisdom. When the curtain is pulled back we find The Lord of Speech pretending to be The Buddha. Hence the old Zen saying, “If you meet the Buddha on the road (or at Mardi Gras), kill him!”
The Lord of Speech is not the ego’s last line of defense against the onslaught of spirituality. The ego continues to struggle to adapt and evolve in the face of mounting pressure from our spiritual practice. As our practice deepens, so does our insight into the truth of selflessness. The ego seeks to incorporate these experiences into its structure of identity. This effort is referred to as The Lord of Mind.
As the mind settles into the basic awareness of the body, the truth of selflessness (shunyata) emerges. Suddenly the false sense of self slips away and the individuated experience of mind and body is uncovered. The experience of emptiness can be a fatal blow to the ego. The only recourse the ego has is to sew the experience of egolessness into the fabric of its personality. The Lord of Mind seeks to accomplish this in two very cunning ways.
First, The Lord of Mind turns it into an experience with a definite beginning, middle, and end. It does this by pretending that thought is exempt from the truth of emptiness. It ignores the fact that emptiness is beyond analysis and conceptualization, because in the realization of emptiness the medium of analysis and conceptualization—thought—is itself revealed to be empty. This is the subtlest form of ignorance. It preserves the basic division between mind and body and therefore the foundation of ego—the dualistic point of observation between our ears.
Second, The Lord of Mind begins to think about the experience. Thinking about selflessness re-inserts the subtle sense of self behind the experience. Suddenly it starts to feel like “I” had the experience. This transmutes the living experience of emptiness into a memory that can be possessed. Now the realization of egolessness belongs to the ego. It has exclusive rights to the truth of selflessness, which enables it to play the memory of awakening over and over again. This inflates the ego to god-like proportions.
The closer we get to enlightenment the more dangerous the path becomes. If we fail to see through the ego’s claim to awakening, we will fall into the trap of full-blown egohood. This is the most dangerous of all possible forms of deception. It leads to the belief that we are gods. All claims to enlightenment must be seen as nothing more than a thought emerging out of and returning to the ocean of awareness.
There is no claim to enlightenment. Enlightenment is the death of ego, and as Chogyam Trungpa said, “You cannot attend your own funeral.” In enlightenment there is no one left to make the claim. There is no inner and outer, self and other, or mind and body. As I wrote in Finding God in the Body, “The world is the mind and mind is the world; they are not two or even one, but Only.” This Only-ness cannot be claimed. It is the eternally begotten, unborn Mind that claims us.
Spiritual materialism is a defense mechanism employed by the ego at every stage of the spiritual path. The ego will always be there whispering in our ear. Silence is the only reliable countermeasure to self-deception. We must move beyond the ego’s whispers into the silence of basic awareness. There we will find the sword of indestructible wisdom (prajna) that cuts through spiritual materialism.
Author: Benjamin Riggs
Editor: Travis May