“Cultivating the Wisdom Gaze: A Contemplation on the Outer and Inner Causes of Globalization”
Judith Simmer-Brown, Ph.D. Religious Studies, Naropa University Boulder, Colorado
When Tibetan Buddhist lamas fled the Communist Chinese tyranny in 1959, many came to the west to study, teach, and practice the dharma. The culture they encountered, however, presented special challenges to a genuinely spiritual life. In contemporary America, the dominant obstacle they observed was the predominance of materialism, a lifestyle of acquisition that promotes self-grasping. Tibetan teachers have remarked about how difficult it is for American students to practice meditation in a materialistic environment. Observing the difference with their Tibetan home, Khenpo Karthar Rinpoche remarked, Because Tibet is an untouched and uncivilized country, people are quite happy with the simplicity of life. They do not long for the comforts and luxury of life. As long as there is food to eat and a roof for shelter, they are very happy. With that state of mind, when they go to retreat, their mind is simple and the decision is quite complete. They think, “Even if I die of an illness during this retreat, I will let myself die. Even if I die of starvation during this retreat, I will let myself die. Even if I die from the difficulties and hardship of the vigorous practice, I will be happy to die.”
Tibetan teachers continue to ask how consumer mentality has affected the meditation practice of their American students, shaping intentions and expectations for spiritual development. Buddhist scholar Jose Cabezon has suggested that traditional and contemporary Tibetans are primarily concerned about how material wealth “deflect[s] one from pursuing the true, inner wealth of spiritual perfection.”
Wealth is viewed as ephemeral and therefore rather than accumulating it, it is more important to spend and enjoy it while it is available, or to give it away. He refers to the 13th century Tibetan master Sakya Pandita, who reflected that those who have wealth which they neither use nor give away must be either sick or a deprived spirit. “Accumulating wealth without using it is like accumulating the wood for one’s own cremation. Those who do so are like bees, who put so much effort into manufacturing their honey only to have it taken away from them.”
Accumulating wealth accrues many obstacles, for then the wealth must be protected and one’s greedy tendencies are exacerbated. When accumulation of wealth is an end in itself, it has the power of diverting one from the spiritual path and creating negative circumstances for future awakening.
Over thirty years ago, my teacher Ven. Chogyam Trungpa, Rinpoche, wrote one of first popular dharma books in America, Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism. This view of the challenges of western spirituality came to him while in retreat in a Padmasambhava cave in Bhutan. Trungpa Rinpoche at that time composed a ritual text called the Sadhana of Mahamudra that addressed the way in which contemporary societies are dominated by material concerns. This text was received in a visionary state as a terma, a hidden-treasure text, attributed to Padmasambhava as a contemporary contribution to the “dark age” dominated by the forces of materialism. In the book, Rinpoche identified what he considered primary obstacles to spiritual development in the west. The relevance of this analysis only increases each year.
Trungpa Rinpoche described the acquisitive pursuit that binds humans to suffering as the hallmark of construction of personal identity, or “ego.” To promote this core activity, three allegorical “lords of materialism” pursue three levels of acquisitiveness: the lord of form refers to physical acquisition, the lord of speech to conceptual acquisition, and the lord of mind to acquisition in the spiritual realm. According to these descriptions, materialism must be challenged or it will co-opt our physical lives, our communities, and our spiritual cores. “Physical materialism” refers to the compulsive pursuit of pleasure, comfort, and security as a balm for all of our problems and concerns. Culturally, it is expressed in the form of consumerism. On the conceptual level, “psychological materialism” seeks to control the world through theory, ideology, and intellect. We mentally create theoretical constructs that keep us from having to be threatened, to be wrong, or to be confused, thus putting ourselves in control. In American life, psychological materialism is expressed in science and technology, medicine and psychology. On the most subtle level, “spiritual materialism” carries acquisitiveness into the realm of our own minds, into our own contemplative practice or prayer, sometimes expressed as religious exclusivism or extremism.
Book Chapter FROM:, Hooked!: Buddhist Writings on Greed, Desire, and The Urge to Consume edited by Stephanie Kaza, Shambhala Publications, 2004