Being in such a consumer culture, you may be at risk for consumerizing your spirituality. Is Buddhism immune from such consumption? Thubten Chodron warns, “When we turn to spirituality, we may think that we're leaving behind the corruption of the world for higher purposes. But our old ways of thinking do not disappear; they follow us, coloring the way we approach spiritual practice.”
Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche says in his classic Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism:
We have come here to learn about spirituality. I trust the genuine quality of this search but we must question its nature. The problem is that ego can convert anything to its own use, even spirituality. Ego is constantly attempting to acquire and apply the teachings of spirituality for its own benefit. We become skillful actors, and while playing deaf and dumb to the real meaning of the teachings, we find some comfort in pretending to follow the path. This rationalization of the spiritual path and one's actions must be cut through if true spirituality is to be realized.
Buddhism is not exempt from such concerns. Just look at any issue of the Shambhala Sun. It is filled with beautiful and enticing ads for teachings and dharma paraphernalia — meditation cushions, bells, statues, you name it. If not careful, you can become attached to non-attachment. You can become identified with non-identification. You can get lost in spiritual materialism. A May 2005 cartoon in The New Yorker by Michael Crawford depicts a mother and her child exiting a burning house via an emergency ladder. The mother urges, “Simon, don't forget Mommy's yoga mat.” Buddhist monks have been spotted wearing Gucci slippers and gold Rolexes. No one is immune to the allure of having things; the problem arises when your sense of contentment is dependent on having these things. Everyone must proceed with eternal vigilance in order to be free.
Cautions for Western Practices
Buddhism in America is inextricably entwined in marketing. Teachers must sell themselves and their services, and must raise money for their centers; they must sell their books and CDs. Spirituality is a product like any other product, right? You may also be looking for the “best” spiritual experiences — the highest states, the rarest teachings, the coolest teachers. Spiritual materialism may drive you to strive in a desire-laced way. You may get bored with following the breath because it is not as exotic as following some terma (secret teaching). The Buddha worked with his breath to awaken, and that practice can take you to awakening, too, if you can give yourself permission to do so and do the work necessary. And if you do so, fireworks won't accompany that awakening. It will be an ordinary moment of clarity. It has been said, “enlightenment is the ego's biggest disappointment.”
The sheer abundance of teachings that are now available in the West may be both a blessing and curse. The blessing is the accessibility of the dharma in unprecedented ways, including the Internet. The curse is that such abundance may encourage consumerist attitudes. You may find yourself dining at the spiritual smorgasbord, taking a little of this and a little of that and creating a pastiche of teachings that serve your ego's needs and not the needs of true awakening. Instant gratification can be a trap.
In today's world, you don't have to work hard to get access to the teachings. You don't need to walk across a high Himalayan mountain pass; you don't need to sit waiting outside the gates of the Zen temple for days. You are a consumer with spiritual “dollars” to spend. In urban centers the choices can be dizzying, and the customer is always right. One danger is that if you don't like what you see in yourself working with one teacher, you'll just go down the street to another. Another danger is idealization. The honeymoon period can be ecstatic, expansive, and promising. But just like a good marriage, to get any spiritual attainment you need to stick around past the idealization once disillusionment sets in. All teachers, including the Buddha, are human.
Convenience is another consideration for spiritual materialism. Consumer culture is designed to make life more convenient or more of something (faster, cooler, healthier, et cetera). When you are in distress, you may recognize the increased need for practice, but can you sustain this commitment without a crisis? Meditation is hard. It takes time, and if you practice for prolonged periods, it can be physically uncomfortable and, mentally, may bring up things you'd rather not face. There is no quick fix and you need to be careful about seeking short cuts.
And if you do put in the effort, a final aspect of spiritual materialism to consider is what might be called “spiritual Olympics” or “The one with most spiritual toys wins.” You can identify with how prodigious your sitting practice is, how many retreats you've been on, how many vows you've taken and teachings you've received. Is this any different than showing off your BMW to your neighbor? Is this any different than keeping up with the Jones's? Thoreau warned not to identify with the “clothes” of any new activity but to try to be different in how we engage with activity. He said, “Beware of any activity that requires new clothes, rather than a new wearer of clothes.”