Friday, August 5, 2011

"Widening Circles" and Spiritual Materialism

In her memoir "Widening Circles," Joanna Macy writes of a time with one of her Buddhist teachers, just after she had finished graduate school. Full of excitement about all that she learned, and an eagerness to show her teacher, Khamtrul Rinpoche, how much of a scholar she had become, she told him of her efforts to learn the Pali language and how reading the teachings in their original language was giving her a whole new appreciation for dependent co-arising.

Upon receiving all this, his first question was "Does this help you to increase in compassion?"

It's a powerful moment, one which can pivot us away from the mind of acquisition that is so strong in our culture.

Like so many other forms of materialism that pervade our lives today, spiritual materialism is everywhere, in all shapes and sizes. From new age groups and teachers focused solely on gaining financial comfort, to mega-church Christians who spread the message that accumulating wealth is a path to God and a sign of spiritual favor, the grosser elements of spiritual materialism are fairly easy to spot.

But what about this more subtle issue expressed in Macy's experience with her teacher?

The human mind loves to inquire, question, investigate, discover, uncover, expose, play with, and just plain learn. And often it's really good at doing so.

Yet, reflecting on Macy's experience, and on moments in my own life, I do wonder how often I (we) land in the game of collecting knowledge in order to protect ourselves, make things a little more comfortable, or to stand above others.

Learning is a beautiful experience when it is freed from the confines of self-serving agendas. It strikes me that Khamtrul Rinpoche was pointing at this very thing when he spoke of compassion.

How can we reorient ourselves every day towards learning in order to manifest compassion and do things that relieve suffering for others and ourselves?


David Ashton said...

I'm sure scholarly investigation into the Buddhist tradition has a worthy and proper place, as with any other religion, so long as it doesn't hinder our development of wisdom and compassion, which to my way of thinking are acquired more through practice and less through words.

There has been a little discussion in this area at my blog that started over at the Zennist

I think Mark Twain said, "I never let my schooling interfere with my education."

Firehorse said...

very nice - thank you for sharing!

Nathan said...


I know the Zennist is quite fond of study, and not terribly interested in meditation practices these days. I certainly enjoy a bit of study myself, and feel it's really helpful to have some background about Buddhism's past. But I can't imagine relying nearly solely on textual study - as the Zennist seems to do - as the route wisdom and compassion.

Brikoleur said...

The Zennist had another site, Dark Zen, where he describes his preferred meditation practice. On the face of it, it's a lot like hua-tou, or "breakthrough koan" practice.

He does seem terribly hung up on a few (somewhat heterodox) points of doctrine, though, and has gotten weirder over time. I've pretty much stopped reading his blog, as he basically posts the same two or three things over and over again.

Nathan said...

I totally agree that his writing has gotten repetitive, which is too bad, since he does seem well read anyway. I used to check out his posts to find out about sutras to look into.