Quaker Plain III: A Plain Spirit

In 1973, I had the good fortune to meet the noted anthropologist, Indologist, and Hindu monk Swami Agehananda Bharati. At the time he was a professor at Syracuse University. I had read his superb autobiography, The Ochre Robe, earlier that year. His love for India, its philosophy and culture, was evident. Even more important was his approach: not blind passion but a clear and seasoned and realistic mind went hand in hand with the love. It’s an unusual and heady mix.

For this great man of letters to spend a few hours with a budding philosopher, and treat him to supper at a nice restaurant, was more extraordinary than I was able to appreciate at the time. I don’t remember much of what we talked about, but I do remember that his spirit was the same in person as it had been in his book: lively, energetic, clarity of thought, and a no-nonsense approach that is uncommon among spiritual people.

One thing I do remember that he told me was that the Tibetan lama, Chogyam Trungpa, whose writings I had been introduced to in the same class in which we read The Ochre Robe, was starting a college in Boulder, Colorado which would offer a high quality, classical Buddhist education. It was to be called “The Naropa Institute”, and would open for a summer session in 1974. He told me that Trungpa’s reputation was such that top scholars and practitioners from all over the world were vying for spots on the faculty, and that someone who was really serious about learning this stuff, as opposed to someone who likes to think of themselves as the kind of person who knows about this kind of stuff, would be well-advised to be there.

Well, I could not go in 1974, although my brother Jeff did. I went in 1975. It was every bit as good as Agehananda had said it would be. He himself was not on the faculty, but came to give a lecture one night. I had a chance to renew our acquaintance with him after the lecture. He remembered me, and was pleased that I had taken his advice.

I took part in a seminar called “Intensive Buddhist Studies.” For the entire session, a small group of about 20 of us lived together, studied together, ate together, meditated together, played together. It was a fascinating group of people of both genders, all ages from teens through seniors, and many different backgrounds. We took several core courses together, such as Buddhist history, Buddhist philosophy, and Buddhist meditation practice. We meditated together two hours every morning and again every evening, all day on Saturday, half days on Sunday.

I could go on and on about all the transformations that either happened or were initiated during this time. It was a remarkable experience, one for which I will always be grateful. For my present purpose, I want to focus on just one aspect, which was the influence of Chogyam Trungpa’s lectures and his book, Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism.

When I first read this book, I realized why he and Agehananda Bharati had such a respect and fondness for each other. They both had the same kind of uncompromising, cut-through-the-malarkey approach. If you were to read only one book about Buddhism in your entire life, I would recommend this one without hesitation. In it, Trungpa talks about the development of Buddhism over the centuries, not just in its historical aspect, but how each phase of its development reflects psychological states which we ourselves encounter in real life all the time. And, most importantly, through it all he wove his message of cutting through spiritual materialism.

Which is the heart of the present essay. If part of being a plain Quaker is to eliminate as much as possible the effect of materialism in our lives, how much more important is it to recognize and eliminate spiritual materialism.

What is spiritual materialism? Glad you asked.

In the opening chapter of the book, Trungpa says “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 the ego can convert anything to its own use, even spirituality … This rationalization of the spiritual path and one’s actions must be cut through if true spirituality is to be realized. However, such rationalizing is not easy to deal with because everything is seen through the filter of the ego’s philosophy and logic, making all appear neat, precise, and very logical … And our effort is so serious and solemn, so straightforward and sincere, that it is difficult to be suspicious of it … It does not matter what we use to achieve self-justification: the wisdom of sacred books, diagrams or charts, mathematical calculations, esoteric formulae, fundamentalist religion, depth psychology, or any other mechanism … we may eventually find ourselves possessed of a huge collection of spiritual paths. We may feel these spiritual collections to be very precious. We have studied so much. We may have studied Western philosophy or Oriental philosophy, practiced yoga, or perhaps have studied under dozens of great masters. We have achieved and we have learned. We believe that we have accumulated a hoard of knowledge … Our vast collections of knowledge and experience are just part of ego’s display, part of the grandiose quality of ego. We display them to the world and, in so doing, reassure ourselves that we exist, safe and secure, as ‘spiritual’ people.”

Now, he was talking to a group of people who were interested in Buddhism. It is very easy to see how someone might feel themselves to be special, a really open-minded and outstanding person, because here they are in a Western country and here they are, studying this exotic religion. Wow!

If we are not able to see how this applies to people who are not following such an exotic path, who were perhaps raised Christian and/or Quaker and for whom this seems very ordinary, very common, then we are not able to see how the ego can use any spiritual path or practice to strengthen its own position.

Let’s say you were looking around for a spiritual home and you found the Religious Society of Friends. There was something so deeply moving about the unprogrammed form of worship, in which a direct experience of God could and often did happen. At first this experience is so profound, so direct, and in its own way so simple. It just is, and you didn’t find any need to analyze it or even talk much about it. But then you went to Meeting for Worship and it was kind of dry and nothing much happened. Where was all that God experience? And you felt a loss, and started trying to reclaim it. In fact, you tried to possess it. You wanted it at your beck and call. And you were in the grips of spiritual materialism.

Or maybe you were touched by the Quaker peace testimony and found yourself taking part in various activities to reduce conflict and support reconciliation. Sometimes difficult, sometimes frustrating, sometimes impossible, but always the pull of your own heart and your awakened spirit kept you going. And then one day you find yourself talking to someone of a militaristic and you find yourself proudly and contentiously declaring “But I am a pacifist.” And you are in the grip of spiritual materialism.

Or perhaps you are attracted to the richness of Quaker history and tradition. You enjoy reading the early history of our Society and find the journals and letters of early Friends to be full of the most wonderful experience and wisdom. You can really connect with how the things they went through relate to things that happen today, and you benefit a lot by learning from their successes and failures. And then one day you find yourself mimicking early Friends’ patterns of speech or dress, not because you are led to do so ineluctably by the Inner Light, but because you want others to know that you feel this deep kinship with our Quaker forebears. And you are in the grip of spiritual materialism.

In each of these examples, something wonderful, rich, powerful and direct has been subtly turned into an object of desire, something to grasp and possess, something with which to feed the ego’s desire to be special, to be noticed, to be admired. Even though the spiritual impact of these things is beyond question, they have been misappropriated or co-opted by the ego for its own purposes. This does not erase any genuine value that these things have had or still have for you. It just means that you will get no further spiritual benefit from them so long as they are objectified in this way for you. It may also mean that your spiritual growth in every area will become stunted or stagnant, depending on how powerful the ego-possession has become.

Jesus was aware of this. He said, for instance, “And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.” (Matthew 6:5-8) In other words, don’t make a show of it; keep it real, an honest relationship between you and God without public display for the sake of public recognition.

For that matter, Jesus himself felt the temptations of spiritual materialism. In the famous passage in which Jesus is tempted to command stones to become bread, to throw himself down from the pinnacle of the temple to show that the angels would bear him up, and to possess all the kingdoms of the world in all their splendor, each of these is designed to gratify the ego and lead away from God. Look! I can do magic! Look! I am specially loved by God! Look! I am powerful over all! In each instance, Jesus’ answer shows that he would not use his spiritual stature for self-gratification. He is focused on God, not his own pride.

In Quaker Plain I, I noted that for me plainness has more to do with being humble than it does with being good. The problem of spiritual materialism is a good example of why. Being good can very easily lead to self-righteousness, one of the most unlovely forms of spiritual materialism. Humility never does. You have to stop practicing humility in order to fall into spiritual materialism. There is no greater safeguard against it.

“Even the Devil quotes Scripture.” There is nothing which may be of a genuine spiritual nature which cannot be turned to the ego’s gratification — except humility. If we make humility the hallmark of our practice, we will be much less likely to fool ourselves into believing that we are such fine religious fellows after all, worthy of personal and public adulation.

Some day, when I learn more about it, I will try to say more about humility. Yeah, sure, LOL and all that, but I am still learning and can’t really say much more. Perhaps I say this much, in order to remind myself of how important it is.

[You may not be interested in Buddhism at all. But if you want to know more about spiritual materialism, or to have an encounter with an authentic and heartfelt spiritual tradition, by all means take the time to read Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism. I have read it once or twice every decade since 1975, and still get something new every time. It is the best of Trungpa’s books, and destined to be a spiritual classic of the same stature as, for instance, St. John of the Cross’s Dark Night of the Soul.]

6 thoughts on “Quaker Plain III: A Plain Spirit

  1. Thanks for this post, I am enjoying the series. After about twelve years of serious engagement, eight in plain dresses, I have a recurring experience of “Oh, I think I might be starting to understand what this Quaker/Jesus/God thing is about!”. It’s a joke I have with a few of my longstanding Quaker friends that if I seem to be saying that excitedly about every six months. I love the freshness that comes from being willing to let go of my ideas of what it is about and see where it take me instead. It’s the Life I love which is leading me – not my ideas about what that Life is.

    Here’s a problem I have encountered with humility: it being used to suppress problems like racism in Meeting – an older Friend told me I was “taking myself far too seriously” when I tried to talk to her about how offensive her racist jokes were. A lot of my opinions are dropping away in the confidence I am gaining as I wend my way along this path, so I can seek together with my Friends for God’s will, but there seems to be a core of certainty that grows at the same time. On certain things I am not willing to compromise, because to do so would be to leave what I know of God (though I am certainly willing to be helped to understand better): mercy, especially to the poor and oppressed, and not allowing exploitation and domination of the privileged to continue to do damage: there is a firm “No” there. Not humble?

    1. Oh my. How I dislike those stories. Not that we shouldn’t tell them. But it hurts to hear someone using a fine spiritual concept (like “don’t take yourself too seriously,” something I try to practice) as a cloak for their own flaws, and to suppress that of God in another. All religious establishments are guilty of this. The Religious Society of Friends is no exception.

      Doing God’s will can look very un-humble or non-meek. The civil rights movement is a good example of this. “Stay in your place” was often heard, from those who stood to gain from the submission of the black race. This is a perversion of spiritual values, binding on no one.

      I wonder, is humility harder to accept for women, against whom it has so often been wielded as a weapon? That’s a real question, not rhetorical, and I hope some of the women will speak up about how they practice this important value in the face of such domination. If there are enough comments on this, I’ll put them in a separate post of its own, instead of leaving them as comments here.

  2. I don’t have time to sit and contemplate this, as I want to, but that is ok because the Spirit is bursting within me and that is all that matters. I reject that Jesus was tempted by spiritual materialism. The devil was testing him with things he himself might have been tempted to do, for pride’s sake – but not Jesus. He later did use his “spiritual stature” to heal the sick and raise the dead – no, he was not tempted by pride. He lived to do His Father’s will and He did it perfectly.

    As far as trying to figure out what our true motives are for being plain or being whatever it is we feel we need to be – we will always find things we don’t want, like ego, trying to get in the way. As long as I breathe it is down there somewhere and when it pops up it must and can be dealt with. Along with ego down here inside me is also humility, which gets a workout some days more than others. My days, my feelings, my reactions are not static and I must depend on Jesus to help me see myself as I really am every single day and ideally every hour.
    Joanie Wilson

    1. I have to disagree with you, Joanie. Jesus, whatever else he was, was fully human and subject to the same illnesses, the same emotions, and the same temptations as we are. If he wasn’t tempted, then this story has no meaning. It is because he was tempted, and never lost sight of his relationship to God, that the story has the power it does.

  3. Well, I made an error in my reading of this blog. I didn’t notice Bruce saying the temptations of Jesus were designed to gratify the ego and I concluded he might actually be insinuating what Jesus thought ( “I can do magic” etc…). I do believe that how temptable this actually was to Jesus is something we cannot say. I will now fade away!!! I am sorry if I offended anyone.
    Joanie Wilson

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