In the autumn of 1970 and the spring of 1971 Tibetan teacher Trungpa Rinpoche
gave a series of talks in Boulder
which were subsequently turned into a series of books. Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism is one of these books, and is perhaps the most revealing of them all. It is basically Buddhist
in nature but its principles can be applied to most areas of existence, as it deals with the self-deceptive traps one can fall into whilst attempting to attain a state of enlightenment
. The introduction to the book explains it far better than I ever could:
Walking the spiritual path properly is a very subtle process; it is not something to jump into naively. There are numerous sidetracks which lead to a distorted, ego-centered version of spirituality; we can deceive ourselves into thinking we are developing spiritually when instead we are strengthening our egocentricity through spiritual techniques. This fundamental distortion may be referred to as spiritual materialism.
The basic premise is that with any given individual the ego has been built up over a lifetime of conditioning, layer after layer being laid down with each one further distorting one's view of reality. From a very early age we learn to categorise the world we see around us, and this leads to our judging and forming opinions about those things which eventually taints the clarity of our view. Instead of seeing things as they are, we impose our own ideas and prejudices upon the world and this only leads to our own confusion and the mental and emotional difficulites most people put down to "being human."
The essence of Buddhism is the peeling back of the ego's layers in order to regain the clarity of view which we have given up. The problem lies in the ego's stubborn refusal to be peeled back; the ego has asserted itself so deeply that we now associate it with our sense of self. What we assume to be the self, the very core of our being, our inmost persona, is in actuality the result of layering our subjective distorted input within ourselves, which in turn is the result of the ego's constant assertion of our being. It needs something to latch onto in its insecurity.
The danger of spiritual materialism is when one thinks one is peeling back the layers when in reality the whole process is nothing more than another layer, something the ego is latching onto for yet more reassurance of its own existence. This book shows some of the situations one can find oneself in, and the principles which can help to guide anyone in such a situation toward the true path.
There are so many principles covered that anyone reading is sure to identify with some of them, and if you're anything like me you'll feel a little stupid for falling into such predictable traps without realising it. However the fact that spiritual materialism is a common condition is actually quite reassuring as it serves to demonstrate that it can be overcome, and this book goes a long way to helping anyone willing to be helped. The whole message of the book and Buddhism in general is one of letting go which, in the unenlightened state of most people, requires some initial effort. This makes the start down such a path perhaps the hardest part for most, but whether you plan on enlightenment or not, this book provides some fascinating insight into the workings of the human mind and, although Buddhist in principle, it is an illuminating read for adherents of any religion.