Spirtuality for the masses?

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A year or so ago, that very concept of spirituality for the masses would have made me wince, and perhaps smile meekly and say “whatever works”. However, inside I would harbor my doubts and my judgments about any path that wasn’t mine. You see, I was a spiritual snob. I’m not proud of it, but there it is.

I never considered myself a fundamentalist by any stretch. I did believe that there are many paths up the mountain, and many qualified guides, so I never believed that the New Kadampa Tradition had the exclusive pipeline to enlightenment. Yet, I believed that to get to the top of the mountain it took effort, lots and lots of effort, and study, and time and devotion and more time and more effort . . . I had amassed a vast array of empowerments, and vows and commitments, believing the hype that I needed to take full advantage of all the precious spiritual opportunities that came my way. We had the “pure” tradition, after all, so as long as I went along with the program my enlightenment was guaranteed. So, why read other teachers? It’ll just cause confusion. It made sense to me, and still does to some extent, to find one guide up the mountain and follow him/her no matter how arduous the path. Jumping from guide to guide, from path to path, will only slow down your journey to enlightenment. And that would be foolish, right?

With the help of my new teacher, Anam Thubten Rinpoche, I recognize that all I was really doing was adding a new layer of identity (or ego) – that of “Buddhist”. I was replacing my mundane delusions with the beautiful illusions of Buddhism. Rather than search for the ultimate truth, I was busy decorating my very conventional truths with tangkas and statues and all the other trappings of a “good” Tibetan Buddhist. Anam admits that he is a bit of a one trick pony as a teacher. All he teaches is emptiness, the ultimate truth. Our Buddha nature is not merely this seed that needs watering to grow into full Buddhahood, but is rather here with us now, fully grown. We merely have drop all the layers of illusions, beautiful or not, for it to be revealed.

A few weeks back, my friend John and I went to Carmel for some teachings by Anam (sorry, I probably should be calling him Rinpoche or some such term of respect, but it feels like an affectation). It was a great weekend, and it was wonderful to get some one-on-one time with him. During one of the breaks, we were talking to a woman whom I think of as his assistant. Let’s call her Natalia. She had a book by Eckhart Tolle with her and was telling us about these webinars that Oprah, of all people, was doing with him. Immediately, I felt my snob mind kick in. Eckhart Tolle? Oh plu-eeze. I tried to read the Power of Now a while back and I simply couldn’t get through it. It felt like it was watered down Buddhism, and since I was studying the real thing, I figured this guy had nothing to teach me. Oprah? I have proudly said I have never watched her show. Anyway, Natalia handed us the book and said basically these were teachings on emptiness, and isn’t it amazing that millions of people are tuning in each week. Looking through the book briefly, it did appear that guy really did have something to say. And it was indeed pretty amazing that millions of people were even interested in how to let go of the ego, rather than how to build it up.

Perhaps there is indeed a spiritual revolution going on, and it has nothing to do with religion. Perhaps it will be a TV personality that points the way by introducing the masses to teachers who distill the wisdom of many traditions to a form that people can understand and practice. Who am I to poo-poo it? Personally I don’t care if someone worships Jesus, Buddha, Mohammad, a blade of grass, a Phillips screwdriver, or nothing at all. As long as whatever they practice or believe leads them to be a kinder, more caring person towards all living beings, and not merely those who believe or look as they do, I don’t care what form their spirituality takes. If more people were happy and at peace with themselves the world would be a far, far better place. And that’s what we all want, isn’t it? So whether it is Buddha or Oprah who leads us there, it doesn’t really matter to me anymore.

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13 responses »

  1. I grew up in a religious household. Perhaps that same religion is still deeply rooted in me. Whether it is right, or wrong, it stil dictates a lot of my actions on a daily basis.

    I try to be honest. I try to be fair. I try to treat all people with respect (this one I think I find hardest of all to do regularly).

    People seem to think their “one way” is for everyone, and there is no “other way.” To this I say, “Bull-shit.” My way, for example, is not my wife’s way. But it does seem to point us in a similar direction. Let your way be “Your way” and just make sure you make the best of it.

  2. Three years ago, the very concept of a ‘path’ would have prompted quite a cynical reaction from me. I have read very widely on esoteric matters and had an intellectual appreciation of lots of different spiritual ideas, spanning gnostic beliefs across the last two millenia to Scientology (my Dad was a long-term member) to astrology, alchemy, Catholicism, the Hare Krishna movement, the list extends. I’d come to the conclusion that life was completely meaningless, but I sort of collected spiritual beliefs and theories the way someone might choose to collect stamps. It was a great hobby, and always useful when illustrating to other people how knowledgable and clever I was. Remarkably, after a prolonged inner struggle, I find myself following a ‘path’. I have conformed to an ethos – something I thought was completely impossible for someone as naturally rebellious as I am. I’m quite happy for everyone else to do whatever they want, whether they are following a ‘path’, or are just doing what I was doing for 37 years of my life – dabbling in this and that. In the end, your Rinpoche is quite correct – all of it lacks inherent existence. I too will have to drop the facade of my new faith if I’m going to get anyway on the ‘path’, but I’m not ready for that yet. My ‘path’ still has an important function. There is something to be said for the straight and narrow. At least you move in one direction.

  3. 2 comments I should have included in the last post: I think the problem with many spiritual ideas is that they end there, without any further commitment or development. You finish the book, absorb some of it, and move onto another book, which probably takes you into a completely different territory. I don’t know if there’s any real growth in that. The second thought: your idea of a spiritual revolution contrasts quite strongly with the Buddhist (or NKT) idea that we live in spiritually degenerate times. What do you think of that? I think it’s broadly true that we do, though a convenient oversimplification. Anyway, heaven knows I’m not looking forward to buddhism becoming a televangelical movement. But then I’m still a bit of a spiritual snob. Funny thing is, if any buddhist movement is likely to do something like that, it’s probably the NKT.

  4. I’m pretty sure that Buddha, Jesus, Mohammed and many other spiritual and religious leaders of the past were, at the time, popular or at least well known ‘celebrities’, just like Oprah is now.

    That is NOT to say, of course, that Oprah or any other populist celeb today is in any sense a prophet or messiah – just that they take a message to the masses using the best means available to them: in Jesus’s day it was word of mouth via disciples, in our day its TV.

    Whether that message lasts 2000 years depends on the message, not the means I think.

  5. sew ~ layering eh? sounds familiar . . . until WE give up the idea of being a “good Buddhist” (waddever that looks like) we will never become one.

  6. Adam – my point precisely. πŸ™‚

    Ron – You’re right. There are a lot of really good ideas floating out there in the spiritual marketplace. It seems many seekers read a book or go to a seminar and perhaps discuss amongst their friends, and then the lovely ideas just go into their inner library, only to be checked out as cocktail conversation. There doesn’t appear to be any systematic method for applying these teachings and realizing them more fully. I mean, sure we all wish to be a kinder, more spiritually realized person. But, if wishes alone accomplished anything we’d all be a lot richer and skinnier.

    What I appreciated about the teachings in the NKT was that there was a clear method. The Lamrim still makes perfect sense to me. As does a regular study program in a spiritual community. So, I felt a bit smugly, that unless others were willing to apply as rigorous a method and had as clear a path, that they were simply spiritual shoppers who were only out to feel all warm and fuzzy for a moment or were waiting around for some big white dude in the sky to grant them salvation. Now, my focus has shifted to the ultimate goal and not so much the method and all its trappings.

    As for “degenerate times”? Eh. I think that is empty too. Sure, it’s pretty easy to look around and recognize our world’s priorities as degenerate, but shouldn’t we also be questioning that appearance? I think that gets tossed around a lot in the NKT as a way of making us feel fortunate that we had access to the “pure” teachings, and to get a fire under our butts to practice because conditions for spiritual practice ain’t gonna get any better in future lives.

    Truce – good point! Oprah is merely the messenger, not the message (though if you look on YouTube, lots of evangelicals believe she is the anti-christ for promoting Tolle’s teachings).

    Amuirin – Ahhh, thanks. If I were enlightened there would be no ego to build up. As it were, right now I’m feeling pretty full of myself. πŸ™‚

    Monkeys – Yup. Hey, baby, you want to help me strip off this layer?

  7. I think one of the reasons that so many are tuning in to the Oprah sponsored thing is that we all feel the lack and the need for some kind of spirituality in the world and in our souls.

    I am quite skeptical about the Tolle seminar but if it helps even one tenth of the people participating to get to that one place where they can hear the stillness and be moved to be kinder to themselves and to the world around them, then maybe it ain’t all bad?!

  8. “Perhaps there is indeed a spiritual revolution going on, and it has nothing to do with religion.”

    I think thatz sum pretty good strippin right there. another way of thinkin about the Lamb Rib is that itz settin our delusions up like dominoes ~ at a certain poynt it doent madder who/what knox em over just so long as they all go down!

    I really like the idea of your idea that you have a teacher = they are so handy aren’t they?

  9. Hi Corina – as Buddha taught, everyone wishes to be happy and no one wishes to suffer. I think we have pretty much tried every other means to find happiness, and have finally concluded that perhaps it really does come from within, and are willing to give that a go. Also, it sure isn’t hard to see how messed up our world, and how religion is seeming to more part of the problem rather than the solution.

    Even just one person who finally gets to that point of inner peace can have an incredible impact on the world. So, if 1/10 of whatever millions are watching that series find some peace and quiet within themselves and become better world citizens, then I think that is a fine, fine thing.

  10. Somewhere in recent years I came across an interesting thought about pagans and pagan cultures; that they were often accepting of unfamiliar gods. Even to the point of paying respect to the gods of other societies whom they were at war with. (A sort of bribery, perhaps?)

    That seems so alien to me/us, accustomed as we are to a couple millenia now of people’s dictating faith, in effect: my way, Jewish, Christian or Muslim, is the only way, and your god is wrong. My god is the only true god, and you should have none other before you than mine.

    I like what you touched on, re emptiness and ego.

  11. “Personally I don’t care if someone worships Jesus, Buddha, Mohammad, a blade of grass, a Phillips screwdriver, or nothing at all. As long as whatever they practice or believe leads them to be a kinder, more caring person towards all living beings, and not merely those who believe or look as they do, I don’t care what form their spirituality takes.”

    really… could not have said it better. love your humor and thanks for these posts. it’s helping… a lot.

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