People often talk about spirituality and materialism, but what do these terms really mean? Actually, this is not a simple subject; it’s vast. There are probably countless points of view as to what spirituality and materialism truly are.
On the surface, we might agree, “This is spiritual; that is material,” but if you look into it more deeply I think you’ll find that as individuals, each of us has a different view.
Some people think that spirituality and materialism are complete opposites—two irreconcilable extremes—and that it’s impossible to be spiritual and materialistic at the same time. Others consider that those who seek the spiritual path do so only because they are unhappy with their lives, have failed in the material world and can’t find a way to be happy in it, can’t face living in normal society and therefore hallucinate that somewhere up there, there’s a God in whom they can believe.
Another common misconception is that if you are a spiritual seeker you must abandon all material comfort; that you can’t enjoy both together. This kind of superficial contradiction is all too common amongst the people of this Earth—“If it’s this, it cannot be that; if it’s that, it cannot be this.” Should a spiritual practitioner be wealthy, people will say, “How can you be so rich? You’re supposed to be spiritual.” This kind of philosophical judgment shows a complete lack of understanding of what spiritual and materialistic really are.
My point of view is that all such interpretations are wrong conceptions; too extreme; they are fixed ideas.
Furthermore, there are those who say, “You’re a spiritual practitioner? You must be a believer. I don’t believe anything.” However, a few simple questions will show that they have more beliefs than most religious people. Belief is not simply intellectual. As long as you have attachment to ideas, material things or projections of good and bad, in my view, you’re believer. When you say, “I don’t believe anything,” it’s just not true. Belief isn’t only the fear that up there in the sky is a God who controls and will punish you. If you really check up on the human mind, you’ll never find anyone who believes nothing. It’s impossible. As long as people have attachment to anything and ideas of good and bad, as far as I’m concerned, they’re believers.
Really wise religious people do not hold extreme beliefs, such as the hallucination that they’re under the control of some energy force up there. Therefore, do not think that those who seek the spiritual path are all hallucinating, extreme believers. What they are depends on how they understand the nature of the path they are following.
Of course, I know that some people, especially those brought up in the West, can have a materialistic attitude towards the spiritual path. The moment they hear about Buddhism or some other religion, they are immediately attracted to it. Without understanding the religion or checking that it suits their basic nature, they grasp at it right away: “Oh, this is fantastic.” That’s extreme. It’s also very dangerous. From my point of view, that’s not a spiritual attitude. Just because you love some idea doesn’t mean that you understand it or that you are able to practice or experience that philosophy. You can label any idea as good, but if it has no influence on your daily life, how can you say, “I love that idea; I’m spiritual.” That’s ridiculous.
All such attitudes are very dangerous. Spiritual practitioners have to be realistic about their everyday lives instead of hallucinating—“I am Jesus, look at me”; “I am Buddha, look at me”—holding exaggerated views and complete misconceptions of their own reality that have nothing to do with any religion.
Religion is not just some dry, intellectual idea that appeals to you. Rather, it should be your basic philosophy of life; something that through experience you have found relates positively with the energy of your psychological makeup. If you hear an idea that seems to make sense, first see if you can get a taste of it through experience. Only then should you adopt it as your spiritual path.
Say you encounter Buddhist philosophy for the first time: “Oh, fantastic. This is so good.” Then, because you regard these new ideas materialistically, you try to make radical changes to your everyday life. You can’t do it; it’s impossible. You can only change your mind gradually. To actualize Dharma you have to start from where you are and base any practice that you do on that foundation. But to abandon your basic nature and try to change yourself according to some fantastic idea, as if you were changing clothes—that’s really hallucinating. That’s too extreme. People who do that have no understanding of the nature of the spiritual path. That’s dangerous. You check up; we tend to judge things very superficially.
As I said, if we were to ask ourselves what is the nature of spirituality and what is the nature of materialism, we’d all come up with different answers. There would be no unanimous conclusion. This is because we all think differently and we’ve all had different life experiences. Even if you show a group of people some unknown material substance and ask them to identify it, they do so on the basis of their previous experiences and may come up with many different answers. For similar reasons, we all reply differently when we’re asked to define the religious and the materialistic life.
My point of view is that following a spiritual path does not automatically mean that you have to reject material things and leading a materialistic life does not necessarily disqualify you from the spiritual. In fact, even if you are materialistic, if you really check deep within your own mind’s nature, you’ll find that there’s a part of it that is already religious. Even if you declare, “I’m not a believer,” nevertheless, within your mind the religious dimension is there. It may not be intellectualized, it may not be your conscious philosophy, but there’s a spiritual stream of energy constantly running through your consciousness. Actually, even the intellectual and philosophical aspects of religion are also there in your psyche, but they have not come from books or papers; they have always been there. So be careful. Your extreme views may interpret that spirituality and materialism are completely contradictory, but they are not.
Actually, from the point of view of religious tolerance, the world is now a better place than it was even less than a century ago. At that time people held highly extreme views, especially in the West. Religious practitioners were afraid of non-religious people; non-religious people were afraid of those who were religious. Everybody felt very insecure. This was all based on misconception. Probably most of this is now behind us, but it’s possible that some people still feel like this. Certainly, many feel that spiritual and materialistic lives are totally incompatible. It’s not true.
Therefore, take the middle way as much as you possibly can. Avoid the extreme of thinking, “I am spiritual”—clinging tightly to that idea, hallucinating by imagining what you think a spiritual life should be—and then neglecting the basic nature of your everyday life—“I’m enjoying my spiritual life so much I don’t even want to make tea.” Here, there’s no harmony between your so-called spiritual life and the demands of your everyday existence. If you really were pursuing a spiritual life, there would be more harmony and better cooperation between the two; instead of a barrier there would be more concern with and understanding of the needs of everyday living. A barrier between the two means there’s something wrong with what you’re calling your spiritual path; instead of being open to the world around you, you’re closed. Therefore, communication is difficult. If the religion you are practicing is a true path and gives satisfactory answers to your dissatisfied mind, you should be better than ever at dealing with your everyday life and living like a decent human being. Living by dry, hallucinated ideas is not realistic; that way, you can’t even get breakfast. Check carefully to see what you really understand about your religious practice; you might find much that needs correction.
Everything Lord Buddha said, his entire philosophy and doctrine, was for the purpose of penetrating to the essence of our being, of realizing the nature of the human mind. He never said we just had to believe what he taught. Instead, he encouraged us to try to understand.
Without understanding, your entire spiritual trip is a fantasy, a dream, a hallucination; as soon as someone questions your beliefs, your entire spiritual life collapses like a house of cards. Your hallucinated ideas are like paper, not cement; one question— “What is this?”—and the whole thing disappears. Without understanding, you can’t give satisfactory answers about what you are doing.
Therefore, I encourage you to put it all together. Enjoy your material life as much as you can, but at the same time, understand the nature of your enjoyment—the nature of both the object you are enjoying and the mind that is experiencing that enjoyment and how the two relate. If you understand all this deeply, that is religion. If you have no idea of all this, if you see only the outside view and never look to see what is going on inside, your mind is narrow and, from my point of view, materialistic. It is not because you necessarily possess the materials but because of your attitude.
Say I dedicate my life to one object: “This flower is so beautiful. As long as it’s alive, my life is worth living. If this flower dies, I want to die too.” If I believe this, I’m stupid, aren’t I? Of course, the flower is just an example, but such is the extreme view of the materialistic mind. A more realistic approach would be, “Yes, the flower is beautiful, but it won’t last. Today it’s alive, tomorrow it’ll be dead. However, my satisfaction doesn’t come from only that flower and I wasn’t born human just to enjoy flowers.”
Therefore, whatever you understand by religion, Buddhism, or simply philosophical ideas, should be integrated with the basics of your life. Then you can experiment: “Does dissatisfaction come from my own mind or not?” That is enough. You don’t need to make extreme radical changes to your life, to suddenly cut yourself off from the world, in order to learn that dissatisfaction comes from your own mind. You can continue to lead a normal life, but at the same time try to observe the nature of the dissatisfied mind. This approach is so realistic, so practical, and in this way you will definitely get all the answers you seek.
Otherwise, if you accept some extreme idea and try to give things up just intellectually, all you do is agitate your life. For the human body to exist you at least should be able to get lunch, or breakfast, or something. Therefore, be realistic. It is not necessary to make radical external changes. You simply have to change internally—stop hallucinating and see reality.
If you really check up, the two extremes—religion and materialism—are equally hallucination; both are projections of a polluted mind making extreme value judgments. Never mind that the person says, “Oh, I don’t believe anything…all I believe is that this morning I had breakfast and today I did this and that. What I see and think is real; I don’t hallucinate.” If you question this person, “What do you think of the color red?” you will automatically reveal that he’s hallucinating. He sees the shapes and colors of the sense world but has no idea of their true nature; that they are simply projections of his mind. Ask him, “What color do you like? Do you like black?” “Oh no, I don’t like black.” “How about white?” “Oh yes, I do like white.” So, he likes one thing but not another—two things. That shows his mind is polluted. Anyway, many things in our life experience are not expressed verbally, but they are there, obscured in our minds. It doesn’t matter that we don’t say the words.
Often we are not sure what we really want. We are too extreme; mentally ill. A fickle thought arises in our mind and we jump at that idea and act upon it. Another idea comes; we jump at that and act some other way. I call that schizophrenic; not checking. Ideas come and go. Instead of grasping at them, check them out. Some people get fixed ideas: “This is absolutely good; that, I hate.” Or, somebody says that something is good and you automatically contradict, “No, no, no, no, no.” Instead of just rejecting what people say, question why they say it. Try to understand why you don’t agree. The more we tie ourselves up with fixed ideas, the more trouble we create for ourselves and others. Somebody changes something—we freak out. Instead of freaking out, check why they’re changing that. When you understand their reasons, you won’t get so upset. Fixed ideas— “My life should be exactly like this”—lead only to problems. It’s impossible to firmly establish the way your life should be.
Everybody’s mind, everybody’s basic nature is constantly changing, changing, changing. You have to accept that and bring some flexibility to your ideas of the way things should be. Fixed ideas make life difficult. Why do we solidify ideas: “I want my life to be exactly like this”? Because “I like.” That’s the reason— because we like things that way. None of us wants to die, but can we fix it so that we won’t? We would like to live forever, enjoying life on Earth. Can we fix it so that we will? No, it’s impossible. Your basic nature—your mind, your body, the world—is automatically changing. Wanting things to go exactly a certain way is only making trouble for yourself.
When you solidify an idea, you cling to and believe in it. Lord Buddha’s psychology teaches us to free ourselves from this kind of grasping—but not to give it up in an emotional, rejecting way, but rather to take the middle way, between the two extremes. If you put your mind wisely into this middle space, there you will find happiness and joy. You don’t need to try too hard; automatically, you will discover a peaceful atmosphere, your mind will be balanced and you will dwell in peace and joy.
I think that’s enough for now. Perhaps even too much. Anyway, no matter how long we talk, we’ll never get through this subject. Therefore, if you have any questions, please ask them. I think that would be better at this point.
Q. What is the benefit of becoming a monk?
Lama. From my point of view, a monk’s life offers more flexibility and fewer fixed ideas. If you marry, for example, if you pick one out of all the infinite atoms that exist and dedicate your life to that person, it seems narrow to me. When you become a monk, you dedicate your life to all living beings. Instead of being caught up with just one atom, your mind is more equal. But of course, I’m not saying that this is the only way. If you are wise, you can do anything.
Q. So you are not recommending that everyone go into a monastery?
Lama. It’s up to the individual. The world contains so many objects of agitation. If a person’s mind is too small and he finds living in the world difficult, perhaps it’s better that he go into a monastery. But if a person can live in harmony with the world and, instead of being bothered by the conditions of marriage, can control his mind perfectly and benefit his wife, he can go that route. You can’t make a fixed statement; it’s an individual thing.
Q. What is enlightenment?
Lama. Simply put, enlightenment is a state beyond the uncontrolled, agitated, dissatisfied mind; a state of perfect freedom, everlasting enjoyment and complete understanding of the nature of the mind.
Q. People talk about seeing light in the mind. What does that mean?
Lama. In general, light is the opposite of darkness, but perhaps I should explain it from the psychological standpoint. When your mind is too narrow, full of grasping ideas, forms, colors and things like that, it tends to be dark and sluggish in nature. When these things disappear, light arises. That’s all there is to it. It’s just the mind’s view. Therefore, don’t worry. Actually, you see light every day of your life. Even when it’s all dark, you’re seeing black light. But whatever light you see—white, black, any color—it’s not something that comes from outside of you. It comes from your own mind. It’s very important that you investigate this point— whatever light you see comes from your own mind. When someone makes you angry and you see red, that comes from your own mind. It’s your own mind’s projection; it does not come from some external source. This is interesting. The object of every different mental perception has a color associated with it; each view of the mind is always associated with color. Check up for yourself; experiment with this.
Q. I think I understand what you are saying about visual objects, but what about intellectual concepts like language and grammar—things we are taught at school?
Lama. That also comes from your own mind. Language arises from your natural, inner sound; and without sound, there’s no grammar. First there are the vowels—a, e, i, o and u. Without these sounds you cannot make sentences; vowels are put together with consonants and language arises. Grammar is created by the superficial mind; people’s minds make language. Any language is the result of people wanting to express certain thoughts that are in their minds and its purpose is communication. Language is actually a symbol for meaning. People want to communicate with each other, so they create language as a means for doing that. But if you grasp too much at language itself, you’ll end up with nothingness. Language is produced by the superstitious attitude of attachment to superficial communication. If you want to go beyond superficial communication, you must go beyond ideas, words and grammar. If you think words are the only means of communication, you’ll never transcend the superficial view; you’ll never understand reality.
Q. Mantras are sound. What is their purpose?
Lama. Actually, mantras are different from ordinary sounds; they help take your mind beyond the superficial view. Our minds are preoccupied with mundane perceptions and split by a constant torrent of thought. If done properly, mantra recitation automatically integrates our minds and creates a calm, peaceful atmosphere within them. It depends on how well you do your recitation. Sometimes you don’t reach the level of mental integration; other times you do. However, once you have achieved the perfectly integrated mind of oneness, you no longer need to count or chant mantras. Also, there are different mantras for different purposes. We all have different problems; there’s a mantra for every occasion.
Q. I understand that you’re saying we should desire enlightenment, but didn’t Lord Buddha say that all desire should be abandoned? Lama. Well, it’s possible to get enlightened without desiring it. The main thing is not to cling too much. If you cling with attachment to the idea of enlightenment, it can become negative instead of positive. You’re right. Lord Buddha said not to be attached to even the idea of nirvana or enlightenment. Try to be free, but simply act consciously and correctly with moment to moment awareness of the actions of your body, speech and mind.
Q. You mentioned the animal realm. Once you’re an animal, are you stuck there forever? Can animals become enlightened? Lama. There’s no permanent suffering anywhere, including in the animal realm. Animals’ lives are also impermanent, constantly changing, changing, changing. Sometimes they change for the good, sometimes for the bad. When they change in a positive direction, that mind can then continue to develop further. In terms of animals attaining enlightenment, they eventually need to be reborn human, but to do that they don’t necessarily have to desire enlightenment. If they live in a nice, peaceful environment free of anger and aggression, their minds can gradually develop in such a way that their karma to become human can ripen. But animals that continuously accumulate anger and attachment find their minds becoming more and more confused and they can get reborn in even worse places than the animal realm.
Q. Sometimes when I’m meditating and trying to focus on one object, other objects appear to my mind and distract me. How can I stop that from happening?
Lama. It depends on your ability. If you are trying to concentrate on one thing and something else appears and you can make the distracting object disappear without paying attention to it, that’s best, but looking at that object and trying to reject it is no solution. The appearance of such objects is your mind playing tricks on you; they are manifestations of the memory of your old garbage experiences. So instead of rejecting them, what you can do is to penetratingly investigate their nature. When you focus single-pointedly on their nature, the objects disappear—because they come from the mind. Anyway, the mind’s view always changes, so distractions are never going to last long.
Thank you. If you have no more questions we can stop here for tonight and I’ll see you tomorrow.
Prince Phillip Theatre, Melbourne University, 5 April 1975