Spirituality and Materialism
Lama Thubten Yeshe
People often talk about spirituality and materialism, but what do these terms really mean? You'll find that, as individuals, each of us has a different view.
Some think they're opposites, two irreconcilable extremes. Others think you can't lead a spiritual life while living in a materialistic society, that to do so you have to abandon all enjoyment of material things. Then there are those who think spiritual seekers are rejects from society who couldn't succeed in the material world. Yet others think, "I'm a rationalist, I don't believe anything," considering religious people blindly ignorant believers.
Some people, especially those brought up in materialistic societies, become attracted to Buddhism or some other religion the moment they hear about it. Without understanding or even checking that it suits their mind, they immediately grasp at that religion as "fantastic!" This is very dangerous and not at all a spiritual attitude.
Religion is not just some dry intellectual idea but rather your basic philosophy of life: you hear a teaching that makes sense to you, find through experience that it relates positively with your psychological makeup, get a real taste of it through practice, and adopt it as your spiritual path. That's the right way to enter the spiritual path.
If, for example, after you encounter Buddhism for the first time you think it contains wonderful ideas and immediately try to make radical changes to your life, you won't make any progress at all. You have to implement it step by step. To actualize Dharma you have to look at your basic situation, what you are now, and try to change gradually, checking as you go.
So, why do we all have different views of what spirituality and materialism are? Because we have all had different experiences and therefore think differently.
To follow the spiritual path you do not have to abandon material things, nor does leading a materialistic life mean that you can't engage in spiritual practice. In fact, even if you are totally materialistic, if you check deep within your psyche, you will find that there is already a part of your mind that is flowing in a spiritual direction. It may not be intellectualized, it may not be your conscious philosophy, you may even declare, "I am not a believer," but in the depths of your consciousness there is a spiritual stream of energy constantly in motion.
From the point of view of religious tolerance, the world today is a much better place than it was even less than one hundred years ago. People held extreme views; the religious were afraid of the nonreligious and vice-versa; everybody felt very insecure. This was all based on misconceptions and is mainly in the past, but some people may still think that way. Certainly, as I've been saying, many people feel that spiritual and material lifestyles are completely incompatible. It's not true.
Therefore, take the middle way as much as you can; avoid extremes. If your spiritual practice and the demands of your everyday life are not in harmony, it means there's something wrong with the way you are practicing.
Your practice should satisfy your dissatisfied mind while providing solutions to the problems of everyday life. If it doesn't, check carefully to see what you really understand about your religious practice.
Everything Lord Buddha taught was for us to penetrate to the essence of our being in order to realize the nature of the human mind. But he never said we had to believe what he said just because he'd said it. He encouraged us to understand the meaning of what he said. Without such comprehension, your entire spiritual trip is a fantasy, a dream, a hallucination: one skeptical question from a doubter and your whole spiritual life collapses like a house of cards.
Therefore, put it all together. Enjoy your material life as much as you can, but at the same time, understand the nature of both whatever it is that you're enjoying and the mind enjoying it, and how the two relate. If you understand all this at a deep level, that is religion. If all your narrow mind sees is what is external and you never know what's happening in your own mind, that's a materialistic view. It's not the fault of the materials, but that of your view.
You can't dedicate your life to just one object: "This flower is so beautiful it makes my life worthwhile. If this flower dies, I won't be able to live." That is stupid, isn't it? I mean, the flower is just an example; we do this with other people and all sorts of other things, 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; alive today, dead tomorrow. But my satisfaction does not depend on that flower and I wasn't born human just to enjoy flowers."
Whatever you understand by religion, or Buddhism, or even simple philosophical ideas, should be integrated with the basics of your life. Then you can experiment: does satisfaction come from your own mind or not?
That is enough. You don't need to make extreme changes to your life to learn that dissatisfaction is created by your own mind. You don't need to suddenly sever your connection with the world. You can lead a normal life while observing the nature of the dissatisfied mind. This approach is both realistic and practical, and guaranteed to give you an answer.
Otherwise, you accept some extreme idea, intellectually try to give something else up, and all it does is agitate your life. For the human body to exist you have to eat; you can't become an extreme ascetic overnight.
Be realistic; it is unnecessary to make radical changes. Change on the inside; change the way you see things, instead of hallucinating.
We also have to accept the fact that everything is constantly changing. Many of us have fixed ideas about the way things should be and suffer when they don't turn out like that.
Lord Buddha's psychology teaches us to free ourselves from that kind of grasping—not in an emotional, rejecting way but rather by taking the middle way, between the two extremes. If you put your mind wisely into this balanced space, you will find there happiness and joy. (Lama Yeshe gave this talk at Melbourne Univesity, Australia in April, 1975. Edited by Nicholas Ribush.)
Source: www.lamayeshe.com May 4, 2006