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The Demon of Materialism

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by Maitrighosa

... happiness.

So from nihilism comes also radical scepticism and cynicism, and I don’t mean by these the
philosophical schools - that’s a completely different idea actually, something quite positive. It’s
more the popular modern understanding, the attitude of jaded negativity and a general distrust of
the integrity of people’s professed motive and their ideals. I found it very interesting and
revelatory the first time I heard it in a study group that cynicism is mainly frustrated idealism.
I’m pretty sure that it comes from Bhante. I can’t find the source, but I heard this several times
and it really struck me. I could really relate with this in my own experience. So it comes as a
reaction of disappointment to the incongruence between the acts and behavior and the values
expressed by political movements or of people we once admired. So cynicism comes with bitter
criticism of the idealist who still tries to influence and effect positively the world we live in. How
many of us have not been called by our relatives or old friends or acquaintances naïve and even
immature for dedicating our lives to the Dharma or spiritual movement, and the spiritual path
trying to transform and influence our world rather than pursuing our professional careers,
amassing money, making a family with a nice house, a nice dog, and expensive holidays? So
with cynicism and extreme skepticism comes indifference. A sense of apathy, hopelessness and
impotency on the many world problems and suffering - when people stop believing we can make
a difference in our world and when pseudo-egalitarianism and the possibility of a spiritual
hierarchy is denied and reduced to the level of matter, resulting in lack of reverence and
receptivity. So pseudo-egalitarianism is portrayed as a sensible rational attitude - the best option
against abuses of power and authority from religious or political institutions - closing our minds
and hearts to the obvious possibility of more experienced and spiritual developed people from
which we can learn and benefit a great deal. So under the pretence of individuality, emotional,
intellectual and spiritual independence, anti dogmatism, and anti-fanaticism many people close
their hearts to the precious opportunity of spiritual receptivity.

So for me this is the core meaning of the attitude of discipleship - which I know for some people
is a bit uncomfortable, but for me it is a very precious, very beautiful word - “discipleship.” And
for me it involves very much attitude of receptivity to higher values to people more experienced
than us. So it’s in contrast with a mere intellectual understanding or a vision that any scholar may
have on Buddhism or any other spiritual matter.

So what involves taming the demon of materialism? Well, to start with we need to learn to share
and simplify our lives, cut down artificial needs and meaningless accumulation of material
things, knowledge, or exciting and intoxicating experiences. Generosity is clearly the best way to
tame this demon greatly emphasized in all Buddhist traditions with dana (generosity) as the first
paramita (perfection) in the Bodhisattva path of training. It is said it comes naturally out of right
view, reflection and insight. So taming the demon of materialism does not mean opposing
science but recognizing that there are limitations to scientific knowledge and sharing it. So
holding academic and scientific advances provisionally, with sensibility to spur healthy
questioning and anti-dogmatic critique of modern views rather than making it the new dogma,
making science the new dogma. We need to bring the same anti-dogmatic critique and unbiased
reflection to all areas of our life like materialism itself. Look what happens when there is
unbridled consumerism and look at the environmental damage - the limited amount of resources
for the exponential growth of the population. According to some research, Arthapriya told me, if
the entire world were to consume the same amount of resources that the USA consumes we
would need twelve planets; but we only have one planet. And the problem with this is that many
have to suffer because of this; isn’t this absurd? Let’s look at the current economical crisis that
some naively think is over. Have we learned anything from it? Have we learned anything from
history? And it’s not the first time it’s happened. It seems that many just carry on shopping as
the best solution out of this, like Gordon Brown told us to do. Isn’t this ironic?

This is certainly a very tricky situation, but at least we can take further steps to simplify our lives
- sharing resources like we do in Buddhist communities and in Windhorse. We also need to open
up to the mystery of matter and reality, this is maybe a very important way to tame the demon of
materialism, especially for those very keen on anti-dogmatic views and anti-dogmatic research.
It’s very important as well to embrace uncertainty. Modern science has not been able to define
matter and understand the mystery of matter and energy in relation to consciousness. It’s quite
famous nowadays. This is the famous quantum physics of the unpredictability of matter and
energy when there is an observer - the famous Heisenberg Principle, of incertitude. So we need
to give way to sraddha, or faith, in the way of intuition, investigation and the aesthetic
appreciation of greater values and beauty beyond material things.

But it is important to reflect and contemplate the possibility of our materialistic views, and their
implications - more than anything - of painful disappointment and reaction to the abuses of
power or abuses of influence of religious and political institutions that precisely indulge into
extremes of dogmatism and fanaticism. So, what can we do when we feel so disappointed and we
feel cynical about history? We need to re-learn, to engage more creatively with ideals and
spiritual values, without naivety or passivity that many fear. Mainly through the practice of
kalyana mitrata - or spiritual friendship - and the actual practice of the very clearly-marked paths
of Buddhist tradition towards enlightenment in its many forms. From the Four Noble Truths and
the Eightfold Path to the practice of the Precepts, meditation, study, reflection, the paramitas and
many other gradual and wonderful practices. So we need to develop spiritual receptivity,
welcome and positively identify ourselves as disciples, if we are to take seriously our going for
refuge to the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha. We need to embrace the anguish of uncertainty. Like
Padmasambhava said, “I do not have, I do not know, I do not understand,” in order to really
prepare our minds and hearts for the realization of the deeper and higher truths of wisdom and
compassion so central in the Buddhist tradition.

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