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The Demon of Materialism

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by Maitrighosa

The Demon of Materialism
by Maitrighosa

Audio available at: http://www.freebuddhistaudio.com/audio/details?num=LOC465
Talk given at Cambridge Buddhist Centre, 2010

So I’ll be starting talking about the demon of materialism. It‘s funny that they should chose this
one for me. One month ago I gave a talk a bit longer on the dangers of dogmatism and fanaticism
in our modern world and I think there is some relation in this. It’s interesting, but lately in the
Triratna movement there have been very similar talks around this subject and I’m quite
passionate about this subject, and I’ll get into it.

So what is materialism? What is the demon that materialism entails? Well, it’s very interesting to
see in the history of materialism - at least in western culture - it seems to be tracked to the Greeks
especially the Pre-Socratics and the very beginnings of philosophy. With Socrates, with the Pre-
Socratics challenging the superstitions of mythical explanations of the universe, of the very start
of the universe, and the way this is trying to bring more rational explanations to our everyday life
and the constitution of the universe, the beginning of the universe - as an antithesis of
superstitions, the literalism of Greek mythology and faith, religious faith in a way. Recently I
read a book - it’s really beautiful, it’s by Pierre Hadot – it’s called Philosophy as a Way of Life,
and I love this book because he shows something quite different from the idea we have about
philosophy. He said that ancient philosophy was something very different from our common
understanding of philosophy, just as a mere philosophical discourse divided very systematically
into very different branches. So for ancient times it was very much a way of life, it was very
much a spiritual practice, a spiritual experience, a religious experience. And I found this quite
interesting, because we used to think that Socrates, the great exponent of philosophy and original
thought was a materialist, was completely anti-spiritualism, and that’s really not the case.

So, yeah, in philosophy the theory of materialism holds that the only thing that exists is matter -
that all things are composed of material, and all phenomena including consciousness are the
result of interactions. Thoughts, sensations and emotions are merely products of biochemical
reactions of the brain. So in this way it is regarded as reductionist, reducing all experience just
into matter. Materialism is usually contrasted with idealism. It’s quite a big word I won’t go into
it, but in general to spiritual and theistic views - mainly to denial of trans-material, metaphysical
substance, like the existence of God and the soul. And, for these very reasons Buddhism - being
atheistic, and phenomenally grounded, and the principle of pratitya-samutpada (conditioned co-
production), the principle of anatta - is usually regarded with materialistic views. Just until
recently this has been the case - this has been quite challenged, but even now some over-
enthusiastic rationalists insist that symbolism is a form of humanistic materialism. But with a
deeper exploration of Buddhist tradition even the Pali Canon - which is usually regarded as the
more rational, the early Buddhism - clearly brings the occurrence of supernatural entities with all
the devas and many different hierarchies of the gods, and the two-dimensional nature of the
universe and existence. That is the kamaloka (the world of physical sensual forms) and of
rupaloka (the world of form, or better-said the world of non-ordinary and higher states of mind).
And the rupaloka is rather mysterious, but is even more refined states of mind. And there very
many other references to that. We could put it like, mundane world, samsara, and transcendental
world. But I wouldn’t want to go into too many technicalities.

It’s more important, I think, to question ourselves. What is the problem of materialistic view?
Some people argue, especially in the movement of free thinkers, humanists and especially
materialists, that we don’t need a transcendental or spiritual base to be ethical, promote higher
values and culture. Especially if we read a little bit of history, history shows us that in the name
of God, religion and many superstitions many cruel and horrific acts have been made with
millions of killings, unspeakable tortures and destruction of cultural heritages. But that’s easier
said in theory than proven in practice. We tend many times to forget that our views have a
stronger implication in everyday life than most people suspect. So I really want to emphasize this
point: believing that there isn’t anything but matter doesn’t just throw away the dirty water of
superstition, dogmatism and fanaticism but it throws away the baby, in a way to speak, of
spiritual values and idealism.

So there are mainly four implications to materialistic views or that‘s what I thought. One is
nihilism, second rampant hedonism, cynicism or extreme skepticism, and indifference and I link
this indifference with pseudo-egalitarianism. All of them are related in one way or another. So
what is nihilism? Usually it’s associated with a materialistic view of existence that negates one
or more meaningful aspects of life. It denies an objective purpose or intrinsic value of life. So
since all things in the universe are reduced to matter and under mere physical laws, life with its
consciousness and amazing cultural spiritual expression are seen as mere coincidence or lucky
accident without further spiritual or transcendental meaning.

I don’t know about you, but for me it has been very clear in my almost ten years as a Buddhist
that at times when I’ve been over-emphasizing my spiritual life as pure restraint, renunciation
and a mere intellectual understanding of the laksanas - that’s unsatisfactoriness, impermanence
and insubstantiality - with a positive and evocative idea of the Spiral Path, especially the
Bodhisattva ideal, the importance of sraddha or faith, the brahmaviharas, all based on the
positive emotions of loving-kindness, and the strong and almost longing intuition of the
possibility of rebirth. Well, all this insistence on renunciation, on unsatisfactoriness, without
these positive aspects have lead me to very trying and depressing times in my spiritual practice.
So I’ve been receiving quite a very lot of favors from very good friends and from my own
preceptors, and in my own experience I have been able to test this famous saying of Bhante -
based on Buddha himself - that eternalists have a better initial grasp of the Dharma practice. I
am convinced that even though eternalism is certainly one extreme of the middle way,
annihilationism, where they believe there is nothing after death beyond the body and which is
associated with nihilism, is far more dangerous and it is easy to get trapped, especially in modern
times. We can get cut off by the indiscriminative ideologies and over-rated values of
individualism, democracy and pseudo-egalitarianism. So many, many scholars and philosophers
say they’ve come about as a result of the ideas of the French revolution, the alignment error,
death of God, existentialism, positivism, etc., which all seems to be related to reactions to
extremism, organized religions, political ideologies and abuses of speculative metaphysics in the
history of philosophy. However, this is just the philosophical background, since most people
don’t even think about it. We just follow the mainstream message and associated values of
materialism in the form of consumerism and savage capitalism. We tend to believe the message
of the advertising industry that material things give us happiness. That’s supposed to increase our
sex appeal, give us comfort, security and excitement through fashionable clothes and electronic
gadgets, new diets and treats, and books or new collections of music, etc. One can see in the
adverts in the cinema or TV that there is a lot of intelligence put in to manipulate the human
psyche and longings. We just want to be happy and they do all they can to convince us to buy
our way to happiness. So how surrealist is it that Coca Cola manages to sell us dark colored
water full of sugar and toxins and we love it.

So; what do I mean by rampant hedonism - the second point. I mean the compulsion to
continually chase immediate pleasure, no matter the consequences. That comes precisely from
the belief that there is no further meaning in this life beyond experience of the body, the senses,
and survival. Putting it crudely, eating, copulating and defecating. So materialists would say
there is no afterlife, no God or spiritual meaning, neither moral consequences to our choices. So
just lets party - sex and rock and roll. We want to buy our happiness rather than earn it. We tend
to forget the crucial factor that effort and the learning process has in happiness. Bhante has
talked quite a lot about it - the positive effort in the Buddhist tradition - but not just that. Modern
psychologists and philosophers, even economists, have been doing serious research on the
subject of happiness and clearly highlight the importance of effort and learning process to bring
real ...

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