Spiritual Materialism and Cherry Picking
These days, it’s common to see someone spend tons of money on their new spiritual knick-knacks, or the self-help books from the “New Age section”, and “spiritual” lectures. People often pick and choose from many different traditions, leaving out anything they deem problematic or challenging. In essence, they end up with a shallow “spiritual” practice that is nothing more than justification for their already well-established, preconceived notions.
“Walking the spiritual path properly is a very subtle process; it is not something to jump into naively. There are numerous sidetracks which lead to a distorted, ego-centered version of spirituality; we can deceive ourselves into thinking we are developing spiritually when instead we are strengthening our egocentricity through spiritual techniques. This fundamental distortion may be referred to as spiritual materialism.”
Now, I have already talked a bit on the relationship between Buddhism and other faiths. It is also well known that the Buddha taught everyone, regardless of caste, race, gender, etc. The Dharma places a higher value on a person’s ethic and virtue rather than what family or caste one was born into. Buddha stated in the Vasala Sutta that, “not by birth is one an outcast; not by birth is one a brahman. By deed one becomes an outcast, by deed one becomes an brahman.” That being said, did Buddha ever really teach that all religious paths are beneficial? Do they all lead to the same destinations, and bear the same results? Well, the analytical answer to these questions can be found in the Silabbata Sutta, where Ananda states:
“When — by following a life of precept & practice, a life, a holy life that is followed as of essential worth — one’s unskillful mental qualities increase while one’s skillful mental qualities decline: that sort of precept & practice, life, holy life that is followed as of essential worth is fruitless. But when — by following a life of precept & practice, a life, a holy life that is followed as of essential worth — one’s unskillful mental qualities decline while one’s skillful mental qualities increase: that sort of precept & practice, life, holy life that is followed as of essential worth is fruitful.”
Actually, in the Sakka-pañha Sutta, the deva-king Sakka directly asked the Buddha, “Dear sir, do all priests & contemplatives teach the same doctrine, adhere to the same precepts, desire the same thing, aim at the same goal?” The Buddha replied:
“Why, dear sir, don’t all priests & contemplatives teach the same doctrine, adhere to the same precepts, desire the same thing, aim at the same goal?”
“The world is made up of many properties, various properties. Because of the many & various properties in the world, then whichever property living beings get fixated on, they become entrenched & latch onto it, saying, ‘Only this is true; anything else is worthless.’ This is why not all priests & contemplatives teach the same doctrine, adhere to the same precepts, desire the same thing, aim at the same goal.”
So it is obvious that the Buddha did not teach that, despite what some so-called “New Age gurus” would have you believe, all religions are the same. Not all teachings and practices are suited for everyone. In Buddhist Culture, The Cultured Buddhist, Robert Bogoda points out that:
They therefore err who say that all spiritual paths lead to the same summit and that the view from the top is identical for all. The reason is simple: the Buddha saw the true nature of things clearly and completely with his own independent supramundane insight — his perfect enlightenment — and so his teaching is an exact reflection of reality, while other religious teachers had only an imperfect view of reality, with eyes dimmed by various forms and degrees of ignorance (avijja).
This, however, does not imply that Buddhism is intolerant of other religions. Neither the Buddha nor his followers ever imposed his system of thought or his way of life on anyone who would not accept it of his or her own volition. Acceptance was a purely voluntary matter. Even if accepted, how much of it one should practice is one’s own responsibility. But regardless of one’s personal inclinations, the universal moral laws operate objectively — action being followed by due reaction, deeds by their fruits. The Buddha merely reveals the laws of life, and the more faithfully we follow them, the better it is for us, for then we act according to the Dhamma.
A lot of people quote the Kalama Sutta as being some sort of justification for picking and choosing from whatever tradition they want. Although it is clear that the Buddha was advocating free inquiry and critical analysis, what the Buddha was suggesting is that, of course, we shouldn’t simply follow spiritual traditions simply because they are traditions. However, we also shouldn’t just blindly follow our own preferences simply because it seems logical and resonates with us. Instead, every view, tradition, belief, etc. should be tested by the results they yield, and to further protect us from any of our own bias and limitations, they must be checked by the experiences of already well-established masters and those who are considered “wise”. Only after we have realized that, “these things are good; these things are not blamable; these things are praised by the wise; undertaken and observed, these things lead to benefit and happiness”, we should “enter on and abide in them”.
Spending a lot of money on spiritual material or cherry-picking from various religious traditions may seem easier at first, but we are essentially only feeding our “ego” when we do so. Instead, we should critically analyze every tradition – and even our own opinions, and put them all to the test. Only after such testing by practice and seeing the results for ourselves should we ever consider settling for any tradition. It’s perfectly okay to not belong to any tradition, and to test each of them out for many years before ever committing to one. In fact, that would be much better than just “diving in” into any tradition simply because of its outward attractiveness, or following any teacher simply because of their charisma. That is exactly how people end up in cults, and end up being even more confused than when they initially began their spiritual journey. So take your time – there is no need to rush anything. The Dharma is open to all, but ultimately you will have to find that out for yourself – on your own.