October 22, 2014

A Dharma Chat: "The Opiate Of The Masses"

It has wisely been said "no-one attains enlightenment." This is precisely true. There is no ego that attains nirvana. When nirvana IS attained, there is no personal ego to experience it. This is the crux of the matter. The promises of new spiritual technologies to deliver enlightenment seek to seduce the ego, to assauge its fears and to accede to its demands. And the ego needs to be entertained, it needs to keep grasping at the frustrating and constant change that is the world around it, attempting to pin down and "box off" the ever-flowing stream that is life.

Karl Marx once famously dismissed religion as "the opiate of the masses." Bertrand Russell highlighted the growing distrust of religion that accompanied the Age of Enlightenment when he said "Religion in any shape or form is regarded as pernicious and deliberate falsehood, spread and encouraged by rulers and clerics in their own interests, since it is easier to control over the ignorant." Friedrich Nietzsche, who in much of his polemic targeted Christianity, also scored some significant hits regarding the calibre of people seduced by the "spiritual" quest. He asked why anyone would strive after a future paradise, a "then and there," unless deep down they suspected they were inadequate and unable to deal with the cold hard reality of the "here and now."

As I sit at my desk, I am perusing the pages of a monthly "New Age, spiritual and alternative" publication dedicated to promoting spiritual and physical health and well-being. Not yet half way through, I have seen advertised courses and workshops in meditation (Hindu, Buddhist, Sufi, "humanist" and one which promises "you will meditate deeper than a Zen monk" by playing the CD and plugging in the earpiece), reiki, rolfing, channelling and past-life regression. I see that witches and high priestesses of Atlantis are offering cleansings, banishings and providing wedding and funeral services. Further, new herbs have been discovered that will cure, well, pretty much everything given the new distillation technology one company has created. I also note that dolphins, dingoes, and a surprisingly extensive variety of extra-terrestrial life forms are providing us their wisdom in order to assist us in attaining peace.

I could go on, but I know you'd rather I not …

Apparently, there are more ways to find health, peace and healing out there than you could ever possibly need. After reading the first ten pages of the 'zine, I am almost at a loss to understand why we have not all reached nirvana by now.

If Marx and Nietzsche were scornful of the spiritual impulse in the relatively religiously sober times that they wrote, I wonder what they would have to say in the Age of Aquarius …

My first Chan teacher was, on occasion, more than just a little frustrated by my constant metaphysical questioning. And, on occasion, I was more than just a little frustrated at my finest existential angsts being met with the instruction to simply shut up, face the wall, and count my breaths.


I remember the Dalai Lama once told an audience that possibly they shouldn't be too enthused about attaining enlightenment. After all, from their current standpoint, it would probably be awfully dull. To make matters worse, Chan literature is replete with stories of great masters becoming apparently almost insanely delighted with realizing they're chopping wood and carrying water! Jack Kornfield entitled one of his books "After The Ecstasy, The Laundry," and Charlotte Joko Beck joins in with her book "Nothing Special: Living Zen."

THAT'S not what my magazine was offering. Why would I try and find enlightenment in "cleaning my bowl" or meditating on my breaths when I can swim in cosmic space with oceans of loving whales basking in the glorious wisdom of Pleadean space-gurus? What are they trying to sell me, spirituality?

"Spirituality," as it is commonly called, is more often than not simply entertainment. However, true spirituality is nothing more exotic than seeing our lives and the world simply as they are, untainted by the ego's need to make it something more invigorating, more inspiring, more stimulating. However all too often, the spirituality offered on sale by the new gurus-on-the-block caters to a diametrically opposed impulse - the urge to entertainment.

Tibetan Buddhist Chogyam Trungpa calls this problem "spiritual materialism." The modern spiritual seeker is encouraged to constantly "keep up" with every new spiritual fad, to be able to point to this certificate in alternative healing, that certificate of attendance at the latest workshop, to be able to claim knowledge of and participation in as many "spiritual" disciplines and trainings as possible.

To those who are familiar with the basic principles of marketing, it is (and probably always has been) readily apparent what methods and techniques are used to enlist the curiousity, fear and dukkha of the spiritual seeker. As an experiment, see if you can find one of the ubiquitous publications I referred to earlier, and then see if it is possible to access an archive where you can read an edition from a year earlier. You will see the same promises, the same razza-matazz, but new names, new workshops (and need I say higher prices?). Precisely the same marketing and promotional tools and techniques used to promote "spirituality" are used to promote fashion, movies and pop-stars.

These fads are ephemeral and are marketed as a disposable commodity.


Christianity, as the mainstream religion of our Western societies, inevitably bears the brunt of this need to "reinvent," "reinterpret" and to keep things entertaining. The religion whose founder provided the eminently simple and comprehensive formula of "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you," and "Love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your mind … and your neighbour as yourself" seems to find itself constantly having to rearrange itself in order to cater to the need for novelty. With such simple instructions not enough, Western Christians have often been confused by the plethora of new "additions." Jesus, if we are to take these new additions seriously, apparently felt he had not communicated sufficiently, and seems to have made a habit of reinventing his message to devout followers throughout the ages. As well as the creation of Mormonism via new Christian teachings supposedly communicated to John Smith, more recent times have seen the advent of "channeled" teachings such as those attributed to Dr. Schucman leading to the popular New-Age "A Course In Miracles." Roman Catholics also find the Virgin Mary as a regular commentator on various issues to do with correcting or reinvigorating the faith, and it seems that, like clockwork, new "archives" are regularly found beneath Vatican catacombs, in Egyptian deserts, or in the forests of South America, which provide "new" and "hidden" insights into the teachings of Christ. The Nag Hammadi Library, the Celestine Prophesies, the Da Vinci Code - one continually awaits with baited breath for the next new installment…

I do not say that some, many or even all of these do not have value, and perhaps some, many, or all, are indeed genuine new revelations of the Christian message. But the question is, in the mind of the believer, why are they necessary? Were the simple teachings of Jesus insufficient? Or, were they sufficient, but now boring and need to be "vamped up?"

Similarly, I suggest that this is hardly a uniquely "Christian" problem. A quick perusal of various Buddhist chatrooms uncovers followers of sects which declare that only one sutra, or one school, holds the truth, and that all others are heretics, misguided, or uninformed. Despite the fact that there would be little contention amongst Buddhists that Buddha himself simplified his message to "Do good, refrain from evil, purify your mind," nonetheless these contenders assume thatfurther information arose which added to this message which fully justify quarrel and bickering.

The same question arises. Were the basic teachings of Buddha, including the Four Noble Truths and the Noble Eightfold Path, insufficient?

I am not saying that there is only one way to enlightenment, one path to the top of the mountain. Buddha himself said there were many different avenues to attainment. Hsu Yun similarly promoted the use of chanting the Buddha's name given the often-great difficulties many have in following the Chan path. Certainly, there are "different strokes for different folks."

On the importance of finding a suitable method for spiritual practice, Jy Din advised us to consider the Dharma like a mountain with many paths that lead to the top. He said that the journey could only be completed if one chose a path, and stuck to it.

This advice applies to any form of religion or "spiritual technology." The Dalai Lama once discouraged his young Western audience to not assume they needed to convert to Buddhism, but to find the same message in the religion of their own culture.

It is important, vitally important, to realize that the urge to enlightenment, to true attainment and wisdom, runs entirely counter to the quest for entertainment. The Buddha, in saying that there were many methods that the adherent could use, implicitly suggested therefore that there were those better suited for some people than others. But it is also important to realize that even after you find the method most suited to you it goes without saying that at some point that method will present problems, will feel useless, stale and possibly unbearable. The great teachers recognize that this is normal, and must be endured. It is understood that the ego will revolt against the lack of entertainment, or the fact that the path has become one of difficulty rather than one of reward. And even were Buddha to come down and give you a golden manuscript spelling out exactly what to do, when to do it, and for how long (specifically tailored for your individual use) the ego would still eventually get fed up and bored with the process, and look for another one. After all, the Noble Eightfold Path might be a lot of things, but fun? Not so much…

Master Jy Din told us "… regardless of whether you choose the path of Mantra, or Yantra, or Breath Counting, or a Hua Tou, or repeating the Buddha's name, stay with your method! If it doesn't deliver you today, try again tomorrow. Tell yourself that you will be so determined that if you have to continue your practice in the next life, you will do so in order to succeed. Old Master Wei Shan used to say, 'Stay with your chosen practice. Take as many reincarnations as you need to attain Buddhahood'. I know it's easy to become discouraged when we think we're not making any progress. We try and try but when enlightenment doesn't come we want to give up the struggle. Perseverance is itself an accomplishment. Be steadfast and patient. You're not alone in your struggle. According to ancient wisdom, 'We train for dreary eons - for enlightenment that occurs in a flashing instant'."


That which impels us to deeper knowledge of the dharma of ourselves and the world around us is the same urge that calls us to leave the ego and its demands behind. Our impulse to nirvana is one that offers no encouragement, no promise, no reward to the personal ego.

It has wisely been said "no-one attains enlightenment." This is precisely true. There is no ego that attains nirvana. When nirvana IS attained, there is no personal ego to experience it. This is the crux of the matter. The promises of new spiritual technologies to deliver enlightenment seek to seduce the ego, to assauge its fears and to accede to its demands. And the ego needs to be entertained, it needs to keep grasping at the frustrating and constant change that is the world around it, attempting to pin down and "box off" the ever-flowing stream that is life.

Dogen, the founder of Soto Zen Buddhism, wrote that to follow the Way is to study the self, and that to study the self was to forget the self. In like manner, the Tao Te Ching also points out that the scholar attains by adding, the sage attains by subtracting. The ego is all about adding and expanding -new ideas, new visions, new learnings, new vistas of the "self."

The cold reality is, the ego will never succeed in what it wants to achieve. It will never achieve enlightenment. It will never know peace. It is the ego.

Forget the ego. Detach from samsara, and its entertainments.

Shut up, face the wall, and count your breaths.

May all beings be happy
May all beings be freed from suffering

Amitofo!