Wednesday, January 5, 2011

The Spiritual Materialistic Streak in Chinese Culture

My last post was a bit of a downer. Many thanks to all of you who took the time to read and/or comment on it. I still haven't come to a definite decision as to whether to go to Mysore this year or not, although I feel myself leaning towards going (the pull of Mysore is strong for me...). At any rate, the year is still young, and I am going to set a strong intention to go, do my best to take all the concrete actions I can sensibly take, and then see what unfolds.

Hopefully, this post will be a little more upbeat. I originally wanted to relate this post to yoga (since this is supposed to be a yoga blog), but I found that given its subject matter, trying to relate it to yoga would seem a bit contrived. Besides, I think the subject matter is interesting enough in and of itself to stand as an independent topic. So why force matters? So this post will purely be my pseudo-anthropological musing about Spiritual Materialism and Chinese culture.

This post is inspired by a comment Arturo made in my previous post. He remarked that Spiritual Materialism may not be such a bad thing, because it at least gets us motivated to take action in our lives. This interesting remark set me thinking about a few things. First, a disclaimer: I confess that I have not read Chogyam Trungpa's book, but being the intellectual philistine that I am, I am going to jump onto the bandwagon anyway, and try to have some fun talking about this subject.

Since I haven't read the book, I'm going to need something to start my discussion with, so I went to that most (un)scholarly of sources, Wikipedia, and looked up "Spiritual Materialism". According to Wikipedia, Spiritual Materialism is "the belief that a certain temporary state of mind is a refuge from suffering. An example would be using meditation practices to create a peaceful state of mind, or using drugs or alcohol to remain in a numbed out or a blissful state."

But I think this is not a complete definition of spiritual materialism. In addition to believing that certain induced states of mind will enable one to find refuge from suffering, the spiritual materialist is also an "acquirer" of spiritual things, believing that having more of such acquisitions would make him happy, in the same way in which a materialistic consumer might acquire stuff in the belief that having more of such stuff would make him happy.

Which brings me to Arturo's comment. If I understand him correctly, what he is saying is that if spiritual materialism gives you the "kick" or the "ompph" that you need to get off your ass and accomplish things in the world, how is it a bad thing?
Being Chinese, I have long observed that the Chinese culture has a spiritual materialistic streak Another disclaimer: My PhD is in philosophy, not anthropology, so I am, strictly speaking, not qualified to make pronouncements on this subject. But since this is my blog/soapbox, I am going to shamelessly say what I think, come what may. Moreover, I have no pretensions that this post has any scholarly value whatsoever.

But what was I saying again? Oh, that's right, Chinese culture has a spiritual materialistic streak. The Chinese are by and large a very pragmatic people (which, by the way, means that somebody like me with a "useless" PhD in philosophy sticks out like a sore thumb). The mantra that characterizes the Chinese worldview (yes, I'm shamelessly speaking for my entire race :-)) is: If it works, take it and use it. I suspect that this is a big reason why the Chinese civilization has survived and flourished for all these millenia: Nothing that is useful is too "foreign" to be assimilated by the Chinese. But this is too big a thesis to try to prove in a post like this, so I'll stick to a relatively small example: Chinese folk religion. If you step into any generic "Chinese Temple" in any Chinese community around the world, you will find a mind-boggling assortment of representations from different philosophical and religious traditions. There's often a statue of Buddha which people make offerings to. In addition, there usually also are statues of deities which may be: (1) Actual historical figures (famous generals, for example) which were deified after their deaths and made into "gods", (2) Figures from the Taoist tradition (Lao Tzu, for example), (3) I have even heard of temples which have statues of Confucius for devotees to pray to, although I have never been to such a temple myself. In addition, the temple may also have its resident Taoist priest who performs divination rites (I'm not even sure if divination is part of Taoism, but Taoist priests do them anyway: The income from performing these rites is probably substantial :-)) So, in a single place of worship, you have elements from at least three distinct philosophical and religious traditions (Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism).

The philosophical/religious purist will probably ask: Isn't this, uh, sacrilegious? But I suspect that if you ask the average temple-goer about this mix of philosophies and religions under one roof, he or she will probably first give you a weird look, and then (if he or she even bothers to answer your question) will probably respond, "But what's wrong with this? I mean, Buddha's a great guy when he was around. So he's probably still a great guy now, wherever he is. So why not ask for his blessings? The same is true of Lao Tzu and Confucius. If I ask for blessings from Buddha, Lao Tzu and Confucius, and get blessings from all three of them, wouldn't I be triply blessed? How is this not a good thing? If they don't answer my prayers? Well, I have nothing to lose anyway."

In my opinion, our temple-going friend here totally fits the definition of a spiritual materialist: He goes about seeking blessings from every deity in the temple, with the idea that the more blessings he "acquires", the happier his life will be. And perhaps while he is praying, he gets into a certain state of mind which causes him to temporarily forget his worldly troubles. (He might also be induced into a certain high state of mind from smelling all that incense wafting in the air, but we'll leave that out of the picture.)

So what am I trying to say with all this? Very simply, this: One man's Spiritual Materialism is another man's Pragmatism. I suspect that if we were to confront our temple-going friend with Chogyam Trungpa's ideas on Spiritual Materialism, he or she would go, "This Trungpa guy is stupid! The more sources of income you have, the better. Similarly, the more possible sources of spiritual "income" (blessings) you have, the better! Why limit yourself to just one or two sources of spiritual income? What are these westerners thinking with their crazy ideas? [Author's note: Since Tibet is west of what the Chinese consider China proper, Tibetans could be considered westerners in some sense.]      


  1. Thanks for shedding lights on this praying to as many Gods + Saints as you can phenomenon that always boggled my mind.

    What about praying to the God of Fortune that you'll make more money? Or burning paper Mercedes and credit cards to your loved ones who have passed away? Aren't these considered as spiritual materialism too?

  2. I'm not sure if I'm actually shedding light on the phenomenon; I'm just making an educated guess about what might be going on in the minds of these devotees, based on what I observe and from listening to conversations between my relatives who go to such temples.

    Burning paper Mercedes and credit cards (I won't be surprised if they burn paper Iphones now :-)) is a different kind of spiritual materialism, I think. This practice is based on the assumption that the spirit world will be just as materialistic in nature as the present one: So your relatives/loved ones will also need all the material things that they use to get ahead in the next world, as well as this present one.

    I know I'm being very rude and presumptuous in asking this, but from the familiarity that you seem to have with such things, would I be right in thinking you are Chinese too? This is, strictly speaking, none of my business; but I'm curious, nonetheless.

  3. Yes I'm Chinese. I stayed away from Buddhism for a long time because this "spiritual materialism" you described was the only type of Buddhism I knew and I thought if the gods really existed they'd see right through this disloyalty and not grant any wishes. Now that I've been introduced to Buddhism via yogis, I understand spirituality much better and find Buddhism quite helpful towards living life.