It is a constant effort to ensure that the experience of this practice (and its roles, its titles, its accomplishments, and the powerful expectations created in the minds of people who practice it with me) do not become further blandishments for my own ego. It is a constant struggle, and one I might have only made a small amount of extremely modest progress on (if any at all) due to having made all sorts of mistakes which can cause hurt or disappointment to others.
I often liken this spiritual work to a long drive along the 1,000-km Pacific Coast Highway. This is regarded as perhaps the most beautiful stretch of road in America. The view of the vast, limitless Pacific Ocean is breathtaking and indescribable. And yet the highway is filled with such a constant stream of winding turns that it might be easy to drive off the cliff, or wander into someone’s incoming lane, if the absolute clearest attention is not applied. There are frequent landslides and erosion. Earthquakes cause legendary cracking and buckling of the pavement. A fog rolling in suddenly limits the view to a few meters only. But the twists and turns of the road itself present constant challenges that require strong, clear-minded attention.
I share here some useful reflections on the spiritual path by a great — and also very, very controversial — teacher of our age, the late Chogyam Trungpa. More than many, his seminal text of the pitfalls of the spiritual path — as practitioner, also as “teacher” — is an essential guidebook for this Way. It is sometimes hard for me to look into these pages: what is reflected back out, in his descriptions of the spiritually-acquisitive ego masked as “practitioner” or “guide to the way”, can sometimes be hard to stomach. As it should be.
I first encountered this deeply influential text some 25 years ago. It still speaks with an excruciating, almost unbearable clarity to the areas of my own practice that have become habitual, practiced, hardened into just another form of ego. Reading even a few pages recently reminds why the Four Great Vows that we recite every morning have this seeming-impossibility baked right in: After getting past the “sentient beings are numberless, we vow to save them all” exhortation, there are these three greater peaks to climb: “The defilements are endless; we vow to cut through them all. The teachings are infinite; we vow to learn them all. The Buddha Way is inconceivable; we vow to attain it.”
From Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism, by Chogyam Trungpa
Ego is able to convert everything to its own use, even spirituality. For example, if you have learned of a particularly beneficial meditation technique of spiritual practice, then ego's attitude is, first to regard it as an object of fascination and, second to examine it. Finally, since ego is seeming solid and cannot really absorb anything, it can only mimic. Thus ego tries to examine and imitate the practice of meditation and the meditative way of life. When we have learned all the tricks and answers of the spiritual game, we automatically try to imitate spirituality, since real involvement would require the complete elimination of ego, and actually the last thing we want to do is to give up the ego completely. However, we cannot experience that which we are trying to imitate; we can only find some area within the bounds of ego that seems to be the same thing. Ego translates everything in terms of its own state of health, its own inherent qualities. It feels a sense of great accomplishment and excitement at have been able to create such a pattern. At last it has created a tangible accomplishment, a confirmation of its own individuality. If we become successful at maintaining our self-consciousness through spiritual techniques, then genuine spiritual development is highly unlikely. Our mental habits become so strong as to be hard to penetrate. We may even go so far as to achieve the totally demonic state of complete "Egohood." We have come here to learn about spirituality. I trust the genuine quality of this search but we must question its nature. The problem is that ego can convert anything to its own use, even spirituality. Ego is constantly attempting to acquire and apply the teachings of spirituality for its own benefit. The teachings are treated as an external thing, external to "me," a philosophy which we try to imitate. We do not actually want to identify with or become the teachings. So if our teacher speaks of renunciation of ego, we attempt to mimic renunciation of ego. We go through the motions, make the appropriate gestures, but we really do not want to sacrifice any part of our way of life. We become skillful actors, and while playing deaf and dumb to the real meaning of the teachings, we find some comfort in pretending to follow the path. If we ask ourselves, "What is wrong with evaluating, with taking sides?", the answer is that, when we formulate a secondary judgment, "I should be doing this and should avoid doing that," then we have achieved a level of complication which takes us a long way from the basic simplicity of what we are. The simplicity of meditation means just experiencing the ape instinct of ego. If anything more than this is laid onto our psychology, then it becomes a very heavy, thick mask, a suit of armor. It is important to see that the main point of any spiritual practice is to step out of the bureaucracy of ego. This means stepping out of ego's constant desire for a higher, more spiritual, more transcendental version of knowledge, religion, virtue, judgment, comfort or whatever it is that a particular ego is seeking. One must step out of spiritual materialism. If we do not step out of spiritual materialism, if we in fact practice it, then we may eventually find ourselves possessed of a huge collection of spiritual paths. We may feel these spiritual collections to be very precious. We have studied so much. We may have studied Western philosophy or Oriental philosophy, practiced yoga or perhaps studied under dozens of great masters. We have achieved and we have learned. We believe that we have accumulated a hoard of knowledge. And yet, having gone through all this, there is still something to give up. It is extremely mysterious! How could this happen? Impossible! But unfortunately it is so. Our vast collections of knowledge and experience are just part of ego's display, part of the grandiose quality of ego. We display them to the world and, in so doing, reassure ourselves that we exist, safe and secure, as "spiritual" people. But we have simply created a shop, an antique shop. We could be specializing in oriental antiques or medieval Christian antiques or antiques from some other civilization or time, but we are, nonetheless, running a shop. Before we filled our shop with so many things the room was beautiful: whitewashed walls and a very simple floor with a bright lamp burning in the ceiling. There was one object of art in the middle of the room and it was beautiful. Everyone who came appreciated its beauty, including ourselves. But we were not satisfied and we thought, "Since this one object makes my room so beautiful, if I get more antiques, my room will be even more beautiful." So we began to collect, and the end result was chaos. We searched the world over for beautiful objects - India, Japan, many different countries. And each time we found an antique, because we were dealing with only one object at a time, we saw it as beautiful and thought it would be beautiful in our shop. But when we brought the object home and put it there, it became just another addition to our junky collection. The beauty of the object did not radiate out any more, because it was surrounded by so many other beautiful things. It did not mean anything anymore. Instead of a room full of beautiful antiques we created a junk shop! Proper shopping does not entail collecting a lot of information or beauty, but it involves fully appreciating each individual object. This is very important. If you really appreciate an object of beauty, then you completely identify with it and forget yourself. It is like seeing a very interesting, fascinating movie and forgetting that you are the audience. At that moment there is no world; your whole being is that scene of that movie. It is that kind of identification, complete involvement with one thing. Did we actually taste it and chew it and swallow it properly, that one object of beauty, that one spiritual teaching? Or did we merely regard it as a part of our vast and growing collection? I place so much emphasis on this point because I know that all of us have come to the teachings and practice of meditation not to make a lot of money, but because we genuinely want to learn, want to develop ourselves. But if we regard knowledge as an antique, as "ancient wisdom" to be collected, then we are on the wrong path.