Chogyam Trungpa, Malcolm X and Spiritual Materalism


Chogyam Trungpa is surely one of the more polarizing and controversial figures in the recent Buddhism zeitgeist. He was definitely an alcoholic. He slept with many of his students, many of which were married. He might have had a serious cocaine habit, according to John Steinbeck IV. And according to the poet, W.S. Merwin, he made everyone strip naked at a Halloween party against their will. These are hardly the actions of what I might call a moral person. 

But at the same time, he is widely respected as one of the great spiritual teachers of his age by many people who I admire. Pema Chodron was one of his disciples considers him an enlightened being. He started the only Buddhist college, Naropa University in Boulder. And he had a number of celebrity students, including Joni Mitchell and Allen Ginsburg. 

I've read two of his books and see his genius and insight into modern life. I can't condone most of his actions, of course, but there's value in spiritual wisdom, despite the messenger, I think. 

Spiritual Materialism 

One of his most interesting ideas is "Spiritual Materialism," which comes from his landmark book, "Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism." Spiritual Materialism can be described as "mistakes spiritual seekers commit which turn the pursuit of spirituality into an ego-building and confusion creating endeavor, based on the idea that ego development is counter to spiritual progress."

I wrote about Spiritual Materialism recently in a blog post about Deepak Chopra. But you'll see less insidious forms not just in New Age or Eastern Religions. Spiritual Materialism runs rampant in the Christian world as well. 

I don't know if I can make any blanket statements about Christian Televangelists or Eastern Gurus. But my sense is that generally is that if you're selling fantastic, mystical experiences or perfect enlightenment, you're probably guilty of Spiritual Materialism. The world of the holy is so often used to make money by the boatloads and prop up one's ego to feel powerful. It is rarely about collectivism and empathy and humility, all traits that are apparent in Jesus as an example. As Queen Gertrude said, "the lady doth protest too much, methinks." 

The true religious person in my experience rarely needs to proclaim their greatness or promise glory or enlightenment. The true religious person above all else is honest. They will acknowledge their flaws. They will acknowledge their failures. And they will not tell you that life will always be some enlightened paradise if you do a meditation or put Jesus in your heart. They will tell you that life will often not make sense, that you will suffer, but that there can be some grace in that suffering. Taking "credit" for accomplishments is not something they care about it because they are acting for the betterment of the whole, the betterment of humanity. 


My personal hero, a word that connotates many things, but for me just means someone I admire and want to be more like, is Malcolm X. Ever since I read his autobiography at the age of 20, I have admired his activism, eloquence and incredible life story.

But more than anything I admire his self-reflection and ability to seek out truth above all else. I once heard someone say about him that if he had died at 20, he would have died an unknown hustler and heroin addict named Detroit Red. That he transitioned from that into one of the great leaders of modern America is alone incredible. But later in his life, he saw many of the flaws of his thinking. He understood how his anger had sometimes made his spirit turn wayward. And he came to see God's light as a light of love, 

"The only true world solution today is governments guided by true religion — of the spirit. I've had enough of someone else's propagandaI'm for truth, no matter who tells it. I'm for justice, no matter who it's for or against. I'm a  human being first and foremost, and as such I am for whoever and whatever benefits humanity as a whole."

He was a great man. But there are other great religious people out there too. I think of Pema Chodron or John Vanier among two I admire. It probably won't happen in my lifetime, but as as we reach the late stages of capitalism, it is these kinds of people who I look to more and more to lead us into a new world.