Listening to a Buddhist podcast this morning, I was struck by how our cultural narcissism has finally pervaded even that august and beautiful spiritual tradition. Though there is much in Buddhism that is about kindness, compassion, and service, some modern adherents have apparently managed to pour these wonderful ideas into the holy grail of self-gratification.
Is it possible that a whole new generation of spiritual adherents is being taught that the focus of meditative practice is about mental training as an end rather than a means? It does seem that the spectrum marked at one end by video games and at the other by spiritual meditation (with psychedelic exploration dead center) is being homogenized into a single meta-pursuit.
Of course, focusing exclusively on the self to the literal exclusion of all else is not a new idea. Mystical Buddhist arhats have long done precisely that, withdrawing from society to quiet the mind and thus escape from suffering. The arhat’s path stands in contrast to that of the bodhisattva, who works for his or her own enlightenment as well, but sticks around for the benefit of all sentient beings after achieving it.
This split between exclusive focus on the self and focus on the self so as to serve others is an old one in Buddhism, and remains a relevant discussion between Buddhist sects today. In some ways, it reminds me of the tension between certain Taoist schools, specifically those that allege to embrace the pure, inwardly-oriented philosophy of the Tao Te Ching and those who see Taoism as more of an external, animistic religion, replete with gods and goddesses, most of whom represent natural forces, manifestations, or phenomena.
Religious practices, like religious beliefs, are almost always linked to history and politics. While the self-directed tendencies of some schools of modern spiritual practice have vaunted, ancient roots, those roots grew in a soil that was not nearly as desperately crowded and polluted as is the spiritual soil of today. Thus, while withdrawing from society to meditate for years in a cave might have been appropriate in those heady, early, birthing days of Buddhism, doing so now seems a luxury. Retreating into the burgeoning, profit-based, virtual worlds created for us on the Internet and in video games seems equally self-indulgent.
While they are, no doubt, great fun, such games, and enabling virtual reality (VR) hardware like the Oculist Rift, present two significant problems. The first is with the path to enlightenment itself. This is a big subject, but the crux of the limitation of such tech is that it is pure hubris to expect from an artificial world the same trenchant surprise, infinite texture, sublime complexity, and transcendent moments that the real world offers. Absent those resources, the growth in consciousness that those more limited worlds catalyzes are likely to be limited.
The second problem is that the moment we slip a VR headset over our ears, we absent ourselves from precisely those very real problems that such a see-no-evil-hear-no-evil-smell-no-evil-touch-no-evil approach to living has created in the first place. Even when masquerading under the shelter of some sort of perverted spiritual umbrella, escaping the world rather than contributing to it is not the spiritual path for this Earth’s end game. As we play, our population grows like a cancer on the face of the planet, the world’s poor get poorer, sentient beings are slaughtered right and left, our oceans are dying, and the very physical fabric of the earth is shattering under our drill bits, our bulldozers, our poisons, and our high-pressure geologic injections. Is this really the time to tune out?
In my closing keynote speech at the International Tai Chi Symposium earlier this month in Louisville, Kentucky, I exhorted the practitioners in attendance to take the increased vitality, strength, and skill they learned from the visiting Chinese grandmasters and apply those resources to doing good in the world. Without a purpose outside of us, I argued, all that self-development was, in the end, no more than elaborate, exotic masturbation.
At a time when fundamentalist religious groups command so much of the world’s attention with their vitriolic combination of bigotry, hate, literalism, proselytizing, xenophobia, and violence, it is more important than ever to remember that the real job of spiritual practitioners, adherents, followers, and mystics alike is to compassionately support all sentient life, and to do so with a selfless and long-term view. Instead of ignoring the problems of the world and turning away from the gritty challenges they present, how about applying all that excited, creative, passionate energy to crafting technology to do something positive in the real world, the one we can feel and touch without technological augmentation? How about doing some good out there?
Please. Remember. It’s not all about you.