Self-Improvement, Windhorse, and Spiritual Materialism

January 2, 2009 by     Print This Post Print This Post

Commentary by Andrew Safer

It’s normal to have ambitions, goals, and expectations when one enters the spiritual path. At 15, I was fortunate to go on a family vacation with my mother and sister to Tassajara Zen Mountain Center where I met Shunryu Suzuki Roshi. I was immediately struck by him. Whatever he had–composure, equanimity, fathomlessness, big mind–I wanted it. Later, when I was in university, I sat zazen with Kobun Chino Sensei and Jiyu Kennett Roshi.

Zen training was uncompromising. I soon found out that what I was hoping to achieve was beside the point. What kept coming back was: just sit! When I started studying with Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, the practice environment was less severe, but the message was the same. The sitting practice of meditation was always paramount. What I was striving for—my version of enlightenment—was, well, hardly the point. Over time, I started to learn that there was a great distance between what I wanted, and reality.

My sense is that the same is true of any authentic spiritual path: it’s not about what the practitioner wants. It’s about the practice itself, contacting a bigger world, and dedicating oneself to others.  

When I recently read Ruling Your World by Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche I found much of the book instructive, but I was also concerned because there are many instances where the four dignities and the practices are spoken about in terms of the result: if you do A, then B will happen. While this approach will interest the beginner who is achievement-oriented, I’m concerned that it is sending the wrong message to that same person who rereads the book once they’ve entered the path, and to everyone else who reads it.   

My reference points are my early teachers and my root guru, Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche. In Zen Mind Beginner’s Mind, Suzuki Roshi says (emphasis mine):

Especially for young people, it is necessary to try very hard to achieve something. You must stretch out your arms and legs as wide as they will go. Form is form. You must be true to your own way until at last you actually come to the point where you see it is necessary to forget all about yourself. Until you come to this point, it is completely mistaken to think that whatever you do is Zen or that it does not matter whether you practice or not. But if you make your best effort just to continue your practice with your whole mind and body, without gaining ideas, then whatever you do will be true practice. Just to continue should be your purpose. [p 43]

It is therefore a bit jarring to read, in the chapter in Ruling Your World on “The Confidence of Equanimity”: “We realize in an outrageous moment that if we approach all beings with kindness, appreciation and love, we can be happy anytime, anywhere.” [p 138]

As Suzuki Roshi said, “just to continue should be your purpose.” When one’s own happiness is brought about by an act of kindness, this seems to be a different kettle of fish entirely. (This theme was also explored in Not About Happiness.)

When we take the bodhisattva vow, we vow to liberate all sentient beings before ourself. Even though it’s impossible, we vow to do so. This is not only the height of magnanimity, it’s also pragmatic, because it sidetracks the practitioner from thinking of himself. Pragmatic, because this way, he doesn’t waste any time thinking about, or catering to,  his ego—which, as we eventually discover, in fact, doesn’t exist.

The theme of killing two birds with one stone—serving oneself while serving others—reappears throughout the book.  In the chapter on “The Confidence of Delight in Helping Others”:

We may be sitting there contemplating others, and in the back of our mind thinking: “I need to do more for myself.” By thinking of others, we are doing more for ourselves. Generating joy by helping others is a secret way—and the best way—of helping ourselves. Every time we think of someone else’s happiness, we are taking a vacation from the “me” plan. It’s like getting physically fit by helping our neighbour shovel the snow from the driveway. [p 116]

In the era of new-age this and new-age that, perhaps it’s fitting that the Buddhadharma and Shambhala teachings have been repackaged in a way that appeals to “the marketplace.” One could argue that this represents a skillful means, that in this way, Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche is making the teachings accessible to many more people. This may indeed be the case, but at what cost?

On the topic of self-improvement and the achievement of goals, Trungpa Rinpoche said (emphasis mine):

Trust and compassion for oneself bring inspiration to dance with life, to communicate with the energies of the world. Lacking this kind of inspiration and openness, the spiritual path becomes the samsaric path of desire. One remains trapped in the desire to improve onself, the desire to achieve imagined goals. [Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism: p 98]

Windhorse (lungta in Tibetan)—the self-existing energy of basic goodness that has been described as “the breeze of delight”—is an important theme in Ruling Your World.  Once again, Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche breaks new ground in the way he discusses this key Shambhalian principle. “We are not afraid of the power of windhorse, which brings worldly and spiritual success.” [p 179]

Clearly, this is a description that will appeal to the self-improvement types. But even in the context of a new-age version of windhorse which is all about “what’s in it for me?”, this description is one-sided. Consider this passage by Trungpa Rinpoche from Shambhala: The Sacred Path of the Warrior:

The warrior who experiences windhorse feels the joy and sorrow of love in everything he does. He feels hot and cold, sweet and sour simultaneously. Whether things go well or things go badly, whether there is success or failure, he feels sad and delighted at once. [p 85]

In the last pages of Ruling Your World, Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche expands on the outcomes of windhorse:

Windhorse brings spiritual and worldly success—personal power, harmony with others, strong life force, and material prosperity. [pp 192-193]

The notion that spirituality can be used to attain one’s personal goals was anathema to Trungpa Rinpoche. He made this quite clear in his ground-breaking book, Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism, which was published in 1973.

It would be foolish to study more advanced subjects before we are familiar with the starting point, the nature of ego. Speculations about the goal become mere fantasy. These speculations may take the form of advanced ideas and descriptions of spiritual experiences, but they only exploit the weaker aspects of human nature, our expectations and desires to see and hear something colorful, something extraordinary. If we begin our study with these dreams of extraordinary, “enlightening”, and dramatic experiences, then we will build up our expectations and preconceptions so that later, when we are actually working on the path, our minds will be occupied largely with what will be rather than with what is. It is destructive and not fair to people to play on their weaknesses, their expectations and dreams, rather than to present the realistic starting point of what they are. It is necessary, therefore, to start on what we are and why we are searching. [pp 121-122] 

The results-based orientation of the Sakyong’s teachings and his appeal to the self-help market are key characteristics that distinguish him from Trungpa Rinpoche. 

Having coined the phrase “spiritual materialism,” Trungpa Rinpoche defined it in this way:

There are numerous sidetracks which lead to a distorted ego-centered version of spirituality; we can deceive ourselves into thinking we are developing spiritually when instead we are strengthening our egocentricity through spiritual techniques. [p 3]

He was particularly diligent in pointing out the pitfall of self-deception so that the practitioner can be aware of it and recognize it when it rears its ugly head.

Ego is very professional, overwhelmingly efficient in its own way. When we think that we are working on the forward-moving process of attempting to empty ourselves out, we find ourselves going backwards, trying to secure ourselves, filling ourselves up. [p 56]

 “Self-deception is a constant problem as we progress along a spiritual path,” continues Trungpa Rinpoche. “Ego is always trying to achieve spirituality. It is rather like wanting to witness your own funeral.” [p 63]

Reading further in Ruling Your World, in addition to happiness, personal power, and worldy and spiritual success, luck is also identified as an outcome for those who practice the path of virtue. This is articulated in the following two passages:

As the golfer Ben Hogan once said, “The more I practice, the luckier I get.” In Tibet, this luck is known as tashi tendrel—auspicious coincidence.  [pp 158-159] 

By acting virtuously, exerting ourselves in service to others, we are blessed in return by harmony and good luck. [p 160]

From a conventional point of view, there’s no argument here! But is it dharma?

Again, in Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism, Trungpa Rinpoche comments on this orientation towards results (emphasis mine).

So the point we come back to is that some kind of real gift or sacrifice is needed if we are to open ourselves completely. This gift may take any form. But in order for it to be meaningful, it must entail giving up our hope of getting something in return. It does not matter how many titles we have, nor how many suits of exotic clothes we have worn through, nor how many philosophies, commitments and sacramental ceremonies we have participated in. We must give up our ambition to get something in return for our gift. That is the really hard way. [p 80]

This passage echoes a well-known line in Trungpa Rinpoche’s Sadhana of Mahamudra : “I make these offerings without expecting anything in return, and without hope of gaining merit.”

The contrast between the teachings of father and son is extreme. Of course, it is Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche’s prerogative to teach as he sees fit. But the fact that the apple has fallen so far from the tree is worth noting, in the interests of helping to preserve the legacy of Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche for both present and future generations.

Photograph of Lohan by Robert Newman. The Karme-Chöling shrine room has a series of Lohan images.


104 Responses to “Self-Improvement, Windhorse, and Spiritual Materialism”

  1. Andrew Safer on April 4th, 2009 12:12 pm

    I just read “Basic Anxiety is Happening All the Time”, an excerpt from The Truth of Suffering and the Path of Liberation, by Chogyam Trungpa (2009) in the Shambhala Times

    Here are a couple of excerpts:

    “You could regard any sense of promise that comes into your mind, any hope that comes up, as another thought. If there is a strong desire to achieve a result, that will push you back. You could relate to hope as respect for the dharma, or the truth, rather than a promise.”

    “Simplicity brings tremendous relief. Nonetheless, you don’t look for final results and you do not become goal-oriented; you just keep on practicing. Having practiced enough, achievement comes naturally. If you are constantly trying to achieve cessation, it is a problem–you will not achieve it in that way. Whenever you take an ego-oriented approach, you become allergic to yourself. There is no other way but to step out of that. So attaining individual salvation does not come from seeking salvation–salvation simply dawns.”

  2. Andrew Safer on April 15th, 2009 1:31 pm


    “Although you may not have experienced the final development (enlightenment) yet, it is no big secret that there is a final development. You can’t pretend that the Buddha didn’t exist and still talk about his teachings, because he actually did it — he achieved enlightenment. We can’t keep that a secret. In the meantime, however, you could regard any sense of promise that comes into your mind, any hope that comes up, as another thought. If there is a strong desire to achieve a result, that will push you back. You could relate to hope as respect for the dharma, or the truth, rather than a promise. It is like a schoolchild seeing a professor: one day she too might become a professor, but she still has to do her homework. Similarly, particularly in the hinayana, the early stage of the path, there is a journey going on all the time. ”

    From Chapter Seven, “Meditation as the Path to Buddhahood” in THE TRUTH OF SUFFERING: and the Path of Liberation, page 71.

  3. John Whitney Pettit on August 19th, 2009 10:08 am

    Andrew Safer’s article is the most instructive I have read so far when it comes to understanding what all the controversy is about. It seems the Vidyadhara’s teachings are subject to the same evolutionary (and devolutionary) forces that prevail upon any important Dharma teachings in this world.
    On the one hand there are those individuals that strive to maintain teachings in a way that comes as close as possible to their original form and intent.
    Then there are those that strive to maintain the intent while making accommodations in form according to time, place and individuals, i.e. as ‘skillful means’.
    Finally there are some amongst the beneficiaries of those ‘skillful means’ that fail to go beyond a literal understanding and practice of the accommodated doctrines they have received. If they go on to teach, they degrade the teachings to some degree. Mipham Rinpoche (the first, 1846-1910) quotes from a Sutra and comments on this scenario:

    “The Discourse on Eradication of Evildoings says, “Shariputra! Enmired in this life’s affairs, fascinated by controversy, ushering themselves and others unto ruin ? just such people, spiritually unhinged, will overrun this world of ours.”
    Keeping in mind the circumstances foreshadowed by this and other sutras, individuals born in the presence of the teachings in this age of rampant degeneration will degrade most of the Mahayana’s essential doctrines by inverting the four principles of interpretation, thus producing a counterfeit version of Dharma.”

    [Source: _Roaring Lions: An Extended Summary of Buddha-Nature_, my translation]
    The four principles are: rely on the teaching, not on the personality that teaches; rely on meanings, not on words; rely on definitive meaning, not on provisional meaning; rely on timeless awareness, not on ordinary mind.

    For example, the definitive meanings of Dharma can be expressed literally, as they are, or in a roundabout (metaphorical, or skillful) way. The ’roundabout’ approach is meant to lead up (upaya) from provisional (ordinary) understanding to definitive (timelessly aware) realization. It is the responsibility of both teacher and student to make sure that the rope of skillful means is used to pull oneself up (literally ‘upaya’ in Sanskrit), not to strangle or hogtie oneself.
    So in this regard, what the Sakyong is doing now is ultimately of less consequence than how his own students understand it. In particular, how will the Adam Lobels manage to maintain a proper (definitive) understanding in themselves and their students, when it comes to accomodating the teachings?

    Buddha Shakyamuni had many great disciples, but none of them equalled their own teacher in terms of sheer brilliance and originality. The same must be said of Padmasambhava; even his teachings reached a sorry state by the eleventh century, to be revived by the teachings of Tertons and Longchen Rabjam, etc. Even then, the great teachers like Longchenpa who maintained the faith and realization of the practice lineages were not always hierarchially situated. In other words, to inspire faith they did not have to rely upon high-faluting titles and tulku certificates granted by inscrutable, lofty authorities. Witness the lives of the first Traleg Rinpoche (Saltong Shogom), Drukpa Kunleg, and Longchen Rabjam himself. None of them ever had a booming, buzzing monastery, much less an international organization under their directorate.

    I believe those of us inspired by the Vidyadhara’s teachings just have to live them. That alone protects the teachings. As for the businessmen and hierarchs, they will (as always) take care of themselves, which is neither good nor bad. It is just what they do.

  4. Palo on December 22nd, 2011 4:42 am

    “Windhorse (lungta in Tibetan)—the self-existing energy of basic goodness that has been described as “the breeze of delight””

    This caught ‘my’ attention…

    ‘I’ don’t think so!

    Though it is difficult to use a form of communication/language that is 3 dimensional to define multi-dimensional potential one needs to be careful none-the-less to use any term/reference definitive to any existence.

    In suggestion to the 4 Kayas