We asked Gehlek Rimpoche to explain the term “spiritual materialism,” popularized by Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche more than 30 years ago. He says:
As I understood it, in speaking about cutting through spiritual materialism Trungpa Rinpoche was talking about cutting through the ego and the ego’s activities.
In Buddhism we often consider phenomena from both the gross and subtle perspective. Spiritual materialism can be viewed in the same terms. At one end, we have the spiritual materialism of fundamentalist groups that try to further their own advancement at the exclusion or even the expense of others. At the other end, we have our own subtle, contaminated view that hinders our spiritual progress. Both forms of spiritual materialism are the result of the ego’s influence. This subtle but pervasive influence of the ego can turn even our well-intentioned activities into spiritual materialism. In order to cut through spiritual materialism, we need to recognize the various ways that we are susceptible to the ego’s influence.
… Spiritual materialism has to do with our motivation. If we engage in spiritual activity with anything other than a spiritual aim, then we are heading into the ego’s trap. So we need to check our motivation. But in doing this, we run the risk of doubting all our motivations. We might begin to think that gaining anything at all for ourselves is suspect. But that would be wrong. We absolutely do have something to gain. We do have a goal.
As Buddhists, our spiritual goal is to become enlightened. If we are Mahayana Buddhists, then our goal is to gain total liberation, not just for ourselves, but for all beings. And if we don’t succeed at that, then our goal is to liberate ourselves from the pains and the sufferings of samsara. If we unable to achieve that, then our goal is to continue on the spiritual path in our future life. We are all here struggling to be enlightened. That is a certainly an achievable goal.
Of course, the Heart Sutra says there is no goal and there is no enlightenment and there is no attainment and there is no non-attainment. And that is absolutely true. However, we live on the border between the relative and the absolute level. From the absolute standpoint, there is nothing to obtain once we have really seen the true nature of reality, or the true emptiness. You could compare the absolute view to an eagle flying through the air. In the sky itself there are no landmarks to measure the distance of the eagle’s flight. But if we look at the mountains and the rivers and the cities below, we can measure the eagle’s progress relative to these landmarks…