Reflections on the fallacy of common assumptions
For readers of spiritual literature it is not surprising to find statements that accept the existence of the human spirit as axiomatic. Sometimes such declarations are grounded on a more basic metaphysical worldview, but more often they are offered without further justification except for the force of practice, an unassailable ascetical premise. Belief in spirit is considered a dynamic necessity for spiritual growth, regardless of the metaphysics.
The message is implicitly anti-materialist and is justified as the fruit of experience not speculation. if you are serious about advancing spiritually, they claim, you have to acknowledge that you are NOT your body. Since control and training of bodily urges is central to all ascetical practice, it is a common assumption that the practitioner must confront the body as if it were alien ― something “other” than one’s self. I can control my body because I AM NOT my body. Thus belief in spirit enters by the back door.
The point of this essay is to affirm that the same dynamic of practice can and does function well and perhaps even better in a world that is exclusively material. This is more than an academic exercise or personal preference of mine. For, while the material energy that comprises all things is capable of producing an amazing and unexpected range of behavioral phenomena including what we have traditionally called “spiritual,” there is no evidence of the existence of a separate kind of “thing” called “spirit.” If, as science suggests, there is nothing but matter’s energy, then there must be a way to explain and sustain historical ascetical practice, otherwise thousands of years of attested human transformation would, implausibly, have to be dismissed as illusion. Whatever the metaphysics might be, the traditional practices work. If it is also true as science claims that we are not “other” than our bodies, then there must be a way to understand how both can be true.
Matter’s consistency with traditional goals
Two principal aims of traditional spirituality, the objectification of one’s own body for the purposes of its control and training, and the practitioner’s personal identification with a transcendent ground that provides a basis for the embrace of altruistic universalism, can be achieved in an exclusively material universe without having recourse to belief in a separable human “spirit,” or projecting the existence of a separate world.
First, my total identification as matter does not in any way necessitate that I identify exclusively with my particular body. As a matter of fact, identifying my body as comprised of the selfsame particles that comprise everything else in the material cosmos tends to de-emphasize the particularity that my intense spontaneous urges for self-protection and self-aggrandizement seem to imply. The feelings they elicit are ephemeral and therefore, spiritually speaking, their demands for satisfaction are bogus. If every particle of my organism is a generic entity, entirely replaceable by other particles of the same type, it is much more difficult to assign my feeling of uniqueness to anything more objective than the minor variations that differentiate my organism from other “things.” All “things,” not only human beings, are made of exactly the same clay. The insistence on existence ― the drive to survive ― is common to us all. Nothing justifies the priority I am inclined to give myself.
The Buddhist claim that the metaphysically independent, stand-alone “self” is an illusion, is supported by this scientific description of reality as material energy. In fact, no “thing” of any kind in our universe is only “itself” according to science, since all things are comprised of the same material energy. Buddhists have been saying this at least since the Mahayana Reform at the beginning of the common era. Buddhists, however, do not adduce the common material base as the reason for it; rather, they point to the multiplicity of “causes” that conspire in the “arising” of any phenomenon. Regardless, the fact of universally shared matter implicitly includes the dynamic interactions ― the “dependent co-arising” ― characteristic of material elements. In both descriptions, the “self” is absorbed into a totality-in-process which Buddhist teachers like Thich Naht Hahn claim is the point of meditation: to come to a full cognitive-affective realization of one’s identity with all things. Knowing that I am pure material energy ― whole cloth with the rest of the universe ― accomplishes exactly that.
This brings us to the second supposed unique achievement of belief in spirit: the personal identification with a transcendent ground that provides a basis for the embrace of altruistic universalism. All major traditions ultimately agree on the goal of human transformation: universal love and compassion for all things.
Traditions like Christianity which are metaphysically dualist in nature (because they believe there are two distinct kinds of “stuff” in the universe, matter and spirit), assign the human self to the spiritual realm not just because human activity transcends the limits found in other entities and organisms, but because they attribute that transcendence to a metaphysical source: a separable “soul” that is made of spirit not matter. Spirit is further believed to be the “stuff” that comprises a multitude of invisible entities variously called angels or devils and includes the highest entity and source of all things spiritual: “God” theorized to be pure Spirit. By identifying oneself as spirit, therefore, one identifies oneself with “God” and thus is metaphysically predisposed to the kind of generosity, compassion and creativity characteristic of spirit. Besides, by realizing that one is not matter, domination of the body’s insistent urges is rationalized: there is a reason why the mind can and should dominate the body. Thus many Christians (and other dualist traditions) see belief in spirit as uniquely foundational for the pursuit of “perfection” which is to live morally, to love and to give as “God” does.
Other traditions, like Hinduism, which are more accurately described as a spiritual monism (because they believe that all things including matter are ultimately illusory manifestations of an underlying universal Spirit they call “Atman” or Self), claim that belief in spirit is simply acknowledgement of what is really real. The body is an illusion. The human “self” (atman) is the evolutionary emergence of the underlying Universal “Self.” And it is only through meditation that this identification can be brought to consciousness and firmly established in the practice of daily living with justice, love and compassion. The Great “Self” is thought to be “Mind” not matter, and therefore the human mind is similarly not matter. This grounds the dynamic of the ascetic pursuit of self-control leading to self-transformation into the “first principle.” Matter is ultimately resolvable into Spirit.
In contrast with both these traditions, Buddhists quite intentionally avoid ultimate metaphysical worldviews as distractions from and hindrances to the principal goal of ascetical practice: the realization and full acceptance of all reality including one’s “self” as impermanent. The full acceptance of impermanence ― reality as it is ― is, for Buddhists, the end of sorrow and the beginning of compassion and loving kindness for all things. All suggestions that there is a way out of this impermanence for oneself are obstacles to nirvana which is identified with the “letting go” of any clinging or craving for permanence that would enthrone the “self” ― the conceit of “I am” ― which is the self-inflicted source of all suffering.
“Mendicants, when the perception of impermanence is developed and cultivated it eliminates all desire for sensual pleasures, for rebirth in the realm of luminous form, and for rebirth in a future life. It eliminates all ignorance and eradicates all conceit ‘I am’.
Some may think that by encouraging the practitioner’s identification with the totality, that Buddhists have somehow “found a way out” of the impermanence ― and that the totality represents a permanence that the parts do not. Not at all. For the impermanence evident in the flow of day to day reality is equally applicable to the totality as a totality. The totality itself is impermanent and, according to all scientific predictions, will eventually run out of energy and metamorphose into something that is utterly unrecognizable to current definitions and descriptions of reality.
Negative effects of belief in “spirit”
On the negative side, there are reasons why belief in spirit has been and may continue to be a damaging and dangerous thing. The feeling of alienation, what I have called in other places an autogenic disease, wherein the human organism identifies its own body as alien, can push efforts for the control of bodily urges into self destructive territory. Practitioners who believe they are spiritual “souls” trapped in dungeons of flesh are justified by the metaphysics alone in loathing, denying, negating, and ultimately punishing, torturing, damaging and even killing their own bodies. A case could be made for saying that even when carried out in the most rational and emotionally detached way, alienated dualist metaphysics guarantees that the efforts will be repressive and therefore ultimately ineffective. So that even from the point of view of bodily control, the belief is counter-indicated. Many of us reading this today have experienced in our own flesh the damaging effects of these beliefs. This is not just speculation.
Similarly, in the spiritist worldview what is true in one’s attitudes toward oneself is applied with all the more rigor when it comes to other people. Having accepted that self-loathing is part of self-control, the practitioner has little hesitation in inflicting pain on others with the justification that “it will give them a healthy distance on their bodies.” Humiliation, isolation, the denial of affection and constant denigration heaped on those for whom the ascetic has “spiritual” responsibility are deemed necessary for the lowering of self-esteem which is routinely confused with the egotistical self-projection of the mindless conatus. Thus belief in spirit tends to prevent the loving embrace of our organic nature, which in some traditions contradicts the doctrines of creation being the gift and image of a loving “God.”
We need also to be constantly reminded of the disastrous ecological implications of the belief in spirit. For by attributing all value to spirit and denigrating matter as inferior and corrupting of human aspirations, the earth itself with its multitude of other biological species, plant and animal, is disdained except as it might serve humankind. It is of absolutely no concern to the spiritist if any number of species “irrelevant” to human survival or utility were to disappear. No life form other than man is respected for itself. The result has been the ever increasing deterioration of the water, air, soil and climate that all species rely on for their sustenance. I don’t think it is far-fetched in the least to attribute our environmental crisis directly, if not exclusively, to belief in the existence of separable “spirit” and the anthropocentrism that resulted from it. It paradoxically spurred our self-serving technology (which has kept many of us alive well past our otherwise expected time-of-life) even as it conspired to disregard other species and the life-supporting resources of the planet.
We are not the gods we would like to think we are. The rest of creation does not have to bow down and serve us. We are matter ― an integral part of an impermanent material universe. Our survival is bound up with the survival of all.
Now, the point of this reflection has been to suggest that belief in a transcendent materialism dovetails with the dynamic goals of the spiritual aspirations of our many religious traditions. Does it prove that “there is nothing but matter”? No. But it shows that belief that I am my body does not necessarily inhibit my spiritual growth and that belief in a separate kind of “thing” called spirit is not a necessary prerequisite for the spiritual programs of the great religious traditions of our social history.
Bhikkhu Sujato. Samyuttanikaya: Linked Discourses 22:102 (Kindle Locations 10696-10698).