The Spiritual Market Place, Part 3

The Enlightenment Lottery

There’s a documentary made in 2009 about spirituality called Who’s Driving the Dreambus? It includes interviews with a number of prominent spiritual teachers (Jeff Foster, Timothy Freke, Gangaji, Amit Goswami, Boris Jänsch, Tony Parsons, Genpo Roshi, Guy Smith) and gives a fairly useful overview of contemporary spirituality. For one thing, almost everyone in the movie agrees that there is nothing the seeker needs to “do” to get enlightened. But while I was watching it I started to wonder, if that were the case, why were all these spiritual adepts even talking about it? Why not talk about beekeeping or baseball? Wasn’t listening to a spiritual teacher tell us there’s nothing to do to get enlightened doing something? Why even make the movie?

I found myself wondering, did spiritual teachers teach that there was nothing  to do because it was what sold? Was it a way of giving people a reassuring message to go home with so they would come back for more—roughly the same thing Christianity had been doing for centuries: selling salvation by fiat? It doesn’t matter to most seekers if what they take away with them is negligible to the point of non-existence; it’s the equivalent of buying a lottery ticket. What’s being purchased is hope. And since hope is blind, it doesn’t really matter how bad the odds are.

Like winning the lottery, enlightenment is the ultimate and absolute life changer. It fits comfortably on the cosmic menu alongside “God,” “truth” and “Heaven”: if there is such a thing, it’s the only thing that counts. Like filthy riches to the unwashed poor, once its existence becomes known about, life becomes dull and grey without it. Our cup becomes forever half empty.

Like Santa for kids, it doesn’t matter if the enlightenment or salvation being offered is real or not so long as the belief in it is. Belief in unreal concepts creates perpetual demand, which, as every businessman knows, is the key to a healthy market. Look at how advertising imbues the most ordinary products with magical qualities, as if a deodorant or beer could give its owner sexual magnetism. The product fails but the belief, the fantasy, and the hope remain, and the consumer keeps coming back for more.

The hardest drug to quit is the drug that almost works. Whether it’s sex, drugs, money, or food, we get addicted to the pleasures that nearly give us what we’re looking for (relief from the misery of our lives) but never quite do. If spiritual beliefs and practices were a total bust, we would lose interest in them. If they really worked, we wouldn’t need them because we’d be enlightened.  What makes spirituality endlessly fascinating to seekers is that it keeps promising to work but never quite does. Like gamblers who almost win the jackpot before losing everything, spiritual seekers keep coming back for more, and the spiritual marketplace thrives.

Just like the desire for effort-free wealth, the desire for spiritual attainment is so powerful that seekers aren’t discouraged by the paltriness of the products and services on offer, any more than a lottery ticket buyer is discouraged by the odds. Seekers always believe they will beat the odds. The spiritual market, like Las Vegas, preys on naiveté and optimism. A gambler’s handbook that had hard and fast, verifiable methods for winning would bring down the gambling business. A true and effective spirituality would be the end of the spiritual market.

The only means to that end is to strip away all of the misconceptions about spiritualty and see what’s left—if anything. It’s possible that, like Las Vegas or the global economy, once we are able to see the inner workings of the spiritual marketplace, we’ll discover it’s corrupt to the core and be forced to throw it away and start from scratch. Dire as such a scenario may seem to some, the alternative is to stay shackled to a system whose only purpose is the fattening of the few and the exploitation of the many. The sheep-like seeker is forever numbered with the fleeced, and following a guru or a spiritual system may be about as smart as trying to take snapshots of the sharks while our ship is sinking.


8 thoughts on “The Spiritual Market Place, Part 3

  1. Excellent 3-part essay, Jasun. I have come away with two separate ideas from your writing on this topic.

    In this essay you describe how in contemporary alternative spirituality there is often a guru, or “spiritual master” to whom seekers go for their dose of spirituality. They look for a person to tell them what to do, what to believe, what are the “techniques”, i.e. meditation practices, retreats, drugs etc. And often, the “guru” tells them that enlightenment is something they can do for themselves (after purchasing their mantra, etc), that it is up to the person, and yes, usually sold with “you don’t reallly have to do anything, you’re already there.”

    This reminds me of something I read in a book by Alain Danielou many years ago, when he wrote in a few short sentences a pretty scathing review of Buddhism. To paraphrase…he said that Buddhism was a form of early Protestantism. It grew as a reaction against the traditional polytheism (Hinduism), and stressed that person did not have to go to a priest, or the gods for enlightenment…that you could seek it within yourself. Danielou felt that this was an important fallacy to recognize and overcome. That placing the burden entirely on a person to find enlightenment (or attunement to the universe), it played into a whole range of emotional behaviors of humans (needing guidance, ritual, etc.) that can be manipulated by authorities…in religion and government.

    Now, Danielou was a devout Shaivite Hindu, but I have always remembered his truly sharp argument against Buddhism and other forms of spiritual practice that focus entirely on a person’s effort. I have never liked the idea of “do-it-yourself” spirituality. It seems too easily a way of making someone compliant to yet another set of human-made rules.

    The other point you make that I also agree with, is the tight linkage of money/marketing/capitalism with spirituality. The Catholic Church did it for centuries, then Protestants joined hands with capitalism. In the west, we still live with the horrific legacy of Puritan values and free market capitalism. New Age spiritual teachers have taken that playbook and simply updated the language. They know precisely how to manipulate people searching for an authentic spiritual experience.

    I also agree with you that enlightenment is something that happens when layers of misunderstanding the true nature of reality are slowly pulled away. It is a place that a person can be at when you pierce through the veil of illusion that is modern life and all of its historical baggage. It truly should be the natural place for a human to live from.

    Maybe the most political statement a person can make is to become enlightened. The modern world would not survive if most people woke up.

  2. Yes. The commercialisation of spirituality fades into the sort of Thatcherist corporate speak about self-reliance and individuality which is totalitarian in its intent. Oprah will annihilate your soul to feed it to the energy parasites or demons or whatnots using the promise of spiritual upliftment. Without leaders we will be led by something worse?

    Looking forward to more.

  3. The only spiritual teachers who I trust are the ones who teach their students to make hunting tools (and/or weapons) by hand.

  4. DebbieF informs alright. Reporting, Danielou, Hindu himself, declaring that Buddhism as (false?) alternative to Hindi belief in say their 10,000 gods, polymorphic polytheism is like a form of early Protestanism. Breaking away from tradition. No need for Priests as annoited authority to make connection. Interesting, defending one’s faith, position, showing fallacy in another way to believe, the dubious reasons for invention of a new way, and why a new ‘faith’ is in any way sort of invalid, that a new way surely got to be a shade or two removed from true faith, ancient with its original prophets/messengers, authentic by it’s cornerstone foundation, is in itself defenseless. Considering alignment absolutely to a personal faith allows no other ‘truth’ and thus is one-way only in a multi-way universe. Although we seem to be integrated parts to whole from whole to parts to . . . . At any rate, Buddha, enlightment himself by himself (And what else? Look within and find our way ‘back’ to ‘balance’ eh) discovered his original elightenment perhaps after Siddharta’s own Christ type 40 days and 40 nites desert thirst, thus ‘seeing the light’. A self taught enlightment man taught by the teacher in himself opened up and teaching like crazy the one true way is the middle way which is bordered by all ways both sides of the coin. Eh?

    So, Buddha it is sort of suggested by Danielou is like Martin Luther, in a way, who decreed his Catholic Church was in so many ways opposing it’s own ‘do unto others’ faith. Get rid of the folderol, pewing up in highrise cathedrals to get closer to God in the sky, and HIM interpreted by the priests annoited to make the connection, Instead do it yourself, connect to God, the Devine, or, extended without Gods involved, the enlightened way, do it yourself. Debbie is bothered by “do it yourself” enlightenment. Just another imposition, “compliant to yet another set of human-made rules.” Yes but well, if only people–born wise enuf for the most part considering birth, wah, wah, is without the mush osmosized as truth after truth after lies after lies existance itself imposes consequent perhaps the ambivalence within order and chaos–were wise enuf to right-off-the-bat shed the protect accoutrements life costumes us with, the masques over our true baby face, wah, wah, but instead drop in on the Buddha of him or herself immediately, thus finding and exercising the true self enlightened soul always there, already intact, and ready to deploy perforce as light on all subject matter, why, say what? We be as the god omniscent itself and perhaps pure light itself, hoo ha!

  5. Pingback: The Spiritual Market Place, Part 2 | Auticulture

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