What is the Point of a Spirituality Divorced from the World?

I’ve noticed that just about everyone I know who has left a Tibetan Buddhist cult has moved more into the world than they did while a Tibetan Buddhist. During our decades of Tibetan Buddhist study and practice, we focused very much on ourselves and our own ‘spiritual progress’, despite the teachings on love and compassion where our focus was supposed to be on others.

Self-focused spirituality

The ‘logic’ behind that was that we can’t really help others until we have sufficient wisdom and compassion ourselves to know what is the wisest course of action. This makes sense to me to a degree, but I saw the result of taking this attitude to its extreme point just after the truth of Sogyal’s abuse became public knowledge. A friend, who is still a Rigpa devotee and who remained faithful to the idea of Sogyal as a Mahasiddha, told me that though he felt sad for those who ‘felt’ they’d been hurt, he couldn’t do anything to help them at the moment because his focus was on gaining enlightenment ‘for the sake of others’. He felt that at some time in the future, once he’d gained enlightenment, then he would be able to do what was wise and compassionate. In the meantime, he just carried on with his self-focus. This is the epitome of a spirituality that is so inwardly focused that it is completely divorced from the world.

Christians tend to do all sorts of charitable activities. Social engagement in order to help those who are struggling is part of the Christian way. But Buddhists are not known for social engagement or charitable works. They build temples and monasteries, not homeless shelters, and they spend years in retreat completely cut off from the world, focused on their own mind and their own spiritual development.

The effect of the monastic ideal

This idea that spiritual progress cannot happen without being separated from the world is a hang-over from the traditionally monastic nature of Tibetan Buddhism and of Buddhism itself. Buddhism began as a monastic religion – the Buddha’s followers renounced the world, shaved their heads, donned robes and took to the forest – and monasteries have remained an important part of Buddhism in all areas of the world. Ordinary householder Buddhists go to the temples to pray and meditate, but the attitude in Asian cultures is that if you’re serious about enlightenment, you become a monastic. You separate yourself from worldly life. You can practice meditation at home, of course, but the householder’s life is seen as inferior to the monastic one for those wishing to gain enlightenment.

Vajrayana is supposed to be a way to remain in the world while progressing spiritually, but completing the practices requires a huge commitment to retreat, to separating yourself from the world, in some form or other – even if it’s just spending several hours a day in meditation while otherwise trying to earn an income.

Spending time each day in contemplation or meditation is a wonderful thing, and so is taking time for a retreat, it’s one’s attitude once back in the world that can be problematic. If, while living in the world, one’s main focus is on one’s own spiritual progress – even if it’s supposedly for the sake of all beings – then one’s ability to engage with the world and to help those who need assistance will be compromised to some degree.

The effect of the bodhisattva ideal

Of course, we were all supposed to be trying to be Bodhisattvas. We were taught that wanting to achieve enlightenment for the sake of others was the ideal, and that to seek enlightenment for ourselves alone is an inferior and slower path that leads not to enlightenment but rather some look-alike state from which we still need to progress in order to gain full enlightenment.(As if the Buddha wouldn’t have taught a path to full enlightenment!) But in practice, how many of us truly, despite saying our bodhichitta prayers, were focused anywhere other than on ourselves and our own spiritual development? I didn’t see it until I stopped trying so hard to be a good little Buddhist.

The compassion practices are supposed to be focused outwardly, supposed to be caring for others more than ourselves, and many of us spent hours doing the compassion practices, but they all involved sitting on a cushion doing mental gymnastics rather than going onto the street and taking a homeless person out for a meal.

Don’t get me wrong, the mental gymnastics are a great preparation for acting with compassion in the world. The issue is that practitioners tend to not take their training in compassion that step further and actually use their supposedly opened hearts to bring benefit to the world beyond their prayers and practices.

Those who make the decisions in Rigpa at the international level, for instance, have shown themselves quite incapable of acting with genuine compassion towards those who Sogyal abused. Everything they try with the aim of ‘reaching out’ keeps them safely in their bubble of beliefs with no need for them to actually look at themselves or open themselves up to the reality of those they think they are ‘helping’. Their actions come from a sense of superiority, as if they are grandly doing something ‘to help’ the victims. But they have proved themselves incapable of hearing what Sogyal’s victims and their supporters have been saying to them.

The bodhisattva idea is a noble one, but if you’re fooling yourself that you have bodhicitta when you’re really just concerned with your own spiritual progress, or you use that ideal as an excuse not to engage with the world, then you’ve failed to understand – let alone realise – the teachings on compassion.

Can we wait until we’re all enlightened to lend a helping hand?

One doesn’t have to be enlightened to see that the first step in helping others is to actually ask what they need, and then provide that, not just deliver something you think will help. In order to help others, you need to understand their needs, and in order to do that, you have to engage with that person, to hear their concerns, open your heart to them and put yourself in their shoes as much as possible. Believing that you can best help others by working on yourself keeps you remote from others and gives you a convenient excuse not to get your hands dirty.

What a copout!

Right now, our world and all the beings in it need us all to get our hands dirty. We all need to pitch in and do what we can to right the growing injustices, to clean up our act, and to help people prepare for an uncertain future.

One doesn’t have to be enlightened to help out with any of the charities in our areas, to join in a protest for the sake of the future. People are in need now. Our planet is in need now. What is the point of focusing on our own ‘spiritual’ development while the world falls apart around us?

Spirituality grounded in the world

The option is to turn our attention to working in the world, to using life itself, with all its challenges, to facilitate our spiritual awakening, rather than remaining outside of the world as we were while in our cults. And this is what I’m seeing in my friends that have left Rigpa and other Tibetan Buddhist groups. They are using all sorts of ‘in the world’ activities as their spiritual path –  work with homeless people, domestic abuse victims, children in disadvantaged areas and so on; growing bonsai as an aid to healing; environmental activities and activism; being advocates for those with disabilities; developing a permaculture farm and so on. And though these things can be a spiritual path, that’s not why they’re doing it; they’re genuinely doing these things for others and for the future of the world.

And then there’s the things we do in order to refresh ourselves and stay healthy; things such as walking in nature, exercise, yoga and gardening. My meditation these days has a large component of physical yoga in it. It helps keep my mind and awareness grounded in my body, something left out of the Rigpa version of spirituality.

Grounded Spirituality requires us to engage with what life presents to us, to act in as wise and compassionate way as we are able as well as spending some time in self-reflection. It needn’t be an either/or situation. The challenge those who are going beyond the temple have taken up is acting in the world while seeing with the vast awareness afforded us by our contemplative practice – be it in the past or the present.

One of the stories of the Buddha is of him telling a woman, an ordinary householder who could not become a nun because of her family responsibilities, to be aware of her every action as she did her work, and she became enlightened. Just by doing that. No removal from the world was necessary.

So there is no need to feel that by giving up your hours of Buddhist practice that you’re giving up your shot at enlightenment. If the ideal of enlightenment still matters to you, you can work on it every moment of the day just by focusing on what you’re doing in the present. You don’t need to separate yourself from the world.

And of course, the more you can look at your own awareness and peel away the layers of misperception caused by your beliefs and concepts, the more you’ll see your link to everything and everyone.  Once you realise that you’re not separate from anything, when the knowledge that we are all one in essence is a constantly lived experience, then acting in the world becomes akin to tending to our own sore toe. It simply becomes necessary. In the meantime, before we have that realisation, the job is the same – tending to the sore bits.

How has your focus changed since leaving your cult? Are you engaging with the world? In what way?

Image by Sasin Tipchai from Pixabay

2 Replies to “What is the Point of a Spirituality Divorced from the World?”

  1. Dear Tahlia,
    A great essay you wrote – and I could not agree more. In my experience I have met this attitude of helping myself before I can help others too often. In a short cut I considered this always as self centered and egoistic. Of course I know better, that it is a deeper believe, though it is easy to see it as an excuse to engage. This is, though, not true for all Buddhists – as there are a lot engaged Buddhist groups active in human right groups, conservation and nature programmes, and in health and care programmes. So – we must discriminate and have compassion with the seeking enlightenment persons, even if we may believe they got lost on the way. As I was teaching leadership development -some time ago- my firts statement was that “There is no way to leadership, leadership is the way”, an alliteration to the well known saying about Peace… Thank you for sharing your insights and vision – it certainly will be of help to many readers that encounter these questions and friends struggling with this.

    1. I never meant to suggest that this self-absorbed attitude was shared by all Buddhists. Many of the friends of whom I speak are still Buddhists of one form or another. It should be read as ‘some’ Buddhists not all. The malaise of thinking of spirituality as something separate from life/the world isn’t restricted to Buddhists either, of course.

      And thank you for reminding us of the socially engaged forms of Buddhism that exist these days.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *