Hurrah for Materialism! (Part 1)

One of the worst insults that you can hurl at a Buddhist, it seems (if hurling insults at Buddhists is your kind of thing), is to accuse them of ‘materialism’. Through my years of Buddhist practice, I have myself been accused of this supposed vice. But what is materialism, anyway? And why is it supposed to be so bad?

The first thing to clear up, is that speaking philosophically, “materialism” has nothing to do with the present day mantra “I shop therefore I am,” or the kind of alarm that runs through the halls of power when consumer spending takes a dip. Without getting too treacherously deep into philosophical waters, it is possible to say that philosophically speaking, materialism is the name given to the doctrine that the universe has a material basis, and that everything – the mind, the taste of strawberries, religious experiences – arises out of this basis.

Generally speaking, opposed to this materialism is the idea that ‘mind’ or ‘consciousness’ or ‘the spiritual realm’ have their own reality that, crucially, does not depend upon the material reality. This schizoid division of the world into spirit and matter has a long history: matter has had a bad press at least since Plato, if not longer. Plato, famously, mistrusted the senses, the sloppy everyday world in which we lived, and was enchanted by the rigour of geometry and mathematics. He drove a wedge between the things of the world and the things of the intellect, and came up with the curious idea that only the latter were real, and that the things of the world were mere reflections of the things of the intellect.

An interesting history can be traced here. Plato is not perhaps the first, but he is the most famous of the philosophers to split the world in two. The world, in the first place, is simply the world: things happen, things come in to being and pass away, the gods are as much a part of the whole rigmarole as the chickens pecking in the yard. Then along comes Plato and, abstracting from his experience of mathematics, he splits the world in two. On the one hand there is the world of appearance, the world of physical things; on the other hand there is the world of the intellect, of spiritual things. But Plato, crucially, does something else: he shifts everything meaningful and valuable away from the world of appearance and into the world of the intellect or of the spirit. This beautiful tree (in the world of appearance) might be of value, but only because it is a reflection of beauty itself (discernible only to the intellect). The world is split down the middle, and everything valuable very subtly drains out of the material world into the world of ‘spirit’.

What is important to notice here is how bizarre and artificial this split is in the first place. But let’s fast-forward a few thousand years. Let us zip through to the coming of Christianity in which the denigration of material, temporal things continues, and the vaunting of abstract eternals gathers pace. Now the spiritual world is firmly placed after death, in the resurrection, the here and now is merely a means to this end, and all eyes are fixed on paradise. It becomes possible, in fact, to torture the bodies of miscreants and to do so with love, or so it is said, so that their souls, all that is spiritual in them, might be saved. And so, pressing the fast-forward button again, on to the end of the nineteenth century, at which point Nietzsche proclaims that God is dead, and with him have died all the higher values. Before our eyes the world of spirit shimmers for a moment and then bursts like a bubble.

Then what are we left with? We are left with clods of earth. We are left with our bodies that ooze and sweat. We are left with a world in which it seems to us all values have dissolved away. Matter sits before us, inert and lifeless and we think, ‘there must be something more.’ We either resign ourselves to this and try to forget it by going out shopping (indulging in popular rather than philosophical materialism); or we try to reinvent some kind of Platonic world, separate from the material world, which might be able to imbue this dumb, cloddish matter with a spark of life. Buddhism can often serve to step into the breach here, and to provide a kind of substitute for the lost world of meaning, and ideas like ‘enlightenment’ or ‘mind-only’ or ‘the spiritual realm’ take the place of the ideas of ‘God’ and ‘paradise’ and so on.

But this, to my mind, merely replicates the problem. Again the material world is overlooked in favour of some fictitious – or at least untested – other world.

The thing is, it is simply not necessary to divide up the world this way. And it is possible to try an experiment to see how bizarre this division is. Try this. Think of everything that you love. Everything that is meaningful to you. Everything that is important to you. Now, carefully, as if with a scalpel, pare away every last trace of the material from this thing and see what is left. Because, if you perform the operation with enough rigour and care, you will find that when thought or consciousness is removed from the world, from the stuff of the world, there is simply nothing for it to do or, worse than that, there is simply no such thing. The pure abstractions of thought are not things that we can truly care about. We think that we might care about beauty, but what we care about is really this or that beautiful thing. We may think that we are interested in goodness, but we are only interested in this or that good act. When we put on one side such abstractions, it appears that all value is already here, in the world of things, not split apart, not separate.

So I am a materialist. And a Buddhist. I do not think that this is a contradiction in terms. I care far more for a single glimpse of the slanting morning light striking the side of a passing bus, than I could ever care for some eternal soul, or some rarefied consciousness that, being odourless, colourless, tasteless, ungraspable, out of reach, without extension in space and wholly invisible, is entirely not my concern. It strikes me now that those folks in the old stories who sold their souls to the devil were more canny than we give them credit for; for when the devil returns home, he finds that his hands are entirely empty…

Everything that matters is steeped in the material world. It is material through and through, to the extent that there is no space for anything else, for anything that is not material. Ethics is material: it is reaching out with these two hands, giving real food and real water, speaking kind words with this mouth; meditation is material: it is this breath, this body on the cushions, these thoughts (yes, they are material too); wisdom, perhaps, is material… but what would I know? And if it seems at times that there must be more to life, the solution is surely to be found, not in building hopes and dreams of worlds beyond the grave, or of other, more spiritual, realms, but in looking more closely, more deeply, into the world of which we are a part. I think it was the monk Honen who concluded that he could imagine no Pure Land, no other-wordly realm, more beautiful than the sight of the peach and plum blossom outside his window…

Date First Published: Friday August 5, 2005

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