His question was reasonable if one thinks of it in terms of people claiming to have achieved ultimate and permanent enlightenment -- after all, there aren't that many people out there making such grandiose claims (though there are some, and one ought to regard their claims with a healthy dose of skepticism). The thought of making such claims may seem totally absurd, the furthest thing from our minds.
But even if we don't consciously pretend to lay claim to enlightenment, we are always doing so unconsciously, in small and subtle (or sometimes big and obvious) ways. This is because as long as we are on the path, we are never completely free of ego, and ego always tries to solidify and take ownership of its experiences -- even spiritual experiences.
"Spiritual materialism: using spirituality for the gratification of ego."
-- Reggie Ray
On the spiritual path, we may have genuine insights and experience profound states of mind -- perhaps even mystical or transcendental experiences. There is nothing wrong with these insights and experiences in themselves. The problem is that our ego wants to concretize them and hold on to them; it uses them to reinforce itself. The ego clutches to an experience or insight and says: "Look what *I* have realized."
When we attach to our spiritual experiences and try to use them to solidify our identity, we are indulging in what Chogyam Trungpa called "spiritual materialism." Instead of being attached to houses and cars and careers and lovers, we are attached to the spiritual path itself, and we build ourselves up based on the credentials and experiences we may acquire along the way. Traditionally, it is said that this is like binding ourselves in golden chains: they may look pretty and we might think that they are superior to ordinary metal chains, but they are still just chains. In fact, they're even more insidious because of our attachment to them, the fact that we think they are special. Caplan defines this type of self-aggrandizing imitation of spirituality as "using spirituality to avoid spirituality."
"Our vast collections of knowledge and experience are just a part of ego's display, part of the grandiose quality of ego," says Trungpa. "We display them to the world and, in so doing, reassure ourselves that we exist, safe and secure, as "spiritual" people."
Caplan expands on this: "Ordinary egos do the things that ordinary egos do: they think too much or too little of themselves; manipulate others and continuously try to gain the upper hand; act selfishly; lie, cheat, and steal a little. But spiritualized egos have their own game: they talk in a soft and spiritual tone; they create a certain facial glow or aura that they learn to emanate; they have 'intense' experiences regularly; they know the dharmically-correct answer to every situation. Anyone with minimal intelligence can take the dharma spiritual teaching and manipulate it from an egoic perspective."
Caplan continues: "Individuals who have spiritualized their egos are in a very precarious and unenviable situation, though they may fancy themselves the belles of the spiritual ball. They have essentially used spirituality as a defense mechanism to protect themselves from exposing themselves as they actually are, which is what real spirituality is about. Their know-it-all egos have become so well-versed in spirituality and created such a solid shell around them that there is almost no way for them to see that they have manipulated their knowledge to their own disservice. Since they know *everything* -- every dharmic explanation, every meditative state -- there is no genuine openness for them to see that their 'knowing everything' is precisely what stands in the way of their spiritual life."
Reading such a description, we may immediately think of several other people we know, or have met, who seem to fit the bill (I'm certainly thinking of one, as I write this). What we are less apt to see is how our own state of mind is often mired in such attitudes, in greater or lesser ways. When we compare ourselves to other practitioners and look down on them for *their* spiritual materialism, we have finally gotten our knickers in such a twist that we can't even see that we are guilty of the very thing for which we judge and condemn them.
We constantly project our shadow material, the things we sense about ourselves that we don't like, onto other people. And there always seem to be one or two people in our lives who are especially good targets for our shadow projections. As Pema Chodron points out, when you come to live in a small monastery with 30 or 40 other people, those individuals tend to show up as your roommate or someone from whom you really can't escape. The element of choicelessness that's built into the situation forces you to interact constantly with the people who irritate you and push your buttons.
If we are open to seeing our own crap and cutting through it, such close encounters of the irritating kind can be a rich opportunity for spiritual growth and insight. But if we continue with the habit of using bothersome people and situations to reinforce our judgmentalism and our image of ourselves as being more psychologically or spiritually evolved than So-and-So (poor, misguided practitioner that they are), then we are simply binding ourselves in the golden chains of ego.