Spiritual Maturity

I’ve never felt that Buddhism was concerned with discovering, embracing or flaunting our ‘inner child,’ except perhaps in the sense of experiencing a “renaissance of wonder,” to borrow a phrase from Lawrence Ferlinghetti. I may not have a good handle on what the term ‘inner child’ means, but it sounds like something that belongs with “pop” psychology and spirituality. Practicing Buddhism is about finding inner wisdom, a process that requires a certain level of maturity, and should result in an increased level of maturity.

Spiritual maturity isn’t a topic I’ve heard discussed much. As a concept, I imagine that you could easily pick it apart, and yet, I think it’s a quality that’s recognizable when you see it, hear it, or read it.

Obviously, spiritual maturity is tied in with our mental and emotional maturity. Scientists have a newly developed scan that can measure the maturity of the brain which according to reports is “an advance that someday might be useful for testing whether children are maturing normally and for gauging whether teenagers are grown-up enough to be treated as adults.” [Washington Post]

I don’t know if there’s any way to gauge something as subtle as spiritual maturity. At the same time, if they someday developed a scan for it too, I wouldn’t be that surprised.

Some years ago Norman Fischer, former co-abbot of the San Francisco Zen Center and founder of the Everyday Zen Foundation, wrote a book entitled Taking Our Places: the Buddhist Path to Truly Growing Up, and while it’s aimed at teenagers, I think we’re talking about a quality that transcends the measure of one’s years:

When I think about the world of the future, with so many difficult choices ahead, I know that only mature people will be able to deal with what arises. I am heartened by the many people I know – young and old alike – who are concerned with their own maturity and willing to work toward it with courage and energy. The development of human maturity does take much work and effort. But I am sure we are all capable of doing the work and enjoying the fruits. Maturity can’t be hurried or produced on schedule. Growth takes time. We have to steep ourselves for a while, like a good cup of tea. We need to go through what’s necessary for us to endure . . .

Our particular lineage of Zen, founded by Shunryu Suzuki Roshi, puts little emphasis on enlightenment. It’s not that we are unconcerned about enlightenment or that we are opposed to it. Enlightenment is certainly important. Personally seeing the truth of the teachings, breaking through the habit of self-centeredness, opening out to something much wider, and having some clarity and flexibility – all of this is crucial . . . Maybe someone is not very enlightened, or not enlightened at all. But if he or she is mature, it is good enough, for as Suzuki Roshi taught us, it is the ongoing practice, carried out with balance, faith, perseverance, kindness, and willingness to reach out to others, that is the most important thing. To practice like this takes a quiet and stable maturity.

Buddhist practice should be life changing. There are concrete measures we can take to facilitate transformation and enhance our practice. Three important ones would be:

Active listening – this is a new buzzword, but I rather like it. Most of us really don’t listen very well. Active listening means to make a conscious effort to understand and interpret what we hear. This also applies to study, since reading is listening with the eyes.

Learning from contemplative thinking – reflected in the ways that we change our thinking, learn to make better choices, engage in better actions, and avoid repeating negative patterns. Learning in Buddhism is more than acquiring knowledge and gaining insight, it’s akin to the psychological sense of behavioral change, learning to use new behaviors.

Commitment to growth – spiritual and personal growth are difficult to maintain, development occurs over time and requires dedication and determination, along with the spirit to take advantage of every opportunity for growth.

Here are some more important characteristics. You might be familiar with the physical characteristics of a Buddha (the 32 Signs and the 80 secondary characteristics) but these you may not have run across before. I’m not sure where I got this list, but it lays it all out nicely, I think. After all, maturing spiritually is just becoming a Buddha:

Characteristics of a Buddha

1. Does not stumble.

2. Not harsh in speech

3. Always mindful.

4. Makes no distinctions.

5. Always able to concentrate.

6. Has an open mind.

7. Enthusiastic about things.

8. Maintains energy.

9. Mindfulness never fails.

10. Concentration never fails.

11. Wisdom never fails.

12. Deliverance never fails.

13. Thinks before acting.

14. Thinks before speaking.

15. Avoids negative thoughts.

16. Understands the past clearly.

17. Has vision for the future.

18. Lives in the present moment.


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