Have been meaning to share some info re: spirituality.... so here, a very brief history of the idea of 'spirituality' as it has evolved in the West. Ideas taken from Walter Principe’s (1983) ‘Toward Defining Spirituality’:
- First of all, the term 'spirituality' as such did not appear in European culture till about the seventeenth century--a pretty recent invention in the larger scheme of human history!
- 'Spirituality' derives from the Latin 'spiritualitas', which comes from the noun 'spiritus', meaning breath of life
- In early biblical usage (i.e. the start of the Common Era), spiritualitas referred to a moral sense of life. The Greek called it pneuma (life in the Spirit of God) as opposed to sarx (life of the flesh). And important point to note here is that this is NOT the same dualism that Greek philosophers and Christian writers of Late Antiquity would posit between body and spirit. What it referred to in its earliest usage was a moral order or way of life involving the disciplining of unrestrained desire.
- Under Christian Hellenistic influence, the notion of ‘the spiritual’ was used to make a moral-political distinction in the assertion of scriptural truth and revelation
- In the medieval period, the notion of 'the spiritual' was used to assert territorial rights, appearing in the ‘Lord’s spiritual’ as opposed to the ‘Lord’s temporal’ to distinguish between property own by the Church and that owned by the king. At around this time, an important precursor to the modern understanding of ‘spirituality’ began to emerge via Ignatius of Loyola (1491 - 1556), who distinguished ‘spiritual exercises’—interiorised contemplative practices of the soul—from everyday bodily exercises.
- In the seventeenth century, the French word spiritualité (from which we derive the English word ‘spirituality’) was coined to signify the devout or contemplative life in general. This was articulated by figures like Madame Guyon who, writing in the wake of the Reformation, sought to defend inner authority against that of the Church.
- Even though it was coined in the seventeenth century, ‘spiritualité’ was not widely used until the late nineteenth to early twentieth centuries. This was a period of colonialism, a period that saw a proliferation of knowledge about ‘the Orient’. For many European and North American audiences, the ‘eastern philosophies’ of the Orient appeared to present alternatives to mainstream Christianity as well as solutions to the social ills of the day. The use of the term 'spirituality' became more common with increasing knowledge of Eastern traditions, which, of course, included Buddhism--and at the time 'Buddhism' accepted by the scholarly community was mainly early Pali Buddhism or what we now call Theravada.
So, the idea of 'the spiritual' has evolved and changed over time. The term 'spirituality' itself is a rather recent development and as the last point above suggests, it shares a lineage with modern understanding of Buddhism.
To this extent, I don't think we can easily disassociate 'spirituality' from Buddhism. This, however, doesn't mean that we should simply apply the term to Buddhism willy nilly. I think it is important to be aware that the term has different connotations and that some of them are not helpful when projected onto Buddhism.
Given how 'spirituality' has been co-opted for commercial purposes, and Buddhism likewise dragged into it
(there are many silly interpretations of Buddhism out there in the marketplace), I think it is important to actually reclaim the term. Because as the above suggests, 'spirituality' has been and can be a powerful conceptual prism that refracts various sociopolitical issues and through which social change is achieved. If anything, 'spirituality' could offer us the means to counter those very forces that seek to capitalise on it and turn it into a mere commodity, or worse, deployed as a means to regulate our lives.
So, I think a better way of approaching the issue is not to pin down the 'original' meaning of spirituality (why pin it down when it is a living, evolving concept?) and see if it is indeed compatible with Buddhism or not. Rather, a better way of approaching the issue, I think, would be to ask:Are there elements of spirituality (perhaps elements which have fallen out of favour or which have been suppressed but which may nevertheless be socially and politically enabling) that, when taken up in the context of contemporary Buddhism and developed along the lines of Dhammic principles, become compatible with Buddhism?
This way, both 'spirituality' and 'Buddhism' become living
knowledge-practices, responding to the needs of an evolving world, rather than dead traditions entombed, mummified, by old habits and interpretations.