Doesn’t the institutionalization of spirituality kill its spirit?
Answer: Not necessarily. Without institutionalization, that spirit won’t matter much.
Let’s understand this with an analogy. The spirit of spirituality is love of God. If we compare the flow of the human heart’s love toward God to the flow of a river towards the ocean, then the institute is like the river bed.
If there is no river bed, then only rivers with an exceptionally strong flow will reach the ocean. Rivers with a weak flow will, when obstructed, stagnate and perish. Similarly, if there is no institutional support, then only those individuals with an extraordinary spiritual urge will attain love for God. Those with average spiritual urge will, when obstructed, stagnate and give up.
Just as several gently-flowing tributaries unite to comprise a forcefully-flowing river, several individuals with average spiritual urges unite to generate an above-average spiritual current that carries all of them forward swiftly. Just as a forceful river shapes a bed for itself as it keeps flowing, these individuals organize the necessities and facilities for their steady and smooth spiritual progress, and this organized infrastructure gradually takes the form of an institution.
Of course, just as a river may be dammed by self-interested individuals, a spiritual institution may be damned by materially-minded people who are interested more in appropriating its facilities than in actualizing its purpose. That’s why spiritual institutions need to have:
1. 1. Vigorous philosophical education so that its members become instinctively self-aware that their destination is not the dam (material aggrandizement) but the ocean (non-material devotional enrichment)
2. 2. Rigorous spiritual practices and disciplines so as to generate and sustain a powerful spiritual current that either exposes the materialism of self-seeking individuals, thereby pushing them to the sidelines or purifies them of their materialism, thereby pulling them into its onward flow to the destination.
Of course, some seekers presume that they don’t need any institution because their spiritual urge is strong enough for a solo journey. However, they often underestimate the materialistic tug of their surroundings and overestimate their own resistance power. Consequently, their spiritual progress tends to be at best sporadic, being at the mercy of their unpredictable inner moods and uncontrollable outer circumstances. If they can just summon the humility to acknowledge that their solo trip is becoming more of a camp than a journey, then they will see the wisdom of joining those who are steadily on the move. And if these spiritual seekers happen to be among the rare few who are genuinely self-motivated, then joining an authentic spiritual institution will facilitate them to benefit others; their example and expertise will be valued and utilized by less self-motivated spiritual trekkers.
To summarize, vigilant institutionalization is essential for the spirit of spirituality to be accessible and beneficial for humanity.