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Archive for the category “Meditation”

What is meditation? or Why meditate?

I go on meditation retreats.  Not everyone understands this–my sister, for one.  She knows I’m reasonably intelligent and sane (I’m her business partner, after all), so she wants to understand this odd behavior.  However, it’d difficult to explain yourself or have a discussion with someone when there’s so little, maybe no, common ground.  So I recently sent her a note, the text of which is as follows:

Hi J-,

You’ve on several occasions asked me about meditation and my retreat experiences.  However, because of the strangeness or newness of these activities from your perspective, I think what I say about them is likely to go in one ear and then mostly out the other.  Writing it down, so you can read, review, consider, read again, and—if you are so moved—to ask further questions, seems the more productive approach.

I think rather than lengthy theorizing or explanation the best approach is through demonstration.  The following are a few exercises you can do on your own time which illustrate what meditation is and what it might offer.

Exercise 1, “The everyday mind”

Stop reading this paper.  Put it down.  Wherever you are, whether standing or sitting, look around.  Don’t do anything you would not ordinarily do.  Do this for one minute.  After one minute or so, ask yourself the following questions: “Was I breathing?”  “What was I just thinking?”  “Where is my self?”  You will note these questions are progressively more profound.  I suggest you try exercise #1 three times, each time concluding it with one of the above three questions.  The first two ought to be readily answerable.  The third will be much more difficult, and assumes you’ve already developed the faculty of internal awareness to a good degree.  The point of this exercise is to show several things: 1) Your “everyday” experience is unaware of a great deal that is happening inside you and around you. 2) Much of what you consider “my self”—such as thoughts and memories—is automatic and conditioned, carrying on without apparent control or supervision. 3) The entity/center/ego you refer to as “my self” is actually a very difficult “thing” to find or pin down, which begs the question: “What exactly is it?”

Now, I am going to make a proposition: The reason you “suffer” (and you can interpret that word in the narrowest or widest sense, however you wish), is because you are fundamentally confused/ignorant/unaware of the real nature of your experience/self/consciousness.  In other words, not only is ignorance not bliss, it is in fact hell.  The more acutely you become aware of this, the more you will want the situation to end or resolve.  (Which is why I go on these retreats!)

Exercise 2, “Attempting to focus attention”

Put this paper down.  Close your eyes.  Adopt a restful posture.  Be aware of your experience, whether of thoughts or sensations or whatever.  Don’t try to do anything special.  After a minute or so, direct your attention to your breathing, whether in the chest, the abdomen, or in the nostrils.  Do not follow the breath.  Just be aware of the sensations, of the fact of breathing.  You can even label the in-breaths “in”, the out-breaths “out.”  Do this for five minutes.  (It might help if you set an alarm watch for this.)  Now reflect on what you’ve just experienced.

Probably you had to struggle to stay focused on the breathing.  Thoughts, sensations, sounds, whatever, intruded.  Your attention chased after them, then you had to bring it back to the breath.  This continued until the end of the period.  Don’t worry, this is perfectly normal.

I am going to make a second proposition: This state of affairs—of having a mind that jumps and wanders and scrambles every which way—is not optimal.  In fact, it is the cause of immense human stress, sickness, negligence and foolishness, even great evil.  In other words, it is a prime symptom of human suffering.  (This assertion is massively supported by scientific research as regards the causes and conditions of mental health and illness.)

My third proposition is as follows: This state of affairs is not fixed; it can be changed.  You can train your mind to more optimal states.  That is what meditation is.  Note, this is not easy.  It requires work, just like toning your muscles or developing your lungs.  In fact, it is really not so different from these things with which you are very familiar.  The big difference, however, lies in that body training of that sort will never fundamentally alter your mode of experience in the world, how you exist consciously, moment to moment.  Meditation can do this.

There is of course much more I could say on this topic; as I said on the phone, whole libraries have been filled with books about it—it is inexhaustible.

As is always the case, after I send something off I think of other incredible things I could have, should have written.  So, I append these here for your reading pleasure.

From Nisargadatta, the Indian nondual teacher par excellence (after Ramana Maharshi):

Question: All teachers advise to meditate. What is the purpose of meditation?

Answer: We know the outer world of sensations and actions. But of our inner world of thoughts and feelings we know very little. The primary purpose of meditation is to become conscious of, and familiar with, our inner life. The ultimate purpose is to reach the source of life and consciousness. Incidentally, practice of meditation affects deeply our character. We are slaves to what we do not know. Whatever vice or weakness in ourselves we discover and understand its causes and its workings, we overcome it by the very knowing; the unconscious dissolves when brought into the conscious. The dissolution of the unconscious release energy; the mind feels adequate and becomes quiet.

Finally, see here this wonderful article from Gary Weber’s blog on nondual teachings.

Now you know what meditation is and why you should do it.  What are you waiting for?

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The Buddha and J. Krishnamurti: Reflections

The following is my principle response, slightly revised, to a gentleman named Martin, based in the UK, concerning the definition of enlightenment as well as possible relationships between the teachings of J. Krishnamurti and the historical Buddha.

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Hi Martin,

It seems your issues boil down to the following:

  1. What is enlightenment?
  2. How does the arahant change on account of becoming an arahant?  (The person’s “secular nature” as you put it.)  How does he/she not change?
  3. How do K and the Buddha compare, in terms of their attainments, teachings, effects?
  4. How might one coming from K’s “slant” (such as you) make sense of the teachings in the Pali Canon (i.e., the historical Buddha)?

 

Question #1: What is enlightenment?

Oddly, the first question is probably the easiest to answer.  Here goes:

Enlightenment is the cessation of subjectivity.

Anything else you say about enlightenment (or “awakening”—which is the more accurate term) is a cultural add-on, an expectation borrowed from somebody’s tradition, and is, by that fact, unnecessary or gratuitous, though this is not to say undesirable.

As for an explanation…

As long as your normal waking state of mind is self-referential, intuitively perceiving that “there is someone” over and against other “someones” or nature itself, or if your experience is characterized by a discrete (even if ultimately indefinable) center that interacts with phenomena—be they in the body or in consciousness or “exterior” in the sense of people and events—you are not enlightened.  A person in this state (99.999% of humanity) “suffers” because regardless of their emotional-cognitive state (happy, sad, successful, comfortable, etc), he or she is always limited in power and scope and subject to ending at any time.  These facts are the source and cause of anxiety; this anxiety is dukkha.  All popular religion (including religious Buddhism) is an effort to overcome this anxiety, though the solutions offered are invariably contrived and ultimately futile.  (K made this point again and again, and it was one of the best things he did in the course of his career.  You can also learn this from the existential philosophers—Sartre, Camus, Heidegger, Nietzsche, etc.)

The word for this state of affairs is subjectivity, and for all intents and purposes, anxiety is the operationalization of subjectivity.  If subjectivity is a state of being, anxiety is its expression.  This way of existing is subjective because it always exists in relation to (or, as often as not, in conflict with) an object—something or someone else.  Or, alternatively, the presence of objects (in consciousness) gives the lie that a subject must exist.  This is the experience of the putthujjana—the “worldling,” as he/she is called in the Pali Suttas.  (Note: Subjectivity is not identical with consciousness.  This is a common mistake, made by, among others, J-P Sartre and horror author Thomas Ligotti in his mostly excellent book The Conspiracy Against the Human Race.  Failure to understand this distinction leads to many problems….)

In the Buddha’s teaching the experience of waking up (bodhi) is nirvana (nibbana in Pali).  Nirvana is the disruption or cessation of the lie of subjectivity.  It is a discontinuity in (subjective) consciousness.  That is why even the stream enterer (sotapanna)—lowest in the echelon of awakened beings—knows intuitively that the self is a mirage; he/she has seen the cessation of the subject, though has not yet permanently done away with it; the arahant has.  Note that the Buddha never said there is no self.  Anatta means “not self,” the point being that if you look for a self or subject you will not find it, simply because it is always something (mis)construed from experience; there is no self/subject inherent in experience.  You could say the self is the “solid” form of the subjective, a hypostatization of an ever-present characteristic of the worldling’s experience.  But again, one cannot discover a self in the actual datum of experience.

So: awakening is the cessation of this contradictory and unsatisfactory state of affairs.

(I should point out that the ego, as the personality complex or expression of a particular person’s being-in-the-world, is totally different from the phenomenon of subjectivity.  The ego exists as an activity or expression, not an entity.  It is not in the least subjective, though an unenlightened person will necessarily conflate his/her ego with the “experience” of subjectivity.  Unfortunately, the English language is insufficiently nuanced in this regard; both in common parlance and scholarly circles “self,” “subject,” and “ego” are terms often used—mistakenly—as if they were interchangeable.  This is a particularly difficult issue I could write about at length, though it would take us a bit off track.)

Enlightenment typically happens by one of two means: the gradual or developmental path (as in the Buddha’s teaching in the Pali Suttas) or the “sudden” or “nondual” path, as in some Mahayana schools and Advaita.  (Tibetan Vajrayana—and tantrism in general—shows characteristics of both.)  The developmental path progresses through a gradual unfolding in which the goal (nonduality or non-subjectivity) steadily comes more and more into focus, culminating in the mind of the arahant.  The sudden or nondual path is, per its name, immediate and without apparent stages or states; the end state simply materializes, though usually after a period of striving.  Now while it is common for people in the latter camp to assume their path is superior to the former, the results are the same, and I suspect the way in which any individual attains the goal is more a matter of his/her particular practice and innate hardwiring rather than one path being better than the other.  Interestingly, the Buddha, though his teaching in the Pali Suttas is developmental in nature, seems to have gone from unenlightened to fully enlightened in one night (after six years of hard work, of course), which is a feat more characteristic of what you’d see in the nondual tradition (think Ramana Maharshi).  Whether or not his state subsequently underwent modification can’t be told from what’s recorded in the Canon.

Then you have what I refer to as “naturals”—people who without even trying just seem to wake up.  Their experiences are usually characterized by intense kundalini phenomena and appear almost biological in nature (UG Krishnamurti was quite emphatic that this is indeed the case).  The end states for these people are invariably nondual in nature—subjectless, I-less—and they are typically less effective as teachers helping regular sorts because they themselves did not go through the trials and tribulations of “getting enlightened.”  People in this camp would be both Krishnamurtis, Ramana Maharshi, Franklin Jones (aka Adi Da) to an extent, and some others.

 

Question #2: The changing/unchanging arahant

There are many indications from the suttas that the basic character of a person is not altered by awakening.  Since enlightenment as I have defined it is “merely” the cessation of subjectivity, it stands to reason that if you’re a science geek and bookworm before your awakening, you will assuredly be the same after.  Similarly, if you’re naturally a gregarious, fun-loving kind of guy, this will probably not stop being the case after your transformation.  This shouldn’t surprise us too much, really.  After all, “character” (ego, if you will)—that is someone’s particular complex of mental and behavioral traits—is peripheral to “being a self”; it is simply an aggregate of patterns, not a core process or fact of experience, like subjectivity, which is ipso facto the putthujjana’s experience regardless of what kind of person s/he is.  And so we find in the suttas that Ananda continued being the highly social, charismatic guy he clearly was both before and after his enlightenment (all stages of it).  And Mahakassapa, who appears to have been a somewhat surly, rough edged sort inclined toward solitude, was this way before and after.  And Sariputta, clearly the Sangha’s chief intellectual after the Buddha, did not somehow stop being an intellectual after he became an arahant.

What does tend to change as one spiritually evolves is a reduction in unskillful (i.e. unethical) behaviors.  These would subside during the course of practice and as practice bears fruit.  However, it is possible in some circumstances to come to deep states of awakening and yet still stand on very shaky grounds ethically.  This was the case with Adi Da as well as J. Krishnamurti.  Notice though that both these men were what I call “naturals,” and their spiritual careers were dominated by spontaneous kundalini phenomena.  Both shunned—even boohooed—the traditional external trappings or practices of asceticism, of self-abnegation, of ethical rules.  So while Adi Da was an athlete of extreme shakti experiences, my wife, upon seeing a photo of him, immediately said “He looks corrupt,” correctly diagnosing him as a moral failure.

Despite examples such as these, what seems clear from the suttas and from most every other body of contemplative literature is that advanced spiritual states are hindered, not facilitated, by immoral behavior.  The reason should be obvious: unethical practices create more conflicts, more problems, more headaches, than ethical practices.  They are destructive of mental calm, not to mention community.  And so the Buddha’s path as proclaimed in the Pali Suttas is arguably the most rigorous and explicitly ethical training found in any religious literature anywhere.  Moreover, that literature tells some very illuminating stories—Agulimala is the most famous—about people being morally transformed by their enlightenments—or, more accurately, by their assiduously following and practicing the path that led to their enlightenments.

Do you see the difference?  Spontaneous awakening versus following a path to awakening (whether nondual or developmental).  The former may yield totally benign results—as in UG Krishnamurti and Ramana Maharshi—or dangerous results—like Sai Baba and Franklin Jones (Adi Da)—or mostly benign results with serious lapses—such as J. Krishnamurti.  However, following a structured path, especially one with an ethically coherent and comprehensive system such as that of the Pali Canon, offers a higher likelihood of success in terms of producing morally benevolent, enlightened men and women than does anything else.

So to get back to the original question: What really changes for the arahant and what doesn’t change?  I think I’ve answered the latter part pretty clearly.  As for the former: what ends is anxiety, frustration, suffering, dukkha.  Moreover, the tendency to engage in unskillful behaviors that might aggravate or perpetuate suffering is greatly ameliorated.  Why?  Because once the subject-object dilemma no longer troubles one, if subjectivity has ceased, who is there to suffer?  Why engage in, why practice, suffering?  (An interesting notion that—unethical behavior as the “practice” of suffering.)  Mere phenomena arise, but nobody is home.  When the house burns down (as it inevitably does), nobody is there to get burned.

 

Question #3: K vs the Buddha

How was K like the Buddha? 

Several ways:

Spiritual presence: K clearly had the ability to awaken altered states of attentiveness and quietness in his listeners.  This was attested to over and over again.  I myself encountered this phenomenon in the person of Ven. Nyanavimala, an 80+ year old German Theravadan monk, easily the most remarkable man I ever encountered.  It is a palpably real phenomenon.  The Buddha, even assuming exaggerations in the texts, had this ability or power to an extreme degree: spontaneous enlightenments occurred around him quite frequently, often at the conclusion of short, emphatic lectures or personal interviews.  The most remarkable such instance was the stunning and complete transformation of the wanderer Bahiya, to whom the Buddha delivered a pregnant and powerful sermon (a few lines, really) and the guy became an arahant just like that.  (The Buddha pronounced him the “fastest to attain the goal” among all his disciples.  See the sutta here.)

Charismatic speakers: Reading K, looking at his pictures, reading about responses people had to him, one cannot help but sense the enormous dignity and charisma of the man.  He was not simply good looking in the ordinary sense, he was special looking.  Not to mention the fact that he was devastating in argument or retort when challenged.  Again, the Buddha possessed these attributes to an exceptional degree, so much so that the leaders of rival schools would try to dissuade their disciples from going to talk to him or hear his sermons because they almost invariably ended up becoming his followers.  (They accused him of being a “magician” on account of this!)  In this sense the Buddha was, I think, perhaps the most persuasive man on record, in any literature I’ve ever read (fictional, historical, religious, contemporary).

Born psychologists: Both men were psychologists par excellence, and both laid out their analyses of the human condition in startlingly original, non-authoritarian, non-ideological terms.  In both cases there was no recourse to belief—one was merely invited to listen and do the experiment oneself, to watch oneself and see what happened.  This is perhaps the place where it is most natural and easy to compare them, and the comparison is appropriate.

Mindfulness: If you boil K’s teaching down to one word, I would say “mindfulness”.  He’s constantly encouraging his listeners to observe, to watch, to pay attention.  This is the “right mindfulness” (samma sati) of the eightfold path.  Since this particular tool lies at the heart of both men’s teachings it is not surprising they would, to a great extent, end up sounding alike.

How are the two men different? 

The problem, as you pointed out, was that K seemed to expect a spontaneous alteration upon hearing him speak, provided one listened with “right attention.”  (Clearly he was an advocate of “sudden enlightenment.”)  This may have happened on occasion, but I doubt there were many such cases.  As a “method” it leaves much to be desired—it is too narrow and assumes everyone can instantly gain such insight.  And, even if they do, what do they then do with that insight?  How do they develop it?  These kinds of questions K would not or could not answer.  By contrast, the Buddha offered a complete program of ethical and meditative training.  It was explicitly “gradual,” with the expectation being that people would apply themselves over time and change accordingly.  K, on the other hand, seemed positively annoyed when people asked him how to do what he was talking about.  The result was that K can claim few if any people who transformed and became like him—the Buddha, even granting exaggerations in the texts, clearly helped awaken thousands of people during the course of his ministry.

A few points stand out pertaining to the above: 1) The role of concentration: K actually disdained the development of concentration, making fun of mantras, breath counting and the like.  The Buddha, on the other hand, recognized that concentration was a necessary tool of mental training and that a concentrated mind would more likely attain the goal.  2) The role of effort: Since K hesitated to tell people what to do, the role of effort was sidelined in his “program”.  The Buddha, on the other hand, said strong, goal oriented effort was the single most important key to success.  In this sense the Buddha was talking to the average Joe, the person who wants to change, wants to know how to change, and then needs a kick in the butt to get going.  K’s method almost guaranteed that a great many people would get lost in intellectualizing because they were given very little to hang onto in a practical sense.  3) Conventional religious practice: K, of course, was the great iconoclast.  He disdained pretty much everything about organized religion.  In the process, though, he threw out a lot that is actually helpful.  I think the Buddha was more discriminating in this sense: he knew what to criticize and chuck out (sacrifices, hierarchy based on birth or profession, etc) and what to keep (useful terminology, practices that could be redirected to his ends, prevailing mythologies that spurred effort, etc).

Use of organizations: The Buddha made much more effective use of human organizations, both in terms of how he played local politics (influencing leaders) and in terms of building a sangha.  As a result, he had a much bigger impact in his day, and his impact will assuredly be far more durable.  (Well, it’s already lasted 2,400 years plus….)

Teaching of meditation: Relating to my first point—the Buddha offered many methods of mental cultivation, different types of concentration practices, insight practices, and heart practices (for example the Brahma Viharas, which can also be used for insight).  He was a much broader, more eclectic and adaptive teacher than K.

Attainments: It is difficult, even silly, to compare attainments of various teachers—kind of like comparing superheroes.  (“Batman could kick Spiderman’s ass!”)  Nonetheless, if you look at the literatures (the Suttas versus other contemplative writings) with consideration for the degree of mastery over mental states—development of powers (siddhis), concentration states, fruitions, nondual states, etc—the Buddha appears to me unsurpassed in this regard.  I haven’t encountered any other literature detailing such a wide degree of effective mental mastery as I see in the Pali Canon—at least not as it applies to one particular individual.  Krishnamurti, on the other hand, seems simply to have been the beneficiary of good genes; I would hardly call him a “master of consciousness.”

Finally, as regards the ethical sphere: Because K’s teaching was in fact quite narrow in terms of being a vehicle of training, he did not touch upon or emphasize the ethical sphere so much.  This is not surprising, given that he was humping his business manager’s wife for a couple decades.  (Oh the cognitive dissonance!!)  The Buddha’s side of this hardly needs any comment; you can learn more about ethical integrity from Warren Buffett than you can from J. Krishnamurti.

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An after-note on the above: I came across a quote (don’t know the source) of a dialogue between K and a student.  Here it is:

Question: After having us shown the goal and emphasized the necessity for destruction, can you make somewhat clearer the means by which we may reach that goal? Much stress has been laid on the destructive side of the work. Why is the constructive one so vaguely spoken of?

Krishnamurti: “The necessity for destruction” – I do not know of what! …. “After having shown us the goal… ” – I have not shown you the goal. I want to awaken the desire in you to see the goal, and you will see it. If I showed you the goal, the absolute truth without finality, it would not be the truth for you; and if I establish for you the way towards the truth, it will not be the way for you. It is easy to establish a way, to lay down certain ethical moral laws which will bind you, but that is not my purpose… “Can you make somewhat clearer the means by which we shall reach the goal?” – But surely that is what I have been trying to do! That is what I have been trying to explain. But you must understand, you must create the goal, the path, not I. You would like me to say: “Get up in the morning at such and such a time, meditate for so many hours. Do not eat this but eat that. Think this but do not think that.” You would like me to circumscribe, limit your life and your understanding. You will then think that that is showing you the way. Life points the way to him who is desirous of understanding the truth.

No doubt this will sound very familiar to you—K evades any specific prescriptions, to the point where it leaves his listener in the dark, so to speak.  The Buddha, on the other hand, had a knack for diagnosing where people were and then giving them the teaching they needed while at the same time indicating that the listener/student had to do the work.  K also says this but is vague about what “the work” is!  The difference between these two approaches—in terms of substantive, life-altering changes—is night and day.  Compare, for example, K’s response to his interlocutor to the Buddha’s with Bahiya.  These two examples well illustrate the respective approaches of—and results obtained by—the two men.

 

Question #4: What should someone from the Krishnamurti camp make of the Buddha’s teaching?

For someone such as you to come to meaningful and positive terms with the Buddha’s teaching is not so hard.  The point is to focus on what K did right: his descriptions of where people are (the mind of the “worldling”), where they want to go (the mind of clarity and nonduality), and one of the principle tools to use to accomplish that transformation—mindfulness.  All you really have to do is notice that the Buddha’s eightfold path includes mindfulness. (It is part of the threefold training—sila “morality”, samadhi “concentration”, paññā “wisdom”.)  So you do not have to “throw K out of the ring.”  He’s in the ring for a reason and has something to say.  He has expressed some very deep insights quite eloquently, in ways that modern people can easily approach.  I would suggest viewing what he has taught as part of a larger enterprise that can engage your whole person.  This should be quite clear if you really consider the eightfold path of the Buddha.  So much of what K talked about can be used to describe parts of that path, with the added benefit that the B’s teachings give you more practical tools by which to work with what K said.

I remember one instance I read about where K really did get practical.  It was a question put to him in some school.  He was dealing with kids and so couldn’t take the lofty, intellectual approach he’s best known for.  He had to get down to their level.  He told them to close their eyes and start watching their thoughts.  Watch them arise, watch them persist, watch them go. Well, there’s a name for this: dhammanupassana—“mindfulness of mental objects.”  You can find descriptions of this scattered throughout the suttas, but especially in the Satipatthana Sutta, which is the single densest meditation instruction in the Pali Canon.  (See especially parts C & D.)  So….it’s all there.  But, this doesn’t work for some people.  Some need the breath (anapanasati) (part A1), or mindfulness of the body (kayanupassana) (part A 2-3), or something else—maybe loving kindness (mettabhavana) or work with a kasina.

So my biggest critique of K would be to say that, contrary to his assertions, there is a “how”.  And asking “how” is perfectly legit.  If you’re lost, simply being told you’re lost is not helpful; you need instructions.  I would recommend any of the Buddhist traditions, as well as the Hindu yogic and Advaita traditions, as excellent resources for learning how to get to where you want to go.

One final note: There are many clues in print about K’s own attitude and beliefs as regards the historical Buddha.  See, for example, the following web page, which details some of them:

http://www.buddhanet.net/bvk_study/bvk22a.htm

Apparently K believed he had been a monk in the Sangha during the time of the Buddha.  Regardless of one’s take on the ideas of reincarnation and rebirth, this says quite a lot!

Hope some of this helps, though I’m guessing I’ve raised as many questions as answered.  Let me know what you think.

 

Craig

 

Clearing the Path by Ñāṇavīra Thera

Clearing the PathClearing the Path (1960-1965) by Ñāṇavīra Thera. Path Press Publications 2010, 621 pages.
How does one review a book that, arguably, is the most influential book in your life?  Well, I’ll start by directing readers to my bio of Ñāṇavīra.  This, better than anything I could say in this review, will prep you for the work itself.  But of course, a few words on that are presently in order…
I don’t actually recall how/when I first encountered Ñāṇavīra’s writings.  So, I can’t say how they struck me at the time.  But I can say that for a while–a good many years, in fact–they basically defined the Buddha’s teaching for me.  What purpose, exactly, did these amazing and unique documents fulfill in my thinking?
First, they directed me to the suttas and away from that which would interpret them for me (think the Commentaries) or pretend to supersede them (the later schools, Mahayana, etc).  And while my range in Buddhism has broadened considerably since then, I still think that if your interest is to know what the historical Buddha said this is a healthy attitude to have.  If it’s just any kind of spiritual thought or practice you’re after, there are a great many out there to satisfy you, but if your intention is to get to know Shakyamuni Buddha, the Pali canon (but not all of it!) is where you’ve got to go.  All others are pretenders and wannabes.
So Ñāṇavīra pointed me to the original texts.  But he also, to my mind, illuminated them like nobody else ever has.  In his writings there is a combination of integrity, clarity, rigor and exactness that is rarely found in spiritual writing, even the best.  The man had a first rate head on his shoulders, a wry wit, and the writerly chops to get it all across in the best style possible.  Not to mention the fact that he wrote from actual meditative attainment (i.e. sotapatti, meaning stream entry) and so knew first hand something of the Buddha’s teaching and how the texts related to that attainment.
Another notable aspect of Ñāṇavīra’s writings is his relating of the Buddhist suttas to twentieth century European philosophy—specifically existentialism and phenomenology.  This is not to say he thought Sartre & Co had somehow discovered the Dhamma on their own, but rather he noted that their perspective on the human situation mirrored the Buddha’s own position to an uncanny degree and so, for many Westerners at least, might offer a door in to the Stream.  I think there is little to argue about in this regard–that is, the case, I’d say, is pretty well proven.  So those who come to the Buddha’s teaching from an existentialist or phenomenological position might find more that is familiar than they would expect.  Ñāṇavīra pointed this out to me, and through this understanding I found myself adopting a different attitude with a consequently greater appreciation for the existentialists.Beyond mere intellectual illumination though there is also Ñāṇavīra’s wrestling with questions of life and death.  He lived, for the better part of a decade, with ill health, chronic discomfort, and the prospect that his solitary enterprise as a Buddhist monk might be go down to defeat on account of intestinal parasites.  As a result, his writings discuss with startling matter-of-factness the possibility of his death by suicide on this account, and what such a death might mean within the context of Buddhadhamma.  As one reads, the omnipresent possibility—indeed, inevitability—of his end weighs in the background, lending a degree of drama.But what about the contents?  What comprises this unique text? Clearing the Path has been described as a “workbook,” and it is certainly is that.  You should know though that it is not a single piece, but consists of one major original work—Notes on Dhamma, written to illuminate certain critical terms  in the suttas–and a slew of letters to correspondents who came to Ñāṇavīra with questions about life, the Dhamma, and the meaning of it all.  One piece, entitled Fundamental Structure, is rather forbidding and opaque–something like a mathematical proof.  Readers are advised to leave it for last and not to get their hopes up too high as for understanding it; I confess I grasped portions, but large swathes escaped me.

Which leads me to my one cautionary note: this book is for advanced Dhamma students only.  People unfamiliar with basic Pali terminology and/or Buddhist thought will be hopelessly lost.  I should also add it is not, primarily, a meditation manual; its principle thrust is the philosophical under girdings of the the historical Buddha’s thought as it is found in the Pali Canon of the Theravada school.  If you’re looking for some other Buddhist school, this will not be your cup of tea.

I leave you with a few snippets–mere appetizers–of writing from the sage of Bundala:

Existential philosophies, then, insist upon asking questions about self and the world, taking care at the same time to insist that they are unanswerable.  Beyond this point of frustration these philosophies cannot go. The Buddha, too, insists that questions about self and the world are unanswerable, either by refusing to answer them or by indicating that no statement about self and the world can be justified.  But—and here is the vital difference—the Buddha can and does go beyond this point: not, to be sure, by answering the unanswerable, but by showing the way leading to the final cessation of all questions about self and the world. Let there be no mistake in the matter: the existential philosophies are not a substitute for the Buddha’s Teaching—for which, indeed, there can be no substitute.  The questions that they persist in asking are the questions of a puthujjana, of a “commoner,” and though they see that they are unanswerable they have no alternative but to go on asking them; for the tacit assumption upon which all these philosophies rest is that the questions are valid. They are faced with an ambiguity that they cannot resolve. The Buddha, on the other hand, sees that the questions are not valid and that to ask them is to make the mistake of assuming that they are.  One who has understood the Buddha’s Teaching no longer asks these questions; he is ariya, “noble,” and no more a puthujjana, and he is beyond the range of the existential philosophies; but he would never have reached the point of listening to the Buddha’s Teaching had he not first been disquieted by existential questions about himself and the world (from the Preface).

At the time I read [Joyce’s Ulysses]—when I was about twenty—I had already suspected (from my reading of Huxley and others) that there is no point in life, but this was still all rather abstract and theoretical. But Ulysses gets down to details, and I found I recognized myself, mutatis mutandis, in the futile occupations that fill the days of Joyce’s characters. And so I came to understand that all our actions, from the most deliberate to the most thoughtless, and without exception, are determined by present pleasure and present pain. Even what we pompously call our “duty” is included in this law—if we do our duty, that is only because we should feel uncomfortable if we neglected it, and we seek to avoid discomfort. Even the wise man, who renounces a present pleasure for the sake of a greater pleasure in the future, obeys this law—he enjoys the present pleasure of knowing (or believing) that he is providing for his future pleasure, whereas the foolish man, preferring the present pleasure to his future pleasure, is perpetually gnawed with apprehension about his future. And when I had understood this, the Buddha’s statement, “Both now and formerly, monks, it is just suffering that I make known and the ceasing of suffering” (M.22:38), came to seem (when eventually I heard it) the most obvious thing in the world—“What else,” I exclaimed, “could the Buddha possibly teach?”  (pp. 404-5).

Suffering (dukkha) is the key to the whole of the Buddha’s Teaching, and any interpretation that leaves suffering out of account (or adds it, perhaps, only as an afterthought) is at once suspect. The point is, that suffering has nothing to do with a tree’s self-identity (or supposed lack of self-identity): what it does have to do with is my “self” as subject (I, ego), which is quite another matter…  As I point out…, “With the question of a thing’s self-identity (which presents no difficulty) the Buddha’s Teaching of anatta has nothing whatsoever to do: anatta is purely concerned with ‘self’ as subject.” But this is very much more difficult to grasp than the misinterpretation based on the notion of flux, so flux inevitably gets the popular vote (like the doctrine of paramattha sacca, of which it is really a part). The misinterpretation is actually of Mahayanist origin; and in one of their texts (Prajñaparamita) it is specifically stated that it is only on account of avijja that things appear to exist, whereas in reality nothing exists. But the fact is that, even when one becomes arahat, a tree continues to have a self-identity; that is to say, it continues to exist as the same tree (though undergoing subordinate changes on more particular levels—falling of leaves, growth of flowers and fruit, etc.) until it dies or is cut down. But for the arahat the tree is no longer “my tree” since all notions of “I” and “mine” have ceased (p. 175).

My Amazon rating: 5 stars

The Way of Korean Zen by Kusan Sunim

The Way of Korean Zen by Kusan Sunim.  (Translation by Martine Batchelor; edited, with an introduction by Stephen Batchelor.)  Weatherhill 2009. 182 pages.

I think you would be hard pressed to find a better, more authentic introduction to Zen Buddhism–or, as it is called in Korea, Seon Bulgyo (where “seon” is pronounced like English “son”).  But perhaps the word “introduction” is not really appropriate.  If you know nothing about Zen Buddhism this is probably not the best place to start.  If you’ve waded into the ocean of Zen and are looking for a fine “fish” to eat, something tasty and nutritious, something truly representative of these particular “waters” (to carry my analogy near the breaking point), this book is marvelous.

It is not about Japanese Zen, though, but Korean.  The Koreans have been practicing Buddhism longer than the Japanese, plus there is more active, “authentic” Buddhism happening in Korea than in Japan.  (At least that’s been my impression; let me know if you think otherwise.)  This situation, however, is changing; as I’ve mentioned elsewhere, the tradition is dying and is probably ready for life support at this point.  (In Japan it is as good as clinically dead; there is probably more authentic Zen in America than in Japan.)  That said, the Koreans understand the whys and wherefores of koan (or “hwadu”) practice in a way I never got the sense contemporary Japanese do.  This book delves in depth regarding koans and contains prime instruction for anyone utilizing this particular meditation subject.

Kusan Sunim (1909-1983)

Some words about the source of these teachings.  Kusan Sunim was, along with Seong-cheol Sunim (“sunim” means monk in Korean), arguably the greatest living exponent of Zen Buddhism in twentieth century Korea.  He started life as a farmer and barber, was even a married man.  At the age of 26 a life-threatening disease struck him.  He survived by going to a temple and reciting the mantra Om mani padme hum for a hundred days, which practice cured him.  Three years later he renounced family life and ordained as a monk and soon after took up meditation, which he did with fanatic resolve.  Sometimes circumstances intervened to interrupt his practice, but he repeatedly went back to it with increased determination.  During one stint, to fight off drowsiness he practiced continuous standing meditation for days on end, during which time “he lost any sense of the outside world.  He was no longer concerned whether he lived or died.  He was so absorbed in his meditation that birds would come and sit on his head and shoulders and take pieces of stuffing that protruded from his padded coat for their nests” (45).  Eventually he attained Great Awakening, which caused his teacher Hyobong Sunim to say “Until now you have been following me; now it is I who should follow you” (47).  This book gives you a chance to follow this great man.

The contents offer a good variety.  The introduction (by Stephen Batchelor) chronicle the history of Buddhism in Korea, a much neglected area of study by Western Buddhists.  Readers who wish to delve more deeply into this would be advised to check out Mu-Seong Sunim’s Thousand Peaks: Korean Zen Tradition and Teachers.  Those with a philosophical bent will appreciate Tracing Back the Radiance: Chinul’s Korean Way of Zen.  (Chinul, a contemporary of Dogen’s, is the intellectual godfather of Korean Zen, though in the last several decades he has been somewhat overshadowed by Seong-cheol’s “sudden awakening, sudden cultivation” teachings which hearken back to the Sixth Patriarch.)  There follows an overview of life in a Korean Zen monastery and a brief bio of Kusan.  Those wishing to know more about the former should read The Zen Monastic Experience by Robert E. Buswell.

The second half of the book constitute the teachings proper.  They consist of meditation instructions, specifically how to practice the koan (hwadu), as well as discourses from winter retreats delivered by Kusan to monks assembled at Songgwang-Sa, where Kusan was the abbot.  (This is also the temple where I lived most of the time that I spent in Korean temples.)  There are also less formal talks–“advice and encouragement”–and a series of poems and commentaries on the traditional “Ten Oxherding Pictures.”

Entrance to Songgwang-Sa

The feeling one gets from reading the words of Kusan is This is the real deal.  Imagine if one of the ancient Chinese masters–Huang-po or Linchi or even Huineng–were suddenly resurrected in the here and now and started spouting off–this is what you’d expect to hear.  Kusan has the same punch, energy, sense of paradox, and intrinsic authority.  You can’t help but want to take this man’s advice, to run off to the mountains, live in a cave and risk all for the breakthrough.

But don’t believe me.  Listen to him:

To live long would be to live for a hundred years. A short life is over in the time it takes to inhale and exhale a single breath. A hundred years of life depends upon a single breath, for life stops when respiration ceases. Can you afford to wait for a hundred years when you do not know how soon death will come? You may die after having eaten a good breakfast in the morning; you may die in the afternoon after a good lunch. Some die during sleep. You may die in the midst of going here and there. No one can determine the time of death. Therefore, you must awaken before you die (78-9).

What will it take to awaken?  Kusan tells us:

The Buddhas and the patriarchs did not realize Buddhahood easily. They realized it through great effort and much hardship. They exerted themselves with such great effort because the sufferings of birth and death are so terrifying. Therefore, even though you want to sleep more, you should sleep less. Even though you want to eat more, you should eat less. Even though you want to talk a lot, you should try to talk less. Even though you want to see many things, you should see less. Your body will definitely feel restrained by acting in such a way. This is indeed a practice of austerity. However, none of the Buddhas and the patriarchs would have awakened had they not trained themselves in this manner (81-2).

Finally, if you want to help sentient beings, how can you do it?  Kusan says

In order to be able to actually help others, you should seek to emulate the spirit of a great hero.  This is necessary because only one who is the greatest hero among heroes is able to accomplish this difficult task [of awakening]. You need supreme courage in order to bring this practice to its completion. To transform this world into a Pure Land and to change ordinary sentient beings into accomplished sages is no easy matter. It is truly the work of a great hero (118).

I advise all you wanna-be great heroes to get a copy of this illuminating and inspiring book and enter soon the practice of the Way!

My Amazon rating: 5 stars 

Dipa Ma by Amy Schmidt

Dipa Ma: The Life and Legacy of A Buddhist Master by Amy Schmidt.  Blue Ridge 2005.  175 pages.

This is the story of how one sick, poor tiny Bengali woman became a spiritual giant whose influence, through those who met and studied under her, has spread around the world.  It is a most unlikely story, for Dipa Ma seems to come almost out of nowhere.  Her life, like so many people living in such dire conditions, consisted of a series of tragedies–infertility (this in a terribly patriarchal society where children made the woman), the deaths of several children she bore, the death of her husband, poverty, and then declining health.  It looked as if this little beetle of a woman would see an early grave.

The only thing going for her was an intense aspiration to practice meditation.  But even there she was stymied for decades by her husband and/or her health, until finally the first was gone and the second going.  What did she have to lose?  She crawled into the meditation center, but once she got going not even a dog attack (which put her in the hospital to get rabies shots) could stop her.  Her concentration went off the chart, and by the end of her first retreat she attained stream entry (sotapatti).  Her health did an about face, and higher paths soon followed.

Dipa Ma developed at an unprecedented speed, as, later, her daughter and son did.  (Clearly genetics plays a role.)  Under Anagarika Munindra’s guidance she developed an extensive repertoire of powers (siddhis), exhibited shaktipat, an unusual facility for jhanas and a great power of loving-kindness.  Soon students–housewives, school kids, even monks–began coming to her tiny one bedroom apartment in Calcutta (the conditions she lived in never really improved) for teaching and guidance, and her fame spread.  Through Munindra Westerners began beating a path to her door, among them such luminaries as Jack Engler, Joseph Goldstein, Sharon Salzberg and Jack Kornfield.  The rest, as they say, is history.

The book is a brief portrait of this amazing woman.  Its biographical section is actually quite scant.  There are not a lot of details, no foot or endnotes, but many testimonials.  Famous and unfamous alike attest to the ways this woman impressed and changed them, and many of these accounts are quite moving.  Clearly she was a prodigy, a saint by any measure.

Wonderful things really do come in small packages.

My Amazon rating: 5 stars

A Path With Heart by Jack Kornfield

A Path With Heart: A Guide Through the Perils and Promises of Spiritual Life by Jack Kornfield.  Bantam Books 1993.  366 pages.

I can sincerely say this is an excellent book but that it is not the correct book for me at this time.   Books tend to be time sensitive documents, meaning if you read one at the “right” time, it can light fireworks under your butt, while if you had read the same book at an earlier or later time of your life, you might toss it aside and pick up instead the latest copy of Time (pun intended).  My experience with what is probably Kornfield’s most widely read book is somewhere in between, but again, this may be on account of personality or timing.  Anyway, having read the book and announced this caveat, I’ll plunge in to my review.

First let’s nail down what the book is about, because it’s not immediately clear by looking at the table of contents.  The title comes from an oft-quoted passage from Carlos Castaneda’s first book, The Teachings of Don Juan: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge:

For me there is only the traveling on paths that have heart, on any path that may have heart.  There I travel, and the only worthwhile challenge is to traverse its full length.  And there I travel looking, looking, breathlessly…

The spiritual life is not just a path, but a forest, with infinite numbers of highways and byways and small trails, and if you’re not careful, or don’t have a good guide, it is easy to end up at a dead-end or some bad place you never intended.  This book is meant as a guide or map to this terrain.

Its range is necessarily vast, covering everything from the important questions of one’s life (“Did I love well?”) to making peace with oneself (“dealing with our stuff” as Daniel Ingram would say), and initial attempts to train the wayward mind (the “puppy” as Kornfield puts it).  Salient topics such as the stages of insight and the perennial debate of True Self versus No-Self are considered from Kornfield’s typically ecumenical and gracious standpoint.  The particular issues of Westerners dealing with abuse, codependence, and self-loathing are tackled, and the positive role psychotherapy can play in unwinding these issues is also discussed.  Karma is defined and the necessary role of compassionate, helpful work as “meditation-in-action” advocated. 

Kornfield is one of the godfathers of the American meditation scene, and his vast experience, sensitive expression and insight are abundantly on display.  It is not surprising then that while I would heartily recommend it as an introduction or preliminary text to one’s sadhana, it also bears reviewing at later stages of development.  In other words, this is neither a book for beginners, intermediates, or advanced students of the Way; it’s for everyone, since everyone at all times is running into at least one or two issues discussed in the book.

Quality-wise Kornfield’s insights, suggestions and clarifications are impeccable.  He is a very human and down-to-earth guide, one who sees beyond the starry-eyed ideals of perfection many traditions advocate (cf. Ingram’s Mastering the Core Teachings of the Buddha for more on this), and while the Theravada is his “home base” so to speak, his vision is all-embracing as regards the varieties of approaches one can take to the contemplative path.  I would recommend this book even to dyed-in-the-wool Christians—maybe an evangelical or two… (but maybe not)—without hesitation.  I don’t see how it could fail to inform or advise someone, regardless of where they are.  In the end, sincerity and a desire to learn are what count.

Despite all these good points, I found myself constantly irritated by Kornfield’s writing.  It is, to say the least, a little on the saccharine side; nay, sometimes it went down like seven packs of Splenda in my coffee.  There’s a little too much “wisdom and compassion,” “heart,” and “joy,” “being” and Buddha-nature here, and in Kornfield’s world everyone is a “master”: a Zen Master (with both words capitalized no less, like it’s a job title or something), a meditation master, a spiritual master, or just plain master.  I’m sorry, but not everyone can be a master.  If you’ve been on retreat for ten or more years or you’re a natural-born genius, you might qualify, but these sorts are rare; the word is overused.  (Besides, I don’t want a master; I want a teacher or guide or good friend, but I digress…)  To make a long story short: Kornfield is heavy on the “fufu jargon,” and for a spiritual curmudgeon like me it just doesn’t fly.

This kind of writing is unabashedly “popular,” politically correct, and “nice.”  The above is symptomatic of this, but his willingness to water down passages quoted from other (especially traditional) sources, to massage them into accordance with his way of presentation, also points to this tendency.  (Not to mention irritates the hell out of me!)  I groaned at one point (page 74) where, when quoting don Juan (from Castaneda) Kornfield felt it necessary to stick the word “spiritual” in front of the word “warrior,” as if without we might all think he was advocating something he clearly wasn’t.  Two pages later an even worse example of this sort of heavy-handed editorializing reared its ugly head.  In Kornfield’s words, the Buddha said:

Just as the great oceans have but one taste, the taste of salt, so too there is but one taste fundamental to all true teachings of the Way, and this is the taste of freedom (76). 

The source is Udana 5:6, where in the original Pali it says “Just as the great ocean has one taste, the taste of salt, so too this Dhamma and Discipline have one taste: the taste of freedom.”  Clearly, the Buddha was describing his teaching, not anyone else’s, but Kornfield, liking the passage, “adjusted” it to fit his message.  I think you can see why this sort of thing, indulged in on a regular basis, would rub some people the wrong way.

So, the brilliant and witty, the philosophically profound and the airy-fairy—it’s all here and much more.  I will leave you with some sage advice on this book from Daniel Ingram, who called A Path With Heart a “masterwork”:

Only major problem is that is it so nicely written and gentle you might not realize how hard hitting it is. Assume it is very hard hitting and technical despite its friendly tone and you will get more out of it.            

 My Amazon rating: 4 stars

Mastering the Core Teachings of the Buddha by Daniel M. Ingram

Mastering the Core Teachings of the Buddha: An Unusually Hardcore Dharma Book by Daniel M. Ingram.  Aeon Books 2008.  406 pages.

This is not your daddy’s Dharma book!  (Your mommy’s neither.)

The differences start with the cover, and no, I’m not talking about the flaming dude with a chakra wheel for his heart.  I’m talking about the author’s title: Arahat.  Now, Ingram does have a regular title–he’s a medical doctor (M.D.) specializing in emergency medicine–“Everything from hangnails to heart attacks” he told me in a phone conversation.  As you ought to know by now (if you read this blog regularly), an arhat (there are variant spellings) is one who has completed the Buddhist path as laid out in the Pali Suttas.  “Done is what had to be done and there is no more of this to come!” goes the standard refrain by those who have attained such.  Clearly Ingram is, as the suttas say, ready to “roar his lion’s roar” in the spiritual marketplace.  He spells the differences out further in the “Forward and Warning,” wherein he puts you on notice he does not intend to write a “nice and friendly dharma book”; you know you’re in for it when an author tells you he hails from a lineage of “dharma cowboys, mavericks, rogues and outsiders” (16).

That said, the books proceeds normally enough through part one.  Ingram begins his discussion of dharma in terms of the traditional “three trainings”: morality (sila), concentration (samadhi) and wisdom (paññā).  I especially found his discussion of morality illuminating.  Going considerably beyond the standard list of things we shouldn’t do (the five precepts etc), he says

Training in morality has as its domain all of the ordinary ways that we live in the world.  When we are trying to live the good life in a conventional sense, we are working on training in morality.  When we are trying to work on our emotional, psychological and physical health, we are working at the level of training morality…  Whatever we do in the ordinary world that we think will be of some benefit to others or ourselves is an aspect of working on this first training (24-5).

He goes on to point out that while absolute mastery of concentration and wisdom (insight) is possible, total mastery in the worldly sphere of ethics is not.  And so he calls it, rightly, the “first and last training.”

Chapter 4 (oddly, the chapters are not numbered, only the parts) lays significant emphasis on seeing the three characteristics (tilakkhana) of phenomena–impermanence (anicca), suffering (dukkha) and not-self (anatta); indeed, this is a fundamental tenet of Ingram’s approach to meditation, derivable in part from his experiences in the Mahasi tradition which has a similar emphasis.  His discussion of anatta is clarifying: it means, simply, that when phenomena are investigated closely (as in vipassana), no agent, controller, or subject can be discovered; the things of the world are, in effect, ownerless.  This, too, is a significant part of Ingram’s dharma discussion, and comes up repeatedly later in the book.   Ingram also discusses the spiritual faculties, the factors of enlightenment, and the four truths.

Most of the above can be found in other dharma books.  Where things really start to get interesting is in the section entitled “Practical Meditation Considerations.”  Here Ingram’s wealth of experience in formal retreat centers comes to the fore and makes for extremely informative, even entertaining, reading.  For example, he lists the things retreatants tend to get neurotic about, such as wake-up bells (“too quiet, too loud, someone forgets to ring it at all”), roommates (“those that snore, smell, are noisy or messy, etc.”), as well as “issues of corruption, romances, cults of personality, affairs, crushes, miscommunications, vendettas, scandals, drug use, money issues, and all the other things that can sometimes show up anywhere there are people” (94)–meaning everything and anything!

Daniel Ingram

This is a section that demands multiple readings.  Not because it’s in any way difficult, just because the nuts and bolts of doing a retreat, of daily practice, are often the very things that defeat us.  I repeatedly found Ingram’s advice to be forthright, informed, and practical.  Many people, for example, get obsessed over posture, but Ingram says simply “we can meditate in just about any position we find ourselves” (96).   He notes, for example, how “Many traditions make a big deal about exactly how you should sit, with some getting paricularly macho or picky about such things” (97)–making me recall my experience in a Zen monastery in Japan.  He writes how the four postures of sitting, standing, walking, reclining each have plusses and minuses, the principle differences being in the energy level and effects on concentration.  He further discusses issues such as meditation objects, the critical role of resolve, and offers some very illuminating remarks on teachers.  One clearly gets the sense Ingram knows what he says from firsthand experience.

The fireworks start in Part II, “Light and Shadows.”  Little lightning bolts–the sign of something controversial ahead–adorn several chapters.  This is where Ingram gets up on his soapbox.  Usually, I would say that in a bad way, meaning someone was just spouting.  But here, I think, what Ingram does, even if you want to call it spouting, is all to a very good point, and that is to draw attention to some of the unconstructive shadow sides of Buddhist spirituality in America.  For example, in the section entitled “Buddhism vs. the Buddha,” he criticizes the religious trappings the Buddha’s teaching–in its original form an applied psychology–has been buried under, and how Americans have contributed to rendering the master’s technology of awakening into dogma or comfort food.

However, Ingram’s purpose here is not controversy.  He speaks also about having a clear goal, and encourages asking oneself questions like “Why would I want to sit cross-legged for hours with my eyes closed, anyway?”  It’s important you know what you’re seeking, after all, and Ingram hammers this point throughout the book.  (It was also one of the first questions he asked me in our phone conversation!)  This section also describes the critical difference between dealing with one’s “stuff”–i.e. the content of your life–and seeing the true nature of the phenomena that constitute that stuff.  For example, if you’re depressed because your significant other dumped you, trying to figure out why he/she did that to you is reflection on your “stuff,” but patiently observing the emotions of anger or depression as they arise and pass away–i.e. trying to see the fundamental characteristics of those experiences–is insight.  The difference here, as Ingram makes clear, is night and day.

Part III, “Mastery,” forms the heart of the book, and this is where Ingram’s starkly non-dogmatic, critical, and pragmatic intellect shows its best.  This is also the part most likely to offend and where it becomes clear that if you’re after spiritual pabulum, you’ve come to the wrong man.  Ingram is all about “states and stages,” about achieving exactly what the old dead masters achieved.  We each have our purposes in our spiritual lives–and he acknowledges this–but he is not looking to comfort or console anyone, or make things seem easier than they are.  Ingram’s vision of the Dhamma is, rather, very goal oriented and effort driven.  It is a path of achievement, of distinct and discernible attainments.  If your mentality does not incline toward this way of thinking and acting, now is the time to bail out!

This section reviews in great, perhaps unprecedented detail, three distinct subjects: the concentration jhanas (1-8), the progress of insight, and the multiplicity of models and definitions of enlightenment.  There is plenty here to make for argument, but also to educate, warn, coax and cajole.  In short, this is some of the most stimulating, revealing and educational dharma reading I’ve ever done.  You could read a hundred dharma books and still not come up with this stuff.  And while Ingram is not a particularly great (or even good) writer (more on this below), he is at times eminently quotable.  I can’t resist offering a few snippets here.  These give you a good idea of what you’re getting into with this book.

You may have heard, for example, about those teachers who say “there is nothing to attain, nowhere to go, no one to get enlightened, your seeking is the problem.”  Or, even more intriguingly, that “you are already enlightened.”  You find these teachings in some Buddhist schools, J. Krishnamurti, Adi Da, and others.  Here’s Ingram’s take on this take on enlightenment:

[It’s] like saying: you are already a concert pianist, you just have to realize it, or you already are a nuclear physicist, you just have to realize it…  [It’s] like saying to a severe paranoid schizophrenic: you already are as sane as anyone and do not need to take your medicines and should just follow the voices that tell you to kill people, or to a person with heart disease: just keep smoking and eating fried pork skins and you will be healthy…or saying to a greedy, corrupt, corporate-raiding, white-collar criminal, Fascist, alcoholic wife-beater: hey, Dude, you are a like, beautiful perfect flower of the Now Moment, already enlightened (insert toke here), you are doing and not-doing just fine, like wow, so keep up the good work, Man (360).

I read this while on the train to work and enjoyed an unrestrained guffaw–several times!

However…to double back to my criticism of Ingram’s writing: he’s badly in need of an editor, and the people at Aeon Books let him down.  Ingram grossly overuses the word “that”–it’s one of the most overused words in the language, so he is not alone in the bad habit of thatting this and thatting that–and after a while it started grating on my sensitive literary nerves.  He also does not seem to know the difference between “phenomena” and “phenomenon,” and, on a different note,  sometimes comes off sounding rather immature.  There were occasions, too, where he went on unnecessarily about whatever, and a little more self-control would have helped the text out a lot.  Again…where were his editors?

But this is minor stuff, mere bitching on my part.  Ingram is actually a pretty fun read, and the book is outstanding and unique in so many ways, I/we can and should forgive him.  He has much wisdom to offer and we should be grateful for all the hard work he’s done on and off the cushion.  I leave you with one nugget of insight that stood out for me:

      When I think about what it would take to achieve freedom from all psychological stuff, the response that comes is this: life is about stuff.  Stuff is part of being alive.  There is no way out of this while you are still living.  There will be confusion, pain, miscommunication, misinterpretation, maladaptive patterns of behavior, unhelpful emotional reactions, weird personality traits, neurosis and possibly much worse.  There will be power plays, twisted psychological games, people with major personality disorders (which may include you), and craziness.  The injuries continue right along with the healing and eventually the injuries win and we die.  This is a fundamental teaching of the Buddha.  I wish the whole Western Buddhist World would just get over this notion that these practices are all about getting to our Happy Place where nothing can ever hurt us or make us neurotic and move on to actually mastering real Buddhist practice rather than chasing some ideal that will never appear (330).

You have your marching orders.

My Amazon rating: 5 stars

P.S. I highly recommend the following three videos of Daniel Ingram speaking at Brown University’s “Cheetah House”

The Seven Stages of Purification and the Insight Knowledges by Matara Sri Ñanarama

The Seven Stages of Purification and the Insight Knowledges: A Guide to the Progressive Stages of Buddhist Meditation by the Venerable Mahathera Matara Sri Ñanarama.  Buddhist Publication Society 1983/2000.  74 pages.

Do not be fooled by the page count.  This is a dense little book with lots of Pali outlining in detail the stages of meditation development originally described in Buddhaghosa’s work the Visuddhi Magga.  Its purpose is not to teach you how to meditate.  The assumption here is that you’ve already been given the instructions and are now in a position to put them into practice.  What the book describes are the results of that practice, from your first meeting with the bare phenomena of experience until the moment everything winks out of existence–i.e. nibbana (nirvana).

I’m not going to attempt here to explain what the seven stages are–that’s the purpose of the book, after all.  What I will say is that if you are planning to take up vipassana (i.e. insight, or satipatthana) practice in a serious way, you need to read this book or some equivalent substitute.  In other words, it behooves the one who would travel in his own mind to get a map and to master it–to know the terrain–before traveling there.  Failure to do so is likely to result in confusion, disorientation, lost time and wasted effort, not to mention needless pain and suffering.  You should view this as what it is–an atlas of mental states to be experienced by those who drive the vehicle of insight.

As a guide, the book is excellent.  It tells you in detail what you’ll encounter, along with the dangers, rewards, and tips on what needs to be done to keep up momentum and keep the goal in sight.  Do not look for scintillating prose or touchy-feely New Age fluff–it isn’t here.  This is hardcore, to be known, used, and–ideally–mastered.  The goal is to make this material your own, not to debate its merits as a “philosophy” book.  All the philosophy the West has produced will do less for you than will following this little guide.  The dialogues of Plato,  Aquinas’ Summa Theologica, the aphorisms of Nietzsche–none will give as much to you if you are willing to sit down and do the work this thin text recommends.

That goes for me, too, by the way.

Other books and resources in a similar vein you should check out are: The Progress of Insight by Mahasi Sayadaw, Practical Insight Meditation, by Mahasi Sayadaw, Daniel Ingram’s talk at Brown University’s Cheetah House, Kenneth Folk’s writings on the progress of insight.  Use them all.

My Amazon rating: 5 stars

The Heart of Buddhist Meditation by Nyanaponika Thera

The Heart of Buddhist Meditation: A Handbook of Mental Training Based On the Buddha’s Way of Mindfulness by Nyanaponika Thera.  Buddhist Publication Society 1954/1996.  223 pages.

If Walpola Rahula’s What the Buddha Taught introduced me to the thought of the early texts, this one introduced me to their practice.  Unfortunately, I didn’t get to it until I was already in Asia and losing some of my attraction for Zen.  Since I’d been reared on Sanskrit terminology, the existence of this other language (Pali) and its corpus remained somewhat hidden from me, despite my earlier exposure.  I remember the weird feeling just reading the world “satipatthana” gave me…

Many of the compliments I paid to Rahula’s work I can pay to this one as well.  In fact, the two are even structured in a similar fashion–a dense yet lucid, non-sectarian exposition followed by an expertly translated and arranged set of selections from the suttas.  The chief difference lies in the more focused and practical thrust of this book.  If Rahula’s is for orientation, a gazeteer or general map, as it were, Nyanaponika’s is like the car you get in to travel to your destination.

The book’s focus is the Satipatthana Sutta (Majjhima Nikaya 10), which is the same discourse as the Mahasatipatthana Sutta (Digha Nikaya 22) only minus the exposition of the four noble truths.  In effect, Nyanaponika’s little book is a commentary upon this great teaching.  The first chapter, “The Way of Mindfulness,” discusses the centrality of mental culture in the Buddha’s teaching, and places mindfulness (sati) at the heart of the practice of mental culture.

Chapter two, “Mindfulness and Clear Comprehension,” is the critical part.  Here the notion of “bare attention” is defined, and for those who are entirely new to meditation, this may be a difficult concept to wrap the head around precisely because it is not a concept.  The teaching of Right Mindfulness is described within the context of bare attention.  Clear comprehension (sampajañña), the second aspect of Right Mindfulness, is discussed in various ways per the sutta commentaries, such as awareness of what one is doing, the suitability of one’s actions, etc.

Chapter three, “The Four Objects of Mindfulness,” dives into the discourse proper, examining the various bases or foundations of practice, the body (breath, postures, contemplation of disgust for the body, etc), feelings (i.e. what is felt or sensed internally and externally), mental states (sleepy, clear, distracted, etc) and mental objects (thoughts and emotions that arise and pass away).

Chapter four attempts to counter charges that these practices are “coldly intellectual,” “dry,” or “indifferent,” charges that have at times been leveled at Theravadin teachings in general (though to be exact, these teachings are pre-Theravadin).  I have to confess I’ve always found such objections to the Pali teachings rather hard to understand.  They clearly derive from people armed and ready with preconceived ideological agendas who are eager to avoid any evidence to the contrary.

The last two chapters of Nyanaponika’s exposition cover the Burmese satipatthana method (the Mahasi style of practice) and anapanasati, which is mindfulness of the breath, traditionally as it passes through the nasal passages.  Here you get detailed instructions for how to put everything you’ve learned into practice.  It must be noted that these are simply instructions on “how to”–they are not equivalent to having an actual teacher who will tell you what to expect, or what you should do if–god forbid–you actually get enlightened!

Part II of the text is a translation with extensive notes of the Satipatthana Sutta.  I have only one bone to pick here, and that is with the translation of ekayano maggo in the first sentence of the third paragraph as “sole way,” as if satipatthana was the only way to nibbana.  Numerous translators have done this, but it has been pointed out by many others that a better translation of this phrase is “a road that goes one way” or has “one direction”–meaning that satipatthana is a path that leads inevitably toward a single goal.  Maurice Walshe, in his note to the passage (from The Long Discourses of the Buddha, p. 589, n. 626), points out even the commentary is confused about how exactly to interpret it.  Part III, “Flowers of Deliverance,” collects other passages from the suttas and even the Mahayana sutras that concern mental culture, with particular attention to satipatthana and its related concepts.

While the book can at times perhaps be faulted for a somewhat dated prose style, this is in no way to say its contents are dated.  It is throughout a clear and intellectually rigorous work, quite complete as regards its subject matter, and represents an excellent starting point for anyone interested in Buddhist meditation practice.

My Amazon rating: 5 stars

Living Dharma: Teachings of Twelve Buddhist Masters by Jack Kornfield

Living Dharma: Teachings of Twelve Buddhist Masters by Jack Kornfield.  Shambhala 1996.  319 pages.

First published in 1983 under the unfortunate title Living Buddhist Masters, the law of impermanence inevitably asserted itself and the masters died.  The title was then of necessity changed to something more “permanent.”  (I’m sorry, I can never miss the grim, yet oddly appropriate humor that applies here!)  Titular changes notwithstanding, the book is still in print, and deservedly so–it should be on every Buddhist practitioner’s list of “must read” books.  Why this is so becomes abundantly clear upon glancing at the table of contents.

What Jack Kornfield has done is allow the Dharma (or, more correctly, “Dhamma”) experts to speak for themselves.  His contribution has merely been to supply an introduction on the Theravadan Buddhist meditation tradition and then brief bios of the individual teachers.  The chapters therefore consist almost entirely of essays or talks from the featured “masters.”  The result is a rich, diverse cornucopia of insights, attitudes, practical instructions and advice matched by few other books in the field.

While Kornfield’s contribution is relatively small, it is not insignificant.  Chapter one, “Essential Buddhism,” covers basic elements of meditation practice–the meditation setting, the three trainings of morality, concentration and insight, the role of mindfulness, an interesting blurb on differing opinions concerning “goals/no goals” in practice, the factors of enlightenment and another interesting blurb on why anyone should even bother reading dharma books.  Chapter two is more specific, looking at these topics as they apply in the traditions of southeast Asian Buddhism (i.e. Thai and Burmese).  Chapter three is a gem–all of half a page, and that mostly empty space.  Kornfield writes: “I have reserved a whole chapter to make a simple statement.  The entire teaching of Buddhism can be summed up in this way: Nothing is worth holding on to” (p. 31).  I think everyone should stand up at this point and applaud, because I’ve yet to come across a more condensed, accurate and well put statement of what the Buddha taught than this.  In other words, if you learn this much–really learn it–you’ve done what had to be done and there is nothing more of this to come.

But, thankfully, there is more to the book!

The profiled teachers include such famous sorts as Achaan Chaa, Mahasi Sayadaw, Sunlun Sayadaw, Achaan Buddhadasa, Achaan Maha Boowa, and U Ba Khin, as well as lesser known teachers like Achaans Jumnien and Dhammadaro, Mogok Sayadaw and Taugpulu Sayadaw.  Notably absent are Webu Sayadaw–a reputed arhant bikkhu–Dipa Ma and Goenka.  It would have been nice if when the book was reissued chapters on these people had been added, but I guess you can’t have everything.  My personal favorite chapters are those on Chaa, Sunlun, Mahasi and Jumnien.

Certain tensions in teaching and practice emerge from these profiles.  There are those who clearly emphasize practice over theory (Chaa, Sunlun, Boowa, and Jumnien, for example), theory as preliminary to practice (e.g. Mogok and Mohnyin) and those that seem somewhere in between (e.g. Mahasi).  Then there is (as noted by Kornfield in his introduction) the tension between a goal directed practice, or a more natural, goal-less “way of living.”  Respective represenatives of these contrasting approaches would be Sunlun and Chaa.  Some teachers work within the contexts of monasteries, others meditation centers.  The impression one comes away with is that there is something here for everyone, no matter their calling in life (monk vs. lay), their personality type (intellectual vs. practical), or their particular needs (long-term living vs. short-term, intensive retreats).  Most importantly, it becomes clear that the Buddha’s teaching, both as it exists now and as it certainly was in the founder’s day, is not so much an ideology as a highly sophisticated technology one uses to cultivate and master the mind.  In other words, the Dhamma is something one does as opposed to believes.

My Amazon rating: 5 stars

 

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