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Archive for the category “Nondual Teachings”

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

 

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 

Adi Da Samraj: Realized or/and Deluded? by William Patrick Patterson

Adi Da Samraj: Realized or/and Deluded? by William Patrick Patterson.  Arete Communications 2012.  210 pages.

Franklin Jones, also known as Bubba Free John, Da Love Ananda, Adi Da, and many other appellations besides, was quite the character.  Even as a relatively young man he was lauded by spiritual elites; Ken Wilber, in 1979, wrote of him:

Whatever else might be initially said, the event of Bubba Free John is an occasion for rejoicing, because — without any doubt whatsoever — he is destined to be recognized as the first Western-born Avatar (World Teacher) to appear in the history of the world. For the other great avatars — Christ, Gautama, Krishna — all have been Asian. But here, for the first time, is a Western-born Spiritual Master of the ultimate degree.

At the same time he was the quintessential cult figure, an abusive, predatory and whimsical sexual-spiritual bully who lorded it over his god-besotted, harebrained disciples.  Wrote Mark Miller, the former boyfriend of one of Jones’ “spiritual wives”:

DFJ [Da Free John] gave her herpes and told her it was prasad [spiritual food] from the Guru to help her work through her bad cunt karma…  He also gave it to a lot of other women, and you can’t really say it was by accident.  He knew he was contagious but he had sex anyway because he could just explain it as a form of blessing for the women he gave it to…  DFJ made another friend of mine give three guys oral sex, one after the other, and then he had sex with her himself.  She was molested as a child and had some sexual hang-ups, so this really traumatized her, making her do this group thing (91).

William Patrick Patterson’s book is the first assessment of this man of many sides and extremes.

Franklin Jones 1973

I’ve long been curious about Franklin Jones–how could one not be after Wilber’s hyperbolic, laudatory ejaculations?–so when I found this volume on Amazon I snatched it up with hardly a thought, even though the book did not appear to have been properly published.  Indeed, no reputable publisher makes a book cover like that; mine has “review copy” stamped on the inside cover, plus there are a zillion typos and sentences needing to be rewritten.  Clearly this is not a finished product.  I don’t know if a polished edition will ever emerge–I certainly hope so–but I still read the work with relish and plowed through it at a pace.  I suspect you’ll do the same.

So, what’s inside?

The actual biography is a mere five chapters at around a hundred pages.  While a lot more could certainly have been said, Patterson manages to give you the gist of the man in this relatively short space.  There is almost nothing about Jones’ boyhood, which is a shame because one really has to wonder what sort of upbringing might have formed such a thoroughly narcissistic, exploitive and charismatic personality.  (The suggestion of sexual molestation by his Lutheran minister is made, almost as an afterthought, on page 135.  Jones’ autobiography The Knee of Listening  supports this.)  By page two he’s already in college.  Clearly, Jones was a gifted student–he went to Columbia and thence to Stanford, and the snippets from his master’s thesis on Gertrude Stein (at the back of the book) indicate not only a born writer but a subtle intellect as well.  During this time he participated in drug experiments and flung himself headlong into hedonism before finally recognizing that way as a dead end.  And here begins his real story.

To make it short: he connected up first with an Asian imports store owner and kundalini yoga master named Albert Rudolph (aka “Rudi”), through whom he was introduced to Swami Muktananda.  Under Muktananda’s tutelage Jones came into his own–and then left him.  Finally, at the Vedanta Society Temple in Hollywood he attained his final realization:

It was as if I had walked through myself.  Such a state is perfectly spontaneous.  It has no way of watching itself.  It has no way to internalize or structure itself.  It is Divine madness.  The Self, the Heart is perfect madness.  There is not a jot of form within it.  There is no thing.  No thing has happened.  There is not a single movement in consciousness.  And that is its blissfulness (26).

Jones made his career afterwards as a guru and self-proclaimed Avatar.  He self-published on a massive scale, made the evening news with sex scandals, got fatter and fatter, and finished his days hiding out on a private Fijian island with a gaggle of flunkies, er…I mean groupies. Finally, the rock star lifestyle caught up with him and he died of a massive heart attack at the oh-so-appropriate age of 69.

Those are the general biographical details.  But what makes the story particularly compelling is the man’s bona fide yogic energy–his shakti–and his often brilliant insights into the contemplative life.  Franklin Jones was amoral.  He was a narcissist and megalomaniac, a wife batterer, sexual pervert and drug addict.  He was even, perhaps, delusional and psychotic.  But he was not a fraud; he was too fucking brilliant to need to fake.  Meaning, I have no doubt he was a natural born spiritual genius, though often malevolent, abusive and manipulative as the worst cult leader can be.  (He learned much of his art from Scientology, after all.)  Meaning, while you would never want to join his club, reading his books, especially their earliest editions, may not be a bad idea.  His entire lineage–that of the Kashmiri siddhas–has much to teach and is filled with fascinating characters.  In addition to the aforementioned Rudi and Muktananda is the greatest of them all, Bhagwan Nityananda.

So, let this rough cut biography be a starter for you.  You can learn something from rogues as well as saints, so why not a rogue saint?  This story points out how sublime and how horrific the human situation really can be; we are all, in our own little ways, Franklin Jones.

My Amazon rating: 4 stars 

The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying by Sogyal Rinpoche

The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying by Sogyal Rinpoche.  Rupa Paperback 1997.  425 pages.

Judging by the number of reviews on Amazon, this is probably one of the most popular books on Tibetan Buddhism out there.  The reasons for this are not hard to understand.  In terms of its style it is extremely accessible and personable.  The writing is both sincere and approachable; this is a “regular guy’s” guide to Tibetan Buddhism, not a scholarly or esoteric rendition.  The author relates many personal stories about his own upbringing in the Tibetan tradition, giving it a feeling of great authenticity.

The material is quite comprehensive as far as an overview of Tibetan Buddhism goes, with a unique focus on issues of death and dying–how to relate to someone who is terminal, how to respect their feelings, help maintain their sense of integrity, and how to keep one’s own perspective on things as life passes away.  For people who are dealing with the loss of loved ones, or who are themselves terminally ill, I think the book has a lot of comfort and guidance to offer.

There are many applied discussions concerning meditation.  Practices of guru yoga and lojong are discussed, as are meditative preparations to help one deal directly with one’s own demise.  I found the discussion of the Tibetan Bardo teachings to be particularly interesting, as this is not an area of which I am very knowledgeable.  Essentially, the entire process of death, transition and rebirth is described from the inside out.  I would be fascinated to know the means by which these teachings came into being; I suspect this is probably a cumulative tradition based upon many peoples’ near-death experiences and past life memories.

Altogether, I can easily recommend the book.  What I can’t recommend is that you read anything about the author, because if you do it will give you something of a mixed feeling about what he has written.  Assuming he wrote it, that is.  Online I’ve encountered rumors that Sogyal Rinpoche is not even the author, that someone else either ghost wrote the book or contributed substantially without credit.  I find this hard to believe, but I suppose anything is possible.  I can only say that if the widespread allegations of sexual misconduct against Sogyal Rinpoche are true, then he must be something of a split personality, since it is clear he has also done much good.

My advice: read and benefit from the book, but don’t explore any further.

My Amazon rating: 4 stars

The Hundred Thousand Songs of Milarepa translated by Garma C.C. Chang

The Hundred Thousand Songs of Milarepa translated by Garma C. C. Chang.  Shambhala Publications 1992.  730 pages.

Anyone who knows anything about Tibetan Buddhism has heard the name Milarepa (literally “Mila the Cotton Clad”).  He is Tibet’s Dante, Socrates and Shankara, all rolled into one.  Reading this book you cannot help get the sense he was also one of the most remarkable people to ever walk the earth and I just have to wonder: Why have I never managed to meet someone like this?  My karma, I guess.  But then, it’s also my karma to read and appreciate what has been recorded of him.

I would advise readers tackle first his autobiography, of which there are several translations.  (I will shortly be reviewing Lobsang P. Lhalunpa’s translation, done in 1977 and only the second in English since Evans-Wentz’s in 1928.)  This is critical, because without that background many things referred to in this book won’t make sense.  If the biography gives you the structure or bones of Milarepa’s life, this book fills it out with flesh.

True to the title, much of the book is in verse.  This may bother some people, and if you’re one of those who can’t bear reading verse then perhaps you should pass.  However, this is not poetry in the ordinary sense.  It is, rather, an example of “singing dharma,” of Buddhist teachings via song.  (Sadly, of course, the melodies Milarepa set his verse to are lost.  I suspect they were popular and well known tunes of the day.)  I can only say I wish I’d been there to see Milarepa sing his songs and teach his patrons, antagonists, and disciples.  Apparently he had a lovely singing voice (it is described as “deep” in one verse), and he composed his teaching-songs extemporaneously.  This in itself is a remarkable talent, and even if we didn’t consider his accomplishments as a yogi, it indicates an extremely gifted, quick and sharp-witted person.

What also stands out is the extraordinary range and depth of Milarepa’s meditative accomplishments.  He seems to have practiced and mastered most of the contemplative systems in Tibet at the time.  The book is replete with descriptions and references to these systems, so there is a fair bit of technical language; the fact that they are related via song and verse in no way means the contents are “dumbed down.”  As a result, while I am very familiar with Mahayana and Theravadan Buddhism but somewhat new to the Vajrayana, I was sometimes at a loss.  So, one should be familiar not only with the general worldview of Tibetan Buddhism, but specifically with tantrism and the terms of subtle physiology.  While the translator has provided a great many explanatory footnotes of various terms, a general education in the Vajrayana is really prerequisite.

Now to the contents specifically.  Milarepa’s songs are interspersed amid a welter of biographical incidents that while seemingly random do in fact follow a roughly chronological order.  (It seems a lot of them occurred later in his life as Milarepa is always referring to himself as an “old man.”)  There are stories about how demons were subdued, how disciples were met and converted, how various antagonists confront Milarepa and then are disarmed, enchanted or just plain bowled over by his spiritual and magical acumen.  (Scholars come in for a hard whacking!)  The verses themselves have a variety of functions, chiefly instructive and inspirational.  They also serve to boast of Milarepa’s accomplishments—not, I should note, for the purpose of self-aggrandizement, but for letting people know why he does what he does, what they can achieve through practice, and to exhort those who seem intent on remaining mired in their particular habits of thinking.  I feel that the book is at its best in this regard.  Some might take it as a meditation instruction manual, but there is clearly a lot of explanatory material missing, so I’m doubtful just how far one would get trying to practice as Milarepa describes.  If you educated yourself in Tibetan Buddhism and language, got a lama, and then went at it in the original language, the book might indeed be very helpful as a “how-to” manual.  But without all that I think inspiration and exhortation are its best uses.

All of which makes me wonder: Why hasn’t someone with the noted credentials done an in depth study of Milarepa’s life and habits and really tried to figure out what exactly his practices were?  It seems like an obvious task for a motivated scholar-practitioner.  Using the Songs and the Life, existing tradition and the rich folklore connected with Milarepa, someone ought to create a scholarly biography that could, I think, go even further in inspiring and instructing us.  I would love to see such a book.  Please, someone, do this!

My Amazon rating: 5 stars

The Yoga Tradition by Georg Feuerstein

The Yoga Tradition: Its History, Literature, Philosophy and Practice by Georg Feuerstein.  Hohm Press 2008 (third edition), 510 pages.

Georg Feuerstein’s magnum opus is easily the richest outpouring of yogic knowledge and insight I have ever encountered between two covers.  It is an intimidating work.  Intimidating because of its length, its size (like a textbook), and the sheer mass of terminology, topics and texts it covers (and even translates–a few for the first time!).  At times I felt like I was swallowing a pill that just wouldn’t fit down my gullet–though I knew the pill was good for me, so I kept gulping until I got it down.

There is no easy way to review this book, so I’m going to simply flip open the contents and talk here and there about pieces that particularly intrigued, puzzled, offended or delighted me.  (Actually, very little offended me–I’m just being theatrical….)  The first chapter, “Building Blocks,” is perhaps not so aptly named.  It reads like something written for those who already have a bit of the yogic worldview under their belt and subscribe to its way of thinking.  For this reason I would recommend newcomers read Feuerstein’s other, more introductory books before this one.  I have already reviewed two–The Deeper Dimension of Yoga and The Path of Yoga.  I think the other thing that comes to light from reading these opening pages (this includes the introduction proper) is that Feuerstein is definitely a “believer,” and to an extent that is probably not kosher in scholarly circles, writes as one too.  There is of course nothing wrong with this, except people who want more “objective” texts may be put off by it. 

Feuerstein is without doubt one of the most knowledgeable people on the planet as regards the yoga tradition, but still I have to wonder about some of the ideas he ascribes to.  For example, his timeline of India in chapters 3 and 4 is certainly not orthodox as regards most contemporary reckonings of Indian history.  He grants an age to the Vedic civilization (4500-2500 BC) considerably in excess of ancient Egypt (3500-500 BC) and this based on pretty slim facts I think.  (It seems to me his enthusiasm sometimes get the better of him.)  That said, it should be admitted that early Indian history is a messy and muddled subject, with few (if any) points of certainty.  To give you an idea, the most important Indian of them all, the Buddha, was for a long time considered to have lived from 563-483 BC, but recently has been “relocated” to something more like 490-410.  Imagine scholars suddenly announcing that Pericles really lived a hundred years later and you get my drift.  So if Feuerstein is speculating, or even wrong in his speculations (and how will we ever know for sure?), he can at least be forgiven.

From chapter four on the text follows a pretty historically linear timeline.  The Vedas are discussed and then the Upanishads, with translations of several texts sprinkled throughout.  In every case the relation of the texts to yoga, its ideas and practices, is elaborated upon.  What is clear is that yoga has definitely progressed through stages of development, beginning with earlier “shamanic” practices focusing on tapas (austerities), magic and visions, and this eventually gave way to the more self-transcending orientation of the Upanishads and later texts.  Chapters six and seven generously treat of yoga’s place in the heterodox traditions of Jainism and Buddhism, though readers particularly interested in these fields should consult the extensive bibliography at the back of the book if they wish to follow further these lines of inquiry.  I, for one, was sad to learn that there is very little surviving of Jainism’s early textual corpus.  Though Mahavira, the religion’s founder, gets a bad rap in the early Buddhist texts, my suspicion has always been that he was certainly an extraordinary man, in some ways perhaps the equal of the Buddha.  I just wish we knew more about what he really taught.  (This is not to say I think he was the equal of the Buddha.  It’s pretty clear to me that while his attainment must indeed have been great, he was in no way comparable to Siddhartha as an intellectual or communicator.  Greatness of insight is not always accompanied by equal development of all other parts of the personality.  The Buddha was a rarity–perhaps unsurpassed–on account of his high development in so many aspects.  IMHO, of course…)

Chapter eight plunges back into Hindu yoga, specifically the Epics and, of course, the Bhagavad Gita.  (I have just finished up Feuerstein’s translation of this seminal text, and let me tell you, it is a doozy!)  Again, there are generous passages from important texts included here; you can certainly get a sense for what this kind of literature is like.  Chapters nine and ten exhaustively treat classical yoga (i.e. Patanjali’s), and even include a complete translation of the Yoga Sutras!  The historical and intellectual place of this little book within the edifice of yoga is made clear–it has proven more an inspiration to practice than to philosophy. 

The philosophy of yoga, or what began in the Upanishads, finds its consummation in the nondualist schools, which Feuerstein treats in the next four chapters.  Nondualism is, of course, the philosophical heart of Hinduism, though it is clearly overlaid with an exuberant wealth of gods and goddesses, rituals and esoterica.  These Feuerstein treats extensively, even delving into obscure little groups like the Aghoris (who still exist, btw!).  By chapter fifteen we’re getting into my favorite stuff–the yoga upanishads, wherein the subject of kundalini comes up.  Sikh yoga is briefly touched on, and then it’s full steam into tantra and hatha yoga.  The book ends in the late medieval/early modern period, looking at the extensive literature of hatha yoga.

I would certainly not recommend this as a first book on the subject.  That said, if someone has gotten their feet wet and finds they want to get the Big Picture, this then is the book I would recommend.  The immense service it provides is to give the reader a morsel, a taste, of so many of the exquisite delights of the yogic tradition that he (or she) may then meaningfully pursue further any of them as he pleases.  It is a book meant to lead on, to invite, to incite curiosity.  I hope it does this and more for you, and thereby leads you to greener, broader pastures of knowledge and awakening…

My Amazon rating: 5 stars

The Deeper Dimension of Yoga by Georg Feuerstein

The Deeper Dimension of Yoga: Theory and Practice by Georg Feuerstein.  Shambhala 2003.  415 pages. 

I thoroughly enjoyed this book.  It is a veritable treasure chest of information, insight, ideas and inspiration for practice, contemplation and just about everything having to do with yoga.  

Unlike the previous Feuerstein book I reviewed (The Path of Yoga), this is not an integrated text but rather a collection of essays and musings by the author.  Even if you didn’t know this, you would quickly suspect it since, while the sections of the book are arranged thematically (general orientation, ethics, practices, etc.), the “chapters” all have a self-contained feel to them.  There is also the sense that many were originally part of some larger unit and so when they end they sometimes do so rather abruptly.  You’re ploughing into the meat of some topic, turn the page, and–wham!–you’re on to the next “chapter.”  This can be a bit jolting, but not all the essays are like this–most have a fully rounded, finished feel to them–but it’s often enough that you start expecting/bracing for it.  Because the book consists of essays you will also get a fair bit of repetition which, for some people, may be annoying, but for others, who want to drum certain points/facts into their heads, may well be ideal.   As for a more in-depth review of the book’s contents, with a collection of essays, touching on highlights is the usual approach, and that’s what I’ll do here. 

Clearly Feuerstein has thought a lot about Yoga.  As noted, there is something of a”treasure chest” feel to the book; you never know what’s up next until you turn the page.  And while the vast majority of pieces aim at being informative, many are reflective as well, though only one can be truly called self-revealing.  That would be “Crossing the Boundary between Hinduism and Buddhism via Tantra-Yoga,” which describes Feuerstein’s “conversion” (if that’s the right word–probably not) from Hindu yoga to Buddhist yoga (ala Vajrayana).  Easily the best of the reflective pieces is #62, “Faith and Surrender: A New Look at the Eightfold Path,” a brilliant essay I would heartily recommend for multiple rereadings. 

As a scholar though Feuerstein excels at dispensing information.  He does this in breadth by touching on just about every conceivable application and type of yoga (I never even knew there was such a thing as buddhi-yoga!), and depth: for example, an eleven page essay on OM reveals this all-important seed mantra’s rich textual and cultural legacy.  A couple dozen regular volumes might be necessary to cover this much ground and there’s no way every topic can be considered in depth; for that you’ll have to seek other books.  But wait!  Dr. Feuerstein has most graciously already considered your predicament and provided an illuminating  overview entitled  “Introducing the Great Literary Heritage of Hindu Yoga”!  An excellent little piece unto itself, an annotated bibliography of books is appended to it, citing quality tomes on general yoga, the Vedas, Brahmanas, Aranyakas, Upanishads, Patanjali, the Epics, Gita, Tantrism and more.  All you incurable bibliophiles out there should do three prostrations in Georg’s direction.  (BTW, he lives in Canada.)

There’s very little one can complain about regarding this book.  Feuerstein is a writer of clarity and concision, thoughtfulness, depth and sensitivity–not to mention vast knowledge; the man may have read just about everything on the subject.   The only, ONLY gripe I might have is a slight tendency–which, frankly, coming from the pen of a scholar is rather ironic–toward a sort of textual fundamentalism.  For example, writing on the Mahabharata he repeatedly refers to the war the poem describes as the greatest ever fought on Indian soil and even speaks of “the godman” Krishna as a historical person.  This kind of thing comes up more than once–and invariably caused my face to screw up in an incredulous squint–so I have to assume Feuerstein actually believes these things.  Suffice to say, I would grant Krishna less historicity than Moses or Lao-tzu, and as for the battle, while I suspect the story has its roots in some historical event(s), I doubt its fidelity to facts in any way exceeds that of the Iliad or the romances of King Arthur.

That being said, buy the book!  You won’t regret it; Feuerstein’s writings will lead you on to richer yogic horizons!

My Amazon rating: 5 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”

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