Buddhist Books Blog

Readings and writings on Buddhism, yoga, and contemplative science

Archive for the category “Vipassana (insight) Meditation”

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

Post Navigation