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

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

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

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

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

That goes for me, too, by the way.

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

My Amazon rating: 5 stars

The Heart of Buddhist Meditation by Nyanaponika Thera

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My Amazon rating: 5 stars

Living Dharma: Teachings of Twelve Buddhist Masters by Jack Kornfield

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

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

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

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

But, thankfully, there is more to the book!

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

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

My Amazon rating: 5 stars

 

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