4. Wisdom, The Third Training

3. Concentration, The Second Training   |  5. The Three Characteristics

The third training in the list is wisdom, in this case a very special kind of wisdom that I will often call “ultimate” or “fundamental” wisdom. This may also be rendered as “understanding” or “insight”. The whole trick to this training is to understand some specific aspects of the sensations that make up our present experience. By training in insight, we can improve how we fundamentally perceive reality at a bare sensate level, such that our actual sensate experience becomes progressively clearer. This increased clarity can become hardwired into our brains, such that our baseline degree of sensate clarity increases. This increased clarity can have numerous positive and sometimes surprising implications. Great meditators from all traditions have reported that there is something remarkable and even enlightening about our ordinary experiences if we take the time to investigate them very carefully. Those who undertake training in wisdom have decided to conduct the experiment to see for themselves if this is true or if those long-gone dudes and dudettes were just making it up.

Let’s begin by taking it as a wholesome given that there is some understanding that is completely beyond any ordinary understanding, even beyond the skillful altered states of consciousness that can be attained if we train well in concentration. The next premise is that there are specific practices that can and will lead to that understanding if we simply do them. The third and perhaps most vital premise is that we can do these specific practices and be successful.

The given—rarely stated explicitly but often implied—is that we must be willing to stay on a sensate level, at the level of the actual sensations that make up experiences, if we wish to gain the promised insights. The corollary of this premise is that we must be willing to set aside periods of practice time during which we abandon ordinary ways of functioning in the world and even the unusual way of working with skillful altered states of consciousness that belongs to the training in concentration. We proceed from the premise that the teachings on wisdom point to universal truths that can be perceived in all types of experience without exception. We accept that if we can simply know our sensate experience clearly enough, we will arrive at fundamental wisdom.

Most “insight meditators” spend their time doing a lot that relates to the ordinary world and/or to cultivating refined states of consciousness, and they don’t realize that this is not insight practice. I define insight practice extremely narrowly, as opposed to morality, which I define extremely broadly, and concentration, which I define more narrowly but which is still a broader topic. Insight practice is all about putting those broader ways of working aside and instead grounding attention in our six sense doors and their true nature. While there are clear overlaps among the trainings, even on the cushion, I feel that to try to counterbalance our strong habits of working more broadly is of value to most practitioners. If you happen to be one of those rare people who can focus just on your sense doors as they arise and vanish and while setting aside focus on morality and concentration, then this paragraph is not for you.

There are many wisdom traditions and many styles of insight practice. I will lay out several explicitly and hint at many others in the chapters that follow. When choosing an insight tradition, look for one that is tried and true, meaning that it is either ancient and well-tested, or contemporary but demonstrably consistent in leading to unshakable realizations. I can verify that the specific practices I will present can lead to the promised effects if they are done as recommended. Even better—you should verify them for yourself.

The primary purpose for doing insight practices is to increase our perceptual abilities so that the truths accessed by skilled meditators become obvious. Thus, rather than caring what we think, say, or do, or caring about what altered state of consciousness we are in, when training in wisdom, we actively work to develop the clarity, resolution, precision, consistency, and inclusiveness of the experience of all of the constantly changing sensations that make up our experience, whatever and however they may be: such are the formal insight practice instructions.

Insight practice can seem more daunting, complex, or bizarre than other forms of practice. However, it is oddly simple. There are six sense doors. Sensations arise and vanish. Notice this for every sensation. These are cave-man simple instructions, yet somehow people make them much more complex than they need to be. As a preview of things to come, towards the very end of the book you will see me repeat this same message as basically the punch-line to the whole book, since that was what I found the most profound and helpful of all the Buddha’s teachings. So, should you find your practice getting bogged down in fascinated or aversive reactions to the fancy and flashy topics that follow, return here, as this points to where the real treasure is: your own immediate sensate reality.

Just as with concentration practices, more time and more diligent practice pays off. These simple instructions can easily seem overwhelming, vague, or strangely trivial to many people, so I am going to detail numerous empowering concepts and more structured practices that have helped countless practitioners over centuries to follow these basic instructions. That said, the above-mentioned are the key instructions.

While the three trainings share similar elements, there are important distinctions that must be made between them.

The gold standard for training in morality is how consciously harmless, kind, skillful, and compassionate our intentions, words, and actions are and how well we lead a useful and moral life.

The gold standard for training in concentration is how quickly we can enter into specific, skillful, altered states of consciousness on our own meditative power, how long we can stay in them, and how refined, complete, and stable we can make those states. 

The gold standard for training in wisdom with insight practices is that we can quickly and consistently perceive the true nature of the countless quick sensations that make up our whole reality, regardless of what those sensations are, allowing us to cut to a level of understanding that goes utterly beyond specific conditions but includes them all.

It is vital that these distinctions be understood. Considered this way, these gold standards do not overlap and may even appear to contradict one another, when in fact they support each other. As these distinctions seem to be extremely difficult to explain clearly, I will make this basic point again and again throughout this book.

Having gained at least enough morality to be temporarily free of agitating negative mind states and enough concentration to steady the mind, turn your attention to the bare truth of the sensations of this moment. This is called insight meditation, which is designed to produce a form of knowledge or wisdom that can transform and free us from our core perceptual misinterpretations of sensate reality.

Sounds simple, and while it is simple, it’s not easy in practice. There are many types of insight that we may derive from experiencing the world. Usually, we might think of training in wisdom as having to do with conventional issues like how to live our lives. In this sense, we might just try to be wiser. Perhaps we could skillfully reflect on a personal or professional situation that went badly and see if perhaps in the future some wisdom gained from that experience might change the way we live our life. This is an ordinary form of wisdom, and so the insights we derive from such reflections and observations are insights into the ordinary world. Such reflections are clearly skillful, but they can only take us so far. To really get what the Buddha was talking about, we need to go beyond these conventional notions of wisdom and attain to ultimate insights by engaging specifically in insight practices.

Many people try to make insight practices into an exercise that will produce both insights into the ordinary world and ultimate insights. There are numerous traditions that specifically advocate for this sort of practice that attempts to work on both fronts simultaneously. However, I have concluded that we should not count on ultimate teachings to illuminate or resolve our relative issues or vice versa. Therefore, it is extremely important not only to practice all three trainings, but also not to conflate the relative and ultimate wisdom teachings. Failure to do so causes endless problems and makes progress more difficult. Thus, I will revisit this topic throughout this work, doing my best to clearly differentiate those practices that produce ordinary wisdom from those that fall within the third training and lead to awakened perceptual transformations that are distinct from our relative insights.

A brief note of caution here: occasionally, when people begin to get into spirituality, they may get a bit fascinated with it and may forget some of the crucial relative wisdom, otherwise known as common sense, that they may have learned from before. Caught up in “ultimate wisdom” and their “spiritual quest”, they can sometimes abandon conventional wisdom or discernment and other aspects of their “former life” to a degree that may not be particularly skillful. They falsely imagine that by training in insight they have mastered or gone beyond the training in or need for morality. We awaken to the actual truth of our life in all its conventional aspects, so make sure that yours is a life you want to wake up to.

In summary, by seeing deeply into the truth of our own experience, profound and beneficial transformations of consciousness are possible. You guessed it—we’re talking about awakening, nirvana, nibbana, the unconditioned, and all of that. The arising of this understanding is the primary focus of this book. There are many fascinating insights that typically occur even before awakening. Again, there are no magic formulae for producing ultimate insights, except for the three characteristics …

3. Concentration, The Second Training   |  5. The Three Characteristics