8. The Three Trainings Revisited
The three trainings provide a great framework for thinking about spiritual work, a framework that can help us maintain a clear and empowering way of thinking about what we are doing. In this chapter, I will discuss the scope of each of the three trainings to provide an easy and powerful way of dealing with many important aspects of the spiritual path.
Just to review, the scope of the first training, morality, is the ordinary world, the conventional world, the world that we are all familiar with before we even consider more specialized topics such as meditation. The goal is to think, speak, and act in ways that are conducive to the reduction of suffering as well as the welfare of ourselves and others. The scope of the second training, concentration, is to focus on very specific and limited objects of meditation and thus attain specific altered states of consciousness that cultivate positive mental qualities and reduce negative ones. The scope of the third training, that of insight or wisdom, is to shift to perceiving reality at the level of individual sensations, perceive their three characteristics, and thus attain profound insights into the nature of reality and realize stages of awakening.
First, I will consider happiness in the context of the scopes of the three trainings. Since training in morality is such a vast subject, the ways we can find happiness is also a vast subject, and becomes interesting primarily in comparison with the scopes of the other two trainings, those of concentration and wisdom. The common denominator of the concentration attainments is that we learn to get ourselves into states of consciousness that are some mixture of blissful and peaceful, as well as increasingly spacious and removed from our ordinary experience. These can be a source of happiness that is far more intense and predictable than the happiness found in the ordinary world, though these states, too, obviously end. Being able to access as much happiness and peace as we wish when we wish reduces our anger at the everyday world for not providing us with these, making us less needy and greedy. There is also the happiness that comes from seeing the true nature of the sensations that make up our world and thus attaining stages of realization by fundamentally eliminating perceptual distortions that impede appreciation of even the most pleasant experiences.
Renunciation in this context involves shifting priorities away from things that cause suffering and towards those that help extricate us from suffering. There are three areas of renunciation that correspond to the scopes of the three trainings. We can renounce aspects of the ordinary by simply letting go of these things. We can quit our job, leave our relationship, stop smoking crack, or shave our heads. We can try to be less angry or fearful. We can work on our communication skills, trying to avoid lying and slander.
Some of these may be easier than others, and some of these may be helpful and some not, but the important point here is that these forms of renunciation are, for better or worse, renunciation of aspects of the ordinary world within the context of the first training’s scope. Renunciation can either be very specific, such as ordaining in the order of monastics, taking the standard 227 or 337 training precepts and trying our best to follow those; or less specific, such as renouncing whatever actions of body, speech, or mind we deem necessary to renounce to progress along the path. While we will not always know exactly which actions will necessarily make our practice better, we simply take our very best guess based on the best dharma theory and common sense we have access to. Having mature practitioner friends with whom we can discuss our more dramatic choices can be helpful.
There is also the renunciation that comes from being willing and able to attain the temporary concentration attainments. We are willing to spend some time removed from the ordinary experience of the world and its concerns and enter states where the ordinary world becomes more and more removed from us. It is usually not that hard to convince people that there may be occasions when having the ability to renounce the activities of the ordinary world in this way for some period could be advantageous. We can all imagine taking a little bliss break and finding it helpful in some appropriate context.
Still, sometimes people feel that the ordinary concerns of the world require attention every waking instant, which is clearly not true. Realizing that we can consciously choose to set them aside for periods of time and go deep into the profound stillness and depths of concentration allows the form of renunciation associated with the second training. We can practice renouncing more crude mind states in favor of more skillful, refined ones, and this conditioning can increase the chances that more beneficial mind states will predominate and that unskillful states will be less predominant.
There is also the type of renunciation associated with insight practices, in which we are willing to break from the gross conceptual way of working that is helpful for the scope of the ordinary world, break from the more restricted and refined conceptual and attentional way of working that is necessary to attain stable concentration, and move to perceiving sensations individually and directly, seeing their true nature, however they may present. It is a radical antithesis to the way that some might conceive of renunciation, which can sometimes become aversive, as it involves a commitment to being here, in this body, in this space, in this life, at this time, and making this radical commitment again and again.
This insight-associated renunciation is a subtler and more sophisticated form of renunciation than the other two, yet it is not always easy to convince people that having the option of being with reality is a good idea. While “awakening” generally sounds very appealing, it suddenly sounds strange in the context of seeing all sensations as being utterly transient, a source of pain if we make artificial dualities out of them, and if we mistake transient sensations for an experientially stable, independent self. People often conflate the three kinds of renunciation, the most common error being the idea that they must “give up” aspects of the first two trainings (a happy life and fun concentration states) to renounce them in the insight way, in which they see the true nature of the sensations that make up these things. They imagine that they must give up their job or relationship to see their true nature, or that they must not enter high concentration states to see their true nature. This basic conceptual error causes many of the problems that people find on the spiritual path, which brings me to the three forms of suffering.
As stated earlier, first, there is the form of suffering that the Buddha is most famous for talking about, ordinary suffering, the standard list including birth, sickness, aging, death, lamentation, pain, grief, and despair. These are ordinary forms of suffering that we can try to mitigate or postpone as best we can by ordinary methods, that is, by working within the scope of the first training in the conventional world. I am a big fan of trying to find worldly happiness so long as we do not neglect the importance of the other two trainings. There is also the form of suffering relating to the scope of the second training that comes from being limited to our ordinary states of consciousness, with our only way out coming generally from sleep, extreme or peak experiences, or the use of mind-altering substances. We yearn for bliss that is not so bound up in things like whether we get a good job; we yearn for experiences like those found in the concentration states. Our minds have this potential, and the failure to be able to access these states at times when doing so would be helpful and healthy is a source of bondage. I am a big fan of being able to attain these wonderful states so long as we do not neglect the other two trainings.
There is also the kind of suffering that comes from making artificial dualities out of non-dual sensations, and all the unnecessary reactivity, misperceptions, distortions of perspective and proportion, and basic blindfulness that accompanies that process. This kind of suffering, relating to the scope of training in wisdom, is not touched by the first two trainings, though to say that it is entirely unrelated to them is not quite true. The suffering that insight practices seek to remove forms a background level of suffering in our life and increases the potential for further suffering in the other two scopes. This form of suffering is gradually relieved by the stages of awakening, as clarity of perception grows and so fewer and fewer aspects of reality have the capacity to trick the mind in this way. I am a big fan of awakening and thus of eliminating this pervasive form of suffering, just so long as we do not also neglect the other two trainings.
The suffering of the ordinary world can be extremely unpredictable, and working to relieve it is a very complex business, the work of a lifetime, or, for those who emphasize rebirth, the work of eons. The suffering related to being unable to access refined altered states of consciousness is mitigated by simply taking the time to learn the necessary skills and then refining them until they are accessible to us when we wish. Practically, there are some limits to these states, particularly as they are transient and thus end.
The basic states attainable by training in concentration can be very thoroughly mastered within a lifetime and even within a few years or perhaps months for those with talent and diligence. The stages of awakening are relatively permanent (or as permanent as they can be with a biological brain, which is clearly impermanent, but it is not necessary at this point to go into a discussion of mind and biological brain). Once the stages of awakening are attained, that aspect of our suffering is forever eliminated and never arises again. This can be accomplished by those who take the time to learn the skills necessary to see individual sensations clearly and are willing to work on that level.
These basic facts can be used to help us plan our quest for happiness and the elimination of the various forms of suffering in our life. We can direct our studies and training to work on specific skills that lead to specific effects and abilities in the order we choose within the limits of our life circumstances and the resources available to us. Just having the basic paradigm that the point of our life might be the elimination of suffering and the increase in happiness in ourselves and those around us by simply training in various established methods represents a profound enhancement of perspective. It might make sense to learn concentration skills early in our lives, as they help develop so many of the skills necessary for the other two trainings and can provide an increased sense of ease and well-being. For example, rather than popping a cold beer at the end of a hard day, we could sit down and bathe our body and mind in as much healing bliss and peace as we can stand for as long as we wish. If we master concentration practices, we have those options.
It might make sense to work on insight practices early rather than later to reduce the amount of time during our lives that we live with the fundamental suffering caused by the illusion of duality. There is only so much we can do to prevent ordinary suffering for others and ourselves, though it is always good to do what we can. Thus, it is good to realize that we can also reduce and eliminate the other forms of suffering through learning the two basic styles of meditation more easily than we can eliminate much of our conventional suffering relating to having been born a mammal.
There are three ways in which words such as “awakening” or “enlightenment” are used, and these may also relate to the scopes of the three trainings. However, I feel that this is a dangerous habit, and I strongly advocate using enlightenment and similar words to refer only to ultimate insights, meaning the stages of awakening in the high and traditional sense. While we may hear people speak of performing “enlightened” actions, or of thinking in “enlightened” ways, I have come to the conclusion that for spiritual training we either need to be very careful to explain that these are very conventional and relative definitions of enlightenment or we need to not use such language at all.
Some traditions endow the very high concentration states an ultimate status. I also advocate strongly against this, as did the Buddha, who saw the limits of those states during his years of practice before he became a Buddha. The concentration states can be so compelling and seductive, causing some people to imagine they are awakened in the non-dual sense when they are merely having temporary unitive, vast, or extremely subtle experiences (experiences where reality did something that was sufficiently lacking in specific qualities or intensity to be clearly discerned, here termed “unknowing experiences”). Thus, I strongly suggest that such attainments never be associated with the language of enlightenment or awakening in any way.
Rather, I define awakening as permanently eliminating the basic perceptions that either duality or unity is the answer, and thus attaining to permanent realizations that are unshakable within the limits of biology. Awakening has nothing whatsoever to do with how things manifest and everything to do with basic understanding of those things. I devote an entire chapter to explaining this more fully, but it is important for the discussion between here and there to have been introduced to the strict and formal definition of awakening that I will be using.
These frameworks can also be useful for looking at other common issues such as thoughts of past and future that people run into when they get into meditation. Confusion arises when these pieces of advice are applied outside the scope for which they were meant.
When working on our ordinary lives, or within the scope of the first training, the content of our thoughts on past and future is very helpful, in fact necessary. Remembering the past is important, as, with experience, we generate a body of memory concerning what leads to what in this world. Being able to plan and consider our future is very important, as with our predictive ability we can use this to try to craft a well-lived life. However, when working on training in concentration, such thoughts are generally ignored or suppressed by deep concentration on another object. When doing insight practices, it doesn’t matter so much if thoughts of past or future arise, so long as we are not fascinated by their content, notice that the experiences of thoughts occur now, and notice the true nature of the individual sensations that make up those thoughts.
It is common to hear of people trying to apply one piece of advice to a scope for which it was never intended, like trying to stop thinking when trying to deal with their daily life. This sort of practice would simply promote stupidity and dissociation, and there is already more than enough of that. In short, when evaluating or applying a piece of spiritual advice, make sure you understand the specific context for which it was intended.
I thought it would be fun to envision the three trainings as very cartoonish, westernized, postmodern characters who still have a pretty confused and conflicted conception of the Buddhist path and have them critique each other and then talk with each other about ways that they could reinforce each other. I will do this in the form of a very short play in one act. I have exaggerated and dichotomized their issues with each other for comic effect. Realize that the humorous aspects of the play arise from gross misunderstandings of the three trainings, misunderstandings that are very common as the teachings of the Buddha come into the West, and also persist to some degree in their countries of origin. Hopefully, you will see through the humor to the important points being illustrated.
Morality, Concentration, and Insight are sitting in a bar having a discussion. A large stack of empty shot glasses sits in front of Concentration and Insight. An organic chia kombucha sits in front of Morality.
Morality: You navel-gazing, self-absorbed, good-for-nothing freaks! I go out and work hard all day long to make this world fit to live in while you two sit on those sweat-covered cushions and cultivate butt-rot! I go out and make good money, keep food in our mouths, a roof over our heads, deal with our stuff, and you go out and spend our money up at that freak-house you call a meditation center when there is important work to be done! I want to work on my tan!
Insight: Who are you calling “self-absorbed?” I can’t be self-absorbed by definition! If it wasn’t for me, you would be so stuck in dualistic illusion that you wouldn’t know your ass from your elbow, you conceptually-fixated, emotionally-mired, bound-up-in-manifestation-looking, twelve-sandwich-eatin’ …
Concentration: Yeah! And by the way, Mr. Oh-so-worldly, you should learn to lighten up sometimes! Work your fingers to the bone, whadda’ya get? Bony fingers, that’s what. And that goes for you too, Mr. Enlightenment! If you didn’t have my skills, you’d be shit out of luck, unable to focus, and dead boring to boot! Who brings up the deep joy and wondrous mind states around here? I do, that’s who, so you two should just shut up!
Insight: Oh, yeah? Well, Mr. La-la Land, if it weren’t for me, we’d be so caught up in your transient highs that we might just get arrested. Somebody call the law! You two are so easily sucked into blowing things out of proportion that without me you two would have all the perspective of a dung heap!
Morality: Dung heap? You’d be lucky to have a dung heap if it wasn’t for me, you emptiness-fixated, I’m-oh-so-non-conceptual vibration-junkie. What good is having perspective if you don’t go out and use it?
Concentration: Yeah! And speaking of perspective, I give you guys more perspective than you have any idea of. Not only do I provide a bridge between our resident Save-the-World Poster Child and the Void-Fixated Flicker-Boy, I help you two get your twitchy little minds right! I help the Boy Scout here gain more and deeper insights into his screwed up emotional world and “stuff” than he ever could have on his own, and if it wasn’t for me, Mr. Ultimate would just be spinning his wheels in the parking lot! And furthermore, I am fun, fun, fun!
Insight: Yeah, maybe, but you don’t know when to stop, you otherworldly space-case! If Relative Man and I hadn’t pulled you out of the clouds, you’d still be lost in some formless realm thinking you had half a clue. I’m the one with the clue! There ain’t nothin’ in the world like what I know, and without it, your whole pathetic little sense of identity would be bound up in a world beyond your control. I am your salvation, and you know it!
Morality: Beyond my control, my ass! I make things happen in this world, great things! I’m the one that really gets us somewhere! I make a difference! Who cares if there is no self when people are starving in Africa?
Insight: Who cares is exactly my point! There is no separate, permanent self that cares!
Morality: I know you are, but what am I?
Concentration: See? You guys gotta chill out, get some balance and peace in your life. Take a few moments and just breathe! Leave your worries and cares behind, and fly the friendly skies! It’s free, legal, and oh-so-recommended. You can quit whenever you like! All your friends are doing it! Come on, just relax!
Morality: All right, Fly Guy, when are we going to deal with our emotional issues, huh? When are we going to save the world? We can’t just go on vacation forever.
Insight: Your problem is that you can’t see the sensations that make up these “issues” as they really are, so you make such a big friggin’ deal out of them. I mean, I see your point, but you are so reactive and blind that you are hardly the one for the job. You solidify these things into huge monsters, forget you have done this, and then freak out when they come running after you. You need a clue, you confused little shrew!
Morality: Oh, yeah? Don’t think that just because you can see the true nature of the issues that make up your reality that you won’t still have stuff to deal with! Now, that’s delusion!
Insight: It’s even more deluded to think that you can really have a completely healthy perspective on anything without me, you Monster Maker!
Concentration: Dude, do you see those angels floating through the wall?
Morality: Where in the hell did I find you freaks?
Insight: Short memory, eh? You found us when you realized you couldn’t do it on your own. You needed us to really be able to do the job you wanted to do, to really make a difference and be as happy and effective as you could be.
Morality: Yeah? And when can I get rid of you?
Concentration and Insight: When you have mastered us completely. Jinx, one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten!
Morality: Bartender …
If you find that you have gotten to the point where you can’t laugh at your own path, stop immediately and figure out why. I hope you have found this little, irreverent dialogue entertaining. While clearly a bit ridiculous, these sorts of immature tensions can arise until we really have a solid grasp of each of the trainings and how they complement and enhance each other. When we have this, they will work together as they were meant to. By doing the experiment for ourselves by diligently and intentionally training in the three trainings, we will learn how this works and go beyond the level of the ranting fools in the play and their real-life correlates.
[One of the most enjoyable books I have read recently that comes straight from the character Morality’s point of view is The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck, by Mark Manson, also a nice audiobook.]