19. Content and Ultimate Reality

18. Buddhism versus The Buddha   |  20. What Went Wrong

There is too much content-centered Buddhism and content-centered spirituality in general. It is not that content isn’t important, but it is only part of the picture, and the part we are already quite familiar with and typically stuck in. By content, I mean everything except determined effort to realize the full truth of the three characteristics of impermanence, suffering, and no-self, that is, to realize what the Buddha realized. I don’t want to strip people down to the animal stupidity of thoughtless sensate experience, nor do I wish to needlessly pathologize our ordinary human experience and the fact that we do have to find a way to deal with our issues. Perhaps two illustrations will help. I present these as an attempt to counterbalance a broad trend I see all around the world of contemporary Buddhism, and it is possible it doesn’t apply to you or your specific practice or tradition. Still, the trend is so widespread that it is worth speaking out about it here.

The first odd phenomenon I have noticed is that when meditation students gather together to discuss Buddhism, they almost never talk about actual meditation practices in any depth or detail. They almost never talk about their diligent attempts to really understand these teachings in each moment. It is almost an unacknowledged taboo that nearly any politically correct topic under the sun is acceptable if it doesn’t have to do with trying to master meditation techniques. While there are sporadic moments of “dharma combat” or heated discussion for learning and sharing the dharma, even these tend to be mostly on Buddhist philosophy and theory and very little about how to gain deep insight or what it is like.

The second odd phenomenon I have noticed has occurred in situations when we might suspect that there would not be this problem. I have been to a fair number of retreats in the West, and these tend to have small group meetings. The dharma teachers have invariably given instructions that emphasize following the motion of the breath or the sensations of the feet, developing concentration on these objects, not being lost in thought, and giving precise attention to bare reality just as it is. They tend to use the phrase “moment to moment” often, which in my world means “rapidly”. This is all as it should be.

They tend to mention things like impermanence, suffering, and no-self, and tend to advocate trying to understand these qualities of all experience directly without the elaboration of thought. They mention time and time again that we should not be lost in our stories and tape loops, that is, in mentally rehashing our past or future scenarios. They may have traveled thousands of miles at great expense to help people understand these teachings that they themselves may have spent many years learning. For the hundreds of dollars in retreat fees, donations, and spent vacation time, students will perhaps get three to five meetings with the teacher during a ten-day retreat and perhaps get fifteen to twenty precious minutes of time to talk to an actual meditation master, assuming they are lucky enough to be sitting with one.

However, when some eight to ten students finally get a chance to meet with the teacher in a small group meeting, a brief chance to really learn what this teacher has to teach, what happens? Do they talk about their wholehearted attempts at following the careful and skillful instructions of the teacher? Strangely, this only seems to happen on rare occasions.

I was at one of these small group meetings where everyone was talking about their neurotic stuff. In a moment of feeling like I might be able to add something useful, I said in a loud and exasperated voice, “The breath! Is anyone trying to notice the breath?” They just looked at me like I was out of my mind and went back to whining about their psychological issues. Here was a roomful of otherwise accomplished adults who somehow had been functionally transformed into needy and pathetic children without any obvious ability to deal with their lives or follow very basic instructions. Beware of meditation cultures that consistently encourage this in people. It is a mark of something gone horribly wrong.

Stranger even than this, when students do talk about trying to follow the careful instructions of their meditation teachers, it can occasionally seem to be such a shock to teachers, such a violation of the unwritten taboos, and perhaps even such a threat to the hierarchy that they sometimes hardly seem to know how to handle it. In my more cynical moments, I have sometimes suspected that the quickest way to get worried looks from many contemporary Western meditation teachers is to talk about practice in a way that implies the attempt to master anything.

Taking a brief meta-cognitive timeout: I don’t want to retraumatize the traumatized, or needlessly pathologize those with real emotional damage, but there are some people who likely just need to know that they are capable of great insight practice and just need to get back on track. Figuring out how to say this skillfully to a diverse audience is not easy, as I risk hurting people that need healing, so, if you really need traumatic healing, the next paragraph is not meant for you, and please take this section in context. However, I don’t want to do a disservice to those who, by getting some perspective on themselves regarding their circumstances, get a grip on themselves and do great insight practice.

So, for those who are in the latter category, their fixation on their stuff may be because what they are used to most of the time is people who gather together whining about their relationships, their childhood, their neurotic thoughts, their screwed-up lives, in short, content. I must say that I have great empathy for these people. I really do. God knows we all have this sort of stuff to whine about; and, in the right context, such as with close friends or family or a good therapist, whining about our stuff might be a very good idea. I should also add a qualifier related to serious emotional trauma, as the effects of that can be profound and may legitimately require serious work before insight practices are possible. Healing deep trauma is not my core skill set, but there are many resources available these days, and if you need them, find and use them. That important exception aside, two things are clear: most of these people have spent too little time in therapy (or perhaps too much time in bad therapy), and somehow have not heard one word of what the teacher has been talking about regarding insight practice.

Now, it is true that we all have our issues, pains, traumas, scars, and quirks. We should learn to deal with these somehow if we want to be happy and live the good life we all want to live. We should find ways to deal with the content, to heal, to grow, to mature, but we can also learn when to shift to seeing things on a completely different level. I am a big fan of trying to sort out these important content aspects of our lives, believe me, but there is a time and a place for everything. Some have read this book and concluded that I believe we should just dissolve into vibrations and ignore the specifics of our lives and our psychological aspects, but nothing could be further from the truth. My emphasis on also making time for insight practices is to counterbalance the general trend for most insight practitioners’ practice to be almost entirely about moderately neurotic, largely ineffective, spiritually rationalized, hyper-idealistic wallowing in their emotional pain or attempting to bypass it altogether in a blinding golden haze of Buddhist-inspired fantasy. This sort of practice often impairs both real psychological and emotional maturation and deep insight.

Imagine if you were an algebra teacher and you told your students to solve the math problems in the back of chapter one. Instead, your students turned in long, rambling essays about the traumas of their childhood. How would you feel? Unfortunately, you would feel like many competent meditation teachers do. Now, it is true that many dharma teachers find it rewarding helping people deal with their stuff, and some of them are thankfully quite good at it. There are others who put up with having to play this role, but they would prefer to be teaching insight practices. Some teachers just can’t stand it when they spend lots of time giving careful instructions only to have very few people follow them, particularly when they know what an amazing opportunity for even deeper healing, increased well-being, and clarity is being squandered by their students when they fail to really practice.

Sometimes we have heard just a bit of the teachings on impermanence, suffering, and no-self, but then proceed to talk about this in highly inaccurate content-centered terms. We may say things like, “Oh, yes, I am impermanent and will die one day. This is awful and this thought causes me suffering. But there’s no self anyway so it doesn’t matter.”

If we are talking like this then we are still squarely in the territory of philosophy and existentialism. Philosophy and existentialism have their obvious uses and points, but they are totally different endeavors from insight practices. In this case, we not only need to learn what insight practice is, but might also benefit from a bit more sunshine, exercise, warm baths, or perhaps even some psychological support. A very small amount of such reflection can be of some limited benefit if the energy of frustration is directed into practice. There are other types of reflection that might be much more skillful, but those are largely a topic for another day (see Jack Kornfield’s A Path with Heart or Christopher Titmuss’ Light on Enlightenment). 

If we would just go into finely discerned sensate reality and try to see the three characteristics of each sensation that makes up experience, we might begin to understand reality at a level that makes the difference. Effectively encouraging students to shift their attention from fixation on and identification with content to working with direct experience as it arises is probably the hardest yet most important job of the meditation teacher. I sometimes wonder how many teachers have mostly given up trying to do this.

When we meditators on retreat focus on content instead of on grounding the mind in the objects of meditation (which just might produce the deep insights that will make the big difference we seek), we basically let our minds go, and go they do. After a day or two of silence and a nearly complete lack of outer distractions, the spinning of our minds on neurotic content may have accelerated like the turbine of a jet engine on full throttle. If we were a mess before, now this has been multiplied by a factor of ten to a hundred. We then hit the small group meeting like a runaway freight train of exacerbated mind noise, and all those present are bathed in the profound lack of clarity we have ironically spent so much hard cushion time cultivating.

Years go by, and our practice “deepens”, not into insight territory, but into epoxy-like faith in and further fixation on content. We learn how to “talk Buddhist”. We learn the culture of Buddhism in just the same way that we learned the culture of transpersonal therapy, transactional analysis, or French existentialism. We become fascinated with our growing knowledge of Pali, our fancy brass bell from Nepal, or our knowledge of tantric iconography. We have taken bodhisattva vows 108 times.

We may become neurotic about right speech and self-righteous about noble silence. We may begin to adopt the condescending, rehearsed, and/or saccharine speech patterns and mannerisms that quietly scream, “I am so spiritually exalted and aware!” We may become fixated on complex, arbitrary, restrictive, and even disempowering models of what constitutes “proper Buddhist behavior”, trying to be a “good Buddhist”, whatever that is. In short, we become insufferably and self-consciously religious. At best, we become gaudy or creepy caricatures of the spiritual life. When we become like this, we are generally very tiresome to be around. At worst, we can become dharma monsters who victimize others with nasty behavior that issues from questionably motivated dharma practice, distorted by intractable self-importance and phony piety. In this mode, we can wreak significant damage in spiritual communities, and we are ultimately the worst victims of our own bad behavior.

We may even get sucked into the all too common trap of praying for a “better rebirth” and “making merit” rather than trying to master the art of meditation and wise living here and now. In short, the trappings, dogma, and scene become everything, and cutting through the illusions that bind us to the wheel of suffering is lost in the shuffle.

Moreover, we can go on like this for enough time that we develop quite a retreat résumé but little or no insight, and then eventually become trapped in this. We have been to India, Nepal, Burma, Thailand, Bhutan, Sri Lanka, Japan, Ecuador, and so on, have sat with this and that teacher, have taken a medley of tantric initiations, been a longtime participant in all the right online forums, or been sitting for “twenty years”. We become fascinated by all of this. We begin to identify as “wise” even though we may have no insight whatsoever into the universal truth of things because we never actually learned to do insight practice. We use the word “emptiness” glibly when we don’t have Clue One what it means. But we feel we do, as we have spent so much time hearing about it, parroting it, and being “spiritual”. We talk about “letting go” and “mindfulness” as if we are the experts. 

We may even begin to teach, and to do so we find ourselves having to subtly or overtly rationalize that we completely understand what we are teaching. After all, we want to encourage faith and devotion in our beautiful tradition, and so try to appear clear and unbefuddled. We get stuck in the muck of our rationalizations, the misapplied lingo, the sugarcoated dogma, the role of teacher, and the cultural trappings about which we have become experts. From this point, it can become nearly impossible for us to learn anything, as we are now trapped in the very teachings that were originally designed to free us from just such a situation.

18. Buddhism versus The Buddha   |  20. What Went Wrong