20. What Went Wrong

19. Content and Ultimate Reality   |  21. A Clear Goal

How did this happen? How did we substitute knowledge of culture, content, and dogma for fundamental insight? Many who have become like this are quite intelligent. Many have successful careers or graduate degrees. Most of the big-name teachers we sat with probably had some insight and may have been highly awakened. So, what happened? I can only speculate, but perhaps something good will come of such speculation.

It could be that we are into spiritual scenes, trappings, and the like. That is what we went looking for, and we found it in dizzying abundance. It could be that we had no idea what we were getting ourselves into or what we wanted, and so we ended up becoming fascinated with these things simply out of cultural, emotional, and intellectual inertia, as many around us will likely have done so.

As Bill Hamilton put it, mushrooms are fed manure and kept in the dark. He made this comment to Kenneth regarding what happened to Kenneth on his three-month retreat at IMS in response to Kenneth’s indignation about having map theory withheld from him while he struggled with difficult meditation stages. Kenneth and I speculated that part of the problem was that some meditation teachers were using the mushroom method of teaching, thus raising a crop of “mushroom meditators”, all soft and pale. This is a bit of an extreme way to describe the situation, and is not meant to imply that the teachers were being intentionally malicious. However, there is a cultural factor in Western Buddhism that insight into the fundamental nature of reality or the three characteristics, is almost never directly discussed, unlike in Burma or some other settings.

Thus, most teachers won’t say something as straightforward as, “Well, when I was meditating, I spent some time lost in the stories and tape-loops of my mind. This was terrible and I got nowhere but nutty. However, one day a senior teacher straightened me out and convinced me to ground my mind in the specific sensations that make up the objects of meditation and examine impermanence. After some days of consistent and diligent practice using correct technique, I began to directly penetrate the three illusions of permanence, satisfactoriness, and self, and my world began to be broken down into the mind-moments and vibrations that I always thought were just talk. By paying careful attention to bare phenomena arising and passing moment after quick moment, I progressively moved through the stages of insight and got my first taste of awakening. Thus, if you spin in content and don’t realize the three characteristics, you are wasting your time and mine. This is just the way it is. If you develop strong concentration on the primary object and investigate the three characteristics consistently, this will almost certainly produce insight. This is just the way it is. Any questions?”

Most meditation teachers just won’t say this, and there are several reasons for that. First, they may not wish to alienate their student base. They may believe that if students are led into this “gently” and with great lenience toward their gross misinterpretations of the practice and teachings, that they might be more likely to persevere. Another possible reason may have to do with the fact that making a living as a dharma teacher can be tough, and more students means more donations. In short, the reality of what practice really is and entails doesn’t tend to sell well despite the potential for extraordinary benefits, as students tend to relish their delusions and fascinations more than they realize.

Teachers may also want to hold back the details of what real insight is like so that they can more accurately evaluate students’ practice without having to worry about students rationalizing that they are experiencing whatever it is the teacher is talking about. Disclosure of the details of what insight is like can result in students giving spurious reports in interviews either out of their own confusion or a genuine desire to fool the teacher and make themselves look good.

These situations happen, but probably not nearly as often as people completely missing the boat on the difference between actual insight practice and mere wallowing in the increasingly neurotic muck of an unchecked mind. Thus, Kenneth and I decided that we would talk about insight and our practice when we taught. It turns out that doing this is harder than it would seem. Some hints about why we sometimes failed to live up to our own ideals will be given later in the chapter “More on the ‘Mushroom Factor’”. However, we have both done our best to fight the trend and talk about the stages of insight and what is possible on the spiritual path.

Another possible reason that people don’t learn to practice correctly is that many people are not on retreat or in the meditation class to learn what the teachers teach. This may be due to a variety of reasons. Perhaps they are just there to find something else, such as time away from some situation, but are not there to find what the teachers are teaching. Some students may have so much invested in their level of education and high position that they just can’t really hear or comprehend what the teachers are talking about, or they hear it and think, “Oh, yes, I myself have read many books and fully understand that trivial little point about impermanence, but when do we get to enlightenment?” Yikes!

Some students may be there to further their psychotherapy, which can be a fine and worthy goal. However, they may assume that the meditation teacher is the best psychotherapist they could have. They may think, “After all, they are enlightened, aren’t they? They must be completely sane and balanced. They must know about how to have the perfect relationship, how to find the perfect job, how to invest in the stock market, how to talk to their mother, how to end world hunger, how to rebuild a carburetor, and all other details of wise living on this Earth. After all, isn’t awakening about understanding everything and even being omniscient?” Gadzooks!

A quick digression here: awakening is about understanding the fundamental nature of all sensate experiences, and what they happen to be is ultimately completely and utterly irrelevant to awakening. Thus, very awakened beings understand something fundamental about whatever arises or however their lives manifest, that is, its impermanence, emptiness, luminosity, groundlessness, or however they wish to describe it. However, they have no more knowledge about the specifics of the world than they have acquired in just the way that anyone else acquires knowledge about the specifics of this world. They can even have all sorts of psychological baggage to deal with, and this is probably the norm.

Awakened beings will often know a lot about the territory of insight, having had to navigate it, but this is a strangely specialized skill and an esoteric body of knowledge that is useful only in helping others navigate it. I should qualify that by saying not all will have good language or conceptual frameworks to describe the nuances of insight territory. True, being awakened does provide by degrees deeper levels of extreme clarity into the workings of the mind, and this can be helpful. By understanding their own mind, they will have some level of insight into the basics of the minds of others by extrapolation.

However, unless the meditation teacher is a trained psychotherapist, they are not a psychotherapist and shouldn’t pretend to be one, though this unfortunately happens far too often, in my humble opinion. Just so, a trained psychotherapist is not awakened unless they get awakened and shouldn’t pretend to understand insight practice if they don’t. This also happens far too often, if you ask me, and the dark irony is that they tend to charge much more than real, qualified dharma teachers.

Note: the Buddha was quite adamant about no one charging for the teachings, which are considered priceless. This system of non-obligatory donation and mutual support has worked quite well for 2,500 years, and it would be a tragic mistake to assume that it cannot function in the West. For example, Goenka’s vipassana retreat centers are an excellent expression of how upholding this ethic of not charging for dharma does indeed not only work, but also serves as a cause of the flourishing of the dharma. That said, the first person who authorized me to teach, a person who had been a monk for years in Thailand, suggested that I “charge a little something” for teaching, as he said that westerners will take things more seriously if they pay for them. I failed to follow his sage advice, but I can’t be sure that was the right thing to do. Would that there were simple answers to these questions.

Using retreats or meditation purely as a form of continuing psychotherapy may have other problems associated with it. A person not under the guidance of a trained therapist may not be used to the mind-noise amplification factor that silence and a lack of distractions tend to create in the absence of grounding the mind in a meditation object. Further, we may not gain the benefits of the only thing that does make a lasting difference in ending fundamental suffering and bringing the quiet joy of understanding, which is mastery of insight practice and thus awakening.

Another quick digression here: a dangerous notion that pervades many spiritual circles is that it is bad to want to awaken, and that no discipline, effort, or application of a technique could produce awakening. These notions are completely absurd and have paralyzed or preempted the practice of far too many. I believe these ideas have come from an extremely confused misunderstanding of causality and of the “sudden” and “gradual” schools of thought. “Sudden awakening” is exceedingly rare, and, I will claim, had to involve prior effort and specific prior causes, even if the practitioner doesn’t subsequently remember or recognize what those causes were or the effort that was exerted. Anyone who has really gotten into any Buddhist teachings, whether Theravada, Mahayana, or Vajrayana, will know firsthand that all require a tremendous amount of effort just like every other spiritual path.

As one of my teacher’s teachers put it, “In the end, you must give up even the desire for awakening, but not too soon!” Sutta 131 in the Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha (MN 131)is called “One Fortunate Attachment”, and in it the Buddha clearly states that making effort to realize the truth of your experience is an extremely good idea. He also goes on and on about the three characteristics—fancy that!

Another reason that students often fail to make progress is that they confuse information and insight. I suspect that they are confused because they have spent their whole lives thinking about specific information, learning information, and dealing with information in a context where information matters, that is, when one is not doing insight practice. You can’t take a spelling test in school and say that all that is important is that words come and go, don’t satisfy, and aren’t you. This just won’t fly and wouldn’t be appropriate. Just so, when practicing morality, the first and most fundamental training in any spirituality, information that helps you distinguish between constructive and destructive action is everything, or at least as far as training in morality can take you. You can’t be a mass murderer and rationalize this by thinking, “Well, they were all impermanent, unsatisfactory, and empty, so why not kill ’em?” This just won’t fly either, and so content and spirituality necessarily and validly are quite connected.

Skillful engagement with information or content even works well when practicing the second training, concentration. When practitioners are learning to concentrate, they are told to concentrate on specific objects such as the breath, the body, a mantra, or an image of the Tantric Buddhist deity Green Tara. This is content. There is no such thing as the breath or an image of Green Tara from the point of view of insight practices, as these are just fresh streams of impermanent and transient sensations that are crudely labeled “breath” or “Green Tara”. But, for developing the second training of concentration, we ignore impermanence and instead give everything to the specific sensations that make up the breath, or a mantra, or an image, and cultivate attention to those and the positive mental qualities that arise in strong concentration. Thus, even for pure concentration practice, the specifics of what you are concentrating on matter. Thus, the idea that content is everything is reinforced.

However, when it comes to insight practice, fixation on content must be suspended during that practice session. In insight practice, everything a practitioner has learned about being lost in the names of things and thoughts about them, i.e. content, will be not only completely useless, but an obstacle preventing realization. Here the inquiry must turn to the six sense doors and to impermanence, dissatisfactoriness, and no-self. These characteristics must be realized clearly and directly in whatever sensations arise, be they pleasant, painful, beautiful, ugly, helpful, unhelpful, skillful, unskillful, holy, profane, dull, or otherwise. Anything other than this is just not insight practice, never was, and never will be.

It doesn’t matter what the quality of your mind is, or what the sensations of your body are; if you directly understand the momentary sensations that make these up to be impermanent, unsatisfactory, and not a self or the property of any self, then you are on the right path, the path of liberating insight. However, as mentioned before, off the cushion the quality of your mind, your reactions, your words and deeds all matter. There is no contradiction. Insight practice is about ultimate reality, the true aspects that apply equally to all sensations regardless of what they are. Morality and concentration are about relative reality, about creatively crafting a mind, body, and karmic traces that are as good and skillful as we can make them, and thus the specifics are everything. Learning to be a master of both ultimate and relative is what mastery is all about.

Another reason that people don’t make progress is possibly that they are being taught by people who have little or no insight, and so are taught by those who are themselves fascinated by content and unskilled in going beyond it into insight practices. The scary truth is that there are far more people teaching insight meditation that don’t know what insight is than those that do, though this tends to be less the case in large, well-established retreat centers. Thus, even if students learn what they are taught, if those who lack insight are teaching them, then what they learn is unlikely to be correct or helpful. While the teacher may have learned to parrot the language of ultimate reality, this is absolutely no substitute for direct realization of it. The tradition I come from generally considers what they call the second stage of enlightenment (“second path”, see Part Five p. 330) to be the minimum level of attainment required to be qualified to teach others. This is a very reasonable standard.

Another possible reason that people get lost and don’t follow the clear and basic instructions of insight practices is that they just can’t believe that doing something as simple and straightforward as examining the impermanence, dissatisfactoriness, and no-self aspects of the ordinary sensations that make up their ordinary world could produce awakening. It just sounds ridiculous to them, and thus they imagine that there are secret or complex teachings somewhere that are the only way to enlightenment.

Thus, they may not try at all, may practice in their own way, or may keep trying to read more into the teachings than is there and come up with their own finely honed, special nonsense. These unhelpful ways of speculating can become very engaging, but they won’t produce insight. These speculations can also lead to people trying to do very advanced practices (such as intensive tantric practices and retreats) that were originally designed for practitioners who had already mastered morality, concentration, and insight practices to a pronounced degree. Such people do not derive the full benefit of such practices and may run into other often serious and complex problems.

How do I know that solely content-based practice won’t produce insight? Because there are only three doors to ultimate reality, that’s why, and they are utterly unrelated to content, though they can be found in all content if the content aspect is ignored. “Only three doors? But there are thousands of practices, many traditions! How can you say there are only three doors?”

There are only three doors, that’s how. I don’t care what tradition you subscribe to, what practice you do, or who you are, there are only three basic ways to enter the attainment of fruition, nirvana, nibbana, or whatever you want to call it. These doors relate directly to profound and direct realization of the three characteristics of impermanence, dissatisfactoriness, and no-self, and you must understand the heck out of these to join the ranks of the awakened ones.

“But there are many valid traditions that do not talk about the three characteristics!” That may appear to be the case, but if the tradition is a valid one, you will find these teachings there somewhere, in some other language or formulation, as these are the only way. You will find them in the works of Rumi, Kabir, and Krishnamurti. You will find them in the Bible and the Koran. You will find them in the writings of St. John of the Cross and many other Christian mystics. You will find them in all the branches of Buddhism. You will find them in the Upanishads. You will find them wherever you find a true spiritual path, and that is just all there is to it. It can help to consider that to completely understand compassion is to understand suffering and vice versa, as these are really two sides of the same coin. Also, to understand true-self practices to their end is the same as understanding no-self practices, as these are also two sides of the same coin.

“But we are tantric practitioners, and the three characteristics are merely a low-brow Hinayana teaching.” Tantra primarily cultivates the no-self door, which is one of the three characteristics. It can also be useful for transmuting energy into more skillful forms, a bit of which will be discussed later. However, those who consider themselves to be Mahayanists or Vajrayanists should read the fine print. You will find that all three characteristics are there, and in fact if you were listening properly when hearing teachings on the prerequisites to tantra in the form of lamrim or other preliminaries to Vajrayana, you were expected to generate the realizations in common with those of what they call the “listener” vehicle practices before moving on to the Mahayana or Vajrayana practices. I strongly suggest checking out Lama Yeshe’s Introduction to Tantra. Further, the Hinayana, so often mentioned by Tibetan practitioners, doesn’t exist today in the way they imagine it does, and is often conflated with the Theravada, and while there are similarities, the Theravada is much more extensive than the Tibetan conception of the Hinayana and contains extensive teachings on compassion and emptiness as well as helping others, but this is a topic for another time.

In short, should you gain ultimate realizations, it will be through one of the three doors. This is just the way it is. It is not negotiable. The natures of the mind and reality are just the natures of the mind and reality. You cannot change this, but you can realize it.

“But we are Zen students. We realize Buddha Nature! We don’t need the three charac­teristics, we sit zazen!” Read any good book on Zen, such as those of Dōgen, Chinul, or the excellent Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, by Shunryu Suzuki. The three characteristics are there in abundance, and those who think they can enter ultimate reality in some other way are further deluding themselves. Paying direct attention to bare reality with clarity and precision will result in directly observing the three characteristics regardless of whether you wish to call them that, as they are absolutely the truth of all conditioned experiences in all times and in all beings.

Thus, the practice and tradition become a disposable foundation for insight in the end. However, you need them right up until the last moment, as the content of the tradition can provide many valuable supports for insight and the other two trainings, so don’t for a moment think that I am advocating not following a tradition. They may also be useful after gaining deep insight for social, moral, psychological, and educational purposes, as well as personal progress along many other axes of development. I am only advocating following the tradition correctly and thus clearly penetrating the nature of your actual experience just as it is. Nothing helps in the end like understanding the wisdom-producing aspects of our experience, that is, the three characteristics.

It may be true that people are not in a position at a specific time in their lives to do insight practices. Insight practices are not for everyone. One of the clear marks of whether insight practices are appropriate for a given individual is simply that person’s ability to do them after having properly understood the instructions on how to do them. If, despite clear instructions and appropriate support, a would-be insight meditator is simply unable to do anything but mentally spin in content, “processing”, and fixation, they should dedicate themselves to carefully cultivating ethical conduct through at least observance of the five precepts until they can hear, understand, and then follow the extremely basic yet precise instructions of insight practices. The Buddha iterated and reiterated that the first training of morality forms the foundation for the latter two trainings.

People often imagine that this readiness for insight has something to do with intelligence, but I don’t think that is particularly true. I have known people with doctoral degrees from prestigious universities, who, having been told, “Notice the many sensations of your body breathing and of your feet walking arising and vanishing moment to moment,” were as incapable of believing that those were the instructions that could produce awakening as they were of following them. I have also known people of no great intelligence or education who clearly understood that those were the instructions and diligently followed them moment after moment, hour after hour, day after day, and so made great progress in insight.

The last and perhaps most pernicious of the reasons that students don’t apply themselves is they don’t believe that it can be done, that they could awaken, or that anyone else except a rare few from centuries ago have awakened. Further, if they do know of a potentially awakened person, such as a lineaged teacher, that person typically is thought of as being “other”, an aberration, one of “those over there”, one of the “chosen ones”, “special”, and somehow unreal, like an imagined demigod.

This has been a terrible problem since the very beginning of all mystical traditions, and is unfortunately not likely to go away any time soon. Part of this is due to the mushroom factor, but there are many other complex reasons for it. Suffice to say, it can be done and is done today by ordinary people using these simple practices. Find an awakened person who is willing to talk about practice in a straightforward manner, and follow time-honored techniques to your own awakening.

19. Content and Ultimate Reality   |  21. A Clear Goal