40. More on the “Mushroom Factor”
One of the reasons that many people who make progress do not talk about it could be the
fact that, as practice deepens, the exaggerated importance to the meditator of thoughts of “my attainment”, “I am enlightened”, etc. falls away and assumes its proper proportion, its proper place in experience. However, this does not mean that such language cannot be used. While there may at times be good reasons to talk about attainments, and mostly good reasons not to, there is a long and glorious tradition of compassionate meditation masters and awakened beings who braved the consequences and told the world that it could be done, that they had awakened, and that they were going to tell all of those who hadn’t how they too could wake up. The results of this varied from founding major religions to being executed or both, but such are the caprices of reality.
It is interesting that the Buddha’s teachings, at least as represented in the Pali canon, started out very much as a tradition in which those who were highly attained were often loudly proclaimed to be so by either themselves or others or both with the specific details of their skills and understandings made clear. I myself need to overcome my own jealousy and practice mudita and delight for the days when the Buddha would say basically, “Moggallana is a master of the jhanas and the powers. If you wish to learn those well, you should go study with him. Sariputta is an arahant and master of insight and analysis. If you wish to learn that well, go study with him.” The motivation for this was that such individuals were valuable resources for others and this should be known for the benefit of all. This widespread cultural phenomenon of meditation masters being “out” is abundantly clear in the ancient texts, and occurs to varying degrees in Asian countries today.
In the West, the situation is often markedly different from this early practice. There seem to be two basic styles of code used when advertising dharma teachers. The first is to simply use a grand title such as, “Wazoo Tulku, Supreme and Luminous Dharma King”. The second type of code is in the style of a résumé for a job, “Jane Rainbow is the author of three books. She has been teaching meditation internationally for seventeen years and is a member of the Buddhist Blue Flower Society.” Notice that neither of these bios tells you anything about:
• what they know
• which traditions they draw from
• what their education is and whether they have been authorized by their teachers to teach, which is to say whether they are sufficiently awakened from the perspective of their teachers
• their attitude towards scholarship and the standard theoretical frameworks
• which techniques they have mastered and/or teach
• what they have attained or claim to have attained
• what their personality is like
• what their strengths and weaknesses are as teacher and person (e.g. please ignore any absent-minded nose-picking and the waft of cheap musk cologne)
• who trained them
• the lineage or lineages by which they are claimed or trained
• their level of availability to their students (though “teaches internationally” is often an ominous clue)
• why they teach
• what they expect from their students, particularly regarding money, commitments, vows, exclusive loyalty, or allegiance
• how many students they already have
• whether they will talk about real practice directly
• if you run into trouble with them, whether there is a governing organization that can address issues or concerns.
What is shocking is how few students will ever ask their teachers about any of these specific practical issues. True, we do need some background in both practice and theory even to know what to ask. Still, these are the questions that should be initially considered when seeking a teacher, and yet you almost never see them addressed on a retreat center brochure. Imagine a university in which none of the professors told you about their research, who funds their work, where they got their degree, who taught them, what courses they teach, what their specialty is, or even why they like being professors. That would be a bit strange, wouldn’t it? This sort of information is typically available for public consumption on the university’s web page.
There is something very balanced and reasonable about this. When I would see a presentation at the graduate schools I attended, someone would generally introduce the speaker and tell you exactly who the person was, what they were working on, highlights of what they had published, what positions and degrees they currently held, and why they were qualified to speak on the topic of the day. Perhaps I am particularly naive and idealistic, but I imagine a spiritual world where this likewise would be standard practice. I dream that this would simultaneously cut back on otherworldly spiritual ideals, provide faith that it can be done, demystify the process of awakening, and bring the whole thing back to earth where we rather need it to be. There is a long way to go before such a dream is likely to be a reality, but hopefully this little book will be one small step towards that. There are cool things our minds can do and perceive, and there are definable techniques that lead to those cool things. Why does it have to be more convoluted than that?
In my more cynical moments, I have sometimes thought that Western teacher bios could just as easily read, “Jane is an Aquarian from California. Her favorite color is turquoise and she is a mediocre chef,” or, “Wazoo Tulku is old and of substantial girth. His favorite movie is Animal House.” These would give you about as much practical information as most teacher bios do in the West. [In case anyone is asking, I love the movie Animal House.]
The assumption is that if teachers have been practicing for so many years, have a fancy name with multiple honorific titles, or if someone let them publish a book or teach internationally, they must be in some generic way a good teacher of something. There may also be the unspoken assumption that there is some unnamed but reliable body of teacher evaluators (not to say a panel of judges à la American Idol) somewhere that have checked the person out. Either of these may or may not be true, and some traditions do a much better job than others of being clear and honest about such issues.
Other reasons that more people don’t talk about mastery or clearly advertise themselves are that they don’t want to make others jealous or intimidated, as jealous and intimidated spiritual practitioners and teachers can be unpredictable, cunning, and dangerous mammals. Also, talking about the stages of insight practice can sound quite outrageous and bizarre. Further, with clarity comes mystery, and sometimes it can seem inappropriate to talk about something that can often seem so slippery, subjective, and uncertain. The late, great master Achaan Chah once stated that even arahants could sometimes be unsure about whether they are arahants. Others, including one of my favorite teachers, have said that all arahants are always sure they are arahants. This second view is a bit extreme, buys into the diagnostic fallacy, and is a limited possible thought model. You know what I think of those!
Thus, a major, possibly valid reason for secrecy or codes seems to be self-preservation, though not in the sense of ego preservation. These are kind motives, but they also perpetuate the atmosphere of secrecy and confusion that pervades the modern meditative world. The unfortunate truth is that talking about attainments tends to cause far more unhelpful reactions than helpful ones, tending to isolate the attained person, to cause others to think of them as way too wonderful, too intimidating, or completely nuts (or all three), and generally to project all sorts of naive and unhelpful things onto them, such as a limited emotional range model or worse, a limited possible action model. This can create situations that foster the abuse of sex, money, drugs, and power that seem to plague gurus and spiritual leaders with alarming frequency. Freud would have had a field day with this.
As regards the bizarre and fantastic projections that are commonly associated with teachers, gurus, and other potentially awakened beings, such projections tend to arise because there is not enough widespread information on how misleading the limited emotional range models are and what preposterous junk the limited possible action models are, not to mention the lack of information on the absurdity of the wide range of other magical attributes that are imagined to arise from simply ceasing to identify with ordinary phenomena. I considered writing a whole chapter called “Adult Children in Fantasyland”, but hopefully the preceding sentence will do the trick.
This lack of information on the ordinariness of realized individuals creates a vicious cycle in which those who are realized don’t say, “I am awakened and ordinary,” because if they do then they will be viewed in very strange ways despite what they say; and, because if they don’t tell, only they know. Thus, the strong potential for nonsensical projections and reactions remains. While sometimes the masses are fed manure and kept in the dark, if they are fed nothing at all they will often create manure to feed themselves. No one is happy to learn that perfection in some ordinary sense is impossible, and some will continue to seek the perfect guru, community, or even self for years, even though these do not exist.
I have few qualms about blaming those who currently do know for not doing more to debunk these myths and for not being willing to speak out bravely and honestly against the mass of nonsensical, magical thinking out there, though I can just as easily understand why they may not be in any mood to take the heat. As things currently stand, all the attention and confusion that can come from revealing our wisdom and understanding can often not seem to be worth it, despite how much we may want to help others. This is particularly true if we do not want to be a guru or member of the dharma jet set but just want to help people learn without becoming some odd object of obsessive deification or demonization.
It seems that you can only help those with very clear, strong, and noble motivations, those who are willing to listen, be intelligent and realistic about their relationship to you as a fellow human being, and with whom your personality seems to fit fairly well. Further, you can only help those who will actually practice, engage, and inquire. This turns out to be a very small group most of the time. You could also say that you can only teach those who didn’t really need you to teach them in the first place, as they were going to practice anyway.
It is possible, though not necessarily advisable, to drop all kinds of really glaring and even tacky hints that we have attained mastery of some aspect of the amazing states and stages of the spiritual path and yet have no one show even the slightest sign that they have picked up on them. Even more bizarre is how few people—having been directly and unambiguously told that they are sharing the immediate airspace of someone who has attained deep levels of mastery—will ask reasonable questions about how they might do the same, which is really the whole friggin’ point. Even more surprising is how few of those who do ask good questions will then use this practical information wisely. As Bill Hamilton put it, “I have a treasure of infinite value that nobody wants.” He was only barely exaggerating, even regarding many of those who consider themselves “meditators” and “Buddhists”.
Thus, out of practical self-preservation and a reluctant respect for the fact that most people seem not to want to hear about actual mastery, most of those who do master concentration and/or insight practices tend not to talk about it, or only to a very few (see Saints & Psychopaths, by Bill Hamilton, for an incredibly honest and compelling discussion of some of these issues, particularly the etiquette of enlightenment). All this contributes to the mushroom factor.
Lastly, there seems to be a somewhat odd lack of support for potentially up-and-coming teachers. One of my friends has commented that it can be much easier to get awakened than to get “lineaged”, or officially acknowledged that you are a qualified teacher and a reasonable enough person to be allowed to teach, have students referred to you, be a part of healthy peer-review and monitoring processes that keeps teachers on the up-and-up, etc. Some of my very best, most dedicated and accessible teachers were not officially authorized by their teachers to teach, despite their high attainments, great teaching ability, and extensive knowledge of spiritual practice. Also, there seems to be barely any clear articulation of roles that occupy the middle ground, a poorly developed sense of apprenticeship, little sense of intermediate territory between a student and a fully lineaged or authorized teacher. The extent of these issues varies by tradition.
It is true that there are good reasons that the senior teaching establishments are slow or reluctant to allow new teachers into the carefully guarded inner circles and positions of authority. There are certain individuals who possess the mastery needed to be a teacher but are not good choices for other reasons, with mental pathology, limited social or communications skills, lack of maturity, and off-putting personality traits being chief among them. There are those whose political skills are such that they have managed to get endorsed even though they were not qualified to teach at the level they claimed they could, with the associated problems all the way to serious allegations and devastations predictably following.
However, current senior teachers, many of whom are the first generation of westerners to be so, do not yet seem to be quite as comfortable endorsing new teachers as their Asian teachers tended to be endorsing them. Perhaps this will correct itself given time, as there is a lot of unused talent out there and a lot of unmet demand for authentic teachers. On the other hand, making a living as a teacher can be hard, and who needs more competition for scarce donations or seats on the front platform at overbooked meditation centers?
It is also true that numerous meditation traditions that have come to the West have many people teaching in them without the foggiest idea that they are not at all qualified to do so. The canonical and commentarial texts state that we should have at least crossed the A&P Event to teach, though in the primary tradition I come from they consider second path as the standard minimum requirement for any sort of teaching. Basically, chancing into a path is impressive, but being able to tag another one demonstrates reproducible competence. I again blame the mushroom factor for this lack of reasonable knowledge about possible teaching criteria. I suspect that if people knew what some of the minimum standards are for qualified teachers, and that there are those who meet these, many people would realize that they simply shouldn’t be teaching, except at very introductory levels, and bow out gracefully. Educating unknowing seekers about reasonable criteria for teaching might also prevent unqualified, unawakened teachers from being able to gain authority and credibility, neither of which they’ve earned.
Beyond this, there are also good reasons to question the very concepts of “teacher” and “student” and the disturbing and often unquestioned rigidity with which they are sometimes applied. One person may have an understanding that they share with someone else, and then turn around and ask the same person a question about something that the person who was the “student” just moments before is skilled in. I have concluded that some of the best teaching and learning happens in conversations between friends and not necessarily as much in the context of very short, formal interviews with lineaged teachers who have just flown in for the week.
While the internet is facilitating more of these sorts of useful conversations, it is also creating a quagmire of low-quality, low-level, low-yield, low-accuracy, low-value dharma interactions, as is the internet’s nature, and plenty of websites are still basically hostile to what I would consider real, practical, high-end meditation theory and practice. This is slowly changing, and today there are a number of good sites and communities dedicated to open, kind, respectful, encouraging, ethical, and fruitful discussions of strong practice.
The climate of secrecy surrounding conversations about dharma mastery, restrictive lineage issues, and the rarity of engaging in comprehensive, deep conversations with harried and over-extended jet-set dharma teachers combine to produce a demand for what I term “the dharma underground”. This refers to loose associations of those who are “in the know” but not officially endorsed, who cautiously seek one another out, support one another, and exchange ideas about how to go deeper in ways that have everything to do with friendship and empowerment and little to do with formal or unyielding affiliations, lineages, or dogmatic and/or disempowering concepts around “teacher” and “student”.
Often plenty of dharma conversations occur in “silent” retreat centers or in other ways that involve breaking some of the rules that may be helpful from one perspective, but also defend the semi-arbitrary privileges of the lineaged elite, while disempowering and marginalizing others with valuable and accurate knowledge and experience to share. Interestingly, when reading the old texts, I often get the feeling that a significantly more egalitarian, balanced, and friendly style was the norm in the early Buddhist community, and I often long for its return. It is interesting that, unlike tantric traditions and many others, the Theravada does not have any formal vows of secrecy regarding the details of mastery of its practices. Perhaps they would just be overkill.
The introduction to the Jataka, or “birth stories” of the Buddha—which incidentally forms the basis for much of the bodhisattva ideal that developed in the Mahayana—says that the Buddha sat under the bodhi tree in powerful, one-pointed meditation, resisted the ten armies of Mara, perceived the truth of our experience, and attained full and unsurpassed awakening.
For those of you not familiar with standard Buddhist icons, Mara is the personification of the temptation of the world, the lord of all that is impermanent, simultaneously a satanic and trickster figure who does his very best to thwart those who would escape from his dominion, attain realization, and go beyond birth and death. During the heroic struggle of the Buddha on that day, he transforms and overcomes a great number of assaults by Mara and his armies through his steadiness in the ten perfections (virtues) or paramis. The ten perfections of the Pali canon can be translated several ways, and I list them as generosity, morality, renunciation, wisdom, energy, patience, truthfulness, resolute determination, loving-kindness, and equanimity. [The Mahayana system lists six perfections/virtues, but the lists cover very similar concepts.]
These assaults by the armies of Mara in the story are relatively fantastic and, while quite a mythologized and anthropomorphized bit of work, make for fun reading. They consist of a whirlwind (A&P much?), a great rainstorm, showers of flaming rocks (Re-observation?), weapons and hot ashes, sand, mud, profound darkness, and a great discus hurled from a huge elephant. The Buddha was steady in his contemplation, deeply rooted in the ten perfections, having purified his karma and mind during countless previous lives. Through the power of his actions and abilities, these assaults were transformed into flowers, celestial ointment, and the like.
Later, the ten armies of Mara came to be listed as: 1) sensual pleasures; 2) discontent; 3) hunger and thirst; 4) craving; 5) sloth and torpor; 6) fear; 7) doubt; 8) conceit and ingratitude; 9) gain, renown, honor, and undeserved fame; and 10) self-exaltation and disparaging others (SN 3.2). These are now useful guidelines for difficulties that must be avoided when possible and seen as they are for meditators to progress on the path of wisdom. They tend to occur in roughly that order, cycling as does everything else. No eleventh army is listed.
However, sutta 26 of the Middle Length Discourses (MN 26) says that, soon after his enlightenment, it occurred to the Buddha that there was no one else who could understand what he had understood. He thought to himself that this dharma was too profound, too subtle, too against the worldly tide, and too difficult. Teaching it would only cause him trouble, as his potential audience would be a generation obsessed with lust and hate, mired in worldliness, incapable of understanding the dhamma; and so the Buddha decided to keep quiet.
There are other texts that say that it was Mara who came to the Buddha and said to him (paraphrasing), “All right, you win. You have gone beyond birth, death, and my realm. Who will understand what you have to teach? Who else can do this? Who will believe you? Nobody.” The Buddha, as we have said, agreed without qualification. This I call the eleventh army of Mara, Mara’s last temptation, the temptation to keep quiet. The eleventh army of Mara consists of the vast and profound difficulties realizers face in describing, explaining, and promoting real liberating insights.
The story continues in the typical style. The great Brahma Sahampati, a relatively high god, understood through his clairvoyant powers that the Buddha had attained full awakening but had chosen to remain silent and inactive. This was surprising, considering that the Buddha had vowed to attain that which was beyond birth and death in order to liberate all beings. The Brahma Sahampati appeared to the Buddha and begged him to teach the dharma so that those with “but little dust” in their eyes might see. The story goes that he asked the Buddha to look at the world and see that there were in fact a few who would understand what he had to teach. The Buddha then used his clairvoyance to survey the world, and indeed he saw that he had been wrong, that there were a few whose faculties were keen, whose vision was only slightly obscured, who would understand. So, he wandered off in search of them and he found some of them. He taught them, they understood, and those teachings have been passed down in an unbroken lineage of practitioners for over 2,500 years.
While the ancient and modern commentators go to great lengths to rationalize why this was all part of the plan, that the Buddha just pretended to or “manifested” not to want to teach for various reasons, I take a different, perhaps more cautious, and probably realistic view. If we look at what happened as the Buddha tried to go and teach the dharma, we must admit that it was a long, difficult road. He had serious family dysfunction, logistical problems, encounters with bandits, and many conflicts with opposing sects as well as within his own order. People tried to kill him, his own order fractured at points because of extremist sects and views, people made power plays to take over the order, and so on. At one point, he got so frustrated with his monks that he left them on their own for the whole three-month rains retreat and withdrew into the forest by himself.
Due to the continued bad and foolish behavior of his monks and nuns in the last twenty-five years of his teaching, he laid down the kind of restrictive rules usually reserved for vile dictatorships run by raving lunatics. Clearly, he did so reluctantly, as there were no such rules for the first twenty years of the order of the sangha. The point here is that even for the Buddha, whose teaching ability was clearly of the rarest variety and who had an unequalled knack for helpful and precise conceptual frameworks, there was nothing easy about spreading the dharma.
However mythologized we feel the Buddha was, clearly he was a completely astounding person. He met his struggles with spectacular reserves of intellect, wisdom, stamina, poise, grace, kindness, and determination. Few of us are so blessed, yet the difficulties we face are largely the same as those faced by the Buddha.
I will now begin a short list of basic difficulties faced in trying to spread the dharma by those who know it for themselves. I list them in no particular order. The downside is that I have no great solutions to these problems, but as the AA folks say, admitting you have a problem is the first step.
One of the most profound difficulties in supporting liberating insights is the difficulty of working with language to discuss them. Words simply cannot easily explain realization to those viewing the world through the filter of duality, though they can explain techniques that make insights much more likely. Real insight goes beyond the conceptual frameworks of the dualistic mind. Anything you say about it is only partly true at best. The smarter the practitioner, the more frustrating they may find the apparent contradictions in dharma language and teachings. The approximately fifty percent of adults who do not even have the capacity for formal abstract thinking will likely consider you very crazy, intimidating, or at best someone to be avoided.
On a related note, if you are awakened, then what is so glaringly obvious to you simply isn’t to everybody else, and the longer you have seen it, the stranger it becomes that everyone doesn’t see it also. It can become harder and harder to remember what it was like to sit down on a cushion and not even be able to attain the first jhana, much less cycle effortlessly from the fourth to sixteenth ñanas. For those who have attained arahantship, the luminosity and centerlessness of perspective becomes such a natural part of perception that it seems incredible that it was ever otherwise.
On the flip side of the same coin, we may remember the profound struggles, the thousands of hours of back and knee pain, the extreme subtlety of perception needed, the endless stretching of our perceptual thresholds, and the relentless determination and tolerance for pain and our own embarrassing humanity that was required to see it. We may remember the spent vacation time, financial difficulties, relationship issues, logistical complexities, and difficulties with teachers and fellow meditators that are often necessary to endure for long retreats and extended daily practice. We may marvel that we were able to do it at all, much less imagine anyone else giving up so much to do it. Are we really going to go around shaking people out of their cozy little lives for this path?
That brings me to the question of audience. At any given time and place, there are only a handful at best who are ready to hear deep dharma and then convert that knowledge into liberating practice. This was true in the time of the Buddha and continues to be true today. Even among monks and nuns, you will not find many who are awakened or even aspire be so in this lifetime except in the most unusual practice monasteries that are explicitly dedicated to actual mastery.
The best chances of successfully sharing the dharma are generally with those who have already crossed the Arising and Passing Away, though the complexities of the Dark Night can give them such a complex love-hate relationship to practice and dharma that you may not be able to reach them at all, or perhaps not until they have marinated in the Dark Night’s juices for some years. You also may never reach them as they may not resonate with your personality, teaching style, or your own conceptual and linguistic baggage. You may not even be able to find them, although if you hang a shingle of some sort, you will likely cross paths with at least a couple.
Meditation groups are flourishing in many parts of the world. Yet, very few of these people will take the time to get serious about meditation. In truth, few are interested in full awakening at all. Most of these groups function essentially as venues for social support with a unifying dogma and nice moral lessons, inspiring readings, sharing time, comfortable and satisfying rituals, a little meditation, and often overt or subtle worship and deification of some popular figurehead purported to have done it.
Very few will aspire to real mastery themselves. Very few will take the time to learn even the basics of meditation theory. Even fewer will go on retreats. Of those that do, only a handful will get their concentration strong enough to attain to basic jhanas or ñanas. Of these, only a couple will be able to cross the A&P, handle and investigate the Dark Night, attain Equanimity, and get stream entry. Of those who attain stream entry, a reasonable number will progress to the middle paths, but not many will attain arahantship. Call me cynical, but this was true in the Buddha’s time and it remains true today.
You might think that you could approach these groups and say, “Hey, I know how it’s done. Why read the dead books of some guy far away with whom you are unlikely to have any real contact when there is someone right here who can help you understand it for yourself? Sure, you might have to bust your butt, but this is what you are all shootin’ for, isn’t it?”
Unfortunately, likely reactions include: complete disbelief, profound skepticism, confusion, alienation, intimidation, jealousy, anger, territoriality, competitiveness, vitriol, dismissal, and the lingering doubts created by having to face the fact that actual attainment is not what most are into at all. People hate feeling these things, and are more likely to blow you off than deal with the feelings aroused by being faced with people who have not given up on themselves or the practice. The chances of a group or even an individual saying, “Great, I’ve been looking for a real friend in the dharma for years, and now there is one right here! Please do tell me how it’s done and I’ll go do it!” are essentially next to nothing. That said, miracles do occur, and occasionally we do run into the few who have but little dust in their eyes.
If you are really into finding such people, you are likely going to have to meet a lot of people who are not ready yet, even if you are lucky enough to teach at a major retreat center. This can be frustrating. If we look at the life of the Buddha, after the first dozen or so people he taught, he had to walk long distances to find even one person who might get what he was saying. Luckily, he was willing to do this.
How will we handle the eleventh army of Mara? Hopefully the Buddha’s story will continue to inspire us to try harder.