41. So, Who the Heck is Daniel M. Ingram?

40. More on the “Mushroom Factor”   |  Part VI: My Spiritual Quest

I suppose that if I am going to rant about how most dharma teachers do not do a good job
of clearly stating what they know, what they teach, etc. then I should try to avoid being a complete hypocrite and thus answer some of those questions here.

Here’s my Western teacher bio the way I would have it on a retreat center brochure: 

“Daniel is a double Aquarian from North Carolina who prefers to be called “Dharma Dan”, “dude”, or simply “Honored Archmystic, Sir”. His favorite movie is Raising Arizona.”

Kidding! Let’s try that again: 

“Daniel is an extroverted Gen X intellectual. He is known for his pronounced enthusiasm, lip-flapping, grandiosity, eccentricity, and calling people on their stuff and shadow sides regardless of whether this is helpful or even accurate. When it comes to insight practices, he has standards so high, exacting, and uncompromising that only those who are dedicated practitioners are likely to find them helpful. On the other hand, he is a firm believer that if people simply practice the basic techniques recommended by the Buddha, they can be very successful and awakened meditators. He is one who will talk about insight directly and answer nearly any question about dharma practice without using code, covering things up, or watering things down. 

Daniel is a diehard Mahasi Sayadaw fan, though he is very happy whenever he sees people trying to master any of the world’s great contemplative traditions, and thus considers himself a pan-contemplative evangelist whose evangelism is moderated by his appreciation for Dark Night and other potentially dangerous dharma phenomena. He is also a chronic map-monger and technique freak because these have worked for him. He does not claim to have any special or secret knowledge of how to live skillfully in the conventional world, but has found that a positive attitude, unpretentious kindness, hard work, and a sense of humor will take you a long way. 

If you imagine that you want to bust out some hardcore practice but are in fact just looking for a daddy, shrink, therapist, social worker, some narcissistic supply, or someone to otherwise help you cradle your fragile self-esteem, Daniel is unlikely at this stage in his development to be the best person to help you meet your needs. He considers himself to be one badass dharma cowboy and prefers similar company or at least those who aspire to be so and who delight in the challenge and adventure.

He also has an MD, an MSPH in Epidemiology, most of a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering, and spent years working as an attending physician in major trauma center emergency departments, so he knows something about life, death, suffering, grief and loss, healing, research, science, mental and physical illness and well-being, and the human condition.”

I dare, no, I double dare any other teacher to be that honest when writing their next bio, not that they are likely to be given enough space to disclose anything resembling this much honest and practical information. 

While this is clearly a lot of information about me, with this being an interdependent universe, we only get good at dharma practice by having a staggering amount of support. Many, many thanks to everyone and everything that made all this possible, from the people who taught the Buddha to those who carry his knowledge forward today, from the people who cooked in the meditation centers I stayed in, to the usurious credit card companies that advanced me the money to keep going on retreats, and for everything else in this wide world that made it happen: Thank you, thank you, thank you!

In addition to my successes, I felt very comfortable writing about the many ways that we can screw up on the spiritual path, either because I had done so myself or because one or more of my respected dharma companions had done so and been kind enough to share this for my and others’ benefit. I can’t tell you how many stupid things I thought, said, and did along the way while in desperate pursuit of something that was to be found right there all along, and I continue to make countless errors when trying to share the dharma and live my life. The only states, stages, or attainments I write about from the perspective of theory rather than experience is Buddhahood and some of the stuff about the bhumis.

There are a few practical uses for such personal information. It is potentially useful to disclose that I have made countless errors on the spiritual path to counter the notion that I am coming from some useless “holier than thou” position; I also want to try to counter in others the sense that they are the only ones who make many errors on the spiritual path. As a sage once said, “The life of a Zen Master is one continuous mistake,” and that goes equally for the rest of us.

I feel that the most important positive result that can come from stating, “I know that of which I write,” is the chance that this might create the sense that extraordinary things may be understood and attained by otherwise ordinary people such as and including me and you. I’ve done this stuff while holding down jobs, having relationships, and pursuing graduate studies. I did it on a few weeks or months of retreat time here and there and with a lot of daily practice. My total retreat time from beginning to arahantship was about eight months with the longest retreat being twenty-seven days. I did give up a lot of other activities for daily sits during that time, and did my very best to maintain dharma practice during daily activities. The point that I am trying to make is that these techniques and practices are powerful and effective for those who take the time to do them. If I can convey the sense that this is true by going on and on about what “I” have accomplished, then doing so serves a useful function.

Another possible positive outcome is the sense that might be created in some people that this is not a dead and theory-based tradition that simply rehashes the semi-mythical glory of long-dead gurus and ancient writings, but a living tradition with relevance for our lives now. The last useful point that might come from someone who has quite obviously achieved nothing even close to self-perfection saying, “I have strong mastery of the core teachings of the Buddha,” is that it might serve to help bring the whole notion of spirituality back down from the upper atmospheric ethers. I am quite willing to look ridiculous and grandiose if there is some chance of it furthering that process, though I realize that could easily backfire. Consider carefully the differences and similarities between confidence, conceit, and empowering others to realize that they too can do it. While false humility is routinely expected in teaching situations, I clearly do not excel at it.

The word to the wise is: don’t believe me or anyone else. Take the time to verify these things for yourself through your own direct experience. I could easily be fooling myself, you, or both of us on numerous points and for all sorts of reasons from innocent to evil. There certainly is a well-developed and ancient tradition of doing so. However, “my” attainments shouldn’t matter so much to you, as the only person’s understanding that will really help is your own.

My personal experiences with the “psychic powers” are not yet as fully developed as the more fundamental areas, but I have enough experience to be able to help all but very advanced practitioners. As to scholarship, I feel that reading widely and really considering the meaning of what we read and how it might be applied is a very good idea, and have myself read around 150 dharma books at this point, both traditional and modern. While I have been authorized and encouraged to teach by a legitimate lineage, this is a mere formality and not a sure sign of real understanding or attainment, much less teaching ability. Luckily, despite some of the social models, realizations are not dependent on conditions such as formal acceptance into or endorsement by a lineage. My chosen career path and choice of right livelihood as a physician eliminates my financial dependence on the dharma and the temptation to water things down for mass consumption or popular appeal, as is commonly done.

I have found that if I ask the following questions to those who might wish to have me help them with their dharma practice—“What do you really want and why?” and, “What would you be willing to do to get that?”—I have usually concluded that they are not really interested in the things I am interested in (such as what’s discussed in this book), and thus I can turn the conversation to other topics and avoid wasting our time. Those few who do share some of my interests are my dear companions in the dharma, and for them I am extremely grateful.

But enough about me, let me tell you about my book! I think that I have made my influences and “humble” opinions on a wide variety of other subjects very clear throughout this work. To be truthful, sometimes I have picked up this book and thought, “Goodness gracious, what a harsh rant. What a heap of reductionist dogma, false certainty, pretentiousness, and my own neurotic stuff! I pity the poor, innocent, pathologically nice, mainstream, ritualistic, disempowered Buddhists unfortunate enough to have picked this up and been kicked in their soft and flabby posteriors by it to little good effect.”

On other days, I have picked it up and thought, “Wow, this really is the book that I wish I had read all those years ago when I decided to really go for it. It would have been so extremely helpful to have had so many details about high-level practice laid out clearly, so many myths dispelled, so much honesty about what the path is and is not. What a joy it is that there are books that convey such an enthusiastic and empowering view on these practices, and that somehow this book flowed forth from these fingers. Maybe there will be a few people out there who just needed a little prodding to realize their full potential as great and powerful meditators. Wouldn’t it be great if I could find a way to get this book into their hands?” I hope that you have had something like both reactions, as I think that both points of view are valid. 

Two interesting and practical questions for you are, “Who are you in direct experiential terms?” and “What is it that knows?” Answer these, and you will come to know all of this directly for yourself. The first and last job of anyone who teaches meditation should be to make her or himself redundant. This book is the best I have been able come up with to help accomplish this, as I have tried my best to pack it with everything useful that I know.

While the first edition stopped talking about myself there, I finally decided, after many people persuaded me, that there was something practical for the reader to learn from a brief retelling of the story of my practice, and so we come to the next part.

40. More on the “Mushroom Factor”   |  Part VI: My Spiritual Quest