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.’” Just 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 or not this is helpful or even accurate. He is an arahat and has a solid mastery of the basic concentration states from the first jhana to Nirodha Samapatti, including the Pure Land Jhanas. He also has a solid knowledge of Buddhist theory and the texts, and because of these three areas of expertise considers himself a qualified teacher. He was also authorized and encouraged to teach by a lineaged abbot of the Mahasi Sayadaw tradition. 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 of the rare teachers 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 mystical traditions and thus considers himself a pan-mystical evangelist. He is also a chronic map-monger and technique freak because he has had them work very well for him. He does not claim to have any special knowledge of how to live skillfully in the conventional world, but has found that a positive attitude, non-pretentious kindness, 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, social worker, or someone to help you prop up your 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.”
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. A few more things: I crossed the Arising and Passing Away when I was about fifteen and did it again about four more times by my recollection over the next ten years without formal practice, technique or guidance. I attained to stream entry at the end of the first week of my fourth retreat on January 13th, 1996 in Bodh Gaya, India, in the Thai Monastery. I also crossed the Arising and Passing Away of second path on that retreat. I attained second path in daily life while working at the National AIDS Hotline with the CDC in July, 1996. I was in the break room just hanging out. I attained to Third Path towards the end of 1996, also in daily life, after a retreat a few weeks before where I crossed the Arising and Passing Away of that cycle. I attained to Nirodha Samapatti (see the appendix) one month later, but it would take me a more few years to really nail down hard samatha jhanas and the formless realms so that I could access them off retreat.
I was an anagami for almost seven years, going through cycle after cycle of progressive appreciation of the emptiness of ordinary phenomena, with my total count of what felt like full new paths being about 27. I wrote most of this book during that time. I also earned a two-year Masters of Science in Public Health in Infectious Disease Epidemiology at UNC Chapel Hill and then went on to complete medical school there.
Then, on April 17th, 2003, on a 21-day retreat at the Malaysian Buddhist Meditation Center between medical school and my residency, I attained to arahatship. It happened while I was doing walking meditation on that glorious Spring morning. I was sick of the cycles of insight and profoundly inspired by the steady and gentle invitation of the teacher, Sayadaw U Pandita, Junior, to simply see through the whole thing as he had done. His calm smile seemed say, “You can do it. Come on! Any day now.” Always sit with arahats if you possibly can. That’s my advice, anyway.
I decided that I would allow no sensation anywhere in the entire wide sense field to go by without it being clearly known as it was during every single second of the day. It was a high standard, but strangely enough can actually be very closely approximated. It was sufficient to do the trick after about a week of doing that some 20+ hours per day. I remember attaining to a Fruition, and a few seconds later I noticed something about the entrance to it and the re-forming of the sense of a perceiver on the back side of it, and then suddenly the knot of perception flipped open, everything was the same and yet the perspective on it was completely different, and my vipassana problem, once I had stabilized in that understanding, was solved.
I had barely taught in the previous six years as my own practice has consumed most of the scant free time I had, but a few days after seeing it I told my teacher I was thinking of teaching again. He shot me an uncharacteristically sharp glance and said in a forceful and commanding voice, “Good!”
I have learned all sorts of useful and interesting things since then, but seeing through the center point was the essential thing. Many, many thanks to everyone and everything that made all of 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 loaned 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 one can screw up on the spiritual path, either because I had done so myself, because one or more of my respected dharma companions had done so or, most often, for both reasons. 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 right there all along, and I continue to make countless errors when trying to spread the dharma and live my life. The only state, stage or attainment I write about from theory rather than experience is Buddhahood.
There are a few practical uses for such information. It is potentially useful to disclose that I have made countless errors on the spiritual path so that this may counter the notion that I am coming from some useless “holier than thou” position and also to try to counter in others the sense that they are the only ones who make numerous errors on the spiritual path. I hope it was not necessary. As someone wise 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 myself and yourself. 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 with a lot of daily practice. My total retreat time from beginning to arahatship was about eight months with the longest sit being 27 days. 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 follow 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 rehashed the semi-mythical glory of long-dead gurus and ancient writings, but a living tradition with validity in our modern times. 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 to earth. I am quite willing to look ridiculous and grandiose if there is some chance of it furthering that process, though I realize that it could easily backfire. Consider carefully the differences and similarities between confidence, arrogance, and empowering others to realize that they can do it also.
The word to the wise is: don’t believe me or anyone else! Take the time to verify these things for yourself from 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 you 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 the most advanced practitioner of them. As to scholarship, I feel that reading widely and really considering the meaning of what one reads and how it might actually be applied is a very good idea, and have myself read around 150 dharma books, both traditional and modern. While I have been authorized and encouraged to teach by a formal lineage, this is a mere formality and not a sure sign in anyone of real understanding or attainment, much less teaching ability. Luckily, realizations are not dependent on conditions such as formal acceptance into a lineage. I have chosen a lucrative career path that has little to do with meditation, and this eliminates my financial dependence on the dharma and the temptation to water things down for mass consumption or popular appeal, as is so commonly done.
I have found that if I repeatedly ask those who start talking with me about dharma practice the questions, “What do you really want and why?” and, “What would you be willing to do to get that?” I usually come to the conclusion that they are not really interested in the things I am interested in (i.e. the things mentioned 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 what I call The Dharma Underground, 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, and pathologically nice, mainstream, ritualistic, disempowered Buddhists unfortunate enough to have picked this thing up and simply 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 wished 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 this clearly, so many myths dispelled, so much honesty about what the path is and isn’t. What a joy it is that there are books that convey such an enthusiastic and empowering view on these practices. 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 can find a way to get this book into their hands.” I hope that you had something like both reactions, as I think that both points of view have some validity.
Two interesting and practical questions for you are, “Who are you in direct experiential terms?” and “Who 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 herself 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.