MCTB Content and Ultimate Reality

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 half of the picture, and the half 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, i.e. to realize ultimate reality. Perhaps two illustrations will help.

The first odd phenomenon I have noticed is that when students of meditation gather together to discuss Buddhism, they almost never talk about actual meditation practices in depth and 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 as long as it doesn’t have to do with trying to master meditation techniques. While there are sporadic moments of “dharma combat” or heated discussion for the purpose of learning and sharing the dharma, even these tend to be mostly on the philosophy of all of this.

The second odd phenomenon I have noticed has occurred in situations when one 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 been giving 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 book means, “Fast!” 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 one should not be lost in the stories and tape loops of the mind. 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, the students will perhaps get three meetings with the teacher during a ten-day retreat and perhaps get fifteen to twenty precious minutes of time to talk to a real meditation master, assuming they are lucky enough to actually 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 whole-hearted 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 actually 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 crap. Here was a roomful of otherwise accomplished adults who somehow had been 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 actually 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 modern Western meditation teachers is to talk about practice in a way that implies the attempt to actually master anything.

Most of the time students tend to whine about their relationships, their childhood, their neurotic thoughts, their screwed-up lives, in short, content. I must say that I have great sympathy for these people. I really do. God knows we all have this sort of stuff to whine about; and, in the right context, whining about our stuff might be a very good idea. But two things are fairly clear: 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 as regards insight practice.

Now, it is absolutely true that we all have our issues, pains, traumas, scars and quirks. We have to learn to deal with these somehow if we want to be happy and live the good life we all want to live. We have to find ways to deal with the content, to heal, to grow, to mature, and all of that, but we must also learn when to shift to seeing things on a completely different level. There is a time and a place for everything.

Imagine if you were an algebra teacher and you told your students to solve the homework in the back of chapter one. Instead, your students turn in long, rambling essays about the traumas of their childhood. How would you feel? Unfortunately, you would feel like many meditation teachers. Now, it is true that many dharma teachers have a great time helping people deal with their stuff, and some of these are even quite good at it. There are others that 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 people have actually heard just a bit of the teachings on impermanence, suffering and emptiness, but then proceed to talk about this in highly content-centered terms. They may say things like, “Oh, yes, I am impermanent and will die one day. This is awful and this thought causes me suffering. Truly, I feel empty inside.”

This is macroscopic, about grand yet crude concepts and ideas, and so is still squarely in the territory of philosophy and existentialism. This meditator not only needs to learn what insight practice actually is, but might also benefit from a bit more sunshine and exercise or perhaps even some of those new anti-depressants. A very small amount of such reflection can be of some limited benefit if the energy of the 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 meditators would actually just go microscopic and try to see the Three Characteristics of each and every individual little sensation that makes up their experience, then they might begin to actually understand reality at the level that makes the difference. Effectively encouraging students to shift their attention from fixation on content and the macroscopic to also including the microscopic and universal is probably the hardest job of the meditation teacher. I sometimes wonder how many of them have largely given up trying to do this.

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

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

They may become neurotic about “right speech” and self-righteous about “Noble Silence.” They may begin to adopt the gently condescending and overly deliberate speech patterns and mannerisms that quietly scream, “I am sooooo spiritual and aware!” They may become fixated on complex, arbitrary, restrictive and even disempowering models of what is “proper Buddhist behavior,” trying to be a “good Buddhist,” whatever that is. In short, they become very religious. At worst, they become gaudy and distorted caricatures of the spiritual life. Such people are generally very tiring to be around.

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

At its worst, they can go on like this for enough time so that they develop quite a retreat resume but little or no insight, and then get caught by this. They have been to India, sat with this teacher and that teacher, had Tantric initiations, or been sitting for twenty years. They begin to become fascinated by all of this and somehow they begin to feel “wise” despite the fact that they may have no insight whatsoever into the universal truth of things because they never actually learned insight practice. They use the word “emptiness” in casual conversation when they don’t have Clue One what it means. But they feel they do, as they have spent so much time hearing it, “meditating” on it, and being spiritual. They talk about “letting go” and “mindfulness” as if they are the experts.

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

MCTB What Went Wrong?