MCTB More on the Mushroom Factor

One of the reasons that more people who make progress do not talk about progress could be the fact that, as practice deepens, the exaggerated importance to the meditator of thoughts of “my attainment,” “I am enlightened,” etc. gradually falls away and assumes its proper proportion, its proper place in things. However, this does not mean that such language cannot be used. While there may routinely be no good reasons to talk about attainments, or even good reasons not to, there is a long and glorious tradition of compassionate meditation masters and enlightened beings who braved the consequences and told the world that it could be done, that they had done it, and they were going to tell all of those who hadn’t how they could do it too. 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 Buddhism started out very much as a tradition in which those who were highly attained were often loudly proclaimed to be so by themselves and others with the specific details of their skills and understandings made clear. 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 remarkably different from this early practice. There seem to be two basic styles of code used when advertising dharma teachers. The first is simply to use a grand title such as, “Wazoo Tulku, Supreme and Luminous Dharma King.” The second type of code is in the style of a resume for a job, “Jane Rainbow is the author of three books. She has been teaching meditation for seventeen years internationally and is a member of the Buddhist Flower Society.” Notice that neither of these bios tells you anything about:

  • what they may actually know
  • which traditions they draw from
  • their attitude towards scholarship and the standard dogmas
  • which techniques they are masters of or teach
  • what they have attained or claim to have attained
  • what their personality is like
  • what their strengths and weaknesses as a teacher and person are
  • who trained them
  • the lineage or lineages by which they are claimed
  • their level of availability to their students (though “teaches internationally” is often an ominous clue)
  • why it is that they teach
  • what they expect from their students, particularly as regards money, vows and exclusive loyalty
  • how many students they already have
  • whether or not they will talk about real practice directly
  • if you run into trouble with them, is there a governing organization that can address this

What is astounding is how few students will ever ask their teachers about any of these specific practical issues. These are the questions that should initially be considered when seeking a teacher, and yet you almost never see them addressed on a retreat center brochure. Imagine a university where none of the professors would tell you about their research, who funds their work, where they got their degree, what courses they teach, who taught them, what their specialty is, or even why they like being professors. That would be just a bit strange, wouldn’t it? This sort of information is typically available for public consumption on the university web page.

There is something very balanced and reasonable about this. When I see a presentation at the school I currently attend, someone generally tells you exactly who the person is, what they are working on, highlights of what they have published in the past, and what positions and degrees they currently hold, and why they are qualified to speak on the topic of the day. Perhaps I am particularly naive and idealistic, but I imagine a spiritual world where this would be standard practice as well. I dream that this would simultaneously cut down on otherworldly spiritual ideals, provide faith that it can be done, demystify the process of awakening, and bring the whole thing back down to earth. There is obviously 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 complex than that?

In my more cynical moments, I have sometimes thought that Western teacher bios could just as easily read, “Jane is a Sagittarius from California. Her favorite color is turquoise and she is a mediocre chef,” or “Wazoo 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.

Obviously, the assumption is that if they have been practicing for so many years, have a fancy name, or if someone let them publish a book or teach internationally, then 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 evaluators of teachers somewhere that have checked the person out. Either of these may or may not be true, and some traditions do a much better job of being clear and honest about these things than others do.

Some other reasons that more people don’t talk about mastery when it actually happens or clearly advertise themselves are that they don’t want to make others jealous or intimidated. 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 sometimes seem so slippery and sometimes even uncertain. The late, great Achaan Chah once stated that even arahats could sometimes be unsure about whether or not they are arahats. (Others, including one of my favorite teachers, have said that all arahats are always sure they are arahats. This second view is a bit extreme, and is a limited possible thought model. You know what I think of those!)

Thus, a major 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 so present in the modern mystical world. The unfortunate truth is that talking about attainments tends to cause many more unhelpful reactions than helpful ones. It tends to isolate the person who has attained these things, cause people to think of them as way too wonderful or completely nuts (or both) and generally project all sorts of naive and unhelpful things onto them, such as a limited emotional range model or even 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 other spiritual teachers with some regularity. Freud would have had a field day with this.

As regards the bizarre and fantastic projections that are commonly associated with teachers, gurus, and all other potentially enlightened beings, they 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 “Adults in Fantasyland,” but hopefully the preceding sentence will do the trick.

This lack of information on the ordinariness of realized individuals creates a viscous cycle in which those who know don’t say, “I am enlightened and ordinary,” because if they do then they will be viewed in very strange ways despite what they say; and, because they don’t tell, no one but them knows. 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 then they will often invent 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 despite the fact that such things 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 loudly against the large amount of nonsensical, magical thinking that is 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 one’s wisdom and understanding can often not seem to be worth it, despite how much one may want to help others. This can be particularly true if one does not want to be a guru or member of the Dharma Jet Set but just wants to help people learn this stuff without becoming some kind of odd object of obsessive adoration or criticism.

It seems that you can only help those with very clear, strong, and noble motivations who are willing to listen and also 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 do it anyway.

It is possible, though not necessarily advisable, to drop all kinds of really glaring and even tacky hints that one has attained to 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 around someone who has attained to some deep level of mastery of this stuff by standard methods, will actually ask reasonable questions about how they could do the same. 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 as regards 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 of this stuff, the majority of those who do master concentration and/or insight practices tend to not talk about it, or only to a very few (see Saints and Psychopaths, by Bill Hamilton, for an interesting 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 up-and-coming potential teachers. One of my friends has commented that it can be much easier to get enlightened than to get “lineaged,” i.e. 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 the monitoring process that keeps teachers on the up and up, and that sort of thing. Two of my very best, most dedicated and accessible teachers were not officially sanctioned, despite their high attainments, great teaching ability and extensive knowledge of spiritual practice. Also, there often seems to be little clear articulation of roles that occupy the middle ground, little well developed sense of apprenticeship, little sense of intermediate territory between fully lineaged teacher and student. The degree of these issues varies by tradition.

It is true that there are some good reasons why the senior teaching establishments are slow or reluctant to allow new teachers into the carefully guarded inner circles. There are certain individuals who possess the mastery needed to be a teacher but are not good choices for other reasons, with mental pathology and odd personality traits being chief among them. There are those whose political skills have been such that they have managed to get sanctioned despite the fact that they were not qualified to teach at the level they claimed they could, with predictable associated problems following suit.

However, current senior teachers, many of which are the first generation of Westerners to be so, do not yet seem to be quite as comfortable giving sanction to new teachers as their Asian teachers tended to be giving sanction to 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 old texts state that one should have at least crossed the A&P Event to teach, though in the 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, as I suspect that if people knew what reasonable standards are for teachers and that there are actually those who meet these, many would then realize that they simply shouldn’t be teaching and bow out gracefully.

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 them a question about something that the person who was a “student” just moments before is skilled in. I have come to the conclusion that some of the best teaching happens in conversations between friends and not in the context of very short, formal interviews with lineaged teachers who have just flown in for the week.

The climate of secrecy surrounding conversations about mastery of these things, restrictive lineage issues and the rarity of engaging in long, deep conversations with harried and over-committed Jet Set Dharma Teachers combine to create what I term the “Dharma Underground.” This refers to loose associations of those who are “in the know” but not officially sanctioned 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 lineages or rigid concepts of “teacher” and “student.”

Often such 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 much more the model that occurred 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 needless overkill.

MCTB So Who the Heck is Daniel M. Ingram