MCTB What Went Wrong



How did this happen? How did they substitute knowledge of culture, content and dogma for fundamental insight? A large number of such people are quite intelligent. Many have successful careers or graduate degrees. Most of the big name teachers they sat with probably had some insight and may have been highly enlightened. So what happened? I can only speculate, but perhaps something good will come of such speculation.

It could just be that they are into spiritual scenes, trappings, and the like. That is what they went looking for, and they found it in dizzying abundance. It could be that they had no idea what they were getting into or what they wanted, and so they ended up becoming fascinated with these things simply out of cultural inertia, as many around them will likely have done so.

An old friend and former meditation teacher of mine and I were ranting in our typically passionate style about this very topic one day, and we came up with the “Mushroom Theory.” Mushrooms are fed manure and kept in the dark, and we speculated that part of the problem was that some meditation teachers were using the “mushroom method” of teaching, thus raising a crop of “mushroom meditators,” all soft and pale. This is actually a bit of an extreme way to describe the situation, and is not meant to imply that the teachers were being malicious. However, there is this cultural factor in Western Buddhism that real insight, insight into the fundamental nature of reality or the Three Characteristics, is almost never talked about directly, unlike in Burma or some other settings. My friend and I called this cultural factor the “Mushroom Factor.”

Thus, most teachers won’t say something as blatant as, “Well, when I was meditating, I spent some period of time lost in the stories and tape loops of my mind. This was terrible and I got nowhere but nutty. However, one day a senior teacher straightened me out and somehow convinced me to ground my mind in the specific sensations that make up the objects of meditation and examine impermanence. After some days of consistent and diligent practice using good technique, I began to directly penetrate the three illusions of permanence, satisfactoriness and self, and my world began to be broken down into the mind moments and vibrations that I always thought were just talk. By paying careful attention to bare phenomena arising and passing quick moment after quick moment, I progressively moved through the stages of insight and got my first taste of enlightenment. Thus, if you spin in content and don’t penetrate the three illusions, you are wasting your time and mine. This is just the way it is. If you develop strong concentration on the primary object and investigate the Three Characteristics consistently, this will almost certainly produce insight. This is just the way it is. Any questions?”

Most meditation teachers won’t say this, and there are some reasons why. First, they may not wish to alienate their student base. One reason for this may come from the teacher hoping that if students are led into this gently and with great tolerance for their gross misinterpretations of the practice and teachings then they may be able to persevere. Another possible reason may have to do with the fact that making a living as a dharma teacher can be tough, and more students means more donations. In short, the reality of what practice really is and entails doesn’t tend to sell well despite the potential for extraordinary benefits, as students tend to like their delusions and fascinations more than they realize.

Teachers may also want to hold back the details of what real insight is like so that they can more accurately evaluate students’ practice without having to worry about students rationalizing that they are experiencing whatever it is the teacher is talking about. Disclosure of the details of what insight is actually like can result in students giving spurious reports in interviews either out of their own confusion or a genuine desire to fool the teacher and make themselves look good.

These situations definitely happen, but probably not nearly as often as people completely missing the boat on what is insight practice and what is just wallowing in the muck of their mind and perhaps becoming even more neurotic about it. Thus, my friend and I decided that we would talk about insight, our practice, and this sort of thing when we taught. It turns out that doing this is harder than it would seem. Some hints about why we generally failed to completely live up to our own ideals will be given later in the chapter called “More on the ‘Mushroom Factor’”. However, we have both done our best to fight the trend and talk about the stages of insight and what is possible on the spiritual path.

Another possible reason why people don’t learn to actually practice correctly is that many people are not on retreat or in the meditation class to learn what the teachers have to teach. This may be for a variety of reasons. Perhaps they are just there to find something else, such as time away from some situation, but are not there to find what the teachers are teaching. Some students may have so much invested in their level of education and high position that they just can’t hear what the teachers are talking about, or they hear it and think, “Oh, yes, I myself have read many books and fully understand that trivial little point about impermanence, but when do we get to enlightenment?” Yikes!

Some students may be there to further their psychotherapy, which can be a fine and worthy goal. However, they may assume that the meditation teacher is probably the best psychotherapist they could have. They may think, “After all, they are enlightened, aren’t they? They must be completely sane and balanced. They must know about how to have the perfect relationship, how to find the perfect job, how to invest in the stock market, how to talk to their mother, how to end world hunger, how to rebuild a carburetor, and all other such details of wise living on this Earth. After all, isn’t enlightenment about understanding everything?” Gadzooks!

A quick digression here: enlightenment is about understanding the fundamental nature of all things, and what they happen to be is ultimately completely and utterly irrelevant to enlightenment. Thus, very enlightened beings understand something fundamental about whatever arises or however their lives manifest, i.e. its impermanence, unsatisfactoriness, and emptiness, as well as all of the stuff about the True Self, which is the same thing and will be discussed later. However, they have no more knowledge about the specifics of the world, i.e. content or subject matter, than they have acquired in just the way that anyone else acquires knowledge about the specifics of this world. They can even have all sorts of psychological baggage to deal with, and this is probably the norm.

Enlightened beings will know a lot about the territory of insight, having had to navigate it to get enlightened, but this is a strangely specialized skill and a fairly esoteric body of knowledge that is only really useful in helping others navigate it. True, being enlightened does provide by degrees deeper levels of extreme clarity into the workings of the mind, and this can be helpful. By understanding their own mind, they will have some level of insight into the basics of the minds of others.

However, unless the meditation teacher is a trained psychotherapist, they are not a psychotherapist and probably shouldn’t pretend to be one, though this unfortunately happens far too often in my humble opinion. Just so, a trained psychotherapist is not enlightened unless they get enlightened and shouldn’t pretend to understand insight practice if they don’t. This also happens far too often if you ask me, and the dark irony is that they tend to charge much more than real, qualified dharma teachers. (Note: the Buddha was quite adamant about no one charging for the teachings, which are considered priceless. This system of non-obligatory donation and mutual support has worked quite well for 2,500 years, and it would be a tragic mistake to assume that it cannot function in the West.)

Using retreats or meditation purely as a form of continuing psychotherapy may have other problems associated with it. One may not be in the guidance of a trained therapist and may not be used to the mind noise amplification factor that silence and a lack of distractions tend to create in an absence of grounding the mind in a meditation object. Further, one may not gain the benefits of the only thing that does make a permanent difference in ending fundamental suffering and bringing the quiet joy of understanding: mastering insight practice and getting enlightened.

Another quick digression here: there is this odd idea that somehow a lack of effort is a good thing, or that it is bad to want to get enlightened. This is completely absurd and has paralyzed the practice of far too many. I believe this has come from an extremely confused misunderstanding of Zen or the Bodhisattva Vow. No one ever got enlightened without effort. This never happened and never will happen. Anyone who has really gotten into Zen or Mahayana teachings will know firsthand that they both require a tremendous amount of effort just like every other spiritual path. As one of my teacher’s teachers put it, “In the end, you must give up even the desire for enlightenment, but not too soon!” Sutta 131 in The Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha is called “One Fortunate Attachment,” and in it the Buddha clearly states that making effort to realize the truth of your experience is an extremely good idea. He also goes on and on about the Three Characteristics; funny that.

Another reason that students often fail to make progress is that they confuse content and insight. I suspect that they are confused because they have spent their whole lives thinking about content, learning about content, and dealing with content in a context where content matters, i.e. when one is not doing insight practice. You can’t take a spelling test in first grade and say that all that is important is that words come and go, don’t satisfy and aren’t you. This just won’t fly and wouldn’t be appropriate. Just so, when practicing morality, the first and most fundamental training in spirituality, content is everything, or at least as far as training in morality can take you. You can’t be a mass murderer and rationalize this by thinking, “Well, they were all impermanent, unsatisfactory and empty, so why not kill ’em?” This just won’t fly either, and so content and spirituality get quite connected. This is good to a point: see the chapter called “Right Thought and The Aegean Stables”.

Fixation on content even works well when practicing the second training, training in concentration. When meditation students are learning to concentrate, they are told to concentrate on specific things, like the breath, a Green Tara (a tantric “deity”), or some other such thing. This is content. There is no such thing as the breath or a Green Tara from the point of view of insight practices, as these are just fresh streams of impermanent and absolutely transitory sensations that are crudely labeled “breath” or “Green Tara.” But for the purpose of developing the second training, concentration, this is ignored and these impermanent sensations are crudely labeled “breath” or “Green Tara.” Thus, even for pure concentration practice, what you are concentrating on, i.e. content, matters. Thus, the idea that content is everything is reinforced.

However, when it comes to insight practice, content will get you nowhere fast. In insight practice, everything the student has learned about being lost in the names of things and thoughts about them, i.e. content, will be completely useless and an impediment. Here the inquiry must turn to impermanence, suffering and no-self. These characteristics must be understood clearly and directly in whatever sensations arise, be they beautiful, ugly, helpful, not helpful, skillful, not skillful, holy, profane, dull, or otherwise. Anything other than this is just not insight practice, never was and never will be.

It doesn’t matter what the quality of your mind is, or what the sensations of your body are, if you directly understand the momentary sensations that make these up to be impermanent, unsatisfactory and not self, then you are on the right path, the path of liberating insight. However, as mentioned before, off the cushion the quality of your mind, your reactions, your words and deeds all matter. These are not in conflict. Insight practice is about ultimate reality, the ultimate nature of reality, and thus the specifics don’t matter. Morality and concentration are about relative reality, and thus the specifics are everything. Learning to be a master of both the ultimate and the relative is what this is all about.

Another reason that people don’t make progress is that they may be being taught by people who have no or little insight, and so are taught by those who are themselves fascinated by content and unskilled in going beyond this into insight practices. The scary truth is that there are far more people teaching insight meditation that don’t know what insight is than those that do, though this tends to be less true in big, established retreat centers. Thus, even if the students learn what they are taught, if those who do not know are teaching them, then what they learn is unlikely to be correct or helpful. While the teacher may have learned to parrot the language of ultimate reality, this is absolutely no substitute for direct knowledge of it. In the tradition I come from, they consider the second stage of enlightenment (Second Path, see Part III) to generally be the minimum level of understanding for a teacher. This is a very reasonable standard.

Another possible reason that people get lost and don’t follow the clear and basic instructions of insight practices is that they just can’t believe that doing something as completely simple as looking into the impermanence, unsatisfactoriness, and emptiness of the mundane sensations that make up their ordinary world could produce awakening. It just sounds ridiculous to them, and thus they imagine that there are secret teachings somewhere that are the real way to enlightenment.

Thus, they may not try at all, may practice in their “own way,” or may keep trying to read more into the teachings than is there and come up with their own special nonsense. These unhelpful ways of speculating can become very engaging, but they won’t produce insight. These speculations can also lead to people trying to do very advanced practices that were originally designed for meditators that had already mastered concentration and insight practices to a pronounced degree (such as intensive Tantric retreats), and thus not deriving the full benefit from them or running into other problems.

How do I know that solely content-based practice won’t produce insight? Because there are only Three Doors to ultimate reality, that’s why, and they are utterly unrelated to content, though they can be found in all content if the content aspect is ignored. (Actually, there is sort of a fourth door that is accessible to very realized beings, see the Appendix.)

“Only Three Doors? But there are thousands of practices, many traditions! How can you say there are only Three Doors?”

There are only Three Doors, that’s how. I don’t care what tradition you subscribe to, what practice you do, or who you are, there are only three basic ways to enter into the attainment of ultimate reality, emptiness, Nirvana, or whatever you want to call it. These doors relate directly to profound and direct understandings of the Three Characteristics of impermanence, suffering and no-self, and you have to understand the heck out of these to enter into the ranks of the Noble Ones.

“But there are many valid traditions that do not talk about the Three Characteristics!” It may appear so, but if the tradition is a valid tradition you will find these teachings in there somehow, in some other language or formulation, as these are the only way. You will find them in the works of Rumi, Kabir and Krishnamurti. You will find them in the Bible and Koran. You will find them in the writings of St. John of the Cross and many other Christian mystics. You will find them in all of the branches of Buddhism. You will find them in the Upanishads. You will find them in the writings of Carlos Castaneda. You will find them wherever you find a true spiritual path, and that is just all there is to it. It can help to consider that to completely understand compassion is to understand suffering and vice versa, as these are really two sides of the same coin. Also, to understand True Self practices is the same as understanding no-self practices, as these are also two sides of the same coin.

“But we are tantric practitioners, and the Three Characteristics are merely a low-brow Hinayana teaching.” Tantra primarily cultivates the emptiness door, that of no-self, which is one of the Three Characteristics. It can also be useful for transmuting energy into more skillful forms, a bit of which will be discussed later. However, those who consider themselves to be mahayanists or vajrayanaists should read the fine print. You will find that all Three Characteristics are there, and in fact that you are highly encouraged to master the “Hinayana” practices before moving on to the Mahayana or Vajrayana practices anyway. I strongly suggest checking out Lama Yeshe’s Introduction to Tantra. Further, the Hinayana is often confused with the Theravada, and while there are similarities, the Theravada is much more extensive than the Tibetan division of the Hinayana and contains extensive teachings on compassion and emptiness as well as helping others, but this is a topic for another time.

In short, should you enter ultimate reality or emptiness, it will be through one of the Three Doors. This is just the way it is. It is not negotiable. The nature of the mind and reality are just the nature of the mind and reality. You cannot change this, but you can understand it.

“But we are Zen students. We realize Buddha Nature! We don’t need the Three Characteristics, as we sit zazen!” Read any good book on Zen, such as those by Dogen, Chi Nul, or the excellent Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, by Shunryu Suzuki. The Three Characteristics are in there in abundance, and those who think they can enter ultimate reality in some other way are fooling themselves. Paying direct attention to bare reality with clarity and precision will result in directly observing the Three Characteristics regardless of whether or not you wish to call them that, as they are absolutely the truth of all conditioned things in all times and in all beings.

Thus, the practice, tradition, and all of that, i.e. content, are irrelevant in the end. However, you need them right up until the last moment, so don’t think that I am advocating not following a tradition. I am just advocating actually following the tradition correctly and thus clearly penetrating into the nature of your actual experience just as it is. Nothing helps in the end but understanding the fundamental nature of reality, i.e. the Three Characteristics.

It may often be true that people simply are not in a position where insight practices are appropriate for them. Insight practices are not for everyone. One of the clear marks of whether or not they are appropriate for someone is their ability to even do them in the first place. If despite clear instructions and appropriate support a would-be insight meditator is simply unable to do anything but spin in content and fixation, they should try something else until such time as they can hear, understand and then follow the extremely basic but specific instructions of insight practices.

The last and perhaps most pernicious of the reasons that students don’t really apply themselves is that they don’t actually believe it can be done, that they could actually get enlightened or that anyone else except a rare few get enlightened. Further, if they do know of a potentially enlightened person, such as a lineaged teacher, that person typically becomes thought of as being “other,” an aberration, one of “those over there,” one of the chosen ones, and somehow surreal, like an imagined demi-god.

This has been a terrible problem since the very beginning of all mystical traditions, and is unfortunately unlikely to go away any time soon. Part of this is due to the “Mushroom Factor,” but there are many other complex reasons for it. Suffice to say, it can be done and is done today by students using these simple practices. Find someone enlightened who is willing to talk more about this if you want specific examples, and see the chapter called “More on the ‘Mushroom Factor’”.

MCTB A Clear Goal

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