Avoiding the Core Teachings of the Buddha
Scott Alexander wrote a review of a book called “Mastering the Core Teachings of the Buddha.” by Daniel Ingram. I got a copy from Amazon using the link at the end of Scott’s post, which I guess put a few pennies in his pocket, well deserved. And I started to read it. And read it. And read it. Holy crap, it’s 400 pages long. And scary as hell.
Well, not scary. Just intimidating.
I might have been set up for intimidation listening to a Podcast discussion between Sam Harris and Thomas Metzinger. Metzinger is “professor and director of the theoretical philosophy group and the research group on neuroethics/neurophilosophy at the department of philosophy, Johannes Gutenberg University of Mainz, Germany.” He’s been studying consciousness, and to that end, has been meditating for around forty years. And somewhere in the podcast, he says (criticizing some of his colleagues) something like this: that people serious about understanding consciousness do things like taking drugs, traveling to India to find a guru, and becoming committed meditators. People who don’t do that aren’t serious. Metzinger and Harris have both done that. So have others in the field who I admire. I have not.
I claim an interest in understanding consciousness, but according to Metzinger’s criteria, I’m not that committed.
This is true, in part. Meditation is beneficial--I believe that. It’s also hard. And I’m not great at doing stuff that I find hard unless I’m sufficiently threatened or rewarded. “Good for me” is not good enough. So if someone pointed a gun at my head and said: “Meditate!” I’d do it. And if someone paid me enough, I’d do it. In both cases, I’d work hard at it. And I’d probably get to be good at it. But not just because it’s good for me.
But to meditate just for the sake of--well, who? For the sake of Future Me? Doing stuff for Future Me was not in my wheelhouse. My attitude was: “Fuck Future Me. What’s he done for me?” And my attitude about Past Me and Present Me was not much better. So then I changed my attitude. And I changed some of my behavior.
But I haven’t changed my behavior about meditation yet. I have changed my attitude. Ingram’s book has done that--at least a little. This blog post is my way of processing what I’ve read, convincing myself that I want to commit to regular practice and then start to practice.
Ingram is critical of most Western Buddhist practices. He says they combine Buddhism with new-age mysticism, shamanism, psychotherapy, and other non-nutritious additives. And because they fail to emphasize what Ingram identifies as the core teachings. The first of the core teachings is the Three Characteristics of existence. He says:
The Three Characteristics are so central to the teachings of the Buddha that it is almost inconceivable how little attention the vast majority of so-called insight meditators pay to them. They are impermanence, unsatisfactoriness, and no-self.
That’s all familiar, sort of. But Ingram’s take is not familiar. As the book is subtitled, he takes a “hardcore” approach. Sure, life is impermanent. If you are sad, this too shall pass. But, if you are happy, wait a bit. The happiness will go. Buildings decay. Bodies get old and die.
But Ingram says: “No!” It’s not just these prominent and visible things that are impermanent. Everything is impermanent. Everything. Everything that exists in this very moment will cease to exist and then rise again. It may look the same, but it’s not. This sentence has winked in and out of existence every time I have typed a letter. And even more frequently.
Ingram’s recommended practice is not simply to “follow the breath” or “quiet the mind” or “notice the contents of consciousness” but to look even more closely and see that (or see if) every perception and every part of every perception is arising and passing away. And unsatisfactory. And has no essence.¿
Everything. All the time.
Experience is the gold standard for testing such theories. I read something. I try something. And then I see what happens. And here’s where I find Ingram’s book particularly interesting.
Before explaining my experience with Ingram’s book, let me recap my understanding after reading Sam Harris’ book “Waking up.” I wrote about it here, among other places. My experience was profound, and I tried to parlay it into a regular practice.
Harris seems to identify with the Dzogchen Tibetan Buddhist lineage. So I did some research. I learned that what I’d gotten from Harris was a classic Dzogchen technique called “pointing out instruction.” Any word description of a transcendent state must be inadequate, so a teacher does more than giving the student a practice that will lead there. Instead, the teacher points in a direction so that the student is looking in the right direction and will recognize the state when it arrives.
Harris’ pointing out instructions (as I understood them) were:
1. Ordinary meditation is like being told to look out a window for “something that you’ll realize is different when you see it.” Harris says: if you’re told to look out a window and not told that you are looking to see your reflection, you might spend years looking and never see it. But if you know what you’re looking for, you’ll see it faster.
2. Harris points out that the experience you are looking for is like the feeling you might have had when you’re watching an excellent movie, absorbed in the lives of the characters on the screen, and suddenly realizing that you’re sitting in a dark room watching light projected on a wall. Only you’re not waking up to know you are watching a movie. Instead, you’re waking up to watching your life.
I’ve looked out a window. I’ve seen my reflection. I’ve been in a movie theatre and suddenly realized I was watching a movie. So thanks to Harris’ pointing out instructions, I had a good idea of where to look and what I might expect.
Further, he says:
3. If you want to determine whether something is an illusion or real, look at it closely. For example, if it breaks up and becomes something else--or disappears--then it’s likely an illusion. If not, it’s likely real. So when you have the waking up experience in (2), examine “that which just woke up” to see whether it is an illusion.
Later, when I next experienced a moment of realizing that I was “watching the movie of my life,” I realized that this was the gateway experience I was seeking: “waking up.”
I noted it, and the feeling intensified.
And then I examined the self that had woken up. And bang! The world changed for me. The feeling that my “self” was an illusion was profound and consistent with Buddhist teachings on the nature of consciousness and reality as I had understood them intellectually.
Since then, I’ve had the experience many times—often when I recount the experience—and I always have similar transcendent feelings.
Like right now.
Ingram sends me back to recreate those experiences and examine them more closely. The moment of waking up and the moment of seeing self as an illusion are similar. They both have a timeless quality. A pleasurable, almost blissful quality. And yet...
I see that what seems timeless is impermanent--the antithesis of timelessness. What appears so satisfying is ultimately unsatisfying, not just because what was so valuable is lost quickly. There’s something unsatisfying in the very nature of the state. The world seems luminous. Magical.
I can feel space and objects in the space.
I’m not looking at them.
Nor am I identified with them.
Everything is itself, what it is and where it is, not in relation to me or anything else.
All that is is. Wow! Great huh! Well, it seemed that way.
But it’s as profoundly unsatisfying as it is profoundly beautiful. For one thing, it’s impermanent. No sooner do I have that experience than I collapse back into a sense of “self, thinking about the meaning of the experience.”
And during the moment of the experience, what can I do besides gawk?
Not much, it seems. So: remaining in that state is dissatisfying. And leaving it is dissatisfying.
But, Ingram tells me, that’s not unusual. You go from no-enlightenment to full enlightenment--Buddhahood, if you will--by following a path mapped out and refined by seekers in many Buddhist traditions over 2,500 years. Follow the path, and you’ll experience a series of mental/emotional/spiritual/perceptual/psychological changes, some of which are blissful and some of which are depressing. But, according to mapmakers, once you start on the road, you continue--quickly or slowly. “Better not to start. Having started, better to finish.” Ingram quotes one tradition.
Depressing is not the worst of it. There are stages that Ingram calls (borrowing from a Christian mystic tradition) “the dark night of the soul.” And, he counsels, those stages can last a long time, especially if you become disoriented and go around in circles or head off in the wrong direction.
I’d never heard anything like that before. Meditation is hard, but the worst of it is mind-numbing boredom, isn’t it? No, Ingram says. If you get in trouble, boredom is the least of your problems.
Last weekend, long after starting to write this post, I experienced what may have been a version of the dark night. I found myself depressed. Paralyzed. I don’t know what I would have done had I not read Ingram and believed this was a stage and impermanent. But it was a sucky, sucky, sucky day.
And now it’s another day. Last night I started to renew my practice. This morning I did a meditation session.
Now I’ve finished writing this post. And shortly, I will post it. (And eventually, years later, I will re-read it and edit it.)
And what do I make of this feeling?
Only that it’s impermanent. That it’s unsatisfying. And it’s empty of essence. It’s nothing.
Paradoxically, that seems like progress.
But that will pass.
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