Daniel Ingram, a Theravada meditation teacher and one of our most popular guests, joins us again to discuss his recently published book, Mastering the Core Teachings of the Buddha. In discussing the book we dive into some of the more foundation distinctions he makes, including that of the three trainings. Daniel claims that the trainings in morality (or ethics), concentration (or meditation), and insight (or wisdom) are distinct trainings, each having their own unique gold standard. He explores each of these gold standards and pays particular attention to the gold standard of insight, which has to do with seeing the three characteristics of experience—impermanence, suffering, and not-self.
Listen in for some geeky, technical, and hard-hitting dharma from one of today’s little known, yet extremely profound, American dharma teachers.
This is part 1 of a two-part series. Listen to part 2, The Dharma Overground.
Vince: Buddhist geeks, I have a special guest here with me today. His name is Daniel M. Ingram and he has been on the show, you’ve been on the show more than anyone, I think Daniel.
Daniel: I don’t know. A few times, yes.
Vince: Yes, we’ve talked at least three times. We talked about enlightenment and teachers and we talked about Buddhist magic and then we had you and Hokai on to talk about all these other issues.
Today I wanted to talk to you a little bit about your book, Mastering the Core Teachings of the Buddha: An Unusually Hardcore Dharma Book. And before we go into that, I just wanted to say that your book is one of the first really helpful dharma books that I found. I was really fortunate to stumble across it almost months after I started practicing, just a few months, and I have to say it’s been, at least for the first four or five years of my practice, it was my bible if you will. And this was my guide basically to figuring out how to practice well, how to actually realize what the Buddha was talking about and I have to say, thank you so much for writing it, as I’ve said before, and I just think it’s one of the best books out there so I just, a little warning. I like your book buddy!
Daniel: Well thank you so much. Those are extremely nice complements. I hardly know what to say except that it’s nice to hear people say things like that. The weirdest thing for me when people say things like that is that there are so many other great extremely skilled very knowledgeable teachers out there, a number of whom I trained with, and I just keep wondering why they never wrote anything quite like that when that’s the kind of stuff they would teach or talk about and that’s the kind of stuff they taught me. And so it’s not like I didn’t get this from all kinds of other people. Obviously, the vast majority of the material except for some of the synthesis and some fine points of the maps came from other teachers. And so I’ve always wondered why in the world there were not more books out there like that that were really that sort of down to earth and hard hitting because that’s the people who trained me were often very down to earth and hard hitting and somehow they just never quite wrote that way.
Vince: Yeah, yeah. It’s an extremely unique voice and I wanted to read just this one section from the forward. Actually, you call it the “Forward and Warning” so that should give you an idea of the kind of book we’re talking about here.
Daniel: It’s mostly warnings.
Vince: Yes, quite a bit of warnings and asterisks. But you write, “The world is brimming with very nice and friendly dharma books. There are hundreds available on the shelves of any mega bookstore. However, I believe that there is room for a book that sometimes conveys its message in a slightly different voice. It’s the unrestrained voice of one from a generation whose radicals wore spikes and combat boots rather than beads and sandals, listened to the Sex Pistols rather than the Moody Blues, wouldn’t know a beat poet or early sixties dharma bum from a hole in the ground and thought that hippies were pretty friggin’ naive. Not that we don’t owe them a lot. It’s also the unrestrained voice of one whose practice has been dedicated to complete and unexcelled mastery of the traditional and hard core stages of the path rather than some sort of vapid new age fluff or pop psychological head trip. If that ain’t you, consider reading something else.”
Daniel: Yes, I think that’s all real and accurate and true because that’s what the book is. It really is designed for people who care about the real old states and stages and really doing what the old Dead dudes did and more. So yes, it was worth warning people about that in the beginning because most of them will not be expecting anything like that. Most of them have not been exposed to much like that because the typical dharma books are very nice and it’s not like they don’t contain a ton of truth and things that are useful and things that are good, but somehow they’re all just too nice for my tastes and none of it resonated with me in the way that I wanted it to and I thought something just needs to cut through the bullshit, so I did my best to just let it out. And it was actually, I must admit, as I say somewhere in the book it was tremendous fun to write that way and to just write what I felt and thought regardless of anyone, whether or not anyone would like it or anyone would care or anyone would be happy with it or whether or not I pissed anybody off. It was just tremendous fun to let it out, so it was actually very therapeutic for me in terms of sort of rant to actually write the thing. Obviously it somehow turned out to be much more than that, but it somehow helped my process anyway.
Vince: So tell me a little bit about how you laid this thing out, because from what I remember you lay it out in the traditional kind of three trainings, similar to the way that some of the commentary has been laid out, like the Visuddhimagga and the Vimuttimagga. So tell me why you chose that kind of layout.
Daniel: Well a), obviously those are the things I came from. Those are the books that I read and read and re-read and looked at and poured over and those were the conceptual frameworks that I came up in so that’s obviously just some conditioning and me following something that was tradition. But obviously those frameworks and layouts have some value and merit or they wouldn’t keep showing up again and again. And I think that distinguishing between the trainings and morality, which I would consider everything from philosophy to one’s emotional life to psychology to essentially everything that’s not formal meditation, one’s right livelihood and relationship stuff and all those things, and keeping those squarely in the territory of morality or training is really important because the vast majority of people who are actually on retreat psychologizing or philosophizing or dealing with their back pain or their getting older or their stuff with their parents or whatever it is, their childhood traumas, when you go on retreats usually it’s about 70% psychotherapists and psychiatrists and social workers and people in those kinds of fields all continuing to do what they were doing in the rest of their life, which was some sort of psychotherapeutic process or dealing with whatever has been going on, and really distinguishing between that, which is very important. I’m not saying those things aren’t really important. And the things that I found as interesting or more interesting which were the stages of concentration and then the stages of insight. And so I thought it was really important to distinguish between those and provide a good foundation for those, for each of them, but to really say that the trainings and concentration really do have a different gold standard for success than the trainings in morality and psychology and philosophy and livelihood in relationships. And the trainings for insight, getting the stages of insight and getting stream entry and then the higher paths or whatever you want to call them, and then finishing the thing up and seeing through the center point and really attaining the goal, really does have a different set of practices and criteria and assumptions and gold standards for success and for how one trains in it than the trainings and dealings with one issues in psychology. And so it really is important to lay those things out and differentiate between them as clearly as possible because most of the problems people run into are because they just are so overwhelmed with their stuff and they sort of filter all the trainings of insight and concentration through their stuff and their Western psychologized model. And so to really lay out no, those things are different and they’re all good and they’re all valuable and all acquire some attention, but when doing one realize that it may not do anything for the others and when doing one just stick with that area’s criteria and techniques and not go mixing them up because most people just end up with some sort of mish-mash that doesn’t lead to much if they do that.
Vince: You’re using the words gold standards. What do you see as the gold standards for each of these three areas of training or practice?
Daniel: Right. So the gold standards for training in morality are so vast and complicated as to be nearly innumerable, but it would be attempting to live a good, kind, sane, I hate to use the word balanced, but somehow that word comes to mind even though it has real problems with it, life where you’re trying to be a good person and take care of yourself and try to take care of your world and be kind to people and say things that are nice and useful and true and make some contribution to the world and the planet and politics if you want to or your community or whatever it is, and to stay physically healthy if you can and those are all the basic standards for training in morality. And there are many, many more because it’s such a vast area of work. Essentially everything that’s not meditation falls into that category so it’s hard to give good gold standards for it that don’t sound trite. But then distinguishing from that, gold standards for concentration are radically different and simply have to do with whether or not you can take your mind and focus it on an object or a aspect of reality or just the whole of reality, and whether or not you can get into the traditional jhanic attainments or stable concentrations states or shamatha jhanas, or whatever you want to call them, and where we can get into stable, focused, progressively wider, progressively more expansive, progressively less rapturous and blissful and progressively more equanimous, formless, transcendent, temporary states all of which end, all of which tend to impart no lasting wisdom, though sometimes wisdom can arise out of them sort of as a byproduct, but that’s not the focus. And whether or not one can do that reproducibly and more and more deeply and more and more quickly, which is obviously a very radical, different set of criteria and gold standards from the training in morality. And then the training in insight has a completely different set of gold standards from a vipassana insight point of view in which one would be able to perceive the three characteristics of suffering, impermanence, no self or emptiness of the sensations that arise in the field of experience either in a limited area or in a wider area and progressively in the whole of space in one’s or all through ones being as one gets to the higher stages and one can move through the stages of insight being the sixteen classic stages of mind and body, cause & effect, three characteristics, arising and passing away, dissolution, fear, misery, disgust, desire for deliverance, re-observation, equanimity and then the stages where one gets path & stream entry or the higher paths and then moving through the vipassana jhanas which are vibratory, unstable and do right eventually lasting wisdom and changes on the mind, to get the various stages of awakening and enlightenment or whatever you want to call it and those obviously are a radically different set of criteria from either of the previous two and so keeping those straight so that you could figure out oh if I want to do this, this is what I do if I want to do that, that’s what I do, that’s very empowering rather than the sort of confused mish mash of just “Oh, let it go and just be with things and you know sort of settle into your truth and this is all ok and…” which is sort of ok, I don’t mean to be needlessly sarcastic or harsh but that’s a lot of the dharma you see out there and I am not saying that people don’t need to be told they are okay, they don’t need to be told to settle in what’s going on because its all valuable but seems really sort of kindergarde-y in comparison to what the more hard core stuff looks like, sort of rump a room from my point of view as opposed to you know really see the characteristics of every sensation that arises in your mind in every second until you can do that for the entire fulfill until you can see the space and your entire body arising and vanishing and thus you know synchronize that with the sense of strobbing attention and get stream entry which is obviously, looks very different both in practice and effect and in instruction.
Anyway, that’s why I think that it is important to lay out different gold standards and criteria so people if those who want to step up to the plate and really know how to get something out of the dharma and really be challenged to push themselves to really perceive things that are true and make a difference in terms of the way their mind processes reality and sees things, so that’s the kind of standards that I find interesting and so that’s what I wrote about.
Vince: And one of the things I wanted to talk to you about has to do with the goal standards related to insight because this is one of the areas you spent a lot of time talking about, you even have sections on what are called the three characteristics, that you mentioned, and then you go ahead later in the book and you have other sections where you kind of revisiting them again, that’s how important they are. So I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about the three characteristics I am sure lot of practitioners have heard about them. But the way you talk about them I find is unique and I’d be interested in hearing you say a little bit more about the importance as it relates to the goad standards of insight practice.
Daniel: Yeah, so the three characteristics are probably my favorite topic in the whole world because well all the other things in the book are important in morality training and the concentration training the thing that I find by far the most exciting is people getting stream entry, which is the first stage of awakening or first bodhisattva bhumi, or pick your favorite Zen name for it—satori or kensho. I don’t know, they’re vague on the subject of whether or not they’re stream entry are arhatship or whatever but anyway pick your favorite goal. One way or the other those are very, very important and with people are meditating why not go for those they are doable you can do them, they do amazing things to the mind and so make a real difference so I think that getting people to those is important and I don’t know of anything more profound than the three characteristics for doing that. And so the three characteristics are in impermanence, meaning that the sensations are a reality that make up our just basic experience, arise and vanish completely in a way that is both analog, meaning that they flux during their arising and vanishing, and digital meaning that they arise completely and vanish completely, and there are gaps and one can begin to notice “ah”, this is my sensate world arising and vanishing, this is the sensations of the breath arising and vanishing and this happens quickly but not so quickly that you can’t comprehend it because by definition it is experience we are talking about, and obviously experience can’t be faster than experience or slower than experience, it’s just experience. This is the phenomenal world of experience that we’re using as our gold standard for insight practices. Whatever sensations arise is the reality of that time. And so it obviously can’t be any faster or more transient than it is, one just has to begin to notice that. And so one begins to notice, “ah those are the sensations of the breath, those are the sensations of thinking. Oh those are all the little syllables and flickers and echoes and mental impressions of things, of my thoughts and of all the little flickering 3D, tv snow-like sensations that make up my body.” And people go into meditation thinking, “oh I’m going to get really stable concentration and everything will be more clear and more stable.” When instead they start looking around and they find that it’s this sort of chaotic field of irritating sensations that are all arising and vanishing and are very hard to stay with and very slippery, and they’re constantly checking out. “And where’s the breath, and oh where’s my thoughts, and oh I’m lost in it, and oh it doesn’t seem to be very stable. This is annoying to me, I wish it were more stable.” And they try to make it more stable and find a reality that’s more stable, instead of finding reality that is more unstable, which is the point of insight practices. To find a sensate field that in fact utterly transient. That space is transient. That our bodies this mass of tiny little flickering impressions, all of which are followed by little mental echoes. It’s important to say, “hey, no that’s what you’re looking for. That is your truth and that’s obviously what you find and you just need to keep looking at that more and more finely and then inclusively.”
So, initially one begins to notice the impermanence as one move into the stages of insight. This is the little vibrations of the breath, this is the little flickering at the fingertips or the nose and mouth of the breath, or whatever. And these are all the little parts that make it up. And they start to notice, “oh there are lots of little sensations, and there are lots of little vibrations. And these vibrations are fast, and I can actually stay with them if I really learn to do this.” And then eventually to expand that out to the higher stages of insight. You start getting into 2nd vipassana jhana where the vibrations are showing themselves. That’s sort of Arising and Passing away territory, as I call it. Kundalini territory. And then noticing how in the 3rd vipassana jhana it gets wider and it’s more irritating, it’s all around the periphery. These are the stages people have a very hard time with, cause they think they’re going to find something stable in the focus of their attention, and the focus of their attention will get more and more clear. And in the 3rd vipassana jhana it is not. So, in the dark night territory after the arising and passing away one notices, “ah, these vibrations are very irritating and they’re happening on their own, which is one of the characteristics, and they’re all over there. And none of them seem to be me. And yet somehow I seem to think I’m still here. And yet all of this stuff is transient and irritating and too unstable to be a self.” And these things, as one begins to get into the higher stages of insight, fear, misery, disgust, desire for deliverance, re-observation… One begins to notice, “Ah, in fact this is a big massive, irritating, not-much-fun, can’t control it, vibratory, flickering stuff.” And the three characteristics are actually right, and one confirms this for oneself. And yet one is frustrated by what one finds, and it’s hard to accept. And then as one goes deeper into the thing, one begins to get more balanced with this. And one begins to see, “ah the whole wider field of attention is in fact coming and going, arising and vanishing, flickering, fluxing.” And one can get finally into equinmity, and the 4th vipassana jhana, And one begins to go, “oh wait, this is all happening on it’s own. Even subject, what I thought was me, the watcher, the sense of self or awareness is in fact just arising and vanishing.” And more fluxing, complete, whole, integrated, fields of space begin to arise and vanish. And one begins to see formations. And one begins to see, “Oh, these things are just all coming and going, and none of this is me.” And if one does that well enough and long enough, which doesn’t necessarily have to be that long, hours or days for some people, or maybe less. They really are able to come to a balance place with that through out the whole thing to arise and vanish and flicker and sync up and just do its thing, they can arise at stream entry through one of the three doors which relates to the qualities of impermanence, suffering, and no self.
So I spent a lot of time talking about impermanence but suffering is also important. Suffering is also that sort of tension that’s created as we try to section out a part of reality that is us and ignore the transient, as we try to hold on to a center point and it seems to be observing all this and there is an odd tension in the way we have to ignore the transients and ignore the happening on its own that we have to do in order to come up with this sense of self but actually tuning into that that suffering in the sense of the duality itself, in the sense of watching, in the sense of separation tuning into that fundamental tension at the core of that is actually what begins to reveal the truth of things and begins to disentangle the process. And if one is able to see that strange tension well enough then it can begin to break up and one can begin to move through the stages of insight just as seeing impermanence. And then no self is sort of two separate aspects. One is that everything is arising on its own in natural cause of fashioning, anyone who sit down the cushion notices it, these thoughts are coming I cannot control them, these pains are coming I cannot control them, the breath is still breathing whether or not I pay attention to it or not, things are just happening, sounds are coming in, all these sensations are arising, they are happening completely on their own. I cant seem to do anything about them. Yes, that’s exactly true and people go into meditation looking for control and they find a lack of control and they fight this but in fact looking for the loss of control, looking for the things that are just happening on their own from an inside point of view, when on the cushion, is incredibly an powerful way to see the true nature of things. And also noticing that everything is observed, all sensations arise seem to be an object even when one turns attention to the subject all those sensation suddenly seem to be object and so everything is just object, everything is just out there doing its thing, on its own. And noticing this again and again leads to more wisdom and sometimes we have to see this thousands of times, over thousands of seconds or many days or some number of weeks or perhaps months, who knows, but doing this well again and again and again all of a sudden can make us understand “oh, that really is the way things are,” and when we directly perceive that for ourselves that’s when profound insights arise.
So, yeah that’s the three characteristics and they are extremely important and they are the foundation of insight practices and the amount that they are ignored by the vast majority of practitioners is just staggering and they are sitting there dealing with their stuff and their thoughts and their tensions and their difficulties and their issues and sort of “oh, I am working through my process and my stuff” and all that, and you know okay, but they’re are missing second after second how obviously the three characteristics are presenting themselves. Its just a tragedy people are not paying more attention to those aspects of insight because they very quickly, on some number of weeks of retreat can move people through profound stages of understanding directly the truth of their sensate experience and getting to great insight stages and states of awakening.
Vince: Nice, and I am guessing that essentially why you wrote this book is to help people realize that for themselves.
Daniel: Yeah, I mean that’s the whole point. I want people to be able to do this, and I want people to… and more than that I want people to be able to do it without screwing their lives up and so I actually spend a lot of time in the book talking about the dark night and talking about the stages of insight primarily because sometimes insight practices and even concentration practices can really mess people up, and so I try to give a ton of practical wisdom about not only how to plunge far and fast and really get into profound insight territory relatively quickly, but also how to do that without really toasting ones life, because intense openings and some of the insight stages particularly 3rd vipassana jhana: fear, misery, disgust, desire for deliverance, re-observation can really mess people up and cause them to be sort of kooky and irritable and renunciate and mess up their relationships and jobs and career paths and even some of the later stages can cause people to be real arrogant jerks. I’ve been that way on more occasions than I can count so I understand and the reason I know how to write you know about screwing up is because I have done it many, many, many times and suddenly realize wait a second this is not too good there must be a better way and there must be some wisdom that helps one not make so many errors and alienate so many people and those kinds of things, so I tried to provide the wisdom and what hard-won lessons from my adventures and mistakes. And the mistakes of many of my excellent and profoundly accomplished dharma companions, that we’ve all got to witness each other crashing along through the stages of insight, and so I try to provide tons of information on not only how to do it but how to do it in a way that is sustainable, if that makes sense, and not destructive. And a lot of people will say “oh, insight practice is all about good things not about bad things,” but really when you go plunging hard into sort of tearing down your sense of subject-object duality, some of the side effects from that can really suck, and so I tried to put a lot of the book about not how only can people do this for themselves but how they can do it in a way that doesn’t mess up their ordinary life, because obviously training in morality, which is your relationships and your careers and helping your family and helping your community are all very important, and how to do hard core insight practices without jeopardizing that as much as possible is one of the real messages of my book.
Vince: And just to mention again the books name is Mastering the Core Teachings of the Buddha: An Unusually Hardcore Dharma Book.
Vince: And it’s available on Amazon.com on aeonbooks.co.uk
Daniel: Yeah, Aeon Publications although I’d really prefer that people actually order it from their own independent, local bookstores.
Vince: There you go.
Daniel: Support your independent local book stores, and yes you can buy it from Amazon with three clicks or whatever. But please call up your local struggling bookstores, they are incredibly important for the community, incredibly important for writers, and we need them. So if you’re going to order it from somewhere, order it from them, or if you have to click on Amazon that’s fine, okay whatever. They have their place too, and they’re important, but you see what I mean.