[This article is part of a currently-in-progress resource for meditation practitioners entitled Pragmatic Dharma : A Digital Guidebook]
Pragmatic Dharma is a modern approach to the path of awakening. It pulls from the time-tested teachings and practices of the Buddhist tradition, but is simultaneously infused with a modern mindset that isn’t afraid to tinker with the traditional formulation. Pragmatic Dharma, at its core, is about asking the question: What works?
If something doesn’t work, then it’s relinquished. If it works, it’s used. If something else works better—at certain times or for certain people—then we go with that. In that way Pragmatic Dharma is a completely practical way of approaching the spiritual path.
That said, this approach begins with the Buddhist tradition as a starting point. Buddhism has one of the most exhaustive collections of theory and practice to help enact spiritual transformation. It’s built upon thousands of years of individual experimentation, trial-and-error, and success. Many people have used this system to train their minds, awaken their hearts, and manifest deep wisdom. For this reason we use it as a starting point, respecting the deep streams of knowledge that our own exploration rides upon.
The Relationship of Theory and Practice
Pragmatic Dharma includes a collection of helpful theories and practices. At the same time it is a particular way of approaching theory and practice. If we look at the word “pragmatic” we see that it stems directly from Western philosophy. This is a description, from Wikipedia, of one of the defining features of pragmatism in the Western tradition:
The pragmatist proceeds from the basic premise that the human capability of theorizing is integral to intelligent practice. Theory and practice are not separate spheres; rather, theories and distinctions are tools or maps for finding our way in the world.
If we look at what theory is, it’s essentially an abstraction, or representation, of direct experience. It’s a way for us to take our understanding and transmit, through the medium of ideas, the same understanding to another person. Language is such an important innovation, because it allows us to do this.
Because theory is an abstraction or representation, without directly experiencing, or really understanding what these things are pointing too, abstractions can remain just that. We all know people who confuse concepts about reality with reality itself. One need only bring to mind a know-it-all scholar or nerd to see living examples of what happens when we emphasize theory over practice.
The flip side of emphasizing theory over practice, is in emphasizing practice over theory. Many people conclude that all you need to do is practice and you’ll figure out everything by yourself. But how do you understand why you’re practicing or learn to practice?
If you emphasize practice too much you can get what Tibetan meditation master Chogyam Trungpa called “dumb meditators”—people who don’t understand what they’re doing or why. They never really got what they were supposed to be looking for, so they spin out endlessly doing a practice, which leads to something interesting, but not to what was intended.
Another pitfall of leaving out theory is that we find it difficult to integrate the experiences we’ve had into their lives. We have trouble because we are rejecting the importance of the thinking mind. Our complex mental abilities and highly developed brains are what make us distinctly human. Without complex thought it’s unlikely that we’d even be able to ask ourselves the important spiritual questions. Homo sapien is latin for “knowing man” or “wise man.” It can be a disaster if we throw out the “wise” part of our evolutionary heritage.
What’s encouraging is that if we can these helpful theories into practice, using them as maps to help us find our way, then we get into the business of having direct experiences ourselves. Through doing this we become internal scientists, and can begin to confirm, reject, and even build upon the theories we’ve been handed. Theories are alive and open-ended when we can test their validity. They are not the end point but rather the starting point for an incredible journey.
Awakening is Possible
At the center of this whole approach is the shining gem of Awakening. Awakening is often experienced as a process—sometimes rapid and sometimes more progressive—by which the sense of personal identity is radically transformed. Identity begins as a small, separate, and localized phenomenon that is always in reference to my body, my emotions, my perception, and my self. Through questioning the very assumptions this sense of identity rests upon it transforms to a more expansive, open-ended, and constantly changing situation, one that can simultaneously include us, but which goes beyond us as well. This shift brings an incredible sense of internal freedom, expansiveness, and well-being.
To say that Awakening is possible is to say that we acknowledge from the beginning that this transformation, which has been described and taught by people for millennia, is a real possibility for us. It isn’t something that happened to someone else a long time ago, or happens only for special people, but is a living potential for us. If we don’t believe it’s possible, than it’s highly unlikely we’ll be able to marshal the resources to begin the journey, let alone to arrive at the “destination” of abiding awakening.
Maps are Helpful
Along with recognizing that awakening is possible, another key feature of Pragmatic Dharma is that we recognize that there are helpful maps which describe some of the underlying patterns of spiritual development. The specifics of our experience can vary quite a bit, but the underlying pattern of spiritual development appears to be hardwired into our biology and psychology. These deep patterns form the basis for the maps which describe the Stages of Concentration and the Stages of Insight and Awakening.
At the same time, we hold these maps as useful pointers only, not as ultimate truths. It’s important to not completely give over our authority to someone else’s theory, as convincing as it may be, but to verify for ourselves what is true, what works, and what does not. This is another way in which Pragmatic Dharma stands apart from more traditional faith-based approaches.
Reality-Testing is Crucial
What happens if we’re willing to question and test the various assumptions and ideals that we bring to the spiritual path? What happens if we question the ideals and models that come from the spiritual traditions? Reality testing is the constant commitment to holding in question our own beliefs and theories, and those of others, until we can test and verify things for ourselves. Even once we’ve done so, reality testing invites us to continue holding open the door for new information or experiences to transform our understanding. Reality testing is a way to live in concert with change.
A wonderful example of reality testing comes from the Western scientist and philosopher Galileo Galilei. Often referred to as “the father of modern science” Galileo was well-known for turning the geocentric view of the earth on its head—the belief that the earth is at the center of the universe. By using a high-powered telescope and observing the movement of various celestial bodies he discovered that the sun was at the center of the observable universe. This became known as the heliocentric view, and serves as the basis for what we now refer to as our “solar system.” Galileo used direct observation to discover something new. And by doing this he completely upended the theories of his day.
Reality testing doesn’t happen just on a personal level, but also happens within a community of peers. There is much we can learn alone, but we can’t ultimately do it by all ourselves. Even Galileo was standing on the shoulders of hundreds of years of scientific exploration and developing technology. So we use everything that has come before us, as well as our peers and mentors to help refine our own observations and understandings. Or to put it in a more humorous way, as Kenneth Folk once did, we recognize that “enlightenment is a team sport.”
Openness & Transparency For the Win!
The final principle of Pragmatic Dharma is that openness and transparency beat out secrecy and dogma every time. When information is accessible we don’t have to reinvent the wheel ourselves. We can quickly learn from others and build upon that learning. And instead of relying on some special empowerment or secret instruction we have all the information we need to begin. We treat each other like adults, who can handle complexity, rather than like children, who often need information pre-digested for them.
An environment of openness and transparency can also allow us to reveal things about our experience that we might not otherwise reveal. Often our cutting edge lies in the areas that are most difficult to explore or see. When we value openness and transparency we don’t have to be as afraid of going into those areas. There is an incredible power that gets unlocked through doing this.
Another thing that happens, especially as a community, if we preference openness and transparency, is that authority begins to become more widely distributed. Instead of authority only being at the top of a hierarchy, with the founders of a tradition, or the senior teachers or lineage holders, authority also rests in the hands of regular people. Everyone who can realize something for themselves and share what they’ve gleaned is a source of spiritual wisdom. And this massively distributed authority is not a flat, “everyone is equal” point of view. Rather it’s a naturally flowing hierarchy of knowledge and skill, which is inherently dynamic and flexible.
When everyone in a community is more empowered to learn and share it creates an incredible positive feedback loop of enthusiasm, skill, and energy. People become more invested in what they’re doing and more empowered to embody their own wisdom. And because we haven’t thrown out a recognition of varying levels of depth there’s a constant stream of checks and balances throughout the system, which if set up properly can become self-regulating. Of course, this is the ideal, and with all ideals reality-testing again becomes important. But these principles have been enacted well in other systems and we can learn a lot from them. Indeed, I would say that if we ever want to have a shot at modernizing the path of awakening, we’ll have to.