Good teachers can help; they are basically a necessity and so are highly recommended, but you must do the work yourself. You must understand, and then you will have to do this again and again. Get used to it, as it can be quite an adventure.
It is sometimes hard for people to believe that right there in their experience is what they are looking for. It is right here, right now, in your own experience, in your own heart, mind and body. It is these sensations right now that are just soaked with the truth.
~Daniel Ingram, Mastering The Core Teachings of the Buddha
I’m currently re-reading my paperback copy of Mastering the Core Teachings of the Buddha by Daniel Ingram. The paperback had just been released in the U.S. but the e-book has been available for free on Ingram’s site as PDF download and in “blook” format.
I finished reading the “blook” version on my iPhone but I still purchased the paperback so I can read and re-read it offline. I think this book will be an instant cult classic, especially to those people who are into hardcore, no-nonsense dharma.
Here’s my rundown of the contents of the book.
First of, unlike other mainstream politically-correct spiritual authors, Ingram breaks away from political correctness and egalitarianism by claiming he had already achieved Arahatship, meaning, that he is already “enlightened.” Depending on your notion of “enlightenment” Ingram could either put you off and make you stop reading the book, or it could pique your curiosity and keep you reading. I read the book from cover to cover, and I’m glad I did.
Ingram makes it clear what his intentions are in the opening of the book. He even warned the readers about his social commentaries on Buddhism in particular and mystical traditions and spiritual teachers in general. Along the way he also makes his bias transparent to the readers. Ingram’s flavor of Buddhism is rooted in the Theravada tradition, particularly from Mahasi Sayadaw school of meditation.
I’m no scholar of Buddhist literature so I’m not sure whether Daniel Ingram is representing the dharma in its purest form. However, I understand enough about Buddhist teachings and concepts to recognize that Ingram is pointing to pragmatic truth on the Buddhist path by simplifying the language and removing the dogma, cultural baggage, narcissism, and metaphysical hubris surrounding both Eastern and Western flavors of Buddhism.
The Three Trainings
The Three Trainings–Morality, Concentration, Wisdom–are the sum total of the Buddhist path. Ingram explains them in simple English with minimal theorizing and philosophizing. He cuts through the chase by shedding light on the essence of the practice, its pitfalls, its shadow sides, and what to expect along the path (as taught and practiced traditionally by those “darn Buddhists” who had already figured it all out a long time ago).
I especially like how Ingram points out that training in Morality is different from realizing the ultimate nature of sensory reality. This concept alone gives the readers an understanding why some “enlightened” people continue to suck and behave like douchebags. According to Ingram, Morality is the first and last training. Even enlightenment will not magically fix our psychological and interpersonal issues and transform us into saints. So it’s better not to project our moral ideals on people who we believe are enlightened. Instead, we should focus on our never-ending training in Morality for as long as we live in this relative world.
From the perspective of spiritual practice, Ingram explains the distinction and the relationship of Concentration and Wisdom. Concentration is what practitioners cultivate to “steady the mind” and access altered states of consciousness but it doesn’t by itself bring about Wisdom. Wisdom is what brings about enlightenment, or phrased differently: Wisdom is what ultimately transforms consciousness. In other words, Concentration brings about states of consciousness, while Wisdom brings about (or makes way) for stages of consciousness.
One way to develop Wisdom is via insight or vipassana meditation wherein practitioners shift their attention on noticing the Three Characteristics of bare sensations. It’s a meta-cognition in which practitioners go beyond the content of their awareness and switch focus on the fundamental characteristics of reality passing through the six senses (sight, sound, taste, touch, feelings, and thought).
(Note: For integral geeks out there: The three trainings correspond very well with Ken Wilber’s AQAL model, particularly, States and Stages. As for training in Morality, this corresponds with the Lower and Right Quadrants (i.e. interpersonal, social, behavioral). In short: I = Training in Concentration and Wisdom; We, It/Its = Training in Morality.)
The Three Characteristics
In classical enlightenment, it is Wisdom (or insight) practice which transforms consciousness. Wisdom practice is like training to become a “microscope” for one’s subjective experiences. Regardless of the content of awareness whether be it ordinary waking state, mind-blowing altered states, peak experiences, kundalini fireworks, lucid dreams, astral travels, near-death experiences, vision of inter-dimensional beings, or what have you, the focus of Wisdom practice is to recognize the three characteristics of all experiences at the sensory level. These three characteristics are: Impermanence, Suffering, No-Self.
Ingram explains it very succinctly:
For day-to-day reality, the specifics of our experience are certainly important, but for insight into the truth of things in meditation they largely aren’t. Said another way, it is neither the object of meditation, the causes of the object of meditation, nor the significance of the object of meditation, but the truth of the sensations that make up that “object” which must be understood. Once you can tell what is mind and what is body, that’s for the most part enough. So don’t make stories, but know this: things come and go, they don’t satisfy, and they ain’t you. That is the truth. It is just that simple. If you can just not get to caught up in the content and know these simple, basic and obvious truths moment to moment, some other wordless and profound understanding may arise on its own.
Ingram covers different techniques to develop “access concentration.” He highly recommends breathing as the object of meditation. As for Wisdom practice, his favorite is “noting” meditation.
Models of the Stages of Enlightenment
In the latter section of the book, Models of the Stages of Enlightenment, Ingram spends a great deal of time debunking people’s misconstrued notions, projections, and delusions on the idea of “enlightenment.” This part of the book is very ballsy. Remember that Ingram is not shy about claiming Arahatship (meaning realized, or enlightened). His tone is oozing with mojo and non-idiot compassion. This might come across as arrogant for some readers but I personally like his treatment on this topic.
Most likely readers would recognize their own idealistic model of enlightenment while reading this part of the book. I’m guilty as charged when it comes to some of my own projections on “enlightened” beings. At one fell swoop Ingram demolished my deluded notions about enlightenment, and I feel fine.
To sum it up, Mastering the Core Teachings of the Buddha is a must-read for those who want to take a pragmatic spiritual path. This book reflects my own temperament when it comes to the dharma and spiritual practice. It has less fluff, no dogma, and more substance compared to other mainstream feel-good spiritual books I’ve read. In short, this is my kind of kick ass dharma!
Read it . Do the practices. And open yourself up to the Grace of Awakening.