Novice at Harissa, Saydat Lubnan, Lebanon, 2005
There's been a bit of a flap over the Hardcore Dharma movement lately. I got curious and checked out the book that started it all, Mastering the Core Teachings of the Buddha, (PDF) by Daniel Ingram, Arahant.
Since he has the cheek to call himself an Arahant, I guess he shouldn't have anything against a complete newbie to the business having the cheek to review his book. So, in my usual style of writing about stuff about which I'm completely clueless, here goes.
The short versionIt's a brilliant book. If you're at all interested in meditation, quit wasting your time reading this stupid blog and go read it instead. Just ignore the occasional chest-beating about exactly how profound the ideas in it are, and how accomplished is the author. That's just style. Focus on the substance. There's a lot of it.
Matters of styleStill here? OK, then, it's your time to waste.
It's a real shame that much of the discussion about the Hardcore Dharma movement is about stylistic flourishes. That's a lot of hot air about whether Mr. Ingram really is an arahant or not and what it means to be one, plus a lot of gleeful pointing at the half-dozen bits in the book where he really is being obnoxious about his own accomplishments and the brilliance of his book. Having a good editor go through it and cut out those bits would not have detracted from the book's substance at all, nor would it have blunted its message. It would, however, have deprived Mr. Ingram's opponents of a good set of cudgels to pummel him with, and perhaps had a few people get less defensive about it.
That's why these two paragraphs are all I want to say about Mr. Ingram's style. Compared to the substance and the message in the book, it's entirely unimportant. Even if you really hate his chest-banging, please try to ignore it and read the book anyway—even with its warts, it's way, way more approachable than any alternative presentation of this material that I've run across, meaning mostly stuff written by guys dead about 1500 years or more. Not that I've read all that much, of course. It's just style. Ignore it.
Not a spiritual bookMastering the Core Teachings of the Buddha—MCTB from now on—is not a spiritual book. It's a technical one. In it, Mr. Ingram attempts to be as clear, concise, and understandable as possible about what, exactly, is meant by a variety of meditational states, how to attain them, where they lead, what kinds of side effects they can have, and how to deal with those side effects. He uses clear, simple, and rigorous definitions, precise language, direct advice, and an exhaustive set of information about a great variety of pitfalls and ways to escape them, and relates it all to the conceptual apparatus that's been part and parcel of Buddhism since the Pali Canon got compiled, if not longer.
Almost from the very beginning he's struggling with the limitations of language. Nevertheless, he does a remarkable job of mapping out that unmappable territory. Even someone who is, in Ingram's terms, working on access concentration and knocking on the door of the first samatha jhana can get an overall picture of what kinds of stuff can go down when playing with these things. While Ingram's model is just a model, it's a useful one. After reading his book, a lot of the vocabulary in Vasubandhu and Patañjali, and even in Dōgen and Hakuin, suddenly makes a lot more sense. So do the instructions I've been getting from my teachers and instructors. What's more, it made an immediate and noticeable difference (for the better) to my meditation practice.
I like to have a roadmap. I like to have some idea of what to expect and what to look for. I've been looking for this information in lots of places. Of the stuff I've read so far, MCTB has thus far been the clearest, simplest single source I've come across.
The Bizarre RealmsThe deeper in we go, the freakier the material in MCTB gets (just like with Patañjali, Vasubandhu and the rest). The Formless Realms are, obviously, not easy to describe; yet describe them it does. Mr. Ingram doesn't even shy away (much) from really wild stuff, like the siddhis and "magickal" psychic powers.1
Since I'm so new to meditation practice, I have no way to tell how well Mr. Ingram's map holds up for more experienced meditators. I do, however, get a very strong impression that he's speaking from a great deal of experience grounded in a great deal of theoretical understanding and sharing experiences with various like-minded people. I'm optimistic that the map should work as well as any out there, and a good deal better than most. I include the likes of Patañjali and Vasubandhu in this list.
Pure-blooded śrāvakaAlmost as interesting as what's in the book is what's not. Another thing that I learned from reading MCTB was exactly what the Mahayana critique against "the way of the śrāvakas" really was about. Mr. Ingram describes the Buddhist path as a clear set of attainments that follow each other in order, limited only by the dedication and talent of the meditator. His enlightenment model is unabashedly technical and closely tied to those meditational attainments.
Mr Ingram expresses great admiration for Tibetan and Zen Buddhists, for their contributions to the meditation technologies that allow dedicated practitioners to reach those exalted states. Yet he appears to totally miss the point of the Bodhisattva vows—and that point is too important to be just shrugged off. It's not just a Theravada thing either: plenty of Theravadins clearly do get what it's about.
The weakest chapter in the book by far is the one titled "Integration." It's about what all these attainments are for—how they affect the life of the meditator. Mr. Ingram basically shrugs and says that that takes care of itself, and it's far more important (and challenging) to get any insights to integrate in the first place. This is a good point, and hard to argue with.
Nevertheless, I cannot help feeling that this is missing the point of the entire exercise. I have had the privilege of meeting a few genuinely and deeply spiritual people. Some of them have practiced no formal meditation at all, and I'm pretty sure that very few of them have attained the Formless Realms or any of the Paths or bhumis. However, they have succeeded in deeply integrating the insights they have had into their lives.
I can't know what Siddhartha really was about. However, I think it can't have been about meditation as technical achievements only. The spiritual technology is an enabling factor; a means to an end. That end has got to be more than just a shift of personal perspective, although I'm certain that it's that also. If Mr. Ingram is an arahant—and I have no reason to doubt his word on that score, given the definition he uses—then the term itself is a pretty narrow and limited one.
But where is Kanzeon?The Mahayana was a reaction to a Buddhism that had become too insular, too focused on personal enlightenment, achievement, and study. From what I've read of India at that time, it sounds like that kind of reform was exactly what was needed. It's quite likely that Buddhism in the West nowadays has gone too far into the other direction, lost sight of the technical aspects of the path, and slid into a mushy something-for-everybody psychological self-help kind of fluff.
MCTB is a necessary book, as an antidote to the mystification, psychologization, and New Age fluff that so often passes for Buddhism. The meditational techniques and attainments that the sutras and the old masters list are an indispensable feature of Buddhism, and a Buddhism that treats them as unattainable, otherworldly, or mythical is a castrated Buddhism. By making them understandable and attainable, Mr. Ingram does modern Buddhists an enormous service.
As important as MCTB is, it is still inevitably deficient. I miss the voice of compassion. Avalokiteśvara is strangely silent. There is an echo or two of it here and there, but not the joyous shout that it is in all spiritual practices truly worthy of the name. Could there be some way of finding a synthesis between the universal, humane aspects of Mahayana and the rigorous technical and theoretical approach of Theravada? Could another arahant, roshi, or tulku combine Mr. Ingram's powerful meditation technology with a truly universal view of what it means to be human? Or could we, perhaps, find that simply by going back to, say, the Angulimala Sutta and similar texts?
The Bottom LineMr. Ingram's book is brilliant. I already said that, but it bears repeating. Mr. Ingram dusts off the Abhidharmika conceptual apparatus, gives it some spit and polish, and presents it to the 21st century reader in a format that's accessible without being dumbed down, and immediately useful to anyone doing meditation at any level. (I think, the usual caveats about my cluelessness apply.) It is, however, not the end-all, be-all Dharma book. There is more to Buddhism than tripping out on delta waves, and this territory Ingram does not cover. Even morality is seen in a strangely instrumental light: if you have too much on your conscience, it'll screw up your meditation, so it's better to be nice.
Mastering the Core Teachings of the Buddha is not about what the whole exercise means. It is simply and only about what meditation is, how to do it, what to expect from it, and how to deal with some truly disconcerting stuff that can pop up. It is deeply grounded in Buddhist tradition, personal experience, and shared stories. Take it on those terms, and you are almost certain to get something, or possibly even a great deal, out of it. Expect it to be something else, and it will only annoy you. If you want to explore the broader meaning of spirituality, I would suggest someone like Karen Armstrong instead.
Oh, and, Mr. Ingram does write like Brad Warner. Deal with it.
1Note to Mr. Ingram on the unlikely chance that you're reading this: if you really believe that you can do pyromancy or telekinesis, please, please claim James Randi's prize for it, and get those abilities properly demonstrated and investigated. If it's true, we need to know, in a conventional sense. Until you do, though, my working hypothesis is that intensive meditation practice is likely to give people tenacious delusions that they have supernormal powers, rather than giving them the powers themselves.