Monday, August 2, 2010

Hardcore Arahant: Daniel Ingram's Mastering the Core Teachings of the Buddha

At Harissa
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 version

It'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 style

Still 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 book

Mastering 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 Realms

The 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 śrāvaka

Almost 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 Line

Mr. 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.


  1. I agree, Ingrams book is excellent, and especially the technical nature of what he is saying. I can't say that his sometimes arrogant passages aren't a detraction from the book, because they are. But not enough to override what he is trying to do with it. Moreover, he isn't commercial in the way most Buddhist writers are, and he is pointing a step by step guide that other won't.

    I'd like to see more Buddhist teachers attempt this.

  2. Yeah, that would be a good thing. Perhaps some are, though, but we just don't hear about them. That would be pretty typical. I thought his bibliography was pretty interesting—have you read Jack Kornfield's A Path With A Heart? Ingram seems to think very highly of it, and it appears that it may have some dimensions MCTB is missing.

  3. Thanks for this thoughtful review. I'm becoming more and more interested in DI, and the hardcore movement.

    One thing I would raise as a problem. You say "The Mahayana was a reaction to a Buddhism that had become too insular, too focused on personal enlightenment, achievement, and study."

    How do you know this? I ask because a lot of recent research on the early Mahāyāna points in a different direction. The Mahāyāna was distinguished primarily by a hardcore of dedicated practitioners. Those people of lesser ability and talent (like me) became more focussed on texts and traditions. However they continued to live alongside each other, and to this day they use the same vinaya(s). The last has profound implications, don't you think? The conflict of approaches came late, not early, so Mahāyāna can not be said to be a reaction to what came before, but a continuation in a different direction.

    What's more for many centuries the Mahāyāna remained a very small minority, and not surprisingly perhaps played little part in public life in India.

    These themes have been developed by Greg Schopen, Paul Harrison, and Jan Nattier especially. There's some coverage of their work in Paul William's book 'Mahāyāna Buddhism'.

    The kind of view you ascribe to the Mahāyāna about the śravakas is a very late polemic - perhaps even not an Indian one. In my last assault on the use of the word hīnayāna on my blog I noted, with some surprise, that the term is never applied to the Arahants in the Lotus Sūtra (which is precisely where we'd expect it), but is used in a more abstract way. It appears not to refer to a "The Hīnayāna", but only "a hīnayāna", one which is not directly associated with Arahants, but only used as an abstract contrast to the teaching of the Lotus Sūtra as effective not defective.

    If DI is an Arahant, and is telling us how to become one, (and giving his book away for free!) then how is that not compassionate? How is that not the hand of Avalokiteśvara reaching out to free you of the defilements? (Giving Mr Ingram the benefit of the doubt for the sake of argument)

    Anyway I think the idea of Mahāyāna as a reaction to selfish and scholarly śravakas has had it's day and needs to be put to bed. It never happened.

  4. How do I know this? I don't, of course. As I keep on saying, I'm very new to this stuff. However, I'm still not quite sure you're right. I may be reading too much into it, but I do get the strong impression that the polemic in which Vasubandhu participated was very fiery indeed, and I do catch a few references in him to the śrāvakas that appear to match that idea. As you know, Vasubandhu wrote very much during the formative phase of Mahayana. Check out, for example, the Commentary on the Separation of the Middle from the Extremes, III. 22a-b.

    I have also read that some of his contemporary rivals referred to him as "that Sārvāstivādin apostate" and similar unflattering terms.

    There's also the use of Śāriputta as a foil in many Mahayana sutras.

    In other words, while I don't know much at all about that period of history, I do recognize polemic when I see it, and from where I'm at, it's very much embedded into the very heart of Mahayana writing. So I'm not quite ready to accept the picture you paint of the period either, even if the split has been aggravated and over-dramatized in later centuries.

    BTW, Ingram uses the word "hīnayāna" in his book quite liberally, without apparent derogatory intent. I think it's a mistake to get hung up on words and their usage, beyond sorting out as much confusion as possible regarding context and intent.

    As to the rest, I would really strongly urge you to read the damn book. It's short, sharp, and to the point, and someone used to studying Pali texts in the original can scan through it in an afternoon (and then delve deeper if it seems worth it).

    Finally, Jayarava, please stop belittling yourself. It doesn't become you, and I doubt it's helping your spiritual quest either. Either you have what it takes to become enlightened or not; if you do, you'll never know until you're there, but moaning about your meager ability will just stop you from doing what it takes to see for real.

  5. Well, I can only suggest that you look at the research and see what conclusions you come to. "Read the damn book" as you say. You can't assess the information without having looked at it. Vasubandhu was 4th century? Which is about 500 years after the formative period of the Mahāyāna.

    BTW I'm not belittling myself, nor am I moaning. So perhaps you could keep your personal comments to yourself, because my inner life is another of those things that you know very little about.

  6. I intend to. I have a great deal of reading I want to do. In another ten years, perhaps I will be able to speak about this stuff with some authority. Right now, I'm just writing up my notes as I go.

    I have made a mental note of what you said about early Mahayana, and I hope to straighten that out in the future. Until then, I'm going to have to keep my working hypothesis based on what little I have read; I have flagged that particular view of the Mahayana/Hinayana split as "even more provisional" for now. However, I'm not going to revise it simply because you say so, since I do not consider you a reliable authority. (It's nothing personal—at this point, I simply have no way of telling whether what you're doing is solid scholarship or pure crankdom, or something in between. I just don't know enough. I do appreciate the reading suggestions, though; I've put them in my literature list.)

    FWIW, I have had some formal training in historiography, so I'm not totally clueless about how it's done, even if I am about this particular area.

    We appear to have a different definition of "formative period." I include everything up to the flowering of Tibetan, Pure Land, and Zen Buddhism in that period. The Yogācāra and Mādhyamāka schools are the foundation on which Mahayana stands, and I don't want to exclude them from consideration of the process.

    And sorry, Jayarava, but you *are* belittling yourself, and it *does* sound like moaning, and it's irritating. This isn't the first time I've seen you go on about your "meager ability." If you want me to not comment on it, then stop doing it. And if you don't like my comments, by all means ignore them. Simple as that.

  7. Yea, I've Kornfields book A Path with a Heart a few times, and it is very practice oreinted. He was one of the first Theravada guys to really explain insight meditation, as before it was really monastic heavy.

    Also, a book that will knock your socks off, and is also free online is Mindfulness in Plain English by Ven. Henepola Gunaratana.

    Steve Hagan is a Zen guy that really breaks down a lot of the jargon in his books, especially Buddhism is not what you Think and Buddhism Plain and Simple.

    I think we are seeing more of this type of thing as it becomes more popular.

  8. Thanks a bundle, Kyle—I've put those on my reading list as well.

  9. I really like Daniel Ingrams style. Besides the excellent technical content it is refreshing for someone to drop the false modesty and just say what they think.

  10. I have to say this is the first blog on Buddhism that satisfies my desire (pun intended) to "talk shop" when it comes to practice and ponder history, that these were human beings just like you and me, i.e., Vasubhandu, etc.

    When I receive a transmission from a fine mind (through reading, hearing a teaching, or otherwise), it doesn't matter to me whether this communication was written yesterday or over a millennium ago. The act of being able to transmit those ideas is a living creation, imo, and I can often feel closer in consciousness to someone from long ago than a contemporary.

    An aside ... one of my dharma sisters has been practicing Tibetan Buddhism since the early 80s (and perhaps before) and has many stories I've eagerly heard about what it was like to be a clueless student when the Tibetans arrived in the West and faced the challenges of communicating Buddhism using a new language, to a different culture.

    She said at that time most of the teachings had not yet been translated into English, the Tibetan teachings, that is. She said she remembered how excited the sangha would become when a new teaching would come out, it would be like (this is my interpretation and impression) seeing something freshly written hot off the presses.

    Folks were so hungry for dharma in that rather rag-tag group of young people who first were attracted to folks like Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, as well as on the West Coast, Soto Zen teacher Shunryu Suzuki Roshi (whom I have been researching out of curiosity about those times).

    Now we have unbelievably "modern" translations of Tibetan Buddhist teachings (among all the others as well from so many spiritual/empirical study of consciousness systems), including the meditation manuals used by hard-core practitioners. I often take it for granted that I can just get these writings for myself from a bookstore or online for free.

    So back from my long detour.

    I very much agree with you that here in the West, as you so intelligently put it: "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."

    I think that is spot on and I couldn't add anything to it.

    As far as Mahayana and Hinayana, at various teachings I've heard Mahayana referred to as the "superior" teaching over Hinayana and Vajrayana even more "advanced." Yet it also has been a consistent theme in these teachings that there is no conflict between the three yanas. Several teachers have said something to the effect that hinayana is like a train ride and vajrayana is like taking a high speed jet, but the destination (for lack of a better word) remains the same.

    Second, the debates on distinctions between the three yanas (and I see a little of the spirit of those ancient debates in your writing) was and is a good thing, for the teachings highly stress that we should question and debate, analyze thoroughly and not take even the Buddha's word for anything. That, to me, is a sign of the supreme confidence the teachers have in this method, in a non-egoic way.

    I don't mean to stress Tibetan Buddhism ... I only use that pov because it's what I've studied. I could say similar things about other spiritual systems, such as Judaism, and the great debates between, say, Rabbi Hillel and Rabbi Shammai, or the amazing reforms of Rabbi Akiva.

    So I hope I'm not coming off as too Tibeto-centric (I do, however, freely confess a deep infatuation with, and devotion towards, the teachers, the translators (Lotsawas), and the practitioners, even the ones from over a millennium ago, lol).

    Well I'll stop here! :D

  11. I don't remember who, but someone said that everyone starts out Hinayana—primarily concerned about their own liberation. Some eventually make it to Mahayana, i.e., primarily concerned over all beings' liberation.

    That rings true to me, and I don't think it has anything to do with which particular tradition helps you along the way.

  12. I have my own reservations about DI. I like that he gets down to nitty gritty, but to me it seems he really belittles what liberation can mean. Just because he has not achieved it, does not mean it doesn't exist, in other words.

    As for psychokinesis and such, they do exist, despite no one claiming Randi's prize. My family brought a guy here to the house who called in to a local radio show claiming he could bend spoons mentally. He tried to bend a spoon in front my dad and nothing happened, so he left. Then my parents went into the kitchen and found every spoon was bent except the one that guy was given to bend. That's just a personal story. Most stories of this type will be personal. Some are documented by paranormal researchers, but basically you either believe what others have observed, or you don't believe it until you observe it yourself.

    But psychic powers are, after all, just tricks, in a sense, given that none of us actually exist. The greatest trick of all is to believe you are this body... !

  13. Great article. I first learned about this gentleman on an Imperfect Buddha podcast, and then went to youtube to ck out some interviews featuring Daniel. If he is an Arahant then I am Donald Duck, Jesus and Buddha all rolled into one. I just hope he is saying this to knock down convention's walls because there is nothing of him that would point to that.

    Meditation can sometimes backfire and activate the ego (Tibetan tantric practices for instance), and this seems to be the case w/ Daniel. The path is compassion, not some form of spiritual attainment, whatever the hell that may be. I was particularly disappointed in his statement that Zen has made itself so intuitive and vague that it has no content at all. This is a paraphrase, but it's what I got. Zen is actually the most concrete and least abstract of all the Buddhist lineages because it has no beliefs. Unfortunately, unless someone has actually practiced Zen for a long time and has experience w/ enlightenment, then they are stuck w/ the popular superficial and wrong definitions of Zen. This is actually the problem of our lives, seeing what is not real and mistaking it as real because we have been too lazy or deluded to actually ck it out for ourselves, and Zen points directly to that. It is a path where one needs a certain amount of faith in the beginning, but that faith is replaced w/ experiential knowledge later and can be discarded.

    So if he got tha wrong, what else is lost on Daniel's superhuman analytical powers? I won't be reading Ingram's book.