These remarks have been excerpted from a day-long program given by Jack Engler at the Barre Center for Buddhist Studies on November 1, 1997. Jack has had a long association with Dharma study and practice. He studied Pali language and Abhidhamma at the Post-Graduate Institute of Buddhist Studies in Nalanda, Bihar, and practiced meditation for several years in India with Anagarika Munindraji and Dipa Ma. He also studied with the Ven. Mahasi Sayadaw in Burma. He is co-author of Transformations of Consciousness (Shambhala, 1986), and has been a clinical psychologist for more than twenty years. Jack is on the BCBS board of directors, and teaches in Barre from time to time.
The Possibility of Awakening
As the dharma has spread into different cultures over the centuries, it has always been adapted and practiced somewhat differently in each unique cultural environment. We are seeing this again today as dharma is being practiced within western culture.
Asian and Asian-trained American teachers first brought the dharma here in its traditional context as a practice for enlightenment. The longer it has been here, though, the more it has adapted—or been adapted—to different western cultural forms, and the more it has inevitably been integrated with a lot of other processes of personal transformation prevalent in our culture like psychotherapy and stress reduction. And that is perfectly legitimate. Particularly in the form of mindfulness, meditation has proven to be a very adaptable and powerful practice. It can alleviate anxiety and stress, it can promote the development of basic psychological functions like the capacity for self-observation and self-regulation of emotional states, it can access the unconscious and facilitate psychological insight into oneself.
Yet, at least in the mainstream world in which I mostly live, it seems we talk less and less about the original and more profound purpose of practice—the realization of enlightenment—as a possibility for ourselves. I think we are in danger of repeating what has happened in all Buddhist countries: holding on to awakening as an idea or ideal, but letting it become so far removed from personal aspiration and practice that it becomes a kind of carrot out there on the horizon: something that maybe we will some day, some way, get to—but not right now. We rationalize this by saying we have given up “striving” or any “gaining idea.”
Somewhere in our hearts we’re in danger of losing our personal connection with awakening as a possibility for ourselves. It’s extremely important we don’t do that, because awakening is our true nature. It is the work we have come here to do. Losing touch with who we really are, with what we most hunger for and love, produces the deepest kind of self-alienation and suffering.
Perhaps you are all familiar with that famous statement of the Buddha: “I teach suffering, bhikkhus, and the end of suffering.” Now if the Buddha only taught suffering, we’d have a problem. But he taught the end of suffering too: all these states of mind that plague us can come to an end. Do we really believe that? Was he really talking about me? Yes, he was!
It is important to keep the original aspiration and possibility alive, especially as dharma takes root here in the West. When I was trying to create a frame of reference for today’s workshop, I asked myself, “What do I care most about? What is most passionate in my heart? What motivated me in the beginning? What has sustained me through all the years?” And I realized that for me all these questions are really resolved in that statement of the Buddha that there is an end to suffering, that we can awaken—not as some far off, distant, ideal possibility, but as a possibility in this life.
Three Types of Suffering
What is awakening? It’s important to have some idea of what it means. Traditionally, this is known as the need for “right view” in starting out. Otherwise we import all our own conscious and especially unconscious associations into it, and it becomes anything and everything from the answer to all our problems to an unconscious narcissistic wish for perfection or invulnerability. In Buddhist teaching, awakening is a very specific event with very specific outcomes.
It’s important we don’t lose our personal connection with awakening as a possibility for ourselves, because awakening is our true nature. It is the work we have come here to do.
One way of beginning to grasp it is to ask, what is the problem to which enlightenment is the solution? And how does practice address that? Because enlightenment is not the answer to all problems. It won’t tell me how to resolve conflicts with my partner—and the really bad news: it won’t by itself prevent them!—it won’t tell me how to raise my kids or how to pay the mortgage, it won’t by itself make work or career more satisfying or fulfilling. So what is it that the practice of dharma addresses? It is important to understand this because an investigation of this question makes clear why the path is the kind of path it is, and has the outcomes that it has.
As we know, that very first thing the Buddha talked about after his enlightenment was the noble truth of suffering. If you stop and think of the kind of chutzpah it took to say that our life as we live it is suffering—to start your teaching with that kind of a message—it’s nothing short of staggering. It’s not the way to keep your audience. It flies in the face of what most of us want to hear. And yet it’s what we secretly know to be true. I remember the shock and then the great sense of relief I felt when I heard this teaching for the first time: “At last, someone’s telling the truth!”
When someone walks into a therapist’s office, what they usually want is relief. They don’t want to hear about suffering. But the Buddha, being the extraordinary teacher and truth-teller that he was, presented this teaching of the first noble truth at the very outset—that life as we normally live it does not bring us what we want.
We’re all dinosaurs in a way—some part of us is going extinct from maladaptation every moment.
But the suffering that Buddhist teaching addresses is very specific. It is also multi-layered, which I think is just the way we experience it.
First, there is what in Pali is called dukkha-dukkha, basic dukkha or “ordinary suffering”—the states of physical illness or disability and mental anguish we all recognize in everyday experience. It’s interesting that birth should be included here as a source of suffering. When my children were born, like most parents my wife and I experienced their birth as a great joy. But within a larger frame of reference, it’s the need, the desire, to take birth yet once again that’s a mark of suffering.
Taking birth again is a sign that our work isn’t finished. Dynamically, it also means we haven’t been ready to finish it. So we do it again, like other repetition compulsions, to master the trauma until we work it through. We need not think of this only as birth in the traditional sense of rebirth. We can think of it as the painful process of catapulting ourselves forward into the next moment because we haven’t completed the work of the last moment, or been able to accept it for what is was—that nagging discontent that drives us to try to manipulate our experience and our life (never mind others’). We’re constantly scrambling to change or complete or fix our experience or others, and so we’re taking birth again and again every moment through the day. We are being catapulted by one experience into the next one in an endless project Buddhist teaching calls saṃsara, literally, “perpetual wandering.”
Think about how you go through your day. If it looks anything like mine, you know you’ve got a problem! So there is birth—the ultimate recycling process. There is old age. There is death. There is sorrow. There is pain. There is grief. There is despair. And many, many other states of mind and body we could add to this list of “ordinary sufferings.”
Another aspect of basic dukkha is the suffering of our own likes and dislikes—not getting what we want, or being stuck with what we don’t want, or losing what we love. As Oscar Wilde once said, “The only thing worse than not getting what you want is getting it.” This is a very special kind of suffering. Nothing ever turns out to be quite the right thing; but if it’s close enough, then we worry about losing it!
Freud called this kind of suffering “ordinary human unhappiness.” In a famous statement in the Studies of Hysteria at the very beginning of psychoanalysis, which remained his view—and which proved to be overly optimistic!—he said, “The best I can do is exchange your neurotic misery for ordinary human unhappiness.” Most therapists would probably agree. “Ordinary human unhappiness” remains the limit of therapeutic effectiveness. But the Buddha took this as a starting point and said, no, we can do something about that—about the way we suffer from these experiences.
Secondly, there’s the suffering brought about by change—dukkha-viparināma. And that again is not too hard to understand. We no sooner get the bird from the bush into our hand than we lose it, or something else happens, or it all changes. When it changes for the better, we’re happy; but when it changes for the worse, we’re unhappy. We’re constantly on that roller coaster. There’s no peace. There’s no rest.
So change is a problem for us. It’s not clear why it should be. As organisms evolve over millions of years, we’re adapted for change. That’s the driving engine of evolution. Species become extinct when they cannot adapt to a changing environment, like the dinosaurs. We’re all kind of dinosaurs in a way. Change is a problem for us, unless it breaks our way, but then we live with the constant anxiety that next time it might not. Some part of us is going extinct from maladaptation every moment.
The third type of suffering that the dharma addresses is more difficult to understand, namely the “suffering of conditioned states” (there are no other states; the unconditioned is not a ‘state’)—sankhāra-dukkha. This is a way of saying that every state of consciousness, every state of mind and body, without exception, is conditioned. What does that mean? It means that every state arises only when certain conditions are present—in Abhidhamma terms, every state “arises dependently.” And these conditions are constantly changing. At the deepest level of mind, body and the physical universe itself, there are no “things” which change—no ultimate entity in any domain, no atom, particle, soul, self, mind, consciousness—that is an independently existing, un-analyzable entity. Any “thing” is only a momentary set of relationships that reach outward to other sets of relationships, which are all constantly changing.
In our ordinary way of thinking and in ordinary sense experience, relationships exist between “things” that are connected in some way. But on very close examination—via an electron microscope or a particle accelerator or a quantum experiment—or via meditative examination of moment to moment experience—”things” suddenly dissolve. When perception resolves again, only momentary configurations—patterns of relationships—are observable. You have passed through the looking glass.
If this is the nature of reality, there is no solid place on which to stand. No state of consciousness, meditative or otherwise, to reach or retreat to in the hope that it will be an ultimate place of refuge and security, no matter how permeated with bliss, peace or understanding.
It is in this specific sense that every state of mind and body is potentially or actually a condition of suffering. I think that’s much harder to accept. There’s something in us that just resists that notion. There’s got to be somewhere I can land, where I don’t have to be anxious or scared: this relationship will be different; my parents will finally start acting like parents and I’ll get what I need from them; if not, I can find peace and fulfillment in some meditative state. And on and on and on.
In a way, practice is a matter of testing that hypothesis moment after moment. Is this it? Is that it? Is this place secure? Do I feel whole, complete, here? Is this firm ground under my feet? In effect, we are testing every possible experience in practice as it arises, asking that question. And again and again we come to the conclusion, no, this is not ultimately safe, this is not ultimately stable or secure.
Mindfulness practice confronts us with the same challenge Faust set Mephistopheles, who promised him the world if he could have his soul: “You can have my soul if you can bring me one experience that will be so compelling that I will say, ‘Stay thou moment, thou art so fair.'” And Mephistopheles brings out one state of mind and body, one experience, after another and presents them to Faust. Faust tests each one, tastes it thoroughly, and has to say each time, “No, that’s not it.” And that’s what ultimately saves him and prevents Mephistopheles from getting his soul.
This is what we are doing in practice. We’re tasting, in effect, every moment, every experience, and asking, “Is this it? Are you it? Are you it? Are YOU it?!” We have to fully taste each experience—not just be aware of it—to fully test it and get back a trustworthy answer to our question. If we do, we will save our soul until we pass beyond all states and all experiences and find a peace and joy that is deathless.
The Causes of Suffering
Now, what produces these different types of suffering that practice is designed to address? What have we heard endlessly in dharma talks? Desire. Wanting and not-wanting. The dynamics of desire are very interesting when you watch them in your own mind. Why is desire such a problem? Why is it so central and enormous a problem that the human realm is defined by it?
First we need to make a distinction between enjoyment and desire. If you eat a meal that’s wonderful, you’re satisfied. The enjoyment of the meal need not be associated with any desire. The point on which suffering turns is to let enjoyment be enjoyment without it leading on to desire. How to be with a particular experience without it generating either a wish for more or a wish for less?
Desire is definitely a problem. Why? Because it is insatiable.
Ultimately, that’s what we’re trying to do with mindfulness. That’s what mindfulness is about. Mindfulness is about eating the meal and enjoying the meal, but not lingering over it. When it’s over, it’s over. It doesn’t generate desire, regret, aversion, guilt, or any other reaction to the basic experience that catapults us forward. It’s a simple concept, but we watch how difficult it is to practice it all of the time—or even a fraction of the time.
In 1967 had a 3-star meal in Avallon with 2 friends. We’d driven from Munich over the Easter break. By law, there are only 12 3-star restaurants in all of France. We arranged the meal in the morning with one of the world’s great chefs. It took most of the day to prepare, and all of the evening to eat, ending with a 1907 armagnac—far and away the best meal I’ve ever had. I can still taste it as I’m talking about it. Lots of catapulting through lots of mind moments: from desire, to anticipation, to enjoyment, to satiation; to limping back to Munich afterwards, broke; to regret, and back to desire again as I’m thinking about it. In Dzogchen practice they say, “Leave the arising in the arising.” And this is 30 years later.
So desire itself is definitely a problem. Why? Because it is insatiable. And what drives the insatiability of desire? What conditions desire? In the Buddhist analysis, the Pali term for desire is taṇhā, literally, “thirst,” more generally, craving. In the chain of co-dependent origination, what conditions (causes) desire is vedanā. “Vedanā” is usually translated as “feeling,” but not feeling as emotion. Rather, feeling as the pleasurable, unpleasurable or neutral quality of each moment of experience. This is a crucial point—that every experience comes with a certain affective quality, what western psychology calls feeling-tone.
Think about it. It is really an extraordinary insight. When you’re sitting next in practice, tell yourself, just for one minute, you’re just going to be mindful of the feeling-tone of each thought, feeling, sensation, sound, mood that comes to awareness. Try to be mindful of just the pleasurable, unpleasurable or neutral quality of that mind-moment or that experience. If you can just be with the pleasurableness and let it be pleasurable—no problem.
The trouble is, if its pleasurable, it usually impels us on to some kind of desire—to wanting. If it’s unpleasurable, it usually evokes not-wanting, pushing away, avoiding, defending, waiting for it to pass—all forms of not-wanting. If the feeling-tone is neutral, we usually aren’t interested and either don’t pay attention or space out the experience altogether.
From the point of view of practice, the object of mindfulness is not to get rid of pleasurable or unpleasurable experience, not to get rid of pleasure and pain—that’s the ascetic stance of self-denial which the teachings term “wrong view.” It’s a common misunderstanding. We can’t get rid of those troublesome feelings of liking and disliking that accompany all experience because—in one of the Buddha’s most important insights—we can’t. They are hard-wired. Every experience comes with its own pleasurable, unpleasurable or neutral quality. We never get beyond that. Even Buddhas experience that in their moment-to-moment experience. So a goal of practice can’t be to maximize pleasure and/or minimize pain.
To Freud, that project was the basic drive in life. He called it “pleasure-principle functioning.” That nails it. He made exactly the same analysis as the Buddha. He just didn’t think we could do anything about it because pleasure inevitably leads on to desire in his view, and ultimately to the build-up of psychic drives and drive states. The same with unpleasurable or painful feelings: they inevitably lead on to aversion and ultimately to anger and aggression. So how to just let pleasure be pleasure without being drawn to it and pain be pain without avoiding it?
I said to Dipa Ma once, very early on when I didn’t understand much, that the outcome of practice sounded pretty dull and blah to me. Once you got rid of desire and aversion, where was the chutzpah? Where was the pizzaz? Where was the juice? Life would be pretty tepid and uninteresting if you didn’t enjoy anything at all! To my surprise, she broke out laughing. “No,” she said, “you don’t understand. Life is so much more full of zest now than it was before when I was carrying all that baggage around. Now each experience has its own taste. And then it passes and it’s gone. And then the next experience has its own taste.” The conviction was not in her words but her spontaneous laughter at my question.
The next question is: what drives that dynamic of pleasure/unpleasure that leads on to desire/ aggression? What pushes us on to this clinging and grasping, wanting more pleasure and less pain?
The Basic Illusions
In the Buddhist analysis, there are three basic misperceptions or illusions that ultimately drive pleasure-principle functioning. The Abhidhamma calls them vipallāsas, literally, “inverted views.” Each fundamentally turns reality on its head—takes a critical aspect of experience to be precisely what it is not:
- taking what is impermanent to be permanent;
- taking what is inherently incapable of satisfying us as satisfying;
- and—the root misperception—taking what is inherently lacking independent existence as independently existing; taking co-dependently arising phenomena as independent entities. Most critically, taking our “self” as a self-existent entity. Identifying with one or more of the constituents of experience—body, feelings, perceptions, mind-states or consciousness—as “me” or my “self” in some ongoing way. And therefore thinking—and needing—to defend, protect, augment, justify, stake out a claim for against other independent “selves” who are either allies or threats.
So taking what is impermanent to be permanent, treating it as though it were graspable; looking to what is inherently incapable of satisfying us as a source of satisfaction that would ease our unease and the ache in our heart and bring us peace and contentment; taking what is inherently empty of substance as being solid, enduring, immortal, a secure place to stand, a precious treasure to be defended at all costs—these are our fundamental delusions, in the service of which we cling and condemn, hold on and push away, suffer any number of indignities and humiliations to protect. In this sense, “all worldings are deranged” (sabbe puthujjanā ummattakā) according to the Buddha. It’s the same term we use in our clinical terminology to denote delusional thinking—thinking which misperceives the way things really are in the service of protecting a self under threat.
These three “inverted views” are what constitute “ignorance” (avijjā) in the Buddhist sense. As in psychodynamic thinking, this is a willful ignorance: not just a not-knowing, but a not-wanting-to-know for which we are responsible. Likewise, the way forward is to see through these distortions and illusions.
Well, it’s one thing to hear about this and even have a good conceptual grasp of what no-self or selflessness means. It’s quite another to actually experience it in our entire being and integrate it bodily and emotionally and then live from there. An Australian friend of mine who worked in high-energy physics used to describe watching this apparently solid world of ours cut away to a universe of particles with half-lives of infinitesimal fractions of seconds.
But is that transformative? No. These entities are atoms or particles and don’t grab my attention very much. But when we see—actually experience—the same process in our own minds, in our own bodies, moment after moment, then it hits home with tremendous impact. Then it’s us we’re seeing. And something in us says, “Oh s…t !” Then it has the potential to be transformative. But we have to experience it in our own bodies and minds for that to happen, and that is what practice is ultimately about.
Experiencing the dynamics of desire and the way that creates suffering, and then ultimately seeing through the delusions that create and sustain craving—that’s what the so-called “stages of insight knowledge” (vipassanā-ñāṇas) describe. They take our mindfulness, our perception of reality, to that level where we actually see and experience the 3 marks of all existence—impermanence, unsatisfactoriness, and selflessness—in our own minds, moment after moment. Then it hits home, and then it’s potentially transformative. There are glimpses at moments prior to this. We’ve all had them. But in the course of the ñāṇas, it hits home fully in an inescapable, all-pervasive, and progressive way.
Setting Up Practice: Models of Awakening
Buddhist lineages have generated a number of different systems for mapping out the process of awakening—for bringing practitioners to liberation. Teachers and lineages have often been leery of spelling out all the detailed stages and steps because it is easy for us to get hung up. We can constantly be taking our spiritual pulse: “Am I at the third stage or the fifteenth stage?” That can obviously become a serious impediment to practice. On the other hand, if you approach it with the right spirit or “view,” it can be very inspiring: “Yes, awakening is there. There is a path that can be followed and it’s not mysterious or alien to me. It follows a predictable sequence.” The Ven. Mahasi Sayadaw himself wrote a manual, Progress of Insight, describing each of the stages in detail as a guide to practice. The challenge in working with these maps is to use them skillfully, and that usually requires the assistance of a teacher.
Another caution about such maps is the immense narcissistic seduction that enlightenment represents. Once you set it up as an object of desire, an object of striving—like any other object that you want—it’s hard for there not to be some narcissistic motive involved in its pursuit, some motive that augments the self instead of seeing through the illusion of independent selfhood.
At the Ven. Mahasi Sayadaw’s center in Rangoon, where I practiced for a brief time, one of the main responsibilities of senior teachers was to determine the markers of enlightenment. In their view, enlightenment doesn’t just happen any old whichway. It evolves out of a sequence of experiences that follow a very predictable pattern. This doesn’t mean one will progress through them in a linear manner. Typically there is a lot of going forward and backward, forward and backward. What it means is that you won’t advance to the next level of insight without some experience of the level that precedes that one. You can’t skip levels. But this is no different from any kind of learning: there is a sequence of experiences to be undergone and mastered. At the end of this process, there is an experience called awakening.
One metaphor for this model of practice is crossing a river. We start on this shore in a condition of suffering. The object is to get to the other shore, which represents freedom from suffering. The dharma is the raft that takes you across. Once across, you no longer need the raft. Practice then is getting from here to there. This is the traditional Theravada view.
Another way of thinking about practice, which is the Mahāyāna and Vajrayāna view, is that you are already on the other shore. In this “other shore” practice, there is no river to cross and no need for a raft. Your true nature is already enlightened. Practice is simply an expression of that true nature. One benefit of practicing from this view is that it tends to undercut narcissistic striving. But this still does not mean that practice won’t unfold in a certain way, even in these traditions.
At this point Jack discusses the four stages of awakening outlined in the early texts, and the gradual extinction of the ten fetters (samyojana) in each of these stages. This part of his presentation will be presented in another issue of this newsletter in near future.