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Messy, thin, and empty recitations

David Chapman 2021-04-15

Commenting on: Getting tantra wrong: The Roach/McNally fiasco

Really sorry to hear about that. Too typical I’m afraid…

I hope you’ve found something else that is more to your liking since leaving!

Ringing true

Michael 2021-04-15

Commenting on: Getting tantra wrong: The Roach/McNally fiasco

This all makes a lot of sense to me. I was ‘trained’ in the NKT, was on the Teacher Training Program, I was an ordained monk, and given supposed Highest Yoga Tantra initiations. There were 2 days of preliminaries with my Root Guru, a 2 day Initiation into Vajrayogini practice and another day of Initiation into Heruka practice. A lot of it felt like magical acts, with substances and blindfolds and the link, and a divination stick falling a particular way to fix some kind of direction for the practice (I can’t now remember what it indicated).

Then… we were permitted to practice the sadhana alone (in the case of Heruka) or in groups (recommended for Vajrayogini). There was a week of teachings in all and, as far as I could see, if you could find out about it and buy a ticket that was enough for entry.

Then… you’re on your own, unless you live in a dharma centre with people practicing every day and even then people would practice alone, or not show up, and the teacher was hardly ever there leading from the throne - a picture of the root guru sat on the throne instead.

We were then led to assume that the resident teacher was doing it religiously every day, upstairs in the private quarters, while we continued to muddle through as a group, playing the CD to keep us all on the same page, and barking at the text in unison. I didn’t get much more than that.

Oh… and my ordained (supposedly celibate) teacher was secretly shagging her ordained (supposedly celibate) teacher while all the while saying ‘we don’t do that, that’s a misunderstanding of tantra’

It was messy, thin, and empty recitations of the manual rather than the real ‘plugging in and having a go’ you describe.

Monism in modern culture

Marko 2021-03-27

Commenting on: Developing ethical, social, and cognitive competence

Institutions are also, increasingly, accommodating and even validating stage 3 behavior in young adults. (This is a point of current controversy in universities particularly.) Although done with the best of intentions, institutions’ failure to challenge the communal mode may be detrimental to both individuals and society in the longer run. I am concerned that our culture may increasingly be actively impeding personal growth into systematicity—and providing less of the necessary support for it. More people are getting stuck in an earlier developmental stage. This may become disastrous.

(I suspect the recent upsurge in monist spirituality may be one manifestation of this problem.)

Hi David,

I would like to point out that the attractiveness of monism, when I first found it, came from an undiagnosed anxiety disorder, which in turn came from a lack of ability to convince myself to study when I wanted to in University. You should note that this is a gutturally unpleasant feeling which brought it on, not some kind of nebulous rejection of systematicity as you describe. Because you see, I could even tell that it was wrong when I was in the process of reading that book, but it was just the promise a relief to my anxiety and the elegant solution it seemed to provide that made it attractive. Though, now that I think about it, I suppose you are correct that society is validating this behaviour, as it was my psychotherapist who later told me the book was good that really got me into it, after I had already closed it halfway-through saying “This is stupid!”

Dangerous practices

David Chapman 2021-03-21

Commenting on: Meditation risks, safety, goals, methods

Yes.

Dark retreat is completely pointless unless you have reasonably stable awareness of rigpa. Without that, at best you’ll have some vaguely entertaining hallucinations. More likely, you’ll spend your time being bored and trying half-heartedly to do some other sort of meditation and mostly wonder why you are sitting in the dark. However, the sensory deprivation can lead to psychosis. Fortunately, as you say, there is no “pop” version, so not many people run into trouble with it.

I wouldn’t recommend chöd for many people. I rarely do it myself. The pop version seems to be watered down enough to be reasonably safe, I guess.

Dark Retreat

SusanC 2021-03-21

Commenting on: Meditation risks, safety, goals, methods

As an example of something that has a widely acknowledged meditation risk, my understanding is that dark retreat is basically categorized as “Danger. High risk of bad experience if attempted by beginners. It’s so dangerous we’re not even going to publically explain how you do it, in case someone foolishly tries it. If you think you’re ready for it, ask your guru, and they’ll make as assessment of your psychologically suitability before deciding whether to let you have any details.”

Even chod comes with a little bit of a health warning, along the lines that summoning demons in a charnel ground is the kind of thing that ought to be approached cautiously, with easy exercizes for beginners first…

TMI and other dangers

David Chapman 2021-03-21

Commenting on: Some preliminaries: ngöndro

Yes, I wasn’t confusing them.

My recent page on meditation risks may be helpful as background for this.

I’m not a fan of MCTB, but that community emphasizes that bad experiences are possible (or even likely, or maybe even necessary within that system). That’s important for people going into a system to know up front. They also have a sensible page on what to do if you flip out on retreat.

TMI doesn’t acknowledge that bad outcomes are fairly common. (As far as I know? This is consistent with your finding it not talked about in that community.) I wrote the meditation risks page specifically because two people had recently told me about bad experiences with TMI, so I did a tweet thread about it. Several more people chimed in with “I and/or several of my friends have had catastrophic breakdowns due to practicing it,” so I’m confident that this is a thing. (You can probably find those if you search responses to that tweet thread, although they may be buried in side chains.) The community’s apparent unwillingness to address this issue seems likely to make it worse.

TMI and MCTB both derive from traditional conceptions of enlightenment as cutting yourself off from reality. TMI sends you in that direction unusually rapidly, which makes it particularly dangerous. Daniel Ingram’s conception of enlightenment is fairly non-traditional, and (to the extent I understand it) his system seems to swerve away from that derealization at some point.

TMI

yetAnotherTim 2021-03-20

Commenting on: Some preliminaries: ngöndro

Hi David,
You noted in footnote 8 that you don’t recommend TMI as it has lead to bad outcomes for people doing it it at high dose. Are you confusing TMI with MCTB? I was under the impression it was the latter rather than the former that regularly resulted in dark night experiences. Last I investigated the TMI community, there didn’t seem to be many people speaking of dark nights at all. (I’m aware that Culadasa himself has been at the centre of a scandal a couple years ago but I presume that isn’t what you speak of)

If you were speaking of TMI, is there somewhere you stumbled across these outcomes that you could point me in the direction of?

As always, thanks for writing!

TMI

yetAnotherTim 2021-03-20

Commenting on: Some preliminaries: ngöndro

Hi David,
You noted in footnote 8 that you don’t recommend TMI as it has lead to bad outcomes for people doing it it at high dose. Are you confusing TMI with MCTB? I was under the impression it was the latter rather than the former that regularly resulted in dark night experiences. Last I investigated the TMI community, there didn’t seem to be many people speaking of dark nights at all. (I’m aware that Culadasa himself has been at the centre of a scandal a couple years ago but I presume that isn’t what you speak of)

If you were speaking of TMI, is there somewhere you stumbled across these outcomes that you could point me in the direction of?

As always, thanks for writing!

Geography

David Chapman 2021-03-05

Commenting on: Meditation risks, safety, goals, methods

Oh, I should have said: Evolving Ground is currently entirely virtual, but will hold in-person events, probably in many locations, once the plague has passed.

Advice and where to go

David Chapman 2021-03-05

Commenting on: Meditation risks, safety, goals, methods

You don’t give advice on Buddhism? Are all your writings on the topic there just to make sure the internet doesn’t run out of websites?

LOL!

Sorry, I should have said personal advice.

This is a question I can answer publicly. But, I understand why you might have wanted to ask it privately, in case I didn’t want to publicly diss particular organizations!

So, it turns out I can’t say much about either of the ones you mention, due to ignorance.

Since Soggy was disgraced (and then conveniently died), Rigpa seems to be continuing as a network of centers that invite various teachers in from various Tibetan traditions. [See their post-Soggy “vision statement.”] So it’s probably not possible to generalize. You could check out your local center and go to some events and see if it’s to your taste. (Virtually, for now, I guess, although we can cross our fingers and hope we can gather in person again in a few months.) Looking at their list of teachers, generally they are traditionalists with some Consensus veneer, and not in the style of Vividness. Whether that’s good is a matter of what you like and are looking for…

The International Dzogchen Community was, similarly, left behind by the death of Namkhai Norbu Rinpoche. He was a great teacher of Dzogchen (whereas Soggy was a fraud as well as an abuser). If he were still alive, I’d enthusiastically recommend checking out his organization. I have no idea how well they are managing after his death. I suspect it will depend on the local center. Unlike most Tibetans, he did authorize several Western teachers who I respect a lot, so it’s definitely worth looking into.

As another possibility, my spouse Charlie Awbery recently co-founded a Dzogchen-based meditation community, Evolving Ground. It’s in an extremely different style than anything a Tibetan would create (or, probably, approve of). Not surprisingly, their view is aligned with Vividness, so if you like this, you might also like that!

Questions

trand 2021-03-05

Commenting on: Meditation risks, safety, goals, methods

You don’t give advice on Buddhism? Are all your writings on the topic there just to make sure the internet doesn’t run out of websites? :P

Regardless of how you see yourself, your writings on Buddhism in the West have inevitably put you in some position of authority, and for me personally, trust, as I’ve found myself similarly repelled by the stale, upper-class liberal “California Buddhism” (as well as any kind of LARPy reactionaries who, in simply turning that upside down, don’t see that they’ve outsourced most of their thinking to their enemies). I’d like to take up practice in Dzogchen, but the only organizations geographically available to me are Rigpa and the International Dzogchen Community. Given your experience in the tradition, I would like to know if you have any advice as to whether they are good purveyors of Dzogchen. I know that the founder of Rigpa was subject to a lot of controversy not long ago, but besides that I have very little to go on as to making a choice, so after reading your extensive writings on the topic, I was wondering if you might have any pointers. :)

Questions

David Chapman 2021-03-03

Commenting on: Meditation risks, safety, goals, methods

Hmm. If it’s a question that can be asked publicly, you can do that here. If it needs to be private, I am not likely to be a good person to answer it! I just write stuff; I don’t give advice or teach Buddhism.

Offtopic question

trand 2021-03-03

Commenting on: Meditation risks, safety, goals, methods

Hey David!
I would like to ask you question related to Dzogchen, but couldn’t any contact information on your websites. Is there any way to contact you directly?

Valium

SusanC 2021-03-02

Commenting on: Meditation risks, safety, goals, methods

A cynical take on this might be that present day therapy (as opposed to traditional uses of meditation) sees meditation as sort of a replacement for Valium, and the goal really is to turn you into a zombie.

——-

When you say “ zombie”, given the context, I’ve got a idea of the kind of zombie you meant.

But there is also, for example, the zombies of George Romero movies such as Dawn of the Dead. There’s a satirical element to setting a zombie apocalypse movie in a shopping mall, of course, so they’re not so far apart.

From a brief read of the meditation harms literature, full George Romero style adverse effects appear to be not common.

(Conversely: derealisation effects from PTSD combat trauma can sometimes be very bad indeed).

Thank You

James 2021-02-28

Commenting on: Spacious freedom

That makes sense!

I will definitely have to check out EG more thoroughly.

Thank you again for all of your time and work!

Joy of Living

David Chapman 2021-02-28

Commenting on: Spacious freedom

I had not heard about this course before. I found a one-page overview of it. Interesting!

Just from that, it’s somewhat difficult to say. It’s broadly similar in presenting the Kagyu/Nyingma view in terms appropriate for contemporary Westerners. Some of the content will overlap, and it seems to take a generally life-positive attitude (unlike traditional mainstream Buddhism, and like Vajrayana in general).

My guess from the description there is that the specifics may be pretty different, both in terms of content and style. It does look a bit “nice”? Nothing wrong with that, depending on what an individual wants. EG isn’t un-nice, but may get more geeky and no-nonsense.

I’m not actually involved with it—I’d like to be, but I don’t have time currently. If you have further questions, it may be better to address questions to those involved directly.

Practice

James 2021-02-28

Commenting on: Spacious freedom

Thanks for your feedback, David!

I’m curious, do you have any familiarity with Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche’s Joy of Living course?

Do you think this is a similar approach to Evolving Ground (creating spaciousness/suspending meaning-making) or would you also classify this approach as another form of Consensus (nice) Buddhism?

I’ve really enjoyed reading your work here. Really interesting!

Putting it into practice

David Chapman 2021-02-28

Commenting on: Spacious freedom

All Vajrayana practices involve spaciousness in some way. (So much of the rest of this site is relevant!) However, some emphasize it more than others.

In general Buddhism, practices that aim toward emptiness are called “shamatha” or “shi-né.” When those are practiced in a Vajrayana style, they aim for positive “spaciousness” as I’ve described it here, rather than the negative “emptiness” as understood in Prasangika Madhyamaka.

You might like to check out Evolving Ground, a Vajrayana meditation community co-led by my spouse. They emphasize shi-né practice for this purpose.

Practice

James 2021-02-27

Commenting on: Spacious freedom

Hi David,

How would one put this into practice?

Thank you!

Meditation: What Works, What's Orthodox, What's Aberrant

Ignacio Prado 2021-02-21

Commenting on: Meditation risks, safety, goals, methods

My comment was mainly about what works in meditation, but you’ve only focused on the scholarly issue in response…

I’ll let you have the last word after this, because while I think I’ve made an honest effort to understand your perspective with respect to what’s at issue in this conversation and respond to it, I am not sure the converse is true. If I may characterize your perspective, it’s

“Why are you defining the path and goal of mainstream meditation in this clearly aberrant way and then claiming it’s dangerous or ineffective? Focus on what’s effective–which mainstream meditation largely is–and then interpret the tradition in light of that. Here’s all my work where I do that.”

Effectivity is goal-relative, so your pragmatic interpretations of the Pali canon are going to have to start with a goal. David’s post was not claiming traditional Sutric meditation methods are ineffective. He claimed something like the opposite–followed with intensity and focus, they can be all-too-effective at achieving their original goal, which is becoming passionless.

You claimed this was an aberrant way to understand the goal of meditation as it’s presented in the Pali canon (though sometimes you are not distinguishing technique and goal). So I responded with what I think is in fact an orthodox interpretation. Cherry-picking is a weird accusation when I am quoting from the First and Second Discourses of the Buddha and the Discourse on Establishing Mindfulness in their translations by an influential contemporary scholar-practitioner in the Thai-Forest Theravada tradition.

You are right to point out that consciously attempting to kill emotion as it arises isn’t much emphasized in the canon and wouldn’t work if it was. But here is where the distinction between technique and goal is important (or method and result). The Shakyamuni Buddha’s genius was in noting that, if you want to kill passion, the best thing to do is continuously get out of its way and let it die of its own accord, as all things will. Sutric meditation is, sometimes figuratively and sometimes literally, a process of killing passion and thereby suffering with the continuous kindness of letting be. This is a difficult method with a–from a modern perspective–quixotic goal, but luckily the three refuges can be of enormous help.

That most modern meditation practices don’t have this goal and don’t produce this result is a good thing. But the open question is how much of this is an accident of their modern mode of application vs. a product of their design. By design, Sutric meditation was an elite practice for celibate monks who were spending the rest of their day doing things like begging, memorizing or copying sutras, and chanting. That’s not the context in which most middle-class professionals engage with it. The question is what happens when they do–when they are not just looking to relieve stress but intensify practice and fundamentally transform their experience of the world and activity in it? Continuously alternating between focusing on a candle flame and shutting yours eyes is not, at the level of technique, “alienating” or schizoid, but do it for 12-hours a day on retreat and the result might be.

I hope and believe meditation can be effective and not lead to psychosis. It would be sad if I were spending an hour and a half a day on something ineffective or likely to make me crazy (though it wouldn’t be the first time). But the question remains what kind of meditation, effective for what, from what tradition. I have a preference for methods that come from later, non-dual traditions (Buddhist and non-Buddhist), that have robust pre-modern non-monastic expressions, that are more awareness based than highly concentrative, and whose goal is not getting out of the business of being and dying, but getting better at it. There’s some evidence that these methods are less subject to aberrant (from a modern perspective) results when intensified, but the science in this area is still very sparse, difficult, and agenda-driven. I accept that you have found effective ways to interpret the Pali canon and use it in conjunction with modern, mainstream presentations of meditation to achieve goals that are non-traditional from an early Buddhist perspective. My skepticism is around the generalizable reliability or necessity (given alternatives) of suppressing the central thrust of the early Buddhist tradition in this way.

Earth Goddesses

SusanC 2021-02-20

Commenting on: Meditation risks, safety, goals, methods

P.S. if becoming a sky god is an acceptable thing to claim as the objective of meditation, then what about being an earth goddess? Vasudhara, maybe…

(And there are dakinis, of course…)

Rainbow body

SusanC 2021-02-20

Commenting on: Meditation risks, safety, goals, methods

I am now wondering how seriously various different teachers are about the whole “rainbow body” idea.

Personally, I don’t take it seriously. (I think my personal conception of what an enlightened humanity would be like does not involve rainbow body).

But I suppose it is one possible answer someone might give to the question of “what is this method supposed to achieve?”

I am also now wondering what claims Machig Labdron makes for chöd, and what the Six Yogas of Naropa claims for dream yoga, candali, etc.

What works in meditation, and the Pali Canon

Commenting on: Meditation risks, safety, goals, methods

My comment was mainly about what works in meditation, but you’ve only focused on the scholarly issue in response. The issue of reading the Pali Canon for me is an illustration of the issue of what works, not the other way round. Of course if you cherry pick a lengthy and complex text to support your point, you can make it say what you like. However, you haven’t shown why alienated approaches to meditation work, and thus why anyone should choose to interpret the Pali Canon in that way. I also gave several examples from the Pali Canon of Middle Way approaches, which you have completely ignored. I particularly mentioned the Buddha’s renunciation of asceticism and the lute strings analogy (Anguttara Nikaya 6.55). There’s a lot more there if you want to work through the Pali Canon positively and find inspiration for the Middle Way there - all this material, far too much to discuss here, is collected and discussed in my book [‘The Buddha’s Middle Way’] (https://www.equinoxpub.com/home/buddhas-middle-way/)
- Equinox, 2019.

As for what you do quote, your interpretation of it is extremely one-sided. The term translated as ‘craving’ (tanha) probably does not refer to all desire, but only to obsessive forms of desire: ones that can be neurally distinguished as motivated by the ‘Reptilian brain’ but insufficiently contextualised by the frontal cortex. Some scholars distinguish kaama-chanda from dhamma-chanda as two sorts of desire. I agree that traditional Buddhism doesn’t distinguish craving from ordinary desire clearly enough, but that’s no reason to assume a palpably stupid interpretation. Instead we can choose to interpret it helpfully.

Similarly, ‘not-self’ can just as easily be interpreted as a bigger and more integrated context as a recommendation of alienated states. If you ask a meditation teacher about whether they recommend contemplation of the loathsomeness of the body for beginners, I hope you will get some pretty clear negative responses. Perhaps such practices were less alienating for people in the early Buddhist times, or perhaps they’re only for advanced practitioners, or perhaps they’re just mistaken. Either way, though, I suggest some positively motivated cherry-picking rather than negatively motivated cherry-picking. You’ll find it works equally well either way!

But the bigger point, which you haven’t responded to, is simply that alienated meditation does not work. Only basic psychology is required to work out why it does not work, namely that if you set up an internal conflict this just leaves you in a conflicted state, and prevents your energy being applied to longer-term goals. Such conflicts are characteristic of mental illnesses rather than therapeutic or morally efficacious practice. So, rather than presenting a version of meditation that does not work and warning people against doing it (as though it was just some sort of accident when it happens to work), I strongly suggest presenting a model of meditation that actually does work, so that you can encourage people to make positive use of it, and put negative side-effects in a much more helpful perspective.

Pali Canon

Ignacio Prado 2021-02-20

Commenting on: Meditation risks, safety, goals, methods

I’ve studied a fair amount of the Pali Canon material on meditation, and I can’t think of anything that remotely bears that interpretation…

All Buddhist history is contested, but, with respect to asceticism and as it relates to vows for Buddhist renunciates, the middle-way in the Pali canon is mostly characterized as accepting some meager food from begging rather than attempting to starve yourself.

From the very first discourse, the root of suffering is understood as “craving for sensual desires, craving for being, craving for non-being”. It is not understood as extreme or unbalanced craving. It is craving.

The result of the path in the very first discourse is understood as “remainderless fading and ceasing, giving up, relinquishing, letting go and rejecting, of that same craving.”

The method in the second discourse to get to that result is understood as one of estrangement from the craving self by recognizing its objects as not-self (impermanent and not subject to control):

“Bhikkhus, when a noble follower who has heard (the truth) [of not-self] sees thus, he finds estrangement in form, he finds estrangement in feeling, he finds estrangement in perception, he finds estrangement in determinations, he finds estrangement in consciousness.”

“When he finds estrangement, passion fades out. With the fading of passion, he is liberated.

The attempt to estrange oneself from the objects of craving can become unbalanced by forceful methods because the craving self can co-opt anything for its own use. The goal of the method, however, is still estrangement.

Finally, in the root sutra of mindfulness meditation in the Pali Canon, there is the famous contemplation of the body in its vile and unclean aspects:

In the same way, monks, a monk reflects on this very body from the soles of the feet on up, from the crown of the head on down, surrounded by skin and full of various kinds of unclean things: ‘In this body there are head hairs, body hairs, nails, teeth, skin, flesh, tendons, bones, bone marrow, kidneys, heart, liver, pleura, spleen, lungs, large intestines, small intestines, gorge, feces, bile, phlegm, pus, blood, sweat, fat, tears, skin-oil, saliva, mucus, fluid in the joints, urine.’

An interpretation of the import of these passages could be made in which what leads to suffering is not sensual desire, but unbalanced sensual desire; where realizing not-self is not a matter of being passionless, but of being equanimous and emotionally whole; or where the problem is not the body as it is, but the way we hide from ourselves the full reality of the body.

The Pali Canon also doesn’t speak univocally. There are the accounts of the absorptions and bliss states (though they are also usually framed as what the Buddha had already tried from existing yogic practice forms and found insufficient, even if necessary).

These are, however, modern interpretations and foci. They are reading back into early Buddhism what’s come after, especially reading back into it what we want out of it, because we aren’t particularly motivated by what it was made for, which is, for renunciates, release from a cycle of continuous rebirth and death (and, for householders, a better rebirth that might eventually lead to being a renunciate). You can evolve early Buddhist practice forms for other–more modern–goals, but it’s worth asking if other historical practice forms might not be a better fit, requiring fewer epicycles.

It’s even in the DSM..

SusanC 2021-02-19

Commenting on: Meditation risks, safety, goals, methods

The psychiatrist’s manual, DSM-5, had, in at least one of its revisions, “Qi gong psychotic reaction” as a possible diagnosis. It would seem likely that insofar as this is actually a thing, it isn’t specific to qigong and can also manifest in other meditative traditions. In any case, the basic idea that this can happen is well established enough to have got a diagnostic code all of its own in the psychiatrists manuals.

From what I’ve heard from meditators, adverse reactions to meditation or are indeed possible but pretty rare. What’s the actual risk probability seems a reasonable question to ask,

=====

Buddhist philosophical argument sometimes ends up trying to distinguish shunyata from nihilism.

There’s possibly something related, which is to explain why the expected outcome state of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy … or meditative traditions … is not the same thing as dissociation.

(Some parts of the chöd sadhana sound alarmingly like dissociation … but my belief/hope is that there’s an important distinction. This comment is already long, so I won’t try to justify that claim)

Meditation

Robert M Ellis 2021-02-07

Commenting on: Meditation risks, safety, goals, methods

I’ve studied a fair amount of the Pali Canon material on meditation, and I can’t think of anything that remotely bears that interpretation. Samatha is specifically focused on mindfulness and loving-kindness, which are integrative, whilst vipassana focuses on insights. The Pali Canon account of the Buddha’s asceticism makes it clear why that approach does not work and instead offers the Middle Way - which, if it has been recognised in at least one area, has been applied in meditation: in the form of the lute-strings analogy, for instance. You can’t even relax the body, let alone achieve any kind of access state or jhana, by “killing emotions, thoughts and sensations”. If you are then going on to do vipassana reflections, you can’t do so successfully without initial relaxation.

There may have been teachers who taught in that alienated way, but if so you need to make it much clearer that this is an untypical spin off from the main meditation tradition in Buddhism. It’s also seriously inaccurate to claim that this is “pretty much the same thing” as secular mindfulness.

It’s not sufficient to hide behind the idea that different meditation techniques have different approaches and intentions. Some of them work better than others, and most Western use has understandably gravitated towards what works. Instead, you here identify Buddhist meditation tradition in general with what doesn’t work, and as a result given a misleading impression of the dangers. You also make no attempt to differentiate between problems that are revealed by meditation and problems that are caused by meditation.

"Meditation": different practices with different purposes

David Chapman 2021-02-07

Commenting on: Meditation risks, safety, goals, methods

The word “meditation” covers a wide variety of practices with varying purposes, risks, and benefits. (As the post said.)

“Kill any remaining emotions, thoughts, sensations, and your sense of self” describes the role of vipassana as it was understood in circa-1900 Theravada Hinayana. (And also in the relevant suttas as far as I understand.) Other practices have other purposes.

The post points to the risk of using that practice to accomplish opposite or unrelated purposes, such as integrating rather than eliminating emotions. The risk increases depending on how intensively you practice and how closely you stick to the original method. The post was prompted by reports of bad outcomes from practicing a recently-developed “hardcore” technical system that conforms more closely than most to traditional instructions and encourages long, intense sessions that are supposed to result in loss of sensory contact and so forth.

Contemporary “mindfulness” and vipassana-lite methods mostly derive from Mahasi’s method, which he invented in an ascetic, life-rejecting framework. They’ve been adapted for modern purposes, apparently partly successfully. Clinical outcomes suggest that, despite modifications, they can still have the originally intended result of depersonalization and derealization.

I don’t know what practice(s) you mean by “meditation.” If they avoid those risks, that’s great.

There are Vajrayana practices who explicit aim is to integrate emotions. They might be a better starting point for adaptation than Hinayana methods, if that is one’s aim.

Meditation

Robert M. Ellis 2021-02-07

Commenting on: Meditation risks, safety, goals, methods

I found this very surprising in your often insightful work, as it seems to show that you simply don’t have a clue about meditation. How can anyone who regularly meditates, and claims to have found it beneficial, describe meditation as aiming to “Kill any remaining emotions, thoughts, sensations, and your sense of self”, apparently without any significant qualification? If you’re engaged in any remotely helpful practice (and I don’t know what practices you’ve done) the aim is to integrate emotions, thoughts and sensations, not to ‘kill’ them. To ‘kill’ them (i.e. repress or eliminate them) is simply bad meditation practice. Whilst I’d be happy to accept that people sometimes fail to integrate negative emotions that they encounter in meditation, and thus experience ‘negative effects’ (which I would say are negative effects of unintegrated conflict, not of meditation making you aware of that conflict), your inaccurate way of characterising what people are trying to do when they engage in any kind of helpful meditation practice does not seem to help anyone understand what is going wrong when this happens.

Zen and the Art of the Practical Joke

James 2021-02-05

Commenting on: Meditation risks, safety, goals, methods

From some the stories I’ve read about Zen masters, Zen seems to turn you into a kind of Trickster figure who likes to tear down others’ pretensions. Probably that comes from the influence of Chaungtzu.

I have to say that becoming the sort of person who sneaks all the monastery’s pots and pans out into yard at night — then gives flip answers when he’s caught and questioned about it — sounds a lot better than becoming a zombie.

On the other hand, if you’re already lonely and alienated, something that puts even more distance between you and society seems like it could tip you over the edge.

Do you have a teacher?

Eric 2021-02-05

Commenting on: Meditation risks, safety, goals, methods

If you’re practicing Mahamudra or Dzogchen, I wonder how you’re doing it without a teacher. I think Samaya is probably necessary. That’s my understanding, as well as my experience. Otherwise, it’s inevitable that it becomes your personal trip.

Approaching Aro

David Chapman 2021-01-28

Commenting on: About my sites

Explained here. In short, I merged the stuff that wasn’t Aro-specific into Vividness. The Aro lineage web team is working on a new site that will eventually have some of the rest merged into it.

Where did "Approaching Aro" website go?

pepe 2021-01-27

Commenting on: About my sites

Where did “Approaching Aro” website go?

Evolving Ground

Michał 2021-01-20

Commenting on: Unclogging

who were often geeky within their own culture, but had many cultural assumptions we’d probably consider nonsense

Right, that’s a very good point.

Thanks for the pointers! I’ve already seen Evolving Ground, and it looked very promising, but then I found out that there were only 15 spots for people who actually wanted to learn Vajrayana, all sold out. It looks like that if I become a standard “degenerate” patron, I will just be able to listen to talks and discussions about how wonderful and marvellous Vajrayana is, which sounds a lot like reading your blog – it’s all very interesting, but in the end it doesn’t provide many clues about what I actually can do or how I can practise. Is there any way around that? Or am I interpreting this wrong?

Teachers

David Chapman 2021-01-19

Commenting on: Unclogging

is there something special about the tantric attitude that makes it difficult to learn without a teacher?

I think the answer is probably yes, but again I don’t know for sure. It’s not easily described; it helps a lot to watch others doing it.

I’m trying to find a way around “you need a teacher, but there isn’t any”.

The people who most nearly practice “no nonsense geeky tantra” learned from traditional teachers (who were often geeky within their own culture, but had many cultural assumptions we’d probably consider nonsense).

Recently my spouse Charlie Awbery cofounded a Vajrayana meditation community, Evolving Ground, which has a geeky, no-nonsense attitude. There are free and paid membership options. Charlie also teaches 1-on-1 directly if you aren’t interested in being part of a group.

Other teachers you might check out include Hokai Sobol and Michael Taft.

I agree

David Chapman 2021-01-18

Commenting on: After Buddhist Ethics

I think I agree with everything you said there!

I can only guess, but probably not?

David Chapman 2021-01-18

Commenting on: Unclogging

Do you think it’s possible to have a teacherless tantric practice by taking psychoactive substances?

I don’t know. My guess is no, but I don’t know enough about either psychedelics or tantra to be able to say.

On the other hand, it’s not clear that “tantra” is defined clearly enough for this to be a well-formed question. Whether something counts as tantra is inherently somewhat nebulous.

Some authorities say that the teacher-student relationship is the defining feature of tantra. Not just that it is pragmatically required to accomplish something else, but that it is the whole point.

Maybe it’s best to turn this around on you: what do you mean by “tantra,” and why? Why do you care? What do you hope “tantric” practice would do?

This question, about psychedelics as a means in tantra, comes up pretty regularly. I suspect a lot of people have tried. I don’t know of any clear successes, but maybe I’ve missed them.

Why does it seem plausible? Maybe the reasoning is that both involve “Wow, way out, cosmic, man!” non-ordinary experiences. But those are somewhat incidental for tantra. More a common, unnecessary side-effect than the point.

does one really need apprenticeship with formal training and an intensive mentor-student relationship?

As far as we know, for architecture and trial lawyers, yes. Also, as far as we know, for tantra, yes. It’s possible that there are alternate approaches in each case, but no one has yet made that work.

Buddhist ethics is dead

SusanC 2021-01-18

Commenting on: After Buddhist Ethics

<block quote>Maybe I killed it</block quote>

I don’t know if you intended the allusion, but as I was reading that I was thinking of Nietzsche’s “God is dead and we have killed him. Oh murderer of murderers” etc.

Philosophy of ethics

SusanC 2021-01-18

Commenting on: After Buddhist Ethics

Hi David,

I’ve recently been reading Nagarjuna’s Middle Way, and it strikes me that it doesn’t have much to say about the philosophy of ethics. Lots of epistemology, but short on ethics.

My own prejudice is a feeling that it ought to have one. In Plato’s Euthypro, Socrates argues with Euthypro that doing what the Gods tell you isn’t going to cut it as an ethical theory. Although I might be something of a postmodern skeptic towards Plato’s overall project, the feeling that we ought to have justifications remains. ( “These fornicating monks are making the sangha look bad” seems to be the main justification behind much of the Vinaya).

There is possibly an ethical theory implicit somewhere in Machig Labdron, although not spelled out. To my modern taste, at least, once you’ve declared that there is no God and moved on to the practical details of how to make a flute out of a human thigh bone, there ought to be something somewhere that keeps your coreligionists within some kind of sane bounds…

In short: even if vajrayana didn’t traditionally have a philosophy of ethics, as modern people we feel we could do with obtaining one from somewhere.

Well, you could try it?

David Chapman 2021-01-16

Commenting on: Unclogging

These are excellent questions; thank you!

I think your central question may answer itself. What are you missing? Well, you could try doing the practices you suggested, and see what happens, as you said. Maybe they’ll be dramatically effective!

(I wouldn’t suggest that just anyone do them. Some people are emotionally fragile. You sound like you are probably pretty robust, in which case they are probably not significantly dangerous.)

Or, you could ask yourself what you guess would happen if you tried them. (What do you think would happen?)

My guess, for what it’s worth, is: not much. (I could be wrong!)

If you try them, and find that not much happens; or if you save yourself a few hours and don’t bother because it seems like not much will happen, then: yes, there’s something you are missing. (Either that or Tantra isn’t really a thing, which of course is a reasonable hypothesis until you’ve discovered something significant from it.)

So what are you missing? It’s not a secret, and I’m not trying to hide it. If I could tell you, I would. The reason I abandoned the project is that I can’t. I mean, I can’t; there are some people who can. That’s what a Tantric teacher is, and I’m not.

There’s nothing magical about that (in my opinion—the traditional view is that it is magical, but I don’t believe that). It’s something not many people can do, though. And in most cases, they have to be roundabout about it. It generally takes several years to get the point across.

That’s true for many disciplines; you don’t get to be an architect or trial lawyer by reading some blog posts and watching Khan Academy videos. You have to learn those things by apprenticeship.

The point of the “reinventing” series was not to teach Tantra, but to think out loud about how it could be adapted to modern (or meta-modern) culture. I never actually got to write about that, because I got side-tracked into explaining Tantric basics instead, which was a mistake. That basic explanation was never intended to give readers the tools to actually do Tantra, though. It was just conceptual background for the “reinventing” ideas, which I never got to.

so many conclusions

friend 2021-01-16

Commenting on: Emptiness, form, and Dzogchen ethics

It seems to me you are primary a scholar of Buddhism, and by that surely a very smart and crafty one indeed. I am absolutely not able to climb on that montain of conclusions of yours; it is so far in height, and yet there is no ceiling. Reading the Sutras and philosophizing, abusing the intellect in search of thusness, there is only forgetfulness and confusion. To let go of the mind is to find the mind, said Dogen, thinking non-thinking. Of course, it may be fun, from time to time, to dip one toe into abhidharma. But after one moment, IT becomes phenomenology, a place for the intellect to dwell on, cut off from non-thinking, cut off from wisdom born out of suchness. In endless time, you may accumulate knowledge to compare, analyze and discern all things build on thought, but this montain of ideas will never be complete, but crumble and crush enlightenment.