Dharma Talks

Life is WHAT? 

10/19/11 – The first noble truth of Buddhism is that “Life is Suffering.” This can be really confusing and if it is misunderstood it can lead to a lack of motivation in practice. This talk reviews the first noble truth and how it applies to practice.

What is Insight?

9/26/11 – There is an important difference between psychological insight and the insights that occur on the contemplative path. This talk addresses some of the confusion that can occur when we mix the two.

11.8.11 What is “The Path”?: The Progress of Insight Explained

What do people mean when they say they are “on the path?” In this talk the 16 stages of insight are described in a clear and down to earth way.

  1. Awesome talk, Ron. Thanks so much for posting this!
    When I first started reading about the Three Characteristics, I assumed that there was a big problem associated with this teaching–namely, that you will find whatever it is you seek, because the act of “trying to see” the Three Cs is inherently biased. And in fact I later heard one teacher on a Buddhist Geeks podcast criticize the idea of the Three Cs for precisely this reason.

    What I love about your approach is that you make very clear that these are universal qualities of phenomena that the mind notices in and of itself (as when you talk about the mind syncing up with phenomena in their various phases). The aforementioned kind of bias would seem to be more of a problem in contemplative approaches that are based on thinking about the way things are. But in the Mahasi lineage–unlike, say, the debate-focused Gelukpas of Tibet–there isn’t a big emphasis on contemplating the Three Cs discursively, right? Upandita writes “would one be justified in saying that one has had an insight into impermanence through reading about the impermanent state of things? Can one say an insight has occurred at the moment when one’s teacher says that all things pass away? Or can one deeply understand impermanence through deductive or inductive reasoning? The answer is a firm ‘No.’ True insight only occurs in the presence of nonthinking, bare awareness of the passing away of phenomena in the present moment.”

    So insight in the phenomenological lineage is not about contemplating or reflecting on the Three Cs, but about seeing reality for what it is, and since reality is what it is, it is inevitable that you’ll see the Three Cs if you pay attention to phenomena as they arise and pass away. My question is, to what extent do you even “try to see” the Three Cs at all? Does it happen completely naturally, without any particular effort to see this or that quality of reality? There is some emphasis, isn’t there, on paying attention to the endings of phenomena?

    Also, the reality we’re discovering here isn’t cosmological, right? We’re talking about the reality of how humans suffer when they cling to and create a self out of fleeting, somatosensory inputs, rather than saying that, through introspection, we can make assertions about the ultimate nature of the universe?
    OK, I’ve had my coffee this morning!

    • Hi Joel,

      Wow these are good questions – I had to go get some coffee of my own to answer them!

      Your first question is about whether we should try to see the three C’s in our meditation. The answer is mostly “no” but with a smidge of “yes” as well. The three C’s are indeed universal to all phenomena we experience, and because of this we can understand them from a shallow perspective or from a deep perspective. The shallow perspective is the intellectual one (sorry to all the intellectuals out there), and the deep perspective is the felt experience of something as it occurs in the moment. The difference is striking when it is actually known for oneself. It is the difference between hearing someone describe the taste of a pear and taking a bite of one – there is just no comparison, taking a bite for yourself is so much better. So actually “seeing” wins out over intellectualizing each and every time. When we go looking for the three C’s what we typically get is a lot of discursive thinking about things like growing old, getting sick, memories, etc. In other words, our personal individual story. This is not very helpful. So the best thing is to watch what happens to everything in awareness from moment to moment. Inevitably the three C’s will show themselves in a much more clear and direct way with this approach.

      Here is where the smidge of yes comes in: once you do have direct knowledge of the three C’s it is then alright to deliberately look for them (to a limited extent) and try to know them even better as they are happening. It is a bit like one of those “Magic Eye” pictures – once you have figured out how to actually see the picture within the picture, you can then examine it. Until then, if you try to examine what you see, you just get lost and confused in an idea and it might seem like you understand but you really do not. It’s better to go back to the beginning and learn how to actually look at the picture first. Take impermanence for example. Someone who has only contemplated it intellectually might describe it in terms of the inexorable movement of time and inevitable decay of all matter, etc. But someone who is, say, currently at the Arising and Passing stage in their meditation would describe impermanence in terms of a directly felt zoom, a pulsing and vibration that the is at the center of all experience, usually covered over by the busyness of our minds. The difference is pretty stark – one is insight and the other is just thinking. Once that person has a direct taste of impermanence in their meditation it is alright to then begin to look for it, and a remarkable thing happens, the “flavor” of the characteristic begins to change. It is almost as if you are learning about how deep and complex it truly is. So to go back to our yogi at the A&P, let’s say that she gets the practice instruction to look at the endings of phenomena as they appear in the moment. This will help her to move into the next stage, Dissolution, at which point she will come to feel impermanence in a new way. And deeper it goes, with each progressive insight stage.

      As far as cosmological questions go, I’m not sure about any of that. Unfortunately I just don’t know. However, I can say that a lot of what we think are “cosmological” descriptions in the suttas are actually descriptions of directly felt moment to moment experience and not just deep thoughts.


      • Hi Ron.
        Thanks a million for the very clear and helpful response. The ‘Magic Eye’ analogy makes a lot of sense to me. And of course, there’s nothing inherently wrong with contemplating the qualities of a peach or describing its taste to someone else. It’s just that we often forget that the taste is what’s important or primary. We collect the best poems about eating peaches and then neatly arrange the volumes on our shelf, right? Dare to eat the peach!
        Talk to you soon,

  2. This is as thorough a discussion of the nature of insight as I have heard anywhere. I am a long time practitioner but am always interested in hearing the same truths discussed from a different perspective. Thank you for your wisdom.

Leave a Reply to JoelG Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: