I’ve been thinking a lot about what “pragmatic dharma” is lately. This is partly because I’m trying to get my own head straight as I write about it, and partly because Jack Kornfield recently criticized it on Buddhist Geeks. Kornfield, in his usual gentle style, was mostly circumspect in his criticism, but he did say that the leaders of the pragmatic dharma movement (I’m assuming he means Kenneth Folk and Daniel Ingram) have redefined key concepts in Buddhism. He suggested that the attainments aimed for in pragmatic dharma are, in essence, not the real thing. Coming from the author of A Path with Heart, one of the most easy-going, downright cuddly dharma books out there (while also covering some deep wisdom), such direct criticism is pretty harsh stuff. He also pointed out that the idea that people could attain enlightenment in lay life, a key idea in pragmatic circles, is something that does not make a lot of sense to him and that the experiences and insights a person has in lay life are not the same, not as “transformative,” as what occurs in a more rigorous monastic setting like the Mahasi centers in Burma. He seemed to imply that he understood what goes on in those places while Kenneth and Daniel do not, and so they are redefining things out of misunderstanding. This is odd, because both Kenneth and Daniel spent significant stretches of time in the Asian centers Kornfield is referring to, in the exact same lineage as him, so something isn’t quite making sense. It really seems like a he said/she said sort of situation. I disagree with him here, so hope I didn’t just distort his point of view too much.
Given that Kenneth Folk was my teacher and I benefited immeasurably from the pragmatic approach he used, I was a bit taken aback by Kornfield’s critique. I love his work, and generally think he knows what he is talking about in such matters, so I wondered if there was a misunderstanding or clash of personalities at work rather than a substantial critique. I mean, does he really understand what pragmatic dharma is? Does anyone? What is it really? As I thought about this I came up with a handful of characteristics that I think give pragmatic dharma its shape at present.
Pragmatism – this one is so important it is right in the name. I think that it is the defining characteristic because it stands in contrast to the way the dharma is being taught in mainstream Buddhism in the west. The mainstream has key elements of the Buddhist practice, but it often seems to be more a kind of lifestyle, identity, or a spiritualized form of psychotherapy, rather than a focus on awakening itself or the working elements of practice. It strongly emphasizes uncoupling meditation from attainments, as a sort of de-stressing strategy for a harried western world. This is a very different version of Buddhism from the traditional approach, which strongly emphasizes attaining specific outcomes, like insight knowledges or stream entry, which are viewed as imminently practical. In the westernized version of Buddhism these practical attainments, and even awakening itself, seem to go out of focus and become a kind of aspirational concept rather than a reality. Kornfield actually said as much in his Buddhist Geeks interview, and what is interesting about this from a historical perspective is that he had a very important role to play in this transformation of Buddhism in the west, which is documented in the book Mindful America. This new style of dharma, unique to the west, was dubbed the “mushroom culture” by Bill Hamilton (the teacher of both Daniel Ingram, Kenneth Folk, and founder of the Dharma Seed audio library) who reportedly explained that this new western approach is like growing mushrooms, you “keep them in the dark and feed them shit.” Pragmatic dharma is a reaction against this new westernized style. It is a move to focus on what matters in the dharma – awakening and what leads to it – rather than the things that seem to be more lifestyle or therapy oriented. It is ironic that Kornfield critiques pragmatic dharma as redefining Buddhism away from the traditional meanings, because that is exactly the critique pragmatic dharma folks are making of mainstream Buddhism in the west.
Transparency – pragmatic dharma is big on breaking the taboo on talking about attainments. It means coming right out and saying so if you attained a jhana, had a cessation, or know what an insight is like because you had it first hand. The upside of this is that it invites people to see these things as real rather than fairy tales (which the mushroom culture seems to encourage). It also eliminates the weird game of spiritual marco polo that sometimes gets played when people talk around their own attainments rather than about them. The downside is that it provides an opening for people who simply want to make things up. If it becomes chic to say you attained jhana then no doubt people are going to start redefining jhana to match whatever they experience in meditation, that’s going to lead to a lot of confusion. So on this I can see the validity of the criticism. But does that mean we really need a taboo that leads people to not take these things seriously? Perhaps there can be a middle ground here. I can imagine a situation in which people are encouraged to be open about their attainments within select company. There are plenty of aspects of our lives that we keep private except with a close group, perhaps attainments can start to fall into a similar category. Not quite public, not quite taboo, but something we are open about with those who are going to understand and not overreact.
Digital – pragmatic dharma is a sangha in the cloud. There are communities, but they are mostly online communities. Message boards, forums, blogs, podcasts, and other online mediums are the spaces where ideas pop up and are explored. The Hamilton Project has a great list of pragmatic dharma sites. Buddhist Geeks has an online training program that looks fantastic, and pragmatically minded lay teachers (like myself) often teach people meditation online, via skype or other forms of live online interaction. Small groups meet in person in cities all over the world, but for the most part it is an online phenomenon. This gives it an interesting radical quality. There is something rebellious in spirit about pragmatic dharma that is found in many web-based movements. It is untethered to institutions and traditional hierarchies, and in this sense it is the dharma equivalent of Bitcoin or Wikipedia. A decentralized, crowdsourced fund of emerging wisdom and experimentation, that is unpredictable and destabilizing to established approaches. Some of the ideas that come out of it are destined to fail, like so many internet phenomena, but some are very good and deserve to be taken seriously. The internet is the perfect medium for this kind of experimentation.
Secularism – not everyone who is interested in pragmatic dharma is secular, but so many are it is difficult not to see a trend. Kenneth Folk is openly secular in his approach, eschewing the religious tradition and dogma for a more scientific and modern view of meditation as “brain training” or “contemplative fitness.” As he said in a 2013 article for Wired Magazine “All that woo-woo mystical stuff, that’s really retrograde.” This trend in pragmatic dharma makes sense because secularism is in essence a scientific perspective, and the scientific perspective is almost pragmatic by definition. From a scientific perspective things only cross the threshold from woo-woo to reality when they’ve been shown to actually work in some fundamental way. This is a version of what pragmatic dharma is doing by focusing on attainments. The moment one takes attainments seriously then one has a sensible way to gauge whether things actually work or not. The threshold is the attainment. And the test of whether something works is whether it leads one closer to the attainment or is merely, to use Kenneth’s phrase, woo-woo. A secular focus means that those aspects of practice that actually work to produce insight and awakening take primary importance, while dogma, doctrine, and cultural additions tend to fall away. This leads to pragmatic dharma’s focus on techniques, maps, or even practices outside of any tradition, while downplaying mainstream Buddhism’s lifestyle-oriented focus.
A focus on ordinary life – most people involved in pragmatic dharma fall into the category of lay practitioners, but what makes them different from lay sangha in the past is that they are not (for the most part) focused on building merit by serving a monastic community in the hope of awakening in future life. They are focused on awakening in this life. This is an idea taken whole from the vipassana revival in Asia that led to the mindfulness movement in the west (see The Birth of Insight for a history of this movement in Burma). Ledi Sayadaw, Mahasi Sayadaw, Goenka, and others spread the idea that lay people could practice Satipatthana meditation and learn Abhidhamma well enough to move along the path while also participating in ordinary life. As a result of this movement great lay teachers such as Anagarika Munindra and Dipa Ma, who were major influences on the western mindfulness movement, were able to teach and spread the idea that awakening is possible in lay life. As the vipassana movement landed in the west it brought this idea with it, and the idea that one could practice meditation and study Buddhism in lay life flourished. Yet the idea that awakening is possible in lay life is deemphasized as attainments take a back seat to a focus on de-stressing and coping with lay life effectively. Pragmatic dharma takes the idea that awakening is possible in ordinary life literally and seriously.
These five characteristics, pragmatism, transparency, a digital community, secularism, and focusing on awakening in ordinary life, are what gives pragmatic dharma its current shape. But there is something else that is worth understanding about them. They are occurring within a much larger picture that, I think, defines the disagreement that leads someone like Kornfield to criticize this upstart movement, and that is the presence of what I have come to call the “silent sangha.” Right now there is a vast group of people in the west who meditate regularly, practice mindfulness at the office, or are going through mindfulness based stress reduction courses on their doctor’s advice, who are gradually getting deeper and deeper into the world of meditation. They love meditation, but they really do not care much about Buddhism. There is a disconnect between them and a fuller understanding of meditation, beyond mindfulness, and in the coming decades the challenge for Buddhism will be to package and deliver the deeper teachings to them in a way they can understand and which will help them take the next step toward awakening. The silent sangha is a massive and paradigm-shaping group. More than any teacher, more than any blog, magazine, book or traditional institution, it is they who will shape what the dharma is going to look like in the west. What will Buddhism look like in the west when they start to take awakening seriously? If you think this is not a possibility, I’d urge you to read 10% Happier by Dan Harris and get an inside look at his transformation from skeptic, to mindfulness fan, to someone who tentatively wonders if awakening is possible in this life. I think there are millions of people just like Harris, and their minds are gradually opening to this possibility.
It is in this context that a new approach to Buddhism, a truly western approach friendly to the western worldview, is going to emerge. Will it focus on attainments and awakening in this life? Or will it remain lifestyle and therapy oriented? Will it find a way to combine the two? What will western Buddhism become once the silent sangha collectively decides to go deeper? These are the big questions that are the backdrop for the disagreement that Kornfield is having with pragmatic dharma, and that pragmatic dharma is having with mainstream Buddhism. It isn’t really about what Buddhism from Asia is, or whether particular claims about attainments are true or not, it is really about what western Buddhism is going to become. In this context these disagreements seem healthy and vital rather than divisive or harsh. They are a sign that bigger trends are on the move and growth is occurring.
I’m curious to see where it all goes.
Enlightenment is real. It is a real as anything else in life. It is real like love is real. It is real like the color blue is real. But there is something tricky about it – it is what scientists call “qualia,” that is, it is something that cannot be measured, quantified, or understood through the standard tools of science. But that may be changing, because science is changing.
Along with being real, enlightenment is very mysterious. It is very difficult to understand, and in a fundamental way, it cannot be understood rationally. Like any qualia, it has to be experienced to be known. And when something is both real and mysterious it won’t be long before science becomes curious about it, no matter how difficult it is to study.
In the past when something was both real and mysterious, we used the science of ages past to understand it. And that usually meant we worshipped it. That is what happened with enlightenment. We built temples to it, bowed down to it, erected monuments in our minds and in our hearts to it, and encased it layers of the best cutting-edge thinking available at the time – which we now call superstition. While these things are good at preservation, they are terrible at changing with better information. They ossify the ignorance as well as the truth. Luckily, within most enlightenment traditions, this is widely understood and so tradition is simultaneously respected and chided by the great teachers. Enlightenment became entangled with religion, with identity, and with belief a long time ago and that is not going to change anytime soon. But things are going to change. Call me optimistic. Call me crazy. But things seem to be changing gradually, and it could be that we are about to see a true science of enlightenment.
Why do I think this? There are a few reasons. The ballooning funding for meditation research, both in the NIH and from private foundations is one reason. The increasing number of scientists, industry and tech leaders, and ordinary people who are experiencing enlightenment for themselves (and becoming vocal about it) is another. But mostly it comes down to whether scientists themselves are serious about this idea, and it seems like that may be happening. For the first time in history, many people with serious funding and institutional resources are seriously considering whether enlightenment can be studied scientifically, and questions about whether such a thing is possible invites curiosity rather than opprobrium at scientific conferences. Some tentative studies are breaking new ground, and because enlightenment is real, they are finding something. But the quality of the research has not been very good. The fact that they are finding something is a clue as to what could happen next. As the quality improves and the questions become more sophisticated, the results of such research will do the same thing Galileo’s telescope did for our understanding of the world – confirm a vaster reality while overturning centuries of dogma. And that is something scientists love to do. If it begins to happen we may see a boom in the study of topics that were once thought off-limits to science – indeed we may already be seeing it.
A century from now people may look back and realize that ours was a time when the broader culture had the first inklings that enlightenment just might be real. When we began the slow exit from a long dark age, a time when we knew very little about our most fundamental nature, and entered a time when a reasonable, clear-headed view of spiritual enlightenment became as accessible as any other kind of knowledge. When people began to take it as seriously as some of the stranger ideas in psychology or physics. A time may be coming when people will have as much respect and awe for brain scans of enlightened minds as they have for Hubble deep field images. But I suspect getting there will not be easy. There will be a lot of arguing, and likely some very unenlightened behavior. We are already seeing the beginnings of this change, as some traditionalists deride the secularisation of Buddhist ideas, and others, like the Dalai Lama, are embracing the change. This is only the beginning of a much larger debate that we will be having in the coming decades.
We are nearly there. I’m keeping my fingers crossed that my grandkids will be able to enroll in Awakening 101 in their freshman year of college. Until then, we should all keep urging serious people to take enlightenment seriously.
The takeaway: This is a high-level dharma book about a complex topic that baffles many who study it. The book is a good one for those who want to get serious about studying the doctrine of dependent arising.
In 2000 I started attending a Sri Lankan Buddhist Vihara in Washington D.C., where I learned to meditate and also discovered the joy of Sri Lankan Buddhist books. I was a naive american who bought most of his books from Borders, and at the vihara’s little bookshop I discovered a whole new world of Buddhist thought and philosophy that was much more compelling than anything I encountered before. Eventually I travelled to Sri Lanka, stayed in meditation centers there, and returned with a pretty serious meditation practice – and a suitcase full of books. These were the kinds of books that wouldn’t make the Oprah book club, or crack any bestseller lists. They were never meant to. They were the hardest of the hardcore dharma, and I learned a lot from them. This experience taught me something about modern Buddhist culture that everyone should know, the best writing on Buddhism is not happening in the states, or anywhere in the west. The best books, even in english, come out of Buddhist countries. Within Sri Lanka there are many independent presses that regularly put out some the best books on Buddhism. These books, often written by monks or advanced lay meditators, specialize in the deepest and most perplexing aspects of Buddhist philosophy and meditation. For those who like (or need) such things, these books are absolute treasures. They are traded among friends and cherished, and given as gifts to build merit and show respect to the recipient. Palitha Mapatuna’s new book Dependent Arising, available from The Buddhist Cultural Centre in Sri Lanka, falls squarely in that category.
Dependent Arising is just like it’s name – clear and to the point. Mapatuna wastes no time dressing up the ideas or watering them down, but instead he lays out the case for this particular aspect of the Buddha’s teaching like a professor laying out a geometric proof, step by patient step. Keeping up with him can be a little difficult, and at times I found myself rereading sections several times in order to make sure I understood before moving on. This is important, because each point builds on the next, and so if you dive into this book I would advise taking your time. It is not a long book, but it is information-rich. Have some scratch paper handy too. At times the only way I could follow the logic was to literally diagram it out for myself on paper. Mapatuna takes on a complicated topic here, and he clearly assumes that the reader is ready to handle it’s deepest complexities.
For those unfamiliar with the doctrine of dependent arising (or if, like me, you need a refresher), it is the Buddha’s most complete expression of why things are the way they are. It shows how, in a chain of linked phenomena, hooked together like train cars rolling down the track of time, past lives connect to this present moment, and how we end up in so much distress.
A couple of big points to keep in mind about dependent arising. First, it is not a chain of cause and effect, but rather a chain of interdependence. The links in the chain are not caused by the preceding links, but rather depend on them, the same way the leg of a table depends on all the others to remain standing. Second, and this is the biggest issue I hear about from many westerners, this doctrine goes explicitly into past and future lives. For some, this has led them to dismiss it out of hand. That would be a big mistake. Even if you don’t believe in past lives you can still find use in dependent arising, because many of the links occur in this very instant. You can observe them happening even as you read this. This model represents one of the most nuanced examinations of our present-moment psychology to come out of Buddhism.
Here are the 12 links summed up as I understand them (Mapatuna does a much better job of it in his book):
- Ignorance – in our past and present lives we mistake things that cause us unhappiness for things that make us happy. This links up to:
- Determinants – because we didn’t know better (in past lives and in this one) we build a momentum with “determinants,” which are things like intentions and volitions, that keeps the mind running after the things that make us unhappy. This momentum links up to:
- Consciousness – a primitive form of raw consciousness, carried by the momentum of past volitions, jumps from one life to the next, linking to:
- Mind and Matter – In this model we’ve just arrived in the here-and-now and are in the world that everyone, Buddhist or not, can agree exists. The raw stuff of our subjective experience. These two basic elements then link to:
- The six senses – Don’t be thrown by “six” senses, Buddhists include the mind as a sense along with sight, touch, hearing, etc. With the link of mind and matter, along with the six senses, the next link is:
- Contact – Mind and matter and the six senses come in contact. For those who are heavy solipsists and think that Buddhism is an expression of that, think again. The Buddha is clearly demarcating internal and external phenomena here, otherwise “contact” would be meaningless. This link is the world of flowing experiences you are in right this second. Thoughts, feelings, moods, sensations and other normal experiences are in this part of the model, which then links up to:
- Feeling – All of these flowing phenomena are automatically put through a lighting-fast sorting process which puts them into one of three basic categories: we like it, don’t like it, or don’t care. This is usually expressed as “pleasant, unpleasant, and neutral.” Feeling then links up to:
- Craving – Once something is sorted into one of the three baskets we want more of it, less of it, or ignore it. This is the part of the model that is most critical for insight practice, because up until this point things were happening so quickly and automatically that we could not really do more than observe, but at this critical link we can actually get to work. There is a subtle pulling toward pleasant feelings, pushing away of unpleasant feelings, and this push and pull often goes on at the edge of awareness. With awareness of what is happening to us we can see this craving as it occurs, put it front and center in our minds, and make a deliberate choice about how to respond, a lot of the practice has to do with how we make these choices. Craving links up to:
- Grasping/Taking up – this is action. In Buddhist philosophy this is where new karma is made. Grasping is usually habitual and automatic. It happens all the time at a very subtle level, driving our behavior. But if we are watching craving closely and not reacting automatically, we can hold off on the grasping. Grasping links up to:
- Becoming/being – The model exits the immediate world that both Buddhists and non-Buddhists can agree on, and posits that grasping links up to the creation of future experiences and outcomes, including future lifetimes. Becoming is the link that connects what we do here and now to our next life. Becoming links to:
- Birth – you are born again.
- Aging and death – Because you are born again you go through the same painful struggles again.
These are the spokes on the wheel of samsara, going round and round, and Mapatuna’s reflection on it in Dependent Arising points out how rich this model really is. It fits perfectly with the other aspects of the teaching, such as the four noble truths, the five aggregates, and most of the other Buddhist descriptions of our condition. That makes sense, because this model is (according to the Pali texts) the very thing that the Buddha realized under the Bodhi tree on the night of his enlightenment, discerning the links in the first watch of night, followed by the links in reverse order in the second. To understand this model is to grasp something crucial about what the Buddha experienced on the night of his enlightenment, but understanding it isn’t easy. Every time it seems clear, another mystery about it comes into view. Indeed, when Ananda told the Buddha that he understood it the Buddha admonished him to think again, saying that he had not really grasped its profundity.
If you want to grasp it, this book would be a good support to your efforts. I’d recommend this book if you are already familiar with the model of dependent arising, know its importance, and are ready to get serious about understanding it. Mapatuna’s particular skill in this book is not merely describing the links, but showing how they link together, and what evidence shows those connections. It is a book for a serious reader, ready to grapple with some profound ideas.
“The Buddhist revolution has not arrived yet, because no one realizes how radical the Buddha was talking…”
If you don’t know who Kenneth Folk is, do yourself a favor and watch this. He is my old teacher and I continue to learn from him every time he talks. In this fascinating interview he offers a secular perspective on awakening. The host, Rick Archer, has a background in nonduality and Kenneth’s approach is very different for him. So the questions are right to the point and really great.
Daniel Ingram was recently interviewed on Buddha at the Gas Pump, and the interview is long and ranges from the societal changes that could happen from meditation, to the the differences between vipassana-style awakening and nondual awakening, to technical vipassana insights.
Overall, this is a great interview. If you are not familiar with Daniel Ingram you can check out his website here, or visit the Dharma Overground, the meditation forum he manages, here. Buddha at the Gas Pump is a treasure trove of interviews with teachers from many different traditions. Visit BGP here.