Book review

Mastering the Core Teachings of the Buddha: An Unusually Hardcore Dharma Book (Second Edition Revised and Expanded)

by Daniel M. Ingram

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Wow. What to say about this book? Bottom line, is it provides an extraordinarily detailed and thorough account of how the classical teachings of Buddhist meditation can provide the tools necessary to move progress to full enlightenment (plus, it explains what enlightenment actually means). And we’re not talking about having to go and live in a monastery in Tibet for the rest of your life to do it. Daniel Ingram, the author, seems to have done all this while living a full and busy life, including going through and graduating from medical school.

It’s a mind-blowing book, really. On the one hand, it describes a number of very woo-woo and seemingly mystical things – from seeing your visual field tessellated with multicoloured patterns to understanding the enormous, deep, connection between all living beings (and that’s before he mentions “magick” and the effects that the ancients talk about there). He says at one point

For example, you think there are no magickal (sic) effects possible and suddenly you are seeing chakras and seem to know odd things about people that you couldn’t possibly know

On the other hand, it’s about as practical and down to earth as can be, dismissing any notion of handwaving and woo-woo models of meditative practice, with lines like:

I am no fan of most of these models of awakening. In fact, I consider their creation and perpetuation to be basically evil in the good old “you should burn in hell for perpetuating them” kind of way.

and later in the same section:

A far more practical approach is to accept that we are human, try to be decent in a normal, down-to-earth sort of way rather than in a grandiose, self-conscious, spiritual way … allowing us to be the human beings we are with more balance and less reactivity in the face of that humanity.

And for me, it’s this seeming contradiction that is one of the book’s most compelling features. He talks about all this weird stuff, but he does it in such a hands-on and down to earth way, based clearly on thousands of hours of personal experience, that I emerged more or less convinced of the core argument. Which is that these seemingly exotic states are indeed attainable to normal humans -but that you will have to put in the hours.

You do get a brief introduction to the standard practices of concentration (samatha) meditation, with its focus on the breath, on returning to the breath when you notice you’ve been distracted, and on using this to attain high states of concentration. This is at the core of apps you might have used like Headspace and Calm. This practice can bring a great deal of serenity and even bliss to you in short bursts, and Ingram talks you through the various technical levels of this, known to the Buddhists as the jhanas.

He also explains why you really should be doing this practice: because it gives you the concentration necessary to do vipassana, or insight, meditation. Vipassana meditation is where you focus really really hard on ordinary experience – on the tiny fleeting details of ordinary experience, that we never normally notice. Inside these “vibrations” lie the next levels of understanding. This starts with appreciating that your perception of phenomena is different from the actual phenomena. For example, you hear the blare of a car horn, or the tweeting of a bird, and your mind just knows it’s a car horn or a bird. But actually, in order to do this, you have to hear the sound first, before the mental construct of “car” or “bird” comes to mind. With sufficient attention, you can peel these two things apart.

Eventually, you can begin to truly see what Buddhists call the “three characteristics” of everything: that they are impermanent (they come and go), that they are unsatisfactory (ultimately they don’t fulfill you) and that they don’t cohere into a unified self, in the way that most of us think of being a unified self through time.

All this takes time, practice, and is often very hard to describe in words. Ingram focuses a lot on models of how all this comes together, and the stages one would pass through along the path. I’m not nearly a skillful enough meditator to comment from personal experience on the helpfulness or even the truth of this, but Ingram is very convincing, and he emphasises repeatedly that you don’t need to take any of this on trust, you can just try it yourself.

He is also strong on warning you of the possible dangers that may lie ahead: one of the stages he calls “The Dark Night of The Soul”, which he describes spanning stages of “Dissolution, Fear, Misery, Disgust, Desire for Deliverance, and Re-observation”. He continues to give pragmatic and helpful advice even here:

Allow me to give you two hard-won pieces of advice that I have found make all the difference in the face of these stages. First, make the time to do basic insight practices… The second piece of advice is to have a “no-bleedthrough” policy…it might be expressed by two simple mantras, “Do no harm” and “Keep your shit together”. This is obviously great advice for life in general and it applies doubly here.

Beyond this stage, things return to a more even keel, through Equanimity and on ultimately to Fruition, at which point you will attain “stream entry”, which begins your journey again at a higher, if vastly, level.

All of this is explained in detail, not only with practical instructions but also with references to probably 100 other books you might go and read for more detail about any particular section. I found this especially helpful, myself, and a number of these other books will be showing up in my Goodreads feed in due course!

Ultimately there is the question of why anyone would want to go to this much effort (a question my non-meditating wife asks me repeatedly). There is the Everest-style “because it’s there” answer, and then my usual answer of “because it gives you deep insight into the way the world actually is”. Ingram includes a lot of emphasis on the first of the three Buddhist teachings, those on morality, and he brings this into his final insights. This is about how all of our actions are shaped by our thoughts, and thus the world around us is shaped by our thoughts:

all “internal” intentions, thoughts and mental states mattered, were causal, were spell-casting, were powerful, and molded some part of the causal world. Thus, every single moment of “internal” experience must have ethics applied to it, because it matters, as it is an integral part of this whole space of manifestation. This seemingly obvious insight didn’t sink in all at once but took years to develop.

Or, as the opening lines of the most commonly read of all Buddhist texts, the Dhammapada, puts it:

All actions are led by the mind. Mind is their master. Mind is their maker. Act or speak with a defiled state of mind, and suffering will follow.

So that’s why you should meditate, and why you might want to read this book of nearly 600 pages, where I probably took on average an hour to read and digest any ten pages. It all matters, and if we want to live our life pretending it doesn’t, and leaving our thoughts, feelings and general mental state to run all over the place on its own, then we are just hiding from the (profound, obvious, but rarely realised, disturbing) truth.

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