The Elephant Path: Not for Samatha Only

This is fouth-century Yogācāra founder Asaṅga’s nine-stage map for attaining meditative equipoise. Yes, that’s right: this cryptic pictogram is a map. The progress is often said to be samatha only and to exclude liberating insight and jhanas alike.

It ain’t so. More to come on this topic in an eventual book.

Reader’s Questions about MCTB and  The Mind Illuminated

Reader’s Question

Given your comments in the “Shady Enlightenment” post, do you still endorse MCTB as a good resource for practitioners? Would you supplement it with any other kind of practice?

Jenny’s Reply

Generally, yes. The specific answer to the question would depend, however, on the practitioner’s level of practice and goals. Moreover, the version that Dan Ingram and I worked together on is vastly superior to, and very different from, both the first edition and the draft second edition version preceding my working with him. Unfortunately for all, that superior version will never be published: Daniel has laid to waste the approximately 350 pages of painstaking work that took us nearly a year, in order to avoid giving me even an editorial acknowledgment. He claims that he has hired a copyeditor for pay to start from scratch. I expect that that version would be clearer and more complete than the first edition, although not the classic that our version would have been. He recently wrote me that he and the copyeditor (who remains nameless) will take their time, and it has already been more than a year with no Part II posted.

So if you cannot wait, then why not download the first edition from Daniel’s Integrated Daniel site? It is free, after all. But know that Daniel has in the forthcoming new edition made jhanas the upfront framework for both samatha and vipassana, which to my mind is a brilliant move that makes sense to me as a practitioner. He also isn’t advocating dry vipassana so much anymore, but, again, yoking things under and integrating with jhana.

What I got from MCTB that advanced my practice and proved critically important was Daniel’s elucidation of the Progress of Insight, which is unmatched. So, in my opinion, everyone should read and study that part of MCTB. Unfortunately (and this makes me wince in pain), we did so, so, so much brilliant work on enhancing that content for the second edition – it was much more thorough, clearer, and appended with many new technical reference tables by which practitioners could diagnose themselves and adjust practice accordingly. Sadly, no one will ever be able to use them.

I strongly disagree with Daniel’s model of enlightenment. What he calls revised fourth path he also claims is as far as awakening goes. Not true! For example Dzogchen begins where revised fourth path ends. Moreover, Daniel’s criteria for second and third path are vague and incomplete, largely because the four-path model itself breaks down quickly after “first path.” So my big caution to you is not to settle for MCTB fourth path, thinking that is “enlightenment.” Yes, it is a great attainment that reduces suffering by a staggering amount, but the heart and body, not just the mind, have to be liberated, too, and those require different vehicles that, so far, Daniel has been incapable of or simply closed to. He would need to first be honest with himself about where he is and isn’t, if not honest with the public, and then he would need to seek teachings that are largely secret.

For beginners, yes, MCTB’s Progress of Insight is essential knowledge. But after, say, second path, I would switch over to Indo-Tibetan Mahamudra to get MCTB third and fourth paths. Then I would switch to Dzogchen till Buddhahood. Those higher Completion Practices involve the feminine principle and a faith in naturalness that, if left out, can leave you stuck in a partial awakening from the head that neglects to liberate the body, the emotions, and ultimately the interconnected field of beings.

I’m writing my own pragmatic meditation manual that crosswalks maps from Theravada, Mahayana, and Vajrayana traditions and then simplifies all into a new western map that reconciles them and gives stage-specific practices in plain modern English. Because I work full-time, and because I want to do this work justice, I expect it to take some years to complete.

My recommendation is to avoid dry insight practice (fast noting, specifically) and to practice vipassana from a foundation of calm-staying (samatha). I also recommend that you check out Reggie Ray’s take on concentration practice and insight practice that involves the entire body. You can explore his Dharma Ocean: And Sounds True sells helpful audios for beginners. Reggie excels at somatic descent,, and here is the CD series of the same title: This body work serves people well from the beginning and all the way to Buddhahood.

I hope this advice proves helpful.

Reader’s Additional Comments

Thanks for the wonderful reply, Jenny. Although I’ve heard good things about MCTB, I actually follow a different book called The Mind Illuminated. It sounds similar to what you describe for your own book: samatha and then vipassana, in a new western map (but based on Asanga’s nine samatha stages), and drawing from Theravada, Vajrayana, and Mahayana. I’m still a novice (no jhana, no path), but so far I love it. I don’t know if you’re familiar with it, but I’d love to hear what you think of it.

Jenny’s Additional Comments on MCTB2

You are most welcome. I should add that one late version of Part 1 that Daniel and I worked on together is still out on his personal site as a PDF. This version has a few sections out of optimal order because we moved things around so many times that we lost track of some concept sequences. For example, I think we realized after posting it that the three forms of suffering and the three poisons (attraction, aversion, and ignorance – or, alternatively, greed, hatred, and delusion) needed to come before something else.

Nonetheless, this version is superior to the first edition. Part 2 of the second edition is much longer and the real “meat” of the book, and we were nearly finished with it in July 2015, but since then Daniel has decided to destroy all of our work and “start over again” with a copyeditor, a decision he made in order to avoid my receiving any public acknowledgment for more than 800 hours of my work.

Download this not-quite-final version of Part 1 while you can, for I expect it will soon vanish from the world, and I have zero confidence that a mere copyedit on Daniel’s orginal draft will come anywhere close to this clarity and quality:

Jenny on The Mind Illuminated and Sectarianism

I’m currently reading The Mind Illuminated (along with about 20 other dharma books, however). So far, it seems to be a fantastic introduction to meditation theory informing Asanga’s Elephant Path and concentration practice generally. I also appreciate how the authors begin to cross-map the Theravadin jhanas to this Tibetan Buddhist map; however, this cross-mapping is done, so far as I can see at this point, almost entirely by way of hedging footnotes about the jhanas. I plan to be much more radical and explicit in cross-mapping these separate traditions.

In Tibetan Buddhist traditions, you will be hard pressed to find a teacher who will tolerate even a mention of the word jhana. If you look at the full pictorial map of the Elephant Path, you will see at the very top, beyond the stage of equipoise, a practitioner ascending higher on a rainbow path and another practitioner descending on that rainbow path with the Flame of Insight held high in his right hand.

The idea here is that the ascending one is pursuing the jhanas, and the descending one has attained liberating insight. In other words, both insight meditation and jhanas, are considered to exist apart from the Elephant Path, where the Elephant Path first must be completed to make the mind serviceable for attainment of (1) liberating insight and (2) magickal powers (siddhis) via mastery of the hard jhanas.

I have found many Mahayana practitioners to be downright phobic and unreasonably condemnatory with regard to the jhanas, attributing to the practice of jhana “spiritual pride,” addiction to pleasure, invocation of the dark arts, and, at best, a hindrance to insight leading to liberation. In my experience, however, and in the experience of some other advanced practitioners I know, insight does in fact happen in the jhanas and because of the jhanas. Most of my insight came to me while I was deliberately in jhanas, particularly the formless realms. Rob Burbea’s new book, The Seeing That Frees, makes use of the jhanas for insight in much the same way I did on my own path – and he is a Nargarjuna man!

The truth is that there is a lot of nonsense and sectarian superstition in the Tibetan traditions, as well as a lot in the Theravadin traditions. The Tibetans sneer at the Theravadins as “Hinayana,” which is a pejorative term. And the Theravadins sneer at the Tibetans as though they were a cult based on black magick. So here we modern westerners are, stuck between traditions that are more interested in preserving their own socio-religious power and exclusivity than in cooperating in the service of liberating anyone. I’m not into this. And, for all the problems I have had with Dan Ingram, I still regard him as my first teacher and an important pioneer in getting us beyond these inherited limitations from a bygone and in many instances corrupt world that is foreign to us. Maybe I will end up with arrows in my back the way Daniel has. So be it.

A very high proportion of most translated Tibetan texts I’ve read seem designed primarily to encode secrecy and exclusivity so that the monastic power structure holds onto its power and remains the decider on which practitioners gain access to which decodings of the teachings and instructions to the practices. Although all the traditions have invaluable knowledge, we do not inhabit the Iron Age. This is no longer a time in which information dissemination is primarily by oral tradition. We have these convenient things called printing presses and Web services. We also have a populace that is literate and sufficiently mentally evolved for many to benefit from the higher teachings earlier than was the case in old Tibet.

This is in no way to say that I believe masterful teachers are dispensable. Those who have taught me could in no measure be replaced by books. And I do believe in the efficacy of transmission and being in the same magick circle on retreat with a truly great teacher.

That’s my little digression, and it will inform a purely western and modern/postmodern meditation manual that will be a kind of DIY modular kit that supplements what a live human teacher provides. I will cross-map traditions for reference, but I will then supplant the cross-map with a new integral map that prefers modern English terms.

So, with regard to The Mind Illuminated and the Elephant Path – I want to make more explicit than that book does the ways that insight practice (vipassana) actually erupts into concentration practice if you are doing concentration practice well at all. And, even more fundamentally, if you are concentrated, even if you are a jhana-disparaging Tibetan Buddhist, then you are necessary in jhana whether you want to be or not! Daniel has yoked even Burmese vipassana under jhanas in MCTB2, which is an important start, but Daniel lacks the Mahayana and Vajrayana theory and practice experience necessary to complete the job of creating a unified western map of awakening.

One weakness I’ve seen so far in The Mind Illuminated lies with its actual meditation exercises. For example, the reader is told to focus narrowly on the sensations of the breath at the nostrils. I’ve done this sort of practice and much more whole-body sorts of breath meditation. The latter are so far superior to the former that I myself would never teach the nostril focus to anyone ever, nor will it be in any book I write. MCTB2 is (or was) better at offering actual meditation instructions that are sound and effective than the Mind Illuminated. But even it is much more theory than practice, compared with what I’m planning.

This said, The Mind Illuminated is great so far and has excellent illustrations. You are right to start with concentration practice and to heed the theory presented. I would look to Reggie Ray or to Ajaan Lee’s Keeping the Breath in Mind (Method 2 only) for the actual meditations, though.

You can download the latter book, which was my sole practice for a year, here for free:

Keeping the Breath in Mind & Lessons in Samadhi, by Ajaan Lee Dhammadharo. A fundamental Guidebook for Breath Meditation and Practicing the Jhanas.

Poetry Is Method

Jhana versus the Natural State

I was too high after meditating last night to write about it, although what I’m referring to isn’t exactly the “afterglow” of jhana practice – although, whether jhana and the natural state are the same thing is a question that I continually pound my head against. My friend Barry and I agree that concentration without object does land us in the natural state, rigpa a-flaring, but is that because we have awakened awareness to begin with, or is it that jhana without sign, as they say, is “it”? 

I guess what I’m calling jhana is when I take the jhana factors, or one of them, as object: I’m concentrating on the state as such; therefore it is temporary, special, fabricated, partly conceptual. By contrast, the natural state is always already here, so long as it is merely recognized. The emphasis is different, in fact opposite. As a technical meditator, I used to practice “calling up” the jhanas by number, in different orders, and then I would run insight experiments in them, as if they were little labs.

DreamWalker is adept at that kind of analytical and intellectual approach to “exercises” and their experimental “results.” But it hasn’t been my karma for awakening to unfold by shifts discrete enough for me to analyze individually. In other words, as John says, my journey has been fast.

Tibetan-y Metaphoricity and the Feminine

So here I am: back in the Tibetan-y realm, resting back into the lush metaphors, the evocations of poetry.

John tells the story of Mara, the reification of self, the embodiment of traumas. There is Mara with Mara’s armies of complicated complexity, and John tells how Mara asks Buddha, tauntingly, “Well, who is backing you up – why should I believe that you are completely free?” and Buddha, confronting all that constructed complexity, simply leans forward and touches the Earth, the ground, the mother – to show that he was no longer separate from that, no longer separate from the whole of reality.

That simple gesture, as told by John, the humility, humanity, and dignity of it in the face of towering edifices of greed, hatred, and illusion, always makes me weep. DreamWalker asks, “Why? I must not be emotional.” And I stand perplexed at his shrugging that poignancy off. That story is the meditation. At a certain point, awakening is not about “exercises.” And this difference that is poetry is what John means when he says the feminine is insufficiently appreciated in Buddhist circles.

Just so, in Bon Dzogchen language, there is the infant and the mother, open awareness and open ground. In full embrace, they are the groundless ground. John weaves these metaphors in and out, around and between, our breaths, the birds chirping into silence, the body’s energy fields buzzing and flowing into stillness. These metaphors open the heart, eschewing the intellect. That’s what archetypes do. Mother-infant is the primary archetype of human relationship, of what is relationally based on selfless love. We are the infant gazing into the eyes of the mother; we are the mother gazing into the eyes of her infant. Suffering and the soothing of suffering is intergenerational, interpersonal; it is a matter of love, not a matter of one’s “own” technical meditative skill. Time being empty and all, we heal our unborn children and we heal our sad lost fathers.

We love our enemies as our self.

Love Not Exercises

I understand distrust of religion, especially organized and codified religion. I have that disidentification going on now more than ever before, but that is not because these “Buddhist” or “Bon” metaphors are without potency; on the contrary, it is because they are so potent that they awakened me to emptiness, to the interdependent co-arising of even all these constructed poetic particulars. And that means religion is empty too. I’ve begun disidentifying as a Buddhist for the very reason that Buddhist method works. 

For about the millionth time, I was rehearsing to DreamWalker this evening the four distinct shifts that I had during the Mahamudra retreat. I always make a point of emphasizing to him that the last shift, when the central processor (subject) dropped out, was not because of some mechanical opening of some sense door, but because of something emotional. Specifically, we had sealed everything at the speed of awareness as empty, but then we were read a list of limiting beliefs and asked to listen for the one that caused some “grab” in us. My own was “I must have missed something.” Well, all I “missed” was sealing this doubt, this victim-identity, this lack of faith, this fear that I wouldn’t awaken. And as soon as I saw that doubt and saw that it too was empty – BAM !– subject dropped out. And it hasn’t returned, not for an instant.

Before that point, we had sung with John and were exhausted, high, and weepy, puddles on the polished wood of the shala. He had worn us down over a week’s time to absolute surrender. The final shift was not because of any “exercise.” It was surrender. What opened where trying stopped? Love did. Love opened. Fear fled. Love boomed.

Pure Ghost

I told DreamWalker this story yet again, and he had a sort of aha – that the last shift I had on retreat was the release of the selfing process that is the fight-or-flight system. The aha was that this forms in infancy, or beforehand, as our first sense of self. He said, “Our first sense of this self is a fear of falling.” And I said, “Why do you think John has everyone lie down and rest into the ground/mother?” I asked, “Why do you think he keeps referring to the holding environment?” John is using the lingo of western psychology here – the opposite of falling is being held. This is love. This is love. This is love. And it is trust, faith, poetry, magic, universe, human relationship.

So. As I tonight rest into the chakras as field, as ground, as mother, I’m opening up to the vast expanse so deep within me. John always speaks of the “primordial youthful subtle body” that is revealed when the body’s energy centers open up. Tonight I especially noticed the second chakra, the sweetness – it flutters and beats just like the third chakra did when I was meditating on it for months. Beneath all the layers, all the constructedness of self-identity, is pure ghost, and that ghost lies contentedly as a perfectly glowing infant in the arms of her beloved mother.

Poetry, you see, is purest method.

Dream of White Chalk Caves

During one of my bouts of sleepiness today, I took a nap. Shortly before I woke up, I dreamed I was standing facing my son in bright daylight, before some white chalk caves. I sort of knew I was in dreamspace, because I knew those white caves were not part of the scenery anywhere near where I reside. I was about to go into a cave with my son to teach him meditation on retreat. He looked at me, his white tee-shirt nearly blinding me with glare, and said, “Yes, I’m ready.”

I’m wanting to actually teach him during his summer break from college. I could test material for a future meditation manual, and he could gain stream entry.

Formless Realms

Tonight I lighted my candles and  I called on my protectors, in case I’m under some kind of attack on my energy, which may be the case since one of the chief effects of the fatigue is that I blow off meditation and therefore calling for protectors’ help. After chatting with DreamWalker a bit, I agreed that I needed to resolve to sit and call them in, so I did. After calling in the retinue and doing some heart-opening guru yoga with Guru Rinpoche, I spent an hour gently going up the jhanas. 

Ordinarily I don’t notice j3 much, but tonight I did. It was wide but all in front, joyous with a trace of rapture wobbling in here and there. Then it suddenly bloomed into j4, which was oh-so-nice. By the time I’m past j2, I drop the breath as an object to labor over. The jhanas are self-guided at that point; all I have to do is not overapply effort. Nice and gentle–and they unfold. 

I made it to j7 for the first time in so long that I have lost track of how long. So I’m simply out of practice. It is weird to have that turning-away that j7, Nothingness, requires when mother-rigpa is flaring so. But it is possible.

During jhana, I have fragments of forgotten dreams float up. So jhana does indeed seem to prime dreamtime and dream recall.

I will continue to revive my jhana practice, taking more time to let each jhana bloom and transition on its own. It seems that hands-off is the best approach now.