An American Mystic’s Cafeteria Plan
The 1980s: Eastern Works and Identification as a Christian Mystic
My spouse of 30 years first introduced me to the philosophy, psychology, and art of the East when I was a freshman in college, leading me to Zen Bones, Zen Flesh; The Gateless Gate; The Bhagavad Gita; and other works. At that time in my life, I was mad about Dostoevsky and Nietzsche. I went to the library and read books on gnosticism. In addition to some bizarre effects of migraine auras, I experienced a profound out-of-body flight at age 18. I identified as a Christian mystic.
The 1990s: Scholarship as a Poststructuralist
As I entered graduate school, I shed all notions of spirituality for unembellished existentialism. Although I had a close friend who meditated and urged me to begin throughout graduate school, my interest in Buddhism at the time remained academic. I was a literary critic in the realm of postructuralism, particularly deconstruction, which, despite rumors to the contrary, is not one of the hell realms.
As part of my PhD dissertation on Henry James’s The Golden Bowl, I studied Zen Buddhist koans for 5 years and matched their mobius-strip structures and circle metaphors (pagodas, card tables, bowls) to those informing James’s unparalleled masterpiece of the rhetoric of silence.
The 2000s: Anxiety, Seeking, and the Beginning of Meditation
Throughout the first decade of this century, I was busy raising my son and putting up with more or less intense bouts of anxiety and bizarre complex migraine manifestations. I suffered panic attacks and travel phobias related to this rare manifestation of migraine disease. In 2010, at the urging of a childhood friend who suddenly appeared in my life again, I began simple calm-staying concentration practice, for just 5 minutes a day, in an attempt to find better, nonpharmacological ways of coping with my anxiety. My adherence to meditation was spotty, even though the second or third time I ever meditated I saw bright lights and experienced intense rapture.
From 2011 to 2012: Tibetan Buddhism in the Gelugpa Lineage
When I finally seriously applied myself and became dedicated to practice, it wasn’t over anxiety. It was because I had noticed how fleeting pleasures were, how I flitted from hobby to hobby, person to person, seeking something unnameable that apparently couldn’t be found. This was a rudimentary but important insight into impermanence, one of the Three Characteristics of conditioned phenomena, the other two being the emptiness of inherent existence of all phenomenon (in Theravadin parlance, “not-self”) and suffering. More specifically, what drove me to diligence in practice was beginning insight into one of the Three Delusions, which are the delusional opposites of the Three Characteristics. Namely, in addition to seeing through the Delusion of permanence, I was seeing through the Delusion of satisfaction. I was noticing not only that nothing satisfied for long, but that this restlessness was a fundamental problem of human existence. During 2011 and 2012, I regularly attended classes and talks at a local Tibetan Buddhist (Gelug) center. I learned much important doctrine and philosophy there, but I was dissatisfied with the lack of instruction in meditation and with the impenetrable hierarchy and its presumption that time in the fold equaled skill. Moreover, I was put off by the conflation of rich Tibetan cultural elements, some of which were superstition or the hierarchy’s attempts to control, with sound timeless method.
From 2012 to 2013: Thai Forest Theravadin Restart
In 2012, for several reasons, I left Tibetan Buddhism and started teaching myself to meditate out of meditation manuals of Thai Forest masters, first learning about jhanas, vipassana, and what accompanies them. I experienced in a series of lucid dreams what I was later to learn was the insight stage known as the Knowledge of the Arising and Passing Away. I was on the cyclic ride through the Progress of Insight stages.
From 2013 to 2014: Pragmatic Dharma Movement
In 2013, a friend asked me to join a discussion group tackling Daniel M. Ingram’s controversial Mastering the Core Teachings of the Buddha: An Unusually Hardcore Dharma Book (2008). I lurked on Daniel’s forum and perhaps would never have posted there—as extremely few women do—had I not suffered an unusual reaction to experimenting with Burmese fast noting practice as Ingram’s book instructed. In short, my vision became so warped and undulating for about 6 weeks that I could barely work and ended up in the Emergency Department, where I was diagnosed with a persistent and rare migraine aura called metamorphosopia. I posted on the forum about my distress, and Daniel himself responded immediately, offering to help me. The first time I communicated with him was from the hospital where he had earned his MD in emergency medicine. I was later to learn that we both earned English degrees in the same building of the same university during the same years a quarter of a century beforehand.
From Fall 2014 to July 2015: Theravadin Stream Entry and Collaboration with Dan Ingram
About a year later, in August 2014, I began working with Daniel to restructure, amend, and clarify the second, revised and expanded edition of his book, Mastering the Core Teachings of the Buddha: An Unusually Hardcore Dharma Book (MCTB2). Within a few days of our making contact over the collaboration, I experienced stream entry, or the attainment of Theravadin First Path. Without Daniel’s work, I doubt I would have been able to navigate the stage of Equanimity well to stream entry. We became friends and had a voluminous mentor-mentee correspondence in addition to exchange over the book. He helped me personally with my practice, with frequency and depth. I made rapid progress.
In February 2015, he agreed that I could quietly revive the long-defunct nonpublic Dharma Underground, choosing and vetting the members. This is where I first kept most of the entries that now are made public here in Dharma by Dark Night.
Jenny’s Practice Journals
Toward a Dawn with No Dark to Follow
Dharma by Dark Night
My first practice journal, Dharma by Dark Night, was so titled not only because of the allusion to the Dark Night of the Soul, also known as the “knowledges of suffering” as delineated by Ingram—difficult cyclic insight stages—but also because I formally practiced late at night, on the cushion, during the year that I dwelled in the Dharma Underground. This is a journal covers mainly the year between stream entry and the final departure from Daniel’s online spaces, collaboration with him, and adherence to Theravadin methods and all four-path models of enlightenment.
Dharma By Daylight
The Theravadin Dark Night metaphor corresponds with the mostly Theravadin leg of my journey; the Daylight metaphor, evoking post-awakening focus on daily relative reality, subtly alludes to the Indo-Tibetan metaphor for the illuminating but unfindable essence of mind: clear light.
After the 2015 Mahamudra awakening that happened while I was on retreat with my next teacher, John Churchill, my practice became mainly off the cushion, focused as it was and is on integration of those gains, embodiment of the realizations, personal power and development, psychodynamic adjuncts to healing trauma, and, in short, all the levels on which awakening can continue to transform a human being. My interests for the past 3 years have been working with the unconscious through tarot and dreams, lucid dreaming, out-of-body “traveling,” esoteric practices on the cosmological scale, and the highest siddhi of all: teaching the dharma. Dharma by Daylight is less about being a “Buddhist,” less about formal meditation, and more about what it mean to become as fully empowered and optimally human as the rest of the journey through this precious life permits. It is a record of the joy of post-awakening self-discovery.
My lengthiest, most detailed, and most unusual practice journal concerns an esoteric, traditionally secret formal practice. The practice first emerged spontaneously, not through traditional induction accompanied by vows of secrecy. For now, it nonetheless remains private because I do not yet feel inner permission to reveal its contents. That lock may open within the next few years, depending on emergent signs both public and private.
The Critical Path to Awakening: Model, Map, and Meditation Methods for Contemporary Buddhist Practice
After the history just delineated, I soon determined that the way forward was to write my own map and practice methods manual. The project is still early in drafting stage, although I’m revising quite a lot as I go from chapter to chapter. The project has several times been on hold, moreover, because of the schedule demands of my teacher, who had wanted to be a collaborator. In mid-2019, I left my career in publishing to devote myself full time to writing and teaching the Dharma. Meantime, my teacher’s circumstances changed, leading to a shift in his priorities. I decided to author this book alone. More recently, I drafted and revised a meta-map of jhanas, insight stages (including Mahamudra stages), and the seven chakras. After editing, I will make it available for download on my teaching site, Axis Mundi Awakening, https://www.axismundi-awaken.com.
The Project Management Concept of Critical Path
The book builds in part on the Pragmatic Dharma ethos, in the sense that it includes a western, contemporary Buddhism manifesto and is driven at its topmost level by a progressive map of attainment stages. It is written in accessible plain English aimed at busy western laypersons. Critical path is a concept borrowed from modern business project management theory. It is the delineation of all the necessary stages and steps toward a project goal, the longest expected duration of each step, and the “dependencies” of the beginning of one step on the completion of some prior step or steps. A critical path yields the shortest possible beginning-to-end representation of the route to a goal. Thus, the book, The Critical Path to Awakening (CP2A), is a whole-path project management template from zero to unbounded wholeness.
Value Proposition for the Dhama Book Concept
The concept for this book sprung from a stark lack persisting in the burgeoning western dharma book market: Although countless niche books exist on this or that isolated theory or practice morsel, nothing exists to empower the practitioner to plan the most efficient whole path toward the goal of enlightenment, to document and interpret preliminary results, to diagnose stable attainments, and to confidently navigate the order of stages and levels of meditation practice efficiently.
To illustrate—a friend who is a teacher mentioned to me that one of his new students, a beginner, was diving into wrathful deity practice as a first entry to meditation because that student thought that a book on the specific practice “sounded cool.” My teacher friend and I laughed, but this situation is the norm rather than specific to this student. The dharma book market is currently a buffet with no defined meal courses governing menus that in turn govern recipes. Without continuity-of-care whole-path guidance, the practitioner risks misdirection toward the ultimate goal—enlightenment—as well as toward the mastery of the currently alluring practice morsel.
CP2A solves this pervasive problem by delineating in plain English a coherent model of enlightenment, a tested syncretic map of the stages and substages of spiritual awakening, and diagnostic criteria for the completion of each substage. The practitioner traverses the “critical path” honed for overall efficiency: Model informs map, map drives method, and method drives specific modules of practice and their before-and-after diagnostic criteria.
Pragmatism with Heart
Although, as summarized, this pragmatism may initially sound dry to meditators who currently labor under the misguided but culturally pervasive notion that meditation is relaxation therapy, its fuller execution departs from other works of Pragmatic Dharma in ways that will inspire all practitioners. Specifically, the pragmatic syncretism of this book, governed ultimately by Dzgochen View, means significant inclusion of Indo-Tibetan-inspired practices, among others, not just Theravadin practices. Additionally, this book addresses psychoemotional challenges and works with them meditatively.
Perhaps most different from other Pragmatic Dharma works is this book’s explicit commentary on the shifting fulcrum between the “masculine principle” and “feminine principle” as ways of conceptualizing practice approaches as a practitioner advances: The beginning of the path emphasizes the masculine, the middle-to-high path emphasizes the feminine, and the highest end of the path integrates the poles. The aim is wholeness. Specifically, CP2A brings into relief the ways that current hyper-masculine modes of practice and concomitantly patriarchal dharma politics must be balanced by the feminine archetypal principle in individual men and women alike if the dharma is to survive, evolve, and thrive in the postmodern West. This book drives all that is at stake into fertile open ground.
To achieve its aim as a complete workbook for awakening, CP2A features illustrations, tables, and templates to support concepts and diagnostic comprehension, retention, and reference. It includes sections on logistical questions, such how to choose and interact fruitfully with a teacher, how to instil daily practice as a habit, and how to approach retreats. Audio recordings of guided meditations are planned to follow.
I am launching a new blog on my teaching site, Axis Mundi Awakening. It will feature didactic content, including draft excerpts from the book.