Conventional Wisdom and Insight into the Three Characteristics

One Path but Two Separate Lines of Development and Two Truths?

For a long time now, this question has been forming in me regarding vipassana insight (3Cs) and emotional/psychological “wisdom.” I think the question how the two are and are not connected came to the fore for me when (1) Florian recently cautioned me that the fruition is not in the vanishing/reappearance of reality during cessation but in the “wisdom” I take away from it, and (2) Dan recently referred to the benefits of my having “insight” into my childhood issues so that I can bring “wisdom” to those patterns. 

At first I was confused by the latter statement by Daniel because I happened to be editing passages in MCTB2 about the “ultimate” insight’s being only that into the 3Cs, and conventional wisdom concerning emotions, morality, and the like as being completely separate.


From MCTB is the following:

To really ‘get’ what the Buddha was talking about, we need to venture far beyond these conventional definitions of wisdom and attain to ultimate insights by engaging specifically in insight practices. Many people try to make insight practice into an exercise that will produce both insights into the ordinary world and ultimate insights. We should not count on ultimate teachings to illuminate our relative issues or vice versa; therefore, it is extremely important to keep the relative and ultimate wisdom teachings separate. Failure to do so causes continual problems and makes progress on either front more difficult rather than easier. Throughout this book, I will differentiate those practices that produce ordinary wisdom from those practices that fall within the third training and lead to ultimate realizations independent of our relative insights.

Second Path and Thoughts

Another reason that this question is so foregrounded right now is that, so far, second path does seem to involve having to look at macro-level “thoughts” and emotions, not just the usual thing people, including Daniel, mean when they say “sensations.” My first-path strategies, or at least frames of reference for such, no longer seem sufficient.

So this conversation I had last night went very deep into what awakening does and does not accomplish. Although I knew that it does not necessarily, directly, or automatically effect improvements in emotional, moral, or interpersonal functioning, it was explained to me in impressive depth what can be the helpful connection between the two “axes.” 

It seems at my stage to come down to there still being a “Witness,” but we still have to put that ability to witness to work emotionally, interpersonally, psychodynamically, and the work is work – it is not an automatic boon of having attained insight into the 3Cs. It is a separate axis, then, to that extent; however, having insight into the 3Cs seems to be creating a necessary if not sufficient condition for doing this other work much more effectively and efficiently than I otherwise could.

The Anger-Fear Polarity

Fours years ago, when I would experience anger at someone, it was like demonic possession: There was anger, and I was that! Now, by contrast, there is this self-distancing. I’m watching the sensations of anger as they arise and shift, and I see that often it is defensiveness, which is a kind of fear, and the fear is often all mixed up with love, admiration, attachment toward the other person, the target and counter-target. Everything usually comes back to fear for me, maybe for everyone  – I don’t know. Fear tends to make avoidance seem like the most comfortable option available, so when I’m defensive, I will still tend to want to avoid seeing even that, especially that.

“Sensations” versus Wisdom

First path seemed to be a whole lot more “about” sensations and raw perception with very little “wisdom” resulting. This second path stuff does indeed seem to drag me, kicking and screaming, into psychological/emotional terrain. I know next to nothing about second path. So I am trying to meta-cognize what to do, if that makes sense. I seem to have to move more back and forth between noticing “sensations” and integrating or articulating them as acquired, thematic, conceptual “wisdom.” But the
connection is tenuous: It seems that paying attention to the sensations finishes up a lot of “rewiring” at this path, and then the articulated wisdom realizations seem to spring up independent of all that noticing, out of “nowhere.” They seem to have more implications for morality and living in conventional reality, too. Subterranean connections?

So now, rather than straightforwardly attending only to raw sensation, as in first path, I’m likely going to have to zigzag between having insight into 3Cs (at the level of thoughts) and using that ground bought by self-distancing as a platform from which to work on conventional wisdom, my “stuff.”

Postscript 2 Years and 2+ Paths Later (April 2017)

The post above was written October 2014, when I had just started working with Daniel Ingram on MCTB2. There is much that I wish I had time to elaborate on here, but full treatment will have to wait for my book. A couple of comments will have to suffice.

First, I now outright reject Ingram’s quasi-Wilberian, quasi-Integral separation of conventional wisdom and ultimate insight. I say “quasi” because I would like to believe Wilber’s intent was not to separate the axes, but to integrate them. (However, I have more than a few qualms over Wilber’s masculinst/modernist hyper-classification schemes.) Daniel runs with Wilber’s classifications in order to avoid integration, in order to keep hyper-compartmentalized his own unfinished path, largely so he can keep claiming he is an arahat, when he’s not.

Arahat means saint, which means one with nondefective conduct. When nondefective conduct arises from Ultimate Compassion, it is spontaneous, a spontaneous manifestation of Unbounded Wholeness realized. One way you can tell a false arahat is to watch his preoccupation with externally imposed codes of conduct, conventional morality and ethics, codified behavior in general. Practicing sila was never meant to be the end result of the path, nor ultimately a separate “axes of development,” notwithstanding Dan Ingram’s claims to the contrary. Sila is one of the Three Trainings meant to support the start of the second training: concentration. In turn concentration supports insight practice, but is not in itself liberating insight. When ordinary insight is attained through second path, and then extraordinary insight leads to fourth path, next comes a gradual seeping in of the wisdom realization, and this starts to erode agency and purify conduct concomitantly. Daniel’s ongoing preoccupation with low-level magick and morality as a separate axis evince his lack of integration. Since, in my experience, the integration happens almost totally by itself, it is a bit of a mystery why Ingram seems stuck here, why he still cycles through the insight stages, and so forth. I checked in with my current teacher about this issue of morality versus ultimate compassion, and he confirmed that my experience and view is in accordance with his own, as well as with doctrine and theory.

At the level of practice engaged in second path, the practitioner’s predominant concern automatically becomes “mental echo” and psycho-dynamic integration of the almost purely five-sense-sphere insights of first path. In fact, this preoccupation with mentation and emotional reactivity is how I and friends such as DreamWalker actually define second path.

My rejection of Daniel’s compartmentalization of personal development in MCTB is precisely because, as Florian indicated to me back in 2014, ultimately there is no separation into distinct “axes” one’s insight into sensations and one’s purification of psycho-dynamic “stuff.” That Daniel maintains otherwise evinces only his own failure to integrate the path gains. Please understand that on the Dzogchen path, which begins where MCTB Fourth Path ends, even the last distinction usually left standing in Buddhism –  that between relative truth and ultimate truth – is released into Unbounded Wholeness. If you read closely the works of the Thai Forest masters, such as Ajaan Lee, you will find discourses on Awareness that keep pace with Mahamudra’s Awake Awareness and Dzogchen’s Rigpa-Kunzhi. Daniel cynically rejects that this level of attainment is possible, but his failure to metabolize his psycho-dynamic scars need not be yours. I continue to hope he will actually finish this path in this lifetime.

Without my further commenting here on what I know from my personal relationship with Daniel about his past and his continued seeking, in private, toward healing and embodiment of insight, I will say just this: In MCTB and the parts of MCTB2-J I saw, Daniel withholds a key piece of information from readers and does so while knowing better. This information, when he finally revealed it to me in our private correspondence, directly triggered an opening that landed me within 24 hours with a permanent major shift: luminosity, the visual manifestation of nondual awareness between Subject and percept. This, together with realization of emptiness of self and phenomena, was attainment of third path as I define it.

If you keep reading as I post up later parts of this journal, you will find that very exchange I had with Daniel and what happened in the aftermath as luminosity bloomed. It began with my asking Daniel if we should expand the title of the chapter “The Three Characteristics” to “The Three Characteristics of Conditioned Phenomena.” For I had been reading some of the old texts that emphasize that the three characteristics are the truth of conditioned reality, not ultimate reality. Daniel said no to my query, but he also made clear in his reply to me by email that the three characteristics are not “ultimate reality,” although MCTB certainly says they are.

Daniel is deliberately withholding this information from MCTB readers, and I can only speculate that he does so because he is afraid that practitioners will relax investigative rigor prematurely and instead fall into the anagami traps, hypostasizing a “God” or “Awareness,” and essentially spiritually bypassing the earlier paths of realization. However, privately, he admitted to me that, with true insight into true ultimate reality, the three characteristics “just vanish.” This is one key way that Daniel’s private interchanges with me differed from what he makes publicly available. Perhaps this one is owing to the 7 years that he was stuck on the path from MCTB third to fourth, where he apparently fell into the “anagami traps.” If you ask him, I believe that is what he will say.

He also admitted on a Skype with me, DreamWalker, Vasily, and Steph S. that he has no idea how he got MCTB fourth path, so he has no idea how to tell others to attain it. He defensively insisted to me months before that Skype call that there are “no path-specific practices.” Untrue! There damned sure are; hence, my forthcoming book.

I will address at greater length this complex web of issues in my own book. Suffice it to say here that promoting particulate “sensations” as “ultimate reality” is a false flag, and, concomitantly, insight without psycho-dynamic integration that amounts to nondefective wisdom is the mark of someone who has further to go on his own path to true “done.”

Leave a Reply