This is an edited version of an article I wrote for ‘Shabda’ in May 2013.
In this article I want to offer some thoughts about insight, and
particularly talking about it. There is currently a lot of enthusiasm for it
as a topic in Triratna, which is wonderful, but a lot of our discourse
strikes me as a little literal-minded and not doing justice to the
complexities of the subject.
Certainly the recent discussion and debate about insight in our community seems to me both healthy and natural – only to be expected in a Buddhist
tradition. However, it is worth recognizing that there is an aspect of
pendulum swing about it. At times in the past, I feel there has been a
tendency in some quarters to downplay the possibility of insight. Now I
expect for a while we shall overplay its significance, in a way that leaves
other aspects of spiritual life inappropriately in the shade. Hopefully, as
we talk more, the significance of insight will take its rightful place in
Several Order members have been saying where they are on the Path recently,
perhaps urged on by reading Daniel Ingram’s Mastering the Core
Teachings of the Buddha, in which he questions people’s reticence
around this. In many Buddhist traditions of course, it is not considered
wise to state that you have attained some level of insight. This is
doubtless compounded by the fact that for monks and nuns it is one of the
root downfalls of the monastic vinaya to make false claims, so that tends to
make people cautious. In Triratna, one sometimes hears it said that
revealing attainments publicly is ‘spiritual bad manners’. That makes it
sound pretty unimportant, like not taking off your shoes when you enter a
shrineroom. But actually there is much more at stake than that, and the
issue is a very complex one.
Sure, it’s crucial that we share our experience of various kinds of insight
experience, and of how life unfolds after them, to help one another and
build up a body of shared experience. (I’ve always been keen on mapping
experience of the Path as lived by Western Buddhists.) But I would prefer it
if we stuck to talking about our experience, without generalising from it
into talking about attainments – certainly in public.
Here are some of the issues involved in revealing the fact that you believe
you’ve arrived at some particular stage of the transcendental path:
1. It’s quite easy to delude yourself about your level of attainment. For
instance, in the Mahamudra tradition, it is well-known that people can
mistake experiences of bliss, clarity or non-conceptuality for insight.
2. This can be got around to some extent by having someone verify your
experience, certifying that you have attained some level of the Path. But
then the question arises, who certified them?
3. More generally, there is a problem with agreeing on how standard terms
are used. Even on the shamatha level, some traditions set much higher
standards than others for the attainment of the dhyanas. There are also
variations in different teachers’ acceptance of what constitutes insight; so
one teacher may acknowledge that someone is a stream-entrant while another
may not. In some lines of Zen, that kind of certification (known as inka)
is given very easily, and you have some roshis who will accept certain
experiences as a genuine kensho or satori, but others will not.
Then, as Bodhiketu discussed in his very interesting article in the latest
Western Buddhist Review, within the Pali tradition there
are different definitions, explicit or implied, of stream-entry. In some, it
is a lofty state requiring ethical purity; in others it is an ‘entry-level
attainment’. Daniel Ingram claims to be an arahant using a standard that
expects a level of ethical purification that some traditional teachers
(along with Sangharakshita) would regard as far too low.
Also, even if we agree on what the terms mean, there are still levels of
seeing. These range from:
a) A real ‘knock your socks off’ experience, which leaves the tendency to
self-reference dead in the water. These are rare.
b) An insight that is clear, but after which the old tendency to structure
experience in a dualistic way returns to some extent. However, at a later time if you again
look directly into your experience in the present moment (which is not at
all the same as reminding yourself of your past experience), you are able to
confirm to yourself afresh how things really are.
c) A genuine insight which fades, so that you fall back into old habitual
tendencies. Then your insight becomes a memory or, worse still, an ego
trophy. Of course, if it is genuine insight, it will eventually reassert
itself, but it may only do so much later, after you’ve had to learn some
Not only are there degrees of seeing, you can gain insight into different
aspects of reality. For instance, some people directly see that the five
skandhas are empty of a self, while others have an experience of the open
awareness of non-duality. (You might think that the former entails the
latter; but this isn’t always the case.) Different traditions may focus on
one or other of these.
So if people in our community are going to start stating that they are
somewhere on the transcendental path, first off we need some ‘rectification
of terms’. The problem of definition is less in a tradition where there is a
very tight system, everyone is doing the same practice, and those guiding
them are looking for certain particular signs. But in Triratna, which at its
worst is a bit of a Buddhist Tower of Babel, with all kinds of influences
and practices, we need to be careful that we know what one another are
actually talking about when we say we have ‘gained insight’.
4. Attainment is of very little use to you unless you’re in touch with it in
the present moment. For instance, if you’re speaking from non-dual
experience right now, that’s great. If you’re in duality and talking about a
non-dual experience that you once had, that’s something very different. Your
memory of it may help you to let go into that way of being again, and it may
help you to point others in the ‘right direction’. But in this moment, which
is all there is, you’re deluded, and your ‘attainment’ doesn’t exist.
5. Then, as we all know, there is the issue of becoming attached to your
attainments. During our long retreat, one of the texts that Vijayamala and I
studied with Lama Tilmann Lhundrup was Karma Chakme’s Union of Mahamudra and
Dzogchen. Chapter 6 is concerned with the supramundane path, and
the issues to look out for. As we studied, it became clear that the main
issue on that level is always the tendency to become attached to an idea of
oneself as having attained something. That is fundamentally what stops the
process from naturally unfolding. You can even build a whole new
ego-identity out of being someone who has attained insight. Presumably there is
a greater possibility of that happening if you start making claims to some
level of attainment.
6. Then of course we have to bear in mind that attainment involves seeing
that there is nothing to attain and no-one to attain it€¦ And I’m not saying
that glibly. Being anyone trying to get anywhere is still part of the
problem. The whole point of insight practice is to see that life is flow,
and not to get fixated on it. So saying ‘I’ve gained insight’ is
fundamentally a nonsensical statement, and before talking nonsense you need
to be sure that it will be useful on the relative level to do so.
7. It also presents difficulties if some people who believe they’ve gained
some genuine insight go public, whilst others don’t. Some years ago I had someone say to me: ‘I’m going to see a teacher outside Triratna because he’s said that
he’s a stream-entrant and none of you have’. And a little while ago, someone
coming to Padmaloka on retreat asked who the stream-entrants on the team
were, as he only wanted to talk to them about practice. We have to be
careful about assumptions: either that those who have not made any statement
of attainment can’t have attained any insight, or that those who have made such a statement can’t have attained it, on the basis of some ‘those who know do not speak; those who speak do not know’ theory.
8. People going public with their insight often provokes anxiety, envy, or
defensive reactions in others, which sends waves through our community. You
also then find the phenomenon where other people start dropping hints about
some level of attainment into their Shabda reports, etc. I sometimes suspect
that some of these are motivated by a degree of desire to show that you are
in the elite club, and to make sure that nobody assumes that you are still
one of those poor deluded prithagjanas…
For me, concerning talking about insight there are two extreme positions and
a middle way. One extreme is that we can have a culture in which people ‘go
public’ with their insight; but that has the disadvantages I’ve outlined
above. At the other extreme, everyone plays their cards close to their
chests, and never talks about their insight experiences. This can leave
people wondering whether anyone in the Order has any degree of insight.
Worse still, it can leave someone who has strong spiritual experiences
feeling isolated and not knowing where to turn to find someone who may
understand what they are going through.
So what is the middle way between going public and keeping completely
silent? It seems to me that it is in having networks of kalyana mitrata in
which people are sharing their experiences, without having to pin them down
into attainments. This is how things are done in several Buddhist
traditions. In Tibetan Buddhism these days, people don’t usually make public
statements of attainment, and yet there is an informal network of yogins
and yoginis who recognize one another. Given enough contact with another
person, someone who is really going for refuge will be able to tell, with a
fair degree of certainty, whether someone else is, without either of them
stating where they are on the Path. You can resonate with real going for
refuge, just as you can with effective going for refuge. You can even tell
to some extent from the clarity and confidence with which someone answers
questions or gives advice in the area of insight and how to attain and
deepen it – and of course from how they live their lives.
Within Triratna there are both formal and informal networks of people who
are talking to one another about their spiritual experience. The problem is
that our community has grown very large, and our networking has become
patchy. There are holes in the net, so that someone may have a strong
experience and not be in touch with anyone who can help them, or even pass
them on with confidence to someone who can.
Deep spiritual experiences can come pretty much unbidden. You can feel completely out
of your depth, searching for a spar to cling to. You may even be a mitra or
a Friend. When you then turn to some Order members, perhaps of
long standing, and are met with incomprehension, or you see worry and
anxiety in their eyes as you are recounting your experience, it can be very
Worse still, they may even deny the validity of your genuine experience,
because they are working from their general understanding of the Dharma
rather than from any similar experience of their own. They may judge you by
your emotional state, expecting you as a ‘stream-entrant’ to be bright and
positive, not understanding that insight experience may shake you up, or
even plunge you into very difficult mental states. They may also apply an
overly-rigid model of the path of regular steps to you, assuming that if you’re
not that friendly or generous you can’t possibly have achieved any insight.
However, there is also a path of irregular steps, and I have met a number of
people who I felt had had a genuine experience of Perfect Vision, but who
were still very much toddlers on the path of transformation.
I find this interesting, as it shows the limitations of applying a linear
model of the path in a literal way. Someone who has achieved some degree of
genuine insight is on the transcendental path, and real insight makes a real
difference. However, in terms of their overall maturity and progress they
may still have far more work to do than someone who has done a great deal of
work on their ethics and altruism, but for whom insight has not yet arisen.
It’s a little like ordination. Some people are ordained earlier in their
spiritual process than others, because they have cottoned on to what the
spiritual life is really about. Those who take longer to be ordained may be
more emotionally mature, more ethical, etc. than those who were ordained
quickly, who have to do more of the work of transformation after ordination.
To sum up, I’m pleased that insight is currently such a live topic, as seems
only right within a Buddhist community. At the same time we need to approach
communicating about it in a skilful and sensitive way. I reckon that
1) Developing our dialogue around insight, to begin to build common
understanding in the Order around insight experiences, and to ‘rectify terms’
so that we agree on what we mean when we talk about it. This will also help
us to develop a subtlety of understanding of this incredibly rich area of
spiritual experience, and avoid people who need help with their experiences
being met with literal-minded or uncomprehending responses.
2) Being very cautious about going public with our belief that we’ve
attained a certain stage of the Path, yet being prepared to talk
appropriately about our experiences, without assigning them to particular
stages of the Path – unless there is a good reason to do this in private.
3) Continuing to strengthen our networks of kalyana mitrata, especially
mentoring relationships, so that those who have strong experiences are not
isolated, and can if necessary be directed to people who can give them the
help they need.