This article follows up on some themes from my article in May 2013 called Insight – To Say or Not To Say?. In the last six months I have been in contact with (or heard stories about) increasing numbers of Order members, and a few mitras, who claim to have experienced some measure of direct non-conceptual insight, usually into the fact that there is no self in the five skandhas/six elements. For the purposes of this article, I’m going to take these claims at face value, although the whole area of claims to insight is complex. (In my May article I discussed some of the issues involved.)
A few of these people who claim to have gained some insight did so more or less unaided; some with the help of personal contact with a spiritual friend; and the largest number through guidance of the direct pointing/insight inquiry kind via email. My impression was that some of them were integrating their experience very well; some were doing OK but were unsure how to go further; and a few were taking off in potentially disastrous directions.
So I felt I would like to offer a few suggestions to those of you who feel you have had some insight into non-self and/or non-duality. (Who am I to be offering you suggestions? Good question…) I’ll start with some things you might like to consider doing, if you aren’t doing them already, and then some possible pitfalls to avoid.
Things to Consider Doing
1) If you have had an insight experience, then in your practice it is usually important to emphasize relaxation and letting go. By doing this, you are cooperating with the unfolding process of insight. You are setting up conditions for the Dharma niyama to come more into operation.
2) Naturally, you want to deepen and stabilize the insight. The way to do this is to continue exploring your direct experience in the moment. It is best to do this without preconceptions, with beginner’s mind, completely open to what you may find. For instance, in meditation you may look again and again at your sense of ‘me the meditator’, the one who is ‘doing the practice’.
The wrong way to do it is to keep simply referring back to your memory of the insight that you had last month or last year. I’m not suggesting that you forget all about it; that memory may be very helpful to inspire you and keep you in touch with right view. However, it is no substitute for direct seeing in the present moment. Let your memory inspire you to look deeply again at your experience right now.
3) It may be wise to check out your experience with one or two more experienced people, preferably face-to-face, not just on the Internet. It isn’t always easy to distinguish a direct seeing from one which is still subtly conceptual. With direct personal contact there are far more clues to go on than with pixels on a screen.
You may find it useful to make that contact with a more experienced person or people ongoing. Within Triratna, we understand that the time around ordination involves a lot of change, of upheaval both internal and external. So we give people support in finding a new way of practice, which enables them to absorb the impact of ordination and benefit from it. We also expect people who are effectively going for refuge to stay in contact with their preceptors for several years, until they are, as the jargon has it, ‘well bedded in to the Order’.
Similarly, it can be useful if you believe you have attained some measure of real insight and are really going for refuge to keep in touch with someone more experienced, to help you absorb the impact of what has happened and find an appropriate way of practising ‘post-insight’. You want to end up ‘well bedded in’ to the aryasangha!
4) It is vital to keep practising a complete, balanced Dharma life. If you have had an experience of insight, of ‘Perfect Vision’, then as well as continuing to deepen it you also need to be working on the Path of Transformation. Or you can see it in terms of Sangharakshita’s explanation of our system of practice as a mandala: your insight (‘spiritual death’) needs to deepen, but there is also ongoing work to be done on integration and positive emotion, as well as spiritual rebirth and receptivity. Even a partial Dharma practice is a great thing, but it will not lead to complete liberation, to putting paid to all suffering.
Five Pitfalls to Avoid
That was some suggestions of things to do. Now let’s explore some of the pitfalls. Sadly, I have more to say about them…
1) Be extremely wary of deciding that now you know there is no self you don’t need to practise ethics. The line of false argument tends to go something like: ‘I’ve seen that there is no self to direct things, no-one in the control tower of my life. Everything unfolds spontaneously. So practising ethics in any deliberate way is artificial and blocks the natural flow.’
It’s true that if you are in the flow of the Dharma niyama, with no sense of subject or object, then there is just a flow of spontaneous beneficial activity. However, usually non-conceptual insight only lasts for a short period of time, after which the mind returns to a subtle version of its habitual mode of functioning. Subtle concepts reappear, along with a refined sense of self. At that point, you are not in the flow of the Dharma niyama way of functioning; you are back in the realm of karma, which involves the interaction of subject and object. On that level, you had better look after the kind of karma you are producing. (The fact that there is a sense of someone deciding they don’t need to practise ethics should immediately ring alarm bells…)
Some people will argue that even though there is some sense of self there, through having had an insight into no-self they know that it is illusory. Really there is no-one to practise ethics, so just let things happen. However, although there is no self, if ‘you’ create negative karma those ownerless five skandhas can still experience an awful lot of painful feelings.
It is like dreaming. In a dream you may become lucid, aware that it is all just a dream, and recognize that you can do whatever you like. That is a big step forward, and gives you a new freedom to act. However, you may still act in such a way that you turn the dream into a nightmare. That’s still more or less OK; as long as you stay lucid and remember that it isn’t real. But if you forget and fall back into a less aware state, you’re in a nightmare that you are treating as real, and then you’re in trouble. Following the analogy, through practising ethics along with insight you act creatively to produce a beautiful dream, whose nature you understand. That’s the best possible outcome, and it also protects you should you happen to fall out of lucidity, i.e. back into forgetting the true nature of things.
So it would be wise to follow the example of Padmasambhava, who said that his view was as high as the sky, and yet his practice of ethics was as fine as sifting flour.
2) Be even more wary of deciding that you don’t need to make any effort with the Dharma. People come to this conclusion for similar reasons to those who decide they needn’t give themselves the trouble of practising ethics. To make effort would be artificial, and anyway who is it who could make an effort? Practice post-insight tends to feel more effortless because, without the delusion of a self, there is less friction between how things are and how one imagines them to be. However, there is still right effort to be made whenever you are not actually ‘in’ the insight. When you are functioning in a Dharma niyama way, then there is just a natural flow of energy towards what is wholesome. When you are back in the karma niyama way of functioning, then you need to make effort to set up the conditions for the Dharma niyama to take over again. (Show me the sutta in which the Buddha says that right or perfect effort becomes unnecessary with stream-entry, and the transcendental path only has seven limbs rather than eight.)
3) Be most wary of all of deciding that the Dharma was only a raft and you can now leave it behind. I’ve read some insight dialogues on the Internet in which someone feels they have had an experience of no-self, and their response is along the lines of: ‘Is that it then? Is that fundamentally all there is to Enlightenment?’ They’re then sometimes reassured by their guide that yes, Awakening is very ordinary and their imagined Great Enlightenment with rainbows and celestial visions was a fantasy. With an air of slight disappointment, they may then go off to lead an ordinary life.
The wisdom aspect of Dharma is a continuing exploration, a journey into the most profound mysteries of life. It is not something that you come to an end of after a few weeks of working with someone on the Internet. The homepage of the Liberation Unleashed website itself acknowledges that going ‘through the gate’ of insight is only a beginning, and yet some people seem to feel that having had some experience of non-self they have ‘cracked Enlightenment’, like a detective solving a difficult case.
Certainly, in seeing through the concept of a self in the five skandhas a large cause of suffering has cracked. (Actually, you don’t crack it; ‘it’ cracks ‘you’.) However, stream-entry isn’t anywhere near the end of the insight aspect of the Path. The veil of views, (Skt: jneyavarana), goes far deeper than that. There are subtle levels of unrecognised conceptualization virtually all the way to Awakening. You may have recognised ‘me’ as a concept imposed upon experience, but you may well still be taking for granted ideas such as other people, time, space, impermanence, emptiness, etc. etc. A vital part of post-insight practice is the ongoing process of questioning and seeing through assumptions.
In addition, as we’ve seen, along with insight (‘spiritual death’) there is the whole of the rest of the mandala of Dharma practice to bring to perfection. It makes no sense to throw away your raft when you have only beached on an island that is still a long way short of the farther shore.
4) Some people feel they have had an insight experience and immediately want to guide and teach others how to do it. I very much appreciate the altruistic element in that. At the same time, in some cases it may be premature, like someone who has just passed their driving test wanting to set up immediately as a driving instructor. There can be weighty karma involved in giving guidance about how to practise the Dharma. It isn’t something to dash into in a first flush of enthusiasm. (Although it would be a shame to go to the other extreme of not offering help where you are qualified to do so.)
You may need to allow the experience to mature and stabilise for a while, to see what you are left with after six months or a year. Maybe it would be good to test out your insight into no-self and see how it stands up. Perhaps you could do a Karuna appeal, or something similarly challenging, and see how well you stay in touch with the insight.
If you are going to dive straight in to guiding others with insight practice, then it would be good to find someone to mentor you. It would also be wise to keep checking that the advice you are giving squares with what the Buddha taught.
5) As I mentioned in my May article, on our long retreat in France Vijayamala and I studied a text with our retreat guide, Lama Tilmann Lhundrup, which included a chapter on post-insight practice, especially pitfalls to avoid. The main one, which arose even at advanced stages of the Path, was grasping at insight as an attainment. Insight practice is all about entering the flow of experience, letting go of identification and dissolving away fixation. Becoming fixated on insight and identified with it effectively blocks the unfolding flow, like a fallen tree across a highway. This fixation and identification may be gross (pride and inflation) or subtle (a background sense of ‘I’ve done it, I’ve got somewhere’). However, with insight nothing has happened; no-one has attained anything at all.
It’s very understandable that the selfing process should tend to reinstall itself, wanting to claim the credit for what took place when it wasn’t functioning. We need to do our best to take it lightly and to keep looking into it, rather than buying into the flattering story it is offering.
In this article I have spent time stressing pitfalls and errors in post-insight practice, because I’ve seen or heard of people falling into them – usually because of a lack of proper guidance. However, I don’t want to give you the impression that I am pouring cold water on engagement with insight practice. I’m delighted that more people are working in this area of spiritual life, and that their efforts are bearing fruit. Insight practice is very wonderful, a great gift of the Buddha to the world.
At the same time, insight practice needs to be seen in context, as just one aspect of the Dharma life, albeit a vital one, an essential ingredient in a balanced spiritual diet. If you extract insight (and sometimes a rather limited understanding of insight at that) from the rest of Buddhism then it becomes mainly a matter of methods and techniques. Helpful as it undoubtedly is to have any kind of insight into non-self, taken out of its overall context it can be rather disappointing, even prosaic. It isn’t surprising that some people respond with ‘Is that all there is to it?’
Practising the Dharma in all its fullness is very different. People in whom bodhicitta has arisen, who have opened their hearts completely and offered themselves to the service of the Dharma and all beings, who are receptive to the universe so that the blessings of the buddhas and bodhisattvas are everywhere, who feel inseparable from all life, who are sensitive to every beautiful, impermanent, magical moment of experience, never shrug and think ‘Is that all there is to it?’