Just As It Is

An interview with Jack Engler

Is that what took you to India in the first place? I wanted to do my Ph.D. dissertation on Buddhism, particularly on practice. I wanted to study the changes people actually experience in their lives as a result of practice. In Theravada Buddhism, there are four “paths,” or stages of enlightenment. So I thought, “I’ll go and work with people who have experienced at least First Path.” It seemed simple. I had no idea how ambitious a project it was at the time, or how strange and presumptuous it would look to traditional Buddhists!

I guess it’s a good thing that you didn’t know what you were taking on. Yes, in a way it was my own naivete that enabled me to do it.

For a long time I was afraid to approach Munindra about the research, but I had to come back with some data! So one day I reminded him that he had said he would help me with my research. Of course he had no idea I would ask his help in identifying individuals who had experienced at least First Path. He was a bit taken aback. I didn’t know at the time that a Vinaya [monastic code] statute prohibits monks—and, by custom, laypeople—from talking about “attainments” in practice. But students were of course permitted to talk to their teachers, and could talk to others with their teachers’ permission, which is how they were able to talk with me. Nevertheless, Munindra took a lot of persuading. I think in the end he finally just trusted me because I had lived with him for a year by then and he was convinced of my sincerity and devotion to practice. Finally he said, “Well, if you really want to do this, then we’ll have to go to Calcutta and talk with Dipa Ma and see if she’ll help. She has a lot of students who have experienced path.” So he took me to Calcutta to see Dipa Ma, who understood the rationale for my research even less than Munindra did! Again, I think the only reason she agreed was because Munindra was her teacher and she trusted his support for the project. I was very fortunate.

Can you say something about the “paths” you’re referring to? The way Vipassana practice seems to unfold, there are four separate enlightenment experiences, referred to as “path moments,” when one “enters the path.” In other words, awakening or liberation doesn’t happen all at once. At each successive experience of awakening, specific types of mental activity that cause suffering to self and others are said to be weakened or permanently extinguished from the mind—a pretty radical claim. These mental activities are called samyojanas, or “fetters,” because they bind us to the wheel of existence. Three are extinguished in the experience of First Path: the false view of self as separate and having independent existence; any doubt about the efficacy of practice to liberate; and the false belief that anything—rites and rituals, even moral action—can lead us to awakening, apart from confronting the ways we actually create suffering.

At Second Path, two additional fetters are described as “weakened”—sense-desire and ill will. These are then extinguished at Third Path. The remaining fetters are said to be extinguished at the moment of Fourth Path. These include subtle attachments to spiritual states of consciousness; “restlessness,” meaning any remaining tendency to dwell on the past or the future, or to be anywhere else than always and completely in the present moment; “ignorance,” or resistance to the truths of anicca [impermanence], dukkha [suffering], and anatta [no-self], which are now completely realized; and the hallmark fetter of Fourth Path, which is “conceit,” the last residual tendency to compare self with others.

These changes aren’t as linear as this makes them seem, though. As in psychotherapy, these mental factors wax and wane, are strengthened and weakened, resisted and defended against, modified and recast many, many times in the course of practice. It is only in the four “path moments” that they lose their hold on us once and for all.

Is there any rhyme or reason to the sequence of the paths? Yes. If you look at the way they cluster, First Path has to do with modifying core beliefs and assumptions, especially the false view of self. Second and Third Path have to do with altering the instinctual-drive bases of behavior—roughly equivalent to aggression and libido in psychoanalytic theory. Fourth Path has to do with extinguishing narcissistic attachments. This is pretty much the same sequence of change that occurs in psychotherapy: Cognitive changes come first because cognitions are more accessible and easier to modify. Affective-motivational change is more difficult because altering basic motivational patterns and satisfactions reaches deeper into the psyche. Hardest of all to modify are root narcissistic investments in the self. So change in practice parallels the sequence of change we experience in other transformational processes like psychotherapy. In my mind, this makes the claims for practice more credible. Practice is of a piece with the rest of our experience.

Many of us Westerners can’t imagine eliminating these fetters, which appear to be the very energies that keep us alive. Can you say something about that? The energies that keep us alive are joy, generosity, compassion, curiosity, truthfulness, serenity, equanimity, wakefulness, one-pointedness, and impeccability—the qualities of mind that Buddhist teaching sometimes calls paramitas, or perfections, or sometimes bojjhangas, the factors of enlightenment. They are qualities of awakened mind as well as qualities that can be cultivated to aid awakening.

You’ve said that talking about teachers like Munindra and Dipa Ma is especially pertinent now because they are no longer with us, and so it’s a good time to reflect. But if their Western heirs are skeptical of their own embodiment of the dharma - at least by comparison with their teachers - does that make it all downhill from here? Downhill, uphill, it’s just another hill! One that Buddha-dharma has climbed each time it’s migrated to another country and culture. Great teachers carried the teaching from one culture to another, but each time a whole new generation of teachers had to emerge who were native. It’s happened before, it’s happening again. It’s one way dharma stays fresh and in the moment. We have our own opportunity—and our own need—to realize the dharma in our way.

One of the biggest differences between Buddhism’s host cultures and our own is that we place such a fierce emphasis on individual achievement. In some ways this helps, in other ways it hurts. It can help in fostering self-reliance and “being a light unto yourself.” At the same time, that spirit can make it difficult to foster community and interdependence—Sangha, the Third Refuge, which is just as important at the first two. It’s been easier to import the Buddha and the Dharma—both travel well and fit into an ethos of self-reliance. But Sangha doesn’t. It can’t be imported. It has to be built, and built in our own way. Without it, it’s very hard to find the support we need for practice. That’s one of our weak spots. We’re only just beginning to establish sanghas in the West. In the Asian cultures, at least until recently, so much is taken for granted and understood, whereas in the West we have to create a context for practice almost from scratch. We have plenty of work to do if we’re going to make it happen. What Dipa Ma manifested in her person and her life is testimony to what can happen when you do this work. May remembering her inspire us to do it.

Images: © Rick Colson

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