Why I've Almost Stopped Meditating (part 2 of 2: universal issues)
…I keep thinking that spiritual aspirants, East and West, are going to someday awaken at least to the degree of realizing that, by any reasonable standard of success, the pursuit of spiritual awakening has proven to be the most abysmal failure in the history of man. —“Jed McKenna,” a person who claims to be enlightened
Some of you who have read my old, more specifically Buddhist blog may remember a three-part miniseries I wrote there about people in recent years who have claimed to be fully enlightened beings; and the guy who made the quote above was one of the people I mentioned. The information he provides in his first book (the only one that I’ve read), Spiritual Enlightenment: The Damnedest Thing, is very fishy, partly because “Jed McKenna” is apparently a pseudonym and the ashram he describes in the book evidently doesn’t exist—but even so, he makes some intriguing observations, including the one (and many others like it) quoted above in italics. He’s right. To some degree at least, spiritual systems purported to lead practitioners to enlightenment in this very life are not necessarily a huge sham, but nevertheless they are extremely inefficient.
The fact is that not only the overwhelming majority of Buddhists, but the overwhelming majority even of conscientious, strictly practicing Buddhists fail to become enlightened, or even to come anywhere particularly close to it. This is true not only for Buddhists but for the followers of all established spiritual systems of which I am aware. I’m not claiming that nobody ever attains enlightenment; I’m just saying that almost everyone who tries, fails, even when they try very carefully and diligently and in accordance with the ancient texts. As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, most westerners in particular who attain some high spiritual state or realization do so accidentally, as the unintended result of some profound emotional crisis or near death experience or some such.
Another bleak observation I have made elsewhere is that many meditators, maybe even most of them, apparently accomplish little more through meditation practice than becoming good meditators. Some folks can sit like a statue for hours, and when they stand up and start making noise they’re just as delusional and messed up as they were before. This is true not only of samatha, or cultivated trance states, but also of so-called vipassana. Even many reputable meditation teachers, some of them considered masters, are still rather messed up individuals when not sitting crosslegged on a mat, and that’s setting aside the deliberate frauds and nutty charlatans.
Sometimes I consider the possibility that spiritual practice is as much a symptom of wisdom as a cause of it; in fact this has to be true to some extent, because without some wisdom one wouldn’t practice in the first place, and the greater the wisdom, the deeper the practice. So I’m not against meditation practice, but I must admit that the highest results of it are not realistically to be expected by just anyone, or even by most sincere practitioners. Once a beginning meditator gets through the superficial messy stuff, which meditation really is good for—meditation can help beginners profoundly and change their lives radically for the better—then what remains is a wall of lifelong habits and character traits that stubbornly refuse to go away. Once one digs through the soft debris and hits bedrock, then digging becomes much more difficult.
So I guess what I’m trying to say is that formal, organized spiritual practice is beneficial and can really help people at a samsaric, worldly level, but that if one is trying to become fully enlightened, to realize Nirvana or Brahman or Tao or God or whatever, then one’s chances, statistically, are minuscule. (Maybe in ancient India it was easier than now, or more effective, because wandering around homeless and sleeping on the ground in forests may have induced the necessary emotional crisis to trigger the ultimate awakening. Plus of course back then the spiritual system of Buddhism was fresher and less ossified, with presumably more enlightened teachers as well.)
Anyway, I have found that it is rather naive to think that one can become a saint or sage through mere force of will and the cultivation of new habits. Not that Dhamma is necessarily wrong, mind you, as many dropouts choose to believe; more like most people just can’t practice correctly enough. They’re not “ripe” for it. They can’t even whole-heartedly want to abandon lust or fine food or unnecessary comforts, or for that matter the fundamental desire for samsaric existence itself. It has occurred to me in the past, when I’ve been in a cynical mood, that the only ways to become enlightened, or anything approximating it, is 1) to be born almost enlightened, or 2) to be the subject of some kind of divine miracle. I suppose the extreme difficulty of self-purification is a major reason why Christians came up with the notion of Divine Grace, and why so many Mahayana Buddhists began praying for rebirth in a pure land in the west.
I remember almost twenty years ago, while living under a huge rock ledge in a Burmese forest, I was already getting frustrated and a little desperate, since things don’t work out the way we plan them; and so I formulated for myself the Rocky Balboa school of Buddhism: Remember that in the first Rocky movie the guy has no real intention of defeating the world’s champion. Instead his humble ambition was simply to refuse to give up, and to remain on his feet the full twelve rounds. I’m also reminded of a Pali sutta describing various sorts of monk; and one of them lives the Holy Life as strictly as he can, despite the fact that it is difficult and painful for him. He continues onward with tears streaming down his face, struggling and floundering perhaps, but in the end he is rewarded with existence in a heaven realm and, rather ironically, a harem of divinely gorgeous, big-titted celestial nymphs. I have no doubt that some monks are motivated by such dreams, as are some Islamist terrorists.
Consequent to all of this, plus what I wrote in the previous installment, not only do I meditate much less nowadays, generally just once per day, but I don’t study Buddhist texts much lately either, just a little, sometimes, when I’m looking something up. But despite this decrease in motivation for practice, I am still relatively strict with regard to monastic discipline—for example with money, robes, food, and orgasms. In fact I’m considered by the Burmese monks with whom I associate to be dauntingly strict, if only because I don’t want to handle money, don’t wear extra clothes, try not to eat food that isn’t properly offered, and don’t eat goddamn dinner, let alone the “dawn meal.”
Bearing all this in mind, I’m unsure of what road lies before me. Should I try to find an enlightened (or very wise) teacher and throw myself at his feet? (That hasn’t worked in the past, partly because most “masters” really aren’t that advanced.) Should I just seek out the company of other western monks? Should I just go back to Burmese caves and tough it out, be like Rocky, if only to make what relative progress I can? But again, after decades of trying and not attaining mastery of high contemplation, so to speak, my motivation for intensive practice has pretty much dried up. At present I’m still a monk mainly because it’s conducive to relative peace of mind, and because I haven’t found anything better—which, I must admit, are pretty good reasons.
There is still a chance, though, that I could eventually drop out and lose myself between a woman’s breasts. I don’t know. Even when I was young and more idealistic and optimistic than now, I already had what I called the Great Comforting Thought, namely: “Even if I make no significant progress in this life, at least I’m staying out of trouble.” Another comforting thought for me has been a Christian one, even the first words of the Sermon on the Mount: “Blessed are they who know their spiritual poverty.”
Now don’t get me wrong here. I reiterate that I’m not saying that Buddhism is wrong, or that Buddhist practice is a waste of time. Buddhism provides one of the wisest interpretations of right and wrong, and of reality itself, of any system invented by human beings, and meditation practice can change lives for the better. What I am saying is that Buddhist practice, though beneficial, almost always fails to get anyone fully enlightened. And consequently my motivation for intensive practice has atrophied considerably.
So anyway, I have lightened up quite a lot over the years, so much so in fact that now I follow the insane political news, and serve as a spiritual guide to Euronationalists, and may post another risqué pictorial post sooner than some of you might feel comfortable with. Cheers.