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.


  1. Greetings from Russia!

    I've been following your blog for a while now and I want to thank you for sharing your thoughts and feelings. I believe that your unique and genuine experience is very valuable for any Westerner interested in Dharma.

    Do you think there is a need for a new westernized and masculine Buddhist movement in the West?

    1. I don't know if I would call it a "need," but I do think it would be good if it happened.

      Are there many Buddhists in Russia? I've noticed that Russia is my fifth largest audience for this blog.

    2. " There is still a chance, though, that I could eventually drop out and lose myself between a woman’s breasts."
      Don't flatter yourself. You're middle-aged and poor. What woman would want you? That ship has sailed for you.

    3. You might be surprised. Middle-aged and monetarily poor is not an automatic disqualifier.

    4. No effort is wasted.

      The refining samatha practice and resulting Jhanas create calm and let the defilements settle but the defilements are still there. I do believe it is these clinging aggregates which cause all the trouble and all those who have trouble are "in the matter" and clinging to the aggregates. This is normal and not an insult but it is what it is. The aggregates of an enlightened one are still there but there is no clinging to them.

      I have not near the practice as you so maybe I'm naive. But I do feel that following the Bojjangas with a strong emphasis on contemplation is key. Meditation is fine but I see it as more of a hindrance now because of how people do it and what their deepest motives are while they do it.

      This is what I want to ask many modern practitioners. Do you want to put an end to suffering or do you want some exhaulted jhanic state. Are you curious in the back of your mind of being some super man? Perhaps they do. No big deal. It seems cool I admit but we need to deal with these motives in our deep recesses of the mind and it requires RADICAL introspection and retrospection. Hold to the 4 efforts. To develop the wholesome unarisen states, to maintain and cultivate further the wholesome arisen States, to abandon the unwholesome arisen states, and to prevent the arising of the unwholesome unarisen States. This is effort! And none is wasted.

      But I dont meditate as much as I did in the past either. I rather focus my efforts on the filth in my heart. Pull the sword from the stone and face the dragon of avijja...

      Maybe I'm Naive. May I die trying!

      I do appreciate your blog and your open and honest look at the life of a Monk striving on the path. Homage to you and all those who strive!

    5. That is quite surprising to hear! There are some historically Buddhist ethnic groups in Russia, on the borders with Central Asian countries. Mostly Buryat, Kalmyk and Tuva ethnic groups.

      But I might guess that non-Buddhist ethnic Russians constitute most of your Russian audience. People are no longer interested in LARPing as vikings and Wotanists, they turn to living Indo-European traditions. Evola is quite popular in Russia too. There are people who try mixing pratices like bringing Tantra into Slavic paganism, etc.

      I think that there is a demand for a spiritual movement that has a living tradition at the core.

  2. How has your celibacy practice been lately?

    "There is still a chance, though, that I could eventually drop out and lose myself between a woman’s breasts"------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------>given these sorts of statement still originate from your mind, how would you paint the ideal life for a man

    how about occasional celibacy and occasional sex? Would that be good to be "in flow" both when it comes to work and when it comes to meditation?

    1. The ideal life for a man would depend on the man, since not all men are the same. For those who can't be happy without a mate, and for whom enlightenment in this very life is not a goal, finding a good woman and settling down with her to raise a family may be best. But as the Buddha says in the texts, if you're able to be celibate, then be celibate. (But as Jesus says in the NT, being a eunuch for the sake of the Kingdom of Heaven really isn't for everybody.)

      As for myself, celibacy is easier now than it was 20 or even 10 years ago, largely because I'm getting older and my blood isn't as hot as it once was. Or putting into more biological terminology, I'm no longer in the prime of breeding age.

      And this totally sets aside the idea that a person shouldn't allow his race to die out. That is a more or less philosophical question that each man must answer for himself.

  3. Thank you for this... I take a peep at your blog now and then, but this article series resonated with me. I am also a practitioner in the Theravada tradition and I have been thinking about these same things. I have done short term stays at monasteries of the Thai Forest Tradition here in America and I couldn't help but notice that most of the monks displayed no outward signs of significant spiritual attainment and seemed rather to be affected by acedia. People are motivated to go into the spiritual life for different reasons but a majority of the monks I've interacted with seem to lack any genuine spiritual vocation (although I may just be thinking idealistically here- monks are, after all, just human beings). Life in a monastery just seems to make them light headed and spacey. What I'm saying is that my witnessing and most of my interactions with monks have been rather uninspiring.

    In the biography of Ajahn Mun (I'm guessing you've read), there is a memorable story of a forest monk, living at the time with Ajahn Mun, who fell in love at first site after accidentally witnessing a woman from a nearby village fetching water from a pond. According to the story, the monk was resolute in his practice and very determined to rid himself of this affection after the event. However, Ajahn Mun, being supposedly as clairvoyant as he was, could foresee that the monk would inevitably disrobe; he saw that the monk and woman had a deep karmic connection from many past lives. The inevitability of it was so strong that uncharacteristically of Ajahn Mun, he did not even attempt to rouse the monk into harder effort. As foreseen, the monk disrobed and shorty after married the woman.

    Maybe Mahayana got it right in regards to the perspective that enlightenment is something to be pursued gradually over many lifetimes. Indeed, I believe it to be true that most spend the holy life fighting against the current with hardly any progress towards the other shore, especially nowadays with the litany of distractions monks have to face now compared to the past. Even in regards to accomplished senior monks who write and teach a lot about the Dhamma I can't help but suspect that their teaching, writing. research etc. is in some respect betraying a weariness of solitude.

    For most of us, Arjuna may be best example for a life well-lived: Act in God and do what needs to be done according to your nature without any concern about Karma or rebirth. Or, maybe us determined Theravadans stuck at a spiritual plateau or without any significant progress should just try to kill ourselves and follow the examples of monks in the canon who attained liberation on the brink of death and despair ;)

    1. I have long considered the possibility that monasticism has acquired spiritual weaknesses that it didn't have in ancient India. Early monks wandered homeless, slept under trees, etc., which no doubt confronted them with the occasional major challenge; whereas living in a comfortable, secure monastery is more likely to shelter one from real challenges, aside from purely internal ones.

      Also sometimes I remember what Paul Lowe used to say: If you want enlightenment, then want it with all your heart, while doing nothing about it. Because nothing you DO is going to get you there.

    2. "Also sometimes I remember what Paul Lowe used to say: If you want enlightenment, then want it with all your heart, while doing nothing about it. Because nothing you DO is going to get you there."
      - not according to the Buddha, as recorded in the Pali Suttas.

    3. To Anonymous: The Buddha didn't say to do nothing, although Buddhist philosophy does state that doing is kamma, and kamma is not a cause of enlightenment. There is no guarantee. For example in the Satipatthana Sutta the Buddha is said to have said that if a person practices intensive mindfulness for x amount of time he will either become enlightened or attain a very high state, but the enlightenment is not something we can control. It's something that occurs spontaneously. Unless one follows certain Mahayana philosophies that deny that enlightenment even "occurs."

  4. Also reading from Russia. A valuable piece of information you won't find in any book about Buddhism, thanks.

  5. Dear Sir,

    You did à great think becoming q
    a monk there, most of us don't have this sincerity.

    But as you tell yourself you became lukewarm.

    What does birman masters have to remedy it what do they say ?

    1. Burmese Sayadaws would probably say that one should never lose faith and should strive diligently no matter what. Although Asian Buddhists are stronger in faith than westerners. In Buddhist philosophy there is the idea that faith and reason should be kept in balance; but the Burmese have much more faith than reason, and westerners are the reverse.

    2. I met à Burmeese monk. And probably he had much faith as he gave me faith in Burmeese spirituality. It's great.

      Thank you for your answer.

  6. Hello Bhante, as a minor point, I think St. Paul was the one who said not everyone could be a eunuch for the faith. Jesus seemed to be a staunch defender of marriage and against divorce. Since his students addressed him as Rabbi, it's likely he was married as required for that role in ancient Jewish society.
    Then again, I'm not a scholar, just an avid reader. Regards

  7. Thanks for sharing your thoughts about ordbog. Regards

  8. Good Sir Bhante,

    Just some further thoughts that come to mind,

    Sallekha Sutta is good, it is what the path is without Jhana deceiving jhanas just as peaceful abidings but sellakha as the path; I think death or asubha needs to be a part of practice also, as our desires are so thick in this current age. Ajahn Thates books a very good.

    Having faith in enlightened teachers like Ajahn Cha is very important, as without having a pointer in enlightened beings it is hard to get things inline and the causes in place.

    Contemplation of similies can also be very powerful bhavana.

    Anyway Bhante don't give up, find a way that works! Similes for the khandas, for sense pleasures, for nibanna. Contemplation of the sellakha sutta in detail. Reflection of one of the right views that suits ones temporament.

    Also just getting into samadhi via the recollections as described in the mahnama sutta, contemplation of Buddha, dhamma, sangha, freely giving, Silas, devas ; inline with that suttas is like an alternative to anapanna sati, and a good way for joy and peace.

    Anyway I totally understand the difficulties in going against old tendencies, so I wish you Mudita, patience and firm resolve.

    Peace Bhante, may you practice for Nibbana and make a refuge in your heart.

    In the Buddha Dhamma,
    Joniour Bhikkhu


Post a Comment

Hello, I am now moderating comments, so there will probably be a short delay after a comment is submitted before it is published, if it is published. This does have the advantage, though, that I will notice any new comments to old posts. Comments are welcome, but no spam, please. (Spam may include ANY anonymous comment which has nothing specifically to do with the content of the post.)


Most Clicked On