A Kind Stab to the Heart

This week I have been inspired by something Ajahn Amaro said in a talk given at Stanford University [1] about his concerns that Western teachers not giving their students challenging teachings because they are unpopular, or hard to sell. He told an interesting story about the time that Ajahn Chah gave some teaching at the Insight Meditation Centre in Massachusetts. There were some famous teachers there at the time, such as Joseph Goldstein and Sharon Saltzberg, and they asked Ajahn Chah for some advice as teachers. According to Ajahn Amaro, his reply was ‘you will succeed only if you are prepared to challenge the attachments and obsessions of your students’. [1] What really caught my ear was Ajahn Amaro’s literal translation of the Thai phrase that Ajahn Chah had actually used to say this: ‘if you’re ready to stab their hearts’.

For Ajahn Amaro this willingness to stab, or perhaps in English we might be more likely to say ‘break’, the hearts of your students is an act of kindness on the part of the teacher. We all have things that we are very attached to and don’t want to let go of, and it is the job of the teacher to point out where we are doing this.

The whole talk Ajahn Amaro was giving was about the future of mindfulness and Buddhism in the West, so he brought up this story to illustrate one of the areas that he felt could lead to problems in the future, namely the way commercialisation of Buddhism can lead to the weakening of the teachings . He felt that when something costs a lot of money then there is a requirement for it to be dressed up in a way that makes them seem sexy and interesting, and this can lead to challenging aspects of the teaching being edited out because it will reduce the commercial reach of the message. His concern seemed to be that commercial pressures were lessening teachers’ readiness to stab us in the heart when we needed it.

As I’ve written about previously, the Buddhist path is one that requires the careful balancing and development of a range of factors so leaving something out, however small a detail it might seem, could have much greater consequences for someone’s practice that we could imagine. Likewise when we leave out the difficult bits of a practice we run the risk of leaving behind the part that actually creates the beneficial effect, so anything that causes us to either skip over or not be exposed to the full range of the teachings can have a significant effect on the outcome of our practice.

An opinion has developed that Westerners need more than just meditation to get over the particular damage that our lives in uncaring capitalist societies create. Thanissaro Bhikkhu writes that he has found, in his experience as a teacher, that Westerners are “afflicted more with a certain grimness and lack of self-esteem” [2] than any Asians he has taught, which he feels limits their ability to get real therapeutic benefit from meditation.

He says that many other teachers have noted that Westerners lack the qualities needed to get the best out of meditation and they have concluded that the Buddhist path of practice must be insufficient for the needs of broken Westerners. This has opened up a range of creative ways to enhance meditation practice, with Thanissaro Bhikkhu listing the kinds of supplementary practices teachers offered as including such things as ‘poety, psychotherapy, social activism, sweat lodges, mourning rituals, and even drumming.’ [2] Things have certainly developed quite a bit since Thanissaro Bhikkhu wrote this in 1997, nowadays you might also have an ayahuasca experience, or perhaps  a cacao ceremony, after forest bathing, qi gong, and a morning of goat yoga.

There’s no doubt that all of these different activities are great experiences, and will likely make you feel better afterwards, but it takes me back to Ajahn Amaro’s point about the dangers of commercialism in Buddhist teaching, that the way business operates is in conflict with what a spiritual practitioner actually requires. One of the central pillars of capitalist economies is the retailer’s ability to sell us things that we want but we don’t really need. Advertisers do a great job of making this happen by persuading us that we have a ‘lack’ of something and the solution is the product that they are selling us. I had a friend who offered a specialist type of therapy, but she became disillusioned with it as a livelihood because to sell her therapy she had to convince people that they had a problem that needed fixing and that went against her ethos as a person who wanted to make people feel better.

In the West we are being taken advantage of in this way all the time, every advert is telling us that there is something missing from our lives, or something wrong with us,  and that we need some thing to fix it. These are the kind of ethical tensions that teachers who operate in the commercial sphere have to try find a way through that they are comfortable with.

In some ways the idea that ‘Westerners need something more than traditional practice’ to make spiritual progress is another echo of this narrative we have been fed about always needing something more; we have been so conditioned to believe that we perpetually lack something that we find it plausible that the same lack carries over to our spiritual progress. I don’t disagree that Westerners do perhaps need a bit more guidance and preparation before they start to meditate than those brought up in Buddhist societies, but I’m yet to be convinced that we are ‘special cases’ that need extra practices over and above the teachings offered by our chosen tradition. At the moment I am more inclined to agree with Thanissaro Bhikkhu when he says that the problem might not be that the Buddhist path is lacking in something, but rather that we haven’t been following it fully [2].

The reasons we haven’t followed are potentially many.  In ‘Are You Really Meditating?’ I wrote about the problem of Western students not going deeply enough into the practice of meditation being slower to make progress because we get stuck at the level of analysing the contents of our thoughts instead of just treating them as mind objects. This is an inadvertent by-product of the Western attitude to the mind and our psychoanalytical approaches to understanding our inner world. But it could likewise be said that the commercialisation of Buddhist practices creates other, inadvertent side effects that also act to hamper our potential progress too, and maybe the sum total of all of these makes it seem as if we need special measures to make any headway.

There is an inherent tension between the requirements of following a path fully and running a wellbeing business, even a spiritual one. The need of a commercial enterprise to sell you something means that they have to keep creating new things for you to buy. Just go into your nearest supermarket to see this in action. I was truly perplexed by the extraordinary range of different flavours of hot cross buns available in the supermarkets in the run up to Easter this year: apple and cinnamon, salted caramel, strawberry and white chocolate, chocolate orange, you name it. Why were they there? Who thought those flavours were an improvement on the original? But of course they weren’t meant to be better, they were just meant to be new, to pique our curiosity and get us to buy something we otherwise didn’t know we needed. The supermarkets weren’t trialling new products  in the hope that they were going to become regular features, these were all there just to entice us into a purchase. It didn’t matter if we hated it because they only wanted to sell us one; once Easter is over, they stop making them, and next Easter the flavours will be different. In fact probably in some cases people bought the new flavours and realised they liked regular hot cross buns better and then bought those, two sales instead of one. This is just how business works.

There is no doubt that also this happens when you are selling spiritual experiences too, to keep drawing your customers back you have to keep coming up with new practices for them to try. If all you are doing is selling experiences then that is absolutely fine, but if you are helping people to develop a spiritual practice then this can create a conflict of interests. To sell an experience it has to be interesting, but just because it is interesting that doesn’t mean it will support your spiritual development. What you really need might be extremely boring, and totally unmarketable – such as just meditating, all day, every day – although granted there is a niche market for these kinds of experiences but it won’t ever make you rich.

Ajahn Amaro had highlighted teachings that take a poke at our attachment to material goods and to our appearance as the kinds of teachings that often get swept under the carpet for the sake of popularity. Our attachment to being tantalised and titillated by new ideas and experiences is likewise never challenged if we are constantly having new shiny things dangled in front of us. Our avoidant and escapist tendencies are not challenged either if we aren’t made to deal with difficult, uncomfortable practices either. But if you are avoidant and escapist then who is going to persuade you to part with your time and money to spend a weekend doing the things that appeal the least to you?

I realise that I am in a very fortunate position to have access to teachers and teachings that operate outside of the constraints of capitalism, the dana economy allows the teaching to be given warts and all. I take it for granted that I am being given the whole story and not just the parts that the teachers think I can stomach. But as I explore this question of Westerners not being offered unpopular teachings and the impact that might have had on our ability to progress, I realise that because I have this unfiltered exposure to the teachings, on some level I have held an underlying assumption that anyone who prefers glossy, commercial teachings over more traditional approaches doesn’t want to be challenged.

This is not a skilful attitude to have for many reasons, not least because I know fine well that there are practices that some people shouldn’t attempt. Meditation has many risks, and it can have serious impacts on mental health. The most challenging practices like asuba practice and death contemplation have the potential to be very disturbing, and should only really be done with the support of a teacher, and within the context of a wider spiritual practice. For example, under normal circumstances Ajahn Amaro offers a 13 day retreat every year, and its main feature is death contemplations ending with practicing ‘dying’ in the temple. To get on a 13 day retreat at Amaravati you have to be a very experienced meditator, and this type of practice isn’t given on any of the other retreats; it is understood to be a very challenging practice and is only offered to those who have enough experience to tackle it. With some mental health issues even meditating with the eyes closed is hazardous, so it seems right that there is some limitation to the types of practices and teachings offered if you cannot provide the right kind of support to the student.

Perhaps that is more of the issue, and it kind of parallels the issue that Brown and Engler [4] were picking up on when they felt Westerners were struggling because they didn’t do preliminary practices. When you sell a book, or a place on a retreat, or workshop, you don’t have an ongoing relationship with your student. There is no way to do preliminary work with them, or to continue to support their development aside from them spending more money on days and retreats with you. Within a spiritual community, the student has access to teachings and support all the time, and a casual conversation, or a chance statement in a Dhamma talk,  can be just as illuminating as a proper ‘interview’ with an Ajahn. Maybe the problem isn’t so much the restraints of commercialism as it is to do with the lack of supporting infrastructure, and perhaps that is something that will develop more the longer that Buddhist and other spiritual traditions have been established in the West.

But as I think about other, less troublesome practices, I find it really striking that even a practice that is recommended to be done every day by Buddhists of all levels is, by worldly standards, very challenging. The practice I’m talking about is the Five Subjects for Frequent Recollection; these are five important aspects of the teachings that we should try to reflect on at some point every day. The five recollections are:

I am of the nature to age, I have not gone beyond aging.

I am of the nature to sicken, I have not gone beyond sickness.

I am of the nature to die, I have not gone beyond dying.

All that is mine, beloved and pleasing, will become otherwise, will become separated from me.

I am the owner of my kamma, heir to my kamma, born of my kamma, related to my kamma, abide supported by my kamma. Whatever kamma I shall do, for good or for ill, of that I will be the heir. [5]

This is considered to be a very basic practice, yet I can see how much it goes against the grain of the average mainstream mindfulness or wellbeing teaching. Basic as these recollections are, they aren’t without their own risks either. Taken out of context, the first three recollections of being of the nature to age, sicken, and die, rather than help anyone loosen their attachment to their sense of self and their appearance, could create an existential conflict instead when they open up to the reality of the brevity of human life.

The fourth recollection is a swift, hard kick to our materialistic obsessions: it doesn’t matter what you spend your money on because you are going to lose it all at some point anyway. It is a reminder that most of us sorely need a lot of the time, but it is the antithesis of advertising – nothing you buy will solve your problems because you will eventually lose it all. I know some people find the fourth recollection an absolutely terrifying prospect, that you are going to lose everything important to you, but I find it has the potential to be quite liberating. If none of this stuff is going to stay mine then I don’t need to break my back trying to keep it, and I don’t need to be surprised or upset when I lose it because that was the only thing that was ever going to happen. As Ajahn Chah said if you recognise that the intact glass is already broken then it won’t be a problem to you when it actually breaks.

But if you have spent a lot of time, money, and effort on acquiring all the finest things that you can buy, then this type of reflection is going to be extremely challenging to hear. We live in a society where success is measured in material goods, to say that none of these things are really yours is to say that you have wasted your time, and no one wants to hear that. It is little wonder then that teachings on letting go of materialism get pushed to one side when they have the potential to be so upsetting to the Western sensibility.

The fifth recollection is also extremely challenging to the Western mindset, not because it isn’t something we are already aware of but because it taps into our tendency to blame ourselves in an unhealthy way for what happens to us. Going back to Thanissaro Bhikkhu’s idea that Westerners lack self-esteem, this can manifest in our lack of self-acceptance and self-compassion. This habit might largely come from our society though, when things go wrong someone has to be to blame, so naturally when it was our action  that caused the problem then we blame ourselves. Many Westerners wouldn’t be able to hear the fifth recollection in the way it was meant to be understood, as being about taking responsibility for our actions, without using it as another rod to beat themselves with.

So I find myself pulled in two directions by this question about challenging teachings being withheld from Western students because I can see that there is the potential for these types of teachings to do both good and harm. If the teachings are being glossed over purely to extend commercial reach then that cannot be an act of skilfulness, but if they are being parked to one side because a teacher knows his or her students won’t be able to hear it in the right way then that, I think, has the potential to be as much of an act of kindness as being ready to ‘stab their hearts’ when the teacher knows they both need it and can handle it.

Image by Ben Kerckx from Pixabay

References

1.    Ajahn Amaro. Buddhism and Mindfulness in the West: Where are They Headed and What Challenges Do They Face? 2018. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tZYyZ13AnAw&t=1585s&ab_channel=TheHoCenterforBuddhistStudiesatStanford. Accessed 29 Apr 2021.

2.    Thanissaro Bhikkhu. The Healing Power of the Precepts. 1997. https://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/thanissaro/precepts.html. Accessed 27 Apr 2021.

3.    T. Prince. Renunciation. 1996. https://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/prince/bl036.html. Accessed 27 Apr 2021.

4.    Daniel P. Brown, Jack Engler. The Stages of Mindfulness Meditation: A Validation Study. The Journal of Transpersonal Psychology. 1980;12:143–92.

5.    Amaro, Gavesako. Chanting. Volume one: Morning and evening chanting (pūjā) and reflections /  editors: Ajahn Amaro, Ajahn Gavesako. Hemel Hempstead, Hertfordshire, UK: Amaravati Publications; 2015.

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