MCTB and the Path

Scott Alexander recently wrote a review of Daniel Ingram’s Mastering the Core Teachings of the Buddha, and I was really tickled. First, because the intersection of monasticism and the modern rationality world continues to be something I’m really interested in, and it’s nice to see it happening from multiple directions without any apparent influence of my own. But second, because MCTB is a significant book in my own life, and because we’ve talked a good deal about it and Daniel Ingram at the Monastic Academy.

MCTB was a book that found me at a certain stage in my journey in meditation. I’d started a daily practice by that point thanks to Chade-Meng Tan’s Search Inside Yourself, and I was somewhere between “somewhat” and “extremely” bought in to the idea that mindfulness practice was good at doing some good stuff that I found hard to pin down. But “enlightenment” was not yet a concept I had any interaction with—I basically still thought everyone who said the word was being sarcastic, flippant, or not talking about anything in particular. (I think I also believed there was a real deep experience that could be had in some special circumstances. And at that stage I also still assigned significant probability to a number of wacky and hard-to-articulate hypotheses related to that that I won’t go into here. But enlightenment was still basically a story or fairy tale to me.)

So MCTB came along and said, no, enlightenment—classical, final, absolute enlightenment—was not only real, but possible, and possible for someone like me with some work, and furthermore here was the path to it and the things to expect to happen on that path. And for whatever reason—maybe Ingram did a particularly good job at producing the appropriate shibboleths for what I’d consider a sane, down-to-earth person at the time—I bought in.

This was really significant. It was probably the one single step that took me from “I am going to pursue a daily practice at home with occasional online retreats to learn more and hone my skills” to “I am maybe willing to spend about a year of my life with practice towards enlightenment as the main thing that I direct my efforts towards.” It was therefore the step that made joining the Monastic Academy (at the time named CML) for that first training period a possibility to me. So if nothing else I owe the book, and its author, that.

But the Taoists would say that you can’t have a strength without having a weakness. MCTB’s strength is that it makes enlightenment and the path to enlightenment into a boring, simple, cut-and-dry, easy-to-pin-down sort of a thing, and that’s also its weakness. It’s valuable to see the path as boring and ordinary, not special, not far away or in a separate realm from everyday things. To see it as something you can do, and having done it, be done. But it’s also misleading.

We talk about MCTB and Ingram’s approach from time to time around here. Soryu has a few times gone on tirades about the problems it brings to light and reinforces. It’s worth looking closely at this.

There is a sense of arrogance and superiority that we can carry in this culture: a sense that we know better than those ancient people who were so foolish and blind, because we have science and the internet and our books are better and there are more of them. This sense also isn’t strictly speaking wrong, but it leads to prediction errors. We apply it to the spiritual path and wind up thinking: “all those people in all the monastic traditions throughout history were just wasting a ton of time on pointless observance of rituals and extra epicycles. I don’t need any of that. I know how the path works, because this book lays it out clearly. So in ten minutes a day, in my own home, without changing anything significant about my life, I’m going to do it, and my results in a few months or years are going to be as good or better than what those idiots got by giving their entire lives to it.”

Soryu would say that the path delivered in MCTB is watered down and incomplete. It gets you to the various stages up to and including arahatship by moving the goal posts for those stages closer to where you are. This is good in that it makes you willing to believe that arahatship is something possible and worth striving for, and bad because it might delude you into thinking you’ve gotten farther than you have.

From my own experience, depending on the definition you apply, I either definitely got to stream entry in the second or third week of my first nine months at CML (having by that time practiced quite seriously for at least a year), or I haven’t gotten there yet.

There is still an experience of emptiness easily available to me. The entire experiential universe blinks out of existence completely once every few seconds to few days at different rhythms. When it first happened I was really excited and proud: it felt validating, like hard work has paid off, and like I’d done something significant.

It is difficult to convey how much of a non-event it is now, and I’m not being rhetorically cute: in terms of impact on my daily life, it is almost totally inconsequential save for its relationship to my discussions about this sort of thing.

And I’m under no illusion that I’m done.

I just finished a two week training period at Tahoma Zen Monastery with Shodo Harada Roshi, probably one of the great masters of this time. I sat easily ten hours a day, and practiced as close to 24 hours a day as I could, including foregoing lots of sleep. I made incredible progress, had profound insights each day, and pushed myself farther than I’d ever gone before. I rode the ragged edge, and it was exhilarating. By the end of it, I have no illusions that I was anywhere close to where that man was inviting me to be in the Sanzen room.

And what he was pointing to was just the beginning of the path.

I now think it’s possible to do it. I don’t think that any number of years of sitting there in my room using my mind to mess with my attention will get me there (unless we get functional immortality before I die, in which case maybe in a few centuries.) Nothing short of a full effort with every fiber of my being every moment of the day seems like it will work.

This full effort with everything we have is essential if this is going to be real. Because the monastic traditions of the world aren’t in this just to give people some deep insight that we can take back into our lives as they already exist without modification. Soryu has a word for a path like that, a path that gives you deep insight yet produces no changes in behavior, no improvements in ethics: he calls it “garbage”.

The goal of this is to become actually trustworthy. To be someone who won’t take advantage of you when you’re unable to defend yourself, who won’t refrain from doing what must be done just because it’s hard or we don’t want to do it or we don’t yet know how. To do this we need to make a real change. We come to the point where we see clearly: these are my limitations. These are the places where I will betray you, betray life, betray the world, because of my own stuckness and preferences. We see this clearly and impassively, and we cut it away. Again and again, until there is no remainder. We can’t do this with anything less than our whole life. If anything is outside of it, then that will just keep self-replicating, and it will consume resources to do so. As long as there is any of this left, we can’t be trustworthy, because we are both serving life and serving these meaningless self-replicating patterns.

And I haven’t done it yet. So here I go, back home, into another week of retreat, to keep striving, keep cutting away, keep pulling up the roots.

Afterword: this is all screaming, to a certain part of me, “this is the way cults reproduce! They give you an unrealistic standard to aspire to and then you burn your entire life up serving them in an effort to attain something you will never have! Get out now! Go join a… I dunno, join MIRI or something? Start working on probability theory? Go back to school? Maybe get a tech job and save up some cash? Shit, I don’t know, but this is definitely bad and you should get out, I know because it’s like that episode of The Simpsons.”

Seriously, that is generally what happens when I entertain that voice. It’s clear on being concerned with the current course (less clear on why), but not super helpful on coming up with better alternatives. If you have any, please let me know. I promise to seriously entertain them and if one passes muster, do it. But for now it actually does seem like “become more trustworthy by cutting away all self-serving patterns” is the correct instrumental goal for me to pursue, and this is what it actually looks like to pursue it.

A way that I’ve heard it put is that we keep trading up in delusions. We find less and less harmful delusions to grab onto until finally we reach the point where we don’t need any. At first the delusions are quite bad: they have to meet us where we are, which means they are mostly meaningless self-replicating patterns with only a shadow of truth. Then they get more and more real, less and less imaginary. A monastery is somewhere on this path: some mix of truth with meaningless self-replicating garbage. MCTB is somewhere on this path as well.

MCTB as a step on this path is terrific. And it is not the last step.