Mastering the Core Teachings of the Buddha: An Unusually Hardcore Dharma Book - by Daniel M. Ingram


Morality, the First and Last Training

From my point of view, training in morality has as its domain all of the ordinary ways that we live in the world. Whatever we do in the ordinary world that we think will be of some benefit to others or ourselves is an aspect of working on this first training. In short, we have standards for our mental, emotional and physical lives and we try our best to live up to those standards. When we are working on training in morality, we consciously cultivate actions, words and thoughts that we deem to be kind and compassionate.

Thus, our agenda is for our intentions to be kind and compassionate, for our minds to be aware of what we are thinking, saying, and doing, and for our experience to tell us as best it can how to craft our life to reflect our intentions.

Concentration, the Second Training

Training in concentration relates to formal meditation practice. It is also called training in "samadhi" (meaning depths of meditation), or sometimes "samatha practice."

The first formal goal when training in concentration is to attain something called "access concentration," meaning the ability to stay consistently with your chosen object with relative ease to the general exclusion of distractions. This is the basic attainment that allows you to access the higher stages of concentration and also to begin the path of insight (the third training), so make attaining access concentration your first goal in your meditative practice. You will know when you have it.

Wisdom, the Third Training

When training in wisdom we actively work to simply increase the speed, precision, consistency and inclusiveness of our experience of all the quick little sensations that make up our experience, whatever and however they may be. Thus, the essential formal insight meditation instructions are: find a place where the distractions are tolerable, pick a stable and sustainable posture, and for a defined period of time notice every single sensation that makes up your reality as best you can. Just as with concentration practices, more time and more diligent practice pays off.

The Three Characteristics

They are impermanence, unsatisfactoriness, and no-self . I cannot possibly stress enough the usefulness of trying again and again to really understand these three qualities of all experience. They are the stuff from which ultimate insight at all levels comes, pure and simple. They are the marks of ultimate reality.

The Five Spiritual Faculties

The Five Spiritual Faculties are said to be like a cart with four wheels and a driver. If any of the four wheels is too small or wobbly or not in balance with the others, then the going on the spiritual road will be rough. If the driver is not paying attention then there will also be problems. The four wheels symbolize faith , wisdom , energy and concentration. The driver symbolizes mindfulness.

The Seven Factors of Enlightenment

The Seven Factors of Enlightenment are mindfulness, investigation of the truth, energy, rapture, tranquility, concentration and equanimity. It is important to note that only one factor, investigation of the Three Characteristics, separates training in concentration from training in fundamental insight. Thus, six of the Seven Factors of Enlightenment are cultivated by training in concentration, and it is often recommended as a preliminary training before training in insight for this and other reasons.

Noting is the practice that got me the most breaks and insights in my early practice, particularly when coupled with retreats, and my enthusiasm for it is understandably extreme. I still consider it the foundation of my practice, the technique that I fall back on when things get difficult or when I really want to push deep into new insight territory. Thus, of all the techniques and emphases I mention in this book, take this one the most seriously and give it the most attention. Its simplicity belies its astonishing power.

The practice is this: make a quiet, mental one-word note of whatever you experience in each moment. Try to stay with the sensations of breathing, noting these quickly as "rising" (as many times as the sensations of the breath rising are experienced) and then "falling" in the same way. This could also be considered fundamental insight practice instructions. When the mind wanders, notes might include "thinking," "feeling," "pressure," "tension," "wandering," "anticipating," "seeing," "hearing," "cold," "hot," "pain," "pleasure," etc. Note these sensations one by one as they occur and then return to the sensations of breathing.

Here are some valuable tips for successful noting. Don't get too neurotic about whether or not you have exactly the correct word for what arises. The noting should be as consistent and continuous as possible, perhaps one to five times per second. Speed and an ability to keep noting no matter what arises are very important. Anything that derails your noting practice deserves aggressive and fearless noting the next time it arises. Note honestly and precisely. So long as you note whatever arises, you know that you were mindful of it. Noticing each sensation and those that follow, you will see their true nature. Seeing their true nature, you will gain profound insights. What the sensations are doesn't matter one bit from the point of view of noting practice. What is important is that you know what they are. The difference between these two perspectives should be clearly understood.

Practical Meditation Considerations: When, Where, and For How Long?

While many people think that retreats are for more advanced practitioners, I think that a few retreats early in one's practice can really jump start things, allowing one to then make much better use of meditation time off retreat. I recommend greater than 5-day retreats when possible.

I have found it extremely valuable, particularly when sitting down to do formal meditation, to state to myself at the beginning of the session exactly what I am doing, what I hope to attain by it, and why attaining that is a good idea. I do this formally and clearly, either out loud or silently to myself. Having done practice with and without them, I have come to the definite conclusion that formal resolutions can make a huge difference in my practice. One of my favorite resolutions goes something like, "I resolve that for this hour I will consistently investigate the sensations that make up reality so as to attain to liberating insights for the benefit of myself and all beings."

I have also found that I can use resolutions in my daily life to good effect. For instance, when studying for a medical school exam, I might resolve, "For this hour, I will study this hematology syllabus so that I will increase my knowledge and skill as an aspiring doctor and thus be less likely to kill patients and more likely to help them." Such resolutions might seem overly formal or perhaps even goofy, and they sometimes seem this way to me, but I have come to appreciate them anyway. If I make resolutions that do not ring true, I can feel it when I say them, and this helps me understand my own path and heart. If I am lost and wondering why I am doing what I am doing, these sorts of resolutions help me to consciously reconnect with what is important in life.


Students often fail to make progress because they confuse content and insight. When practicing morality, the first and most fundamental training in spirituality, content is everything, or at least as far as training in morality can take you. Fixation on content even works well when practicing the second training, training in concentration. However, when it comes to insight practice, content will get you nowhere fast. In insight practice, everything the student has learned about being lost in the names of things and thoughts about them, i.e. content, will be completely useless and an impediment. Here the inquiry must turn to impermanence, suffering and no-self. These characteristics must be understood clearly and directly in whatever sensations arise, be they beautiful, ugly, helpful, not helpful, skillful, not skillful, holy, profane, dull, or otherwise. Anything other than this is just not insight practice, never was and never will be.

It doesn't matter what the quality of your mind is, or what the sensations of your body are, if you directly understand the momentary sensations that make these up to be impermanent, unsatisfactory and not self, then you are on the right path, the path of liberating insight. However, as mentioned before, off the cushion the quality of your mind, your reactions, your words and deeds all matter. These are not in conflict. Insight practice is about ultimate reality, the ultimate nature of reality, and thus the specifics don't matter. Morality and concentration are about relative reality, and thus the specifics are everything. Learning to be a master of both the ultimate and the relative is what this is all about.

A Clear Goal

If you have no clear idea of what you want or why you are doing something, then the results are likely to be just as murky, vague, and fragmented. Why are you doing all of this? This is a very important question. Goals tend to involve a heavy future component. The trick is to add a component that relates to the Here and Now as well. One could try to be kind, honest or generous that day, try to appreciate interdependence that day, or try to stay really concentrated on some object for that practice session. These present and method-oriented goals are the foundation upon which great practice is based. Purely future-oriented goals are at best mostly worthless and at worst very dangerous.

Harnessing the Energy of the "Defilements"

Try this little exercise the next time some kind of strong and seemingly useless or unskillful emotion arises. First, stabilize precisely on the sensations that make it up and perhaps even allow these to become stronger if this helps you to examine them more clearly. Find where these are in the body, and see as clearly as possible what sorts of images and story lines are associated with these physical sensations. Be absolutely clear about the full magnitude of the suffering in these, how long each lasts, that these sensations are observed and not particularly in one's control. Now, find the compassion in it. Take a minute or two (no more) to reflect on why this particular pattern of sensations seems to be of some use even though it may not seem completely useful in its current form.

Then, examine the mental sensations related to the object that you either wish for (attraction), wish to get away from (aversion), or wish would just be able to be ignored (ignorance). Examine realistically if this will fundamentally help yourself and others and if these changes are within your power to bring about. If so, then plan and act with as much compassion and kindness as possible. Remember then that all the rest of the suffering of that emotional pattern is created by your mind and its confusion, and vow to channel its force into developing morality, concentration, and wisdom.


Intimacy with reality is bought at the price of attaining transcendence beyond reality. Transcendence is bought at the price of attaining intimacy with reality. These inescapable facts should not be forgotten.

Concentration Vs. Insight

Concentration practices (samatha or samadhi practices) are meditation on a concept, an aggregate of many transient sensations, whereas insight practice is meditation on the many transient sensations just as they are. When doing concentration practices, one purposefully tries to fix or freeze the mind in a specific state, called an "absorption," "jhana" or "dyana." While reality cannot be frozen in this way, the illusion of solidity and stability certainly can be cultivated, and this is concentration practice.

Insight practices tend to be difficult and somewhat disconcerting, as they are designed to deconstruct our deluded and much cherished views of the world and ourselves, though they can sometimes be outrageously blissful for frustratingly short periods. Concentration states are basically always some permutation of great fun, extremely fascinating, seductive, spacious, blissful, peaceful, spectacular, etc. There is basically no limit to how interesting concentration practices can be. Insight practice stages and revelations can also be very interesting, but are not potentially addictive the way concentration states and side effects can be. Insight practices tend to be hard work most of the time even if that work is just surrendering to things as they are.

Concentration practices develop concentration but they don't develop wisdom. The problem is that concentration states can easily fool people into thinking that they are the end goal of the spiritual path because these states can become so blissful, spacious, and even formless, and thus can closely match some imprecise descriptions or expectations of what awakening might be like. However, concentration practices can be very helpful and are very important. Without at least some skill in concentration practices, insight meditation is virtually impossible. Concentration states can also be a welcome and valid vacation from stress, providing periods of very deep relaxation and peace that can be an extremely important part of a sane, compassionate and healthy lifestyle.


Go ahead and get some deep insight to integrate in the first place.

Pick your battles. We can't do everything. We can't have it all. We simply don't have the time or the energy. Spiritual technology will not change these simple facts of life. We can only be working on so many things at once and still do any of them well. We need breaks, downtime, and balance. However, if we are wise and discerning, we can craft a set of priorities for ourselves that honors our unique spiritual needs, relationship needs, career needs, recreational needs, and family needs, as well as the needs of others. We can do this in a way that is realistic and allows us to keep making good use of our life without burning out or stagnating.

"Right plane, right time": Use the correct conceptual and paradigmatic framework for the correct situation. From the point of view of integration, it basically means that one generally should use a way of approaching a situation or problem that fits with that situation or problem. One should be conscious of the conceptual frameworks that one uses when approaching each aspect of one's life, as some conceptual frameworks or ways of being may not be helpful or appropriate for certain situations.

Be careful when talking about your practice. Choose the correct words or degree of silence for the people around you and the situations in which you find yourself, particularly soon after dramatic occurrences. As a dead French occultist once said, "To tell someone something they can't understand is as bad as telling them a lie." Wise words. Cultivate a network of friends with whom you can share these things, or keep a diary if this is not practical, or both. There is something helpful about being able to talk about unusual things in a safe and appropriate context.

It is Possible!

Practice, practice, practice! This is the big difference between those who are merely into giving lip service to Buddhism and those who really get what the old boy was talking about. Go on retreats and actually follow the instructions to the letter all day long. Find people who know how it is done and hang out with them. Keep it simple. Avoid magical thinking and abandoning common sense.