Freewriting Rough Draft: Ethics, Questionable Instruction, Tangential Sex Scandals, And What Makes Good Meditation Instruction

UPDATE: Finland and facebookers, can you please comment and link me to where you are coming from? Thank you.

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[This is freewriting. It jumps between topics, drops threads without picking them up again, etc. It’s much more scattered than even my usually hasty, compressed, cryptic stuff. But there’s some good stuff in here. I’ll pick out pieces of this and clean them up over time, in future posts.]

There’s something really bugging about some recent Buddhist teachings that I’ve encountered. I’m not sure if I’ll be able to put my finger on it and do it justice, but I’m going to give it a shot.

I recently finished skimming E-Mailing the Lamas from Afar.

David Chapman suggested it on his blog in the distant past:

David notes that “[i]t is far from a systematic introduction […].”

Indeed. I understand that it’s not meant to be systematic. I understand that it’s presumably intended for students that have decent familiarity with the Aro teachings already. It’s mostly composed of student emails and replies to those emails by the Aro lamas.

I understand that once the basics are out of the way, these sorts of spot teachings, addressing edge cases, addressing practical problems, can be very helpful, even essential to tie up important issues that are difficult to systematize and methodically teach.

One of the things that’s really bugging me is the mocking tone of the lamas’ replies to students (“apprentices”) who are obviously experiencing real distress. I noticed a similar stance (and I could be misremembering this) in a video recording of Kenneth Folk (not affiliated with Aro at all) working with a student. That student was in distress.

Now, this is an obvious possible case of “tough love.” Sometimes, if the teacher knows better, and the student is not a child and can walk away, and this student consents to be “toughly loved,” then the teacher can incidentally (as a by-product of the teacher’s intention) or specifically (the distress is the point) cause distress to hopefully provide a net benefit to the recipient. Tough love: “I know this sucks, but it’s for your own good.”

But, I feel a lot of distress-by-proxy, just writing this. Something doesn’t seem right with these sorts of situations.

Let’s talk about what might be going on in these situations.

First, I realize that, after a certain amount of understanding and training, you can sometimes just flip a switch in your brain. Here is a somewhat-related example of switch-flipping:

Meditation and related teachings start making available switches that weren’t available before or were previously available but very difficult to randomly or deliberately stumble upon:

Especially with Mahamudra and Dzogchen, it seems that there’s this very particular switch that teachers are trying to get students to flip and possibly keep flipped. And, I do believe it’s possible to sort of goad people into flipping that switch, to push, mock, hint, and analogize people into flipping that switch (not that that’s necessarily a common teaching technique).

And, sometimes, it’s possibly in a consenting student’s best interests to be repeatedly goaded, mocked, trivialized, etc., into flailingly, desperately, gropingly flipping that switch.

But… but… how often is that actually necessary, and how much of that is laziness by the teachers, and how much of that is conscious or subconscious withholding of information by the teachers to extract resources from the students? (Again, not Folk.)

I’m definitely not saying that Kenneth Folk is doing that. I am maybe saying that the Aro teachers are doing that, intentionally or unintentionally.

I agree, with a lot of this meditation stuff, you can’t just say it. That becomes a finger pointing at the moon and people get distracted by finger and miss the moon what’s being pointed at. (You have to go meta in a big way, like I just did.) Metaphorically, they don’t realize they can “look up,” that there’s a direction “up.”

(Part of that mocking or trivializing is to help(?) the student understand what’s relevant and irrelevant to moving towards the teacher’s (and hopefully student’s) desired goal. But, I see better ways of doing that all the time, including in the Pali cannon.)

Meditation teaching is a lot of Quinian bootstrapping, where you provide conceptual structure without (being able to) immediately provide the referents that map to that conceptual structure. And the hope is that the conceptual structure primes people to be more likely to notice and slot in the referents when they stumble on (or towards) those referents that map to that conceptual structure. (And hopefully that conceptual structure is intricate enough that it helps to weed out referents that seem like they might fit but are actually not what the teacher had in mind.)

And, when teaching, one tries to set up situations and trained skills (“Enlightenment is an accident, meditation makes you accident prone.”) that make students more likely to stumble on those referents and also more likely to be able to stabilize those referents if stumbled upon.

Ok, so teaching meditation and teaching the point of meditation and ethically selling meditation and ethically selling the point of meditation (being transparent about costs and benefits to each unique individual) is HARD.

But why don’t teachers explain it like I’m trying to do, here?:

“Here’s what we’re doing. Here’s why we’re doing it. Here are the risks. Here’s what’s going to suck, and here’s why you may or may not want to do it anyway.”

(Yes, sometimes, if you explain something in advance then it can’t have its desired effect…)

But, regarding the ethics all of this, directly from that Lama ebook above:

“Those who absorb too much in terms of ‘Dharma sophistry’ become blind to the precision, directness, straightforwardness, and fundamental wholesomeness of essential Buddhism.”

Well, for fuck’s sake: I agree, but I’m not seeing much of it in that book. But, bafflingly, there is signal there: I found stray stuff in that book to be extremely immediately personally helpful to my own path. I’ve referred back a few times to some highlighted passages, and I will probably do so again.

And that’s what makes stuff like that book all the more confusing to me. Why don’t they just come out and say it, then? Is it the moon/finger thing?

(And, again, is mocking or trivializing or whatever necessary? Not all teachers do that. I would never do that.)


I’m reminding of an experience I had over and over again in college. The engineering textbook would be shit. Totally opaque. And I’d have to figure it all out from a mishmash of sources, without touching the textbook for weeks. And then right before the test I would skim the textbook again, and it would all be right there in the text. So was the textbook good or bad? Bad, I guess? Already having the knowledge, I was able to see the signal in the text, and even derive some benefit from it…

Why does oblique, cryptic teaching persist?

And then there’s needing(?) to create some rhythm over time, setting up culture and organizational structure to keep certain teachings alive… Maybe sometimes in some circumstances you do need to tantalizingly dribble it out over time so people keep coming back, not to mention donating, and actually get the full transmission. And it sets up a rhythm and a community and then teachers who wouldn’t otherwise have time or money to teach can get income to do so, and students support each other. Bleh, compromises?

So I don’t know. I guess this rant is partially my affirmation that I am trying to get points across, I’m trying to just come out and say it, as clearly and succinctly as I can. And I also want to make myself irrelevant in that people can get the full benefit of everything I know, at any point now or in the future, without having to interact with me directly.

I note some unintentional (haha!) hypocrisy in all of this. As clear as I’m trying to be, my own writing is hasty, dense, cryptic and ungrammatical. I’m doing the best that I can under time and energy constraints, writing like I do versus not writing at all. Maybe most meditation teachers are doing the best they can, under resource constraints.


I guess what’s getting a little bit scary for me is that, as my blog traffic sloooooooowly grows, there becomes more of a possibility of deriving needed resources from my material and teaching. And, while unnecessary obfuscation is deeply against my values, I am noticing an subtle allure to be “mysterious,” to be “wise.” Yikes!

In fairness to the teachers above and myself below, I think because meditation has such slippery referents, it’s harder to draw bright lines between “clear” and “not clear,” as opposed to like electrical engineering.

And therefore it’s easier for all sorts of other intentions to slip in with transmitting knowledge, though all knowledge transmission can be used pretty easily to attain and wield power and status in ugly ways. Maybe slippery referents make it harder for corrective feedback to take place; it’s harder for people to say “that’s not true,” or, “you don’t have to say it that way,” or, “it would be easier and better for us, even if less better for you, if you said it this way.”

Genpo Merzel Roshi says, “Don’t ask if I’m abusing my power. Ask how.” Because, it is a fundamental fact of life that almost all human interaction is deeply, inseparably tied into resource acquisition, status seeking, etc. I don’t think I’m being cynical, here. Altruism is folded into this, too. It’s what we are, in addition to other things. This could be clearer; anyway.

[I just googled him, and holy shit! More sex scandals! And this guy has done some really brilliant stuff that has been personally helpful. I should write about sex scandals and meditation teachers, eventually. ]

My point is that I want to guard against unintentionally making bad tradeoffs between my stuff being transparently accessible and me profiting from my stuff. I want people to like me and want to hang out with me, and I want money, and I want people to have unimpeded access to everything I know.

And, it’s getting harder for me, as I’m hoping to start cleaning up my writing and making it more accessible (“Is this making things clearer or is this dribbling it out?”).

[And I can write with precision and power: ]

Hopefully, I’ll stumble on conceptual bright lines where it’d be just obviously criminal, to me and to everyone else, if I didn’t just stick within those lines. Or, my (non)secret identity will remove almost all pressure to be anything but someone who viciously, brilliantly, systematically makes everything they know transparently accessible.

In other words, one way or another, I’ll have so much abundance in my life that impeccable generosity will be the optimal strategy to make my life even more abundant—a virtuous circle/feedback loop…

…That’s possible, but not likely in all aspects. More likely is that I’ll need to actively guard and compensate around these issues for the rest of my life. Or I’ll come to reframe all of this differently.

Ask how, not if, speak up, call me out, and know that I care about doing the right thing by my values and everyone else’s, amidst these pressures.

And, remember, that ethical navigation is always ongoing: When one writes about these dynamics and even refers back to them, they are still happening. Those dynamics can even appropriate and metabolize and wield explications of themselves in the service of their aims. Shadow is shadow by definition, and it’s an intelligent, active, reactive process. See, I’m getting cryptic (and I hope you’re curious for more…), but it’s time to hit publish until the next one…

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2 thoughts on “Freewriting Rough Draft: Ethics, Questionable Instruction, Tangential Sex Scandals, And What Makes Good Meditation Instruction

  1. A short defence of “emailing the lama’s”:

    One thing to point out is that this isn’t a book about meditation – they have a book about dzogchen called “roaring silence” (also recommended), and they don’t obviously have a “switch flipping” approach. Instead, it’s a practical book about tantra, and pretty central to their tantric approach is working with neurosis. And pretty central to their approach, and their style as teachers, and their personality, is not take neurosis seriously. My impression is that mocking style is how they work with their own neuroses – they just don’t take themselves very seriously. It’s also a pretty British approach – “taking the piss” And are pretty funny as “spiritual” teachers go. I think (uncharitably) what you observe with Folk is perhaps more a reflection of his own neurosis, rather than something that is integral to his teaching. But with Aro, humour is quite key, partly it’s a style:

    Naljorma Rin’dzin: How might you describe yourself to potential apprentices?
    Ngala ’ö-Dzin: The only thing that I could say is that I’m committed to the Nyingma Aro gTér lineage of practice. I try to be kind to people and to maintain a sense of humour. My humour could be seen as helpful or unhelpful, depending on your view. You could find my humour irritating, my attempts at kindness inept, my commitment to the lineage one of blind faith. 

    And partly its explicitly part of what makes aro aro, e.g.:

    I would also say that my experience of Aro is of much clarity on “Here’s what we’re doing. Here’s why we’re doing it” – everything is done with a clear and logical and articulable purpose.

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