By Layman Chushu
Breakthroughs are addictive. Many people practice for the joy of insight. This can be an obstacle itself, something else to grasp after and make “mine.”
We think that insight is the way, but not all insights are wise. Some breakthroughs send you backward. It’s like if I pointed at a cloud and said, “Look at the bunny rabbit!” After a few moments, it’s there. “I see it!” That is an insight. The problem is that there is no bunny rabbit—only clouds.
Then we go to the store and buy a bunch of a carrots. But the bunny doesn’t eat them, and then the wind blows the clouds into a new shape. The bunny is gone and here we are, standing here at a loss with a bunch of carrots—too many to eat. Maybe we try to give them away, but no one wants them; they already have carrots too. So, we keep waiting for sky bunny to come back, and the carrots rot.
Wise insight is like an actual rabbit. We give it some carrots and greens (please don’t limit your rabbit’s diet to just carrots) and then when it’s done eating, we have nothing left over. And when the wind blows, the rabbit doesn’t blow away with it. Unless maybe it’s a tornado.
Wise insight changes you, and this change is consistent. You don’t change and then change back, that’s cloud rabbit insight. You change forward and only forward. So please don’t congratulate yourself for understanding, or take other’s congratulations to heart.
It is also possible to effectively practice without having breakthroughs, to “get it” without ever realizing that you do, or without an ultimate moment of getting it.
Sometimes I think that this is better for the West since we so easily attach to experiences. It’s possible to make Awakening into a novelty. Even the word “Woke “ is becoming a cultural meme, part of a scene. The insight movement is popular because people like to trip on wisdom. They want breakthroughs. They want the rush of freedom or the opiate understanding. That is not for me, and I can’t imagine it yielding many Masters, and the Way is more about mastery than breakthroughs.
A skillful breakthrough results in not craving breakthroughs anymore because daily life is an Awakening in itself.
But insight isn’t to be shrugged aside either. If it happens, it does, if it doesn’t it doesn’t. If you’re practicing alone (most of us do, even if we have teachers) it’s good to discern whether your breakthrough is wise and authentic or not.
An insight is genuine if it raises more questions than answers, if it offers openness instead of certainty. You will feel that you know less than before, not more. Many Buddhist insights like not-self and impermanence are stepping stones, fake awakenings that point to the actual. Because if one truly understands impermanence and not-self, there’s no sense of being a person who understands those things.
Please don’t settle for imitation insights or imitation teachers.
Upaska Chushu is a Buddhist scholar, historian, and half-mad Zen hermit in an Empty Boat on East Mountain.
Editor: Dana Gornall
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