November 13, 2011

The Dark Night

The Dark Night (difficulty integrating the experience of no self) is currently being widely discussed and debated within the Buddhist community. Here’s some thoughts on the issue prompted by a student’s question. All these postings are with the student’s permission. If you and I have had an email exchange that you would like to see posted here, let me know.

On Wed, Aug 17, 2011 at 6:03 PM, Andrew wrote:

Hey Shinzen,
Hope all is well! I hear you gave an awesome presentation at the Buddhist geeks conference so I'm looking forward to all the footage from that. I just had two questions to run by you. I have been spending some time over at dharma overground reading about their experiences and the four paths model of enlightenment but part of me is getting cautious regarding practice because they imply that dark night is an inevitability for any meditator. In your experience is this true and if so what exactly is dark night and does it make negative emotions etc worse? I can't seem to find any concrete definition that everyone uses. Since one of the primary drives for my practice is getting a handle on mind-body states and improving them I have been a bit confused and put off by the idea that practice could make them more out of control and difficult to deal with. I am obviously still practicing and staying disciplined but I just want to reassure that part of me that is afraid to dive in head first at the moment that this leads to a better place (even though I know it does haha). I want to kick start that enthusiasm again which was so strong a fortnight ago!

Also just a question about the interview you had with Buddhist geeks a few years ago. You mentioned that you are building intelligent software that basically simulates an intricate tailored meditation with you, very exciting! Any more on that project? How is that coming along?

Ok, thanks again for you.


 On Mon, Aug 22, 2011 at 10:20 AM, Shinzen Young wrote:

Hi Andrew,

Part of the problem, as you imply, lies in how one chooses to define a "Dark Night" experience. Although I like the term and believe it has some utility, I also sense that its current prevalence in Buddhist dialogue is a mixed blessing. Whenever one uses this term, one should be aware of two things: 

(1) Historically it is not a term from the Buddhist meditative tradition but rather from the Roman Catholic meditative tradition. (Of course, there's nothing wrong with using Christian terms for Buddhist experiences but...)

(2) One must clearly define what one means by a "Dark Night" within the context of Buddhist experience.

It is certainly the case that almost everyone who gets anywhere with meditation will pass through periods of negative emotion, confusion, disorientation, and heightened sensitivity to internal and external arisings. It is also not uncommon that at some point, within some domain of experience, for some duration of time, things may get worse before they get better. The same thing can happen in psychotherapy and other growth modalities. For the great majority of people, the nature, intensity, and duration of these kinds of challenges is quite manageable. I would not refer to these types of experiences as "Dark Night." 

I would reserve the term for a somewhat rarer phenomenon.  This phenomenon, within the Buddhist tradition, is sometimes referred to as "falling into the Pit of the Void." It entails an authentic and irreversible insight into Emptiness and No Self.  What makes it problematic is that the person interprets it as a bad trip. Instead of being empowering and fulfilling, the way Buddhist literature claims it will be, it turns into the opposite. In a sense, it's Enlightenment's Evil Twin.  This is serious but still manageable through intensive, perhaps daily, guidance under a competent teacher. In some cases it takes months or even years to fully metabolize, but in my experience the results are almost always highly positive. For details, see The Five Ways manual pages 97-98.

This whole Dark Night discussion reminds me of a certain Zen Koan. Although the storyline of this koan is obviously contrived, it does contain a deep message. Here's how the koan goes: A monk is walking on a precipitous path and slips but is able to grab onto a branch by his teeth. A person standing below, recognizing the monk as an enlightened master, asks him to describe Enlightenment. What should the monk do? As a teacher, he's duty bound to speak, but as soon as he speaks, the consequences will be dire. It sounds like a lose/lose situation. If you were the monk, what would you do? That's the koan.

If we don't describe the possibility of Dark Night, then we leave people without a context should it occur. On the other hand, if we do discuss it, people get scared and assume it's going to happen to them, even if we point out (as I just did), that it's relatively infrequent. So the take-home message is:

1. Don't worry, it's probably not going to happen to you.
2. Even if it does, that's not necessarily a problem.

It may require input from a teacher and time but once it's integrated, you'll be a very, very happy camper. 

I think it would be a good thing if people lighten up around this issue. This may help (see attached cartoon).

The program that you asked about is coming along very nicely. 

All the best,

On Tue, Oct 11, 2011 at 9:30 PM, Andrew wrote:

Hey Shinzen,

Hope all is well! Just a question regarding the dark night issue we spoke about recently. I heard an interview with Dan Ingram on Buddhist geeks and from what I gathered he paints what seems to be quite a dark image of enlightenment actually and as something that most people only pursue if they have to after passing the A&P stage.
He even said that he himself still lives his life in so-called dark night and has these cycles every day of A&P, dark night, equanimity etc and that anyone like him does too. And that he's an Arhant!? Do you think he means the same thing as what you call the pit of the void because the whole point is to be happy right? He claims that everyone who at least follows the dry insight path will experience this. I'm just trying to clarify how everyone's different use of terms coincides. Some teachers seem to portray enlightenment as something really worth pursuing and others almost seem not to! I heard Upasaka Culadasa talking about how the 4 path model is quite a brutal way to get the results and can really mess people up compared to other paths, particularly ones which emphasize shamatha first as the grounds for developing sufficient joy and equanimity before insight. I guess different approaches suit different personalities but is there a more user-friendly method than say the dry insight one?
Forgive my confusion, as you know the way teachings are presented these days are so numerous it can be overwhelming. Naturally I want to read about and understand meditation very deeply as my experience and understanding grows plus it's just absolutely fascinating but it's also easy to run into confusion and even doubt which can halt my super enthusiasm.
Cheers Shinzen,
All the best :)

On Wed, Oct 12, 2011 at 3:12 PM, Shinzen Young wrote:

Hi Andrew,

I sympathize with your confusion. At this point, there is no scientifically-developed, universally-agreed-upon description regarding how people evolve over a lifetime of practice. I am confident that through open dialogue among teachers, practitioners, and scientists, such a map will be developed over the next century or so. But what to do until then? My main suggestion would be to lower your expectation regarding understanding who's right and how things really work, and just put a lot of time and effort into your own practice.  Of course, I realize the Catch-22: How can I put time and effort into practice until I know what the "right practice" or "best practice" is? This may not be of much help but in my not very humble opinion all current systems of enlightenment are roughly equally sub-optimal. This, of course, includes all of my own innovations. Both Daniel and Culadasa are right. Daniel is right because being enlightened is being totally dead. And Culadasa is right because being enlightened is being totally alive. It's both at the same time. It is absolute devastation AND absolute empowerment. 

Because of the (justifiably) negative language used by some teachers, students like yourself might get the impression that enlightenment isn't any fun. So here's the take-away message: If I was given the choice of living one more day experiencing life the way I experience it, or living 20 more years as a wealthy, healthy, celebrity sexual athlete, beloved by everyone but not experiencing what I experience (vis a vis enlightenment), the decision would be a no-brainer--I'll take the one day of enlightened living. IT'S THAT GOOD, DUDE.

All the best,

Finally, here are some video resources on The Dark Night on my Expand-Contract YouTube Channel, created by (and thanks to!) Har-Prakash Khalsa:

Enlightenment, DP/DR & Falling Into the Pit of the Void

November 3, 2011

Dalai Lama Visits Kōyasan University

The Dalai Lama, right, listens to Japan's Koyasan Shingon Buddhism leader Yukei Matsunaga as the exiled Tibetan Buddhist leader gives a lecture with Matsunaga at Koyasan University in Koya, Wakayama Prefecture, western Japan, Monday, Oct. 31, 2011. Some 850 people gathered to listen to Dalai Lama who visited the Tantric Buddhist headquarters for the first time since 1980, Japan's Kyodo News said. (AP Photo/Kyodo News

This picture gives me a lot of pleasant sensations.

Matsunaga Sensei was one of my professors when I doing research at Kōyasan University in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. When foreigners would come to Mount Kōya, I would sometimes serve as his interpreter. 

Here’s a video with a few things I’ve said about Shingon/Vajrayana.

For more details, check out these wiki articles: