Eryk Banatt's Reviews > Mastering the Core Teachings of the Buddha: An Unusually Hardcore Dharma Book

Mastering the Core Teachings of the Buddha by Daniel M. Ingram
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it was ok

I read this book after it was recommended to me as a down-to-earth book about Dharma, and I think for what it is, it does quite well.

I think it's pretty important to understand this review to know that I have very few points put into spirituality, and do not consider myself a dharma practitioner. As such, this review is distinctly from the outside looking in, and I recognize that a great deal of my gripes are from a place of ignorance / outside the intended audience.

As someone decidedly unspiritual, the primary motivations I had for reading a book on Dharma in the first place were two-fold - I wanted better concentration, and I wanted to hear the perspective of someone practicing it that actually thought they were getting something out of it worth the effort. At these two things, I think Ingram does a reasonably satisfactory job. A hefty portion of this book reads like Ingram's own personal notes from deeply examining his own consciousness, drills he uses to do this, and some actual decent reasons why somebody might want to go on spiritual retreats.

The book's notes on the impermanence of sensations reminds me quite a bit about this great talk by Sam Harris, where he explores the idea of free will down to the idea of "where did your thoughts come from?" This is a talk that has really stuck with me, as I remember Harris' thesis of "thoughts just emerge in consciousness; we are not authoring them" vividly making me examine my own consciousness deeply. Ingram discusses this at length, and indeed this is one of the most important concepts of the book (and the first of the three characteristics), which is one that I've incorporated into my (admittedly secular) mediation practice.

Likewise, I found Ingram's "Analogy of Shooting Aliens" to be a fantastic one, and one that I wouldn't have dreamt I would read in a book about Dharma. From the text:

"[In] this analogy the aliens are all of the little sensations that make up our experience. Shooting them is paying attention to them and seeing their true nature, perhaps with the aid of noting practice (like a gun with laser sight on it). The aliens shooting us is what happens when we do not see their true nature, as they become a hindrance, binding us on the wheel of suffering for the duration of our inability to shoot them. Some may even take us out of the game (cause us stop practicing entirely). The aliens that take multiple hits to kill are our big issues, those things that are difficult for us to break into their composite sensations. Being penalized for shooting wastefully is what can happen if we note sensations that we didn’t actually experience because we fell into repetitive, imprecise, mantra-like noting habits."

This is one that I found to be really clear, and enjoyed a great deal. To make a pretty corny comparison, it reminded me a lot of Day[9]'s "Kittens and Ninja Stars" talk (which is also incredibly vivid and gaming-adjacent, funnily enough). There's a number of these sorts of little passages in this book that I found pretty exciting to read ("Find a way to be special that allows others to be special also"), and I got some good stuff out of this book.

That said, this book is not an introductory Dharma text - it says so right on the subtitle - and as a byproduct of this it contains some heavy ranting. Maybe half of this book is dedicated to things Ingram found unsatisfactory about western traditions, "the mushroom effect", his frustration with people hiding their attainments, etc. The comparison I'd like to draw here is like reading a book about baseball written by a historian of baseball, versus reading one written by an actual baseball player who has dumped thousands of hours into the sport. The baseball player's book might have some very interesting, high-level details in it compared to the historian, but might also contain a bunch of rants about how certain teams play the game all wrong. Ingram falls into this category, as he doesn't seem to have any "expertise" in Dharma in the academic sense of the word, but definitely seems to have spent an enormous amount of time actually practicing (and will certainly tell you so). This part of the book might have been more interesting if I were a similarly hardcore practitioner, and were able to say "Yes! I agree! That is a ridiculous thing that I have encountered as well!" but I am not this hardcore (nor, really, a practitioner at all). The book is pretty controversial in Buddhist circles, mostly for the assertion that he is an Arahat (or "perfected person") and the assertion that enlightenment is actually attainable, but as an outsider to these circles I have no real opinion on this other than that "perfected person" is a bit of a highfalutin title.

Likewise a lot of the things in this book are downright weird and I felt to be extremely distracting. There's a great deal of discussion about literal psychic powers, and whether or not people who have attained specific states can actually achieve them, which felt so absurd to me that I almost just closed the book outright out of sheer disbelief. There's a lot of text on "extrasensory experiences" like visions, out of body experiences, and other assorted things that simply didn't feel like something I cared to read about, as well as a very peripheral sense of unease that my own doctor might believe he could read my mind. The book isn't spectacularly written (it was, as far as I know, written in Ingram's spare time), but it is pretty clear most of the time.

Overall a pretty average book, probably worth reading if you are interested in Dharma.

((PS: after reading this I found out that Scott Alexander wrote a review on this book, which takes a more summary-ish tone than mine and is quite good.))
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Reading Progress

March 10, 2018 – Shelved
March 10, 2018 – Shelved as: to-read
March 11, 2018 – Started Reading
March 29, 2018 – Finished Reading

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