Trust Your Own Insight

One of the many things I like about Pema Chodron’s introductory meditation book is it’s refreshingly clear take on who’s in the drivers seat when it comes to practice. Trust your own insight.

You see your own unfolding.

Her book is called How to Meditate, a Practical Guide For Making Friends With Your Mind. In Chapter Seven, Pema Chodron writes, “You are the principle witness to your life, and you have to begin to trust your own insight into your mind in order to determine what your practice might need at any given moment.”

Trusting your own insight is fundamental to practice.

Pema Chodron bases the idea that each of us is responsible for fully developing and understanding our own meditation practice on one of the slogans of Atisha’s Lojong system. Here’s the slogan in full.

“Of the two witnesses, hold the principle one.”

Atisha was an 11th Century Indian adept who developed the Lojong slogans to help practitioners develop compassion, clear seeing, and skillful living.

Who are the two witnesses in the slogan? One witness is everyone other than you. That includes your spiritual friend or guru. The other witness, the “principle one,” that’s you.

This slogan encourages you and me to cultivated trust in our selves and in our own experience in practice. It’s true; everyone else may in fact have generally good advice for us. However, only you can ultimately know what’s best for you. And as you practice, you’ll come to know this with more and more clarity.

The idea that each practitioner is the “principle witness” to her or his life is fundamental to Buddhism. Atisha based this slogan on the Buddha’s oft-demonstrated confidence in our capacity for insight.  He trusted that based on our insights we’d  learn to live in nonviolent social harmony without exploitation.

“Students don’t have enough faith in themselves, and so they rush around looking for something outside themselves.” ~Zen Master Lin-Chi

On his own, the Buddha discovered this harmonious, nonviolent Path. He lived in this Way. Nevertheless, he was no more and no less than human. So, he taught that if he could do it, we can do it.

It only makes sense, right?

Ultimately no one knows what’s going on with you better than you. Wise friends, trusted teachers, or worthy gurus might help. Often they do help. But ultimately, no one knows better than you what promotes your own long-term welfare and happiness.

We have to develop the skill and confidence to be our own meditation guide.  Moreover, the same is true about all of practice. This take on the practitioner’s central role in practice is not promoted in every school of Buddhism. But it’s a fundamental part of the Buddha’s teaching and method. Additionally, this fundamental part of the Buddha’s approach to practice is not necessarily part of the approach taken in many of the various Buddhist religions.

Test These Teachings Yourself.

Yet, the Buddha was interested in this approach and on some occasions he wondered whether or not his disciples simply parroted what he taught them. At these times the Buddha asked them, “Do you speak only of what you have known, seen, and understood for yourselves?” And when they said, “Yes venerable sir. We say things that agree with your teachings because we have known, seen, and understood them for ourselves,” the Buddha would affirm that this was in keeping with “how you have been guided by me in this Dharma.”

The point here is that the Buddha not only taught certain substantive claims. He also, and most importantly, taught a method for discovering wholesome ways of living and a Path to Awakening.  (See Majjhima Nikaya 2 and 38 for example.)

The Buddha taught everyone he met to trust in the “principle witness.”

Here’s another example of the Buddha advising people to take full responsibility for developing the Path based on their own experience.

In this example the Buddha is addressed a group of confused seekers who lived in a chaotic crossroads town.

Contending gurus passed through this town each day. Consequently, the seekers that spoke with the Buddha were deeply confused about the Path because every passing guru claimed both to teach the truth and to know that every other guru’s teaching was worthless.

“How,” the confused seekers asked, “do we assess the value of teachings and teachers?”

Here’s what the Buddha said:

“Of course you are uncertain. Of course you are in doubt. When there are reasons for doubt, uncertainty is born.”

“So in this case, don’t go by reports, by legends, by traditions, by scripture, by logical conjecture, by inference, by analogies, by agreement through pondering views, by probability, or by the thought, ‘This contemplative is our teacher.’”

“When you know for yourselves that, ‘These qualities are unskillful; these qualities are blameworthy; these qualities are criticized by the wise; these qualities, when adopted & carried out, lead to harm & to suffering’ — then you should abandon them.”

[And on the other hand] “When you know for yourselves that, ‘These qualities are skillful; these qualities are blameless; these qualities are praised by the wise; these qualities, when adopted & carried out, lead to welfare & to happiness’ — then you should enter & remain in them.” ~The Kalamas Sutta, translated by Thanissaro Bhikkhu, my emphasis added.

“[Y]ou have to begin to trust your own insight into your mind in order to determine what your practice might need at any given moment.” ~Pema Chodron

It’s noteworthy indeed that the Buddha did not try to resolve the seekers’ confusion by saying, “Oh, you want to know the truth, then simply ignore the contending gurus and their conflicting teachings and follow me. Rest assured, I’m the Buddha. I teach the truth.”

No, the Buddha did not offer them his “Truth” as a system of beliefs. What he did was recommend a method, a practice, something each of us must do if we hope to discover a beneficial way to live. He advised, “When you put the teachings of any teacher into practice, what happens? Are the results wholesome or not?”  If they’re wholesome then make them a part of your life.

The Buddha’s position and confidence is that each person is capable of evaluating whether or not a teaching is beneficial and whether or not someone who’s claiming to be wise is in fact wise.

The proof of a person or a teaching is, as we say, in the pudding. Does suffering, confusion follow in the wake of practicing a given teaching? Does a doubtful or bad reputation haunt this guru wherever he goes? What do wise people think and say about this teaching? This guru? What’s his or her track record? What happens or what’s likely to happen if and when I practice what this teaching or teacher recommends?

“Only we really know when we are being phony or genuine, aware or unaware, compassionate or uncompassionate. No matter what may be going on at the surface, and how confused we may feel, deep down we know exactly what is going on and what we are up to. That is the witness we must hold.” ~ Acharya Judy Lief

Each of us is already in a position to evaluate what is and is not beneficial and skillful in our meditation practice. And yet our individual responsibility for the wholesomeness of our practice and our lives goes well beyond what’s happening on the cushion.

And, I suggest we are especially responsible for doing this when a teacher claims the mantel of legitimacy, not base on his or her conduct, but rather on institutional conventions like Dharma Transmission in Zen or the Lama and Tulku systems in Tibetan Buddhism.

“I feel some of these lama institutions is some sort of influence of feudal system. That is outdated, now must end.” ~Dalai Lama

Imagine the current and historic suffering in the Sangha that could have been, and still could be avoided if we all practiced in a way that helped each of us identify and separate worthy methods, teachings, and teachers from those that are not.

Likewise, if we determine to study and practice the teachings well enough to be confident in what we’ve known, seen, and understood of the teachings for ourselves, we’ll be well placed to evaluate whether or not a specific teacher, maybe our teacher, is using the Dharma or some aspect of an established yet perhaps outmoded Dharma institution as a cover for exploitation.

I’ve seen far too much exploitation in the Sangha. So I’m very pleased when a highly respected and popular Dharma leader or teacher takes a public stand on the themes I’m writing about here.

“‘Oh this is my guru. Whatever my guru says, I must follow.’ That’s totally wrong.” ~ Dalai Lama

Recently, the Dalai Lama made a number of statements specifically motivated by the now confirmed but decades old accusations of sexual exploitation and student abuse by Sogyal Rinpoche.

Here’s what the Dalai Lama said on the matter of blindly following teachers as shown on YouTube. (I’ve edited my transcript of what he said for ease of reading.)

“You must not say, ‘Oh this is my guru. Whatever my guru says, I must follow.’ That’s totally wrong. The Buddha himself mentioned, ‘My teaching you must examine.’ Similarly, if a particular lama says something, you must examine to see whether this will go well according to the Buddha’s teaching or according to the circumstances in society. Then you must follow. If the lama says something, if you investigate [and find] that’s not proper, then you should not follow the lama’s teaching, even the Dalai Lama’s teaching.” ~Dalai Lama

Here’s the link:

Let’s take heart as we grow in self-confidence and as we learn to trust in our own insight together. The health of our practice and of the Sangha depends on it.

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