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Differences between Seeing That Frees and other things I've read

(disclaimer: this is long, and I am describing the first 130 pages I read of a 400 page book. don't take this too seriously.)

The Evolving Ground book club has been going through Rob Burbea's Seeing That Frees lately. Though I wasn't participating, I saw that this was going on and got curious about it, so I bought the book. I read the first three parts (ten chapters, or about 130 pages) in a rush over two or three days.

Most of the meditation stuff I've read before has clustered together. Ngak'chang Rinpoche/Ngakpa Chogyam and Khandro Dechen's (NCR and KD's) books all have a common perspective for obvious reasons, and Dangerous Friend is pretty similar. Call those the Aro books, because they are. Chogyam Trungpa's books The Myth of Freedom and Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism are noticeably different from these but recognizably similar. They favor the Sanskrit terms much more heavily and they feel much more intense, but the perspective is not too alien to the Aro books. It feels more like a difference in emphasis and sometimes in subject than in kind. David Chapman's writing on Vividness and Meaningness and Charlie Awbery's on Vajrayana Now are similarly much in line with those two-ish perspectives — not surprising as both belong(ed) to the Aro gTer lineage, the website of which recommends the Trungpa books, and Chapman directly reports being heavily influenced by both. And Evolving Ground itself is heavily influenced by all of the above, Charlie being the founder and Chapman their spouse.

So in reading Seeing That Frees, I was struck by how different it is to these other perspectives I've read. There's the terminology/orthography. It emphasizes suffering — the core definition of the book is based on suffering. There's a heavy emphasis on emptiness or lack of inherent existence. It's heavily conceptual at this early stage. It appears to explain things using a staged path. There's this focus on concentrative samadhi practice. There's also this discussion of practices aimed at or resulting in "feel-good states."

The terms look kind of like Sanskrit ones, but aren't spelled the same, and it's not clear to me how they relate. He writes about terms like avijja (with a macron on one of those vowels) and I think: Oh, I think I've read or heard a term that sounded like that before, except it definitely wasn't spelled like that. Maybe avidhya? But I can't swear to that. He references Pali — so maybe it is that.

(The term avijja makes me think of Analytics Vidhya. I ended up on that site pretty regularly when I was learning machine learning-related things for school and for my internships. The linked site looks a lot different than I remember — I remember a lot more red and a more simple, mid-2000s sort of design. So it might actually be a completely different site — who knows?)

Seeing That Frees emphasizes dukkha, or suffering. One of the book's core goals is for the reader to discover insight. Burbea defines insight as: "Any realization, understanding, or way of seeing that brings, to any degree, a dissolution of, or a decrease in, dukkha." (Page 29, in chapter 4.) This is in a chapter Burbea describes as "fundamental to the entire approach here." So a major goal of this book seems to be to reduce suffering. Other sources I've read emphasize this less — Chogyam Trungpa probably the most (though I can't recall a specific instance), followed by NCR and KD mentioning it (as dissatisfaction or as unsatisfactoriness) but not particularly emphasizing it, followed by David and Charlie who discuss it least of all (see David Chapman's writing here for such a perspective on suffering, and Charlie's here for a similar one: "Not all Buddhism is about liberation from suffering"). From what I've read elsewhere, I think Rob Burbea is on the same page as these about suffering being no cosmic problem and involvement being just finem, even great — but the emphasis is still way different.

Seeing That Frees heavily emphasizes emptiness. That is what the book is all about: Practices for recognizing progressively more and more phenomena as empty of inherent existence. This is a different emphasis from what I read in, for example, Roaring Silence. There's plenty of recognizing emptiness there — but emptiness is a starting point. "Mind without thought is as unnatural a condition as Mind crowded with thought," per Roaring Silence. Again, I think Burbea would agree — but I think (maybe wrong! I only read 3 parts!) the endpoint of the book's path is an experience of "Mind without thought." From the perspective described in Roaring Silence, this is only a starting point. This is described as the result of the first of the Four Naljors — beyond that, as I understand it, the goal is an experience of "nonduality of emptiness and form," which seems different from the deeper and deeper understanding of emptiness that Seeing That Frees aims for.

(On the other hand, emptiness is form and form is emptiness, so who knows?)

Seeing That Frees is noticeably conceptual, at least in the first 130 pages. The book is thick enough at 400 pages that I doubt it gives up entirely on concept later on, but I may be wrong. The Aro books are not especially conceptual — mostly they are poetic and don't focus on building up large systems of concepts and terms. Chogyam Trungpa's books are more conceptual, but still I think less scholarly than Seeing That Frees.

Seeing That Frees describes things in terms of a progressive, staged path, from what I can tell. It starts with "basic" ideas about emptiness, discussing things like the emptiness of countries or the emptiness of "conditioned views of self-worth." As I understand the promises in Seeing That Frees, later chapters would progressively move through "deeper" understandings of emptiness. It mentions jhanas which other sources I've read don't discuss much at all, except as part of certain other paths. It references how "the samadhi develops through different stages" (page 62). This is not totally alien, in that the Four Naljors have some order to them: As I understand it, lhatong won't do much as a practice until you have experienced the result of shi-ne. But it seems much more fine-grained. It's diving into one idea, emptiness, inch by inch. Arguably, so are the Four Naljors, since emptiness is form and form is emptiness? But it feels different. Shi-ne and its result are described differently from lhatong and its result. From the perspective of someone on on this path, they seem different in a way that stages of "deeper" unerstanding of emptiness I expect don't.

Seeing That Frees heavily emphasizes concentrative practices — at least at the start. Other sources I've read mostly don't comment on concentrative practice. In theory these practices are aimed at the same result as shi-ne practice: Emptiness. However, Charlie thinks the two approaches (concentration, vs. the expansive awareness of shi-ne) "result in distinct and qualitatively different capacities and that it's interestingly useful not to attempt to merge the outcomes." In the Evolving Ground Stoa episode on View (transcript), Charlie characterizes the language of "attention," "focus," "concentration" as "very, very Sutric language." Seeing That Frees uses at least "bare attention," and maybe the other forms as well (I don't recall). It talks about metta practice which, like emptiness, is much less discussed in other sources and my impression is that that is also more concentrative.

Seeing That Frees also specifically discusses practices that aim at or result in "feel-good states." I should say it's definitely not the case that the other sources describe practices that feel bad or have bad results. Rather, the Aro resources generally describe unusual states as nyams: "possibly interesting but not to be taken too seriously." There's a danger of becoming a "seeker after nyams" as the e-mail course put it. Seeing That Frees acknowledges this side near the end of chapter 5 (61-63). But also it has a specific ~1.5 page section on "working with feelings of pleasure and the subtle body." I think Burbea's answer here is that "When we know we can fairly readily experience that kind of pleasure again, we naturally relax our clinging, letting it go when it dissolves." He elaborates on this more saying that with each "stage" of pleasurable states you tend to let go of the previous stages, and eventually let go of the pleasure-seeking entirely.

Overall, it seems that on reflection core ideas are not that different. Rather, the terminology and orthography are very different, while the emphasis, and the approach to realizing emptiness are only slightly different (conceptuality; stages; concentrative vs. expanding awareness). It does differ in a real way on "feel-good states" — how much of a problem or risk "getting trapped" is. But it seems less different after all this than when I put it down.