Episode 119: The Dharma Overground
Daniel Ingram, Theravada meditation teacher, joins us today to discuss the online community he and Buddhist Geeks host, Vince Horn helped create, The Dharma Overground. Daniel shares how the Dharma Overground has been a grand experiment in discussing practical, down-to-earth, and empowering dharma out in the open and the results of that experiment thus far.
This is part 2 of a two-part series. Listen to part 1, An Unusually Hardcore Dharma Book.
Vince: So in addition to writing this book and trying to help people out in that way. You also, about a year or so ago, approached me and said, Hey I'd really like to do this online community, I'd like to be having these kind of discussions, these transparent, open, down to earth, practical discussions about real dharma practice in a community with people, and we would be transparent about things. And it would be all about how to actually do this stuff, the concentration and insight gold practices and, of course, ethics, when it's important like you're saying. And we threw up what's called the Dharma Overground, which is an online community for people who want to discuss this stuff. And many of them are, of course, are familiar with your work and familiar with some of the language. But I was wondering if you could say a little bit about how this experiment in bringing these people together and talking about this stuff has gone.
Daniel: Yeah. I mean, this is actually way more exciting to me at the moment than my book is. This is just fantastic! I just can't even tell you how exciting it is to be a part of the Dharma Overground and I'm so thankful for all of your help and technical support in getting that going and hopefully getting version 2.0, getting that going. Yeah, Vince has just been phenomenal in terms of helping me to make this thing happen. So, thank you, Vince. It's been absolutely wonderful to have your support in this.
Vince: Yeah. Sure thing.
Daniel: Actually, I should talk about the history a little bit. So we started out, actually, as the Dharma Underground, which was a password protected site and I invited, sort of, my loose cadre of advanced and aspiring to be advanced meditator friends. The kind of people, who for months years and sometimes decades I had been having these kinds of conversations, where we just talk about the states and stages and how to get through them and how to deal with them and what was going on in our practice at a high level and yet a down to earth, hey, this is just what's going on and this is how we're trying to figure it out kind of level. So we all met behind closed doors because a lot of these people were not ready to start talking about their insights publicly. You know, there this sort of a huge taboo, you can't say you've attained to a jhana, and you can’t say you’ve attained to a nana, and you sure as heck can't say you've attained to a path. And telling people you're and anagami or an arhant would really be crazy. Much less that you had ever had powers or had done any of these kinds of things. “Ooh, you just can't do that.” You know, I've been out online for a while, way out in public, but a lot of these people were not at all comfortable with that. So we started the Dharma Underground where we could all start to get comfortable with that. And so, quickly, we realized that talking amongst ourselves was kind of interesting but not nearly as interesting as what happened when we talked to some other people who were trying to figure this stuff out. And we thought, well, what good is it, just us being in this sort of closet? So we started the Dharma Overground.
And very quickly the Dharma Underground died because no one was interested anymore and the Dharma Overground completely blossomed, and so now we have this amazing community where people are, with a few exceptions, very comfortable talking about their attainments and their states and their stages and what they're going through and the errors that they've made and how they've managed to do this and very comfortable debating and hashing out fine points of, more advaita approaches versus vipassana approaches. And, sort of, more immediate things. And we've got Zen people there and Shingon masters there and we've got lots of vipassana practitioners who are incredibly strong and lots who are, sort of, in the medium stages and lots who are, sort of, trying to figure, you now they have crossed “the arising and passing away” even some earlier stages and they're trying to figure how to get higher territory or how to get stream entry and we're just hanging out like back in the days of the Buddha. You know, these people are all just hanging out, talking about this stuff in straightforward terms, and there they'd all be in their field, and you could hear everyone talking. And the novices would be listening to the anagamis and the arhats debating stuff and it was all just this sort of open thing back in the day. And I wanted to try to recreate something like that online, like they had back then, where you could just, actually, be around people who had wisdom and insights and really knew their way around their mind and a cushion and really knew their way around the states and knew how to do things and explored interesting aspects of the thing. And we've all got our different strengths and our different weakness and we've all got our different things we find interesting. But it's just been amazing. We've got people there who are masters of more energetic Chi-gong practices and we've got a pretty good cadre of people who probably have finished up at least the insight stages and a number of second path people and a number of people who have gotten stream entry since they've joined us. They've had tremendous support that sort of openness provides and it's just been absolutely incredible to see this thing. And as everyone comes to it says, there's just nothing else like it on the Web. I mean, we can't find anything. I've looked at all these places and I try to walk into these conversations and talk about ordinary, straight-forward, empowering stage and state, and goal-based, yet immediate, grounded dharma and people just freaked out. They would quote absurd texts at me and say, oh, you can't do this and, are you claim to be that, and how ridiculous that is, and they'd get obsessed with things like that, and the amount of people looking for practical wisdom was basically zero. And yet, every now and then you'd run into someone who really did want the real stuff. And I'd get these emails from people saying I just can't find this anywhere. And, so, now that exists and now there is this community where people can talk about these things and use similar language and terminology to try to figure things out. And it's just been absolutely incredible and the benefit people have gotten out of it is obvious, as they say all the time. So there's constantly this outpouring of gratitude on the site for, 'Thank you, thank you, thank you,” for all the people who are here making this happen. And it's just so nice to have this community of wisdom where it's not one dude saying, “hey, I'm the wise dude, come follow me”, but lots of very strong, very accomplished practitioners all helping each other out with their various strengths and things they can do and helping to help out all the people who are trying to come up and do this in some sort of, “hey we're just a bunch of dudes hanging out talking about it in a nice open way.” So, it's just been fantastic to see that happen.
Vince: And I'm wondering, in a sense, it's now a little bit out of your hands, which is, you probably are relieved…
Vince: And it's got it's own, just like any community, it's own telos, it's own direction it's heading in. I'm wondering though, from your perspective, since you've been so involved, where you would hope to see this kind of thing head?
Daniel: Yeah. So the next thing I want to build, you know, there's my book. And obviously I'm a huge fan of my book or I wouldn't have written it. [laughter] You know, it helps to, sort of, for the Dharma Overgound, actually, it does help to define or clarify some terms and concepts, or at least give some points that people can debate, sort of an underlying framework. But even more interesting than my book, I actually would love to build, would be a more community based wiki, where we sort of try to do something like what my book does, but with a more Wikipedia style approach, with lots of skilled, talented contributors building up a vast hyper-linked wiki-enabled website where people can quickly get into the terminology that we use and some of the terminology that other people use and how it aligns with other people's maps and things. So that people can all try to get on the same page and actually communicate clearly with each other about what we're all talking about and thus be empowered to help each other go deeper and more profoundly into their own practices.
And other things I would like, at the moment, it actually it is a very talented group of practitioners talking to themselves. And there are some people who are trying to come up. I would like more people who are in the earlier stages of the path and more people around so that we can help them get through the dark night, or get the arising and passing away, or get stream entry for the first time and really get into some concentration states, or really figure out what to do with this low-level bliss state they've come up with, or really figure out how to transition from just, sort of, hyper-psychologized endlessly neurotic dharma, sorry [laughter], to something way more profound and powerful than that. Those are some of the things I would like to see on the Dharma Overground.
And to expand out because we now really do have a core group of people who know a lot. And, really, there's such a big team there of people who are pretty well established in insight that I really think we could handle some more. And maybe I'm just slitting my throat and there will be 10,000 people who will suddenly arrive and then it'll just be crushed. But I think it really can handle more of that. And I think that more people would be empowered to do more on the cushion. And so I'm hoping it will continue to grow in some healthy way.
Vince: And what you mentioned earlier about people who've joined and since have really realized some deep stuff...
Daniel: Oh, Yeah.
Vince: ...you mentioned getting stream entry and that sort of thing. It's not just a bunch of people talking about theory. It's actually, like you're saying, people helping each other out. People go back from a discussion, put something into practice, and then actually have results and come back. And that is really unique.
Daniel: Oh, yeah.
Vince: That doesn't usually happen outside of retreat centers or sometimes in local communities where there are good teachers.
Daniel: Right. And so it has been amazing to see some of these kids, some of them pretty young, going, “wow, I really have understood something”, and to see them suddenly being transformed into much wiser more integrated powerful dharma people. And so that's been really exciting. A lot of people are also using it, they'll hang out there and they'll get their inspiration and they'll get their fine-tuning of their practice and their fine-tuning of their theory and concepts and what they're looking for and then they'll go off and retreat somewhere too, like you do, and some of these other people who are going to Malaysia or going to Spirit Rock or going to IMS or some of these other places around. And, sort of, this back and forth process where they take the stuff they've gotten from the Dharma Overground, some of the resources there, and then they go back to the cushion and try to apply it, and then they get wherever they get, and then they come back and they say, this is where I've gotten so far, you know, what's next, how do I get to the next thing. And the sort of back and forth that they're doing between retreats, or just very strong daily practice and Dharma Overground theory. But it is, just by the nature of what it talks about, it does seem to draw, with an unusually high degree of success, those people who care about real empowered, open, straight-forward, practical, applied, integrated dharma, where they really are doing it. And it really has, at the moment, almost no annoying theoreticians. [Laugher] Which is nice.
Vince: Yeah. We've done a pretty good job of keeping it clean of that. [Laughter]
Daniel: For the moment, it's in sort of a golden phase, and then it'll be interesting to see how long the golden phase lasts.
Vince: Yeah, this interview may be the end of the golden phase, we'll see.
Daniel: Yeah, who knows.
Vince: But actually, I think the people that listen to Buddhist Geeks, because they tend to be open to different perspectives on this thing, also tend to be the people that find your work really interesting, and I think that's why we've interviewed you so many times, because of the response we get. People actually really enjoy your work, they're really...
Daniel: Thank you.
Vince: ...enjoying your view. So, yeah, I would just really encourage people that are resonating with what Daniel's talking about to go check out the Dharma Overground, and see what's going on there, and if you find value in it, great. If you don't, that's fine.
And I think, going back to one thing you said, they're not just people going on retreats, but there are people that are making significant progress in developing lots of wisdom, and concentration, and things like that, by doing a strong, daily practice. I was wondering if you could say a little bit more about that, because that's something that you are explicitly trying to support people in, is to practice in whatever context they can.
Daniel: Yeah, and so this has been one of the most amazing things. I mean, I've seen some of these guys on no retreat time, attain to stream entry, and way beyond. It's just been absolutely incredible to see. I think the Dharma Overground, at the moment, somehow has self-selected from the millions and millions of people who are out there on the Web a few people who are really ripe, and really engaged, and yet they all say, “Wow, this really helped my practice tremendously, There's been nothing else like this. It was just so incredibly helpful and normalizing and useful to actually just be around people who are just talking about the stuff, like it was anything else, like it was just another skill set”, which it is. “You know, like it was just another technical endeavor, or just another project, or just another thing you could learn to do.” There's a few people there who are at least second path, and some may be third path, and some may be even arhats, or whatever you want to call them, who have done it in curiously short periods of time with strangely little retreat time, except just profound engagement with what these things mean, and profound engagement with how it applies to their own mind, and profound inquiry in, “Oh, how do these things on the Dharma Overground, how does that apply to my own experience?” And somehow, it seems to be doing something really useful in them, and it's a way better response, or effect, that I even would have expected, in all honesty.
Vince: Yeah, and it's interesting, just stepping out of the interviewer role for a second. As a participant in this community, one thing I've noticed is, because there's so many people involved, and because we're receiving, kind of in real-time, new information about how practice unfolds differently for different people...
Vince: ...at different rates and these sort of things. It's actually expanding collectively our understanding about awakening in a broader sense, and that is really fascinating. I didn't think that could happen in...
Vince: ...a community that didn't have enough data points, if you will, to pull from.
Daniel: Right. Yeah, there's a lot of data there. And what's interesting is the kind of data you almost never get, so these conversations have traditionally taken place in sort of closeted doors between master and student, or between guarded practitioners who would go off into some corner of the retreat center or have some private conversation in the privacy of their own home about, “Oh, I think I might have actually gotten some insight. What do you think of this?” You know? [Laughter] It's like, it's some closeted, taboo thing, and yet, here are some people just honestly talking about their practice and their successes and what they think they've done, and why they think they've done it, and what it was like in the actual experiences. And you can go and read their stuff. And, it's just astounding because those kinds of conversations have been so closeted that people just don't have the benefit of seeing, “Oh, wait. You actually can do this. Oh, wait. That's very much like what I'm going through, maybe I just need to do a little bit more of this.” Or, “Oh, wow. I'm closer than I thought I was.” Or, “Oh, that's interesting. I didn't know you could do that, or that that could even happen, or that that would be a valid approach.” Or, “Oh, that really helps me understand what this experience that I had was.” And, when you get to see those sort of normalizing conversations, in sort of a broader context with a broader range of people going through it with their own quirks and their own ways of talking about things and their own individual tendencies and proclivities and everyone's got their variations on the basic themes. But it's just been amazing to see that and to have it recorded and see it in a broader context. And, as you mentioned, it is an incredible thing.
Vince: Now, not to pat ourselves on the back too much, I want to just point out: we're mostly, as one participant said, a white, geeky men's club. [Laughter] It's not to say there...
Vince: ...aren't women, there aren't people of divergent race or background. There are people from a diversity of places, but mostly it seems to be attracting currently a certain, you mentioned 'Dudes and guys' a couple times there in...
Vince: ...your description.
Daniel: Well that's true. Because, that's at the moment the reality of what it is. And, there's been some discussion and debate about why it does seem to be sort of a [laughter] geeky men's club, but it's not like a club because it's wide open, anyone can come and show up, and why it does seem to be self-selecting for them, not quite sure. I mean, sure, I don't know [laughter]. Even some of the women who hang out on the site, I'm not sure I've gotten clear, definitive answers of why they think it may be the way it is, but, for the moment, that is odd and there probably may be some shadow sides there that we haven't looked into, or maybe it's something in our advertising or maybe we have a more masculine, I hate to use the term, style, but you know what I mean. We sort of had some conversations about this on the Dharma Overground, you can go check those out, it's not hard to find them, about why it is sort of more obviously very, very male, white, geeky site. But, there it is, it's true.
And, we would love some more diversity, not just for diversity’s sake but because we want to feel everyone is welcome. I think there's good wisdom there to be shared and we want everybody to be able to partake in that, participate, and contribute to it, if they wish to, so, hopefully, someone showing up won't go, “Oh, this is just some dudes club.” Even though at the moment it unfortunately is, but it's not designed to be that way and it's not in any way exclusive or trying to alienate or exclude or keep anybody out, just, at the moment, seems to be the general trend.
Vince: And, I think, the cool thing is the more divergent perspectives enter, the more I see the community growing and becoming more inclusive. So, I'll just end with that because I think there is a lot of opportunity for us to become aware of our own shadows and to continue to grow as a community. And I just wanted to talk to you about this particular community because I think it's the best thing out there on the web right now, besides Buddhist Geeks, and [laughter]...
Vince: And I think that if anyone's interested in the kind of practical, down-to-earth dharma that you're talking about, it's a great place to hang out.
Daniel: Thank you. Yup. And thanks to everyone there who's been helping to contribute to it. A lot of people actually came to it through Buddhist Geeks one way or the other, so thank you, Buddhist Geeks, for helping with all this. And, to you Vince, for all your technical support and participation which has been excellent.