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I had begun writing a question, but it was so long I needed to re-frame it simply in fewer words. The basic theme of my question was: aren't some Buddhist techniques mutually exclusive?

The simplest idea which comes to mind is traditional techniques of avoiding and analyzing detrimental states (e.g. Vitakka-Santhana Sutta) versus the modern notion of mindfulness (e.g. Jon Kabat-Zinn). I feel it is difficult to combine these two aspects.

Similarly, I thought the way of emptiness as found, for example, in the Dalai Lama's book The Middle Way alters completely all reference for reality. With Nagarjuna's philosophy, nothing exists intrinsically in itself, but as dependently originated. Dhammas as ultimate and essential realities are invalidated.

I cannot help but feel all these aspects of Buddhism are somewhat exclusive, to a degree. I could conceive their unity through a kind of symbiotic compromise, but I have trouble understanding at a mundane level (i.e. conventional reality) how these can interact.

Thank you for your time.

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There are many techniques that were taught by the Buddha and also later, other techniques were developed by Buddhist teachers over history, that are based on the Buddha's teachings. You are right that some of these techniques may be mutually exclusive to each other.

However, we must understand that each technique is used for a particular purpose, for a particular situation, to cater for a particular need.

It is just like how a master chef uses various techniques to craft the best results based on the needs. Sometimes you need to boil, sometimes you need to bake, sometimes you need to fry and sometimes you need to sautee. These techniques are mutually exclusive but used at different times to achieve different results.

I'm not sure, but I guess Kabat-Zinn's mindfulness is similar to insight meditation (vipassana). You can find guidance on the basics of insight meditation in the booklet entitled "How To Meditate" by Ven. Yuttadhammo. This technique is used to gain insight into the workings of dependent origination. Also read "The Way of Mindfulness" by Ven. Soma Thera, which is an essay that discusses the Satipatthana Sutta.

But you can't progress in insight meditation, if you are strongly assailed by the five hindrances. To solve this, one technique is in the Vitakka-Santhana Sutta which teaches the forceful removal of unskillful thoughts. Forceful removal of thoughts is not part of insight meditation, but if you are too disturbed by unskillful thoughts, then you need to forcefully remove it.

To eradicate the hindrance of ill-will, you can use Loving Kindness (metta) as the technique for eradication. Intentionally generating thoughts of loving kindness is also not part of insight meditation.

For overcoming lust (as a hindrance of sensual desire), you can use the contemplation on unattractiveness (see this question). But too much of it may lead to negative thoughts of suicide, in which case, use the mindfulness of breathing (see this answer) to counter it. Intentionally contemplating on unattractiveness, is also not part of insight meditation.

Also, samatha meditation (see the article entitled "Entering the Jhanas" by Leigh Brasington) is yet another technique used to calm the mind, and create focus and concentration. This is yet another technique that could help insight meditation. But it can be developed on its own too.

If you are continuously disturbed in every way in meditation and cannot progress further, then the technique to solve this, is the development of virtue (sila) outside of meditation - see this answer for details.

So, although different approaches appear to be mutually exclusive, they are actually complementary. The Buddha taught the practitioner to be multi-skilled. That's why there's the Noble Eightfold Path, rather than a Noble One Single Technique to End Suffering. No one technique is sufficient to achieve the results.


I'm not sure what did you consider as being mutually exclusive concerning emptiness. Philosophically, emptiness is defined differently in the Theravada and Mahayana traditions. You can find out about it in this question. Emptiness in the Theravada tradition is about the five aggregates and in fact all phenomena, being empty or devoid of a self. This is relevant for insight meditation, in the contemplation of mental objects (dhammas) i.e. for the fourth foundation of mindfulness.

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Yes, organised Buddhism is exclusive, confusing and in conflict with itself, for a wide range of complex reasons to long to list here. Best to steer clear of organised Buddhism and read the Sutta Pitaka for yourself.

Kabat-Zinn's mindfulness practice is derived from the Visudhimagga, a commentarial paper written around 900 years after the Buddha's death. More specifically Vipassana meditation, which was not taught by the Buddha. The western appropriation of mindfulness as a psychological healing tool derived from a paper not containing the words of the Buddha naturally does not reflect the reality of the Buddha's teachings in the original discourses. There is a fundamental misunderstanding of mindfulness in the west too entrenched to uproot.

Emptiness is also a hugely conflated concept, which was originally used by the Buddha to simply talk about a state of Samadhi found within deep states of meditation, via the practice of jhana. One will not easily directly experience emptiness outside of deep meditation.

What you may be experiencing is the result of combining too many opinions which come from varying groups who in some way all reject fundamental principles in the Sutta Pitaka.

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This isn't exactly a Buddhist answer, but the phenomenon you describe reminds me of the science I was taught in school; for example:

  • Is an electron a particle, or a wave?
  • Is mechanics newtonian, or relativistic?
  • Are air resistance and friction negligible, or not?
  • How should we describe the world: using physics, chemistry, biology, psychology, sociology, or...?

They're each useful.

And it's not that "they interact", it's that we have to pick the appropriate model -- and the "appropriate model" changes depending on what we're trying to describe, or what problem we're trying to solve.

Consider just mathematics: is maths algebra, or is it trigonometry ... which is it? When do you use which? How can they interact?


A couple of Buddhist examples:

There's also the simile of "the raft". The purpose or emphasis of Buddhism might be slightly different depending on who's teaching it, but here for example:

This is a discourse about clinging to views (ditthi). Its central message is conveyed in two similes, among the most famous in the Canon: the simile of the water-snake and the simile of the raft. Taken together, these similes focus on the skill needed to grasp right view properly as a means of leading to the cessation of suffering, rather than an object of clinging, and then letting it go when it has done its job.


I'm not sure it's right to call them "mutually exclusive" either, though maybe you can't consciously practice all of them simultaneously.

Imagine there was some old inscription, faded by centuries, on rock or wood, difficult to read. To try to read it you might illuminate it from one side, to try to see the shadow of the letters ... then illuminate it from the other side, to see a different shadow of the same letters.

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Since Eggman wrote on a "common sense level" (which is wise and timely) it's good to read The Essence of the Dhamma and it's good not to follow people missinterprate and not capable to understand.

The abounding of the raft is something most really do not need to think about yet, believing that there might be a philosophical short-cut without doing the work first.

Mind it!

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