Insurgent Heart: A Vipassana Manual for the Guerrilla Yogi — {0}


Jesse Maceo Vega-Frey
37 min readAug 1, 2019
OSPAAAL poster by Rafael Zarza / Image courtesy Lincoln Cushing / Docs Populi

Namo Tassa Baghavato Arahato Sammasambuddhasa

After the Buddha, I am inconceivably indebted to the teachings of Mahasi Sayadaw, whose method is the root of my lineage, and to my direct teacher, Michele McDonald. Most of what I offer in this text is really their method, their wisdom, formulated in a way that I hope will be helpful to anyone seeking to liberate themselves from the overwhelming forces of greed, hatred, and delusion.

In appreciation to my parents who taught me how to love and how to fight.


As a kid, my parents brought me to a lot of demonstrations: housing rights protests, anti-war protests, anti-discrimination rallies, union strikes, boycott pickets, rallies for ballot initiatives, and the like. My children’s books were steeped in critiques of capitalism, racism, and sexism and celebrated cultural and political heroes and heroines from around the world. Plenty of nights during my childhood were spent at meetings where I was lucky if there were any playmates my age. My parents were part of a larger community of friends who grew up together in political organizing and community building of all kinds. Joy and struggle were woven into our lives at every turn. Even my nursery school organized us on a peace march.

My mother helped build community very literally — as a nurse midwife dedicated to public health and access to affordable care for women, poor, migrant, and other disadvantaged people. My father, a community organizer, helped build neighborhood strength through the creation of affordable housing, festivals and block-parties, after-school programming, and grass-roots economic initiatives.

The art in our home was as much about organizing as it was about beauty. The music that played throughout the house celebrated life and struggle. Our practice of family was intended to align our actions with our beliefs about our world, our community, and our relationships. Solidarity, really, was our religion.

And it was not always harmonious. There were frequently ways in which the approaches of my father and my mother conjured an impressive dissonance. Aligned with their traditional gender norms, my father was often more dedicated to principle and my mother more to spirit. In our household the struggle for supremacy (or search for balance) between truth and beauty, honesty and compassion, reason and care, righteousness and love, rigidity and permissiveness was an everyday affair.

While the dynamic tension played out between my parents, and between us all, the internal dimensions for me were no less significant. We honored leftist revolutionary leaders of history and yet readily admitted the many flaws of their personalities and the programs they put in place. The ways in which so many of our movements for freedom had managed to replicate systems of oppression in their efforts for liberation instilled a conundrum in my own mind, muddied my own vision for the world and for my role in it in ways that persist today.

What always seemed clear was that social change takes force. But force almost always seemed to contain violence. There were leaders I learned about — like Harriet Tubman, Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr, and Nelson Mandela — whose power seemed to emanate from a kind of inspiration that didn’t require violence and which would have actually been diminished by it. But they seemed much more rare than those who were able to galvanize the frustration of the masses and use that energy to violently topple oppressive regimes. Learning eventually that Tubman did carry a weapon, that Mandela had roots in more violent campaigns, and being challenged with the truths of Malcom X and the honesty of his anger complicated my understanding even further.

It was not until I encountered my own training in vipassana meditation and the Buddha’s teachings that I found a scale at which the impulse toward freedom and the mechanics of violence were clearly at odds; where love and interest were the only tools of revolutionary change that actually worked. Liberation in the Buddhist sense also takes tremendous effort and I eventually was able to witness the very subtle differences between effort motivated by craving or aversion and effort made by care or interest — full-of or free-from expectation. From those subtle differences larger impacts became evident and the process between volition and action and action and impact — something we would call kamma (karma) — became more and more clear.

This sensitivity is not always how my tradition has been taught. Much of the training in Theravadan Buddhist systems over the centuries has encouraged a much more combative approach to meditation: a patriarchal mode that emphasizes extreme effort and forcefulness of mind, of penetration of the object of awareness, of relentless determination and unwavering diligence. In our cannon, the metaphor of war between healthy and destructive forces of mind is elaborated upon in great detail. Lovingkindness, patience, relaxation, and rest have been treated as less important, implicitly or explicitly, and so the flavor of the teachings have been molded in a very particular form that one could easily interpret as out of balance.

My own teacher studied and practiced for many years under one of the most rigorous Burmese monastic teachers of our era. Amazingly she was able to learn for herself how to balance his militant approach with her intuitive knowledge of her own needs regarding the force and pace of change. Like any great female “first” in a patriarchal institution or culture she had to prove her capacity to operate on those terms while secretly building an approach that kept her in balance. Perhaps her greatest strength was in not rejecting the training of her overbearing guide but instead to see its benefits and put it into healthier relationship with the other side of her spiritual practice that required a deeper commitment to compassion, patience, joy, and the nourishment of forgiveness.

From the beginning of my own meditation practice (and certainly earlier than that) I had internalized the idea that this warrior archetype was the embodiment of the most important principles of spiritual and social pursuit. Over and over again, through convulsions of force and failure, I found that approach limited and undermining. But when I abandoned the warrior spirit altogether I found my practice vapid, rudderless, and equally lost. The path to freedom requires a broad range of capacities of heart and while combat is not the only — or even most important — metaphor for our practice, it is a valid one and one that we must find a way to come to terms with. While not rejected, it must still be balanced and sometimes we struggle to find meaningful archetypal models for what that dialectical embodiment might look like.

I have been unbelievably blessed by the integration and digestion of these polarities already done by my parents and my teacher before me. And yet I know I must embody the tension myself and let it work on me as I walk through this life. All of us must do the work on our own, must find our footing on the spectrum of effort and effortlessness and of love and wisdom and be open to the surprising ways we may find they — and all other spiritual matrices — interact. I have complete and utter confidence in the approach my teacher has taught me and trained me in: one that allows for a wide flexibility of approach held firmly within the rigor of the overarching strategy of our tradition.

When my father died, I inherited what I could take of his collection of vinyl records and revolutionary literature. I was initially drawn toward the works of Karl Marx in my thirst to more clearly understand the nuances of his analysis of the current socio-economic system and the possibilities of another. For some years I kept my distance from the handful of my dad’s books that laid out explicit theories of revolutionary war as the moral chasm in relationship to violence caused uncomfortable tremors to burden my heart.

When I finally began to read the military works of Che Guevara, Mao Zedong, Ho Chi Minh, T.E. Lawrence, unnamed Irish Republican Army tacticians, Kwame Nkrumah, Lenin and numerous others that related to the strategies of guerrilla warfare, I came to see that in martial terms they struck an uncanny resonance to the mode of meditation practice that I had learned and adopted from my meditation teacher: Move in when you feel strong but move away when you are beyond the limits of engaging fruitfully recognizing that this flexibility builds strength over the long-term. From there I could sense a kind of overtone resonance with the approach explored by my parents’ relationship to change. These layered harmonics provided me an unexpected mechanism by which a metaphor of military strategy could guide me toward the resolution of my tension with the traditional interpretation of the Buddha’s approach to meditation, which differed in important ways from the practical methods that I had come to find so much faith in. In this process I came to understand mine as the method of a guerrilla yogi and over time have felt compelled to expand it into a framework that can be shared.

Though these war themes are offered as metaphor it is important to acknowledge that the guerrilla leaders who are quoted throughout this book are not speaking metaphorically: they are talking about killing people. In their real life missions many of them perpetrated unspeakable harm in their efforts to liberate their people. Anyone sensitive to the insanity of the Cultural Revolution might well be triggered by the quotations from Mao Zedong. For people pained by exiled during or expropriated property of the Cuban Revolution, Che’s words may very well spark a negative reaction. For anyone attuned to the role of people like “Lawrence of Arabia” played in promoting an orientalist view of “the middle east”, his words may grind toxically in your heart. As the quotations are almost all related to military strategy it is probably unsurprising there are very few female voices quoted here — but that will itself likely be troubling for many readers. Elevating these voices, almost entirely male, knowing what we know about the outcomes of some of their actions, is a delicate and complicated endeavor.

To make it more complicated, while most of the examples used in this book are representatives from left-leaning movements, which may sometimes be more sympathetic to many Western Buddhists, we are living in a time where many reactionary and right-wing fascist elements are using the strategies of guerrilla warfare to impose immoral and inhuman conditions on society. Neo-nazi movements in the United States and Islamic fundamentalists like Al Qaeda and ISIS are studying and learning these same tactics to overcome far more powerful state enemies and are wreaking havoc around the world.

Finally, we are living in a time of the rise of right-wing Buddhist nationalism around the globe. We read every day about monks in Burma and Sri Lanka threatening and encouraging violence against minority groups — especially Muslims — that are perceived as cultural threats. The understandable dissonance many people feel between the teachings of the Buddha and these expressions of violence can feel irreconcilable.

We live in a social era that assumes and reinforces an unbridgeable polarity between Thich Nhat Hanh and Ho Chi Minh, between the Dalai Lama and Mao Zedong, between Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcom X, between Jesus and the Maccabees. But if we listen to our hearts honestly we will hear voices from across this spectrum and we must wonder if there is there a conversation to be had between these “opposites.” I believe that these contrasting positions represent powerful dimensions of spiritual and material paradox that should be engaged with and digested. It is spiritual and philosophical work that all who care about the world and care about themselves are called to wrestle with.

We want peace and we are at war. This is true in our lives and in society. In our spiritual and social justice practices there is always going to be the powerful tendency for us to avoid paradox, to choose one side and reject the other. Rather than simply succumb to this conditioning, we have another option: to wrestle with the dilemmas of the path to peace that we have inherited and use that process as a one of growth and understanding. Through this process we may come to appreciate that the Buddha’s middle path is not merely a refutation of extremes but as the resolution of paradox.

We are not beyond violence and will not get there by ignoring its potency in our hearts. We are compelled in our society to glorify our saints and cast out our demons. But there must be a possibility for a more mature reflection on motivation and action, on inspiration and corruption — one that allows for transgression and transformation and finds the spiritual and social value of that. After all, we cannot deny the resonance between the basic impulse and action that many of these revolutionaries have been motivated and ourselves — aggrieved by the suffering in the world and inspired to change it and find a way out,

It is not the rebels that create the problems of the world, but the problems of the world that create the rebels.
~ Ricardo Flores Margón

The word “yogis” could easily replace “rebels” and sound as if it came directly out of our own tradition. If a person inspired to violence because of these problems of the world could instead harness that volatile impulse and direct it toward a liberation of the heart, the nature of their physical actions in the world might be transformed. The Guerrilla method of Vipassana is where the Middle Path meets the Shining Path, where Thich Nhat Hanh meets Ho Chi Minh, where the Dalai Lama meets Mao Zedong. Just as the Buddha insisted on non-violence but found value in the war metaphor, I believe we can, to some degree, separate the inspiration and tactics of these revolutionary fighters from the harm done by their actions in the world and watch the conversation they have. Without the metaphor most of us lose important possibilities for imagining the path to liberation for ourselves. This is the function of story, of metaphor, of archetype — and it is this level at which I seek to engage.

I am increasingly careful about claiming anything about the perfect scalability of the spiritual and political paths of humanity. I have never been convinced that social change is primarily a spiritual project {1}. Like the relationship between quantum mechanics and Newtonian physics, I sense that they are in vital conversation with one another but that there are places where the laws at play are quite different. Either way, I am always keen to look more closely to try and understand the areas where these paths resonate and where they don’t. Both have fundamentally important things to teach us about the nature of individual and collective change and we should always be open to possibilities beyond our imagining.

Jesse Maceo Vega-Frey
August 1, 2019


Vipassana: Come for the Peace, Stay for the War

Greater in battle than the man who would conquer a thousand-thousand men, is he who would conquer just one — himself.
~ Buddha, Dhammapada

At their deepest level, everything we can see, hear, smell, taste, touch, or conceive — all “conditioned phenomena” — are impermanent, undependable, insubstantial. From a tree to a mountain to a sound or a thought, anything that arose because of a coming together of conditions will change and pass away as those conditions change. This includes every aspect of what we think of as our “self.”

The instability and undependability of reality creates the foundation of the totality of our suffering as living beings: regardless of our effort to control experience we are separated from the pleasant, joined with the unpleasant, and cannot always get what we want. Responsibility for what befalls us can be pinned on any number of agents in our lives or history or society but well beyond this is fact of the inherent nature of the undependability of all existences. We struggle against the instability of life by grasping at pleasure, recoiling from pain, and numbing ourselves to the hardship through fantasy and delusion. The mind asserts itself against the wind: It is a portion of our beauty but the totality of our grief. The more we grasp, reject, or ignore the more the forces of greed, hatred, and ignorance are engrained in our hearts: as a learned protection from the undependable nature of reality. Over time, these patterns become a problem themselves as they entwine and operate in the most pronounced and subtle levels of our existence, forming the structure of most of what we consider our self.

The Buddha taught what has come to be known as satipathana vipassana practice as a way to cultivate the mind’s ability to uproot these mental defilements through observation. He understood that greed, hatred, and ignorance arise simply because the mind is not trained to see the nature of reality as it truly is. Experience is moving so fast it is very hard to observe clearly. Sounds, smells, tastes, sights, physical sensations, and mental activity are all streaming by at incredible speeds and give us the impression of solidity, and of a coherent self at the center of experience.

The basic method of vipassana practice generally begins with the attempt to bring the attention to one primary object of experience, the breath for example, and develop concentration and mindfulness of the object. It is a very particular and rare kind of attention that is necessary to achieve vipassana insight: a delicate but forceful balance of concentration that is powerful but nimble enough to move with the changing object and mindfulness that is genuinely interested and not manipulative, supported by courageous energy, calm, equanimity, love, patience, urgency, to name only a few. The Buddha identified four fields of experience in which we can apply mindfulness to achieve insight: body (and the physically-based sense experiences of seeing, hearing, smelling, and tasting), feeling tone, mind states, and the causal relationships between phenomena: basically all and any conceivable human experience. Most Buddhist meditation traditions emphasize a particular object over another or particular aspects of concentration over another. Whatever method we use the mechanics of liberation are essentially the same. Transformative insight can happen in relationship to any object. While we may train with one, like the breath, ultimately we develop the capacity to be in profound investigation with any object that arises in our field of awareness.

Thus trained, the mind begins to see phenomena as simply a chain of causal or conditioning experience, moving back and forth between mentality and physicality in rapid succession. As the mind strengthens, a progressive series of deeper insights into the insubstantiality of phenomena begins to occur and a deepening peace with the nature of reality blossoms alongside the uprooting of greed, hatred, and ignorance. We are not threatened by the instability of life because we understand there is no stable self at the center of it all. The mind is freed because, as the Buddha said, without fear of pain or compulsion toward pleasure and amid the shifting changes of mental and physical experience “it sees security everywhere.” The mind needs no stability, needs nothing to be one way or another, is at home in the wilderness of reality.

Abiding in this utter peace, in the release that accompanies the deepest wisdom, the mind has the capacity to alight upon the unconditioned, the aspect of reality that has no beginning and no end, does not arise or pass, the dark relief called nibbana. After an initial experience of this, the mind finds its way to a deeper and deeper abiding in this aspect of reality until it becomes ones true home, and upon the death of the body the mind is “neither here, nor there, nor in between.”

There is that dimension where there is neither earth, nor water, nor fire, nor wind; neither dimension of the infinitude of space, nor dimension of the infinitude of consciousness, nor dimension of nothingness, nor dimension of neither perception nor non-perception; neither this world, nor the next world, nor sun, nor moon. And there, I say, there is neither coming, nor going, nor staying; neither passing away nor arising: unestablished, unevolving, without support. This, just this, is the end of stress.

~ Buddha, Udana

While this path may sound rather simple and straight forward, in practice it is very difficult and often bewildering. It is so profoundly at odds with the millions of years of mental evolution that have kept us grasping at what makes us feel safe, running from that which scares us, and spacing out to that which is overwhelming, it is hard to express. The mind is deeply defended against freedom and will stop at almost nothing to try to stay feeling solid and in control.

The path to peace can feel like a war, and the Buddha didn’t shy away from this fact. The wide range of martial language scattered throughout the ancient texts of the Pali cannon is hard to ignore. Recognizing that the tendencies toward greed, hatred, and delusion in the human mind were profoundly entrenched and of inconceivable magnitude, the Buddha expounded on the idea that an enormous effort, with profoundly heroic qualities, must be conjured in order to overcome them. It was, indeed, a revolutionary war and these metaphors are some of the most commonly used and repeated to describe the path from suffering to liberation and the qualities of character needed to see it to completion.

In his most famous example, the Buddha referred to the process of his own awakening as a battle between himself and the armies of Mara, the deified personification of delusion. In the Padhana Sutta, Mara, using a voice of feigned compassion for the Buddha’s hardship, tries to tempt the Buddha into moral and energetic slackness. The Buddha recognizes the ploy and calls him out, declaring his epic battle,

Sensual desire is your first army, the second is called discontent, the third is hunger and thirst, the fourth craving, the fifth sluggishness and laziness, the sixth fear, the seventh indecision, and the eighth disparagement of others and stubbornness: gain, fame, honor, prestige wrongly acquired and whoever praises himself and despises others — these, Namuci, are your armies, the Dark One’s striking forces. A lazy, cowardly person cannot overcome them, but by conquering them one gains bliss.

I wear muñja-grass! {2} Shame on life here in this world! It is better for me to die in battle than to live defeated. Some recluses and brahmanas are not seen (exerting themselves) here, so immersed are they (in worldliness). They are not aware of that path by which those of perfect conduct walk.

Seeing the surrounding army ready and Mara mounted (on his elephant), I am going out to fight so that he may not shift me from my position. This army of yours which the world together with the devas is unable to subdue, that I will destroy with wisdom, like an unbaked clay-bowl with a stone.
~ Buddha, Padhana Sutta

This kind of imagery is common in the ancient suttas. Evoking examples from the battlefield, the Buddha emphasized the importance of determination, courageous energy, and the forbearance necessary to face the formidable obstacles to liberation within the mind. Sometimes monks were likened to warriors,

This individual, I tell you, is like the warrior who can handle the cloud of dust, the top of the enemy’s banner, the tumult, & hand-to-hand combat. On winning the battle, victorious in battle, he comes out at the very head of the battle.

~Buddha, Yodhajiva Sutta

Other times, the beasts of war were held of as examples of courage and valor,

There is the case where a king’s elephant, having gone into battle, sees a troop of elephants, a troop of cavalry, a troop of chariots, a troop of foot soldiers, but he doesn’t falter or faint, he steels himself and engages in the battle. This is how a king’s elephant is resilient to sights.

~Buddha, Pabbatopama Sutta

Throughout the suttas, the Buddha refers to the experience of these forces and others as “invading” the mind,

Touched by that painful feeling, he sorrows, grieves, and laments, he weeps beating his breast and becomes distraught. When that pleasant feeling has arisen in him, it invades his mind and remains because body is not developed. And when that painful feeling has arisen in him, it invades his mind and remains because mind is not developed. Anyone in whom, in this double manner, arisen pleasant feeling invades his mind and remains because body is not developed, and arisen painful feeling invades his mind and remains because mind is not developed, is thus undeveloped in body and undeveloped in mind.
~ Buddha, Mahāsaccaka Sutta

Mental fortitude — in the form of morality, concentration, and wisdom — is proposed over and over again as something that can provide defense against this invasion.

The enlightened state itself is described in destructive terms as often as it is in affirmative ones. The success of the Tathāgata, meaning “one thus gone,” a title by which the Buddha would regularly refer to himself, is frequently described using the language of violence. Speaking to Aggivessana he says,

The Tathāgata, Aggivessana, has abandoned the taints that defile, bring renewal of being, give trouble, ripen in suffering, and lead to future birth, aging, and death; he has cut them off at the root, made them like a palm stump, done away with them so that they are no longer subject to future arising. Just as a palm tree whose crown is cut off is incapable of further growth, so too, the Tathāgata has abandoned the taints that defile … done away with them so that they are no longer subject to future arising.
~ Buddha, Mahasaccakka Sutta

Even the word arahant, used to describe the rare and honored fully enlightened person who has achieved the goal of the holy life, if broken down etymologically is widely interpreted to mean “killer of the enemy” from ari (enemy) and hanta (to kill).

The Buddha’s warrior metaphors rely on examples in which the enlightened fighter fully embodies heroic qualities that give them far greater strength than their enemy. Thus the warrior engages Mara on higher ground and their success is inevitable. Over a lifetime of practice, even the most dedicated and enthusiastic yogis will find that a wholehearted embrace of this warrior approach eventually backfires.

We hear stories of the great masters like Taungpulu Sayadaw who spent many years practicing rigorous asceticism — like not lying down for over 30 years — and we are inspired by and want to emulate this “hard-core” approach. When we fail to emulate those achievements in our own practice we can find ourselves at a loss about how to reconcile this impulse toward vigor, so honored in our tradition, with the mental combustion and frustration that so often follows it. Countless well-intentioned yogis inspired by the words of the Buddha or other great masters begin their practice with a fervor and aspiration not matched by their training. When they encounter obstacles and negative mental forces overwhelm them, confuse them, humiliate them, like crushing waves pounding on the shore, they easily lose hope — lose a sense of their own capacity — become demoralized, and give up.

In the worst cases, yogis can do serious damage to their minds by engaging in reckless approaches to meditation that puts them in dangerous engagement with mental and emotional forces more powerful than they can withstand. We forget that people like Taungpulu Sayadaw had many years of monastic training, studying, practicing, before venturing forth with such intensity. He was also supported by the powerful armor of monastic ethics — institutional and a cultural frameworks deeply ingrained in his home society that valued, honored, and supported his commitment. We can also forget that individuals like him are rare even in their home cultures.

The ideal soldier that the Buddha describes and esteems in the war against delusion is a monastic: Someone who’s commitment to ethical life has extracted them from the pressures and influences of society, and whom in that protective container are able to build a powerful momentum of wholesome mental force in a consistent and sustained manner. Unlike the Buddha most of us have spent our lives cultivating less heroic qualities of the mind. And unlike Taungpulu Sayadaw we don’t have the various levels of support in our lives, communities, society that enabled a practice life like his. Since we cannot often successfully engage Mara in all out war on the open battlefield, the heroic metaphors can ring hollow and dispirit us and we are left without a believable strategy for success.

Given how hard the path to freedom can be, those of us committed to the liberation that the Buddha described — of the heart’s complete unbinding from greed, hatred, and delusion — must ask ourselves what is the appropriate place of the warrior ideal in this pursuit? And what conception of warriorship can fully meet the manifold challenges of the long journey to awakening?

One solution is to abandon the martial metaphors altogether. After all, isn’t the explicit violence distasteful and counter-productive? And isn’t the implicit patriarchal undercurrent played-out and thus eminently rejectable?

Of course there are innumerable examples from the Pali texts that counterbalance the violent flavor of these violent illustrations. The Buddha’s profound insight into balanced energy is one of the most beautiful expressions of the peace and tranquility needed to attain the deepest awakening,

I recall that when my father the Sakyan was occupied, while I was sitting in the cool shade of a rose-apple tree, quite secluded from sensual pleasures, secluded from unwholesome states, I entered upon and abided in the first jhāna {3}, which is accompanied by applied and sustained thought, with rapture and pleasure born of seclusion. Could that be the path to enlightenment?’ Then, following on that memory, came the realization: ‘That is the path to enlightenment.’
~ Buddha, MahaSaccaka Sutta

or this, from the Khandhasaṃyutta,

The five aggregates {4} are truly burdens,
The burden-carrier is the person.
Taking up the burden is suffering in the world,
Laying the burden down is blissful.

Having laid the heavy burden down
Without taking up another burden,
Having drawn out craving with its root,
One is free from hunger, fully quenched.

And while the martial metaphors carry a uniquely resonant intensity intended to inspire full effort, he never condoned violence, or any action motivated by aversion or ill-will. The Buddha rejected the value of all violent actions — of causing harm to other living beings — and universally condemned them as immoral,

When embraced, the rod of violence breeds misery:
Look at people quarreling.
I will tell of how I experienced dismay.
~ Buddha, Attadanda Sutta

He insisted that violence was incapable of leading to a beneficial outcome. A visiting headman named Yodhajiva once told the Buddha that his warriors believed that if they died in battle they would be reborn in a heaven realm as a result of their courage and valor. The Buddhaʻs response was unequivocal:

When a warrior strives & exerts himself in battle, his mind is already seized, debased, & misdirected by the thought: ‘May these beings be struck down or slaughtered or annihilated or destroyed. May they not exist.’ If others then strike him down & slay him while he is thus striving & exerting himself in battle, then with the breakup of the body, after death, he is reborn in the hell called the realm of those slain in battle.
~ Buddha, Yodhajiva Sutta

We live in a time and culture where among most meditators the futility of violence and repulsiveness of war are widely understood and opposition to those methods in our attempts to create change — internally, relationally, socially — is broadly shared. It is unsurprising then that in most contemporary Western lay Buddhist communities the martial expressions of liberation have fallen out of general favor. Considered excessive, patriarchal, backward, and antiquated, many believe that these archaic notions are better left in the pre-feudal worldview of the ancient India. Doesn’t the use of violent metaphors incline us toward a kind of violence with ourselves? Shouldn’t we aspire to move beyond them? Since we have metaphors and approaches that donʻt risk encouraging debased behavior, can we not — and should we not — do away with these teachings as an evolution of how the Dhamma is shared, as we might with any number of offensive or questionable teachings from the Buddha?

These doubts bring up worthwhile questions. But equally important to examine are the cultural assumptions underlying those doubts. The mainstream demographic of the convert western Dharma world has been formed by educated female white middle-class liberals and along with plenty of white male and Jewish cultural influences, of similar class backgrounds, sprinkled in to the mix. This historically inevitable reality has put its cultural stamp on much of the norms of the world of practice. This stamp has had many benefits and has made these approaches to meditation available to many people who would otherwise never have found a natural entry point. And while there are more men, more youth, more people of color getting involved in communities of practice, these formative cultural norms still provide the recent foundation of western convert Dharma. It is simply important to remember that they are specific and along with all their strengths they will of course have their shadows.

Just as the Dhamma culture of our era is specific, so was it during the time of the Buddha. Patriarchal social norms can be seen throughout the cannon and in many of the most essential aspects of practice instruction many of us have inherited. The class dimensions and cultural dynamics of the Buddhadharma from the time of the Buddha through the various Asian cultures that the Dhamma has run though is an entire body of research that we don’t have time to delve into here {5}. But the historic promotion of effort over tranquility, of wisdom over love, of concentration over awareness, the phallicization of mindfulness, the exclusion of female bhikkhunis from the first council of monastics after the Buddha died, and the autocratic design of monastic institutions are a but a few of the codified evidence of the exclusion of female voices, female experience, and what might archetypally be called the feminine, from the earliest days of the tradition.

Nowadays we see the understandable impulse toward a counter-force in the form of an utter rejection of the patriarchal mode: a disarming of the Dhamma that emphasizes tranquility, love, effortlessness, joy, community, inclusiveness, open awareness, and non-hierarchy. People are tired of feeling bad about themselves, feeling that they are not working hard enough in their practice, and that more effort is the only answer.

So many of the patriarchal impulses of the teachings we inherited reminded western yogis of the negative side of religious traditions they had rejected because of male domination, unquestionable faith, and all kinds of physical, sexual, and psychological trauma. The lack of appreciation from many monastic teachers for personal story, of respectful communication, of non-heterosexual relationships conflicted with new western values that had burst out of the civil rights movement, the women’s liberation movements, movement for gay-rights, for self-expression, of sensitivity to issues of power, privilege, and oppression. Foundational cultural norms related to women’s rights, western psychology, and social justice were bedrock to the growth of Dhamma in the west. The Buddha’s Dhamma has been transformed with every new cultural interface and this process is often confusing and complex. This is equally true since coming to the west.

While all practitioners in the west have surely benefited from this shift in emphasis — now promoted by men and women of all ages and ethnic backgrounds — there are places that it has left the Buddha’s teaching vulnerable to corruption. One place where the current western Buddhist culture has left the Dharma exposed is how this disarming of the Buddha’s teaching has coincided with a process of abandoning its revolutionary character. A genetically modified version of mindfulness has been concocted in the West that no longer seeks to overthrow the forces of greed, hatred, and delusion but rather aims to smooth out the bumps of samsara{6}, to craft a more satisfying lifestyle, to find balance — in essence, adding nicer decor to our prison cells, make more glittery shackles: a balm rather than a bomb for Babylon. Instead of complete liberation from greed, hatred, and delusion, the utter destruction of suffering, and final relief from madness of craving, people modestly aspire to be “10% happier.”

In the flood of undependable psycho-physical fabrication the Buddha offered people a raft, a shore, an island with his liberation teachings. What we see — and indeed what the Buddha saw then — is that most people don’t want out: they just want warmer water in which to drown. But the Dhamma is not ultimately about giving people want they want or about getting our needs met, about “just loving” ourselves, about “effortless joy.” It is not merely about “wholeness,” “integration,” or “balance.” It is about breaking the shackles of our bondage to hope, to expectation, to happiness based on conditioned phenomenon.

The Buddha’s teaching was revolutionary because it called for an overthrow of the dominant forces of self-production and for their replacement with an entirely different set of principles and tools, ones that produce an entirely different experience of identity-structure. For many people the new-age approach of mcmindfulness may work well enough for long enough. But to be in alignment with the revolutionary thrust of the Dhamma, we must accept the sometimes conflictual nature of the path designed to liberate us from the rounds and rounds of compulsive being.

From one perspective, and one might consider it as masculine, the process of liberation is oppositional. There are phenomena to be encouraged and phenomena to be abandoned or destroyed. Vipassana practice is designed to uproot and overthrow them, not appease or come to a negotiated truce. As Frederick Douglas once noted, “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will,” the Buddha acknowledged that his Dhamma goes against the stream and so force — moral, social, or physical — is a necessary tool for transformation. This masculine side of the coin is an element of the dynamic that we reject to our own — and the Dhamma’s — detriment.

The trick is that this necessary force must be motivated by factors such as wisdom, compassion, and love. In the spiritual war the forces that are morally aligned — balanced effort infused with wholesome volitional power — are the only ones that actually work. This must be our deepest concern and place of greatest sensitivity. These dynamics can feel like countervailing winds that are hard to reconcile with one another. But we cannot abandon the paradox of love and force if we want to stay true to the path the Buddha laid out.

Deepening our exploration of and commitment to metta (lovingkindness), for example, can profoundly soften our resistance to the dukkha (painfulness) of reality. Using this technique, a more natural and robust unfolding of insight is possible. But metta can also be used as an avoidance of reality, of a denial of dukkha, and can lead us down a path to delusion, ultimately weakening the mind. Something that is part of the path, if left out of balance, can lead to a degradation of the path.

Just as new-age yogis might resist the war metaphor entirely, patriarchal orthodox Buddhist elements will tend to reject the feminine-drive behind this new approach to mindfulness. The need for our approach to be one or the other, to avoid paradox and fall into a polarization, is unnecessary and ultimately threatens to throw our lineage out of balance just as we are trying to propagate it in this new historical and cultural context. While we aspire to peace in the world, in our relationships, and in ourselves — and seek peaceful means of achieving this peace — metaphors of war are still meaningful in acknowledging the epic and challenging nature of the spiritual struggle. The practice should not always feel like war but there are good reasons why it sometimes does and why the Buddha offered the metaphor.

One solution to the dilemma of using a martial metaphor for the Buddha’s path can be found by exploring of the model of guerrilla warfare.

The fact is that the disparity between the enemy’s strength and our own is now so great that the enemy’s shortcomings have not developed, and for the time being cannot develop, to a degree sufficient to offset his strength, while our advantages have not developed, and for the time being cannot develop, to a degree sufficient to compensate for our weakness.
~ Mao Zedong, On Protracted War

Minority, oppressed, and occupied human communities have long understood that they cannot challenge the dominant forces of society on the same terms that they are being subjugated by them. The nature of liberation movements has always been of the powerless against the powerful, the poorly-trained against the well-trained, the impoverished against the privileged. The oppressed cannot match the firepower, the organization, or the resource capacity of their opponents and therefore must rely on irregular tactics that augment the value of their own strengths: adroitly evade the force of their enemies, exploit the enemy’s weaknesses, and augment the value of their own strengths.

From history we also see that overzealous, blind insurrection never works. It might be inevitable that at times people take up of pitchforks and guns, burn, loot, and riot to express frustration and fulfill a thirst for the spirit of rebellion. But these actions generally do little to fundamentally change society and often end up awakening the most forceful and primitive forces of state repression upon them, for which there is, by definition, no organized resistance.

Premature and unnecessary attempts at insurrection are possible; so also are over-zealousness and excesses, which are always and definitely harmful, and may injure even the best of tactics. But the fact is that in most of the purely Russian centers we have so far been suffering from the other extreme, namely, insufficient initiative among our fighting squads, lack of fighting experience, and insufficient determination in their activities… We must not restrain but encourage the guerrilla operations of the fighting squads if we want to prepare for insurrection not merely in words, and if we recognize that the proletariat is seriously ready for insurrection.
~ V.I. Lenin, Partiiniye Izvestia (Party News), №1

When we consider a revolution of the mind — an overthrow of the dominant forces of defilement to which we are oppressed — we encounter a similar situation. The Armies of Mara are powerful, entrenched, well-trained, well-armed, institutionalized and hegemonic forces of the empire of the Self. At the time of his enlightenment the Buddha’s mind was like a legion of perfect soldiers skilled in the seven factors of awakening, the brahma viharas, the five spiritual faculties, the jhānic factors, and other such powerful capacities of the mind.

If we are honest, and we ought always to be, the army of our minds are not like the Buddha’s. They are more like an untrained, ragtag group of disorganized idealists trying to maintain some semblance of resistance while hiding in the unmapped mountains of the mind. The forces we are up against are so overwhelming that we cannot hope to match them directly on their own terms in open struggle. It is not a level playing field.

But if we do not want to play the role of passive farmers abiding for ages under the feudal dictatorship of our own ignorance nor petulant rebels whose romantic idealism and unsustainable bursts of energy will be humiliatingly crushed by the overwhelming momentum of our delusion, we must consider some of the most successful tactics of military campaigns of modern history. The modern yogi must rely on irregular, partisan, guerrilla tactics in their pursuit of enlightenment.

He must exhaust the enemy by constant harassment.
He must attack constantly from all directions.
He must stage successful retreats, return to the attack,
avoid encounters with the enemy that are not of his own making.
~ Handbook of the Irish Republican Army

If we adopt the mentality of guerrilla yogis — serious and dedicated revolutionaries of the mind sensitive to the realities of our overpowered and oppressed condition — we can put into practice a variety of useful and inspiring strategies that will serve to constantly strengthen our capacity to achieve final victory. With a degree of honest self-assessment, we can see our strengths and weaknesses clearly and plot an adaptable approach ahead rather than fixate on an abstract ideal of how this path should be trodden.

A small nation fighting for freedom can only hope to defeat an oppressor or occupying power by means of guerrilla warfare. The enemy’s superiority in manpower, resources, materials, and everything else that goes into waging of successful war can only be overcome by the correct application of guerrilla methods.
~ Handbook for Volunteers of the Irish Republican Army

If you are a lay person who has a job, and/or a family, bills to pay, who squeezes meditation practice into a busy schedule of other worldly responsibilities, who tries to go on intensive retreats — or at least a local sitting group — and yet has the aspiration for the deepest human freedom — you already are a guerrilla yogi and it will be worth your time to consider this approach. A lay person in modern times should be humble about the near-absurdity of the ambition of their project of awakening and take an approach to the path that honors and utilizes the strengths and weakness of the conditions they encounter in the emancipation of their bodies, minds, and world.

Small actions, continual mobility, emphasis on rear or flanking attacks — these are all features of a war in which the guerrilla fighter finds himself at home.
~ Bert “Yank” Levy, Guerrilla Warfare

The near-totality of the teachings of most Buddhist traditions elaborate on the rationale and the methods of achieving closer engagement with the phenomena of reality. After all, an intimate relationship with sensory phenomena is essential for liberating insight. There is very little — almost nothing in our tradition — that explains why it may be necessary to move away at times, that validate this tactic, or that trains us how to do it skillfully. Most examples of distancing or withdrawal from engagement are dismissed critically in our traditions as the result of mental defilements. We are conditioned to think of running and hiding as cowardly. But the guerrilla combatant knows that in a lifetime of confrontation with more powerful forces there are plenty of times we must run.

“Hit and run” some call this scornfully, and this is accurate. Hit and run, wait, lie in ambush, again hit and run, and thus repeatedly, without giving any rest to the enemy. There is in all this, it would appear, a negative quality, an attitude of retreat, of avoiding frontal fights. However, this is consequent upon the general strategy of guerrilla warfare, which is the same in its ultimate end as is any warfare: to win, to annihilate the enemy.
~ Ernesto “Che” Guevara, Guerrilla Warfare

When Fidel Castro, Che Guevara, Camilo Cienfuegos, and 80 or so other men landed on the shores of Cuba to launch the overthrow of the Batista government they were immediately engaged in a brutal skirmish. Days later, only 12 of the original unit were able to regroup in the mountains of the Sierra Maestra. With a few rifles and a handful grenades they had an army to beat and a dictatorship to topple. It must have been a sobering situation. If their vision for success was rooted in orthodox military strategy, they would have jumped right back on their boat, the Granma, and turned around. Perhaps they would have never even set off for revolution in the first place. Yet they continued on and ultimately prevailed because their orientation as guerrilla fighters anticipated these difficult conditions as their basic premise which allowed them to continue forward. Their strategy reflected the reality of their situation.

Today the locust fights the elephant. But tomorrow the elephant will be disemboweled.
~ Ho Chi Minh, 2nd National Congress of the Vietnam Workers’ Party

Buddhist orthodoxy, while aligned with the military notion, may instinctively argue against many aspects of the approach offered here. But if read carefully, and applied with consideration, one will see that this method is of the same overarching strategy that our tradition upholds, is carried by the same principles, and diverges most of all simply in the matter of tactics.

The argument that guerrilla warfare disorganizes the movement must be regarded critically. Every new form of struggle, accompanied as it is by new dangers and new sacrifices, inevitably “disorganizes” organizations which are unprepared for this new form of struggle. Our old propagandist circles were disorganized by recourse to methods of agitation. Our committees were subsequently disorganized by recourse to demonstrations. Every military action in any war to a certain extent disorganizes the ranks of the fighters. But this does not mean that one must not fight. It means that one must learn to fight. That is all.
~ V.I Lenin, Guerrilla Warfare

One of the fundamental principles of guerrilla warfare is the high value placed on flexibility and great adaptability to specific times and place. The essence of the guerrilla approach, then, is one of firm principle and flexible application, of overarching strategies and secondary tactics, of recognizing the importance of conditions as we aim for the unconditional, of respecting the relative in the pursuit of the absolute.

Another fundamental characteristic of the guerrilla soldier is his flexibility, his ability to adapt himself to all circumstances, and to convert to his service all of the accidents of the action. Against the rigidity of classical methods of fighting, the guerrilla fighter invents his own tactics at every minute of the fight and constantly surprises his own enemy.
~ Ernesto “Che” Guevara, Guerrilla Warfare

If guerrilla war can be imagined as a form of war that balances a masculine and feminine approach— sensitive to conditions and not stubborn about ideas, humble and careful rather than reckless and arrogant — then guerrilla vipassana can be thought of as the balanced approach to Buddhist liberation. This is where the integrated approach is realized: where we cultivate the masculine without betraying the feminine; Where we nourish ourselves with tenderness and care without losing sight of the liberatory aim of our efforts; where we are restrained yet permissive, urgent yet patient.

As an advancement of the overall dialectical alchemy between the processes of spiritual and social liberation, I suspect that as these guerrilla tactics are internalized for the spiritual quest, they can at some point be reapplied outwardly for a non-violent revolutionary movement in society. In our present day, left-leaning social movements often lament their lack of coherence and cohesion, and thus our capacity for decisive engagements with the forces of capitalist society. But if these guerrilla approaches are taken to heart, and infused with some of the spiritual work suggested in this text, I believe there might be the possibility of a transformed and reconceived notion of the appropriate peaceful tactics to our social justice movements in the world— something addressed in the conclusion.

Over the course of this book, a variety of approaches culled from a range of guerrilla tacticians will be offered to reframe the Buddha’s model for liberation. The importance of sabotage, mobility, diversion, and retreat, among many others, will be brought into focus as important metaphors for our meditation practice. Chapters regarding medical knowledge, the nature of the guerrilla band, reporting, general strikes, and so on will help navigate the elements of our path beyond our meditation practice and into relationships, community, and considerations for the formation of our lives. In the conclusion I explore in greater detail aspects of the conversation between individual enlightenment and revolutionary social change that seem most vital.

If Dhamma instruction these days in the west suffers from a lack of clarity, coherence, and rigor, which I believe it does, and therefore is often presented as a hodgepodge of approaches to form a kind of new age stew, which I believe it is, it is largely as an understandable dialectical response to the patriarchal history and norms of many of our lineages. But I would argue very strongly that turning the Buddha’s Dhamma into new-age porridge is not an appropriate or effective counterpoint to the oppressive patriarchal momentum we sometimes feel in our spiritual inheritance. Rather it is a betrayal and an irresponsibility that while defanging the beast also destroys the animal.

I hope to offer a frame that recalibrates our understanding of the path of practice in a way that is still in alignment with the Buddha’s original offering but satisfies our need for a more intuitive and sensitive approach to our historical conditions — one, of course, that still works. Though the master is gone, we still have many good resources and therefore live in auspicious time. There are conditions we can leverage to make the most of our vault toward nibbana. It is a classic guerrilla position and we ought to use the tools at our disposal.

Wars in every period have independent forms and independent conditions, and, therefore, every period must have its independent theory of war.
~ Carl von Clausewitz, On War

Click here for Chapter 1 (Sabotage: Dana /Sila)

I hope you have enjoyed what you have read so far!

I will be releasing three chapters each month so that the entirety of the book will be available online for free by January 2020.

In accordance with my tradition, I do not charge money for Dhamma teaching and am supported only on the freely-offered generosity of others.

If you have benefited from what you have read so far and want to support me or the promotion of the work, please consider two options for offering your generosity:

1. You can donate directly to me (as a tax-deductible contribution to Vipassana Hawaiʻi) HERE


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Thank you for your efforts to continue to propagate the Dhamma in this era in a way that holds the integrity and purity of the teachings.

~ Jesse Maceo Vega-Frey


{1} The question of the relationship between consciousness and society in relationship to revolution and Buddhism is its own rabbit hole of exploration. Here is a meaningful tidbit by Eric Fromm reflecting on Marxʻ notion that “It is not consciousness of men that determines their being, but, on the contrary, their social being that determines their consciousness.”

{2} “Indian warriors used to wear a tuft of a certain grass, called muñja, on their head or headgear, for indicating that they were prepared to die in battle and determined not to retreat.” (J.Ireland)

{3} Jhāna are states of deeply absorptive concentration

{4} The five khandas: form, feeling, perception, mental formations, and consciousness are the five aspects of existence most easily misapprehended as a “self”

{5} “The Social Dimensions of Early Buddhism” by Uma Chakravarti is a great place to start.

{6} Samsara is a word used to describe the cycle of birth life and death beings are trapped in due to craving, aversion, and ignorance



Jesse Maceo Vega-Frey

Jesse is resident teacher for Vipassana Hawaii and seeks to inspire the skills, determination, and faith necessary to realize the deepest human freedom.