What is the Three Speed Transmission?

[2/27/13 11:07:29 AM] Nadav Spiegelman: we’re introducing the concept of the 3 speed transmission. What it is, how it came about, how it’s used.

Kenneth Folk: OK, let’s talk about how it came up in the first place.

After my first spiritual opening in 1982, I read a bunch of Zen books about how enlightenment is some nebulous wisdom that zen masters have. It was never clear to me how I could duplicate that in my own life. “Nowhere to go, nothing to get.” That sort of thing. This is surprisingly disempowering to a westerner who does not have access to traditional Chinese/Japanese culture and who grew up with the understanding that if you want to learn something, you go through a fairly straightforward process of education.

So, I didn’t know where to go with that other than to read books about Zen and sit for 30 minutes a day counting my breath 1-10. I could feel progress in my meditation practice throughout this time, but I had the distinct feeling that I was missing something and that my practice was remarkably inefficient. I never felt called to put on a black robe and join a Zen center, so I was on my own.

When I met Bill Hamilton in 1990, he told be about the Theravada Buddhist four paths of enlightenment and the Progress of Insight map. During this time, I also learned that according to the Pali suttas, the dying words of the Buddha were “appamadena sampadetha,” which translates into English as “strive diligently.” This made sense to me given my own cultural upbringing, and I was immediately able to put this new schema to work; the more I practiced, the more I would progress. 30 minutes a day was not enough. And technique mattered; vipassana, with mental noting, was going to bring more consistent results than breath counting. “Aha!” I thought. There IS somewhere to go and something to get. The Pali Buddha wasn’t into this nebulous “you can’t get there from here” baloney at all. From that point, my practice took off like a rocket.

NS: Right. Here was a straightforward incremental process you could use.

KF: Exactly. And it worked. It seemed to make the Zen idea irrelevant. But that wasn’t the end of the story. In the early 90s, while in between retreats in Burma and Malaysia, I met an American zen student who insisted that the Burmese approach was wrong and that the zen people had it right after all. He said that all this striving was just the initial practice and that eventually you had to grow up, stop banging your head against the wall and just let things be as they are. I spent many hours arguing with this fellow, but it was clear to me that he had a valid point of view that wasn’t being expressed by the Mahasi Buddhists.

NS: Ah!

KF: How to reconcile these two apparently contradictory lenses?

I chewed on this for several years, flip-flopping between thinking that the Burmese were right and the Japanese clueless, and then realizing that the Japanese were right after all and so on.

NS: So the 3 speed transmission is a way of looking at the bigger picture, whereas the traditions can get stuck in their own particular view.

KF: Right. As you say, the three speed transmission allows us to step back and see the bigger picture, allowing for the possibility that any given perspective can have great value within its sphere and that there is no one lens to rule them all.

In the early and mid 2000s, I became fascinated with Advaita Vedanta and the process of self-enquiry as taught by Ramana Maharshi and Nisargadatta. Here was yet another lens: you don’t have to pay attention to anything other than the apparent self, and by asking the question “who am I?” you can deconstruct this sticky false self, essentially solving all of your problems.

From the point of view of Advaita, neither zen breath counting, nor zen surrender, nor Burmese vipassana have much to offer; it’s all about directly investigating this apparent self. So my pendulum swung again and I became dismissive of both zen and vipassana. Ramana Maharshi became my hero and I spat on anyone who wasn’t hip enough to practice self-enquiry exclusively.

NS: Ha. So you didn’t see how all of these fit together at first. You just gravitated towards whatever appealed to you at that time, and bought into it.

KF: Yes! Again and again I was blinded by the narrowness of the current perspective. At some point, my overall purview began to broaden. I could no longer deny that each of these seemingly contradictory systems had great value, and more specifically that I had benefited from all of them. The three speed transmission grew out of my need for a conceptual framework big enough and flexible enough to hold the striving of the Pali Buddha, the self-enquiry of Advaita, and the surrender of Zen. I put them in that order, i.e., 1) What is going on? 2) Who is this happening to? and 3) “This is it. Forget about it. It’s over.” because I was able to see a way to integrate all three understandings into a method, using one to scaffold the next.

NS: Excellent.

KF: Finally, though, there is no hierarchy. “This is it” is not a higher-level understanding than the unvarnished reality of the six sense doors (seeing, hearing, tasting, touching, smelling,  and thinking) as viewed through vipassana practice, or the 1st gear consequentialist understanding that what I do now will affect what happens in the future, and what happens in the future matters. Nor is self-enquiry to be privileged over either of the other lenses. In fact, I now see the ability to switch fluidly among lenses as a hallmark of mature practice and mature understanding. There is no one lens to rule them all. Each lens is valid within its scope, and it becomes a pragmatic issue of selecting (or naturally gravitating to) the appropriate lens in any given moment.

NS: Good. You’ve talked in the past about using the 3 gears in reverse order. If you can do 3rd gear, do that. Otherwise, downshift, etc. But you’re not saying that 3rd gear is the best or the ultimate goal, are you? Although it might be where you end up. But the utility of the 3 gears is in being able to find a practice or a lens that’s appropriate to whatever your experience is at that time.

KF: At one time, I believed there was a hierarchy, and that the goal was to see third gear all the time. I no longer believe that, nor that you should expect to end up there. My current understanding is that non-privileging is the way to go. So, I’m privileging non-privileging.

NS: So taken together, the 3 gears provide a comprehensive picture of contemplative approaches or lenses.

KF: That’s right. The utility of the 3 gears is indeed to use the lens that’s appropriate at the time. This understanding can cut down on unnecessary suffering, for example, when a practitioner laments the fact that she is not able to sustain herself in 3rd gear all the time. A quick detour to 2nd gear would call into question this self that needs to have a particular experience. And downshifting to 1st gear allows for the invaluable feedback loop of noting (labeling) in order to stay on track with minimal space-outs, and for seeing that any thoughts about what ought to be happening are just thoughts. When thoughts are just thoughts, there is no Truth with a capital “T”. Capital letters need not apply. There is great freedom in leveling the playing field in this way.

NS: Talk more about the gear / shifting / transmission metaphor.

KF: The gearshift analogy is helpful because it is possible to get more traction with noting than with surrender. I got this idea from something Shinzen Young said years ago: when things were tough, he would downshift to noting-style vipassana and mindfulness of the body as a kind of low gear. Once he got up a head of steam, he might shift gears to another practice.

All of this ties in with the idea of the yogi toolbox. There are lots of great practices. A skilled meditator has a toolbox full of effective techniques. And the most important tool in the box is a kind of meta-tool that allows you to select the tool that is most useful in any given moment. This, of course, is in direct opposition to the idea that you should choose one technique and practice it for a lifetime. I don’t know anything about that, because I’ve always been eclectic and experimental in my own practice. This has worked for me, and this is how I teach.

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  1. Pingback: quick start overview of different types of practice | Anthony's Pragmatic Dharma Notes

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