Dear Noble Sangha,
I have spoken recently at our Wednesday Sangha meetings about the factors that bring us onto the spiritual path. I highlighted compassion, inquisitiveness, and courage as important elements for entering and returning to the path. In this short blog I would like to explore the question: What does it mean to be on a spiritual path?
According to The Treasury of Knowledge a path is “that which, once one has entered it, serves as a stepping-stone for progressing towards more superior states.” A genuine path allows us to progress to superior states. What does that mean? Does that mean having great mystical powers? Levitating, perhaps? Clairvoyance? Does that mean superior titles or positions, maybe becoming a Dharma teacher? What are these “superior states” that Jamgon Kongtrul refers to here?
In order to answer this I would like to share a story I first read from Acharya Lama Tenpa during my Paths and Bhumis class at Nitartha Institute in Seattle. There was a Buddhist student who wanted to practice genuine Dharma. He wanted to be on a spiritual path, but he didn’t know how to practice. So he looked around to see what other people were doing. He saw that some people were doing rituals of offerings to the Buddhas, so he did rituals of offerings to the Buddhas. His lama saw him doing this and said, “It is great that you are doing rituals of offerings to the Buddhas, but it would be better if you practiced genuine Dharma.”
So the aspiring practitioner looked around again and saw that many people were studying Buddhism at a university. So he went and entered graduate studies on Buddhism. The next time he met with his lama, his lama said, “It is great that you are studying Buddhism here at this famous university, but it would be better if you practiced genuine Dharma.”
Now the student started to become a little frustrated. So again he looked around to see what other students were doing and noticed many of them going on very long meditation retreats. So he decided to go on a long meditation retreat. While on retreat his lama came to visit him and said, “It is great that you are doing such in-depth meditation practice on this long retreat, but it would be better if you would practice genuine Dharma.”
The student was so confused. Offerings weren’t genuine Dharma. Studying wasn’t genuine Dharma. Meditating wasn’t genuine Dharma. So what was genuine Dharma?! His teacher finally answered him by saying, “The genuine Dharma is to look at and tame your mind.”
This story shows us that being on a spiritual path isn’t about how you appear on the outside. You may be meditating, you may be doing beautiful offerings of generosity, or you may be studying complicated Buddhist philosophy, but if you aren’t taming your mind then you aren’t practicing genuine Dharma. This is what “progressing towards more superior states” means: looking at and taming your mind. If we aren’t doing this, then no matter how we appear on the outside, we are not on the path.
And if you would like to hear it from the mouth of the Buddha, so to speak, remember this verse from the Dhammapada:
“To avoid all evil, to cultivate good, and to purify one’s mind-this is the teaching of all the Buddhas.” -Dhammapada, 183
May all beings progress along the path and quickly attain Buddhahood.
Dear Noble Sangha
As we move into April we conclude our practice theme cycle on the Four Noble Truths. This month we look at the fourth and final truth: The Truth of the Path. This completes the Buddha’s assessment of the main spiritual problem for human beings: suffering and the end of suffering. The first noble truth identifies the problem and invites us to look clearly at suffering and understand it. The second noble truth points at the origin of the problem, which is essentially craving and grasping. Through craving, tanha, we wish for things to be other than they are. The Buddha does not end his assessment of our predicament here, but points to the truth that he realized under the Bodhi tree: the third noble truth, the truth of the end of suffering, the truth of Nirvana. The Buddha realized that by letting go of tanha we could actually end the cycle of dissatisfaction, disappointment, and suffering. There is suffering, but there is also an end to suffering. This leads us to the fourth noble truth: the truth of the Eightfold Path and the means to end suffering.
So how exactly do we reach this state? How do we go from a confused, grasping mind to one fully illuminated by wisdom and compassion? Is this state attained randomly by a few rare individuals? Is it given as a gift by celestial beings? The Buddha was adamant in his message: it is up to each of us to put the teachings into practice in our life and achieve enlightenment by our own efforts. As Ayya Khema was fond of saying, “Enlightenment is an inside job.”
The Buddha taught the Eightfold Path consisting of Right View, Right Intention, Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood, Right Effort, Right Mindfulness, and Right Concentration. These eight divisions were taught to be interdependent rather than sequential, and are therefore represented by a wheel with eight spokes. The Buddha further classified these eight elements into three categories: Sila (ethical conduct), Samadhi (meditation), and Panna (wisdom). This is the general outline of the Buddhist path.
Throughout the remainder of the year we will spend one month investigating each of these elements of the eightfold path. This month though, I would like to explore a number of issues about the spiritual path in general and the Buddhist path specifically. First, I would like to take a moment and ask you to consider what it is that brings a person onto the spiritual path? What brought you or brings you to the path?
The life of the Buddha is an excellent teaching and Buddha’s own path-entering story is very beautiful. First, we should note what did not bring the Buddha to the spiritual path. The Buddha did not leave his comfortable palace to go train as a priest, or to become a great philosopher or professor, or to discover the proper religion. The Buddha did not go out to found a religion or to be a famous teacher or even to be a Buddhist. The Buddha had questions about reality. He had genuine questions about the meaning of life. The Buddha started his journey with questions, not answers. What is suffering? What are its causes? What is the mind? Who am I? These questions propelled the Buddha on his journey. Likewise, as modern spiritual practitioners we should search our own heart for our own questions. This questioning, seeking, searching mind is one of the factors that bring us onto the spiritual path.
Next, we can see very clearly that Buddha’s motivation to enter the path was rooted in compassion. The four sights that the Buddha experienced (a sick person, old person, dead person, and yogi) are traditionally taught as the things which turned the Buddha’s mind towards the spiritual path and away from the luxury of his royal life as a prince. Yet, it wasn’t the case that only the Buddha saw these things. Everyone in the city saw these people at one point or another. It was the Buddha’s response to these sights that was different. The Buddha responded with compassion, with love, with empathy towards those who were suffering. The Buddha wanted to know if there was a path that led to the end of suffering. Was it possible to find lasting peace and joy? His heart was moved by compassion and this inspired him to enter the spiritual path. Therefore, we see that compassion is an important factor in bringing us to the spiritual path.
I think these two together, an inquisitive mind linked with a heart of compassion, are important factors that bring us onto and back to the spiritual path. When we connect with our inquisitive mind we keep our path alive, fresh, and personal. Without this aspect we run the risk of falling into a religious path: we do, say, and think things because this is what the religion says to do, say, and think. But, an authentic path is a path of questioning and seeking. Like the Buddha we start with questions and (hopefully) end with answers. And when we connect with our compassionate heart we remember that our path is not an academic exercise or a quest for far-away spiritual states, but is intimately connected with the daily issues and challenges of our lives. Without compassion we run the risk of making our path about some distant place called “Nirvana” or “awakening” that is completely unrelated to how we deal with our job, our partner, our friends, our neighbor, our world, or ourselves. We can become too busy worrying about enlightenment to be kind to the person in front of us. At least, this is my experience.
Again, I encourage you to explore what it is that brings you to the path. Please take some time to discover your questioning mind. Connect with your heart of compassion. These are teachings I have received from my teachers that have been very helpful for me, and so I share them here that perhaps they may be of benefit to you.
Of all the paths the Eightfold Path is the best; of all the truths the Four Noble Truths are the best; of all things passionlessness is the best: of men the Seeing One (the Buddha) is the best.
This is the only path; there is none other for the purification of insight. Tread this path, and you will bewilder Mara.
Walking upon this path you will make an end of suffering. Having discovered how to pull out the thorn of lust, I make known the path.
The Buddha’s teachings rest on four universal truths:
These are called the Four Noble Truths. Dukkha is a Pali word (an Indian dialect from the Buddha’s time) that doesn’t have an easy English translation. It is most commonly translated as “suffering,” but dukkha encapsulates all of our “bad” feelings – sorrow, pain, anger, hatred, melancholy, depression, anxiety, those days where you just don’t want to get out of bed, etc.
The Fourth Noble Truth – the path to eliminate dukkha – is called the Noble Eightfold Path. It has eight distinct “folds” or factors that should be developed simultaneously to eliminate our dukkha and attain enlightenment.
Each factor develops a certain component of our practice:
Rocky Mountain Insight is hosting an Eightfold Path Study Group. It is an in-depth, 9 week study of the Eightfold Path that investigates and includes the various teachings of the Buddha within the scope of the eight different factors.
Teacher: Morgan Smith
May 29th to July 24th | 6:00 – 7:00 pm
Registration Deadline: May 22nd
Please contact Morgan at firstname.lastname@example.org to register for the class. It’s okay if you can’t make every single week as it is an extensive class, but we ask you attend most as it is most beneficial for your practice!
The Dalai Lama was once asked, “It has been said that laughter is humanity’s special gift. In your opinion, do people laugh too much or not enough?”
He responded: I have been told that certain monkeys have the ability to laugh; I don’t know. Whatever the case, it does seem that laughter is indeed particular to human beings. Some people do not smile enough, that is certain! But I do not think one can laugh too much. Who knows? The problem is not so much with those who laugh too much, because they are quite rare, but with those who don’t laugh enough, for there are far too many of them!
Everyone laughs. Everyone smiles. Everyone can be content and not content. Everyone feels pain, sorrow, melancholy, suffering, dukkha. That is a truth about reality: in life, there are going to be good days and bad days. The good things don’t always soften the bad things, but vice versa, the bad things don’t always spoil the good things and make them unimportant.
Karuna is a Pali word (an Indian dialect from the Buddha’s time) that means compassion.
When we have compassion for humanity, we understand their bad days, their suffering is just like our own. We have lost friends and family members, been angry, lost our jobs, or simply had days where we don’t want to get out of bed.
At the times when we are at our lowest, we are open to the greatest change. We seek new avenues for happiness and joy and hope to rid ourselves of our suffering.
However, when we are at our high points – when everything in the world seems to align perfectly and we are living a content and happy life, we must not lose sight of reality, of the truth that everyone experiences dukkha. When we open ourselves to help others at their lowest points, we are practicing compassion.
Happiness is not a Western concept, nor an Eastern concept, a Christian nor a Buddhist concept. It is a human experience in which we are free from the ills of the world. There are far too many, as His Holiness said, that don’t laugh enough, who don’t experience happiness.
The following is a prayer for compassion and peace for the whole world.
Over the next week, contemplate the following:
– When have I experienced bad days? How did I overcome them?
– How can I help see the suffering in other’s lives?
– How can I generate karuna on a daily basis?
From left to right (David Lease, Nicholas Meister, David Reinberger, Nicole Lightle, and David Toledo)
Left to right (Jason Doedderlein and David Reinberger)