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.

Ben Mikolaj