The Buddha's Path
The Buddha's path is a way of transforming our entire relationship to life. We begin by making a commitment to a life of non-harming, which brings about harmony in our outer relations.Through meditation we establish a new relationship to inner tendencies such as desire, anger, and confusion. By seeing these states clearly as they are, we are no longer controlled by them.
As we find balance among the changing conditions of life, we see that wholesome qualities such as patience, generosity, and compassion emerge naturally. Insight into the Dharma arises spontaneously. We discover that our essential nature is freedom and clarity, and that we need only rest in that nature.
The Buddha taught a path of spiritual awakening, a way of practice that we can use in our daily lives. The path of the Buddha can be expressed as three mutually supportive aspects:
- Compassionate Action
The foundation of the Buddhist path is a life which expresses compassion in our relationship to all living things through a practice of non-harming. The entry to the Buddhist path is usually marked by taking the Five Precepts, which are:
- To refrain from killing any living being.
- To refrain from stealing or taking what is not ours.
- To refrain from sexual misconduct, that is, from hurting others through our sexuality.
- To refrain from speaking what is not true.
- To refrain from using alcohol or drugs that cause us to be careless or heedless.
These simple ethical guidelines are the natural outer expressions of a compassionate heart, and by following them in our lives, we begin to discover the heart of compassion within us.
Of course, the development of compassionate action does not stop with non-harming. An active compassion that wishes to help others can take many forms in the world, such as social work, community development, or political or environmental activism. The term used today for active expressions of compassion as an aspect of the path is "Engaged Buddhism," Engaged Buddhism is typified by the work of Nobel Prize nominee Thich Nhat Hanh of Vietnam.
A non-harming approach to life brings us into a relationship of respect with the world around us, leading to harmony. Outer harmony in turn gladdens the mind and allows us to live more sensitively. This then prepares us for the second aspect of the path, which is meditation.
The heart of the Buddhist path is the practice of meditation. The primary meditation practice of our sangha is called Insight Meditation, known in the Buddhist tradition as vipassana.
In Insight Meditation we pay clear attention to whatever exists naturally in this present moment. The specific focus for our awareness can vary, from bodily sensations to sights to thoughts and feelings. We often begin by paying attention to the sensations of breathing. We sit still, either cross-legged on the floor or upright in a chair, and allow our eyes to close gently. Then we turn our attention to the breath and simply experience, in as continuous a way as possible, the physical sensations of breathing in and breathing out. This simple activity of paying attention to our experience in the present moment is what the Buddha called "mindfulness." Mindfulness is the heart of Insight Meditation.
Meditation can also be carried on throughout our daily activities. We can be mindful of the movement of our body, the sensations in walking, the sounds around us, or the thoughts and feelings that come into our mind. As our meditation practice develops, we find that the mind becomes calmer and clearer. We start to see the influence of our habitual patterns of moods, expectations, hopes, and fears. In seeing through the mind's conditioning, we can live more fully in the present moment with balance and spaciousness. We are no longer so swayed by the shifting thoughts and feelings of our conditioned responses.
This is the first taste of freedom. We are fully in touch with our experience of life, but we are not limited by it. We can act skillfully, with compassion for ourselves and others, even when difficult states of mind are present. As we investigate further from this place of calm, clear seeing, the dimension of wisdom begins to unfold in our practice.
When the mind is balanced and fully present, it is open to new understanding, or insight. The Buddha taught that it is insight into the nature of life that brings the greatest freedom. Again and again in his lifetime, when asked to summarize his teaching, the Buddha described what he called the Four Noble Truths. All the Buddha's teachings are contained within these truths, and these truths are common to all Buddhist traditions.