Amongst the advice and explanations provided by Sangharakshita in his ‘Guide’ is a discussion of the Path itself, the Spiritual Path. He tells us that the two approaches to the Path have been recognized since 6th century China and a great Chinese Buddhist teacher, Chih-i. The two paths are known as The Path of Regular Steps and the Path of Irregular Steps. Sangharakshita discusses the second one first.
The Path of Irregular Steps is typical of Western approaches to Buddhism, and indeed to many spiritual practices, we read many books about it, may even collect a private library on Buddhism, but we do not practice it. Sangharakshita emphasizes that this is not really our fault; there are so many books on Buddhism available, many of them excellent. He tells us, as we know ourselves, that we begin to formulate ideas about Buddhism, and eventually conclude that we understand it – often without having practiced it at all. But this is all a theoretical approach and is lacking in devotional feeling and sometimes is devoid of all spirituality. Sangharakshita estimates that in his experience about one in twenty Western Buddhists actually get around to practicing Buddhism – one in twenty! In spite of this a few make some initial progress, but soon they come to a standstill. The lucky few then realise that progress is really only possible by following the Path of Regular Steps.
In Buddhism there are many different teachings, most of which correspond to different stages along the path. Different teachings relate to different stages of spiritual development and, therefore, we need to practice those which relate to our stage of development, rather than those we have, perhaps randomly, encountered in a book. Spiritual development, Sangharakshita tells us, takes time. We have heard this before from Brother Lawrence and others, one step at a time, progress is systematic, each stage building on the previous.
Sangharakshita tells us we have to go back to basics if we are to progress, back to Going for Refuge and we need a guide, a teacher, usually referred to as a Master in Buddhism. This is another difficulty for us Westerners – we like to learn for ourselves and we are very suspicious of those who portray themselves as ‘Masters’. Not without reason, our history is riddled with charismatic leaders who lead their followers to suffering, trouble and even death. Our society is a society of individuals in which we all cherish our individuality, our independence. We trust books, the media and the internet more than we trust people. Of course all people are human and make human mistakes and this is one of the reasons Buddhism places strong emphasis on lineage, who did you learn from? and who did your Master learn from? We, in the West, tend to quote books we have read, rather than people we have learned from. Although there are vestiges of lineage here as we like to know about the authors and trust authors whose lineage we know, more than those we don’t.
A wise man, ahead of his time!
Last night i attended a lecture in Dublin run by the Irish School of Philosophy and Economic Science, http://www.practicalphilosophy.ie. The theme of the lecture was ‘Philosophy and Humility’ – and was probably the least well attended philosophy lecture i have ever attended which, i guess, only reinforces our concerns about Westerners and humility. It was, as usual, a great lecture and the presenter talked wisely about arrogance and humility including the dangers of presenting such a talk as many would conclude that you would have to be arrogant to do so! In a few sentences, he simply demonstrated how we are all arrogant in so many of our day to day interactions with others. The discussions after these lectures are always interesting as you get an insight into the attempts and struggles of other members of the audience in their search for wisdom and happiness and last night did not disappoint.
However, it only struck me afterwards that we had all probably missed one of the most important aspect of humility and that is this ability to follow a guide, to listen to and respect a Master. Lack of humility is probably a significant block to learning and a significant obstacle to practicing Buddhism or any other spiritual path. In Hindu practices recognizing that the Atman in each of us is the same, that our essences, our souls are all one and the same, requires humility. In most religions we are exhorted to treat others as we would wish to be treated, ‘Do unto others as you would have done unto you’, and this also requires humility. Compassion is another virtue expounded by all religions but, of course, it is much easier to feel compassionate to those whom you feel superior to, than to those you don’t. Humility, spiritual development and, perhaps especially, Buddhism, requires us to be compassionate to all others on an equal footing. Compassion is not feeling sorry for someone just because we see them as lacking something we have, a home, a job, education, democracy, peace. Compassion is seeing that we are all equal, acknowledging that we all would rather avoid pain and suffering, feeling pain and sorrow for those suffering and wishing, and acting, to alleviate that suffering.
Compassion should be a verb and it depends on humility.
I got sidetracked a bit from the Path as i have been reading the Dalai Lama’s “Beyond Religion; Ethics for a Whole World” in which he discusses compassion at length.
Back to the Path.
I feel rather like i have hoisted myself on my own petard. A Wisdom Book blog which advocates seeking spiritual development from a teacher rather than from books – i may just have been excommunicated by the Fellowship of Wisdom Books.
No matter, the truth is what we seek.
In January i seek a Master and begin my aided practices. I shall keep you informed and, of course, i shall continue to read and to discuss my readings.
Let me end with a quotation from another book, Dante’s “Purgatorio”. When i was much younger i read Dante’s “Inferno”, much, i have to admit, as one would read a thriller. I then failed to read the other two volumes as i found them rather flat and boring in comparison.
Recently i have begun to read “Purgatorio” with interest and delight. I am lucky to have in my possession a copy of Dante’s book which contains the illustrations by Dali – i am trying to resist being attached to it but it is of considerable beauty.
Enough of confessions.
“We traversed the deserted plain, as one
Who, wandered from his track, thinks every step
Trodden in vain till he regain the path.”