The Importance of View on the Buddhist Path
A great deal of confusion along the path is born from misunderstanding its stages, and the larger context in which it always takes place. It’s easy to underestimate the importance of view on the Buddhist path – proper perspective and context helps keep us motivated and inspired.
By losing sight of where the path fits into the larger scheme of things, we set ourselves up for unnecessary trouble when we are eventually forced to relate to this larger context. If we have the view that shows us where we are headed, outlines the stages of our travel, and provides the proper motivation for traveling, then the hardships that greet us along the path can be held within the proper perspective. This, again, is the strength of framing our journey within the Three Turnings.
Avoid Trouble by Having a Good Map
We may have some notion of where to go on the path, but without a clear map describing our destination, where we are in relation to it, and how to get to it, it is easy to spin off into endless detours. Imagine a foreigner landing in Seattle who is trying to find his way to Yankee Stadium without a map. First he has to get to the state of New York. If he is unwilling to ask for directions, it could take years of driving around just to get to the east coast. Then he has to get to New York City, and once there he still has to find the stadium. He can do it on his own, but a good map accelerates the journey.
The fiercely independent Western mind is as much a hindrance as a help when it comes to maps. We like to find our own way, and that stubborn resolve creates unnecessary delays. The trail has already been blazed and mapped, why waste time hacking it out on our own? Before I stumbled upon a map I could relate to, I spent years lost in dead-ends.
There are many reliable maps, but the one I am most familiar with is that drawn by the Buddha. I have studied others, and respect many, but have found that the Buddha’s map most accurately describes the territory I have already traveled, and most reliably predicts the terrain I am about to enter.
The Buddha’s Map
A simple way to summarize the Buddha’s map is to view the journey as an inverted pyramid, or the letter “V.” We begin at the bottom, where the path is initially all about me. We start with ourselves. At this level our path is necessarily narrow and “selfish.” We engage in spiritual practice in an effort to clean up our act, so we isolate ourselves and go to work inside. The primary concern is individual liberation, and the meditator’s world is as wide as their meditation cushion. The idea is that we cannot bring peace to the world until we discover it in ourselves. This level is called the “Hinayana,” the “lesser” or “narrow” vehicle.
At a certain point, when we have attained some stability, we get off our seat and start to engage the world. We begin the ascent up the V. It is time to expand our view to include others. Our sense of what meditation is also expands, and the path becomes wider and more inclusive. As we ascend, our sense of personal self becomes smaller as our sense of identifying with others becomes larger. Our identity grows to embrace others. This is the “Mahayana,” the “greater” or “wider” vehicle.
At the top of the V our sense of self is gone, we have reached the summit of egolessness. Our identity now includes everything. Our sense of meditation also expands to include everything: our entire world becomes a meditation, and we never leave it. There are no sessions or breaks. Sleep, dream, sex, death – everything becomes meditation. At this level there is no more need for retreat, for our life has become a retreat. Everything we do is now for the benefit of others, for at this stage there is no self to benefit. We are selfless, radiant like the sun, and completely expansive in our ability to benefit others with our shine. This is the “Vajrayana” the “indestructible” or “diamond” vehicle.
This thumbnail sketch helps us to understand hardship and prevent it because it creates a larger perspective that situates our spiritual practice, and can therefore accelerate it. It is like having a global positioning system in our pocket — we know where we are and where we need to go. It also gives us a view from the top, and helps us understand our place in relation to it. Instead of clamoring from below with no view of where we are going, we can look down from the top with a clear perspective. It may be a theoretical glimpse given to us by those who have been up there, but it helps us map our way. So much hardship is born of poor eyesight. We cannot see where we are going, so we confine our vision and create our pain.
The three yanas are related to the Three Turnings: the Hinayana is virtually synonymous with the First Turning; the Second and Third Turnings are included in the Mahayana; and Vajrayana, often considered a sub-set of the Mahayana (its view is the same, only the methods for realizing the view differ), is outside of the Three Turnings.
Without this far-sighted perspective, normal hardships can become insurmountable. After a few years on the path we may not want to study and practice any more, it is just not worth the effort. But a proper perspective immediately changes our motivation to travel the path, and our willingness to endure its challenges. We are no longer doing it for ourselves. Even at the earliest stages, where the motivation is for personal liberation, we now discover that this personal liberation is ultimately for the benefit of others. With this fresh perspective we are now willing to endure hardship because it is no longer just our trip. We are going to clean up our act, to endure the difficulties, because now we are doing it for others.
It is like a parent going to work for their family. There are days we just don’t want to go, but we do it for them. Inserting this perspective into any hardship instantly transforms it, because so much hardship is created by implosive focus on “me.” I suffer because of my near-sightedness. But if I can use my pain as a trigger to think bigger, I immediately remove or reduce the level of hardship. Injecting this view forces me out of myself, and provides instant relief. I have jumped to the top and reestablished the proper view. Being self-centered is the source of much unnecessary hardship, so remove that hardship by becoming other-centered.
In practical terms, when we begin a study or practice session, set the aspiration that we will endure the rigors for the benefit of others, and at the end of the session dedicate what we have done to others. It is a powerful irony, but doing spiritual work to benefit others is the most effective way to benefit ourselves. It is the best, and perhaps only, way to accelerate our path.
At the level of the Vajrayana this principal is so important that the Vajrayana simply does not work without compassion. Trungpa Rinpoche said that having the Vajrayana without compassion is like having a modern house with every conceivable electrical gadget, but no hook-up. So if your practice is not working, perhaps you forgot to plug it in.
The “top down” perspective of the three yanas also expands our sense of what constitutes spiritual practice. When we start the path and are still at the “bottom,” the point of practice is to attain peace of mind. This attitude is initially healthy, but if we remain within that narrow view then we limit ourselves and our path. We have sessions of peace in meditation, but then there is the rest of the world to deal with. Meditation is put in contrast, and perhaps even opposition, to daily life. The spiritual is set against the background of the material.
If we sustain this view, then life will interrupt our meditation. At this point we need to look up, our view is too narrow. We need to expand our practice to include the rest of our life, and the top-down model helps instill this perspective. When we are still at the “bottom,” we should realize what we are doing in meditation and why, then we should take the insights from our practice and expand them into the world. Bring more of the world onto our path. At some point, the spiritual path is no longer held within the context of the material world, and is therefore no longer set in contrast and opposition to it.
When we reach the top and become a buddha, nothing can interrupt our meditation. But while we are still at the bottom our meditation is always being interrupted. Every thought that pops into our mind interferes with our practice. But at the level of the Vajrayana, thought becomes meditation. Obstacle has been transformed into opportunity. The barking dog, annoying boss, and uncontrollable child that once cut into our spiritual life now becomes an integral part of it.
People often complain that if only they didn’t have to work, or raise children, or weren’t sick, then they could really get down to spiritual practice. To get to the point where work, children, and illness are actually aids is to hold the highest view. Even though this fruition may be years away, cultivating this view transforms the way we relate to interruptions now. Take the theoretical fruition of the path and put it into immediate application. Import the view from the summit to help us see our way to it. We may not be able to relate to our annoying boss as part of our practice, but holding the view that he really is can help us stretch our mind to include him.
This view reverses our relationship to unwelcome situations. Advanced meditators actually place themselves in difficult situations as a way to enhance their path. Instead of removing ourselves from distractions and interruptions, we place ourselves in the middle of them. We test the fortitude of our meditation in the marketplace.
This is another instance of “aspiring and entering.” We may not be able to immediately apply these lofty views, but we make the aspiration. We can believe in it, and do our best to implement it. If we persist in our aspiration then one day we can enter. We “fake it till we can make it.” Rhetoric becomes reality, and we find ourselves living at the levels that our aspirations paved for us.
For more about the importance of view on the Buddhist path listen to Andrew’s talk on setting the view.