Like it or not, Buddhist practice has traditionally been more than something you do to make everyday life more pleasant; it’s a path of training and study aimed at becoming an awakened, liberated, wise, compassionate, and skillful person. The ideals of Buddha and bodhisattva are not something most of us have any hope of achieving in this lifetime, but the idea is to think beyond our limited ideas of self in terms of both space and time. We ennoble our lives, and benefit others, by committing wholeheartedly to walking the path – approaching embodiment of the Buddha Way as closely as we possibly can.
Quicklinks to Content:
Ambivalence about “Self-Improvement”
The Path of Practice According to the Buddha
Your Heart’s Deepest Aspirations
The Bodhisattva Path
Learning to Engage Your Life and Practice as Path
Ambivalence about “Self-Improvement”
There are two kinds of people: Those who admit dissatisfaction with themselves and aim for self-improvement, and those who – for one reason or another – have no interest in self-improvement. Or maybe most of us vacillate between these two positions.
I suspect the reason many people eschew self-improvement is that striving for it can become a problem in and of itself. When working toward goals or ideals, grand or mundane, we often become obsessed or discouraged. Making our happiness contingent on some measure of self-improvement pretty much dooms us to dissatisfaction – because even once one goal is met, we just create another.
On the other hand, most of us have experienced how self-acceptance can be a huge relief – and may even make positive change more possible. This is why certain Buddhist messages are very popular: Just be in the moment; there is nothing to gain; you already have Buddha-nature; enlightenment is right here and now; it’s only our desire that gets in the way.
All the Buddhist messages that seem to point us away from self-improvement and toward acceptance are true. However, we can easily get attached to them and ignore the other half of the Buddhist message: Profound awakening and total transformation is possible for all human beings, so get to work on it – for your sake, and for the sake of others.
Fortunately, we can energetically embrace a path of practice that leads to greater things without creating suffering. The key is to do it selflessly – committing the self to the necessary hard work, sacrifice, and periodic discomfort, but not expecting anything out of the effort for the self. That means we refrain from congratulating ourselves about our progress relative to our ideal or to other people, but it also means we refrain from beating ourselves up about our inadequacy. We stop basing our sense of ourselves on our scorecard of virtues and flaws, instead devoting ourselves to constant learning, growth, and improvement because that’s just best way to live.
Unless we learn to see our lives and practice as path – a path leading to greater wisdom, compassion, and skillful action – we’re unlikely to make much progress. There’s nothing wrong with just staying in the moment and dealing with life as it comes, of course, and you’re more than welcome to practice Buddhism that way. By saying there’s “nothing wrong” with this approach, I mean that there’s no harm done in just letting life unfold without a sense of path or long-term aspiration, and there’s no ultimate authority in Buddhism who will be disappointed you didn’t try for Buddhahood. At the same time, one of the beautiful things about Buddhism is that it teaches we all have immense capacity for insight, growth, and freedom – much more than we realize. Isn’t it a shame if we don’t explore that capacity? If we do so, the process can give great purpose and dignity to our lives.
The Path of Practice According to the Buddha
To fully understand Buddhism as a path of practice, it’s helpful to go back to the beginning: The Buddha’s teachings on practice as path – where we begin, where we’re going and why, and how we get there.
The Buddha embarked on his spiritual quest because he was dismayed about the human condition. He saw how vulnerable we are to the whims of fate – one moment blissed out, content, secure, joyful, healthy, and the next moment full of grief brought on by loss, illness, or death. While, in one sense, these oscillations in fortune and feeling are a natural part of life, the Buddha noticed how often we’re in denial about change and impermanence when things are good, and in total despair or confusion when things are bad. Buddha also saw how often we’re operating under the influence of karma, acting out habitual patterns of body, speech, and mind and thereby perpetuating greed, anger, and ignorance. In so doing, we generate negative consequences for ourselves and others.
Upon his awakening, or enlightenment, the Buddha saw an alternative way for human beings to live. If we settle down in meditation and calm the mind, we can eventually see reality more clearly. We recognize how we generate much of our own suffering by craving the things we like and feeling aversion for what we don’t like. We then have the option of letting go of craving and aversion – thereby relieving the worst of our suffering no matter the fortunes of our lives. Reflecting deeply on our own minds and actions, we can also recognize what actions lead to positive outcomes versus those that lead to negative ones. Then we work on our behavior in order to make more skillful choices (that is, choices that lead to greater benefit and happiness, as opposed to those that lead to greater suffering).
The alternative way of living the Buddha awakened to is actually very simple. In fact, if you were to read the previous paragraph to a non-Buddhist, they’d probably go, “Obviously!” However, just because this alternative way of living is simple doesn’t mean it’s easy. Therefore, the most important aspect of the Buddha’s awakening isn’t so much what we’re aiming for (every religion has its ideal of the sage), but how we get there. In the Buddha’s very first teaching he presented the possibility of liberation, and laid out the Eightfold Noble Path as way to achieve it.
The Eightfold Path has three essential aspects. The first aspect is cultivating wisdom, or insight (right view, right mindfulness, right concentration), which means gaining a direct, personal experience of what the Buddha himself awakened to. The truth sets us free. The second aspect is ethical and appropriate behavior (right speech, right action, right livelihood), because insight’s unlikely if we’re making a mess of our lives. In addition, whatever insight we gain is useless if we don’t manifest it, and at the very least we should try to avoid causing harm to self and others with negative behavior. The third aspect of the Eightfold Path is putting our attention and energy into actually walking the path (right resolve, right effort), which means we set our minds and hearts on where we want to go, and then apply diligent and skillful effort to get there.
Your Heart’s Deepest Aspirations
The Buddha was absolutely unequivocal about the ultimate goal of practice: Nirvana, or complete liberation from the cycle of suffering. Before we dismiss this goal as irrelevant to our lives, consider Nirvana as simply being an ideal, or direction, toward which we orient our lives. Whether or not complete perfection or liberation or awakening is even humanly possible doesn’t actually matter much; we know, from personal observation, it’s possible to be almost infinitely more wise, compassionate, and skillful than we currently are. We’ve witnessed people manifesting incredible and inspiring strength, perseverance, generosity, selflessness, insight, leadership, bravery, and kindness – just to name a few virtues.
It’s silly to waste time speculating on whether perfect Buddhahood or enlightenment is possible, what it looks like, or whether it’s worth striving for. Are we likely to run out of work to do in this lifetime, just aiming at perfection? At the same time, as long as we don’t concretize the goal of Buddhahood (or enlightenment, or liberation, or however you like to phrase the ideal), it can serve to inspire and motivate us to growth and learning throughout our lives.
Rephrase the ideal of Buddhahood or awakening for yourself, in order to arouse your deepest aspirations. Set aside all doubts about your ability to “achieve” them, and any concern about how long it might take (this is why Buddhists talk about “lifetimes;” it’s not necessary to believe in literal rebirth in order to dedicate yourself to a benefit beyond the end of your physical body). What can you dare yourself to want, in your heart of hearts?
Just to be clear: Our deepest aspirations have nothing to do with hoping for future good fortune for ourselves, such as health, financial security, weight loss, being more likeable, or even getting justice. Aspirations aren’t even about wishing such good fortune on others, although it’s fine to do that. They’re also not about wishing for supernatural powers, which includes hoping to become someone we’re not (tall instead of short, for example, or eloquent instead of tongue-tied).
Our deepest aspirations are about how we want to live, given the life we have. How do we want to perceive, understand, and respond to the world? What choices do we make about the limited aspects of our lives we have any say over? Do you want release from depression, anxiety, hatred, fear, or regret? Do you want to free yourself from limiting or harmful behavior patterns? Do you want greater intimacy with other people, and with all of life? Do you want your speech and actions to be more authentic or skillful? Do you want to manifest the selfless compassion and bravery of Mother Theresa or Martin Luther King Jr.? Do you want a direct, personal experience of emptiness, suchness, or Buddha-nature?
The Bodhisattva Path
However grand or bold your aspirations, Buddhism says, “Go for it!” To underestimate your own potential for awakening and liberation is no less negative than if you decided someone else wasn’t up to it. You might secretly doubt someone else’s capacities, but from the Buddhist point of view everyone is capable of practice and there’s no limit on what someone can achieve; the only question is how long it might take. So, just as we never disparage someone else’s potential, we should never disparage our own.
Beings are numberless, I vow to free them [all],
Delusions are inexhaustible, I vow to end them [all],
Dharma gates are boundless, I vow to enter them [all],
The Buddha Way is unsurpassable, I vow to embody it.
Obviously, if beings are numberless, or infinite, it’s impossible to save them all. Yet we take a vow to keep trying. After all, are we going to give up and let beings suffer, just because we’ll never be able to put a check mark next to that vow and triumphantly say, “Done”? Delusions are inexhaustible, but each delusion we free ourselves from benefits self and others. Dharma gates are opportunities for learning, growth, and transformation; we never stop encountering them, and we never stop embracing them. The Buddha Way is perfection itself, impossible to master, and yet we vow to make it real in our lives as much as we possibly can.
According to Buddhist mythology, bodhisattvas vow to be reborn over and over until all of their impossible vows are completed. Therefore, they keep on coming back, life after life, to continue on the path of practice and help sentient beings. Again, you don’t need to believe this happens literally in order for the spirit of this teaching to be meaningful (although you can if you want to). Even if individuals, as we usually conceive of them, don’t get reborn, I believe the teaching of rebirth reflects a truth about life – something along the lines of, “It’s not all about you, in the limited sense of your lifespan in this body.” Within the context of one lifetime, being a bodhisattva means we sincerely aim for our highest aspirations, even though we know we’ll never achieve them. We devote ourselves to the effort as if we’ll be able to pick up where we left off in the next life, and thereby continue making progress on the path.
Even though we’re aiming our vows or aspirations past the physical end of our life, however, that doesn’t mean we get to slack off in our efforts. Another important part of the Buddhist path is spiritual urgency. We can’t count on future lives. And besides, the “one” who aspires and practices may very well end at death, so don’t you want to get as far along the path as possible? Don’t you want to experience the joys and triumphs of approaching your aspirations more closely?
In Buddhist terms, what drove the Buddha to leave home for an arduous and prolonged spiritual journey was samvega, a complex emotion with three components: Dismay about the way life is usually lived, a sense of being personally caught up in this ultimately unsatisfying way of living, and determination to find a better way.
What caused the Buddha’s samvega? Many people think he looked at life and concluded it was, on the balance, miserable and not worth it. This conclusion is at odds with our own experience of life, which has its low points but also includes many wonderful things and seems, on the balance, very precious. If we’re going to trust and embrace Buddhism, it’s important we examine the Buddha’s samvega more closely, because it’s actually fairly subtle. After all, most human beings would say they’re more or less happy, or at least that they feel a deep desire to stay alive and keep trying to achieve happiness. Few people are very enthused when you try to convince them they’re “caught up in an ultimately unsatisfying way of living.”
So, what’s dismaying about “the way life is usually lived?” When we’re caught up in it, we rarely able to see the limitations or drawbacks of our ordinary routine. It’s only when we awaken from our self-centered dream that we realize how much brighter and broader life can be. It’s only when we momentarily shed, or break free from, our habitual ways of being and thinking that we can catch a glimpse of the immense possibilities of our lives. Then, looking back on the way life is usually lived, we see it as a sad compromise. A waste of a precious opportunity.
Before we have a sense of the fruits of practice, before we personally awaken to the boundless, interdependent, luminous reality of which we’re a part, we may have to deliberately cultivate samvega, or a sense of spiritual urgency about waking up. We can do this by recalling and honoring peak moments of our lives where we’re intuited or sensed something greater; by inspiring ourselves with the words of teachers and fellow practitioners in the past and present; by allowing ourselves to experience longing for a better way, and by contemplating the impermanence of life.
How does cultivating spiritual urgency fit with the Zen messages about radical acceptance and giving up striving, like “just be in the moment; there is nothing to gain; you already have Buddha-nature; enlightenment is right here and now; it’s only our desire that gets in the way?” These teachings aren’t actually opposed to those that encourage you to look at practice as a continual path of development, to form lofty aspirations, or to cultivate spiritual urgency. Why not? Because it’s a whole lot harder that we think it is to truly “just be in the moment,” or accept there is nothing whatsoever to gain, or recognize our own Buddha-nature. “Letting go” is its own kind of hard work.
Learning to Engage Your Life and Practice as Path
As I stated earlier, unless we learn to see our lives and practice as path – a path leading to greater wisdom, compassion, and skillful action – we’re unlikely to make much progress. To a certain extent life throws us curve balls we learn from, and most of us mature somewhat over time, but do we really want to leave our spiritual development to chance? Instead, how can we see ourselves as being on a dramatic, lifelong journey of growth, learning, and transformation – rather than simply biding our time while seeking as much pleasure as possible?
Perhaps the most effective way to engage our lives and practice as path is simply making a habit of framing our experience that way. This can be done privately – perhaps supported by journaling – but many of us find it very helpful to talk to teachers or fellow practitioners about our practice because it gives us an opportunity to frame it as path.
When Dharma students get together, we ask one another, “How’s your practice?” We expect to hear stories of real-life struggles to fulfill aspirations and overcome bad habits. We inspire one another by sharing our insights, and tell stories about situations where we were able to manifest greater wisdom, compassion, or skillfulness than we would have been able to in the past. We confess our doubts and weaknesses, knowing our Dharma sisters and brothers will refrain from judging us or giving advice – because the whole conversation is about sharing the story of our unique path, which only we can walk. We have faith that each of us has the capacity and determination to find our own way.
When framing our practice, it’s good to ask ourselves what our “edge” is – what’s our point, or boundary, of growth? What’s the current limit of our understanding or manifestation? We don’t have wait until we have “problems” or crises before we identify things in our lives and practice we want to work on. There’s always more to explore, always ways to more closely approach our heart’s deepest aspirations. And when we’re clearly experiencing setbacks and challenges, it’s possible to embrace them with determination – and even a certain, strange kind of eagerness – because they’re an opportunity for learning and growth.
Forming vows is also an important way to engage your life and practice as path. While it’s true we can cause ourselves trouble if we get too attached to fulfilling vows within a particular time frame, they can also give shape and direction to our lives. Vows can range from lifelong and profound – like marriage vows – to simple and time-constrained, like a vow to say a verse of gratitude before meals for the next month. Over time, through trial and error, we get to know ourselves and how we relate to the practice of vow, and thereby get better at making and keeping them. Sometimes what we need to do is simply “keep a vow around” when we’re not great at following or fulfilling it, thereby honoring our heart’s aspiration even though we haven’t yet figured out how to approach it.
When looking at our life and practice as path, it’s important to recognize that path is rarely straight. The journey between an unexamined life lived at the mercy of internal and external circumstances, and the awakened, liberated life of a compassionate Buddha, there are countless twists and turns. Sometimes we lose our way and forget about practice entirely. Sometimes we look for satisfaction – spiritual and otherwise – in all the wrong places. Sometimes we’re overwhelmed, exhausted, or discouraged. But we always find our way back to the path. Or, more accurately, we come to realize our path to Buddhahood included a meander around an odd mountain or two. C’est la vie. When we’re able to view even our challenges, setbacks, and meanders as path, we’re able to ennoble our whole lives.