November Ministry Theme: Journeys

buddhisticonA Buddhist Perspective

Ministry Theme for November: Journeys

By Nancy Thompson

One of my favorite Buddhist teachers, Noah Levine, says that Buddhism is not what happens in sitting meditation, it’s how you walk in the world. Buddhist study and practice has the idea of journey built into it, of constantly moving with intention – even while sitting still. The Buddha described an eight-fold path from suffering to liberation; to walk a path takes engagement and exertion.

But Tibetan Buddhist teacher Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, who did a lot to introduce westerners to Buddhism, describes it as “a journey without goal.” It’s not a path that leads to a place where you stop or ascend, and rest. It’s not a summit you achieve to great acclaim. It’s a path that you walk for many lifetimes, maybe with greater ease, with practice. (Trungpa wrote another book entitled “The Path is the Goal,” again emphasizing that the process is the whole game.)

The Eight-fold Path described by the Buddha as the way to liberation is not sequential, although the components do seem to build upon one another. The eight aspects generally are broken down into three groups: wisdom, ethics, and concentration. Wisdom includes view and intention, which are like taking out a map, choosing a direction, and deciding to set forth. The ethics group includes speech, action, and livelihood, the ways we move along the path. Concentration comprises effort, mindfulness, and concentration.

And if you walk the Buddhist path of reducing suffering, you’ll find it circles back again to view – because by working with the other aspects, your view of what is possible has changed, and you continue to walk the path, seeing things differently. Everything in life is part of the journey – you bring it all onto the path: work, speech, effort, intentions. Buddhist scholar Bhikkhu Bodhi says the Eightfold Path brings to life the intellectual teachings in the Buddha’s Four Noble Truths. “The path translates the Dhamma from a collection of abstract formulas into a continually unfolding disclosure of truth. It gives an outlet from the problem of suffering with which the teaching starts. And it makes the teaching’s goal, liberation from suffering, accessible to us in our own experience, where alone it takes on authentic meaning,” he writes. (Dhamma is the Pali word for the Buddha’s teachings.)

The Buddha’s path provides a framework for moving from suffering to liberation, but it’s up to the practitioner to follow it. The path is like a blue line on a flat map – it gives you a general idea of where you’re headed, but when you actually go down it, you’ll discover hazards, twists, slopes, and vistas all your own. And working with your reactions to those is how you make progress.