As we continue our journey toward awakening with whatever practices (or nonpractices) we have undertaken, at a certain point of confidence in our understanding we may feel ready to explore different methods and traditions. The Buddha's teachings contain a wide array of skillful means, a vast treasury of wisdom. If we are well trained in one method, we can then integrate the teachings of various traditions into the One Dharma of liberation.
In harmonizing the differences in these traditions, it is helpful to have a template for understanding their different approaches to liberation. There are two basic styles to consider. They could be called the "building-from-below" and the "swooping-from-above" methods of practice. Building from below starts with the suffering we find ourselves in, learns how attachments are its fundamental cause, and practices letting go of those attachments through insight into the three characteristics. Swooping from above begins with a glimpse, or intuition, of the open, innate wakefulness of mind, free of any clinging-and then practices refining and stabilizing that recognition, without giving much attention to the nitty-gritty of experience.
Both of these approaches are well grounded in teachings of the Buddha that all the schools agree upon. In one famous passage, the Buddha described as beginningless our wandering through samsara: "I see no beginning to beings who, obstructed by ignorance and ensnared by craving, are hurrying and hastening through this round of rebirths." From this perspective, ignorance has been with us always, and the emphasis in practice is to recognize the suffering it causes and make the effort to purify it.
Another perspective understands the mind to be fundamentally pure. Although ignorance and the other defilements are seen as beginningless, they are also understood as not being intrinsic to the mind itself. The defilements arise out of conditions and pass away when the conditions are no longer present, like clouds forming and dissolving in the sky. If they were an intrinsic part of consciousness, then we could never be free. .It may well be that the approaches of the different traditions are simply highlighting one or the other of these two understandings: beginningless ignorance or essential purity. Those who focus on how deeply ignorance is conditioned will see the many kinds of suffering it causes in our lives and emphasize the effort needed to uproot that ignorance: how to take the next step on the path right before us-the pitfalls to avoid and the obstacles to overcome. Those schools that emphasize ignorance as not being intrinsic to the mind will focus on the recognition of the fundamentally pure, groundless, luminous nature of the mind itself. But both perspectives are true, and each one supports the other for our ultimate realization.
We need to be honest about where we are in our practice and understanding in order to see which approach would be most helpful at a particular time. If our minds are continually distracted, jumping from one thing to another, with little ability to rest anywhere, the injunction to rest in one's fundamentally pure nature may not have much meaning. When we are mired in suffering, unable to find that place of peace, methods that work directly with the fear, anger, or jealousy may prove more useful..
In the understanding of One Dharma, the highest teaching is not one view or another, but what actually works for each of us at any given time. If we understand the various points of view as different skillful means to liberate our minds, then we can actually use each of them to complement each other, rather than seeing them in opposition.
Most traditions, in fact, have a wide range of teachings, and an experienced teacher will be able to offer just the appropriate dharma teaching depending on the readiness of the student. For example, within the Pali canon, there are many examples of people becoming fully enlightened by hearing just a phrase or stanza from the Buddha-a direct pointing to the awakened state. Likewise, within the vast network of teachings in Zen and Dzogchen, there is much said about the fundamental teachings on impermanence, suffering, and selflessness.