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.
How can we apply these different views to help us balance our own meditation practice? The swooping-from-above schools often encourage practitioners to abide in the Natural State, simply returning to it again and again. A potential danger here, and one that is pointed out by many masters in these traditions, is that we can easily confuse our normal state with the Natural State, mistaking "spaced-outness" for the open, spacelike awareness of the Great Perfection. If this is the case, some building-from-below, moment-to-moment mindfulness practice may be just the thing that is needed to cut through the drift of unnoticed distractions.
Another pitfall often experienced by those swooping down from above may be a reificiation of very subtle states of consciousness or an identification with awareness itself. Something is then needed to cut through these subtle fixations, to cut through any sense of awareness as being "me" or "mine." Something is needed to effect that radical transformation in which the belief in self-center is uprooted. Each school and tradition describes how this happens in its own terms, whether it is by realizing the empty nature of awareness itself or by realizing those path moments talked about earlier that go beyond awareness. In one way or another, though, we have to cut through our identification with anything at all.
Similarly, those building from below can become caught in their approach as well. In the traditions that see Nirvana as a transcendent state beyond the mind, practitioners often lose sight of the freedom that is already present in those moments when the mind is free of obscuring defilements. And practitioners in these schools sometimes miss seeing the essential transparency of the defilements themselves. We can become so caught up in a future goal or in a struggle with the demons of our minds (the hindrances, in one form or another) that we engage in warfare with them, rather than understanding them as being empty and insubstantial.
When liberation from all suffering-both for others and ourselves-becomes the paramount issue, whether we swoop from above, build from below, or do some combination of the two, we find that the target remains the same. It is where the swoopers and the builders meet-in the heart-mind of awakening. The foundation of a nonsectarian Western Buddhism is the understanding that whatever the various descriptions of awakening or the path may be, the words themselves are not the experience. It is only in our own direct realization that transformation occurs. Freedom is the vital issue, not our ideas about it.
Where is it all leading? We are in a crucible of transformation in which the diversity and depth of ancient Buddhist schools are meeting the openness and pragmatism of our contemporary Western culture. We face the challenge of preserving the rare and precious gift of Dharma passed down from the time of the Buddha, while at the same time cultivating a vital intercourse of East and West, ancient and modern. We are giving birth to a skillful form for our times.
The One Dharma of Western Buddhism emerges as a grand tapestry of teachings, weaving together from different traditions the methods of mindfulness, the motivation of compassion, and the liberating wisdom of nonclinging. These three pillars-mindfulness, compassion, and wisdom-are not Indian or Burmese, Japanese or Tibetan; they are qualities in our own minds. Multiple paths illuminate these qualities, and many practices enhance their growth. From the first moments of self-awareness to the full flowering of bodhicitta, teachings from different traditions inspire, instruct, and lead us to that place where we may truly be of benefit to all.
The practice of mindfulness has the potential to transform our society. We see the beginnings of this in the work of the mindfulness-based stress-reduction programs now spreading throughout the country. We see it in the mindfulness training of athletes and sports teams. We see it in programs offering comtemplative mindfulness practices to groups of businesspeople, lawyers, journalists, environmental activists, scholars and philanthropists. Most of all, we see it in the growing interest among people of all ages for periods of silent retreat. In the increased busyness and distractedness of our lives there is a strong need for the quiet transforming beauty of silence and awareness. It is from the depth of mindfulness practice, as well as its breadth, that realization happens and that awakening to wisdom becomes a treasured value of our society.
As we integrate mindfulness into the world, compassion increasingly becomes the expression of our spiritual path. It manifests in small, individual ways and also as larger trends in our culture. An evolving collaboration of practitioners who seek to actively engage with the suffering in the world has inspired what is called "engaged Buddhism." This movement draws strength both from the Buddhist teachings on bodhicitta, which remind us that practice is not for ourselves alone, but for the welfare and happiness of all beings, and from the deep wellsprings of social action found within the Western Judeo-Christian tradition. Compassion and care for the world provide common ground in the many inter-religious dialogues now taking place. These exchanges are slowly breaking down barriers of isolation, suspicion, and sectarianism among practitioners of various schools and religions.
The essence of One Dharma is wisdom. We practice paying attention-to our bodies, our thoughts, our emotions, to awareness itself-and through a deepening concentration and stillness of mind, we gain insight into some basic truths. Wisdom sees the impermanent, ephemeral nature of experience and the fundamental unreliability of changing phenomena. Wisdom opens our minds to selflessness, the great liberating jewel of the Buddha's enlightenment, and to the clear recognition of the Nature of Mind: intrinsically empty, naturally radiant, ceaselessly responsive. Finally, wisdom brings the understanding that nonclinging is the essential unifying experience of freedom. We see that nonclinging is both a practice to cultivate and the nature of the awakened mind itself. .
Siddhartha Gautama set in motion the great Wheel of the Dharma more than 2,500 years ago. It has rolled across continents and oceans, touching the lives of countless beings. Each culture has expressed the Dharma in its own language and idio, emphasizing those methods that worked to free the mind from suffering. Now, as different traditions come together in the West, the unique opportunity arises to learn from them all and to practice the One Dharma of freedom.