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An Overview
The Practice of Virtue
The Development of Insight

How this book came to be
In 1988 while I was residing at a seminary in Kinmount, Ontario, I was asked by the Venerable Namgyal Rinpoche to teach a course on basic Buddhism. I had been practicing and teaching for some years, primarily from the Mahayana traditions. I searched for a text that would be suitable for this course and it was there that I ran into difficulty. I looked at the many varied publications and translations that were accessible and couldn’t find one that I felt truly comfortable with. The available publications seemed to fall into two categories. The first was what I would call ‘spiritual pablum’; I found the publications in this category abhorrent because they insulted my intelligence as an inquiring person. The second category contains the dried bones of academia, which seemed so irrelevant to the way in which we live and was far too advanced for an introductory course. Given this state of affairs I chose to work from technical manuals, the chief among these being the Visuddhimagga, and explain the Teaching in a way that I thought made the subject available to the non-expert.

In my studies I have found the Visuddhimagga to be one of the most profound commentaries on the Buddha’s teaching, however, the average Westerner finds difficulty in its extreme detail and erudition. Compound this with the problems of translation from Pali into English, and it becomes a veritable nightmare. With my limited capabilities, needless to say, the five years I taught this course were not to my satisfaction.

After leaving the seminary I continued to teach and practice as I traveled. During this time I could not put down this idea of finding a way to explain the Buddha’s teachings in a clear and concise manner that was in keeping with our historical context. This inquiry lasted approximately eight years and gradually formed into what now is this book. I really don’t consider this book finished, because it seems to me given the profundity of Buddha Dharma, there will always be a need for greater clarification or a better illustration.

As will be apparent from the text, I am not what you would call an academic or scholar and I do not consider myself to have talent as a writer. In fact this entire book was spoken rather than written. So, one might ask, why is he writing this book? A short story may help clarify this question. Many years ago when I was new to the Teaching, Namgyal Rinpoche gave a course in the Andes Mountains of Peru. The course lasted 40 days, during which time many of those present experienced profound meditative absorption. On the last day he spoke about what we had accomplished and said, “If you are successful in transmitting the Teaching you have been given, in the future many people will be doing what you have done here. However, if you fail, those in the future will view what you have done as extraordinary.” I look at this book in the same way, I hope it becomes common and inspires others to do much better than I have.

The study that is now this book began in Turkey in 1992, where I was teaching Susan Bell, my principle student and supporter for the last 10 years. I gave informal classes using the Visuddhimagga as the structural outline. During this time, she took many notes that later she compiled into a manuscript. Due to her lack of experience with Buddha Dharma she asked many questions which provoked me to re-examine the teaching and express it in new ways. In this spirit of inquiry we went over the manuscript again and again to clarify passages that were difficult to understand. Over a period of time the idea of a book emerged. At first we were very ambitious and thought we would attempt a complete exposition based on the traditional classification of sila, samadhi and panna. Even with a fairly concerted effort we found this to be beyond our capabilities, and so instead we have published only the first of the three at this time. It will become apparent as one reads the text that the whole of the teaching can be expounded in the development of virtue. What I have tried to do is present the main body of the work, which is a traditional view of ethics as taught by the Buddha, in simple and clear language. In the last hour, just before publishing we were fortunate to have the joyful and skillful aid of Sylvie Spugies who edited the work and has, I think, made it a more readable book.

The exercises in Appendix A are included at the suggestion of Derek Rasmussen, who was kind enough to read the manuscript. They are designed to help the Western reader focus in a contemplative way on some of the many nuances implied in this brief exposition of the Teaching.

The last section of Appendix A is a description of the Brahma - Viharas and these would be a good daily practice. You will notice this section is the shortest of the book. This is because the practice of meditation is dependent upon intuitive insight in which many words are often not helpful. However, I have found that if the student does not have a frame of reference established through study and intellectual rigor, they are not able to pose a strong enough question that produces a correspondingly deep insight. It is not enough to merely accumulate many meditational experiences in the religious life, because if these experiences are not understood within the context of the whole of the teaching they can merely become a collection of oddities. Unique moments of experience they may be, perhaps very heightened and acutely alive moments, but they do not lead to full understanding unless we challenge them with the study of the Teaching as passed down through the ages. In my work, I have found it most helpful to examine the meditative experience - however meager that might be - in the light of the Buddha’s teaching and then use this discipline as a way to provoke further question. In this way we go back and forth until we have hammered out, so to speak, a way of life that is completely genuine for ourselves.

The questions presented in the Appendix B will hopefully provoke debate and challenge the reader. They have different levels of understanding implicit in them. Some are offered to introduce the material while others provoke investigation into the meaning of the Teachings; still others are unanswerable except through direct insight or realization. The section on analysis and synthesis are different approaches to the Teaching and are given as examples to help the student ponder new expressions or approaches.
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How to use this book
To me this book is a study manual and it is often helpful, when beginning a work of this nature, to do so with friends of like mind. For instance, you could go through the book by first answering the questions in the Appendix B, then reading the chapter and later getting together with friends to discuss it. After discussion you might wish to revise or change your answers to the questions. Or even more importantly, you may be provoked into posing an entirely different set of questions. I have always found that the open and free exchange of ideas elicits deeper and more meaningful challenges to spiritual development.

After discussion, the Analysis in Appendix C is a good way to move through the material quickly and consolidate the understandings gained. The Analysis is also a method or way of comprehending the whole of the Teaching. In this section I have tried to give the reader a sense of the analytical approach. Some call it ‘number crunching’ and find it tedious, repetitive and redundant, I obviously do not. What I have done is go through the material quickly in capsule form, pointing out different strands that connect the various points of reference. This method of study may only be interesting after you have a lucid comprehension of the Teaching.

The Synthesis in Appendix C, by contrast, approaches the teaching from a philosophical point of view. In other words, through meditation on the four sublime abodes, you can develop an overview that allows you to understand the universality of the Teaching. As you develop in this approach you get a sense of the mind’s play in the omnipresent realms of altruism. I believe the sincere aspirant will at least get a glimmer of how these two complimentary approaches can be developed.

In the exercises I have presented the development of the path in an experiential way for the western student. I believe it will make more readily available the profound implications of the Buddha’s teaching to members of our culture. It would be good to set aside an extended period of time in which to do the meditative exercises in a sequential manner. It would be beneficial to keep a journal during this time and at the end of the retreat, speak to a teacher or a good friend who has experience in the meditative life. I recommend the Brahma-Viharas as a daily practice to enable you to maintain religious direction and momentum.

And so to reiterate, the suggested method of study is:
  1. Answer the Questions for the first chapter in Appendix B.
  2. Study the chapter pertaining to the Questions.
  3. Engage in group discussion.
  4. Review and revise if necessary the answer to the Questions.
  5. At the end of the study period do a retreat where you practice the Exercises in Appendix A.
  6. Keep a journal during this time and consult a meditation teacher.
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