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An Overview
The Practice of Virtue
The Development of Insight

When beginning an exploration of this nature it is sometimes good to ask simple and obvious questions. For instance: What is Buddhism? Since we are examining the teachings of the Buddha, it is important to understand where these teachings come from. Actually, there is no such thing as Buddhism; instead it should be referred to as Buddha Dharma, roughly translated as “the laws of unfoldment.” When we look at it in this way we get a sense that we are exploring something that is natural and inherently present in our lives. For example, this is more like studying the laws of gravity or electromagnetism than studying a dogma or religion. In other words, the laws of awakening, whether or not they are declared by a Tathagata or a fully Awakened One, are present in the very fabric of existence. Because of this, the laws that govern our progress on the path are something that can be discovered for ourselves.

Was the Buddha a God or Prophet who proclaimed these laws? The Buddha stated unequivocally that he was only a teacher showing the way. We ourselves must make the effort to discover the truth of the Dharma - the Buddha is only our guide and teacher. Some might ask: Is there no refuge, someone who will save us? Our refuge from the sufferings of this world is in discovering and understanding the laws proclaimed by the Blessed Ones. There is no external refuge. No one is going to save us from the sufferings we create through unwholesome and ignorant actions. “By one’s self is evil done, by one’s self one suffers: by one’s self is evil left undone, by one’s self is one purified. Purity and impurity are dependent upon one’s self, no one can purify another.”

So where does faith fit into the teachings of the Buddha? In the teaching blind faith is certainly discouraged. Merely believing in something or having faith in it is seen as being a poor substitute for the religious life. Saddha, the Pali word that is often translated as ‘faith’, should be understood as confidence. In other words, when we take refuge in the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha we are expressing our confidence that the Buddha has attained omniscience, that he is a knower of the worlds, a great teacher, enlightened and blessed. This presents a problem, because how can we have confidence in something that we haven’t realized ourselves? The way through this dilemma is to develop confidence studying the Dharma. Over time it will become clear that the Buddha’s profundity of understanding is truly deep and gone beyond. We also understand from his teaching that before him, there were Buddhas who discovered the truth and proclaimed it in an appropriate way for their time. There will be Buddhas in the future who will discover the truth and proclaim it. We understand there are Buddhas of the present age who are proclaiming the truth that leads to freedom and emancipation. We have confidence in this to the degree to which we have experienced it.

We take refuge or express our confidence in the Dharma, because it can be realized for ourselves. When we study or practice it we are immediately uplifted. Our mind experiences relief, because we know deep in our being that it has the potential to lead us to liberation. We have confidence in the Dharma because it invites our investigation; it does not proclaim truths that we have no way to investigate and know for ourselves. Certainly, unless we are a fully enlightened Buddha, there will be aspects of the teaching that will be beyond our comprehension, but in the Suttas it is never stated that these truths discovered by the Tathagata could not be discovered by us. The Buddha, in declaring the teaching, states that there has been truth proclaimed in the past, that there will be truth proclaimed in the future and that there is the truth of Dharma being proclaimed in the present. When understood this way, the Dharma is known to be a living unfolding phenomena in the universe, and the more that we discover this the greater the power of our confidence.

And so, what does it mean when we first take refuge in the Sangha? It means that we have directly observed that the disciples of the Buddha have right conduct, are upright in their behavior, they have wisdom as to the right way to live, and that they manifest the virtues of living the holy life. It is important to have confidence in those that practice the Dharma because without confidence it is hard to begin this process of examination and discovery.

So when we take up this exploration, an examination of the laws that govern awakening, we should think of it as a process of discovery; a process by which we examine our own being and understand ourselves and those around us with clarity and depth. It should be obvious that we are not going to be skillful from the beginning. In some ways our path of exploration is going to be a process in which we see with greater and greater clarity our imperfections. Nevertheless, we must take heart and not become discouraged by this, for the Buddha said: “He who practices the Dhamma to the best of his ability, honors me best. One is one’s refuge, who else could be his refuge?”

We created the tangled web that has ensnared us in the thicket of conflicting emotions, and it is only the clarity of insight that will free us from this enslavement. To begin this process all that is required is a good heart and sincere effort. The examining of ourselves is not something most find easy, we don’t like to see ourselves in a light that shows our faults and shortcomings. However, if we are not willing to look at ourselves clearly we will forever remain entangled in a web of delusion.

If we could but see ourselves as a natural phenomenon, like a plant growing in a garden, and examine as a good gardener would the conditions under which the plant flourishes, we would make quick progress and come to full flower. Our problem is we cling to this tangle of conflicting emotions as our identity. The only way we can become free of this is through patient practice and mindfulness. The Buddha has said, “One who practices the Dhamma, will in turn be protected by the Dhamma. He who imbibes the Dhamma, will live happily with a purified mind, and the wise always take delight in the Dhamma as revealed by the Noble Ones.” If we learn to cultivate the Bodhi mind, if we learn to pluck the weeds and cut through the tangle of undergrowth we will see how our lives can be transformed. It is this discovery of truth, the truth about ourselves, the truth about the nature of life that we should strive for. This truth excels all mundane knowledge and leads finally to victory over all obstacles to awakening.

So how do we begin this process? It is stated in the Kalama Sutta of the Anguttara Nikaya: “Do not believe in anything on mere hearsay. Do not believe in anything that is handed down by traditions, or what people say or what is stated on the authority of your traditional teachings. Do not believe in anything just by reasoning, by inferring, or by argument as to method, or by directions from your teachers. But, O Kalamas! When you know by yourself that certain actions done by you are not good, false and considered worthless by the wise that, when perpetuated, they will lead to loss or suffering, then give them up…and when you know by yourselves that certain actions done by you are good, true and considered worthy by the wise, then accept them and put them into practice.”

At first glance, this teaching given to the Kalama clan of old seems to support modern day individualism that is so prevalent in Western society. This assumption, however, would be a mistake. As we read further in the Sutta the Buddha gives the Kalamas the meditations on the Divine Abidings. The first of these is to be in a state of loving-kindness. The second is to practice compassion towards all living beings. The third is to be in a state of sympathetic joy, celebrating the victories of others. The fourth is to reside in equanimity towards the sufferings of our own life.

In North America we seem to have made a tradition out of rebellion. Each generation is distinguished by its defiance of the previous one, and the peculiar quirks of expression used by the young become the institutions of the future. Contrary to this, the Buddha’s teaching focuses this fierce mind of critical examination on ourselves rather than on our elders or on our political and social institutions. Only a warrior of the inner plane can effectively wield this power of analytic examination. Fierce, independent questioning can safely be undertaken only by one who resides in the four sublime states.

When the analytical examination of mind is present in those who do not reside in loving-kindness, they become obsessively picky, self-critical and self-righteously judgmental of others. When it is present in those who do not practice compassion for others it turns to creating systems of revolutionary zeal that ‘they’ have determined will be good for ‘the world.’ When it is present in those who are not in sympathetic joy, invariably they fall prey to despair and see only the failures, obstructions, and defilements of themselves and others. Lastly, when the analytical examination of mind is present in those who are unable to reside in equanimity they can never rest in the perfection of what is; they are forever driven to achieve a better self. So when we pick up the sword of discriminative intelligence we must do so upheld by these Divine Abidings, otherwise we are in peril of becoming the ruthless critic and religious fanatic who sees sin everywhere.

By contrast, one who resides in a state of loving-kindness would never knowingly injure another. That is, on the physical plane they would care for others and support their well being. In their speech they would express their friendliness and be supportive to others in their struggle to unfold. On the mental plane, they would first heal themselves of conflicting emotions and negativities, and then they would emanate this state of loving-kindness to all sentient life. It is only when we imbibe these qualities that we can be protected from the feeling of futility when we realize the enormous suffering in the world.

When practicing compassion we are released from our focus on ourselves and experience the happiness of helping others. When these actions are not driven by a neurotic need to see ourselves as ‘good’, then there is a spontaneous interaction with those around us which is based on a genuine experience of their need.

In the development of sympathetic joy, by celebrating the victories of others and by celebrating the miracle of the manifest universe, we know ourselves to be an integral part of the enlightening mind. We do not experience ourselves as separate individuals struggling to become free of obstacles. By comparison to the ongoing mind of enlightenment our problems are truly miniscule. When we understand this deep down in our being, it is easy to let go of ill will, resentment, or the desire to possess something at the expense of someone else. The states of greed and hatred fade away because we are no longer rooted in the sense of a separate self.

Lastly, when we reside in equanimity - having fulfilled the other three states - there can be a truly dispassionate seeing. It is this dispassionate view which enables us to penetrate the veils of ignorance and see the laws of coming into being and passing away, the laws that govern the unfoldment of consciousness. It enables us to see the underlying principles that determine the ebb and flow of history and of human society. Without this dispassion we are invariably for or against something and because of this, we always have the ignorance of bias. This ignorance prevents us from being in union with what is. When we experience ourselves and the universe, as interdependent spontaneously arising phenomena, we become the knowing embodiment of great bliss and emptiness. It is only the wholesome mind established in loving-kindness, compassion and sympathetic joy that is able to enter this perfection without fear and without regret. This reality has always been present and when our obscuration of it is removed, we understand this life to be a bubble in the foam of the great wave of awakening.
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