Traveler's Guide to the Buddha's Path
by Eric Van Horn
Copyright © 2015 Eric K. Van Horn
for free distribution
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Just as from a heap of flowers
Many garlands can be made,
So, you, with your mortal life,
Should do many skillful things.
- [Dhp 53]
This guide to Buddhist practice began as a way for me to organize my thoughts about how to teach meditation. It quickly expanded to include the whole of the Buddhist path, and the document also took on a life of its own. The result is what is here.
This document is also the result of some frustration. Over the nearly 25 years that I have practiced, I have been to dozens of retreats, and spent thousands of dollars and a great deal of time and effort to pursue the Buddhist path. A seminal moment for me was in 1995 when Bhikkhu Bodhi published the Majjhima Nikāya: the Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha (co-authored with the deceased Bhikkhu Ñāṇamoli).
I started my Buddhist practice in a Zen group, and I was actively discouraged from reading the Buddha’s original discourses. I was told that they were boring and repetitive, and that I should only read the newer material. (“Newer” in Buddhist terms means somewhere between 500 and 1,000 years after the Buddha’s death.)
But I was frustrated by hearing “the Buddha said this” and “the Buddha said that”, and I wanted to read it for myself. So I bought a copy of the Majjhima Nikāya, and spent a year working my way through it.
It was, admittedly, tough going. I didn’t know much about Buddhism, and I knew even less about ancient India, and to understand what I was reading I had to read the extensive footnotes in the back of the book. I always had two bookmarks, one for the discourses, and one for the footnotes.
Little by little the Buddha’s teachings opened themselves up to me, and they didn’t sound like anything I was being taught. By then I had experience in a number of traditions – two lineages of Zen, one Tibetan, and “insight meditation” - but no one was teaching in a way that was consistent with what I was reading.
Perhaps more importantly, what I was reading – as difficult as it was for me to understand – was simply beautiful. It was consistent and coherent, and it all hanged together like a magnificent piece of engineering. There was breadth and depth, and while it is complicated, there is also a framework of simplicity and elegance that binds it all together.
I spent many years trying to find teachers who teach in a way that is consistent with the Majjhima Nikāya. In the meantime I read the Digha Nikāya (The Long Discourses of the Buddha), and the Saṃyutta Nikāya (The Connected Discourses of the Buddha). After a while I got a sense of the language, I got a better feel for how the poetic beauty of the Pāli language translates into English (not very well), but understanding more about Pāli let me see the poetic, musical nature of the discourses. The repetition is because of how they were composed, learned and recited, and reflects something like the refrain in a song. When I started seeing the discourses in terms of music, they took on a whole new type of beauty. They were easier to read and easier to understand.
However, I was still having trouble finding teachers who could help me put into practice what I was reading. To be sure, some of my teachers were wonderful people. I did learn some important lessons about the Dharma. But I had three basic complaints about what I was being taught.
The first is that many things I was being taught were not true. They were simply incorrect. No one was teaching about jhāna, which is central to the Buddha’s teachings. In fact, the mere mention of jhāna was likely to expose you to the Buddhist equivalent of a lynching. And hardly anyone was talking about rebirth, which is also central to the Buddha’s teachings.
Second, the Dharma was being over-simplified. I am not the only one who feels this way. In a letter to Bhikkhu Bodhi, the Tibetan Buddhist B. Alan Wallace said this:
Apart from the issue of definitions alone, I am concerned that Buddhist vipassanā practice is not only being radically simplified for the general lay public (some would say “dumbed down”), but that it is being misrepresented in such a way that the rich teachings (in theory & practice) of the Satipaṭṭhāna sutta are being overlooked or marginalized.
- [A Correspondence between B. Alan Wallace and the Venerable Bhikkhu Bodhi Winter, 2006, "The Nature of Mindfulness and Its Role in Buddhist Meditation"]
A lot of what I was being taught was to simply be with the breath, and be with whatever arises. There is certainly that aspect to practice but it represents perhaps 2% of it. It would be like learning about the law of gravity and thinking that this represents the whole of physics.
And there was the pain. I have bad joints, and I was told to just be with the pain. I tried heroically to do that, and I was miserable. I once sat through half a retreat with a bad tooth, one I found out needed a root canal when I got home. But because of the instructions I was getting, I just sat through it, and did not even take any medication. All of this was pointless.
Finally, I could not find anyone who could connect the dots for me, to show me how you go from your first sitting all the way to enlightenment, to an Awakening, to at least the first stage of Awakening, which is “stream-entry”.
So over the years I listened to hundreds of Dharma talks and read hundreds of books and I went to all those retreats. The good news is that ultimately I was also able to cobble together the type of practice that I was seeing in early Buddhism, and eventually to find some wonderful teachers, teachers who you will find widely quoted herein.
And that is how this volume came to be. It is my attempt to present the Buddha’s path from beginning to end, or at least as close to the end as you need someone like me to get you. This is not a complete guide. It is intended to be a framework, an outline that you can use as a map for your own journey.
I do not consider myself any kind of authority. I am just a fellow traveler who has been down some blind alleys, and wants to save you the trouble. Some years ago I was at a retreat with Larry Rosenberg in which he said "I am just a beginner." At the time I thought that was false modesty. But now I know what he meant. When confronted with the magnitude of what the Buddha discovered, what he did, and then his relentlessly selfless life of teaching, you can only ever feel like a beginner.
I have two great hopes for this text. The first is that it will help you be a happier, more useful person. The second is that I have accurately represented what the Buddha taught. His message is timeless. It does not need to be modernized, merged with the field of psychology, or Westernized. One of the great lessons of the Buddha’s discourses is that in 2500 years, the human mind has not changed. And the cure for our problems of living has not changed, either.
Eric Van Horn
Rio Rancho, New Mexico