1. Introduction to Part I
If you have not yet read the Foreword and Warning, please do so now. The Buddhist path has often been called a “spiritual path”, and this use of religious language can be very inspiring for some people. The Buddhist path can also be thought of in terms of a scientific experiment, a set of exercises that the Buddha and his followers have claimed lead to very specific, reproducible, verifiable effects, which are deemed not just worthwhile but liberative. Using this sort of practical, more scientifically oriented language can also be very inspiring for some people. However, as science doesn’t often provide explicit emphases on the meaning and relevance of its findings to living humans with hearts and minds, language and concepts that can bridge that gap are often useful.
To inspire a broader audience, I will use both spiritual and practical language when discussing some of the elements concerning the Buddhist path. My preference, however, is generally for the practical language. You could throw out many of the religious trappings of the Buddhist path and still have a set of basic practices that lead to the expected effects. You could also keep all the religious trappings, do the basic practices, and produce the same results, assuming of course that you had the extra time and resources necessary to do both. That said, sorting out which elements are disposable and which are vital for getting the experiment to work is not always straightforward. Some reformative movements can easily go too far when their proponents attempt to remove all elements that don’t fit with their current cultural preferences, aesthetics, and biases. So, it will be for you, me, and our fellow practitioners and adventurers to help sort this out by our own practice.
In this same pragmatic vein, there has arisen a global movement, inspired by numerous things and promoted by many people, now often referred to as the “Pragmatic Dharma” movement—which I hope one day will be called something more welcoming of those allergic to words such as dharma. This movement can be characterized as embracing a worldview that includes the following ideas:
- We can improve the way our minds function and the way they perceive and process reality, in numerous skillful ways.
- What works is key. Specifically: it doesn’t matter at all where you draw useful things from if they are effective, meaning that they provide the specific benefits sought.
- Innovating by extracting key useful elements from various traditions, and combining things to come up with something that works for you is encouraged, as is pursuing traditional goals in traditional ways, as long as the approach works.
This book follows this general approach while refraining from being dismissive of elements of great value from the old traditions.
Part One contains some traditional lists that were taught by the Buddha and relate directly to spiritual training. They make important and practical points in very concise ways. These teachings were presented succinctly on purpose so that people could remember them and use them. It is their very simplicity that makes them so practical and down-to-earth.
However, I am going to take these very condensed teachings and go on and on about them. It turns out that the Buddha sometimes made things so simple that we, 2,500+ years later, are left wondering what he was talking about and how to apply his teachings to our lives. Still, it is amazing that his teachings are still so relevant to our lives today. These teachings are designed to help people get in touch with their reality in some way that makes a difference. They can also help people avoid some of the common pitfalls on the spiritual path and in life in general, some of which I will talk about later.
The Buddha’s teachings are also designed to help people develop along some of the nearly infinite axes of development. By axes of development, I mean all the ways we can improve our mind, body, and world. Since this is an endless undertaking, in this book we will focus on a relatively few very specific ones. As the book goes along, I will introduce various things we can practice, experience, gain insight into, develop, and modify that make a positive difference.
Chapter one, “The Three Trainings”, introduces morality, concentration, and wisdom (see also The Long Discourses of the Buddha, or the Digha Nikaya, sutta 10, usually referred to as DN 10). These three trainings encompass the sum of the Buddhist path. Thus, as is traditional and for good reason, they will be used as the conceptual framework for this book. The three trainings involve skills that we consciously and explicitly try to master. Each training has its own specific set of premises, goals, practices, and standards of mastery for those practices. These are different from each other, and problems can arise if we conflate the premises of one training when pursuing the others. Each training also has its common pitfalls, limitations, and shadow sides, which are rarely made clear, and failure to do so has caused much confusion.
Thus, I will do my best to make them clear, particularly in Part Two (“Light and Shadows”). The specific standards for success and mastery can sometimes seem a bit technical, particularly the maps of the high concentration states and the stages of insight, so I will wait until Parts Three through Six to present these to keep Part One focused on the basic framework and practices that make the whole thing possible in the first place.
While I think that each part of this book contributes to the whole, there are reasons you may want to skip to certain sections first and fill in the rest later. For instance, if you are having powerful visions or kundalini experiences, you might want to read the first few chapters of Part Four and then go back and read the rest. If you are simply interested in the maps of the stages of insight, go straight to the chapter called “The Progress of Insight”. If you just want to get right to some core insight practices, read the chapters on “The Three Characteristics” and “The Seven Factors of Awakening”. Should you be in a mood for some social commentary, the beginning of Part Two is for you. If you just want to hear my take on awakening, then “Models of the Stages of Awakening” might be a good place to start. That said, skipping sections is likely to lead to misunderstandings, as plenty of sections that are not close to each other are yet designed to counter excesses that could arise from some other section being read on its own.
I struggled for a long time over whether to present at the beginning or at the end of the book the maps that detail what these practices lead to. I have included them at the end, but you might be the sort who wants to see them first, and if so firstly you should read the chapter called “The Three Characteristics” and then skip to Part Three.