Path & Principles

 

The Zen River library now houses a separate shelf, ‘P&P’ (Path & Principles) for works from great masters which provide an overview of the Buddhist path and its basic principles. This is a reflection of my wish to engage in more extensive research on the stages of development that many of us seem to go through in practice. Stages of development and the importance of gradual cultivation often seem to be undervalued in modern expressions of the Zen tradition, perhaps because Zen champions the timeless experience of our true nature and the direct expression of it in our actions. This bias also may have come about because the Zen school emerged at a time when scriptural knowledge was common amongst practitioners and expertise could almost be taken for granted. However, we are now in a very different situation, of course, and we may need a little help. Studying how the mind operates and transforms over time with practice, and how that development can affect our lives, are just as important today. This issue is close to my heart since the ongoing daily program at Zen River, along with the option of long­term residential training, allow students to dive into a curriculum that covers all aspects of training.

Some of us may already be familiar with Yasutani Roshi’s writings, the ‘Five Varieties of Zen’ (as presented in Three Pillars of Zen, Philip Kapleau) and The Eight Beliefs of Buddhism (Zen River Anthology 1), which provide a somewhat linear structure for practice. Also, Hoofprints of the Ox and The Way to Buddhahood by the Chinese masters Sheng Yen and Yin Shun, and The Compass of Zen by the Korean master Seung Sahn, are very helpful books. Yet new translations from the Tibetan tradition may be the richest sources for overviews of ‘P&P’. I’ve been surprised to discover that certain Tibetan texts are standard study material in contemporary Chinese Ch’an training temples, including Tsongkhapa’s famous, Lam Rim Chen Mo (‘The Great Treatise on the Stages of the Path to Enlightenment’). Two young Chinese monks who recently visited Zen River, as well as many others whom I’ve met during my visits to Asia, have emphatically confirmed this. Personally, I am a little more acquainted with Gampopa’s Jewel Ornament of Liberation and the brilliant contemporary commentary by Ringu Tulku, The Path to Buddhahood. But the recently published three­volume treatise, The Profound Treasury of the Ocean of Dharma by Chögyam Trungpa, seems to me to belong to a class in itself.

Most of these books articulate different levels of practice based on the aspiration and karmic circumstances of the practitioner. But Trungpa Rinpoche’s formulation of how the Hinayana, Mahayana, and Tantric paths of practice interact seems to be the clearest. [With some reservation, the Tibetan term Tantra may be replaced with the terms Buddhayana, Saijojo, or Supreme Vehicle to align with Zen terminology.] Rather than simply seeing these three categories as different approaches or levels of practice, or as phases of historical development, Trungpa Rinpoche beautifully describes Hinayana, Mahayana, and Tantra as completely interdependent components of practice, comparing them to the foundation, walls, and roof of a building. From this view, well­rounded practice includes all three paths: the path of individual liberation (Hinayana), the bodhisattva path of wisdom and compassion (Mahayana), and the path of indestructible wakefulness (Tantra or Buddhayana). We are encouraged to revisit each one of them regularly!

This perspective on practice shows a striking similarity with the Four Modes of Meditation we’ve developed at Zen River. In the first and second Modes respectively, we deal primarily with phenomena and emptiness, the relative and absolute sides of reality. Then in the third and fourth Modes we return to the world of phenomena which now lights up with perfect information on how to respond to situations—like a box and its lid or two arrows meeting in mid­air. Yet when it comes to the fourth Mode, action in the world of form, we are bound to make mistakes because the world of form happens never to be quite perfect. Moreover, habitual patterns run deep and can easily take over again. So gradual cultivation is called for. We need to train in trusting our intuition and developing skills to really manifest our insights. Meanwhile, we may also discover that the foundation of our building is weaker than we thought, or that parts of it are begging for renovation. Trungpa Rinpoche exhorts us: ‘Never forget the Hinayana!’ So a life on the Buddha’s path is really a spiral that includes all three aspects of training, over and over again. Then we can each live and appreciate our life on ever more profound levels.

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