What is the Buddhist Path?

What is the Buddhist Path? What makes you a Buddhist or not?

(If you call yourself a Buddhist you may want to pause here to consider your answer.)

Traditionally the path is seen as the overcoming of ignorance, not-seeing, ‘avidya‘, where seeing means seeing our True Nature. I propose an additional way of understanding how the path consists of overcoming avidya: what is not seen is the path itself.

The first requirement on the Path is motivation. Actually everyone – every sentient consciousness – has the motivation to Awaken. Not everyone realises that the motivation they feel is towards Awakening – that’s the recognition of Dharma, that’s what we’re clarifying here.

A universal quality of Awareness is Sensitivity, every conscious being has it: a sense of its well-being – or lack of – and a responsiveness to that. We experience this as varying degrees of not-quite-right-ness, this is dukkha, and that’s what suffering is.

It appears that there is me, a fixed entity, and there is my experience, which is changeable. So the obvious response to suffering and unsatisfactoriness is to change the experience, to get rid of experiences we don’t like, and to seek experiences that do give us more of that sense of well-being.

A Buddhist would say that’s a mug’s game. You can’t stop experience changing, so your good experience will not last, you can never avoid suffering that way. If you keep trying this remedy, not noticing that it doesn’t work more than partially and temporarily, you are stuck in a loop. Buddhists call this situation “samsara“. When you recognise the futility of this approach, you have “renunciation”. This renunciation is your motivation to find another way, which is the beginning of a Path to Awakening.

Do you have this renunciation, this recognition of the samsara situation? The more clearly you recognise it, the stronger your motivation.

But then what? Which way lies freedom? We have to make a switch, a complete 180 degree flip, in the way we see the situation. This is a characteristic of Dharma, this switch from the obvious to what is so easily ignored as being insignificant. There are several such switches, and this is why we need Dharma teachers, in order to point out the significance of the not-at-all-obvious.

In this case, we need to look at the aspect we ignored, which did not seem a promising route to well-being. Instead of focussing attention on the changeability of experience as the answer, we focus on the “me” which seemed to be the constant in the situation.

There are different possibilities here: we might try to ‘improve our self’, to change it to deal with the dilemma of dukkha: we might think of becoming resigned to the changing quality of experience, deciding to become detached from involvement with it. This amounts to taking the practice of ksanti, patience, as being the whole of the Dharma path. It would be a passive, ‘doormat’ practice, putting up with all experience because we know there is no point in changing it to suit ourselves. This would be a half-way house. If we stop at a half-way house we are at a dead-end. We are stuck with resignation, dulling our responsiveness.

If we don’t get stuck there, there is some value in not being overly concerned with managing our experiences. But to make the complete switch we have to take the non-obvious step of questioning the whole notion we have of our self. What is this self?

Notice that in this first step on the Path we have already recognised the three marks of conditioned existence: the impermanence of experience, the way this can create suffering, and the necessity of questioning the reality of our concept of self. These are what makes you a Buddhist, and now it is clear why they do.

“Buddhist: someone who sees the possibility of freedom in what others ignore.”

This is why the Path to Awakening requires unearthing the truth of what we see as self. (The Buddha’s first teaching was on understanding suffering, and the second was on questioning the self.)

How do we investigate the truth about self? The answer is the next not-at-all-obvious Switch.


[Related post: Meditation to question the self]