Must Read: The Whole Way

Every week we select the best articles you wouldn’t want to miss. This week: The Whole Way by Joan Sutherland (Lion’s Roar)

 Is Buddhism a transcendent path to enlightenment or a practical aid to everyday life? The Way cannot be divided like that, Joan Sutherland tells us. Like the water system of the high desert, it flows in every direction and is found wherever we decide to tap into it.

 

The-Whole-Way

Photo by Antonio M. Mora Garcia.

Being human is a complicated affair, and Buddhism began and continues to evolve as a response to this challenge. It describes in great detail what is unsatisfactory and why, and then it offers practices, philosophy, and art to help transform this unsatisfactoriness into awakening—or, more accurately, to help us see the awakening that was always right there, inextricably a part of the very life we considered unsatisfactory.

There are many forms of Buddhism and a variety of Buddhist practices, including meditation, ceremony, study, service, art, and devotion. Practice is key, because it bridges idea and embodiment; it helps make the Way real. In the Asian cultures in which Buddhism first arose, there has been, broadly speaking, a distinction between monastic and lay practice. There’s obviously much that they share, but monastics and lay people have often had different aspirations, which has led them to different forms of practice.

To a larger extent than we sometimes realize, Westerners have inherited this split. It’s easier to recognize if you think of monastic practice as including the retreats that laypeople attend, with the perennial end-of-retreat question about how to bring the experience into daily life. So I’ll speak of cloistered practice, which is meant to include both monasticism and lay retreat experience, and daily life, which is pretty much everything else.

Many of us take for granted that we’re moving from one world into another as we leave the retreat center and head for home. Some of us believe that the truer practice, the one that will lead to enlightenment, is held in the monastery or the retreat, and that anything else is second best. Some would argue that only lay practice and immersion in the world can open the Way. Do we have to choose one over the other, or reconcile ourselves to the idea that the disjunctions between them are inevitable? Is awakening really the province of one mode of practice more than the other? Or is there a perspective that unites them into something whole, an uncompartmentalized and onflowing Way?

When buddhas don’t appear
And their followers are gone
The wisdom of awakening
Bursts forth by itself.
-Nagarjuna

Last year I moved to the high desert of northern New Mexico, where the presence and absence of water are never far from our thoughts: monsoon rains in the summer, winter snows, water held for a season by rivers or a few hours in arroyos that flood and go dry again, water held for centuries in aquifers, bubbling up as natural springs. And from time immemorial we humans have joined the great cycle of wet and dry with our wells and irrigation ditches. Even with modern reservoirs and sewer lines, there’s the strong sense here that life has been sustained by deep wells and a net of acequias, the ditches that run through fields and along the sides of roads, even in some neighborhoods of the state capital.

This is how I’ve come to think of awakening. It’s everywhere—as sudden and complete as the crash of thunder on a summer afternoon, as promising as a distant smudge of cottonwoods, revealing the presence of water. There are times of drought, too, when the very idea of awakening seems to have dried up under an unrelenting sky. We might think of awakening as something that happens inside us, but, as with a landscape, we also happen inside of it.

In moments of awakening, it’s clear that what our heart-minds experience—what we sense and see and feel—is entirely continuous with the world we ordinarily think of as outside ourselves. There is no longer observer and observed but a single field, and this field is what I’m calling awakening. From this perspective, awakening seems like a force as fundamental and all-pervasive as gravity or electromagnetism, and we see that it is inside us and we are inside it.

And so we try to establish a relationship with it, tap into the resource, coax awakening into causing our particular corner of the world to flourish. We practice, and it’s just as though we’re digging wells and ditches. At times we concentrate our energy and go deep into the underground sources of water. At others we stand on the earth and open the acequia gates, letting our awareness pour across the land like water, which makes life possible wherever it spreads. Each is essential; neither has power without the other. A well without acequias is a hole with water at the bottom; an acequia without a source of water is a dry ditch. Our practice is a collaboration with awakening to discover its expression in our particular human life. To do this we have to touch the deep pools of awakening that are hidden from our ordinary gaze, and we have to do something out in the open with what we discover.

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