We began 2019 with a series on foundational practices: what the Buddha often taught as the beginning of a series of “progressive instructions.” This is a style of teaching that presents the path to awakening step by step, often given to folks who are not yet believers, who have not yet taken refuge or who have just done so.
It starts with a series of topics that are not unique to Buddhism, but which seem to have been at the time of the Buddha widely agreed-upon wholesome practices that provide the basis for further inquiry. He then only offers “the teaching special to the Buddhas,” which is the Four Noble Truths and their implications, when the listener’s mind is clearly ready to hear them. (See the Upāli Sutta, MN 56.18, a dramatic text in which the Buddha bests a disciple of a competing teacher, the Nigantha Nattaputta—possibly a caricature of the Jain founder Mahāvīra—for an example of this teaching style.)
Maybe because convert Buddhist practitioners in the West have had a preference for advanced deconstructive practices (like vipassanā), this layer of teaching hasn’t been as emphasized as teachings such as impermanence (anicca) and selflessness (anattā), or mediation instructions in general. But I think we lose something important when we omit these foundations, and arguably make achieving the liberative fruits of practice more difficult.
The beginning of this sequence consists of five topics:
- Giving (dāna)
- Ethics (sīla)
- The danger in sensual pleasures
- The benefits of renunciation
This series of talks will explore this set of basic orientations. They’re all awkward in various ways within contemporary capitalist empire, which makes them interesting to try to understand and consider including in our practice. But if they really are important foundations, we might wonder—upon feeling like our meditation and liberation practice isn’t going so well, as so many of us do, including me—if we’ve missed some initial steps on the path.
Maybe because of the strangeness of these concepts, or because I had just talked with her and was inspired, I included in the first weeks of this series a talk on saṇgha, community, based on a quote from my friend and fellow Spirit Rock teacher Erin Selover, describing what she feels is most needed for students as they begin the path: “Find your circle.” In many ways, with our practice being so much more isolated and individualistic than either the early town or wilderness Buddhist communities, she’s right in emphasizing the need to connect with people first. Isolation as the first wound.