Uposatha Day, Full Moon, March 26, 2013
Kutthi Sutta (Udana 5.3) mentions a gradual course of practice beginning with generosity that gives a much broader and well-rounded perspective on practice than we are generally used to in the west. I’ve been thinking about this since I began working on the “Buddhist Religiosity” project, since it emphasizes much that can be practiced in community and even by children, things that are implicit in Asia. By placing the Refuges at the beginning and expanding the Noble Eightfold Path at the end, the Path of Practice looks like this:
Refuge in the Triple Gem. This is the establishment of trust in the Buddhist way. The biggest problem in the West is the almost total absence of a technical Sangha in the West (the third gem). There are highly qualified teachers, but no uniformity of qualifications and many self-authorized teachers and popular bloggers in the mix with no agreement about who might stand in for Sangha … so we all do. The expressions of refuge are devotional but can be quite simple. Bowing should be learned as a fundamental practice the cultivates (and requires) humility.
Develop generosity, virtue. Traditionally these are at first learned in community. The characteristically Buddhist “economy of gifts” is traditional inspired by a dependent Sangha who also offer the Dharma for free. Western communities do well to approximate these conditions.
The heavens. This can be understood metaphorically as standing for the accrued benefits of practice. This can already be experienced through the practices of generosity and virtue and the idea of merit should be pointed out repeatedly from the beginnings of Buddhist education. “Heavens” should also be understood to include a realization of the transcendent dimension of our practice, that it has important implications beyond this fathom-length body and few decades of existence.
The drawbacks, degradation and corruption of sensual passions. You would think people could learn these from watching enough soap operas, but we do not seem to. How we get ourselves so easily into trouble should be pointed out repeatedly from the beginnings of Buddhist education.
The rewards of renunciation. Renunciation can be experienced as the most meritorious part of generosity The importance of renunciation should be taught from the beginnings of Buddhist education, because it is not obvious to people. The Sangha if present should stand as examples of renunciation and its rewards for the broader community. Practices of simplicity should be encouraged, including “voluntary simplicity” for adults; people should experience a sense of relief from letting go of things. Because consumerism is so deeply instilled through the Western media, the amount of commercial media consumption should be mimimized.
The Sutta then states that when the mind is “ready, malleable, free from hindrances, elated and bright,” the following should be taken up. Most of the steps up to here can be assimilated in community without much instruction and are suitable for children as well as adults. From this point instruction and training are required from qualified teachers (traditionally Sangha).
The Four Noble Truths. With a body of experience in generosity, virtue and renunciation and the beginnings of an investigation of the dangers of clinging, the Four Noble Truths can be understood experientially. The Fourth Noble Truth is the Eightfold Noble Path, the Path proper, which contain the remaining points.
Right View. Aside from the Four Noble Truths the core teachings of the Buddha should lead to further investigation of experience. The Three Marks, Dependent Coarising, Karma, etc.
Right Resolve. Aspirations to practice kindness, compassion and renunciation should become firm.
Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood. These steps deepen generosity and virtue. They should be understood and practiced from the perspectives of precepts, being of benefit to others and cultivating positive states of mind.
Right Effort, Right Mindfulness,Right Samadhi. The cultivation of mind,virtue and investigation of the previous steps should be supercharged with the methods that turn the mind into a precise instrument of insight, serenity and virtue. In most Western practice almost all effort is centered here, leaving it unclear what it is that is being supercharged.
Sometimes in the West the Path is reduced to: