To read part one of this post, click here
The Buddhist tradition employs path metaphors at every turn, perhaps because the Buddha and his followers spent so much time walking the trails of Northern India. As the sangha migrated seasonally from place to place, they had ample time to contemplate how paths are powerful teachers if we listen to them.
On the most basic level, the function of path is to lead us from place to place. In the Buddhist context, the Noble Eightfold Path (the Fourth Noble Truth) is what leads us from living a life of suffering and dissatisfaction (samsara) to one of liberation, peace, and enlightenment (nirvana).
The word for path in Sanskrit is marga (Pali: magga), which, as Joseph Campbell notes “is a word derived from the vocabulary of the hunt, denoting the tracks or trail of an animal, by following which the hunter comes to his quarry.”
When I first heard spiritual teachings and came across people on the spiritual path (though, if we remember the Marianne Williamson quote at the beginning of part one of this post, it’s absurd to differentiate between people ‘on’ and ‘off’ the path), I felt like a hunter zoning in on his prey.
I could sense there was something valuable rustling in the woods, and I wanted a part of it. As years went by, my obsession with this hunt grew until, much like a hunter single pointedly focussed on his prey, my attention narrowed until all I truly cared about was investigating and living this Truth.
Of course, other ‘hunters’ have been down this path before, so I could follow their footprints, which made things very helpful. I was lucky enough to find people who showed me this 2,500 year old way of living.
A path only exists because people have walked a certain route before. The more people who walk a path, the easier it is for others to find.
Still, someone has to go first. Someone has to blaze the trail.
Like Jesus, Krishna, and Muhammad, the Buddha hacked away all the vines and fallen trees of ego until he reached a point where he could turn around and say to the rest of us:
“Hey! there’s something really good down this way! Come and see for yourself!
There’s a place that I found within myself (that is also within all of you!) that isn’t moved by fear or desire. There, you’ll find overflowing abundance. You’ll find the aspect of yourself that was never born and will never die.
But you won’t be access this place if you’re locked up in your self, in your own little ego. You must be willing to undergo a profound psychological shift of perspective. You must renounce the other paths that “the world” offers (those of pleasure, power, status) and orient yourself toward the goal of expanding and deepening your own consciousness.
The Eightfold Path isn’t so much a way to get from place to place (since you’ve already arrived at the ‘destination’, but just don’t know it). But we use this metaphor (however imprecise) to inspire you to find this promised land from which you’ve alienated yourself, and to which you can return at any time.
If you get your act together in body, speech, and mind, you’ll set the favorable conditions to awaken to this reality.
It’s like climbing a mountain: you wouldn’t head off to do that without proper equipment and preparation, would you? So it is with the path of awakening. I can tell you about the things you’ll need (an aspiration to awaken, forbearance, meditation) along with the obstacles you’ll encounter (fear, laziness, doubt).
But remember: just because I have gone down a certain way and told you about the rewards and treasures at the end doesn’t do anything for you. Faith in me or my description won’t be enough to bring you there. If you want to reach that destination, then you must actually take the steps to get there. As on an actual path, nobody can walk it for you.
Which sucks, I know, because it’s inevitable that you will encounter times when you’ll feel lost in the shadows. You’ll wish for somebody’s hand to hold. You may even curse yourself for starting off in this direction in the first place.
But remember that millions have walked this path before and and can attest to its value. Do you really have the gall to think that you’re the only one who’s not cut out for enlightenment?!
Walking this path is a moment to moment choice that you must make. Every minute of the day presents you with the opportunity to bathe in the mystery that you are. So don’t freak out and run down other paths where you think you can find security!
You won’t know where this universe is going or what it is going to ask of you, but that’s kind of the point. Because when you walk this path, you yourself radically open to who you really are, and you’re able to constructively interact with the world and respond to the suffering of others. You’ll be willing to do whatever it takes to advance the flowering of consciousness.
Want to come along for the ride?” : )
To read about Christian uses of the path as metaphor, click here for part three.