Someone asked me on my Facebook page the other day how to practice Buddhism.
My first thought was that it’s impossible to say anything useful about this in the space of a Facebook comment.
But then I thought more.
Buddhism was an oral tradition for the first few hundred years of its life. One of the consequences of this is that there are lots of different lengths of teaching.
The Pali canon (which apparently details the teachings of the historical Buddha) is divided by length of teaching rather than subject matter, geographical location they were given, or whatever.
Even when the printing press was invented and Buddhists started getting creative with teachings (because it no longer had to be remembered and transmitted orally), the lengths still vary massively. For example, the ‘Perfection of Wisdom’ (Prajnaparamita) collection of texts has “The Perfection of Wisdom in 100,000 lines’. It also has ‘The Perfection of Wisdom in One Letter’.
(If you want to know what the letter is, read on!)
I thought about giving the letter as my answer on Facebook, but it wouldn’t really help matters without a lengthier explanation
Apart from massively varying lengths of teaching, the Buddhist tradition is also full of lists (the Four Noble Truths, the Noble Eightfold Path, the Ten Fetters, etc.)
One of those lists is the Threefold Way.
That’s what I went for on Facebook.
The Threefold Way is sila, samadhi, panna: ethics, meditation, wisdom. The entire Buddhist path to liberation in three words. Not bad, huh?
But how do we make sense of these three words?
The foundation of the practice is ethics. Without going into detail of what ethics means in Buddhism, the idea is that without practising ethics, your mind and heart can’t be in the optimal state to meditate – at least not to meditate in a way that will lead to wisdom.
By trying to speak, think and act in a way that is more compassionate – both to yourself and others – you start the process of self transformation. Before you even sit down to meditate, you’re affecting your mind in a positive way.
There are lots of ways to do this. In Buddhism, the two fundamental categories of meditation are those types of meditation that create a strong mind and heart and those types that open you up to the true nature of reality.
In order to get real benefit from the latter, it’s extremely handy (but not essential) to have a good grounding in the former. The true nature of reality can be a wee bit unsettling, as you can probably imagine. Getting your world turned upside down tends to be a bit freaky.
In my Facebook answer I called this ‘study’. But that’s a bit of a cheat. Study of Buddhist ideas is helpful – I mean why reinvent the wheel? But in the end, wisdom in Buddhism is nothing to do with book (or blog) learning.
It’s about direct experience.
Ethics and meditation help create the right conditions for that to happen, but really it can happen to anyone at any time. Reality is everywhere. Right now, in front of your face!
Putting it all together
The Threefold Way can be seen as a progressive path. It can also be seen as three different aspects of the same practice, all of which happen consecutively. Finally, it can be seen as a spiral path in which each aspect provides the foundation for taking the next aspect to a higher level.
The more wisdom you have the more ethical it is possible for you to be.
The more ethical you are, the better a foundation you set up for your meditation practice.
And the more effective your meditation becomes, the greater the depth and frequency of your experience of wisdom.
And so on.
(By the way, the letter in the Perfection of Wisdom in One Letter is ‘a’. ‘A’ is a negative prefix in Sanskrit. It basically means ‘not’. So put ‘not’ in front of anything you can think of. What is the perfection of wisdom? Not fill-in-the-blank. Clever, huh?)