Two Kinds of Practice
by Joseph Goldstein, excerpted from One Dharma
As we continue our journey toward awakening with whatever practices (or nonpractices) we have undertaken, at a certain point of confidence in our understanding we may feel ready to explore different methods and traditions. The Buddha’s teachings contain a wide array of skillful means, a vast treasury of wisdom. If we are well trained in one method, we can then integrate the teachings of various traditions into the One Dharma of liberation.
In harmonizing the differences in these traditions, it is helpful to have a template for understanding their different approaches to liberation. There are two basic styles to consider. They could be called the “building from below” and the “swooping from above” methods of practice. Building from below starts with the suffering we find ourselves in, learns how attachments are its fundamental cause, and practices letting go of those attachments through insight. Swooping from above begins with a glimpse, or intuition, of the open, innate wakefulness of mind, free from any clinging–and then practices refining and stabilizing that recognition, without giving much attention to the nitty-gritty of experience.
Both of these approaches are well grounded in teachings of the Buddha that all the schools agree upon. In one famous passage, the Buddha described as beginningless our wandering through samsara: “I see no beginning to beings who, obstructed by ignorance and ensnared by craving, are hurrying and hastening through this round of rebirths.” From this perspective, ignorance has been with us always, and the emphasis in practice is to recognize the suffering it causes and make the effort to purify it.
Another perspective understands the mind to be fundamentally pure. Although ignorance and the other defilements are seen as beginningless. they are also understood as not being intrinsic to the mind itself. The defilements arise out of conditions and pass away when the conditions are no longer present, like clouds forming and dissolving in the sky. If they were an intrinsic part of consciousness, then we would never be free. In one Pali Sutta, the Buddha spoke directly to this point: The mind, monks. is luminous, but is defiled by visiting (adventitious) defilements.
It may well be that the approaches of the different traditions are simply highlighting one or the other of these two understandings: beginningless ignorance or essential purity. Those who focus on how deeply ignorance is conditioned will see the many kinds of suffering it causes in our lives and emphasize the effort needed to uproot that ignorance: how to take the next step on the path right before us–the pitfalls to avoid and the obstacles to overcome. Those schools that emphasize ignorance as not being intrinsic to the mind will focus on the recognition of the fundamentally pure. groundless. luminous nature of the mind itself. But both perspectives are true. and each one supports the other for our ultimate realization.