The Path

Great Symbols Series @ Theosophy Trust



THE PATH


'Not to be told; not to be written': in our writing and telling we are but urging towards it: out of discussion we call to vision: to those desiring to see, we point the path; our teaching is of the road and the travelling; the seeing must be the very act of one that has made this choice.

Plotinus

 A path is a line - a single trace, a narrow way - marking a passage across the thicket of the seeming fullness of nature to an unknown hope lying hidden beyond the desires and dreams of men. It is a furrow cut by passion through the loam of conditioned existence and it leads the madman and the dreamer to their appropriate destinies. The Greeks sang of the pati, the footpath over which love travelled, and of the small monopati drawing one along the cliff's edge, out over the land's end to wait upon the wind bearing promises from across the sea. Throughout the world small footpaths bear the impress of faithful feet that have traced upon the hollowed soil the projected geometry of the longings of the human race.

 Like thoughts etched upon the tablet of the mind, men's footsteps have always left their traces upon the earth. From the secluded monasteries of Tibet and the Pamirs to the Mediterranean, there are paths and roads without number and without age. Nameless legions have passed over them for the good of mankind or for its affliction, as pilgrims or plunderers. Those who walked the paths connecting the sacred shrines in Greece were believed to be under the protection of the gods and the pathways were thought to hold their power. To aid a pilgrim following such a path was considered a sacred privilege which permitted a collective, if vicarious, participation in the rites of holy sacrifice.

 Though discernible for thousands of years, paths are carved during the lifetimes of mortals whose individual traces upon the earth are but faintly engraved and short-lived. If a faded track leading to the dry perimeter of an ancient lake bears but a hint of an entire forgotten race, how much more faintly does it register the signature of an individual life. As Dowson wrote:

They are not long, the days of wine and roses;
Out of a misty dream
Our path emerges for a while,
Then closes within a dream.

 Our lives are like threads along a braided line which itself is woven into a net of interminable pathways, crossing and knotting and folding now and again. And yet in man there lingers the tenacious faith that he can blend the brief passage of his own life with a greater path, leading along the ravelled and torn skeins of the net, to reveal some pattern or reach a vantage point from which to grasp a larger understanding. The path leading up along the precipitous mountainside to a craggy summit thus becomes a symbol for an arduous journey that promises to yield a greater vision of the whole. Men who think they climb mountains as a challenge to their ego are deluded. It is their own deepest longing for freedom of vision that inspires their struggle though they may mask it with the profanity of worldly categories.

 A man may reach a summit and clearly see for a moment the meaning and direction of his path but, like all creatures, he must descend once more into the valley and take his sustenance. His path may lead him on into treacherous places, opening out only to become again enclosed within narrow canyon walls. He may blindly pursue a track that leads him to a dead end where, though he is stopped in his false progress, he is likely to be filled with despair sensing the irreversible loss of time and energy through wasted effort. The words of Milton in Paradise Lost may comfort him: "Long is the way and hard, that out of hell leads up to light. . . ." and give him hope, however dim. To backtrack may require more time than he has left in his short life and in his weariness he knows that it will be spent trying to reach a point in a larger path that was passed by long ago.

 We are told, however, that there is no more noble task and that the very act of backtracking may lead us to the junction of the Path to the 'Celestial City' spoken of in Pilgrim's Progress. The whole of Bunyan's inspiring work is a beautifully sustained metaphor of the Path that leads away from the 'City of Destruction' towards spiritual enlightenment. Out of death, the pilgrim travels through the 'Slough of Despond,' the lure of the 'House Beautiful,' the sting of the 'Valley of Humiliation' and the danger of the 'Valley of the Shadow of Death.' He moves on through 'Vanity Fair' and all its attractions, up the slopes of the 'Delectable Mountains' where he finds the 'Country of Beulah.' It is only after pursuing this harrowing and often enmiring path that the pilgrim progresses to the 'Celestial City' of life. There are many places along the Path that Leads Beyond Death where the pilgrim must turn back and seek a better way. The important thing is to learn the art of recognizing when one is entering a box canyon. The signals subtly communicated by water and geological patterns have their counterparts on the plane of will-force and imagination and the pathfinder must learn to read them correctly. With Whitman, we may well ask,

Darest thou now O Soul,
Walk out with me toward the unknown region
Where neither ground is for the feet nor path to follow?

 The prospect of seeking that path, which must begin in a secret place we have yet to find and which leads to regions beyond our ken, is fearful indeed. We may, like Camus' 'Rebel,' approach the perimeter of all that is familiar and looking out unto the utter seeming voidness that stretches beyond, wonder if there is any purpose to life at all. Here, the question of ennui and suicide may grip the mind of one whose masks and familiar props have all been intellectually stripped away. But the inner eye seems to perceive more than voidness and he who does not faint with fear may penetrate an unseen portal to begin a long, inexorable journey upon the soul's path.

 Tis well, Shravaka. Prepare thyself, for thou wilt have to travel on alone. The Teacher can but point the way. The Path is one for all, the means to reach the goal must vary with the Pilgrims.

 The qualities and powers needed must be variously developed in all men. Each will approach the path from a slightly different perspective. The Tathagatas, those who have gone before, can only point out the way. The pilgrim must see the entrance with his own powers of vision and commence the journey with his own initial step. Many attempt this journey but in their movement along the path they are always alone in that same solitude which accompanies death and birth, for one dies and is reborn with each new effort along the path. There is a great current in nature, enunciating the pure sacrifice of old life for new, from which the pilgrim can garner inspiration. Like the salmon that unerringly finds its way home to give birth and die, the pilgrim too must surge against mighty currents, throw himself over barriers and exhaust his whole strength to reach that still pool of beginnings and new life. He can do this if he can enter the stream, find the entrance to the Path and take the first step.

 The Path to esoteric knowledge is difficult to enter. It necessitates the mastery of elusive inner powers. One must know, will, dare and be silent. In Northern Buddhism the necessary complements to these steps are described as Ku (suffering), Tu (the assemblage of temptations), and Mu (their destruction) which lead to Tau, the Path itself. Clearly, one must struggle courageously even to find the entrance to the Path, for it has become choked and overgrown with the branches of our neglect. As H. P. Blavatsky wrote,

 The travesties of truth during long ages block the way; and it is obscured by the proud contempt of self-sufficiency and with every verity distorted out of focus. To push over the threshold alone, demands an incessant, often unrequited labor of years, and once on the other side of the entrance, the weary pilgrim has to toil up on foot, for the narrow way leads to forbidding mountain heights, unmeasured and unknown, save to those who have reached the cloud-capped summit before.

 However, as Montaigne observed, "Virtue craves a steep and thorny path," and must carry with itself the strength necessary to endure. The eyes can become incapable of tears and the ears attuned to silence. The voice can become powerless to wound through the power of that virtue which can make clean the heart. It is the virtue of daring which opens up the heart and spills forth its blood upon the plodding feet of the pilgrim soul.

 The world of man is axial to all other planes of existence and, therefore, the initial access to the higher spiritual Path is attainable only here on earth. In this world alone can a Supreme Buddha arise, and the Path that ends in beatitude begins in the stumbling efforts o'er the razor-edged cobbles of this life. The path that man unfolds from within him will tear away at the flesh of his hope till naught but hopeless hope remains. The preparation requires worship, the arising of thought through the power of a vow and the unceasing practice of the Six Virtues. The pilgrim seeking the Path may "cry for a vision" as did the Oglala Sioux who, after fasting and purification, made their path to a solitary mountaintop, or he may remain in one place seeking the Way within. Either way, the Path begins where the spark of spirit ignites the heart of matter and propels it along a higher trajectory, be it born upon a mountaintop or cradled in the pinnacles of the human mind.

 In the Buddhist tradition, dharma is thought to be the underlying principle and rationale of all paths. As a means of emancipation, it is not a way among ways but THE WAY. The disappearance of dharma implies a loss of knowledge of emancipation as well as the Path that leads to it. The concepts of freedom and human rights that embroil the politicized mentality of the age are but inverted shadows of true emancipation and the means used to achieve it. They only accidentally reflect the qualities associated with the fulfilment of dharma. It is said that there is truly a great difference between the enjoyment of life and the enjoyment of dharma. The concept of duty has become tinged with negativity and implies a joylessness or a certain lack of wit and spirit. To enjoy dharma necessitates acceptance of what is near and the full recognition that those circumstances provide the only means for developing the inner powers needed to walk the path once it has been found. In fact, Buddhists view dharmas as powers which sustain. The word dharma itself is derived from dhri, meaning 'to uphold, to sustain.' That the Gods are held to synthesize these sustaining powers is revealed in names like Tau and Shinto, which simply mean 'the Way of the Gods.' Similarly, the word Yana, which is often thought of as a vehicle, is actually a means or Path to the Bodhisattva Ideal. It is a career and a way, and the different yanas in Buddhism can be seen as stages as well as conditions along the One Path. In Sanskrit the term marga, which comes from mrig meaning 'to trace or track' emphasizes the dynamic effort involved in maintaining the Path. The fact that man must travel it, every inch, by his own self-generated effort, is echoed in the continual reference to the foot or tread (padas in Sanskrit, podos in Greek) as well as the trodden, beaten path (pati or patos in Greek, pada in Pali). The Dhammapada is the Path of Purity trod by those who perceive the impermanence of things, that all things suffer, that all is insubstantial and exists merely as a means of permitting the realization of true dharma.

 For within you is the light of the world - the only light that can be shed upon the Path. If you are unable to perceive it within you, it is useless to look for it elsewhere. It is beyond you; because when you reach it you have lost yourself. It is unattainable, because it forever recedes.

Light on the Path echoes throughout its pages the ancient teaching that one cannot travel on the Path until he has become the Path itself. Krishna says in the Dnyaneshvari:

When this Path is beheld . . . whether one sets out to the bloom of the east, or to the chambers of the west, without moving, O holder of the bow, is the travelling in this road. In this path, to whatever place one would go, that place one's own self becomes.

 At first we take all these teachings on faith. It is faith which sparks the virtue of daring, giving one the courage to cross the threshold into the unknown. It is only by entering Tau through faith and daring that one can obtain knowledge, the Fourth Truth on the Paramita Path followed by Karma. Consciousness of Karma, rebirth and the Bodhisattva is integral to the faith prerequisite to the initial step. In Sanskrit and Pali, faith is called saddha and shraddha, which mean 'to place one's heart on,' a position based simultaneously upon intuition, reason and experience. The archetypal beginnings of this great faith were long ago planted as akasic seeds by the compassion of the Buddhas. From this impulse we experience the power of faith. In Pali, Saddhanusarin means 'walking according to faith' and is the designation of those "attaining the Path of the Stream Winner." This stage is accompanied by the development of wisdom, though faith actually predominates as the driving force. Later on, in a higher state, this order of predominance becomes reversed and the pilgrim takes his Karma in his own hands to become, in consciousness, the Path itself.

 When doubts are left behind, the faithful gather around themselves the other four qualities or dharmas of a Buddha. These are vigour in bringing the virtues forth, mindfulness in never forgetting them, concentration solely upon them, and cognition which penetrates their reality. The Virtues are not only five stages of a Path but relate to five psychic factors simultaneously present in the mind which can be aligned through the discovery of the Path of Insight, said by the Buddha to be the sole means of emancipation. Progress along this Path requires positive growth as well as negative cessation, and although the Buddhist Sutras necessarily speak of stages and virtues or faculties, a balanced development is essential at each step of the way. If faith is strong but wisdom weak, the pilgrim will tend to credulity and even bigotry. If cognition swallows up faith, he will incline toward scepticism and arrogance. If vigour outbalances concentration, instability will result, whereas the opposite imbalance produces inertia. One must strive for Indriya Samatta, or the equalization of faculties which can be brought about by mindfulness, the one faculty that requires no counterbalancing faculty. When mindfulness has achieved the balancing of the virtues, it overflows onto a higher plane of consciousness, thus forging advancement along the Path through meditation.

 The Path of higher meditation cannot be entered upon until the equalization of the faculties has taken place. This balancing is like the pruning of a living bush. It requires the stemming of tendencies, inclinations and powers, so as to realize in the cultivation of neglected virtues the true nature of those already developed. The Middle Way does not imply an easy, lukewarm course of moderation. The continual pruning is painful and the balanced striving is exhausting, but it is only this achieved symmetry which enables emancipation. This is a dialectical process involving a continual transcendence of pairs of opposites, a continual merging of the forked path with the mainstream. It is as if the individual was composed of initially scattered entities each striving to converge with the rest to form one whole being on one solitary Path. The interaction of two divergent trends of thought and emotion generates a mounting tension between them, causing a coalescence at a higher spiritual level. When this synthesis occurs, Bodhichitta is experienced, 'the rising of the thought of enlightenment,' the impetus of the greater vision.

 The Path of the 'Eye' is fourfold, while that of the 'Heart' has seven precipitous stages leading to the Paramita heights. Just as there are balanced conditions along the one Path, so there are subtle differences between classes of these conditions which describe the Lesser and the Greater Yanas. The Sravaka has heard of the Path and in drawing toward it may either become a Pratyekabuddha, who has no teacher or pupil but acquires the Path for self, or, moved strongly by the compassionate faith of his predecessors, he may become a Bodhisattva, attaining supreme enlightenment for all. This last is the Mahayana Path of unbounded altruism and its vesture is that of the Nirmanakaya.

 The fourfold Path of the 'Eye' is the Open Path to liberation and its unfoldment requires the same symmetry as does the Secret Path of Renunciation. But the symmetry is achieved at a lower level of synthesis involving a lesser coalescence of forces and a subtly separative vesture. Obtaining its summit, while requiring great vigour and wisdom, still permits the seed of self to remain sealed within the heart. The Dharma Path of the 'Heart' leading to Renunciation is called 'The Path of Woe.' It is the Arya-Ashtanga-Marga or Noble Eightfold Path, about which it is said "Sweet are the fruits of Rest and Liberation for the Sake of Self, but sweeter still the fruits of long and bitter duty." Along its narrowing track, the Disciple must remain fully sensitive and awake while consciously permitting the collective suffering of the world to burst the confines of his own heart, leaving him no life other than that which pulsates from the Central Spiritual Heart. Along the razor's edge of this Path the word of His agony and triumph will echo back, for this is a two-way Path. It is a ladder or bridge formed of the substance of the Tathagatas and kept intact by their never-ending sacrifice experienced in every fibre of their being. The entrance to the Secret Path ever remains in the world for the benefit of those who, longing for the great vision of the mountaintop, are willing to share their wisdom and become as lamps along the path to struggling pilgrims in the valleys below.