Stand still. The trees ahead and bushes beside you
Are not lost. Wherever you are is called Here,
And you must treat it as a powerful stranger,
Must ask permission to know it and be known.
–– from “Lost” by David Wagoner
Once many years ago, I was hiking by myself in the White Mountains of northern New Hampshire in the late spring. I was following the Tripyramid Trail to Mount Whiteface, one of the lesser known 4,000 footers. It was a place I had not been before. Somewhat near the top of the mountain but still below tree line, the open path was blocked by several large, fallen trees. I climbed over the many thick, leafed-out limbs and branches and continued on up to rock-faced pinnacle. It was a lovely clear day. I enjoyed the beautiful expansive view, had a snack, and started down. When I got back to the tree-blocked area, I again climbed through the congestion of rubble, but this time it wasn’t so easy to relocate the trail. I tried going back a couple of times, but each time I got even more tangled. As I am writing this now, it seems impossible that I couldn’t find the trail, but I could not. I got confused, lost, and very scared.
I felt panicky, but I was able to regain enough presence of mind to calm down and deal with the precariousness of the situation. It was mid-afternoon. The Tripyramid Trail was not well known. I had seen no one else on it that day, and I had not told anyone at home where I was going that morning. (I have never made that reckless mistake again!) Given that I was on top of a mountain, I decided that the best course of action would be to head downward through the woods without delay. I bushwhacked through the forest for a time and then came to a stream. I followed it. After about two hours of scrambling, the growth around the stream became too thick for me to continue along it. I headed back into the woods while trying to keep a sense of the stream. Miraculously, very soon––after less than twenty steps––the trees opened onto the trail! I had been found. I lay down on that wide, clear path feeling enormous relief, joy, gratitude filling my entire being.
Path is a metaphor that plays an important role in many of the Buddha’s teachings, and just like any other metaphor, it has an open-ended beauty with a vast potential for our minds to explore. It is like a finger pointing at the moon: we want to look at the moon, not the finger. The path metaphor itself actually leads us on a path to understanding path viscerally––in our own lived experience.
I have, in the past, used the story of my being lost and found on Tripyramid to talk about the tremendous solace of finding the Buddhist path in my life in the midst of the experience of stress and angst. I have at other times used the story to talk of being found by the path. Until now, I have thought that the first part of my downhill journey had not been on the path, but now I think it too was a path, one which contained the gift of the five spiritual faculties. I had some confidence (1) that going downhill would work. I put some effort (2) into that. The heightened awareness that we could call mindfulness (3) accompanied my unmapped walk through the forest. A steadiness of mind––concentration (4)––grew to the point that I could see the trail emerge––wisdom (5) when I arrived on the well-traveled part.
Isn’t this a story for all of us? The path emerges as we walk it.
Dharma teacher Diego Hartgarten said recently: “This planting of seeds is what we call the path,” and “what we are doing now is the path.” And he said of the path’s direction and intention that it is “conducive to our well-being and to that of the world around us.”
As Buddhists, we have the Eightfold Path, which leads the way out of the suffering, which is constructed and embellished by our tendency to react unwisely to the constantly changing, unpredictable, often unsatisfactory and uncontrollable aspects of our human lives. This important pathway is dependent on and consists of having the appropriate understanding, intentions, effortful actions, and mental training.
The Buddha claims that Satipatthana, his basic teaching on the mindfulness of the Eightfold Path, offers a “direct path”:
“This is the direct path for the purification of beings, for the surmounting of sorrow and lamentation, for the disappearance of dukkha and discontent, for acquiring the true method, for the realization of nirvana, namely, the four satipatthanas.”
The teaching on Dependent Origination is a different path, one that leads to suffering and ignorance again and again. Knowing this path allows us to walk in a different direction. Saddha (confidence in the teaching) can transform even this path into a skillful one, designated as Transcendent Dependent Origination.
Every meditation practice we do is a path with a beginning, middle, and end. Regular practice creates a clear trail in the mind. A group of us at VIMS have been exploring an eight-step practice called The Gradual Entry into Emptiness. It is repetitive and cumulative: each time that we add a step, we repeat all the others. It is as if we are laying down a neurological pathway in the mind and in the heart. Increasingly, we can let go and trust that the path will open to us and guide our way.
“Stand still. The forest knows where you are. You must let it find you.” (David Wagoner)
I am told that the Thai Forest monks each have an individual khutti, a meditation hut in which they live and practice. Each hut has a well-worn path in front of it on which they do their meditation. In that tradition, it is said that one can get a sense of the depth of a monk’s practice by looking at the depth of the walking path. Keep calmly noticing the path––externally, internally, and both internally and externally.
The Path will take you
whenever you’re ready––
just as you are.
(from The First Free Women: Poems of the Early Buddhist Nuns, translated by Matty Weingast)