Introduction to Buddha’s Map:
I laugh when I hear that the fish in the sea are thirsty.
A sweet, wise, and quivering aliveness imbues every moment. It’s so clear, quiet, and unchanging that it draws no attention. We can go for weeks, months, years, and indeed entire lifetimes without noticing it. Yet, like the invisible air we breathe, it flows through us. Without it, we would not be alive.
The Buddha said little about it. Language cannot express it. Words make it sound metaphysical or abstract rather than immediate. So he referred to it as “awakening” or “the end of suffering” and left it at that.
Rather than talk about this well-being, he taught a way to cultivate the direct experience of it. This is what counts. His path has many side benefits. He said it is “good in the beginning, good in the middle, and good in the end.” Even at the beginning it may give rise to calm, peace, joy, insight, wisdom, pleasant sleep, better health, closer relationships, and more. Many people are drawn to his practice because of these byproducts. That is fine. However, the better we grasp the totality of this path, the better we’re able to walk it, whether we intend to go a few hundred yards or the whole distance.
There are many books that talk about the beginning or the middle of the path. But few talk about the end. This book is about walking the whole distance.
In brief, the road map looks like this:
The Buddha’s meditation begins by becoming more keenly aware of our immediate surroundings. To do this, we relax the tension of distracting thoughts and feelings so we can see with greater clarity. As our ease deepens, the mind-heart unhooks from the world. We see the mind itself and how its attention moves impersonally from one object to another. As serenity becomes even more pervasive, the processes of memory and perception relax so much that they cease for short periods. Subjectively we black out. We emerge from these cessations with a consciousness that is luminous, precise, selfless, and pervaded with joy. This happiness is not dependent on anything in the world. It is unconditional and lasting.
This description may sound strange. But despite the limitations of language, if we follow the Buddha’s instructions, the actual experience is more accessible than we might imagine. In this book we’ll explore in detail the practical steps along the way.
The path unfolds in stages that the Buddha called “jhanas.” A jhana is a depth of knowing based on direct experience. Jhanas are markers along the route.
Some schools of Buddhism teach that jhanas are about absorption, where the mind is so concentrated on a single object that everything else is blotted out. Such one-pointed absorption can be blissful. But it’s temporary. It’s a dead end. It doesn't lead to wisdom or to a deepening understanding of how the mind works. How could it? In one-pointed concentration, the mind is not allowed to move.
The Buddha tried, mastered, and rejected one-pointed concentration in favor of a mind and body that are deeply relaxed and at ease. In the earliest suttas (discourses), he encourages a consciousness that is open, receptive, and mindful rather than single-focused.
Along this path, a common mistake is to try too hard—to try to force the mind-heart into stillness rather than allow it to settle into natural ease and joy. To be sure, this path requires effort. But it does not require strain or rudely shoving attention back to the breath or some other object of meditation. When the mind's essential peace is disrupted, it may require some effort to remember to notice and relax the tensions in the body, mind, or emotions. When the mind replays the same fantasy for the hundredth time, it may require some effort not to take it personally, to let go of frustration and self-criticism, and to laugh good-naturedly at ourselves. The Buddha’s path requires effort, but it is a kind and gentle effort.
For meditation practice to progress quickly, ease must play a central role.
This book explores jhanas, ease, and other insights and techniques central to following the Buddha's path. It uses stories and metaphors to convey the feel and texture of this path. It describes ways to recognize where we are and how to adjust our practice so that we can move ahead more quickly as we follow the Buddha’s path from joy, serenity, and insight to lasting happiness.
The book is divided into three sections. They can be read in any order.
In the first section, “Easing Awake,” I introduce myself as a case study of someone whose meditation had plateaued, despite stubborn determination. I got off that plateau when I met a jhana meditation master who showed me how the Buddha really taught meditation. Suddenly my practice filled with joy and ease. The narrative introduces key themes that run through the book, provides an overview of the practice and gives beginning meditation instructions.
In the following section, “Insights,” we’ll look at some of the Buddha’s key insights from the perspective of spiritual practice, which is how he intended them to be used. Many of these have been disregarded because people think they are too complex (e.g. paticcasamuppada or Dependent Origination), too esoteric (e.g. nibbana or nirvana) or too far out (e.g. anatta or selflessness). Others are just misunderstood—for instance, the Buddha never said that life is suffering (dukkha), only that life involves dissatisfaction. All these insights become instructions for training the mind-heart’s wisdom.
In the final section, “Path,” we’ll look at the Buddha’s actual path up the mountain and the eight jhanas along the way. The Buddha describes these in many talks, but some translations are misleading. And even if these misunderstandings are cleared up, the text is sparse—as the path might look from an airplane window. To actually walk the path, we need practical guidance and an on-the-ground feel for it, not just a broad overview.
However far you travel on the Buddha’s path, may it bring you joy, clarity, and peace.