Many people, myself included, come to Buddhism because we can’t find an escape from our suffering. Full of fear and uncertainty, we find that Buddha’s Four Noble Truths provide some mental relief. There is suffering. There is a cause to suffering. There is an end to suffering. The is a path out of suffering (the Noble 8-fold path). As we learn to walk this path, to let go of our resistance to the endless arising and passing away of conditions, we begin to experience this moment just as it is and we see our suffering diminish. The path opens up, we see that Buddha’s teachings are applicable in our own lives. The dharma works. But the mind is a tricky little fox and soon the very path that was leading us to liberation may become yet another thing to cling to, something to keep us safe from the inevitable storms of life. We probably don’t even see this subtle shift until we’ve strayed far from the path.
A man walking across a field encounters a tiger. He fled, the tiger chasing after him. Coming to a cliff, he caught hold of a wild vine and swung himself over the edge. The tiger sniffed at him from above. Terrified, the man looked down to where, far below, another tiger had come, waiting to eat him. Two mice, one white and one black, little by little began to gnaw away at the vine. The man saw a luscious strawberry near him. Grasping the vine in one hand, he plucked the strawberry with the other. How sweet it tasted!
This is our life, we will never be protected from the tigers and the vine will whittle away until we fall to our death. No one has ever escaped death. So what is our response? If we use this practice to keep us safe, it will fail us. Genuine practice isn’t safe.
If you’ve gotten comfortable with your practice, you need to examine with total honesty the boundaries you’ve created. Has the practice become a container or bubble that keeps your heart sheltered from the darkest realms of your own existence? Has it tipped that way without your even knowing it? What happens if you burst the bubble, the boundary that you dwell in? Are you suddenly face to face with what you most fear, what you hoped would protect you from falling, from failing? Can you then, in this very moment, reach for the strawberry right in front of you and enjoy it, no matter what you fate, savoring the perfect sweetness that permeates your whole being? If so, you’ve found your true path, genuine freedom, your home.
The End of The Path
photography by Lisa Ernst