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Passing Through the Fence

Imagine for a moment that we are trapped at the bottom of a great chasm. For a long time, we don’t realize our predicament, and we wander in the darkness, struggling through muck and grime. 

One day, a ray of light from far away flashes in our eyes, and our thinking changes. 

Suddenly, we realize that we’re at the bottom of a very deep hole, and we decide that we don’t want to be here anymore. The more we think about it, the more we dislike being down here, covered in filth, and we begin working to find a way out. Finally, after a good deal of searching, we find a ladder with three rungs on it.

Carefully, we jump up and grab the bottom rung of the ladder. We pull ourselves up and begin reaching for the next rung on the ladder, but at the last moment, we slip and fall back into the bottom of the hole! Undeterred, we reach for the bottom rung of the ladder and pull ourselves up again.

It takes a few tries, but eventually, we climb all the way up the ladder, and we get out of the chasm. But our journey isn’t finished yet. There is a giant fence around the hole we just came out of, and there are no ladders in sight. However, there is enough room between the fence and the chasm that we can sit and rest comfortably.

We spend a few moments just taking it all in. Our situation is much better than it was in the chasm. There is fresh air and sunshine up here. For the first time, we feel like we can think clearly, and our mind feels calm and peaceful. We look through the fence, and on the other side, we see a huge mountain of treasure! There are gold coins, gemstones, and pearls piled as high as the eye can see. Even better, there is a sign in front of the treasure with our names on it!

Now, if only we could get past this fence…

When our minds are clouded by greed, anger, and ignorance, it is very much like being at the bottom of a dark hole. We chase after sensual desires with no thought of the consequences; blind to the inherent enlightenment that lies within us. Thankfully, the Noble 8-Fold Path provides a method for climbing out of the darkness.  The teachings of the path can be broken down into three parts for easy reference:

Wisdom- Right View and Right Intention

Morality- Right Speech, Right Action, and Right Livelihood

Meditation- Right Effort, Right Mindfulness, and Right Concentration

In the above story, the light that flashed in our eyes was the light of Dharma shining through the millennia via Buddha’s teachings. The filth that we wallowed through was the negative karma that we created through our actions. When we were able to clearly see the crisis that we were experiencing, that was right view, and it was right intention that helped us gain the resolve to escape.

The three rungs of the ladder represented right speech, right action, and right livelihood; the moral tenets that pull us out of the darkness created by greed, anger, and ignorance. The resting place at the top of the chasm was Nirvana, the state of peacefulness created when our minds are no longer clouded by desire.

When we got there, we saw a giant treasure with our names on it. That treasure was our inherent enlightenment. Now, it’s important to note that the treasure was always there. We were/ are always enlightened; however, we didn’t realize that fact until we climbed out of the hole.

That’s why I always tell students that we attain Nirvana, but we realize enlightenment.

Because we don’t naturally have Nirvana (a peaceful mind free of greed, anger, and ignorance), but that is something that we can work towards and attain through effort. However, we can’t attain enlightenment because it’s something that we already possess. Rather, we have to calm our minds enough that we can see our enlightenment and manifest it in daily life.

But before we can do that we have to get through the fence. The fence represents the limits of intellectual thought on the spiritual path. Our brains can certainly move us along the path, and moral actions can give us a glimmer of our enlightened natures. But to fully embody our enlightenment we have to experience it directly.

This is where the meditative tenets of the Noble 8-Fold path come into play. The practices of right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration help us to study the mind, sit with our thoughts, and temporarily let go of our intellectual ways of thinking. This allows us to experience our enlightened natures more fully, which results in us engaging in moral/ enlightened actions in daily life.

Thus, the practice is not a straight line. It’s a circle. Enlightened action creates the necessary conditions for enlightened experience, which then results in us performing more enlightened action. It’s an endless cycle. That’s why when Buddhists walk the Way, we walk it for a lifetime. 

That’s also why when the Buddha realized his own enlightenment under the Bodhi tree, his response was to keep practicing and teaching for the next 45 years until his death. Even for the awakened one, there was always one more step to go, and one more fence to push through.

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Passing Through the Fence


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