View, Meditation, Action: Synergy on the Buddhist Path
Practicing View, Meditation and Action (or Conduct )
Any authentic spiritual path is a full package comprised of many complementary parts. In one traditional presentation of the Buddhist path, we group these parts into three main categories: view, meditation, and action or conduct. Together, these three forge a powerful synergy and provide a complete training.
Let’s begin by looking at the first one, the view. Vast subject! You might think of this part as an incentive to define and refine your vision of the path. Why are you practicing? How does your understanding inform your practice and your conduct?
The Buddha defined the goal of the path as freedom: freedom from suffering. Freedom from misunderstandings, cravings, and disturbing emotions. And, for those of us training on the Mahayana path of the bodhisattvas, freedom from everything that hampers our ability to be of benefit to others and to ourselves, as well as from an incomplete, constricted vision of reality.
It seems there are a lot of things we are looking to leave behind. So what are we hoping to gain? How about knowledge, wisdom, an open heart, free-flowing kindness, and unconditional well-being? To develop such qualities, we begin by exploring the very basis of the Buddhist view: the four noble truths. Suffering has a cause, well-being and awakening have a cause, and once we’ve figured out how things work and which thoughts and actions lead to the one or the other, we can make informed choices about which thoughts we act on, and which thoughts we let pass.
Certain other aspects of the view are specific to the bodhisattva path. One is related to our goal as Mahayana practitioners. On this path, our focus goes beyond personal liberation and encompasses everyone else’s comfort and well-being as well. We practice so that all beings may find freedom from suffering and the causes of suffering and all beings may find happiness and the causes of happiness. This is our vision, our North Star.
On this path we also make a distinction between conventional, relative reality or truth and ultimate truth. Conventional, relative truth is how we live in this world. There’s a beginning, a middle, and an end to this life; there are relationships and choices. We recognize that our experience is subject to the law of karma—nothing happens without a cause, and everything that happens has consequences. For Buddhists, this is as incontestable as the law of gravity here on earth.
We accept that our experience of this world is subjective: we all relate to things and occurrences according to who we are in the moment. We recognize that this subjective experience is only part of the story. There’s another dimension of reality that doesn’t rely on our perception of it. We call the other dimension “ultimate” or “absolute” truth because it doesn’t depend on a perceiver, an object, and the connection between the two. We describe the true nature of experience and of phenomena as being empty. Empty of what? Of an independent, enduring, solid “self” or essence: it is “empty” because nothing manifests in and of itself.
By the same token, everything that arises out of this emptiness owes its manifestation to something else. The flip side of emptiness is interdependence. It may seem that these two dimensions of our experience of reality or truth—conditional manifestation and emptiness—are of entirely different natures, but in fact they are simply different expressions of one truth. The true nature of relative reality is empty: it is free of the confines of an apparent subject-object duality and is in fact beyond concept or description. And from the point of view of relative truth, the fact that nothing manifests on its own (aka emptiness) but arises on the basis of many other causes and conditions is another way of explaining interdependence.
Integrating the View with Meditation
The view remains conceptual until it becomes naturally integrated through the experiences and realizations that arise from our meditation practice, the second main category. There are two facets to meditation: settling the mind and developing concentration, and investigating the nature of experience. These two go by different names: mindfulness and awareness or insight are the usual terms in English; shamatha and vipashyana in Sanskrit.
While formal training usually entails dedicated sitting sessions on a cushion or chair, fundamentally, meditation is all about awareness. Once we’ve familiarized ourselves with it, we can engage in meditation just about anywhere. We find that we can cultivate mindfulness, openness, heart connection, and receptivity to interconnectedness in all sorts of situations once we set our mind and our heart on it.
Our meditation practice helps us translate our understanding of karma—cause and effect—into everyday conduct by giving us the space and clarity to recognize our tendencies before impulsively acting on them. Through our practice, we experience the freedom that comes from having choices. By maintaining a disciplined mind, even for a minute, we contribute to re-routing our deep-seated habits of distraction and laxity as well as our never-ending desire to escape this and attain/obtain that. We learn to remain open to what is, in the moment. Meditation is magical: it leads us to the understanding that unwelcome thoughts and emotions have no power over us if we don’t grasp them.
How View and Practice Inform Conduct
Furthermore, based on our view and our intention to be of benefit, we find that we are better and better able to discern which actions are likely to lead to which results. This informs the third element of the synergy: actions, or conduct. Both on the cushion and in our lives, conduct matters because actions have consequences.
When we talk about actions, we’re not just talking about physical actions. Clinging to a thought is an action. Mental discourse is an action. Speech is an action. While there’s (mercifully) no need to become preoccupied with every little thing we think, say, or do, in general, the idea of developing conduct in line with our view takes all aspects of our actions into account.
The great meditation masters do this spontaneously. Their practice has brought them to a place where view, practice, and conduct are in perfect, effortless synergy. And even at our level, as beginners training on the path, the synergy develops naturally and gives us a deep sense of fulfillment and well-being. Because the practice is working. We feel it. When our conduct is informed by positive motivation, awareness, and discernment, our activity in the world is naturally beneficial.