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The Path of Regular Steps and Irregular Steps

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by Sangharakshita

Lecture 118: The Path of Regular Steps and the Path of Irregular Steps

Urgyen Sangharakshita Given at The Buddhist Society, London, in 1975 Mr Humphries and Friends, It seems quite a long time since I last spoke in this place. In fact I was doing some calculations only a few minutes ago and I discovered that it was now eight years since I had the opportunity of addressing an audience in this place. And in the course of those eight years a very great deal indeed has happened. A great deal has happened in the world outside, happened politically, happened, of course, economically - we all know that very well - happened perhaps culturally, too. And not only in this greater world, but also in our, in one sense smaller, in one sense even bigger, world of Buddhism in the West, in England, things have been happening and changes have been taking place. Possibly it*s not too great an exaggeration to say that in the course of the last eight years the whole character, the whole face, of Buddhism in England; perhaps in the West generally, has radically and crucially changed. If I was asked to describe that change, if I was asked to put just one word to it, I would say that as compared with a few years ago, as compared with eight years ago, people who participate in, who are involved in, the Buddhist movement, are now involved in it much more existentially, much more deeply, much more whole-heartedly than ever before. People, I find as I talk to them nowadays, are much more concerned with the actual application of the Dharma, of the teaching of the Buddha, to all aspects of their lives. And for this reason they seem to be putting a greater and ever greater amount of effort into the actual treading of the Path. We may say that people are making an even greater effort to evolve than before. And because they are doing this, because they are more existentially involved, because they`re more whole-hearted, because they are putting more energy, more effort, into their spiritual lives, into their own evolution, changes are, of course, taking place in them; changes in their being, changes in their consciousness, and because of this change, because they are different when they look out on the world, they begin to see things differently; they begin to experience things differently; not as before. What was formerly of importance, or what seemed to be of importance, becomes no longer of importance, and vice versa. Of course, as one gets more deeply involved, as one changes, there are problems; new problems, perhaps even quite difficult problems, arising, and also there are splendid new opportunities.

And one can say, perhaps, that in the course of this last eight years, if one has been coming along regularly, if one has been involved in the movement continuously, one*s Buddhist life has simultaneously during this period broadened and deepened. And not only that, as one actually treads the Path, as, in fact, one oneself becomes that Path - because one is now beginning to be the Path, not just to think about it as something objective - as one is to some extent oneself now the Path, one begins to understand the nature of that Path even more clearly that ever before. One begins to see that within, as it were, the one great central Path there are different paths; as it were minor paths. Or rather, one may say, one begins to see there are different ways of following the Path; some ways, perhaps, more helpful than others. And as one evolves in this way, as one*s experience deepens in this way, as one gets to know the Path better than before, one begins in particular to appreciate the importance for one*s whole future spiritual development of what we may describe as the absolutely basic distinction between the Path of Regular Steps and the Path of Irregular Steps.

Now this distinction is a very ancient one; it goes back very far; it isn't something of which I*ve thought myself. It goes back to the East, it goes back to China, it goes beck to sixth-century China, it goes back to that great Chinese teacher Chih-I, well known as the founder of one of the greatest and most important of all the schools of Chinese Buddhism. the T*ien-t*ai School, a school which, although it is one of the greatest that Buddhism has known, has, for some reason or other, been rather neglected by Western Buddhists so far. And this great founder of this School, this great Chinese Buddhist teacher, this great Chinese Buddhist master, in the course of his lifetime preached the Dharma very widely, very extensively, founded monasteries, and managed to attract on account of his very deep spiritual attainments, an extraordinarily large number of disciples. And these disciples he addressed from time to time, commenting upon the Scriptures, speaking about the spiritual life, and especially, it seems, speaking about meditation. And many discourses have come down to us, many discourses on the subject of meditation, delivered by this great Chinese Master, Chih-I. And in the course of his discourses delivered to his disciples on the subject of meditation, he spoke of `Meditation by Regular Steps', and he also spoke of `Meditation by Irregular Steps', and again, he sometimes spoke of `Meditation Without any Steps At All'! Lecture 118: The Path of Regular Steps and the Path of Irregular Steps Page 1 Now when one mentions this third kind of Meditation - `Meditation without Any Steps At All' or `the Meditation of No Steps' - one at once finds people becoming rather interested. Huh? [Murmurs of amusement] They*re not all that interested in `Meditation by Regular Steps'. That sounds rather dull, rather prosaic. `Meditation by Irregular Steps' appeals to them quite a bit, but what really captivates and fascinates them [laughter] is this idea of `meditation with no steps at all*. Apparently you just get straight there from the beginning! But unfortunately the attraction is usually entirely for the wrong reasons, so this evening we are not going to say anything at all about meditation without steps! Tonight we are concerned only with Regular Steps and Irregular Steps, because this distinction, this distinction which was stressed by this great Chinese master Chih-I, this distinction between meditation by regular steps and meditation by irregular steps, is applicable not only to the practice of meditation but to the practice, to the experience, of the whole spiritual Path; the whole spiritual life, in all its stages and in all its aspects. And this fact, that one can approach the spiritual Path, approach the spiritual life, either by way of regular steps or by way of irregular steps, is well and widely understood throughout the Buddhist East, even though the distinction is not always made in these particular terms. So far as the West is concerned, so far as Western Buddhist circles are concerned, it*s only very recently indeed that people have begun to pay some attention to this distinction, have begun to appreciate the importance of the distinction between the Path of Regular Steps and the Path of Irregular Steps. In fact I believe it's only very recently that the distinction has even been mentioned, not to speak of discussed, or spoken about, or written about, and perhaps there*s a reason for that.

Perhaps it*s only now, perhaps it*s only in these last few months or this last year or so that we*ve reached in the West, in this country, in Buddhist circles, a point where this distinction between the Path of Regular Steps and the Path of Irregular Steps becomes meaningful for us and helpful for us and even, I may say, necessary for us, if we are to continue and make progress.

So the question arises: what is this Path of Regular Steps; what is the Path of Irregular Steps? And I propose to be a little irregular myself this evening, and deal with the second first - that is to say, with the Path of Irregular Steps, first.

Now in order to understand this, in order to understand what the Path of Irregular Steps is, we must look around us; look around us not just at the great world outside, politically, economically, culturally, but just look around in our own Buddhist circles. Look around us at Buddhism as it actually exists in the Western world today, whether in this country or in Germany, or France, or Italy, or Hungary, or the United States of America. Look around at Buddhism as it actually exists in the Western world today. And when we look around, perhaps look around for the first time, what is it that we see? What do we see first of all? What do we encounter first of all? What is the most conspicuous feature of Buddhism in the West? What do we see first? Well, first of all, I think most of you will agree, first of all we see books. Books. Books about Buddhism. Hundreds of Books. We see big books and we see small books. Little pamphlets from the East. Lavishly illustrated volumes from leading publishing houses in London and New York. We see very popular books - so popular that anybody can read and understand them, and very scholarly books; so scholarly that only perhaps two or three of us can follow them. We see books on the Theravada; we see books on the Mahayana; of course we see books on Zen. Books on the Tantra. Books written by Buddhists, of various persuasions. Books written by non-Buddhists. Books, on Buddhism that is, written by anti-Buddhists. And books written by all sorts of people who don*t know where they are or what they are. Some of these books are original works, the product of much independent thought and study; others are translations, translations from Sanskrit, translations from Pali, Tibetan, Chinese, Japanese, Burmese, Thai, Sinhalese, French, German, Italian, Russian. There's hundreds and hundreds of books. And that*s the first thing that we see when we look about us at Buddhism in this Western world; the first thing of which we become conscious ...

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