The Road Home: A Contemporary Exploration of the Buddhist Path

The Road Home: A Contemporary Exploration of the Buddhist Path

by Ethan Nichtern


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780374536718
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Publication date: 07/12/2016
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 288
Sales rank: 524,507
Product dimensions: 7.90(w) x 4.90(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Ethan Nichtern is a senior teacher in the Shambhala Buddhist tradition and the author of One City: A Declaration of Interdependence. He is also the founder of the Interdependence Project, a nonprofit organization dedicated to secular Buddhist study as it applies to transformational activism, mindful arts and media projects, and Western psychology. Nichtern has taught meditation and Buddhist studies classes and retreats across the United States since 2002. He is based in New York City.

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The Road Home

A Contemporary Exploration of the Buddhist Path

By Ethan Nichtern

North Point Press

Copyright © 2015 Ethan Nichtern
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-374-71196-2



Accepting Your Own Friend Request

Meditation has become incredibly popular. Well, at least popular in theory. Aspects of Buddhist meditation have already had a profound influence on a wide swath of our culture, as mindfulness and other techniques have been widely integrated into Western psychology, medicine, arts, social justice work, and even early childhood education. This has all happened very quickly, in some ways far more rapidly than Buddhist thought was integrated into the new cultures it migrated into throughout its Asian past. I am part of the second generation of the American Shambhala Buddhist community, and many of the obstacles that the first generation faced in establishing its practice are now greatly diminished, thanks to the hard work of dedicated pioneers in integrating Eastern practices into Western culture.

I imagine that when my parents each told friends and family in the early 1970s that they were practicing meditation, the response they got was quite different from what I get when I disclose my own practice now. I know my parents were met with many confused looks and worried questions behind their backs about swamis and cults. I especially like to imagine the look on my grandparents' faces circa 1973 in the small farming town of Stuttgart, Arkansas, when my mother, Janice, tried to explain to them that she was now following a brilliant and wild Tibetan man, receiving teachings on the nature of mind.

Things have changed drastically since the 1970s. Rarely a day goes by that my social network doesn't light up with a widely shared link to an article about the proven health benefits of meditation practice. Now, wherever I go, when I tell somebody I teach Buddhism, it's never greeted with frowns, and is almost always a big plus for my credibility as a human being. "That's so awesome!" people usually say. Often they will follow by telling me about their own practice or experience with Buddhism, or else they might start talking about their yoga practice, or maybe the dialectical behavioral therapist they work with. Every once in a while when I reveal what I do, the person I'm talking to will put his hands together at his heart center and say a quiet namaste in a semireverent tone—a gesture totally out of context—and I have to catch myself from cracking up in front of him.

The thing that happens most often when I tell people I meditate is actually pretty strange: after singing the theoretical praises of meditation, the person says something like, "I wish I could meditate. I just can't. I tried. I just couldn't empty my mind. It just wouldn't stop." Because of these seemingly countless encounters—where people highly praise meditation and proudly say things like, "If I'm anything, I'm a Buddhist," only to turn around in the next breath and say they aren't cut out for meditation—I often joke that meditation has become the thing we're all really happy that other people do.


Why is meditation so popular in theory, but less so in actuality? Why do people encounter so much difficulty with even a foundational practice like mindfulness of body, where we simply take a comfortable posture, connect with the present moment, and try to gather our attention to the feeling of our body breathing for a few brief minutes? Countless studies—and, much more important, the personal experience of millions of practitioners—have already verified the many positive and transformative effects, as well as the health benefits, of a sustained long-term meditation practice. There is even evidence to suggest that a small but consistent amount of meditation practice might amplify the expression of positive genetic traits! Techniques that have been formally studied include mindfulness, compassion meditation, and now even more esoteric visualization techniques. Why, then, aren't people walking the streets of our major cities with meditation cushions strapped across their backs, the same way they do with yoga mats?

Part of the issue is that there are some lingering misconceptions about what meditation practice means and what it offers. Exploring two traditional Buddhist translations for the word "meditation" can help to demystify this confusion and make the practice more accessible, as well as to clarify common misunderstandings about its purpose and effects.

Definition One: Cultivation—No Fast Food in This Garden

Like almost everything worth doing in life, meditation is a long-term endeavor, meant to be practiced a little bit each day over a long period of time, along with occasional periods of retreat to deepen your experience. I know so many people who have tried meditation once or twice and then gave up on it because they didn't instantly get the results they were looking for. The results we are looking for, unfortunately, often include stopping our thoughts altogether, or destroying unwanted emotions. One simple reason meditation is difficult to sustain is that the principal benefits of meditation are not short-term, and it is generally hard to convince ourselves to engage in anything that has mostly long-term effects. Our global culture and the animal portion of our brains are geared toward activities that have short-term rewards, and our culture and our brains both fight hard to keep us away from activities that provoke short-term resistance. This is part of the commuter's mentality; when we wander through life, we tend to privilege short-term convenience.

The first traditional definition of meditation points to the need to view it as a long-term process. There is a word in the Pali and Sanskrit languages of early Buddhism, bhavana, which is generally translated as "meditation practice." Bhavana means something like cultivation, developing, or growing. It has the feel of gardening. This word points to the fact that meditation helps us cultivate qualities of mind that truly make a difference in life: mindfulness, compassion, love, intelligence, patience, and fearlessness. These are, after all, the qualities we hope people will remember us by. I, for one, hope that when I'm gone people have more to say about me than, "He could watch every single episode of his favorite show in one marathon session, without ever leaving the couch. Now that's stamina!"

From the standpoint of bhavana, meditation functions very similarly to physical exercise, like the slow training of a healthy body. Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche points to the fact that everyone at least theoretically agrees that physical exercise is a good thing. At least we agree around New Year's Day, when making our resolutions. Though we rarely think that our mind can be exercised, it is, in fact, arranged as a group of muscular systems that we need to develop slowly through training.

To take this analogy further, think about how you feel when you watch a world-class athlete. When we see this athlete, of course we might think much of their success comes from natural talents, but we also know that their abilities were developed through a lot of training. Nobody thinks Michael Jordan got where he did without a whole lifetime of practice. He was in the gym all the time (he got cut from his high school team, by the way).

However, when we see an incredibly compassionate person, our mind makes different assumptions. We tend to just assume that they (the Dalai Lama, Dr. King, Aung San Suu Kyi, etc.) were "born that way," that there was no training involved, no resistance confronted, no bravery required in becoming who they became. The best we can do as mere mortals, we figure, is to maybe get a distant blessing or a deep hug from such a saint. Maybe then some of their magic aura will rub off on us. Believing that great people are born without having to work with their heartminds reveals a lack of understanding that we ourselves can develop our minds. Through meditation, we come to see that mindfulness and compassion are like mental muscles that need to be worked daily. That's the remarkable fact: compassion is something you have to train in.

When we don't realize that we can cultivate our mind over time, we feel stuck, helpless, resigned to a schmuck's sorry fate, disbelieving that we could ever transform how we perceive ourselves and how we interact with the world. Without our realizing it, this misguided view leads us to a very harmful place, because it causes us to abdicate responsibility for the cultivation of compassion, always leaving the hard work to somebody else. But if humans are going to thrive (or even survive), we each need to manifest as a decent, mindful, and compassionate person in this world. We can't wait for the right person to get elected (we already tried that one) or, for that matter, the perfect teacher or guru to show up on our doorstep and bless us, removing all veils and obstacles.

A few years back, I joined a CSA, or community-supported agriculture program. Once a week, we city dwellers would pick up a load of fresh vegetables and produce delivered from an organic farm upstate. It was March when I signed up for the farm share. Feeling ecofriendly and hipster green, I proudly asked over the phone when we could pick up our first load of produce. The woman responded, "Oh, probably the first week of June." The first week of June was almost three months away. My knee-jerk thought was "What a rip-off!" Then I remembered the truth of how slowly good things come into being. "Oh, I forgot. They have to grow the food first. Right."

Our inclination to get caught up looking for immediate solutions mirrors our tendency as a society. So many of our global systems seek fast-food solutions for our shared problems. Our political and economic systems are overly bound to outcomes that can be quickly achieved, outcomes that almost always sacrifice the long-term health of our society and planet. These instant gratification approaches always seem the most profitable, but only when profit is defined as immediate comfort with minimal effort. As a society, we need to contemplate why we've come to prefer quick gains over long-term sustainability. Likewise, as individuals seeking happiness, we need to come face-to-face with our problematic addiction to immediate gratification and convenience. Meditation gently forces us to confront just how much the habit of instant gratification has led us astray, into a commute of dissatisfaction. In fact, the more we practice, the more practice begins to short-circuit our animalistic wiring to seek pleasure right now.

Of course, it makes total sense that we look for a quick-fix version of mental well-being, something that might reduce stress and reliably make us feel good immediately. Let's be honest: if quick fixes actually worked, then the smartest thing to do would be to go for the quick fix, every single time. However, there is no fast-food version of meditation and, if there were, it would probably be about as healthy for the mind as fast food is for the body.

To be a committed meditation practitioner, you have to sit down for, say, ten minutes each day, thinking about the effects of your practice ten years in the future, rather than just hoping to feel awesome the moment the timer goes off. Some days you do feel great at the end of the session, whole and balanced, capable and even fearless. But some days when the gong rings, you just feel cranky and defensive, rubbed a little raw by your time on the cushion, like you lost a few layers of skin. To become a student of meditation is to become a student of life, a student of process itself. In my experience, becoming a student of meditation leads to studying everything else—art, culture, politics, relationships—more fully. You establish a basic rhythm of being more process-oriented, and you are willing to stick with all processes more appreciatively, more patiently. You generally become, in the words of Pema Chödrön, one of the Acharyas, or master teachers, of the Shambhala lineage, more "curious about existence."

This is not to say that meditation doesn't offer any short-term benefits such as stress reduction, settledness of mind within chaotic life situations, clarity of intention, and heartfelt empathy for others, to name a few. These effects have all been verified by multiple studies that have examined a wide range of the effects of practice on both brand-new and highly experienced practitioners. But if you try to use your meditation practice to feel a certain way every time, to experience a reliable bliss, you eventually end up with the kind of spiritual objectification that is the very source of the commuter's confusion. Meditation just doesn't work that way, because reality just doesn't work that way.

The fact is, there are much better ways to feel short-term pleasure than to meditate. I'm sure you are familiar with some yourself, whether they are rated G or NC-17. But meditation is the best way I've found to feel at home in my experience, which leads to a kind of sustainable satisfaction that can begin to pervade every situation you encounter, whether pleasant or painful. It takes a lot of time to begin to trust that meditation works. The journey of practice provides so many bumps and curves, so many chances to lose and then to recover our trust in the whole process, so we have to remember our long-term view again and again and again.

Interestingly enough, in the Buddha's earliest teachings, when Siddhartha speaks of whether it is possible to truly cultivate your mind like a garden, he tells his students to just trust him. He says, "If it were not possible to cultivate healthy and wholesome qualities of mind, I would not ask you to do so." Usually, in his oral dialogues, Siddhartha demonstrated things that could be verified by lived experience and thoughtful contemplation, and he told anyone who was listening never to take his word for anything. After all, this is generally the best form of teaching: the best teachers provide a supportive framework and timely sparks of inspiration for the student to gain confidence in her own experience. But here, when it comes to our deepest insecurity—our tendency to disbelieve that we can actually change our mind—the Buddha just says, "If you don't trust yourself, then trust me. I wouldn't ask you to practice if you couldn't do this." I always thought this was a very interesting teaching, because it sounds like he is demanding blind faith. Even so, whenever I've felt hopeless and stuck in my practice, or my life, it always helps to think of the encouragement of mentors or genuine heroes who have already cultivated the qualities I'm working to cultivate. As we've said, those people weren't "born this way" (if they were, what use would they be as examples for us?). Rather, they were brave enough and patient enough to slowly develop themselves, to till the fertile soil of their own minds over time.

If we try meditation once and then return to our habitual mode of commuting through objects, looking for something shiny and disposable for our spiritual shopping cart, we'll only feel the same old dissatisfaction when the new method no longer glows. Meditation only works if we give it lots of time. My advice is to practice at least a year, ten minutes each day, and go on at least one retreat during that year before you wonder too much about results. A year is not too much time to invest in your true home. Honestly, a lifetime wouldn't be, either.

Definition Two: Making Friends with Yourself

There is a deeper reason yet, I think, that meditation is hard to engage in, which goes right to the heart of what it means to come home to ourselves. When we meditate, we are engaging in something that for most of us is a completely new style of education. In our society, most fields of learning are about the world of objects, people, and relationships "out there." Most, maybe all, of our formal education is based on understanding objects. When we learn about engineering, or we learn to cook, or we learn painting, we are studying the rules of how the world "out there" operates, how the perceptual or intellectual objects of our experience work together with each other, how these objects can be understood and manipulated. This style of education even influences the way psychology has been traditionally studied in Western culture. Ironically, it is still possible that somebody could earn a Ph.D. in psychology and have mostly gained expertise in the study of other people's minds, or an abstracted mind.

But what about us, the subjects? For many of us, our education is a matter of pride, something that has cost us many years, many resources, and lots of toil. We may know countless facts, we may have fancy degrees or titles, but have we directly studied how our mind perceives, feels, experiences, grasps at, reacts to, and projects onto the world "out there"? It's quite possible that a person has multiple framed diplomas, and still he doesn't know much about his own true home, his heartmind. This can be quite a difficult and embarrassing fact to come to terms with. As a teacher and a student, I know that an educational process is always the hardest when a student feels that the subject at hand is something she is already supposed to know about. We may be adults, but in terms of our direct relationship to our own mind—what you might call our contemplative education—we may have only a kindergarten level of understanding. When we meditate, we have to leave all our diplomas behind for a moment and be willing to go back to an inner kindergarten, to the most basic level of contemplative education. We have to embrace a new kind of subjective learning process, with all its awkwardness and uncertainty, but also with its playfulness, in order to overcome whatever inadequacy we might feel when we realize that we may never have developed the simple skill of being able to spend ten minutes alone with our own mind. After all, kindergarten is supposed to be fun, with graham crackers and apple juice galore.


Excerpted from The Road Home by Ethan Nichtern. Copyright © 2015 Ethan Nichtern. Excerpted by permission of North Point Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Foreword Sharon Salzberg ix

Introduction: Where Do You Live? 3

Part I The Journey of Self-Awareness

1 Meditation: Accepting Your Own Friend Request 35

2 Karma: Taking Responsibility for Home 51

3 Coming Home 24/7/365: Ethics in Everyday Life 75

4 Being Human: Buddha Nature and the Cocoon 90

Part II The Journey of Relationships

5 Where I End and You Begin 107

6 Ears, Mouth, and Fingertips: Communicating with Mindfulness 123

7 Spiritual Bypassing: What Emptiness Means and What It Doesn't 138

8 A Bodhisattva's Boundaries: Compassion, Idiot Compassion, and Knowing the Difference 147

9 Eye to Eye: The Student-Teacher Relationship 161

Part III The Sacred Journey

10 Religion, Secularism, and a Sacred Path 179

11 Imagining a Basically Good Home: The Practice of Visualization 193

12 Sacred Emotions, Sacred Environment 205

Part IV Society's Journey

13 The Wisdom of No Escape from the World 223

14 Scared World vs. Sacred World: 3 S's and 3 C's 239

15 The Culture of Awakening: Art and Transformation 252

16 Conclusion: Coming Home 259

Suggested Reading 267

Acknowledgments 271

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The Road Home: A Contemporary Exploration of the Buddhist Path 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Simply an exceptional book on Buddhism. So well written. Getting copies for many friends