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Shopping Advice for the Spiritual Supermarket Part 1

by Patrick Groneman

Two years ago I set out on a quest: To sift through the myriad of practice opportunities available to a 21st century American Buddhist and find a spiritual path that I could call home.

I've since attended weeklong and weekend retreats in the zen, insight and shambhala Buddhist communities.  (You can read about them here: zen, insight, shambhala.) Though I've yet to declare myself a part of a particular school or lineage, I've learned a great deal about myself and my expectations for spiritual practice along the way, which I thought would be helpful to share here.

I'll be breaking them down into five different posts, one each Wednesday, while I'm away on retreat.  Feel free to comment and share, I hope these thoughts bring a sense of connection to the search.

Part One -- The Three Jewels as Contemplation

One framework I've used in contemplating the different aspects of a particular spiritual path or community is the Three Jewels Buddhism:  Buddha, Dharma and Sangha

• Buddha - The Buddha represents the teacher.  This includes the actual teacher of the spiritual community you are investigating, the connection that teacher or lineage has to the historical Buddha, as well as the ability for that teacher to point you towards the teacher within yourself.  A few questions that would be helpful in contemplating the teacher are:   

Do I understand what this teacher is talking about? 
Does this teacher exhibit the path they are teaching in some way? 
Do I trust this teacher with the most raw and sensitive aspects of myself? 
Am I unhealthily infatuated with the teacher in some way? 
Is the teacher actually understanding where I am at right now? 
Does the teacher speak in a style that allows me to connect with the teachings in an honest way?  Is the teacher on an ego trip in some way? 
Does the teacher have a hidden agenda?

• Dharma - The Dharma is the teachings.  This means the actual practices and frameworks offered in a particular school or lineage, as well as the ability for those teachings to connect you to the deeper, unspoken teachings that life is always providing us.  An important thing to remember when investigating the practices and teachings are that they have had to change and morph over time.  A skillful teacher will be able to create new forms of practice that keep their root in the insight of awakening that the Buddha discovered 2500 years ago.   A few questions that would be helpful to ask in this area are:

Do the practices offered in this tradition relate to my life the way it is right now? 
Are they spoken in a language that I understand? 
Do the teachings offer me space to grow spiritually? 
Am I attracted to the customs and practices of this tradition for aesthetic reasons only? (Be careful of this!) 
Do the practices and teachings lead me to a place of clarity and peace in some way? (Don't expect immediate results.) 
Do the practices and teachings of this tradition connect me to the original teachings of the Buddha? 
Are there secret or unshared practices? (There are often good reasons for having secret practices, but still a good question to ask) 
What do the body of teachings as a whole seem to emphasize? 
Is this what I need in my life right now?

• Sangha - The Sangha is the community.  The role of the community is to support each individual member in his or her own path of awakening.  Some questions to consider in this area are:

How is the community structured? 
Who makes decisions about how the community form will evolve? 
How is access to the teacher managed? 
Do the members of the community reflect the teacher and the teachings in a positive way?  Are members of the community kind? 
Is the community diverse? 
Do I feel like I can fit in with this community? 
How does the community interact with its surrounding culture/community?  
What does the community as a whole do to support my own path of awakening?

Check back next week for Part Two.


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