A very literal translation of Gampopa’s second teaching is “May Dharma go on the path.”
The word “dharma” has many meanings, and the one I find most relevant here is “instruction”. The “dharma” of an electronic device you might pick up in Thailand or Hong Kong is the set of instructions on the package that tells you how to set up the device and use it. Very practical. But these instructions are only useful if you actually put them to use and that’s why I use the word “practice” for dharma.
“Go on the path” seems to be an idiom. Obviously, it means “to travel”, so you could say “travel by dharma” just as one would say “travel by horse”. Some teachers, such as Trungpa, translate it as “be successful” or “be effective”, just as we might say “Let’s get this train rolling,” in reference to putting a major project in motion. Others take the view that it refers to “the path” that is defined by “the Dharma”, an interpretation that takes us back to the one overarching worldview that is characteristic of medieval societies. (Note that it is almost always translated as “the path” rather than “a path”. My first book “The Great Path of Awakening” illustrates this problematic use of the definite pronoun. If I were translating it today, I would entitle it “A Great Path of Awakening”.)
Thus, some time ago, I arrived at “Let practice become a path.”
Peter Sloterdijk, in his book “You Have to Change Your Life” makes practice the central theme of postmodern (or posthumanist, as he calls it) culture. This is no New Age book. The title is taken from one of Rilke’s sonnets and he presents the thesis that modern culture as “an aggregate of undeclared asceticisms” that have been completely removed from and divested of their spiritual context. Sloterdijk defines “practice” as “ as any operation that provides or improves the actor’s qualification for the next performance of the same operation, whether it is declared as practice or not.” Now Sloterdijk is pretentiously verbose and laboriously abstruse, but he does have a sense of humor and some interesting insights. In making practice the central theme, he cuts through and dissolves the problematic differentiation between the secular and the spiritual — far more effectively than I was able to with the phrase “pragmatic Buddhism”.
As a practitioner, I then have to face two questions “How do I practice?” and “How do I practice effectively?”
The answer to the first is that I draw on the vast amount of material now available, but I’m probably going to need some guidance if only to have any idea what is appropriate for me at this stage of my development.
For the second question, the blind repetition of an activity does not, by itself, lead to refinement or improvement. I need to have both an ideal as a reference point and a way of obtaining feedback that tells me whether my ability or skill is actually improving. In the realm of spiritual practice, both of these are more than a little problematic, which accounts for the historical tendency to establish some objective measure (number of mantras recited, memorization of texts, dream signs, hours sat without moving, time in retreat and, more recently, the ability to generate certain kinds of signals on fMRI or other neurological devices).
These measures have always been misleading, however, precisely because they seek to replace the subjective with the objective.
More important, at least for me, is to listen as carefully and completely as possible to what leads me to practice, to return again and again to the small stammering voice that is asking the questions, even if the questions are not in words. If there has to be an ideal as a reference point, that, and that alone can serve. Although the stammering voice seems to be about the past, it is not about the past. Rather, I sometimes need to work through something before I can hear the stammering voice that is not about the past. Nor is the stammering voice about the future. If it seems to be, it is usually just a reflection of the past. The stammering voice is about something else, and I’m not even going to try to put it into words, but just say that, it provides both the direction and the feedback to know when I’m moving in that direction or not.
And that’s why my present variation on the second line of Gampopa is “Let me follow this path without compromise.”