We all seek to live a life of purpose. You can be certain that we have a precious human life endowed with freedoms and opportunity, but how we use that life determines the degree to which we feel we fulfill our purpose.
The Buddha described three types of traveler's on the path based on the scope of their practice. Atisha in his Lamp for the Path to Enlightenment describes this threefold designation:
Know to be 'least' those persons
Who diligently strive to attain
Solely the joys of conditioned existence
By any means for their welfare alone.
* * * * *
Those persons are called 'medium'
Who stop sinful actions,
Turn their backs on the joys of conditioned existence
And diligently strive for their own peace.
* * * * *
Those person are called 'superior'
Who sincerely wish to extinguish
All the suffering of others
By understanding their own suffering.
Those traveler's of lesser scope work towards the benefit of this life and a higher rebirth, whether it be in the heavens or in this life in the form of promotions, power and fame. Those traveler's of lesser scope are enshrouded in their identity and the eight worldly concerns. We can see this all around us in the form of self-help guides, self-development programs, habits for success, fitness goals and competitions. All of these activities are undertaken with the intention that they will bring about one's own welfare, that they will yield positive results and that your life will be happier, healthier, and more fun.
And in general it is true.
If you have healthier habits, you will be healthier. You can definitely 'work your way up' through the levels of conditioned existence. Surely we can say that we are able to use our freedoms and opportunities more in America than in many third world countries that are under authoritarian rule and wherever you happen to be born in the social hierarchy determines your fate. Many Americans may not say they believe in karma, but they do live their lives with a full understanding of how cause and effect can bring about better states of existence.
But we also never escape the cycle of distress and suffering that follow such an existence. There is no escape from discontentment. There is no refuge in samsara. The higher levels of this world do not yield the desired result of inner wealth- peace, contentment, joy and love.
We have the tendency to think that if we can improve our environment, body or external conditions then we will experience our desired result. But all of these occur within the confines of our mind, a mind that is wrapped in identity, grasping, karma and negative mental states. We cannot buy, bargain or work our way out of our mind. It is only the wisdom that understands the true nature that can break through the confines of dualistic mind.
There are a couple of landmarks to be mindful of when you are traveling with lesser scope.
The second is the all-pervasive nature of suffering within conditioned existence. When you begin to notice these two landmarks, you are on the verge of giving rise to the middle scope of practice.
Those of medium scope seek liberation from the cycle of conditioned existence. To put an end to suffering once and for all. They rely on the Four Noble Truths and the teachings on Dependent Origination to come to an understanding of their own suffering and the most expedient means to eliminate it. The goal is the complete cessation of suffering and distress. It is the personal salvation of an Arhat. This cessation of suffering is not to be confused with Buddhahood, but it is the state of nirvana or everlasting peace.
There are also landmarks to be mindful of when you are traveling with medium scope.
The second is naturally arising love, compassion and kindness for others. When you begin to notice these two landmarks, you are definitely on the verge of giving rise to the practice of great scope.
The practice of great scope is that which seeks to liberate all beings from the discontentment and suffering of samsara. It is a path that enacts the Four Immeasurables and Six Perfections, seeking to perfectly accumulate merit and wisdom that fulfills the aims of oneself and others. This is the path traveled by all Buddhas and bodhisattvas. A bodhisattva is a practitioner of great scope that chooses to intentionally take birth within the round of samsara until all worlds are emptied, from the darkest of hells to the highest of heavens. Bodhisattvas rest with ease despite the adventitious suffering of conditioned existence. They constantly rest in openness and honesty, not needing to project their identity or justify themselves. They are the artisans of generosity, love and kindness. You probably will not recognize them as they spread their art but you can witness how the shape of their life brings countless benefit to everyone around them.
It is often said that those who give rise to the path of great scope are as rare as stars seen during the daytime. This is true and indeed they are a precious jewel for the world. But I think we can all see aspects of ourselves in each of these paths.
Which path are you traveling on?