Navigating the Wheel

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A tool for understanding

All of the Wheel's paths are linked to one another. Each path can be seen as part of a meaningful sequence, and each path has dimensions that go beyond any sequence.

For example, the Wheel's second ring is composed of four sectors, representing engagement in family, work, politics, and the environment. While this particular sequence may reflect widening spheres of involvement (according to customary standards), all four paths are nonetheless equal in significance and value. The path of household practice is potentially as boundless as any other.

The larger individual images that accompany each essay create an alternative arrangement, a variation which can stand on its own.

The gradual blossoming of the lotus flower in these images validates the possibility of advancement. For some people, linearity keeps things orderly and marks progress. For others, linearity is. . . too linear. Here it is not necessary to choose: the Wheel format preserves the advantages of nonlinearity, while the individual images show how the ten paths can be arranged sequentially.

A visual model with balanced sectors and recognizable images may give a first impression of clarity and ease, as if the paths of engaged spirituality were fully mapped and evident to all. On the contrary, engaged Buddhism is in a period of experimentation, when it is more valuable to pose questions than to settle them. Buddhists do not minimize the difficulty of engaged practice. Cultivating awareness in daily life can be hard, working with others can be hard, caring for the Earth can be hard, and so on. There are many points along the way where one feels completely stymied. If you are familiar with Zen koans (profoundly challenging spiritual conundrums), you will recognize that each path has koan-like aspects. In order to grasp the heart of a path, one has to find some way to get inside it. When meaningful solutions are found, on the path and in the world, they most often come not from thinking dispassionately about matters but from entering into each situation fully and authentically.

One can gain entrance to the Wheel at any point, just as one can begin reading a map at any point. Each of the ten paths is fit to serve as "the first." With familiarity, the number of possible applications increases. A fruitful exercise is to try to find one’s own place in the Wheel, the way outdoor community maps indicate “You are here.” A particular path may amply express the current thrust of your efforts. Or perhaps some combination of two or more paths may reflect your present priorities in a useful way.

Cultivating awareness in daily life   Moving into the world
Embracing family   Extending compassionate action
Working with others   Exploring new terrain
Participating in politics   At ease amid activity
Caring for the Earth   Spreading joy in ten directions

For example, a teacher in an inner-city school may find that the two paths of working with others and extending compassionate action, in combination, illuminate salient aspects of her engaged practice. Alternatively, the Wheel can highlight neglected areas of our lives that invite more attention, and suggest new ways to expand practice in those areas. You may also use the Wheel to clarify future goals, or to see how elements of practice and fields of engagement have changed over time.