Exploring New Terrain

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Finding one's way

The Wheel's image for this path portrays unexplored terrain. The bridge alludes to the creativity of engaged practice, its ability to connect homeless mothers and photography, or civil disobedience and Buddha's birthday. One of the abiding aims of Buddhism is to bridge the realm of awakening and the realm of suffering. A bridge is also a traditional reminder of spiritual purpose: "Upon seeing a bridge," one sutra states, "wish that all beings carry everyone across to liberation."

Return to Mirabai Bush's five principles: be brave, start small, use what you've got, do something you enjoy, don't overcommit. Which seem to come naturally for you? Which do not come naturally? Which apply to an upcoming task?


Is there some form of engagement or social service that you have been considering—and holding back from? Take a step in that direction.

It is worthwhile at times simply to wander, as Taoist sages remind us. Byways reveal hidden vistas, and getting lost is a way of finding things. In one sense, we are always lost; in another sense, we are never lost. Gary Snyder offers a useful clarification when he notes that it is possible to be off the trail but still on the path:

There is nothing like stepping away from the road and heading into a new part of the watershed. Not for the sake of newness, but for the sense of coming home to our whole terrain. "Off the trail" is another name for the Way, and sauntering off the trail is the practice of the wild. This is also where—paradoxically—we do our best work. But we need paths and trails and will always be maintaining them. You first must be on the path, before you can turn and walk into the wild.

John Seed reports an experience that seems to fit this off-the-trail, on-the-path model. Soon after he became deeply involved in the defense of rain forests, something unexpected happened:

I stopped meditating. My practice just dropped away. I wasn't looking inside anymore. And I didn't have any particular explanation for this. I must say, at first it caused me quite a bit of anguish. My sense is that I'm not getting lost from the path. This is what I'm meant to be doing. Perhaps one day that current will pick me up and I'll start meditating again. I haven't lost confidence in the practice. It's just that I was led somewhere else.

The Great Way has
no gate; the
thousand byways
are its path.

Zen phrase

In spiritual training, as in most fields, there are learning curves and stages of apprenticeship, usually the longer the better. As Buddhist practice in the West continues to develop, individuals and groups are becoming increasingly skilled at finding their own way inwardly and outwardly. If the process remains on course, we learn how to learn, not only from teachers but also from ourselves. Eventually, we come to trust our own sense of direction. As rock climbers attest, there is almost always a route through new terrain, even up the face of the sheerest cliff. But we have to invent that route as we go.

The new century and millennium are another kind of unexplored terrain. Whatever the prospects of advancement, there will undoubtedly be fierce struggles over resources, ideologies, and ethnic loyalties. Will coming generations manage to weather the changes, the way Bodhidharma crossed the Yangtze, or will they be blinded by the upheavals, like shipwrecked Chien-chen? One thing is certain: bodhisattva courage will be required.


Using the Internet to deepen one's understanding of Buddhism is itself an exploration of new terrain. Has the process moved in an unexpected direction? To what degree are you inventing the route as you go?


Envision a dharmic society that reflects a radically different but workable set of values.