The Critical Path to Enlightenment: Concept and Value Proposition


The project is still early in the research, outlining, and drafting stage. It has several times been on hold, moreover, because of the schedule demands of a collaborator. But as plans firm up and execution is further under way, I will reveal more specifics.

The Project Management Concept of Critical Path

The book builds on the Pragmatic Dharma ethos in the sense that it includes a western future-oriented manifesto and a map-driven structure at the top level. It is written in modern, accessible plain English aimed at busy western laypersons. Critical path is a concept borrowed from modern business project management theory. It is the delineation of all the necessary stages and steps toward a project goal, the longest expected duration of each step, and the “dependencies” of the beginning of one step on the completion of some prior step or steps. A critical path yields the shortest possible beginning-to-end representation of the route to a goal. Thus, the book, The Critical Path to Enlightenment: Model, Map, and Method, is a whole-path project management template from zero to Buddhahood.

Value Proposition for the Dhama Book Concept

The concept for this book sprung from a stark lack persisting in the burgeoning western dharma book market: Although countless niche books exist on this or that isolated theory or practice morsel, nothing exists to empower the practitioner to plan the most efficient whole path toward the goal of enlightenment, to document and interpret preliminary results, to diagnose stable attainments, and to confidently navigate the order of stages and levels of meditation practice efficiently.

To illustrate—a friend who is a teacher mentioned to me recently that one of his new students, a beginner, was diving into wrathful deity practice as a first entry to meditation because that student thought a book on the specific practice “sounded cool.” My teacher friend and I laughed, but this situation is the norm rather than specific to this student. The dharma book market is currently a buffet with no defined meal courses governing menus governing, in turn, recipes. Without continuity-of-care whole-path guidance, the practitioner risks misdirection toward the ultimate goal—enlightenment—as well as toward the mastery of the currently alluring practice morsel.

The Critical Path to Enlightenment solves this pervasive problem by delineating in plain modern English a coherent model of enlightenment, a tested syncratic map of the stages and substages of spiritual realization, and diagnostic criteria for the completion of each substage. The practitioner traverses the “critical path” honed for overall efficiency: Model informs map, map drives method, and method drives specific modules of practice and their before-and-after diagnostic criteria. 

Unique Contributions to Pragmatic Dharma and Beyond

Although, as summarized, this pragmatism may initially sound dry to meditators who currently labor under the misguided but culturally pervasive notion that meditation is relaxation therapy, its fuller execution departs from other works of Pragmatic Dharma in ways that will inspire all practitioners. Specifically, the pragmatic eclecticism of this book means significant inclusion of Indo-Tibetan-inspired practices, among others, not just Theravadin practices. Additionally, this book addresses psycho-emotional challenges and works with them meditatively as such.

Perhaps most different from other Pragmatic Dharma works is this book’s explicit commentary on the shifting fulcrum between the “masculine principle” and “feminine principle” as ways of conceptualizing practice approaches as a practitioner advances: The beginning of the path emphasizes the masculine, the middle-to-high path emphasizes the feminine, and the highest end of the path reaches a new extent of masculine-feminine integration by reintroducing the masculine. The aim is wholeness. Specifically, The Critical Path brings into relief the ways current hypermasculine modes of practice and concomitantly patriarchal dharma politics must be balanced by the feminine archetypal principle in individual men and women alike if the dharma is to survive, evolve, and thrive in the West. This book drives what is at stake into fertile open ground.

To achieve its aim as a complete workbook for awakening, The Critical Path to Enlightenment includes illustrations, tables, and templates to support concepts and diagnostic comprehension, retention, and reference. It includes sections on logistical questions, such how to choose and interact fruitfully with a teacher, how to instill daily practice as a habit, and how to approach retreats. Audio recordings of guided meditations are planned to follow.

Working with Mahamudra: Center-Spaciousness Paradoxes

No boundary / liberated center

Some thoughts—snips of otherwise forgotten nighttime dreams, strange visions, notions of supersubtle transmissions—arise. I won’t write of these beyond just this.

Sit was rich, jhana-intense (3, 4), but with continual movement. I was reading from Clarifying the Natural State for about an hour before sitting. Even though I find this book difficult to process, of course, I am reading it slowly by reading small amounts of it over and over again across days and weeks. I read it the way I do poetry when I’m enjoying it and not planning to turn it into a tidy sniff of litcrit. I simply allow it to wash over and through me, again and again. I don’t really try to understand it (stand under it).

I think this book productively influences my meditation, but, then, almost any beloved dharma book does. Now I understand why the Gelugpa people have reading the dharma as part of daily meditation practice. I read somewhere, too, more than a year ago, that if one is dropping out of practice, one should simply read the dharma. (I think it may have been Thanissaro who said so.) I read much of the time before the A&P Event ofJuly 2013.

This morning’s sit was really all “about” not being about anything. One frustration I’ve had for weeks now is how long it takes me to “get somewhere” during a sit. I start out with much distraction, noise, and restlessness—like a beginner. And there is boredom, nothing to latch onto. It is so bad sometimes that I sit there a whole hour and find it difficult even to stay with these sensations. Noting, or Twirling Swords, or Ajahn Lee’s Method 2 seem to help, for they give me something to do.

Just Sitting, Clarifying the Natural State

But tonight I just sat. I mean really “just.” There were at first momentary shifts that were like Mind & Body: There was thought, there was getting lost in thought, there was remembering to peer into the thought, and then there was awareness of the peerer/mind, which felt local and physical and heady. I looked at this physicality and locality of vantage point with regard to something as ephemeral as a “thought” or stream of them. It makes no sense, really, that there would be a physically locatable point of view on thoughts, the latter having no location, physicality, extension, weight, or entity aspect whatsoever itself. 

Looking into mind, I see only thoughts and between-thought awareness. There is strong temptation to “delete” or “dissolve” those thoughts, to “vipassanize” them, as we say, but that is what Clarifying says not to do. And now I understand why. If I do I look for the 3Cs very deliberately, doing so becomes an application, effortful and premature. However, if I simply allow lucid awareness toward thought over and over again, without reaching for anything beyond seeing the thought, which then dissolves—this is crucial. “Over and over again” its just happening is crucial. Boredom is a trick. The Buddha sat under a tree and resolved to sit until he saw, no matter how long it took. Over and over again.

Another movement I noticed was that awareness seems to flow from my head but interspersed was the small of my back and other bodily fields in turn. Now, my head really was not flowing out to make the small of my back. The small of my back just suddenly was, and my head as instantly was not

Next everything automatically went spacious and the center was hard to detect at all. How can it be that I can feel this space? And why is it that I most feel it when the center seems to be gone? Well . . . this is really just like the head and the small of the back simply alternating, glittering across the way, on and off, in turn. The space is alive; the center is dead. The center is alive; the space is dead. Ah, this must be why Daniel often writes, “Go wide and through,” meaning, I think, that if one is going wide but nothing seems to be at center, then there is still a center, an “off.” Maybe? Maybe that is why the Twirling Swords technique is such a neat trick: It seems to sort of habituate one to pulling the space through that center. Effortful, yes, but after a while the swords disappear, and the sweeping through keeps going—or at least for me it did.

Today, however, I had resolved to just sit. What I think is “mind” shifts continually. It sometimes is the small of my back. It sometimes is the dark behind my closed eyelids. It is sometimes a sudden going-bright behind my eyelids. It is sometimes the velvety sparkling behind my eyelids. It is sometimes the sound of a car passing beneath my bedroom window—even though that experience is over there with the car. All this transpires across time. None of it is wholly anything in any given moment.

Opacity Replaced with Pale Copies

Vision is the sense door that most tends to confuse matters for me. There is here and over there. There is perspective and point of view. It is all rather insistent. Often, during a formal sit, I have a good deal of success “seeing” much of me/thought/mind over there. The key realization in August was that I existed only in relation to the object I was identifying with at the moment. But what I’m learning now is more radical than that. When I opened my eyes, everything was both roiling and gently strobing—the strobing was as if an image of what was kept replacing what was, over and over again. The effect was a kind of transparency overall. Hard to explain, but easy to see. And the whole room was doing this—strobing and actually rolling, and not just visually but viscerally and in some felt-space way. Felt sense and vision both present center-spaciousness paradoxes.

After the bell, I remained in jhana for a while and then rose, completely calm and alert. I reflected on how my sits have for a number of weeks now alternated between profound and shit. Tonight I think I figured out that I’m too high on energy/effort and too low on the faith side. I’ve been having a lot of doubt, frustration, waiting, and expectation, whereas the August cessation came after extremely strong faith arose and effort fell away. Not that I can make this a formula, exactly, but seeing is believing.