Dear Abbey Dharma,
I have been on the Buddhist path for a large portion of my life. I practiced Zen while I was a teenager and practiced Tibetan Buddhism in my late 20s. Now, in my late 30s, I find myself going it alone after becoming weary of ritual. Do most people go through this weariness at some point? I am still on the path, just without a teacher or lineage. Is this wise?
–Lone Wolf Buddhist
Dear Lone Wolf,
Dear Lone Wolf,
Some years ago, a journalist asked me if I thought “mixing and matching religious practices” was a good or a bad thing. I said that if people were doing that, it might be a sign of the pragmatic spirit that characterizes our times and it might be valuable. These days, with teachings widely available—in magazines and books, in media libraries like Dharma Seed, even in online courses that can be accessed in the remotest corners of the globe—the dharma may become our guide in a way that hasn’t happened before. Committed seekers like you have an incredible array of presentations of the Buddha’s teachings available to choose from.
And there is, in the account of the Buddha’s own passing, the precedent for continuing to practice without a specific teacher. As he was dying, the Buddha encouraged his community to continue on their own: “Therefore, Ananda, be islands unto yourselves, refuges unto yourselves, seeking no external refuge; with the dhamma as your island, the dhamma as your refuge, seeking no other refuge.”
But here is the caveat: he also stressed the importance of the sangha, the community of practitioners, continuing in harmony and mutual support to agree on the teachings and to make decisions about passing them on.
As a “lone wolf” without a teacher or lineage or community, how could you know for sure that you are “on a path”? Who will serve to encourage you, validate your progress or, indeed, challenge you? Without at least one dharma friend whom you can trust to tell your deepest intentions in practice, one who will share with you her (or his) intentions, the clarity of purpose that inspires zeal becomes vague. (You mentioned weariness, and although it is true that sometimes particular practices no longer serve, weariness is often a sign of inattention. This is something to consider.)
And finally, as to your question about whether everyone goes through this weariness at some point, I know that the strongest antidote to doubt I’ve known is practice in the community of practitioners. The presence of people who want, as I do, to be free of suffering—in a dharma hall, on the telephone, in a coffee shop, or on the Internet—the mahasangha (greater community)—keeps me inspired.
May your practice thrive!
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