Which is THE best spiritual practice?

Updated On — 5th Jul, 2015

What’s the best spritual practice or path?

What’s the best spiritual practice, technique or lineage?

Well, after much thought, and thirty years of experimentation, I would have to say the best spiritual practice Kasmiri Shaivism, with the practices of Naqshbandi Sufism coming in at a very close second place.

Please, I am not being serious here. (Although, I must admit some experiential familiarity with both of these appraoches).

I get asked this question often, and each time I need to redirect the questioner, to cajole her to re-frame the question a little.

I nearly always get the urge to say the best spiritual practice is the one which works for you, or better yet, the one which is working for you at this point in your life. Different approaches work best for different people at different times in their life.

I see many folks struggling with questions such as “Who’s got the whole answer, which one is the true path, which is the fastest spiritual practice?”

“Which spirtual practice one starts up where the other ones leave off?”

I don’t think that’s the real issue.

The issue is what works for you at given time. And that might change over time. It certainly has been the case with me over the course of the last 30 years.

Ok fine, you might say, but isn’t there one that is absolutely better than the rest? Or perhaps one path will take you here, but after that you need to practice this other one to take you to the next level?

Or which is the TRUE one?

A variant of this question would be “Which one did the Buddha actually teach?”

Again, pardon me for being blunt, but who cares what worked for the Buddha?

The Buddha lived in a very different time and place, and was faced with many different issues. What worked for him may not work for you. Just because it worked for him means just that. It worked for him.

The Buddha did not have your mother.

Find out what works for you.

But isn’t there a path which is absolutely better than another? After all didn’t the Budhha supposedly say (in the satipatthana sutta) that the four foundations of mindfulness is the only way for the salvation of beings?

Many high level religionists make claims like this.

Sorry to be so blunt, but I just don’t buy it.

There is a way to compare spiritual practice, but it has to be done from the inside of the spiritual practice, from the lived experience of the spiritual practice, phenomenologically, if you will. This takes courage and honestly, especially at the beginning, when you see how much psychic investment there may be in a particular practice and tradition.

What you can do is compare strengths and weaknesses of particular meditation and spiritual paths and practices from the inside. At the beginning of this process you must allow the possibility that all practices and traditions have strengths and weaknesses. Then you can make an honest comparison.

This is the first step out of the incredibly subtle grip of a pervasive  fundamentalism I see in many spiritual practice circles.

Yes, even in the cool ones.

If you do this kind of honest appraisal, you just might come to see that the choice of a spiritual practice or tradition is not as important as you initially thought it was. You come to see that they all work in similar ways. Of course they emphasize different aspects of development, which is why different practices may be more relevant to you at different stages of you life.

You may even come feel comfortable with spiritual practices, traditions and world views which may have previously been seen as sexist, anachronistic, misanthropic, violent or quant. You may even feel enormous compassion and see how others get stuck in this subtle, pervasive fundamentalism, having been through that space yourself.

You see the urgent need for compasionate interspirituality.

And if you come this far, my friend, you have come a long way.

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About Tom Davidson-Marx

Former Buddhist monk, now father of two and full time registered nurse, my passion is sharing what I have learned from a life-long love, study and practice of the early Buddhist teachings. Thanks for reading.

27 thoughts on “Which is THE best spiritual practice?”

  1. Hi Barry

    Your article is quite excellent. I would only differ on one point. You say “When the experience of self is lost, perception pivots on itself and myriad things sing in harmony with all other things, infinitely correlated, perfect and complete.”

    My experience goes along daoist lines where the aim (in Zhuangzi) is an an optimal integration of the sense of perfection (daoguan, the transcendent perspective) and the sense of imperfection (renguan, the human or self perspective). This optimal cannot be reached by a self who thinks that it can realize complete perfection.

    I would emphasize however, that unlike most traditions, I don’t claim that this perspective is normative. As Zhuangzi says, “How could I know that.” And so I would not declare that your perspective is wrong, only different from my experience.

    An integration of a dual perspective is also seen in Dzogchen:

    Herbert Guenther: “Saraha and the sNying-thig thinkers seem to have been in agreement that the development of discursive consciousness on the one hand, with its dependence on concepts, and of intuitive awareness on the other, which dispenses with concepts in order to approach as near as possible to the ecstatic intensity of wholeness itself, share a common ground in the human individual. The common origin of discursive-representational thinking and intuitive-ecstatic awareness is circumscribed for them by the term dran-pa—a code name for a fundamental, organismic capacity for mentation that gives rise to both reflexive (discursive-representational) and self-reflexive (intuitive-ecstatic) modes of thought.”

  2. Interesting article. I would like to suggest that “compassionate interspirituality” can only really take place when one has taken the time to understand both the similarities and the differences of one’s chosen faith and other faiths. Then, there is the opportunity of leveraging the broader understanding without diluting or eroding any particular teaching. I wrote a bit about this in an article about finding synergy between Buddhist and Hindu practices at Yoga as Mindfulness Practice – A Buddhist Perspective. Compassion implies understanding, which is why compassion and wisdom are seen as the two wings that give rise to enlightenment in Mahayana Buddhism. Interspiritual compassion cannot be a blind acceptance, but an informed understanding and insight into the important differences. It is this informed compassion that can bridge the gap and allow us to take advantage of the synergies of faiths.

  3. Something I recently wrote perhaps fits into this thread, especially the title “Which is the best…..”

    As I sometimes say, this is how it works for me. Your view could very well be better.

    Here goes mine:

    A “pluralistic religious community” probably amounts to an oxymoron, but could there be pluralistic spiritual communities?

    The conventional religious demand for universal agreement on and coherency of beliefs often interferes with the attainment of authentic individual spiritually. In fact, what I clearly sense is that the Spirit is asking each of us to believe only what we gather from our own unique experience of the divine. One God, many Gods, no Gods— how many Gods do you believe there are? The Spirit shows no sign of being disturbed by whatever answer I give. Where and who is God? Who must I pray to?

    The Spirit is apparently not angered by whatever your claims may be about its identity or location. To the Spirit, the human plurality of beliefs is no problem; the Spirit’s unconditional love is promiscuous. It loves you no matter what you believe or doubt about it.

    Don’t be afraid to believe what you believe, don’t be afraid of what others believe, don’t be afraid if you change what you believe. You are loved unconditionally. Let yourself directly experience that love without any religious fear. Be true to yourself. Join a community that allows you to do that.

    (When I use the word “Spirit,” I don’t claim it to be anything other than a natural dynamic, such as gravity. And I also don’t rule out it being much more than that.)

  4. I generally agree Intentional Sage.

    But I also clearly sense that what might be best for many folks (for example me) is to realize we are already fundamentally perfectly okay. This is the teaching of Laozi, and even Luther understood it to a degree. It was a notion that apparently allowed Zhuangzi to embrace every being and all of being.

  5. Someone recently asked the Dalai Lama what was the best religion to which he responded: “The best religion is the one that gets you closest to God. It is the one that makes you a better person.”
    The questioner countered: “What is it that makes me better?”
    Dalai Lama: “Whatever makes you more compassionate, more sensible, more detached, more loving, more humanitarian, more responsible, more ethical. The religion that will do that for you is the best religion.”

    ~~~~

    So, if we integrate this into the question of your post: which is the best spiritual practice?
    Whichever one makes one more compassionate, more sensible, more detached, more loving, more humanitarian, more responsible, more ethical. The spiritual practice that will do that for one is the best spiritual practice for that particular person.
    ~

    With Love and Gratitude,

    The Intentional Sage

  6. Hi Vincent

    I have read somewhere that yoga comes from yoke, a device that connects something to something else. And so perhaps your practice intimately connects you to the “All.” The world in its wholeness.

    You wrote: “overcome my will to be lazy and rational.”

    That reminds me of “churned and pounded the unbendable” in the following:

    The Kesin Hymn (translated by Feuerstein and Miller)

    The long-haired one endures fire, the long-haired one endures poison, the long-haired one endures both worlds. The long-haired one is said to gaze full on heaven, the long-haired one is said to be that light.

    The wind-girt sages have donned the yellow robe of dust: along the wind’s course they glide when the gods have penetrated them.

    Exulting in our seerhood, upon the winds we have ascended. Of us, you mortals, only our bodies do you behold.

    Through the middle region flies the sage shining down upon all forms; for his piety is he deemed the friend of every god.

    The wind’s steed, the Lord of life’s friend, is the god-intoxicated sage; within both oceans he dwells, the upper and the lower.

    In the path of nymphs, angels, wild beasts wanders the long-haired one, the knower of heart’s desire, a gentle friend, most exhilarating.

    For him has the Lord of life churned and pounded the unbendable, when the long-haired one, in Rudra’s company drank from the poison cup.

    The authors comment: The enigmatic phrase “Vayu churns or stirs up and pounds or grinds the unbendable” appears to refer to the action of prana upon the body, the key words here being “stir up” and “grind” expressing the action that is being performed upon the unbendable which may be identified with tamas, one of the three primary energies of prakrti: tamas or inertia, heaviness, the gross product, mass-stuff, that which provides the necessary resistance and hence the resulting friction without which no step, no action could be taken, but which, at the same time, must be made malleable or pliable, must be bent to a mere tool or stepping-stone in the hands of the yogin, in order that finally harmony or sattva may prevail. Inertia, darkness (tamas), man’s material nature, thus stands as a mountain rock or inflexible basis which nevertheless is to be bent if the yogin will achieve his purpose. When tamas has been subdued, there is created a proper climate wherein the kundalini can be stirred up and made to rise, eventually to illuminate the whole being. By the grace of the Lord, in this case Rudra, with the help of Vayu, the muni was able to achieve self-conquest. As a result the poison of the world could have no effect upon him, and like any god he could even drink of it.

    Yoga and Beyond, George Feuerstein & Jeanine Miller, Schocken Books

    • How do you do this? Is this stuff residing somewhere in your brain? I am always impressed with the examples you draw on! I think I know what Vincent means when he wrote about penance, and our tamasic nature, yes, and for me a string cup of coffee does it! Always great to see into your mind Raymond! Quite a mind.

      • Hi Tom

        In recent discussions on spirituality there is often a division between the cultivators and the non-cultivators.

        I am interested in the “already perfect” notion of the ancient daoists. And yet it seems that they cultivated. How do we explain that? One way is to assume (as I do) that I do not continually maintain the “already perfect” attitude. And my desire (no more noble than a fly after honey) is to have a ever deepening and more enduring experience of the “already perfect” disposition. I am a pig: If it were possible, I would like it continually.

        (And to the degree that I might think others SHOULD also have this interest, I will fail)

        My cultivation practice is largely made up of taking advantage of every time I become vexed, disappointed, irritated, etc. I put these feelings into an emotional alchemical furnace. The result seems to be a resetting of my spiritual structure, most probably in parallel with changes in my neurological functioning that are apparently semi-permanent.

        The result is an increase in spiritual liberation; with consequent increase in non-contingent contentment. I am getting better at getting out of myself and paying more attention to others. This I enjoy immensely. There is no notion of self-lessness here.

        I do welcome challenges to what I have written here. Some of them may vex me; and so more fuel for my furnace.

    • Raymond, this “vajra song” by the late Gendun Rinpoche has always truck me as appropriate, in this regard:

      “Happiness can not be found

      through great effort and willpower,

      but is already present,

      in open relaxation and letting go.

      Don’t strain yourself,

      there is nothing to do or undo.

      Whatever momentarily arises

      in the body-mind

      has no real importance at all,

      has little reality whatsoever.

      Why identify with,

      and become attached to it,

      passing judgement upon it and ourselves?

      Far better to simply

      let the entire game happen on its own,

      springing up and falling back like waves

      without changing or manipulating anything

      and notice how everything vanishes and reappears, magically,

      again and again, time without end.

      Only our searching for happiness

      prevents us from seeing it.

      It’s like a vivid rainbow which you pursue

      without ever chatching,

      or a dog chasing its own tail.

      Although peace and happiness

      do not exist as an actual thing or place,

      it is always available

      and accompanies you every instant.

      Don’t believe in the reality of good and bad experiences;

      they are like today ephemeral weather,

      like rainbows in the sky.

      Wanting to grasp the ungraspable,

      you exhaust yourself in vain.

      As soon as you open and relax

      this tight fist of grasping,

      infinite space is there –

      open, inviting and comfortable.

      Make use of this spaciousness, this

      freedom and natural ease.

      Don’t search any further

      looking for the great awakened elephant,

      who is already resting quietly at home

      in front of your own hearth.

      Nothing to do or undo,

      nothing to force,

      nothing to want,

      and nothing missing –

      Emaho! Marvelous!

      Everything happens by itself.”

      -By Venerable Lama Gendun Rinpoch

      • Hi Tom

        All though I find many rich and authentic insights in this, I do subscribe to periodically forcing myself. I force myself to exercise more than I want to. I force myself to be more present to my emotional state than I want to. It seems to work for me.

        On the other hand, I don’t need to lie on a bed of nails. Each day brings many nails and many joys. The nails are on the decrease, and that is fine with me.

        Raymond

  7. Now that Raymond has broadened this into personal rather than recommended practice, I can answer it better. Which is the path best for me? — A walk of several miles down public footpaths through urban and rural England, especially the Chiltern Hills which surround my home town. Sometimes it reveals the gift of ecstasy. Then I can easily understand why I’m doing it. Other times it is just a practice requiring much effort, but all the same I’m drawn to it by an urge which I identify as the “urge to penance”.

    If I “make myself do it”, it’s implicit that my will is overcoming my reluctance to make the effort. But it has to be the other way round. The inexplicable urge, which I call “penance”, has to overcome my will to be lazy and rational.

    When it’s not ecstatic, it may be a kind of subterranean brooding. Something may be happening deep inside me but all I’m aware of is looking at plants, insects, trees, listening to the birds and so on; gazing at the clouds if it isn’t overcast. Or talking to my digital recorder. All in all, it may be some kind of yoga.

    • The urge to penance–is maybe your true nature wanting a break. For you it seems (form your posts on your blog at least) that you have this presence that resonates with your environment. You don’t need to struggle to uncover it, it needs no cultivation. You are already quite free.

  8. Yes but, there is one slight qualification.

    It is, as far as I know, merely the one I have found that is best for me. It it strikes your fancy fine. If not that is fine as well. It might not prove very useful to anyone but me.

    Zhuangzi, who also was not fond of recipes, would say, “How could I possibly know that it would be good for you?” And also, “Rightness is what fits.”

  9. I think both Vincent. “Complete” is a word that always brings problems. The best word I have found so far is “optimal”, which of course is subjective.

    So I decide at this moment to be as open, clear, emotionally honest, quiet inside, and sincere (I best not lie to myself) as I can ( paradoxically forgiving myself if I don’t try very hard, or even give up on the entire enterprise).

    After this moment there will be a few more moments today in which I will probably try to do the same thing. (This effort best be out of curiosity, not out of any “shoulds.”)

    In my case, by following this general recipe, over the years, I seemed to have become more satisfied with each moment. Or maybe I have become better at deluding myself. Either way, I am happy with the result.

    • You know, once you see the ox’s tail, it changes you forever. You never labor under the thought that you need to be any certain way. That’s why optimal is good, but maybe that’s too much. Forget conditions. Just see this! see your true nature and the heck with any of this other stuff. See that you could never be any other way but complete at home and soaked through and through.

  10. I agree with Raymond wholeheartedly.

    But Raymond, are you suggesting that sincerity, complete open mind, clarity and inner quiet are pre-requisites for our journey?

    Or are they the journey’s goal?

    Suddenly, I’m not sure!

    • OK–perhaps a dash of these qualities is helpful, no need to be preoccupied developing an endless refinement of clarity. There is no end to that. Simply a little quiet may be helpful. The again, crisis can crack the ego’s hold, so who’s to say?

  11. I agree and disagree with Vincent. I follow Blake:

    “If the fool would persist in his folly he would become wise.”

    Have a plan, don’t have a plan, I can succeed or fail with either approach. But there is a mechanism within all of us that seems to lead us well if we are sincere and completely open-minded.

    “Qing jing wei tian xia zheng.” “With clarity and inner quiet all things under heaven fall into place.” Laozi

    • And I agree with you too! (I simply can’t take sides here because they both are true). Yes, meditation can be goal-less, open, choice-less and free, revealing a core-less, open and already perfect is-ness. And quiet is good. Thanks, Raymond!

  12. If one is to root out a subtle pervasive fundamentalism, one might go even further. If you are going to say “Who cares what worked for the Buddha?” one could take the next step and abandon the notion of a mapped path altogether.

    A mapped path is one already travelled by someone else who comes back, as it were, and tells you about it, with a little (or much) guidance: “This worked for me.” I see many problems in this model, but they won’t be relevant to the seeker who is drawn by an inner compulsion which at some point fixes on a particular way. But when you do that, it is trial and error, and you have to accept that your path may go in circles or hit a dead end, and one day you may need to start again “sadder, yet wiser”.

    There are cooks who follow recipes. I think in the end every good cook sees that a recipe book leads him into error. He will have to judge the quantities and times for himself. When he is no longer conscious of measuring anything, but just does it, he can cook. Then he tries to teach someone else, so he may think of writing a recipe book. But it won’t work, because he himself doesn’t work that way.

    I wouldn’t recommend anyone to follow a path or a given practice. I’d simply say do what you want. I might hint more than that, but only if they asked.

    • This works for you! And I am sorry to bring this up, but it has not been ruled out that the previous 30 years (or however many years they were) of meditation did not have some sort of purgative effect perhaps, or in some way made a pathless path the only sane alternative. I do appreciate the point that a mapped path is only a path mapped out by someone else. Thanks, again, for the insightful comments.

      • Indeed Tom, and no need to apologize for bringing it up. The meditation was a kind of thralldom, I think, somewhat like a psychosomatic illness. A displacement activity, an escape from myself, a way of not progressing, an addiction, a stasis, a defiance of life, a mimicking of death.

        Yet I could not suggest to anyone a better alternative, if that is what they want to do. I just hope they wouldn’t waste as much time on it as I did!

        One benefit is to no longer venerate gurus.

      • Tom, I’m delighted to see you talking about interspirituality. This is very close to something we examine in a modern version of the emptiness teachings. I call this interspirituality-style investigation “going wide,” as opposed to “going deep.” Most of the time people go deep, burrowing into whatever they are doing, trying to get closer to its core insights. The is true of emptiness teachings too.

        But one of the liberating things you can do is look at other paths, or at paths in general. This is part of going wide. It can help with the path you are on. For someone doing the emptiness teachings it’s very liberating to see paths (even one’s own) as empty of inherent existence. Realizing that one’s path is empty but still liberating is a core realization of emptiness. It soothes a major sort of spiritual uneasiness about being on the right path. And for someone who feels sure they are already on the right path, it can removes the sense of privilege or fundamentalism.

        When most people look at the spiritual marketplace they see lots of paths, no-paths, and teachings out there. Are they really different from one another? Are they really the same? Which one is the best? As modern practised consumers, most people are used to regarding some products as being “better” than others. So of course when they discover the spiritual marketplace, they want to know! And it can create some anxiety.

        In the interspirituality/going-wide approach, this anxiety can be looked at. The anxiety is seen as related to the belief that things exist inherently, that there is an objective, pre-existing correlation between words and things, including “enlightenment.” If you have different teachings, like “Atma” vs. “anatta” or “All is the Self” vs. “There is no Self,” it can make a person really wonder about which to choose. In my observation, this is one reason that so many people ask about the best path. Because they don’t want to go wrong, practicing and getting to the “wrong” destination. They’d rather get in on the ground floor of the best, cool, objectively, accurately TRUE path!

        It’s as though you’re in one of many rooms in a large spiritual mall. You are doing some intense practice when you hear the people in the next room laughing and cheering. “Whoa! I’m in the wrong place! Let me get over there!”

        By seeing words, things and paths as empty, this can be pacified. You can be laughing even when they are laughing!

        So I’m glad you are encouraging interspirituality!

        –Greg Goode

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