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“Swallowing the River Ganges: A Practice Guide to the Path of Purification,” by Matthew Flickstein

book cover Available from Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk.

The curious title of this book comes from a Zen Koan set the author by the Korean Zen master Seung Sahn: “You’ll understand what I am thinking when you can swallow the River Ganges.” The koan, in case you’re wondering (and I’m sure you are) seems to point to the arbitrary way in which we divide our experience into “inner” and ” outer.” So that’s the title.

The rest of the book is concerned with Theravadin rather than Zen meditation practice, and is a presentation of material from the 5th century Buddhist scholar-monk Buddhaghosa’s guide to practice, The Path of Purity (Vissudhimagga).

This book is an excellent, and very detailed, guide to Insight meditation practice, based on a seven-fold path of purification, including (in order) the purification of virtue, mind, view, purification by overcoming doubt, purification by knowledge and vision of what is and is not the path, purification by knowledge and vision of the way, and purification by knowledge and vision.

If this sounds a little dry and abstract, this is both accurate and inaccurate. You may well be surprised how elegantly Flickstein correlates these seven stages of purification to related practices such as: ethical living, developing concentration, initial insight training, the four foundations of mindfulness, cultivating choiceless awareness, and focusing on unsatisfactoriness, selflessness, and impermanence as doorways to enlightened experience. I found the overall schema to be fascinating and the author’s depth and detail of knowledge are highly impressive. I don’t believe I’ve ever seen such a coherent picture of the path to awakening from an insight meditation perspective.

On the other hand I found Flickstein’s writing to be a bit on the dry side. It was a surprise to discover that he is a psychotherapist as well as an insight meditation teacher — some examples from his or his patient’s experiences would have leavened the book considerably. The first mention of any contemporary meditation experience is on page 146, close to the end of the book.

I also have a minor quibble (one that often crops up when reading a certain strain of insight meditation teaching) which concerns focusing almost exclusively on mindful breathing as a practice and ignoring the development of lovingindness. The development of lovingkindness practice strikes me as an almost indispensible prerequisite for spiritual development, and yet it is mentioned almost in passing in Swallowing the River Ganges.

Still, my overall impression of this book is highly favorable, and I would recommend it to anyone who has an interest in insight meditation practice. Even the experienced insight meditation practitioner is likely to come away with an enhanced appreciation of the many dimensions of that practice tradition, and those who are entirely unfamiliar with this tradition will perhaps be surprised by how rich and nuanced it is.

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