Frithjof Schuon: On Getting To The Trailhead

In the “Introduction” to Frithjof Schuon: Messenger of the Perennial Philosophy, Michael O. Fitgerald cites Schuon’s wife Catherine:

[Schuon’s] function in the world is really to bring people
back to practice their religion . . . to bring them back to a path that leads to God. . . . [M]any people have gone back and practiced their religion very seriously after having read his books. He wants to help us to go back to where we belong.

I was very moved by this not the least because Schuon’s life, from what I can gather, was a beautiful one, also because his gift to others is just what’s needed at this historical juncture, and finally because I felt kinship with him at the very moment when I read this from his wife.

For at the risk of sounding proud, I’d say that, in my own modest way, that I have sought, over the past 11 years, to do something similar: to get others ‘to the trailhead’ (as I’ve been saying recently).

In my own case, I use a Trojan Horse strategy: we begin by inquiring into the sticky conflicts that arise in the domain of ordinary life (work, relationships, pleasures). In so doing, two things happen. The first is that these matters ultimately get sorted out over some years. The second–and more important one–is that one gets the hang of leading a more examined life. That is, one starts to have facility in examining one’s life on own’s one. The crux is that the examined life naturally leads–if taken far enough–back to spirituality and religion. To mysticism, in fact.

Evidently, Schuon was quite fortunate in that his students were already “ripe” enough to be interested in nondual metaphysics from the start. This, however, is hardly true for many Westerners who, nonetheless, are primed to reflect upon the shape and substance of their lives from the standpoint of philosophical discourse.

How, then, is the transition from the examined life to the religious or spiritual life effected? The way I put the ‘pivot point’ is by saying, “You are now on the path of self-knowledge.” And this path naturally moves, given enough time, rigor, and doggedness, from the self to the Self–from the conditioned to the Unconditioned, from manifestation to Principle. By this means and over the course of a number of years, conversation partners are indeed brought to “a path that leads to God.”

For me, I confess, ‘twould be nice if the path to get another to the trailhead were not so long, windy, and precarious, but so it is when the starting point is secular modernity, with its penchant for scientific materialism. An impoverished time like ours calls for patience and discernment. Much like Schuon, I want to “help us to go back to where we belong.”

Is The World Real? A Dialogical Meditation


“Is the world real?”

In this Dialogical Meditation, we investigate (a) whether the world is permanent and (b) whether the world is self-existent.

Through the inquiry, it soon becomes clear that the world does not qualify as sat (in Sanskrit): meaning being permanent as well as self-existent.

To Learn More

Ethical Practice As Purification

The Eightfold Path picks out Right Thought, Right Speech, and Right Action as the foci for ethical practice. This is wise.

I’d like to begin with where we are, however. We engage in wrong, unwholesome, negative thought patterns; and we react, in wrong speech and in wrong action, out of these unwholesome thought patterns.

In lieu of appealing to basic ethical precepts (however helpful these may be), might each of us try to identify the particular ways in which a specific unwholesome thought, speech, and action arise? If we could do that, then we’d be in a position to formulate ethical maxims that could be skillfully applied to the specific situation–just where we need them most.

It would be good, then, to begin by identifying one’s samskaras, or false identities. If John, out of pride, believes, “I am the knower,” then unwholesome thoughts will show up (“She doesn’t know what she’s talking about–the fool”) as will wrong speech (“It seems to me that quantum mechanics says otherwise”) and wrong action (the agent in question refuses to do X or Y on the grounds that both are ‘beneath him’).

The key ethical maxims, in this case, would be:

  • Be humble: let go of pride and thus of separation.
  • Be charitable: give a lot of slack to others as they express their views, etc.
  • Be open: let go of “yes this” and “no that” (Zhuangzi).

Understood thus, ethical practice is a way of purification and thus a way also of attuning oneself to Awareness.

Huston Smith On The Buddha’s First Noble Truth

I find myself returning often to the Buddha’s First Noble Truth. I do so because it is a noble attempt to articulate the human predicament in so few words.

Huston Smith on Dukkha

The simplest, though not terribly helpful, formulation is: “Life is dukkha.” According to Huston Smith in The World’s Religions,

Dukkha… names the pain that to some degree colors all finite existence. The word’s constructive implications come to light when we discover that it is used in Pali to refer to wheels whose axles were off-center, or bones that had slipped from their sockets…. The exact meaning of the First Noble Truth is this: Life (in the condition it has got itself into) is dislocated. Something has gone wrong. It is out of joint.

p. 101

I trust you can see that “the exact meaning” isn’t altogether exact. The parenthetical qualifier–“in the condition it has got itself into”–points up the ambiguity and attempts, in a vague way, to account for this fuzziness. For, we might ask, how much of life is dislocated? And what “torque” in human life is hinted at herein?

Two Conditions

I’d like to propose that the correct interpretation will need to satisfy two conditions. One is being accurate, or accurate enough. An open, self-reflective person should be able to see himself or herself as well as others in the formulation. The second is that it have enough oomph to thrust us onto a genuine spiritual path.

With the above two conditions in mind, I aim to tweak Smith’s statement about dislocation.

A Reformulation

Thanks to two young men with whom I read spiritual texts, I think we can say the following:

  • Life keeps getting itself dislocated.
  • Or, what is the same thing: Life has a built-in tendency to get itself dislocated.

After all, we need to account for the torque, the uncanniness, the tipping of the scales in the wrong direction, and my sense is that these statements do just that.

Now, is either statement accurate enough? I think so. Each alludes to the preponderance of cases–the skewing of sorts–toward feeling, or being, dislocated.

Does each provide enough oomph for practice? I’d say so. There’s something mysterious, and perhaps also terrifying, at the heart of each statement.

Mysterious because: why does life has such a built-in tendency? Such will bring us to the Second Noble Truth, the cause or source of dukkha. And terrifying because: is there anything we can do about this? And so, we arrive at the Third Noble Truth, the cessation of dukkha.

Is it possible for my life not be tilted toward out-of-jointedness? Yes, here is where faith in the teacher, in the teaching, and in the path all come in.

Namu And Sahaja In Santa Fe

The following is a sketch written while my wife Alexandra and I were in Santa Fe, New Mexico, last week to celebrate her birthday.


It’s morning for us as we stride along a country road. We are four: you and I, of course, but also Namu and Sahaja.

Our first dog has been renamed–and isn’t that an act of conversion?–Namu. In “The Meaning of Namu Amida Butsu,” Richard St. Clair tells us:

Namu Amida Butsu has two parts: “Namu” means “I take refuge”, and “Amida Butsu” means “in Amida Buddha.”

That is one great meaning of the Nembutsu. It is the BASIC meaning.
For the person who is seeking salvation, the Nembutsu means “Save me, Amida Buddha.” It means that the seeker is opening her/himself to Amida’s saving Light and Compassion. It is the seeker responding to Amida’s Call and opening him/herself to Amida Buddha’s Other Power.

And our second dog, at 5 months now, carries within herself the key to salvation. In sahaja samadhi, one, being the All, is free, so free as to be as natural as the wind, as glorious as the sky, as becoming as the dawn. One shivers without shivering, unmoved, unmoving save, Ramana Maharshi’s life attests, by the suffering of other beings.

May Namu be a light unto others, and may Sahaja realize the great depth of her name!

On the road, we met David, which in the Hebrew means “beloved,” as well as his Dickensian dog Pippin. It was less what he conveyed in his words and more what he presented in his demeanor, and that was age, matter of factness, gravitas. He was here.

On our way home, an old woman in a blue bath robe gently chastised one of her dogs who’d come running off leash and who was, as she averred, friendly. Soon her husband arrived, and both offered a tableau of the hardscrabble life of homesteaders in the valley near Canoncito. Thirty-eight years ago, they came and settled here. Their house, quaint enough yet by no means elegant, is situated next to a creek that has–increasingly–carried precious little water during this 100 year drought. I found them–also old and, in a good sense here, resigned–to be quietly, perhaps also poetically heroic.

Dear Alexandra, we like, don’t we?, meeting people like this. Meek and mild. Moderate and without pretense. Simple, wry, candid, and hearty. Let those we meet be called “hardihood” or, to coin a neologism, “hearty-hood.”