I very much appreciate philosophy–and often find myself with an appetite for such texts, via eastern and western authors alike. But every now and again I’ll shift into a mood in which pretty much all I can bear to read are the Ashtavakra and Avadhuta Gitas: the most direct pointing to nondual reality. In such a mood, even Longchenpa–whom I adore–feels a bit too flowery. My appetite is for the main course only, sans any relish or side-dishes.
The distinction at play here is between so-called provisional and definitive teachings/meanings; or between indirect and direct pointing. The former of each pair espouses a gradual step-by-step approach to spiritual awakening; while the latter goes right to the heart of the matter. In his marvelously pithy teaching-poem, The Sword of Wisdom, Mipham Rinpoche kindly suggests:
When it comes to the meaning of what is taught,
You should know the provisional and definitive,
And rely not on any provisional meaning,
But only on the meaning that has certain truth.
Setting The Table
And so it would seem that in the final analysis we need to rely exclusively upon the definitive meaning: the direct path. Yet at any moment, within a given spiritual community, we can observe a particular ratio of the two approaches being served. And if we happen to be in a direct-path mood, we might feel a bit irritated by the provisional offerings: by practices that seem more geared toward accumulating causes and conditions at the level of body-mind-world; rather than quantum-leaping into the definitive understanding/seeing.
Yet these more indirect skillful means also, it would seem, have their place–and are not necessarily a problem, so long as we remain crystal-clear about their status as provisional/indirect, not mistaking the relish for the main course. (Though from the point of view of the main course itself, even this distinction is nowhere to be found, tee-hee.)
According to Einstein’s general theory of relativity, the mass of a celestial body distorts the fabric of space-time, creating a curved well into which other planets might fall. This is how gravity works, and what accounts for the orbiting of planets around a sun, or moons around a planet. But a planet has to attain a certain proximity to the sun (or a moon to a planet) before it is drawn into its orbit.
Likewise, we might think of provisional practices as being akin to the nudging of a planet toward the outer edge of the sun’s gravitational well. Once it falls into the well, the orbit is established: happens just naturally, we could say.
Iron filings within a certain proximity to a magnet will be drawn into contact with the magnet. But the magnetism of the magnet will have no discernible effect upon filings at a greater distance away from it.
Likewise, we might think of provisional practices as being something like a finger that pushes the iron filings closer and closer to the magnet–until they are within the magnetic range of the magnet’s pull, at which point the finger is no longer necessary. The magnetic “grace” of the magnet itself finishes the job.