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The process of spiritual awakening has long been experienced and described as a path.  In Buddhism, awakening depends largely on one's own efforts—just as past behavior has decisively affected present circumstances, present behavior decisively shapes the future.  A result of this emphasis on self-effort is that path structures and path theories are more developed in Buddhism than in other world religions or native traditions.  Shakyamuni Buddha set forth the "noble eightfold path," a course of authentic understanding, conduct, and meditation.  In the centuries that followed, other paths were proposed. One elaborate blueprint systematized types of religious aspirants, techniques of spiritual practice, meditative states, and all the realms of the Buddhist cosmos. 

A way / the Way

The Sanskrit word for spiritual path, marga, has many related meanings that testify to the richness of the concept: way, road, path, course, channel, passage, mode, method, style, direction, right way, search, inquiry.  The Chinese word for spiritual path, dao—and its Japanese equivalent, do—have even greater breadth.  Depending on context, dao can indicate an ordinary road, a social discipline, a martial art, or reality itself.  When we are on the Way, does a life journey enfold a spiritual journey, or does a spiritual journey enfold a life journey?  Ultimately, they are not two. 

As eras shifted, and as Buddhism moved from one culture to another, paths were transformed accordingly.  Indian Buddhists, with religious imaginations that favored the grand and cosmic, characteristically framed paths in terms of numerous lifetimes.  According to one calculation, attainment of full buddhahood would require 384 x 1058 years of diligent self-cultivation.  However, this seemed a bit extreme to Buddhists in other cultures, who deftly shaved eons off the process.  By the time Buddhism became established in Japan, masters declared that buddhahood could be achieved in one's present life "in this very body."