Years ago, one of my teachers suggested I read the Visuddhimagga, an ancient commentary on the “Path of Puriﬁcation” written by Buddhagosa some nine centuries after the time of the Buddha. After many months awaiting its delivery—it was literally aboard a slow boat from Sri Lanka—I enthusiastically settled in to read. My ardor was soon cooled, however, by the diﬃculty of unearthing the practice truths I sensed lay at the bottom of this dense volume of lists and dire comparisons. My mind simply did not possess the archaeological patience and discernment needed to pare through it.
Fortunately for us all, Matthew Flickstein’s latest book, Swallowing the River Ganges, has brought into clear and approachable focus the seven stages of purification delineated in this wonderful tome. This is a monumental synthesis of the Buddha’s teachings from the standpoint of one who has walked the path. Flickstein has stewarded its birth into a more modern form and presentation. A simplicity and clarity come through in a most ordinary and yet remarkable way—not surprising from this longtime student of Bhante Henepola Gunaratana, a teacher well known for his “plain English” style.
Flickstein’s book follows the seven stages of puriﬁcation as delineated by Buddhagosa, but with one major exception. He has superimposed on them the Four Foundations of Mindfulness, the Four Noble Truths and the Noble Eightfold Path, placing each set of contemplations and skillful undertakings at the proper stage of development in terms of these seven milestones of spiritual growth. Because of this, the book takes on the quality of a road map through our internal landscape, what Thai meditation master Ajahn Mun has called a “cave of wonders.”
Swallowing the River Ganges begins with the foundation of practice, the puriﬁcation of virtue. Flickstein grounds virtue in four endeavors: following the precepts, engaging in right livelihood, wisely using and accruing material goods, and guarding the sense doors. But these are not presented as grim and hard-edged sets of rules. Instead, he breathes into these practices an aliveness that points the way to a deeper discernment of truth’s voice in every situation of our lives.
Diﬃcult spiritual experiences are described as a part of the series of “normal” insights through which a meditator passes on his or her journey to freedom. This normalizing eﬀect is quite powerful. Flickstein tackles the diﬃcult subject of “the dark night of the soul” with his characteristic clarity and directness of style, using stories of real people who have come to this juncture in their own practice.
The ﬁnal chapters of the book are dedicated to the insights one attains in the ﬁnal stages of practice. The strength of these ending chapters—indeed of the entire book—lies in their approachability and usefulness as a resource text. Their power comes also from the simple fact that shouts from these pages over and over again, that nibbana is possible.