The Journey to Nirvana is a Hero’s Journey

by | Apr 14, 2024 | Buddhism for All

(Useful reference: A hero’s story.)

To break through to the Dharma means to arrive at stream-entry.  The most important question is: how do we, normal people in the modern world, arrive at stream-entry? 

The standard answer, which is also the correct answer, is to understand and practice the Four Noble Truths.  When I was a novice learner, that correct answer did not help me one bit.  Worse still, I got more frustrated every time I heard it.  I did not see how practicing virtue and meditation, for example, would get me the spiritual breakthrough I need to reach stream-entry.

What would be really helpful would be to see how a modern person like ourselves did it.  Thankfully, we have Soryu.  I asked Soryu to anonymously relate the story of how one of his students followed the path to an initial glimpse of liberation, partly as an inspiring example for everybody, but more importantly, to give us a real, tangible, understandable idea of how everything we learn and practice in the Four Noble Truths comes together to enable a spiritual breakthrough.

Soryu is willing to share the story of one of his students, Susan (not her real name).  But before he does that, he wants to make sure we do not think he is presenting a “roadmap to nirvana”.  That is because roadmaps give a few wrong impressions.  First, they give the wrong impression that there is only one path to nirvana, while in reality, there are multiple paths, some of which suit some people more than others.  Second, people wrongly assume that there are steps and stages to be taken in a strictly linear order, while in reality, there are many feedback loops, and the order of certain steps are usually swappable, so things are really much more nuanced.  Third, roadmaps do not account for individual differences.  They appear to suggest that each step is roughly as challenging for each person, but in reality, some individuals can get indefinitely held up by certain steps until a skillful teacher helps them break through, while others breeze by those steps (only to be completely caught up in a different step while some other people breeze by). 

With that caveat in mind, we present the story of how Susan arrived at initial insight in the upcoming posts.  You will see that Susan’s journey ties together everything we talked about in this Buddhism For All series.  It begins with aspiration, mundane right view, a commitment to ethics, and the practice of right mindfulness.  An important milestone of her journey is overcoming the five hindrances, which is life-changing in and of itself.  It also enables her mastery of the jhānas, and the maturing of the seven factors of enlightenment, the combination of which enables her spiritual breakthrough.

And, yes, there are places where Susan feels invincible, for good reason, places where she feels defeated, also for good reason, and places where her journey gets sabotaged by the most unexpected “enemies”.  If her story reads like a hero’s journey, that is because it actually is.  Every journey to the spiritual breakthrough is a hero’s journey. 

(Credit where credit is due: Susan’s story was produced from long interviews with Soryu, and a very large percentage of what you read there are verbatim recordings of Soryu’s carefully crafted words.  So, if you like the upcoming posts, that’s where it’s coming from. I wrote the Helena story, though. You’re welcome.)


  • Reflect on this post with Angela:
    • The Hero’s Journey is a narrative archetype, popularized by Joseph Campbell. It is a typical arc of how a hero or protagonist encounters a challenge, makes the determination to take a quest to overcome the challenge, steps into the unknown, finds help along the way, and undergoes the inner transformation necessary to overcome the challenge, and finally, returns victoriously home, triumphant, ready to serve his people. Joseph Campbell found that this hero’s journey arc was a common narrative template for all stories we tell – from myths, to children’s fairy tales, to modern day movies.  
    • Examine your own life. What is the main narrative arc of your own hero’s journey? What major challenges are you facing in life? Who do you have to become in order to surmount those challenges?

Chade-Meng Tan

Meng is an award-winning engineer, international bestselling author, movie producer and philanthropist. His work has been nominated eight times for the Nobel Peace Prize. (Read Meng's story)

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