The Stages of the Path

Let me recap then on last week.
The word Buddha I explained is not a name it is a title. The word Buddha means someone who has woken up. Just as we can wake from sleep into ordinary consciousness, so Buddhism claims it is possible to wake from life into a state of Enlightened consciousness.
The Buddha was a man - Siddhartha Gotama - who lived round about 500 B.C. He had a fairly privileged upbringing, but in his late twenties, when a young father, he had an existential crisis wherein he realised that whatever worldly qualities you possessed, health, youth, even life itself, none of these qualities could be relied upon and all were eventually subject to death.
Siddhartha, we heard then went forth from his home, seeking teachers. After practising with a succession of teachers he eventually went forth even from them and alone, discovered what he called the Majjhima Patipada, or Middle Way. The Middle Way leads to Buddhahood, Enlightenment and Siddhartha became the historical Buddha and established the Way to Enlightenment for others.
There are two ways in which we can look at the Spiritual path. One way would be to look at how we tread the path, and the last three talks in this series really will be all about this. I will be going into the nuts and bolts of how we progress towards Enlightenment. But Today's talk is not to do with the how we tread the path, it is instead a description of the stages of the Path.
By way of analogy we could say that the last three talks will be an examination of the how and will be like looking at maps and timetables and the practicalities of the journey, but this talk today is more like the travel brochure showing pictures of the sights that we pass through on the way to our final destination.
There really are quite a few systems which describe the stages of the Spiritual path in Buddhism. Buddhism has gone through many phases of development in its two and a half thousand year history. All of these outlines of the Path amount to the same Path, but they are presented by different schools in different ways. Buddhism also has had to accommodate different types of people from different places and different times. Some people really are highly devotional and not at all intellectual and for these two different types very, very different forms of Buddhism are needed. Some people are highly physically active and need something like yoga, or physical work to get their teeth into whilst others prefer to spend days, weeks and even years sitting in silence on their meditation cushions.
One has to be careful when meeting Buddhism that you do not generalise about your initial experience of Buddhism and assume that all of Buddhism is like that. You will remember the parable of the seven blind men and the elephant. Each of the men was led up to the elephant and offered a part of the elephant to touch. The one who held his ear said later that an elephant is like a thin basket, another who held the tail thought it was like a snake. The one who held the leg thought that the elephant was like a tree. In such a way we have to be careful when encountering one particular school of Buddhism. All Forms of Buddhism are agreed on certain central principles, but the freedom encouraged in Buddhism leads to continual experimentation and Buddhism redefining and rediscovering itself again and again throughout history, keeping itself alive and finding new expressions for itself each time it encounters a new culture.
This mistake of generalising from one's initial experience really came home to me about a dozen years ago when I was taking part in a Buddhism and Christianity debate in Galway University. There really were some fairly gifted intellectuals in the audience, and towards the end of the debate one of them made the point to me that from what he'd seen that evening, Buddhism was pretty impressive but he asked how could someone like an Irish tinker follow it as a religion.
I was astonished by this question, and having soldiered through some two and a half hours of debate and tricky questioning I rather impatiently though back the answer. "The tinkers have no problem as they've got guts. It's the intellectuals who have the problem as they're too damn clever." Fortunately my response was received with humour. But the incident did highlight the issue well. Buddhism can be approached by people who are largely instinctual and it can be approached by those with an intellectual bias. But different approaches are required by both types.
By the way I suppose you heard about the seven blind elephants and the man? The elephants had various different opinions on certain qualities of the man, but they were all agreed on the fact that he was flat.
As I have indicated, there are various ways of presenting the path, but there is one which really is very clear and informative and, until discovered last century by the scholar Mrs Rhys Davids, had been missing for many centuries. This description of the path is called the Twelve Positive Nidanas, or Twelve positive links, and describes a succession of stages that the individual who is practising upon the path goes through. And just to re-emphasise the point, it will be in subsequent talks that I go into the actual practices.
Now for those who want a copy here is a list of the twelve positive nidanas. They probably won't mean very much at all without a commentary, so the rest of this talk will be devoted to elucidating each of these twelve links.
So let us begin at the beginning: unsatisfactoriness or dukkha. It is very unfortunate those who first went to the Far East and brought back accounts of Buddhism alighted on the way Buddhism focuses on dukkha, which is translated as unsatisfactoriness or suffering, and so described Buddhism as a pessimistic religion. Buddhism does look very closely at the phenomenon of suffering, but it does so with the intention of totally and permanently destroying suffering. The reason Buddhism looks at suffering is completely positive. You can imagine somebody going to the doctor and the doctor refusing to look at the complaint.
"I can't walk Doctor, me' foots all swollen." "Come, come now Mr. Jones. What sort of attitude is that. Just look at the weather, what a fine day it is! How lucky we all are!" The image may seem far fetched, but in fact the Buddha was sometimes called the great physician, life itself was the patient, and the conclusion that pain was an inherent part of existence was the diagnosis which caused the Buddha to seek for a cure.
Dukkha! Unsatisfactoriness. So what is Buddhism saying here? Buddhism is not saying that we necessarily have to start suffering in order to begin the spiritual path. Some religions seem to sanctify suffering, it almost seems to be part of the goal and this seems pretty awful to me. Buddhism seeks to bring suffering to an end. So no the path does not necessarily start with suffering but rather it starts with an insight that suffering is an inseparable part of existence.
Well is this true? Is suffering an inseparable part of existence?
Well if I had just met some kid on Christmas morning and he had just opened all his Christmas presents I think that I would be a bit of a fool if I tried to convince him that life was unsatisfactory. I think that he would be speaking quite honestly if he told me that life was absolutely fantastic. I think that if I met someone who had finally got off with the person that they have been in love with for months or years and told them that life was inherently painful, I think that they'd soon tell me where to go.
Sometimes life is actually painful. You twist your ankle. You have a headache. Your girlfriend or boyfriend chucks you. You don't get the exam results you want. This really is pain.
But some times the pain is round the corner and so is not being experienced in the moment whatsoever. That hangover is not present on the Friday night in the pub. That hangover belongs to Saturday morning. That wonderful boyfriend or girlfriend may not be around in a couple of years time and the pain of separation might be pretty severe, but at the moment life is just rosy.
So sometimes pain actually has arrived which makes life unpleasant.
Sometimes pain is on its way inevitably and our foresight, our realisation that this will happen can give us an unpleasant anxiety and cause us to lessen the enjoyment of what we have, And thirdly, sometimes, even when life seems really sorted out, and there are no imminent disasters on the horizon, there can be a certain longing for a deeper type of experience which we might call a hunger for the spiritual.
I'd like to give a few examples of people getting onto the spiritual path. The first and obvious one is the Buddha himself. Last week I described the incident of the Four Sights. This is obviously a stylised version of what was an existential crisis for the young unenlightened Siddhartha who was to become the Buddha. He noticed as if for the first time and old man and realised the truth about ageing, he saw a sick man and realised how helpless we can sometimes be in the face of natural existence, he saw a corpse and realised that everything one ever possessed was taken from you in the end by death and finally he saw a wandering mendicant, collecting alms, and realised that he would have to follow that man's example and seek the truth and in doing so hopefully find that which was not subject of death and decay.
Siddhartha's perception of suffering led him to begin the spiritual life. I remember my own realisation that it all ended in death when I was at college studying to be a teacher. I was a real bag of laughs then. I remember being astonished that everyone was bound to die and no one was at all bothered by it. I remember picturing people like lemmings pouring over a cliff top to their deaths but with no concern in them at all.
Sometimes I do school visits and I remember discussing the Four Sights with a class of fourteen year old schoolgirls. It was a couple of years ago and the Titanic video had just been released in the shops.
"Whose got the Titanic video? " I asked.
The response was extraordinary: I watch it every evening. Ooh Leonardo De Caprio! He's gorgeous.
Right I said. Imagine that the ship has just struck the iceberg, the captain announces over the loudspeakers that the ship is going down in two hours, that there are not enough lifeboats, so the bars are open, the drinks are free and we're going to party." I asked, "What sort of party do you think it would be?" I looked into a see of faces all thinking, "This man's stupid." It was fairly agreed that it would not be an enjoyable party. "Well if the ship was going to sink in four hours instead of two would that improve the party?" I asked. We extended the time period up from a couple of days, a couple of weeks until finally we got to forty five years. We examined the fact that we in the room were now in the same situation, that many of us would live for another forty five years and apparently we had no difficulty with that. One of the girls, the one who had been the most vocal earlier on quite despondently said words to the effect of, "It's all rotten." I could only agree. We in playing around with the notion of moving the sinking period of the Titanic had covered the first three sights and brought us, if only superficially to the insight of the Buddha to be.
It is this insight that gives the energy in the initial stages of the spiritual path.
We are not daft. Most of us live most of the time by the maxim, 'If it's not broke don't fix it!'
If life seems to be working then leave it alone. But if we reflect on how life progresses and the fact that we all eventually end up in the grave, this can cause the dissatisfaction that is powerful enough to drive us into the quest for a much deeper understanding into the nature of existence. And so the Spiritual Life begins.
For myself I found the period of being dissatisfied with life but of not having yet found even others who shared that dissatisfaction to be a pretty bleak time. For myself I was fairly convinced that religion was a pile of garbage and so I looked to the arts and philosophy in the hope of finding some clue into the nature of existence. I was completely unlucky in finding anything and became more despondent. But it is an interesting phase of the spiritual life.
We have come through childhood and hopefully it has been pretty good. We begin to discover that our parents are not omniscient and we begin to ask some pretty fundamental questions. In myself I found that I had the assumption that I would find in life that which was good, meaningful, pleasant, beautiful and lasting. But as I entered adolescence and began to learn from television just how sinister the world could be at times, I found that my quest was being frustrated. However, I do think that the search for the good, the meaningful, the pleasant, the beautiful and the lasting is a legitimate search. And it is when we realise that it is not going to be found in ordinary mundane existence that we begin to become aware of spiritual possibilities. Could the good, the meaningful, the pleasant, the beautiful and the lasting be found in another place than in the mundane world?
I remember borrowing books from the library on Sufis, mystics, Zen Buddhists and all seemed to be saying that there was a legitimate search that could be undertaken and that I was not mad for wanting to do so. One day I came home from W.H. Smiths with a book on meditation, I sat down to meditate, and knew as I meditated that I was experiencing the first spiritually satisfying experience of my life so far. The second stage of the Twelve nidanas was being entered upon. I was experiencing a Faith that there was something out there (in there) which could possibly lead me to the end of all suffering permanently. I had a confidence that I was on the way to the Good.
Later I decided to visit and practice with others and decided to visit as many alternative types as I could possibly find to see if any of them had anything to offer. My first meeting was with Buddhists who agreed with everything that I had to say, were aware of higher states of consciousness, didn't believe in God, and I was home.
Have any of you seen the film Close Encounters of the Third Kind. I felt like the hero who through his experience of aliens becomes a total outsider to his community. In time he meets others who have also met aliens and his joy is total. Seeing that film by Spielburg was like watching my own biography.
So this is Faith. Saddha. It is an emotional response that arises from coming into contact with that which is Higher.
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We use the word Faith because we have little alternative. The word Saddha has been translated as 'confidence/trust' but most often in Buddhist literature you will come across the word faith as the translation.
We have to be cautious with this word as other religions use the same word 'faith' with quite different meanings. There is nothing blind about Saddha. Saddha is based upon perception even if you are unaware of how you have perceived the fact that what you are encountering is spiritually wholesome. Some people say that Saddha is when that which is ultimate in you responds to that which is ultimate in the universe. We do know from our own experiences that some things - teachings for example - or even people, have the mark of authenticity. The experience of meeting these teachings or people can be a great relief and a great pleasure. Sometimes the experience can even be quite awesome. Sometimes we have the opposite experience.
In one of the prisons I visit I was asked to meet up with a new inmate who claimed that he had been a Buddhist for the last 25 years. After talking with him for an hour I felt that I had eaten something very unpleasant and that feeling stayed with me for two days. One of the sincere Buddhists in the prison, another inmate, hurried to meet the new arrival and after spending just a couple of minutes with him in his cell, could not get out fast enough. The sincere Buddhist said to me later, even the Christians didn't like him and they seemed to tolerate all sorts. So who knows what's going on in that man, but that part of me which responds to other Buddhists is certainly not responding here.
Having found the spiritual path we begin to enjoy some of the fruits of it. Our Faith becomes established, and we grow more and more confident in the teachings. It is true that in gaining a deeper experience of ourselves through more self knowledge, through meditation and good communication, we can unearth some rather painful experiences which we have perhaps successfully buried for years. But the general tendency is to unearth richer and richer experiences, upon the basis of Faith - Saddha - Joy arises.
The Buddha himself stated that Enlightenment - Nirvana - is the highest bliss. What we are going to see now as we progress along the remainder of the twelve links is a progression towards higher and higher states of happiness, and even beyond. As we sort ourselves out along the spiritual path and begin to live a life more in keeping with higher values, we find quite soon that we are beginning to enjoy a clear conscience. Sometimes people wonder whether crime pays, and indeed, most of the inmates that I visit in prisons regret being caught, but don't actually question whether their criminal careers lead to happiness or not. But according to Buddhism being unethical coarsens one's experience badly and even prevents a person getting into states of happiness. If we are subtle enough in our perception and we examine our mental state when we genuinely have a clear conscience, we will find that there is definitely an element of happiness present in our mental state.
We continue in our spiritual practice, we meditate, we practice ethics and soon joy gives rise to rapture - piti.
I remember talking to a Shri Lankan about piti, meaning rapture, and sukha, meaning bliss which we will meet in a couple of minutes and this Shri Lankan told me that really we cannot translate these Pali words with English words. There are no equivalents for piti and sukha in English he said. Piti and Sukha are spiritual emotions. Whilst he spoke I watched his face and I believed him. He looked as if he was talking about emotions from another world which I am sure was exactly what he was doing. Anyway, we must use the words we have and rapture is the best translation we have.
Rapture can come in various strengths. At first it lifts up the spine and we feel ourselves effortlessly sitting in a perfect meditation posture. Sometimes the hairs on the back of the arms and the neck and even the scalp begin to stand on end. Sometimes we find our eyes shedding tears of relief as the rapture floods through us. Sometimes the experience is so strong that we need a word like ecstasy to describe it.
Within the Christian tradition you have John of the Cross and Theresa of Avila both floating around the room in states of ecstasy. According to Buddhism this is not abnormal. This defiance of gravity is the effect of powerful piti and though uncommon, is not unknown in the world of mystics.
In some ways rapture, though a wonderful experience at the time, can in comparison to higher states seem a bit crude. Rapture is physical, it has physical effects - hairs standing on end, tears streaming etc., but as we progress in our meditation we pass beyond rapture and states of calm arise. Passaddhi is the state of calm which follows piti and only the emotional side of rapture remains. The rapture has not diminished, on the contrary it has grown so strong that it is too large for physical expression. The image traditionally used is that of elephants who, instead of splashing around and jumping into little pools of water which they immediately empty with their bulk, have instead moved on and are now slipping into a huge lake which hardly seems to be effected by the entry of the entire herd of elephants.
Passaddhi gives rise to bliss (sukha). Bliss is a state of intense happiness. It is purely mental and is the complete unification of all our energies. The meditator is no longer aware of his body and - if I may quote from one Buddhist writer:
"Sukha (bliss) is not something that comes and goes in a moment, or touches one superficially. On the contrary it is an experience of so enthralling and overwhelming a character that the meditator is occupied and absorbed, even immersed in it, at times for days on end, to the exclusion of all other interests."
The same Buddhist writer goes on to warn that if involved in another religion it is possible at this stage to feel that one has realised God or Brahma and so make the mistake of thinking that the goal of the spiritual path has been achieved. The truth is that nothing permanent has been achieved so far and it is possible to fall all the way back to where we began and even worse if practice is not maintained.
Upon bliss arises concentration, upon sukha arises samadhi.
When we are truly happy we are concentrated naturally. When we are concentrated naturally we are happy.
This degree of concentration is natural. This is not one part of the mind holding another part onto some object of concentration. We are all there totally focused.
I lived in a retreat centre for a year back in 1989 and I remember a Dutch meditation teacher saying to me. Everybody wants to be happy, but there is a state which is even better than happiness when everything is totally calm. The trouble with happiness, he said, is that there is a little bit of vibration still remaining in it.
Samadhi can range from just being quietly focused in the lower stages of meditation to a point where there is no physical contact with the body at all. Needles could be pierced into you skin, there would be no experience of the pain only the bliss of meditation. Towards the end of the Buddha's life he caught dysentery. He could bare the discomfort better than any, but sometimes he used to take a break and go into a mediation where no physical pain could be felt.
Upon concentration arises knowledge and vision of things as they really are, Yathabhuta Ñanadassana.
This is the stage that I want to say a bit more about and then briefly take you through the last stages of the path.
Bliss can be lost, rapture can be lost, concentration can be lost, but when we really begin to see Reality for what it is the insights that arise change us permanently.
This is where the Transcendental is experienced. When one begins to experience the Transcendental one becomes irreversibly on the path to Enlightenment. It is no longer possible to go back. It is no longer possible to be reborn in hellish or even animal states, it is not possible to sustain a negative mental state for any length of time. Happiness is now an inevitability. This stage of development is called Stream Entry. Picture someone trying to launch some heavy old Indian boat into the river. The effort to push it down the shore is very great. To then push it through the mud and the reeds also requires great effort. Eventually it begins to move more easily through the reeds as the water begins to take the weight of the vessel. Then as the boat clears the reeds and the bed of the river, the current begins to snatch the bow of the boat and drag it into the centre of the river. It is now your job to jump aboard and not lose hold as other forces have taken over and the boat is now drawing you along at speed.
Traditionally after stream entry Enlightenment will be attained within seven rebirths. Please don't take that literally! Enlightenment is such a lofty goal that the notion of it can daunt us and make the goal seem like an impossibility. Stream entry on the other hand is a realistically attainable goal. It is said that most people who take up the spiritual life sincerely can achieve this goal in a lifetime.
The final four stages of the path we might therefore consider to be somewhat academic as it is the previous eight which really would be our working ground, but let me go through the last four quite briefly.
Upon Yathabhuta Ñanadassana arises nibbida or withdrawal. At last we are sitting loose to life. We have seen in essence how it really works and we can't be fooled by it any longer. We are in a state of remarkable happiness and our happiness is not dependent on external circumstances (which doesn't mean that we are no longer capable of taking great satisfaction from the external world.)
Upon Nibbida, withdrawal; arises viraga, dispassion.
This dispassion is a total imperturbability. The world can no longer affect us at all.
Upon dispassion arises Freedom.
One of the most famous statements of the Buddha came when some of his disciples asked him how to distinguish which teachings were his and which were not. He answered that just as the oceans of the world all had one taste, that of salt, so all of his teaching also had one taste and that was of freedom.
Of course we are talking about spiritual freedom, the complete mastery of our emotions, our intellect. We have seen through all ignorance and are wise to the nature of reality. Our being is so changed that we are no longer subject to the forces that bind us to existence itself and the perpetual habit of rebirth is finally broken.
The final stage of the spiritual path is the Knowledge of the destruction of the Biases: Asavakkhajanana. This does seem a strange phenomenon to me, but I have met it in other teachings. When one is a Buddha, one is not just a Buddha but one knows that one is a Buddha.
Apparently when one becomes Enlightened three things happen:
1. You see clearly your past lives in remarkable detail going back endlessly.
2. You see how the laws of karma work. That is you see people behaving ethically and being reborn in happier states, you see people being unethical and they are born in unhappier states.
3. You know that you are a Buddha
So in this final stage you know that the last subtle bonds that are holding you back - the biases - have been destroyed.
There is the subtle bias of craving experience through the five senses. That is gone.
There is the subtle bias of craving for existence. That is gone.
There is the subtle bias of spiritual ignorance. That is gone.
We are a Buddha. There is no more coming to be. The spiritual life has been lived. The highest goal has been attained.
As I said earlier, this talk has been like an outline of the path. It has not been at all about how to tread the path but has been more a pointing out the stages of the path. This talk has been like the travel brochures that show pictures of beaches, palms, swimming pools and hotels.
In the next talk I will be talking about those who tread the path to Enlightenment, and in the final three talks I will be talking about how the path is trod; the methods; the practices, and if this was a travel brochure, those later talks will be more like the map and timetables.