MCTB Models of the Stages of Enlightenment
Before I discuss the various models, I should begin by saying that this is almost certainly the most easily misconstrued chapter in this book. Further, if you are a big fan of standard Buddhist dogma, I strongly recommend that you stop reading this chapter now and skip to the conclusion of this book. Seriously, I’m about to get quite irreverent again, but in that irreverence are bits of wisdom that are hard to find so explicitly stated elsewhere, so dismiss this chapter at your peril.
The temptation when thinking about enlightenment is to come up with something defined that you can imagine, such as a state or quality of being, and then fixate on that ideal rather than doing the practices that lead to freedom. It is absolutely guaranteed that anything you can imagine or define as being enlightenment is a limited and incorrect view, but these views are extremely tempting just the same and generally continue to be very seductive even through the middle stages of enlightenment. Every possible description of the potential effects of realization is likely to feed into this unfortunate tendency.
Thus, my distinct preference when practicing is to assume that enlightenment is completely impractical, produces no definable changes, and has nothing whatsoever to do with the scopes of the other trainings. This means that I take it as a working hypothesis that it will not make me a better person in any way, create any beneficial mental qualities, produce any states of happiness or peace, and provide no additional clarity into any of the issues surrounding how to live my ordinary life. I have experimented with adopting other views and found that they nearly always get in the way of my insight practices.
A view so easily becomes sacred, and thus the temptation is not to investigate the sensations that make up thoughts about that view, but rather to imitate the ideal expressed in the content of that view. This can seem like practice in fundamental insight, but it is not. I realize that I am not doing a good job of advertising enlightenment here, particularly following my descriptions of the Dark Night. Good point. My thesis is that those who must find it will, regardless of how it is advertised. As to the rest, well, what can be said? Am I doing a disservice by not selling it like nearly everyone else does? I don’t think so. If you want grand advertisements for enlightenment, there is a great stinking mountain of it there for you partake of, so I hardly think that my bringing it down to earth is going to cause some harmful deficiency of glitz in the great spiritual marketplace.
Bill Hamilton had a lot of great one-liners, but my favorite concerned insight practices and their fruits, of which he said, “Highly recommended, can’t tell you why.” That is probably the safest and most accurate advertisement for enlightenment that I have ever heard. There was a famous old dead enlightened guy (whose name ironically eludes me at the moment), who was known to have said, “I have gained absolutely nothing through complete and unexcelled enlightenment.” A friend of mine thinks it was the Buddha, and it may have been. Regardless, it is traditional to advertise enlightenment in the negative in the Buddhist tradition and many others, either stating what it is not or stating what is lost at each stage, but it is so very tempting to imagine that “freedom from suffering” will naturally translate into a permanent state of mental happiness or peace, and this can tempt one to try to mimic that idealized state. That would be a concentration practice.
Having said all of that, the fact is that the models of the stages of enlightenment are out there and available. Even when they are not explicitly mentioned, they have an obvious influence on how people describe realization. Thus, I have decided to try to work with them so that they might be used in ways that are helpful rather than harmful. This is more difficult than it may initially sound.
There are days I wish the words for awakening didn’t exist, the models had never exited, and that the whole process was largely unknown to the ordinary person so that it would be less mythologized and aggrandized, thus making conversations about it much more normal and less reaction-producing. I wish we could start over, strip away all the strange cultural and mythical trappings, create simple, clear terms, and move on with things.
There are other days when I think that at least people know it might be possible, even if most of what has been said about it is pretty fantasy-based. My greatest dream is that the current generation of enlightened teachers will go far out of their way to correct the descriptive errors and false promises of the past and lay the groundwork for perpetuation of these reforms despite the economic and social pressures to do otherwise. One of the issues holding this back is that unfortunately only a few have gone far enough to see how the vast majority of the golden dreams of enlightenment do not hold up to reality testing. Another is that putting one’s self on an artificial pedestal can be rewarding in many ways. One way or another, the number of voices trying to bring things back in line with what can actually be done is small in comparison to the forces that want to make it into something grand and thus largely unattainable.
Before I get too far into the details, I should explain that the most essential principle I wish to drive home is that THIS IS IT, meaning that this moment contains the truth. Any model that tries to drive a wedge between the specifics of what is happening in your world right now and what awakening entails needs to be considered with great skepticism. With the simple exception of the fact of poorly perceiving the sensations occurring now and habitually coming up with the illusion of a separate, continuous individual, nearly all of the rest of the dreams are problematic to some degree. This basic principle is essential to practice, as it focuses things on the here and now, and also happens to be true. Back to the complexities…
The mental models we use when on the spiritual path can have a profound effect on our journey and its outcome. Most spiritual practitioners have never really taken a hard-hitting look at their deepest beliefs about what “enlightenment” means or what they imagine will be different when they get enlightened. Many probably have subconscious ideals that may have come from sources as diverse as cartoons, TV shows (Kung Fu comes to mind), movies, legends, sixties gurus, popular music, popular magazines, and other aspects of popular culture in general. More formal and traditional sources include the ancient texts and traditions of Buddhism, Hinduism, Taoism, Sufism, Kabbala (however you spell it), Christianity, Western Mystical Traditions (Alchemy, Theosophy, Golden Dawn related traditions, etc.), the ancient Greek mystery schools (including the fragmentary writings of those like Heraclites), and the non-aligned or ambiguously aligned teachers such as Kabir, Khalil Gibran, J. Krishnamurti, and many others.
Modern fusion traditions, such as the various new versions of Buddhism and other traditions that are present in the West, also have a wide range of explicit and implied ideals about awakening. Plenty of people also seem to take their own inborn higher ideals for themselves or others that have arisen from sources hard to define and made these a part of their working if usually poorly-defined models of enlightenment. There is also a strong tradition in the West of believing that enlightenment involves perfecting ourselves in some psychological sense, though this is also prominent in certain Eastern and traditional models as well in slightly different forms.
Just about all of these sources contain some aspects that may at times be useful and other aspects that at times may be useless or even send people in the wrong direction. The number of contradictions that can be found even within each specific tradition on the subject is much larger than I think most people imagine. For instance, those who attempt a systematic review of the dogmas of enlightenment within the Pali Canon will find themselves tangled in a mass of widely divergent doctrines, myths, stories and ideals, and this is only one tradition.
Thus, to take on the subject of the models of the stages of enlightenment is a daunting task, but by breaking it down into simplified categories, some discussion of this wide mass of dogma and half-truth is possible. I will use both simple, broadly applicable models and also discuss specific models that come from some of the traditions and try to relate these to reality. In the end, relating them to reality is essentially the practice, and that falls to you.
I consider this attempt to be just one addition to an old tradition that attempts to reform the dogma and bring it back in line with verifiable truths, albeit one that is more specific and comprehensive than any that I have found. Each new culture, place, time and situation seems to need to do this again and again, as the forces within us and society that work to promote models that are out of touch with the truth of things are powerful and perennial, with money, power, fame, ideals of endless bliss and pleasure, the enticing power of the ideals of self-perfection and the pernicious inertia of tradition being chief among them.
In that same vein, this chapter is very much a situation in which I claim a very high level of realization, write as if what I have achieved is sufficient authority to write a chapter such as this one, and then present it as if this is a definitive text on the subject, sufficient to contradict significant portions of 2,500 years of tradition and the teachings and writings of countless previous and current commentators. While it is hard from my current vantage point to not believe this to be true, anyone with sense will read this chapter with appropriate skepticism, and this, as I see it, is one of the strengths of properly applied Buddhism and rational thought in general. The Buddha was forever asking people not to take his word at face value, but instead to do the experiment and see if they come to the same conclusions. I recommend the same. If you are able to achieve something beyond what I state is possible, more power to you, and please let me know how you did it! I would feel real regret if I thought that this work had hindered anyone from achieving their full human potential, and am always looking for practices and concepts that are useful.
Here is a list of the basic categories of models that I use, though most traditions contain a mix of most or all of these. There are probably other aspects of the dreams of enlightenment that I have failed to address, but this list should cover most of the basic ones. I look at each of these as representing some axis of development, and basically all of them are good axes to work on regardless of what they have to do with enlightenment. That said, from what I have already written, it will not be hard to pick out my favorites:
- Non-Duality Models: those models having to do with eliminating or seeing through the sense that there is a fundamentally separate or continuous center-point, agent, watcher, doer, perceiver, subject, observer or similar entity.
- Fundamental Perceptual Models: those that have to do with directly perceiving fundamental aspects of things as they are, including perceiving emptiness, luminosity, impermanence, suffering, and other essential aspects of sensations regardless of what those sensations are.
- Specific Perceptual Models: those that involve being able to perceive more and more, or all, of the specific sensations that make up experience with greater and greater clarity at most or all times, and usually involve perfected, continuous, panoramic mindfulness or concentration at extremely high speed.
- Emotional Models: those that have to do with perfecting or limiting the emotional range, usually involving eliminating things like desire, greed, hatred, confusion, delusion, and the like.
- Action Models: those that have to do with perfecting or limiting the things we can and can’t do in the ordinary sense, usually relating to always following some specific code of morality or performing altruistic actions, or that everything we say or do will be the exactly right thing to have done in that situation.
- Powers Models: those that have to do with gaining in abilities, either ordinary or extraordinary (psychic powers).
- Energetic Models: those that have to do with having all the energy (Chi, Qi, Prana, etc.) flowing through all the energy channels in the proper way, all the Chakras spinning in the proper direction, perfecting our aura, etc.
- Specific Knowledge Models: those that have to do with gaining conceptual knowledge of facts and details about the specifics of reality, as contrasted with the models that deal with perceiving fundamental aspects of reality.
- Psychological Models: those that have to do with becoming psychologically perfected or eliminating psychological issues and problems, i.e. having no “stuff” do deal with, no neuroses, no mental illnesses, perfect personalities, etc.
- Thought Models: those that have to do with either limiting what thoughts can be thought, enhancing what thoughts can be thought, or involve stopping the process of thinking entirely.
- God Models: those that involve perceiving or becoming one with God, or even becoming a God yourself.
- Physical Models: those that involve having or acquiring a perfected, hyper-healthy or excellent physical body, such as having long earlobes, beautiful eyes, a yoga-butt, or super-fast fists of steel.
- Radiance Models: those that involve having a presence that is remarkable in some way, such as being charismatic or radiating love, wisdom or even light.
- Karma Models: those that involve being free of the laws of reality or causes that make bad things happen to people, and thus living a blessed, protected, lucky, or disaster and illness-free life.
- Perpetual Bliss Models: those models that say that enlightenment involves a continuous state of happiness, bliss or joy, the corollary of this being a state that is perpetually free from suffering. Related to this are models that involve a perpetual state of jhanaic or meditative absorption.
- Immortality Models: those that involve living forever, usually in an amazing place (Heaven, Nirvana, Pure Land, etc.) or in an enhanced state of ability (Angels, Bodhisattvas, Sorcerers, etc.).
- Transcendence Models: those models that state that one will be free from or somehow above the travails of the world while yet being in the world, and thus live in a state of transcendence.
- Extinction Models: those that involve getting off the Wheel of Suffering, the round of rebirths, etc. and thus never being reborn again or even ceasing to be at the moment of enlightenment, that is, the great “Poof!” on the cushion, not to be confused with the more mundane atmospheric consequences of a legume-based diet, as anyone who as been on a vegetarian meditation retreat knows all too well.
- Love Models: those that involve us loving everyone and/or everyone loving us.
- Unitive Models: that you will become one with everything in some sense.
- Social Models: that you will somehow be accepted for what you may have attained, that you have attained something when people think you have, and variants on these themes.
Like me, you have probably run into most or all of these ideals of awakening in your spiritual quest and probably within yourself at some point in time, either consciously or unconsciously. Given all of these high ideals, it is not surprising that we find the task of awakening daunting if not preposterous. Imagine yourself as the universally-accepted radiant immortal angel bodhisattva bright-eyed yoga-butt-having all-loving one-with-the-universe endlessly mindful perfectly healthy emotionally perfected psychologically pure endlessly altruistic non-thinking desire-free psychic-superhero star-child of light, and then notice how this image may be in some contrast with your current life. If you are anything like me, you may notice a bit of a discrepancy!
I will take on each model, relate them to a few of the traditions, and try to make sense of where these ideals came from. I will also address which ones are realistic and which are just a bunch of beautiful dreams that can either help you identify areas to work on or really screw up your spiritual quest if you are not careful. You will note that none of these models come from any formal tradition. In order to relate them to the traditions, here is a list of some models from Buddhism:
- The Four Path Model from the Theravada, which involves becoming a stream-enterer, second path, third path and then an arahat (however you spell it).
- The Five Path Model from the Tibetans.
- The Ten Bodhisattva Bhumis from the Tibetans.
- The ideal of Buddhahood from all the Buddhist traditions.
- The Sudden and Gradual Awakening schools of Zen.
There are other models from other traditions (e.g. St. John of the Cross’ Ladder of Love), and I have already mentioned these in the section on the Progress of Insight. I’m not going to go into much detail about them here, but when you are familiar with the models I am going to discuss you should be able to make some sense of them.