MCTB The Theravada Four Path Model

The root of the problem in standard Buddhism comes to us from the Theravada Four Path Model. This is the original model presented in the Pali Canon and the oldest model we have to work with. All the subsequent schools (Mahayana of various strains and the Vajrayana) react to it in their way but are still influenced by it even if they say they are not, so you need to know it to understand the debate.

Actually, the problems began long before in ancient Hinduism (which had a huge impact on Buddhism, despite what some Buddhists will tell you) and probably before that, but this is as good a place to start as any. I shouldn’t blame ancient India for what is really a perennial human wish. Let’s face it: we all want emotional perfection, as a large chunk of the pain felt in modern life relates to people’s emotions causing trouble. I will claim that not perceiving our emotions clearly is a far greater problem than the emotions themselves, but I am clearly in the minority in this regard. As I stated in the chapter “Harnessing the Energy of the Defilements”, there is a lot to be said for aspects of what we usually consider the bad emotions. It is important to realize that empty compassion underlies all our emotions, whether filtered through the illusion of duality or otherwise.

The Theravada Four Path Model is a model involving four stages of awakening, namely First Path or Stream Entry (Pali: sotapanna), Second Path or Once Returner (sakadagami), Third Path or Never Returner (anagami) and finally Fourth Path, Holy One, Saint, or Conqueror (arahat, arhat, arahant, or arhant, pick your favorite spelling). The terms Once Returner and Never Returner have to do with issues relating to the dogma that those who have attained to second path cannot be reborn more than once before attaining arahatship, and certainly not in the lower realms (hell realms, hungry ghost realms or animal realms), and that those of third path, if they do not attain to arahatship in this lifetime, will at worst be reborn into a heaven realm where the conditions are optimal for achieving enlightenment. However, the core of the Theravada Four Path Model is the dogma that enlightenment involves progressively eliminating the Ten Defilements in the following manner.

Stream Entry eliminates the first three defilements: skeptical doubt, attachment to rites and rituals, and personality belief. Second Path attenuates the fourth and fifth defilements, usually translated as greed and hatred or more technically as attraction and aversion to everything that is not a jhanaic state. Third Path is said to eliminate those same fourth and fifth defilements however translated. Fourth Path, that of arahatship, eliminates the remaining five defilements of attachment to formed jhanas (the first four jhanas), attachment to the formless realms (the second four jhanas), restlessness and worry, “conceit” (in quotes because it is a bit hard to translate), and something called “the last veil of unknowing”.

It is important to note that arahats that are said to have “eliminated conceit” (in limited emotional range terms) can appear absolutely arrogant and conceited, as well as restless or worried, etc. That there is no fundamental suffering in them while this is going on is an utterly separate issue. That said, conceit in the conventional sense and the rest of life can cause all sorts of conventional suffering for arahats just as it can for everyone else. While I am on the subject of conceit, perhaps I should take on the subject of the word “ego” in a more comprehensive way than I have done so far.

The pop psychology meaning of the word “ego” is something like arrogance, pride, narcissism, and a failure to take into account the feelings, rights and/or existence of others. This is also the definition that is most commonly behind such mainstream Buddhist statements as, “That action or statement that I really didn’t like had a lot of ‘ego’ in it.” I think that this definition of ego can sometimes be slightly useful for training in morality if we are very kind to ourselves and those around us, but often it seems to me to be pop spirituality turned into a weapon and a form of denial of someone else’s difficulties, feeling and suffering.

Worse, people often take this definition, mix it in with their own insecurities and unfortunate fear of existing or asserting themselves in the conventional sense, and then take this neurotic mixture and use it to continue to flog themselves and those around them. Please don’t do this. It is misguided and will not help you or anyone. This pop psychology definition of ego also has nothing to do with enlightenment in the formal sense, and so don’t bring it to mind when you read this chapter except to dismiss it.

Another definition of ego is the formal psychological one put forward by Freud. In this definition, ego is the moderator between the internalized parent or police of the super-ego and the primal drives of the id, those being largely for reproduction and survival. In this sense, ego is an extremely good thing and should be cultivated consciously and without restraint. This definition has to do with the more formal psychological concept of “ego strength,” a strength that is very positive and necessary for the deep and often difficult personal growth that we all want for ourselves. One of the explicit requirements for entering intensive psychoanalysis is high ego strength, the ability to face one’s reality and dark stuff without completely freaking out. Thus, eliminating this form of ego would be a disaster.

For reasons completely beyond me, the word “ego” is also used in a high mystical sense to describe the elimination of the experiential illusion of there being a special reference point as described in the chapter on the Three Characteristics, in the section on no-self. One who had eliminated this form of ego, which is in this case a useless illusion, might describe their experience in this way, “In this full field of experience or manifestation, there seems to be no special or permanent spot that is observing, controlling, separated from, or subject to any other point or aspect of the rest of this causal field of experience or manifestation.”

This is the experience and realization of the arahat. Notice that this definition of ego seems to have nothing whatsoever to do with the other definitions of ego. This is exactly the point, and so I strongly advocate never using the word ego in the context of describing realization or the goal of the spiritual life, or at least not doing so without extensive explanation of this particularly special and uncommon usage of the term. Those who do otherwise continue to cause an astounding amount of unrealistic, disempowering and life-denying thinking in mainstream Buddhists. It is my sincere wish that the misuse of the word ego and its associated negative side effects stop immediately and forever. Back to the models…

As the Theravada Four Path Model explicitly states that realization is all about eliminating greed, hatred, restlessness, worry, etc., this is explicitly a limited emotional range model, and, as expected, deserves some serious skepticism. In fact, this is a good time to go into what I love and despise about the Theravada. I absolutely love their emphasis on the Three Characteristics, love the astounding power of their techniques and am grateful beyond words for the maps they provided me for the territory before stream entry, however incomplete and idealized. I am profoundly grateful, at times to the point of tears, and I mean that, for the monasteries I got to sit in, for their preservation of that which is true and useful in Buddhism for 2,500 years, and for the chance to have sat with real, enlightened teachers because of their perseverance and work.

And yet, their maps of enlightenment still contain a hefty helping of scary market-driven propaganda and so much garbage that is life-denying, dangerously out of touch with what happens, and an impediment to practice for millions of people. That the enlightened lineage holders of the modern Theravada and their ex-monk Western counterparts don’t have the balls to stand up and say, “We are deeply sorry that for 2,500 years our predecessors perpetuated this craziness to put food in their bowls and fool ignorant peasants so that they might be supported in their other useful work, and we vow to do better!” is a crying shame.

They are chained to the texts, myths and the ancient lies, seemingly doomed to indoctrinate and brainwash generation after generation of monks, practitioners and devoted followers with their delicious poison. What a freakish paradox that the meditative techniques and technologies that I consider among the most powerful and direct ever created should come from a tradition whose models of awakening contain some of the worst bullshit of them all. I have sat with numerous arahats who were monks or former monks who just couldn’t seem to overcome their indoctrination and so when giving dharma talks would habitually mix in the crap with the gold when it was obvious they knew better.

I have at times dreamed that all the teachers from all the lineages would get together in secret, come up with a plan to jointly get themselves out of the trap, and in a big formal ceremony present the truth as a new beginning, like a mass intervention, like a family gathering around an alcoholic to try to force them to reform their ways. None of them on their own seem to be fully able to take the heat, as each one that steps out of line in a direct fashion tends to get blasted, though there are exceptions, such as Jack Kornfield’s After the Ecstasy, the Laundry. Thus, I think they should all try to do it together, with Zen Masters, Lamas, Rinpoches, Tulkus, Sayadaws, Achaans, and their Western counterparts all standing side by side saying, “Enough is enough! We are declaring a new era of honest, open, realistic dharma teaching, free from sectarian fighting, free from preposterous models of awakening, and free from denial of humanity!” Enough of my ranting, back to the models…

I have no major beef with their description of stream entry. It does make people realize somewhat that rites and rituals are not the primary reason that they got enlightened, though I know of a number of practitioners that got enlightened with the help of techniques that were very ritualistic and continue to include rituals of various sorts in their practice, and why not. Stream entry does counter in some semi-intellectual way the sense that there is a permanent, separate self, though exactly how they know this is much more vague and mysterious to them than at the higher stages of awakening, though it beats the pants of any understanding of this that is pre-stream entry.

Further, they know that awakening is possible and can be done in this lifetime, assuming they know they are awakened in the first place, which strangely not all enlightened beings do. Those persons that encounter this understanding outside of established traditions may fail to recognize that what they have understood is called awakening and other names. Regardless, stream entry is known as the opening of the Dharma Eye, as contrasted with the Wisdom Eye of arahatship. These are simply poetic metaphors for some aspects of clearly perceiving things.

My real problem with the Theravada Four Path Model comes as soon as it starts talking about second path, i.e. the attenuation of greed and hatred or attraction and aversion, and by the time it promises eliminating these in their ordinary forms as they say occurs in third path, I think that serious critique of their language and dogma is called for. What they are attempting to say is that the sense of the observer, center point, continuous and separate subject, watcher or however you want to describe the sense that there is some Self at the center of all this stuff is, in fact, just a bunch of sensations. When these begin to be perceived as they are, the sense of how special the center point is begins to lose its grip on perception, which begins to become wider, more inclusive, and more even in its basic treatment of phenomena. Thus, as there doesn’t seem to be so much of a this side and a that side, attempts to get away from that side when it is bad, get to that side when it is good, or just tune out to the whole thing when it is boring diminish at some basic perceptual level, and so the system functions better as it is better at realistically interpreting the information coming into it.

This is a very tough thing to talk about, and certainly doesn’t sell as well as saying: “Do these things, and you will be free from all negative emotions,” or worse: “We did these things and so are free from all negative emotions, and so you should worship us, give us donations, support our center, buy our books, give over power to us, think of us as very special or amazing, stand in awe of us, sleep with us, allow us to act like raving nutcases, etc.” I think you get the picture. Thus, what happens in reality is that segments of the process of making specific categories and patterns of the causal, sensate field into a separate “self” is reduced and then stops. However, many of the traditions advertise eliminating negative emotions and the sensations of craving or aversion. The two couldn’t be more different, and yet they are described as being the same.

MCTB A Revised Four Path Model