The Progress of Insight (part four)

Kenneth Folk, modified 12 Years ago at 9/15/09 9:10 AM
Created 13 Years ago at 8/7/09 2:51 AM

The Progress of Insight (part four)

Posts: 439 Join Date: 4/30/09 Recent Posts
Path and Fruition (Nibbana)

Let’s briefly review what we’ve seen so far:

Theravada Buddhism identifies Four Paths of enlightenment. The first of these Four Paths can be subdivided into 16 “insight knowledges” or ñanas. These ñanas arise one after the other, in invariable order, as a result of balancing insight (vipassana) and concentration (samatha). Most of the heavy lifting is done in the first three ñanas; taken together, the first three insight knowledges can be thought of as the pre-vipassana phase. During this first phase of practice, it’s as though the yogi is rubbing two sticks together in an effort to start a fire. When the fire takes hold in earnest, the 4th ñana, the all-important Arising and Passing of Phenomena (A&P) has been attained. From this point on, the practice is more about constancy than heroics. The focus becomes concentration rather than insight. Patience and trust are important; at times it is necessary to avoid the temptation to push too hard, understanding that just as you can’t force a young plant to grow by pulling on its stalk, you can’t force yourself to develop through the ñanas.

This process of development is hardwired into the human mind/body system. Everyone has the potential to develop along this particular axis, and in order to do so one must simply follow the instructions for accessing and deconstructing each new layer of mind as it arises.

We now continue to track the progress of our idealized yogi. It’s tempting to make a big deal out of the Path moment. So much emphasis is put on attaining First Path that we imagine there is some secret to it; surely there is some special bit of knowledge or some extra bit of effort required to “get us over this last hump.” In fact, it’s not like that at all. Just as all the previous insight knowledges arose, in order, on cue, the Path moment shows up out of nowhere when you least expect it. It’s a little bit like chewing and swallowing; when you put food into your mouth, you begin to chew. At some point, when sufficient chewing has taken place, you swallow. It’s an involuntary reflex. You don’t have to obsess about whether swallowing will occur or try to control the process. If you do, chances are you will just get in the way. Similarly, when you meditate according to the instructions, the various strata of mind are automatically accessed, the apparently solid phenomena are automatically deconstructed, the information is naturally processed, and you automatically move from one insight knowledge to the next without having to orchestrate the process at all.

In just this way, our yogi is sitting there one day (or walking, or standing), and there is a momentary discontinuity in his stream of consciousness. It’s not a big deal. But, immediately afterward, he asks himself, “Was that it?” It seems that something has changed, but it’s very subtle. He feels lighter than before. Maybe he begins to laugh. “Was that it? Ha, ha! I thought it was going to be a big deal. That was hardly anything. And yet...”

Something is somehow different. It would be very difficult to say exactly what. In almost every quantifiable way one could imagine, things feel exactly the same. And yet...

As the days and weeks go by, it becomes ever clearer that the experience was indeed First Path. First of all, the practice is different now. Instead of having to sit for a few minutes in order to work himself up to the 4th ñana, every sitting begins with the 4th ñana or A&P. From there, it takes just a short time to get to equanimity.

Second, our yogi may suddenly find that he has access to four or more clearly delineated jhanas, or “realms of absorption.” He may find that he can navigate these states simply by inclining his mind toward them, jumping between them and manipulating them at the speed of thought.

Third, there is the possibility of re-experiencing the 15th ñana, frution; a yogi can learn to call up fruition, which is said to be the direct apprehension of nibbana (nirvana) at will. There are three doors to nibbana, namely the dukkha (suffering), anicca (impermanence), and anatta (no-self) doors. Each of these modes of accessing cessation leads to a slightly different experience of entering and exiting nibbana. The fascinating exploration known as fruition practice is only available to post-First Path yogis and consists of systematically calling up, becoming familiar with, and comparing these phenomena.

And finally, there is the 16th ñana, “knowledge of review.” It is possible to learn to call up each of the ñanas 1-11 in addition to the 15th ñana of fruition and re-experience them as a kind of laboratory for understanding what the insight knowledges feel like and what insights they bring. (Ñanas 12-14 are one-time events marking the attainment of Path and will not happen again.) The ability to review previously attained ñanas is especially helpful for those who plan to become meditation teachers, but is interesting and useful for everyone because the ñanas will continue to cycle throughout a yogi’s lifetime and it’s very empowering to be able to identify them as they arise. This ability to see sensations, thoughts, and mind states from the outside rather than identifying with them is part of the larger process of awakening. When we objectify (take as the object of awareness) something that was previously seen as self, we move to more and more subtle forms of identification and ultimately come to the place where there is nothing left to identify with; there is only pure, non-local awareness, which can never be taken as object and can never be mistaken for "me." This Realization of primordial awareness is the happiness that does not depend upon conditions.

Kenneth Folk
July 2009


This is a place for questions and comments about The Progress of Insight (part four).
Craig N, modified 13 Years ago at 8/7/09 1:05 PM
Created 13 Years ago at 8/7/09 1:05 PM

RE: Responses to The Progress of Insight (part four)

Posts: 134 Join Date: 8/22/09 Recent Posts
Hi Kenneth

Thanks for this article! I read it last night and the chewing and swallowing metaphor about fruition really seemed to help.