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Claims to Attainments

Dharma essay - Three kinds of partial liberation (long)

For some time I have been troubled by the intuition that concentration practices are far from being the totality of the dharma. In a sense, this is a straightforward claim  - the four noble truths, the eightfold path, dependent origination; these are clearly the universal dharma, rather than any specific set of practices. Yet the detailed approaches of the Tibetans or Burmese, or the less detailed approaches of Zen, clearly offer something extra towards attaining liberation. These doctrines provide well-defined guidance on awakening, and in some cases they provide highly specific practices and precise phenomenological descriptions, as in the detailed account of the progress of insight through noting practices. 

With such a marvellous hammer as the progress of insight, it is tempting to see every problem as a nail. And it is true that the problem of awakening has many similarities across different conditions. Yet there are still differences, and not all problems are ‘nails’.  For me, this has created confusion and dissonance as I believed I had made progress similar that outlined by the Theravadans, but without following the contemporary Burmese practices. Further, how did those from other religious frameworks, such as Teresa of Avilia or Ibn Arabi, become awakened? These people clearly did not follow Mahasi-style noting practice, or Tibetan Dzogchen, or Zazen, and yet they also clearly had some deep level of awakened insight.

Finally, I found the answer to these questions. It was, of course, in the suttas, namely the Savittha Sutta, the Kitigiri Sutta, and Sutta 25 and 26 in the book off Fives of the Anguttara Nikaya. These suttas clearly identify three paths to partial liberation, and Mahasi-style noting is representative of just one of these paths.

So I thought I would post a summary of how I think Mahasi-style noting compares to other options for partial liberation. My interpretation is subject to the vagaries of translation and interpretation, but it does cross-reference four suttas so I have reasonable confidence in what I have written. After my summary, I add some reflections on how these differences affected my own practice and my interaction with DhO, and I make a claim to an attainment.

In the Kitagiri sutta, the Buddha identifies outlines seven kinds of people.

1. The conviction follower, who is not liberated, but strives from conviction and love for the Buddha.
2. The dharma follower, who is not liberated, but strives from reflection and discernment on the teachings.

3. The person released through conviction, partly liberated through seeing with discernment.
4. The person attained to view, partly liberated through reviewing and examining with discernment the teachings.
5. The person released through bodily witness, partly liberated through meditation

(Meditation is “touching his/her body with those peaceful liberations that transcend form, and are formless.”)

6. The person released through discernment, who having seen with discernment has ended his fermentations.
7. The person released both ways - somebody who has the characteristics of both 5 and 6.

This shows two kinds of pre-enlightenment motivations - faith and study. Then there are three partially enlightened people, the faithful (my interpretation of partlially liberated after striving from convinction and seeing with discernment), the scholar (studying), and the bodily witness (meditating). Then there are two kinds of arahants - those with and without high meditative achievements.  It seems likely that the 'bodily witness' includes those who are following the Mahasi noting style. The bodily witness also seems to fulfill one of the requirements for being an Arahant that is released in both ways, as identical wording is used to describe the meditative achievements of each. Although the wording in the sutta is a little ambiguous, my interpretation of the three partial liberations is confirmed in other suttas below.

But before confirming the wording, let us ask - do the high meditative achievements, and the opportunity to be released in both ways, make the bodily witness a superior path?  The Venerables Sariputta, Savittha and Mahakotthita argued exactly this point in the Savittha Sutta. Each took a different view on whether the bodily witness, the one attained to view, or the one liberated by faith were the most excellent and sublime.

Savittha - the one liberated by faith, because this person’s faculty of faith is predominant.

Makahotthita - the bodily witness, because this person’s faculty of concentration is predominant.

Sariputta - the one attained to view, because this person’s faculty of wisdom is predominant.

Then the Buddha chimed in, and says it isn’t easy to make a definitive declaration, as a person may be liberated by faith and practising for arahantship, or be a bodily witness and practicing for arahantship, or be attained to view and practicing for arahansthip, while there may be those in the other two conditions who are still only once returners or non-returners.

This has some ambiguity about what 'practising for aharantship' might mean, as it seems to be a stage after non-return but before full enlightenment. Nonetheless, this sutta is very clear in confirming the interpretation of the Kitigiri sutta. It clearly states that initial liberation may occur from faith, study (view/wisdom), or concentration (bodily witness).  It also seems to imply these methods will not support the meditator all the way to aharantship. To that last point, despite his championing wisdom over concentration in the Savittah Sutta, Sariputta’s arahantship is recorded as occuring after he applied vipassana to the jhana factors for all nine jhanas in turn. So the account of Sariputta’s enlightenment could also be read as further supporting the implication that intermediate and final liberation may rely on different methods.

The classification of liberation through faith, study or concentration is further discussed on in the 26th Sutta of the book of fives, which outlines fives bases of liberation. 

1 - Hearing the Dharma from a teacher.
2 - Teaching the Dharma in detail to others.
3 - Reciting the Dharma.
4 - Pondering, examining and mentally inspecting the Dharma.
5 - Grasping a certain object of concentration attending to it well, and penetrating it well with wisdom.

In each case, the same formula of liberation follows the initial description - that is, they are clearly alternatives for liberation, rather than a succession of required actions. It may be that hearing and teaching the dharma are applicable to all three kinds of people identified in the Savittha Sutta. However, reciting the dharma seems directly relevant to those seeking to be liberated by faith, as it is the widespread practice of most religions, being mantra or prayer or liturgy or reading scripture at meetings. Then, pondering, examining and mentally inspecting the dharma seems relevant for those seeking to be liberated by wisdom or view - perhaps characterised as scholar monks. Finally, grasping a certain object of concentration, attending to it well, and penetrating it with wisdom seems relevant to the bodily witness or meditator monk, and again seems to describe practices such as Mahasi-style noting.  

Therefore, it is clear from the suttas that either faith or study can also lead to stream entry, without having to follow noting practices. Yet, how so? What are the formulas? As those on DhO know, the path of the bodily witness has been resurrected by the Burmese and fully described (for at least one version of the path), making it very accessible. So is there anything similar for the other methods?

Well, if there is, I haven’t found it, with one small exception. In the 25th Sutta of the Book of Fives, there is specific prescription of the factors for enlightenment required for stream entry through studying the dharma. This sutta says that when right view is assisted by (1) virtuous behaviour, (2) learning, (3) discussion, (4) calm and (5) insight, it has liberation of mind as its fruit and benefit.  While right view is part of all endeavours (as is right concentration), here it is given primary place. Thus, I interpret this Sutta as advice on factors for stream entry through study of the dharma. 

And that is what happened to me. I was a dharma follower, pursuing the eightfold path, studying the dharma and concepts of consciousness in great detail. I thought I was following preparatory practices that would lead to more intense meditation later.  But then, through (i) pondering, examining and mentally inspecting the dharma, while (ii) pursuing virtuous behaviour, learning, discussion, calm and insight, I just (iii) unexpectedly attained to view of no self, and fell into stream entry. Later, I think I attained to second path through some combination of ongoing study, vipassana of mind/self, concentration practices, and deconstructing the breath. I am now in the long phase of cultivating mindfulness, sensory change, non-duality, and cleaning out all the residual stuff that lurks below the surface.

But I was not a bodily witness. So it was hard to find common ground with those who saw being bodily witness as the the path to enlightenment. Instead, I suspect that my account just looked like some kind of defective practice and delusion. Despite this, MCTB was still incredibly helpful in the preparation for stream entry, and in dealing with the aftermath.

Then, weirdly, my practice started to converge with later stages of being a bodily witness - with energetic perceptions of the fluxing field of sensations. And I suddenly fell into the nanas in the path of insight that I had not previously experienced so clearly. This caught me out, and some of my intuitions and concerns bubbled up in some nasty reobservations on this site, and I do apologise to any I have upset, particularly if you are still carrying around un-vipassanised mental fabrications of this annoying guy who might bother you again. I don’t think that post was entirely transference or emotion - there were some genuine points in it that I have now addressed to my own satisfaction. But it wasn’t without transference or emotion either. Sorry. Also, I now realise there still is a deeper level of stuff to be dredged out and addressed, which as I note above I am now trying to include in my practice.

Despite my attainments, I wouldn’t recommend the scholar path. My circumstances were a bit unique, the result was completely unexpected, and it definitely wasn’t a shortcut. The dharma and related concepts of mind occupied me for about half my waking hours for months and months, and that followed on from years of related study, and it was still supported by meditation practice and lite jhana. So if you are starting out, following more established practices seems like better advice to me.

However, there clearly are people who do achieve partial liberation through faith or study, possibly even by accident. This is important to know, so that it can be recognised it when it happens. These kinds of people are not just defective bodily witnesses. 

Finally, I have recently tried to avoid discussion of Theravadan paths, as in my confusion this was leading to dissonance, clinging and becoming.  Now that I have sorted out the three methods of partial liberation, I am more than happy to be questioned, challenged, criticised, etc etc etc. As it happens, attaining a path doesn’t really matter to me anymore. However, I have decided to strongly claim the attainment of at least Stream Entry to support the broader point. Partial liberation is still possible through studying the dharma, attaining to view, following the path of those who ponder examine and mentally inspect the dharma.  I know this because I have done it.

with metta

Malcolm (less curious now).

RE: Dharma essay - Three kinds of partial liberation (long)
5/31/18 11:03 PM as a reply to curious.
Hi curious/Malcom,

Great post.

As I understanad it, in Tibetan Buddhism, there is a similar dichotomy, but more along the lines of perception of Ultimate Reality, or paramarathsatya. The Rangtongpas believe that paramarathsatya is simply the emptiness of own nature (that is, everything is empty of having a fixed and abiding nature of its own). The Shengtongpas believe paramarathsatya is the nondual Dharmakaya, that it is empty of everything except itself. Both sides believe that meditation is the way to achieve preception of paramarathsatya, but the Rangtongpas stress analytical meditation whereas the Shengtongpas stress faith, and maintain that because the nondual Dharmakaya can't be understood by the conceptual mind (the parakalipa), analysis will only get you so far. The conceptual mind is papanca (same as the Pali, means proliferation of thoughts), the nondual Dharmakaya is approachable only through nispapanca. The paramarathsatya when it manifests in sentient beings obscured by the klesas is only visable in meditation, in Bodhisattvas it is partially obscured and they can see it some of the time, in Buddhas is is always there.

The main differences with the discussion you describe are: 1)  that the Tibetans, in alignment with their Mahayana or Vajranana orientation, don't consider arhatship to be the goal, but rather Buddhahood, and therefore they stress the Bodhisattva path, and 2) there are basically two different approaches, analytical and faith based, and both stress meditation as an important tool, though the techniques are different for the two approaches.

Anyway, Shentong was actively suppressed by the Gelugpa and the Jonag Monestary, the monestary where it was most developed, was destroyed the late 1600s. The works of Dolpopa, the synthesizer of the Shentong, were locked up by the Fifth Dali Lama and no one was permitted to view them. They were only revived in the early 1800s by Jamgon Kontrul.

Sorry to have to throw around so much Sanskirt, but I don't find the English translations of these terms all that helpful. Typically they require a phrase or sound wierd (Ultimate Reality? sounds like some kind of New Age concept) whereas the Sanskirt is a (usually somewhat long) word.

RE: Dharma essay - Three kinds of partial liberation (long)
6/2/18 3:11 PM as a reply to svmonk.
That is completely fascinating svmonk. Thanks for posting it.  An amazing piece of religious history, but also very interesting from the point of view of the dharma.

I would love to hear your views on whether these two approaches give genuinely different perceptual experiences, or just different metaphyscial interpretations.

For example, is nondual Dharmakaya the type of nonduality that has a sense of being (all the world is just me, and I am just all the world), whereas emptiness of own nature is just pure consciousness or pure experience with no required sense of self?  Or is it more along the lines of arguing definitions - for example, when asked what Arahantship was like Sariputta just threw a stick on the fire. I can see arguments that might go along the lines of (i) the world is empty, there only the temporary flame of experience (ii) but the temporary flame of experience is still a thing (iii) yes, but on another level that thing is empty too.

Probably an unfair question, as you would have to qualified in both lineages to say.  But I would love to hear your ideas. 

(BTW,  just to be clear, I do think the path of the scholar for partial liberation still requires meditation. Meditation provides essential support and mind training, but also single pointed absorption in the texts in a kind of meditation. I guess the path of faith for partial liberation is the same, with single pointed absorption in the object of faith.)

RE: Dharma essay - Three kinds of partial liberation (long)
6/3/18 10:05 PM as a reply to curious.
It's hard for me to comment on this since I'm not very experienced in Shengong Mahamudra yet. I've been studying with a Mahamudra teacher for only 2 1/2 years, and have not done a longer retreat with him yet (will do that shortly, in late June). The typical meditation instruction is to look at the mind and rest in that awareness. According to the texts, this should lead the meditator to a nondual awareness, that is difficult to put into conceptual terms (technically, it is nonconceptual, nispapanca). Unlike Theravada, Mahamudra stresses the teacher-student relationship as a critical factor in meditative development.

But I've had limited sucess with this instruction. If I look at my mind, there is nothing there, which is of course the point. The mind is empty of any self nature on the conventional level. There is a knowing but no-thing there doing the knowing. This much conforms to the Rangtong ("empty of self") understanding, which the Shentong requires you experience and understand first, so you don't go imposing any dualistic template on the parinispana, as many theistic traditions do. And it also conforms with my previous experience with a couple of path/fruit mind moment sequences in vipsassana. But going beyond that, going to resting in the nondual awareness, is not something I can definitively say that I have experienced. It is supposed to come in a flash, according to Trugpa Rimpoche (one of the two direct teachers in my teacher's lineage).

I think that the dichotomy you talk about @curious/Malcom might be something Daniel points out in MCTB. Sometimes the "not-self" view comes to the fore and sometimes the "True Self" view, which is the view held by the Shentong comes ("True Self" is Tathagatagabra in Sanskirt, the Tathagatagabra is how the Dharmakaya manifests in sentient beings). If you look at some posts by people here who claim to have achieved fourth path, they talk about the self going into the background in their daily lives, though some say that it does haul itself out when some human interaction conventionally requires a self to be involved. I don't have a clue how a nondual awareness would function in this kind of circumstance (like for example when a cop is giving you a parking ticket). I have even more questions about nondual activity. Shengong maintains that nondual activity to benefit beings happens without any planning or calculation which would be conceptual and could lead the activity astray. This is the way Bodhsattvas (who are partially enlightened) are supposed to act. Being able to act like this in my daily life is my strongest aspiration, but I have a hard time seeing how it could be achieved.

Sorry I couldn't be of more help.

You might want to check out the book "The Buddha Within" by S.K. Hookham. It gives an excellent description of the Rangtong-Shentong debate. The latter part of it, where she goes paragraph by paragraph through the Ratnagotravibhaga and the Ratnagotravibhaga-vyakya, the former being the Mahayana sutra that basically encoded the Tathagatagabra understanding and the latter a commentary on the sutra, kind of drags but the first part, where she describes her talks with contemporary Shentong and Rangtong lamas and compares what they say with Kongtrul and others and what comes out of the texts, is great. It totally turned around my understanding of Shentong.

RE: Dharma essay - Three kinds of partial liberation (long)
6/6/18 4:21 AM as a reply to svmonk.
Thanks so much svmonk.  I really appreciate your generosity with your time and the very interesting comments. They are very helpful as I keep trying to put together pieces of the puzzle.