“I am a commoner from Xīnzhōu in the south, and I have come this long distance to make obeisance to you. I seek only to become a Buddha, nothing more.” – Hui-neng (638-713)
“The way to abandon the body is to have a penetrating insight into its provisional nature, when this happens, the mind, together with its world, becomes transparent and its workings are illuminated.” – Tao-hsin
“To be empty of all creatures is to be full of God, and to be full of all creatures is to be empty of God.” (Meister Eckhart, “On Detachment“)
Stages in Buddhism
The attainment of enlightenment proceeds by stages. The number of stages is arbitrary: in early Indian Buddhism (Theravada), there were four, called dhyana, and with the fourth it was possible to develop the supernormal powers (Buddhist Thought). Following this there were four formless meditative attainments called samapatti. In Mahayana Buddhism there are eight stages: four rupa dhyana and four formless dhyana. The eighth, Immovable, or No-regression, is the attainment of buddhahood or tathagatahood, and with this stage come the supernormal powers. According to the Mahayanists the Buddha claimed the eleventh stage for himself.
The stages are successive and the experience is difficult to describe except to say that one feels progressively further removed from the reality inhabited by most beings, and that detachment steadily increases. Williams (Buddhist Thought) gives a good explanation of the stages according to the Theravada school and the Lankavatara Sutra gives interesting details about the stages from a Mahayana perspective. These schemes are artificial, of course, and one can become enlightened in one stroke if the right conditions exist.
The applications or cultivations of the mind that have proved to be effective for the attainment of Self-realization are called paramitas, translated as ‘perfections.’ The word paramita comes from para, meaning ‘beyond’ or ‘the opposite shore,’ and mita, which means ‘that which has arrived.’ Paramitas are therefore applications of the mind for reaching the opposite shore. They are called perfections for the simple reason that the Absolute is perfect, and only a pure or perfected spirit can realize its oneness with it. The original list of perfections is the Buddha’s Eightfold Path, which is the ‘prescription’ part of the Four Noble Truths–a diagnosis and treatment for the malady of existence from which all sentient beings suffer.
The perfections were arrived at working backwards. Masters considered the characteristics of the Absolute and devised practices that would effectively cultivate them. For example, an enlightened being is self-less–how to become self-less? When one patiently suffers ill treatment or adversity with equanimity, the self is diminished; thus the perfection of ksanti, or humility.
Mahayana Buddhism teaches the following six perfections:
- Giving (Dana)
- Morality (Sila)
- Humility, forbearance, acceptance (Ksanti)
- Zeal (Viraya)
- Meditation (Dhyana)
- Wisdom (Prajna)
The Pali canon has the following five in addition:
- Loving-kindness (Metta)
- Truthfulness or honesty
- Resolve (Adhitthana)
- Renunciation (Nekkhamma)
- Equanimity (Upekkha)
Perfections, like the Eightfold Path, are meant to be practiced simultaneously.
Become that which you aspire to be
At the end of his teaching on love in his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said, “Be perfect just like your Father in Heaven.” Lester Levenson (1993) said the same thing:
Desire is an admission of lack. If I am the infinite One I desire nothing–I am the All. We must get back to that state by behaving as one would in that state. The greatest behavior that we can perform is living as a fully realized being would live. Try to attain the desireless state. Try to attain the state of dispassion: no attachments, no aversions. Try to attain the state of equanimity, the feeling of equal-mindedness toward everything, everyone. Acting this way will push us toward being that way. By eliminating the effects out there [acting on feelings] we help to eliminate the thought [feelings, and the fears that underlie them]. (https://youtu.be/BGcltdoLZsM)
In order to attain higher states one must have a strong mental impression of that state. It is as if you are in a pole vaulting competition, in which the bar is progressively raised. In order to clear the higher bar, you must first visualize yourself clearing it so that the act is merely the fulfillment of something that has been pre-determined. This principle underlies the post, “Eleven practices to attain first awakening.” The releasing technique taught by Lester Levenson gets rid of the negative feelings, thoughts and attachments that cover up what we really are; not judging helps one to see the egolessness and oneness of things; and mindfulness meditation cultivates a feeling of detachment and being in the present moment. Altogether the practices bring the mind to something very much like the awakened state, which is what brings about a real awakening.
Purgation: Stripping away the negative
The Buddhist path involves two processes: purgation and realization. Purgation means to purify oneself of attachments, since only a pure consciousness can unite with the Absolute. This doesn’t mean purifying the self, which is impure by nature, but letting go of it with all of its imperfections (this is the principle of the Pure Land School). This is the reason that charity (dana) must be practiced with no thought in one’s mind, according to the Diamond Sutra, and why Jesus said “Let not thy left hand know what thy right does.” The aim isn’t to be a virtuous, popular or happy ego, but to cast off the ego altogether.
Existence itself is a hindrance. First there is the mind, then the body, then the ego–or belief in a self. The mind discriminates all things, both forms and the formless, and judges things to be good or bad based on what one has learned in infancy. In our unconscious mind lives an infant, the id, which craves love, security, and control over things. This infant, this id, holds on to negative memories and this is the driver of all of our negative thoughts and behaviors.
As long as we are attached to existence, grasping for the good and avoiding the bad, we remain impure and separated from what we really are. Therefore, the aim of both Buddhist and Christian practices is to strip away these attachments and uncover that which is at the core of our being. Letting go of attachments may seem like a sacrifice, but as a yogi points out below, giving up an illusory security in exchange for an end to death and suffering is no sacrifice at all:
“Master, you are wonderful!” A student, taking his leave, gazed at the sage. “You have renounced riches and comforts to seek God and teach us wisdom!” It was well-known that Bhaduri Mahasaya had forsaken great family wealth in his early childhood, when single-mindedly he entered the yogic path.
“You are reversing the case!” the saint replied. “I have left a few paltry rupees, a few petty pleasures, for a cosmic empire of endless bliss. How then have I denied myself anything? I know the joy of sharing the treasure. Is that a sacrifice? The shortsighted worldly folk are verily the real renunciates! They relinquish an unparalleled divine possession for a poor handful of earthly toys!”
“The world is full of uneasy believers in an outward security. Their bitter thoughts are like scars on their foreheads. The One who gave us air and milk from our first breath knows how to provide day by day for His devotees.”
(Paramhansa Yogananda, Autobiography of a Yogi, 1946)
The Sedona Method is the best method I am aware of for letting go of attachments and aversions. Its creator, Lester Levenson, attained complete enlightenment in three months; however he had previously read every book by Freud that had been translated and he underwent four years of Freudian psychoanalysis (four times a week), the aim of which is to bring unconscious feelings and memories into consciousness. Freud once said, “I will turn id into ego”; that is, bring that which is hidden into the light.
“There’s not a higher Self and a lower Self. There’s only you identifying with your limitless Being or identifying with your limited being.” – Lester Levenson
Now the very highest state is simply Beingness, and if we could only be, just be, we could see our Infinity. We would see that there are no limitations. We would see that we are the All. We would be in a perfectly satiated, permanent, changeless state. And it is not a nothingness, it is not a boredom, it is an Allness, an Everythingness, a Total Satiation that is eternal. You will never, never lose your individuality. The word “I” as you use it to mean your individuality will never, ever leave you. It expands. What happens as you re-remember what you are is that you’ll begin to see that others are you, that you are me, that you are now and always have been gloriously Infinite. Lester Levenson, 1964
The second process of Self-realization is ceasing to identify with the limited self and becoming unlimited. This is accomplished by maintaining one’s focus on the Self, the Absolute, and off of the ego-self and other people. In other words, stop focusing on what you are not — a separate and limited mortal — and focus on what you are.
While meditating one should practice non-abiding, non-objectivity (no things), and no-thought, according to Hui-neng (see “No-thought is the foundation“). The sixth patriarch advises, “One ignorant thought and Prajna is cut off; one enlightened thought and Prajna springs to life.”
The Maha-Prajnaparamita-Sutra states that the highest discipline is the cultivation of emptiness:
“Among the yogas of a Bodhisattva the yoga of the perfection of wisdom is declared to be the highest, the best, the choicest, the most excellent, the utmost, the unsurpassed, the peerless, the unequaled, the most sublime. And why? There is nothing higher than that yoga, higher than the yoga of the perfection of wisdom, of emptiness, the undifferentiated, the desireless. A Bodhisattva who is disciplining himself thus should be thought of as marked (for Buddhahood), as one who has come close to fulfilling the prediction. He will work for the welfare of countless beings, but it will not occur to him that “the Buddhas, the Lords will predict my attainment; I have come close to fulfilling the prediction; I will purify the Buddha-field; I will mature beings; I will, after I have known full enlightenment, turn the wheel of the Dharma.” And why? Because he does not set apart the Realm of Dharma (dharmadhatu—the Absolute), nor does he view any thing (dharma) as other than the Realm of Dharma, a person who would course in perfect wisdom, or who would be marked by the Buddhas, the Lords, for full enlightenment. And why? Because no idea of a being is held by a Bodhisattva, a great being who courses in perfect wisdom. And why? Because no being is born or ceases, since the nature of a being is that it is unborn and unceasing. And that which is neither born nor ceases, how will that course in perfect wisdom? Thus the Bodhisattva courses in perfect wisdom through the fact of the unborn nature of a being, of the emptiness of a being, of the non-attainability of a being, of the non-separateness of a being. It is thus that he abides in the foremost endeavor of the Bodhisattvas, the great beings, which is the discipline in emptiness, which has [now] surpassed all other disciplines. For a Bodhisattva, a great being who practices this discipline, aspires to great loving-kindness, and he does not produce a thought of meanness, or of immorality, ill will, sloth, distraction or stupidity.” (Conze p. 65)
“The cultivation of emptiness is a way of letting go of the self in the realization that beings and things are not endowed with their own reality, but are changeable manifestations of the undivided, unchanging Absolute.”1
Hui-neng advised to forget about the past and instead to look forward:
We need not bother about the past, for the past is gone and is irrecoverable. What demands our attention is the present and future, so let our thoughts, from one momentary sensation to another, be clear and pure and let us see our Mind-essence face-to-face. (Chapter V, Discourse on the Three-Bodies of Buddha).
In the thinking faculty, let the past be dead. If we allow our thoughts, past, present and future, to become linked up into a series, we put ourselves under restraint. On the other hand, if we never let our mind become attached at any time to any thing, we gain emancipation. For this reason we make “non-attachment” our fundamental principle. (Chapter III, Discourse on Dhyana and Samadhi)
Catholic mystic Madame Guyon described this stage of contemplation as remaining ever turned toward God:
The soul, being turned in the direction of God, has a great facility for remaining converted to Him. The longer it is converted, the nearer it approaches to God, and attaches itself to Him; and the nearer it approaches to God, the more it becomes necessarily drawn from the creature, which is opposed to God.
Yogananda recounts that Bhaduri Mahasaya once said to him, “You go often into the silence, but have you developed anubhava? Do not mistake the technique for the Goal.” Anubhava in Sanskrit means to perceive or know directly; the term can sometimes connote ‘majesty’. Essentially the yogi was saying, “You are focusing on yourself meditating; instead, remain focused on direct experience of God.”
In the Mahaparanirvana Sutra, the Buddha’s last sermons, he told his disciples to stop meditating on what was not Nirvana (impermanence, suffering and not-Self and their implications and ramifications) and instead to meditate on what Nirvana is: the Self, eternality, bliss, and perfection. In Orategama (Yampolsky translation), Hakuin cites the same Nirvana Sutra, but the four virtues of Nirvana are translated as Self, permanence, peace, and purity.
O Monks, why is it said that one who has the idea of a Self is arrogant and haughty, going round Samsara? Monks, although you might say, “We also cultivate impermanence, suffering, and non-self,” these three kinds of cultivation have no real value. I shall now explain the three excellent ways of cultivating Dharma. . . .
O monks! Do not cultivate the idea of impermanence, suffering and non-self, the idea of impurity and so forth, deeming them to be the true meaning [of the Dharma] . . . You should train yourselves well in efficacious means. Whatever you are doing, constantly meditate upon the idea of the Self, the idea of the Eternal, Bliss and Perfection. . . . Those who, desirous of attaining the Dharma, meditatively cultivate these ideas–namely the ideas of the Self, the Eternal, Bliss and Perfection–will skillfully bring forth the jewel . . . (The Mahayana Mahaparinirvana Sutra, Chapter Three, “Grief”)
These are wonderful cultivations, but one idea has been omitted: fullness, which is the impression of embracing everything.
“Renounce all notions and then renounce the renouncer of those notions. When even the notion of the ego sense has ceased, you will be like infinite space, free, unbounded, eternal. As long as there is a “you” and “I” there is no liberation, no freedom.” (Recorded sutras read by Deepak Chopra)
“What is required is that we re-establish that state of the Self again and again until it becomes permanent. Each time we do it, we scorch more of the mind, until finally we have scorched the entire mind. Then we are permanently established in the Self. Then you sit back and the mind is out there, and the body is out there and you are not the mind, you are not the body. As long as you know you are not the mind and the body, both of them can go on to their heart’s content, and you know that they cannot touch you.” (Lester Levenson, 1993, p. 30)
The final act is abandonment of the self. Enlightenment doesn’t take you unawares; rather you are drawn in and you must simply allow it to happen. The less effort there is on the part of the self, the faster one moves. Madame Guyon compared it to sinking in an ocean: “Without perceiving its sinking, the soul would sink to the most profound depths with incredible speed.” She also used the analogy of rowing a galley out of a harbor: once free of the harbor it can set its course, and it spreads its sails and ships the oars. “They travel farther in an hour while the ship is carried by the wind than they would in a much longer time by their own efforts; and if they wished to row, besides the fatigue which would result from it, their labour would be useless and would only serve to slow the vessel.” If after “setting sail” one is becalmed, Guyon advises to wait patiently and not to lose faith: there will soon be a change. This is not a time to take an interest in people, things or events, but to go deeper inward. (guyon_shortmethodofprayer)
The Buddhist canon employs the same metaphor:
This effortlessness is again compared in the Dasabhumika to a great seafaring boat. When the boat is not yet at sea, much labour is needed to make it move forward, but
as soon as it reaches the ocean, no human power is required; let it alone and the wind will take care of it. One day’s navigation thus left to itself in the high seas will surely be more than equal to one hundred years of human labouring while still in the shallows. When the Bodhisattva accumulating the great stock of good deeds sails out onto the great ocean of Bodhisattvahood, one moment of effortless activity will infinitely surpass deeds of conscious striving. (D. T. Suzuki, 1929, p. 226)
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1 The passage of the Maha-Prajnaparamita-sutra copied above calls beings ‘dharma‘, which are physical phenomena lacking self-substance (i.e., illusions). We are dharma. Catholic mystics use the word, ‘creature’, meaning ‘that which is created.’
With respect to the doctrine of ‘no-self’, Edward Conze (the scholar and translator) states the following:
It is noteworthy that the ontology of the Prajnaparamita is represented here and elsewhere as a continuation or extension of the traditional Buddhist doctrine of “not-self ” (an-atta). It is supposed to be well known and agreed upon that the “self”, and other expressions which imply a “self”, such as “being”, “living soul”, “person”, “organism”, “individual”, “one who feels”, “agent”, or “thinking subject”, etc. are mere words, to which in ultimate reality nothing at all corresponds. What is true of the self is now said to be true also of all other supposed entities which, in their differentiation, are data which somehow imply a separate self, and therefore will be unreal on the level of accomplished self-extinction on which alone the truth becomes discernible. (p. 3)
Conze, Edward. The Large Sutra on Perfect Wisdom. University of California Press, 1975.
Guyon, J. M. B. de La Mot. A Short and Easy Method of Prayer. (A. W. Marston, https://faculty.gordon.edu/hu/bi/ted_hildebrandt/spiritualformation/texts/guyon_shortmethodofprayer.pdf)
Levenson, Lester. Keys to the Ultimate Freedom: Thoughts and Talks on Personal Transformation. Sedona Institute, 1993. (http://www.freespiritualebooks.com/keys-to-the-ultimate-freedom.html) (download)
Suzuki, D. T. The Lankavatara Sutra: A Mahayana Text (Based upon the Sanskrit edition of Bunyu Nanjo). London, 1932. (http://lirs.ru/do/lanka_eng/lanka-nondiacritical.htm)
Suzuki, D. T. Studies in the Lankavatara Sutra. New Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal Publishers, 1998. (originally published in 1929)
Williams, Paul and Tribe, Anthony. Buddhist Thought: A Complete Introduction to the Indian Tradition. London and New York: Routledge, 2000.