Category Archives: Fundamental View (Talks)

Ten dharma talks on the Pali Canon originally presented to the Buddha Center between June and August and September and November 2013.

Fundamental View: Talk 10

This talk was presented to the Buddha Center, Second Life on August 17 and 20, 2013.

Talk 10

The Phenomenology of the Path

Om Ah Hung Benza Guru Pema Siddhi Hung.


The Buddha distinguished four fundamental degrees of spiritual accomplishment: stream-entry, once-returning, non-returning, and arahantship. To these he added the practices leading to the realization of these fruits, a clear reference to kamma and its effects. The stream is a metaphor the Buddha used for both the Supermundane Eightfold Path and sangsara. The implication is that there is a relation or correlation between the four realizations and the eight steps of the path. Nevertheless, the exact relationship is subtle.

Stream-entry is, as the word suggests, the attainment of the path itself. As such, it is the fundamental attainment. The stream-enterer (sotāpanna) is one who, having attained the path, has overcome the fetters of belief in the reality of the self, skepticism, and attachment to rites and rituals. Expressed in positive terms, he has achieved selflessness, certainty, and non-attachment to actions. Such a person has achieved the dhamma-eye (dhammachakkhu).

The stream-enterer has achieved a “taste” of nibbana that results in a decisive awakening. This realization is called the “breakthrough to the dhamma” (dhammābhisamaya). This state is identical with the state of the hearer (sawaka), the ariyasangha (spiritual community), and Perfect View (sammaditthi). A stream-enterer cannot be reborn as an animal, ghost, or demon (I prefer the term “demon” to hell being because hell is a Judaeo-Christian concept that has no correspondence in Buddhism, being permanent, but neither term is ideal).

According to the tradition, a stream-enterer must attain full, final, and complete enlightenment within no more than seven rebirths. However, like the statement that nibbana can be achieved in as short a time as seven days, whereas the Pali Canon provides evidence of rebirth in a shorter time than this, there does not appear to be an objective basis for this specific number. Why not six or eight rebirths? Perhaps there is an explanation somewhere, but I do not know of it. Thus, I take it figuratively rather than literally, i.e., in a relatively short time, depending on the nature and intensity of the karmic residue.

Concerning this accomplishment, the Buddha said, taking up a bit of soil under his fingernail, “for a noble disciple, a person accomplished in view who has made the breakthrough, the suffering that has been destroyed and eliminated is more, while what remains is trifling. The latter does not amount to a hundredth part, or a thousandth part, or a hundred thousandth part of the former mass of suffering that has been destroyed and eliminated, since there is a maximum of seven more lives. Of such great benefit … is the breakthrough to the Dhamma, of such great benefit is it to obtain the vision of the Dhamma.”

The term “breakthrough” may be compared with Padmasambhava’s concept of the “leap.” It implies that the attainment of stream-entry is a singular, momentary, even visionary experience. It is not clear whether the experience itself destroys kamma, or is itself the result of the destruction of kamma. As we have already discussed, a stream-enterer is not necessarily a monastic or even celibate. Therefore, the ariyasangha is not identical with the monastic sangha, as pointed out by Dr. Peter Masefield. The four factors for attaining stream-entry consist of associating with superior persons, hearing the true dhamma, careful attention, and practising the dhamma. A stream-enterer experiences an instantaneous transformation of being, an awakening characterized by directly knowing and seeing the truth.

The second developmental accomplishment is that of once-returner (ekabījin or sakadāgāmin). In addition to the three fetters already mentioned, he has significantly, but not completely, weakened craving and anger. As the name implies, the once-returner must suffer only one more human rebirth. He will either be reborn as a dewa or attain nibbana. One can also attain this stage without embracing celibacy. Thus, this stage is available to a householder.

The third developmental accomplishment is that of non-returner (anāgāmin). The non-returner has completely overcome all the foregoing fetters. In addition to the previous attainments, he has achieved indifference to sensual pleasures and perfect benevolence or compassion. Anagamins are never reborn as human beings. They are reborn directly in one of the Five Pure Abodes of the Form World. From there they attain full enlightenment.

By definition, therefore, neither a bodhisatta nor a future Buddha has ever achieved this stage, because, had they done so, they could never be reborn as a human being. Therefore, the conclusion is that these four stages of development are not, strictly speaking, sequential, or even necessary. Clearly, one can skip a step. I am not sure whether this fact has ever been noted, but it follows logically nevertheless. Because the fetter of craving is completely overcome, a non-returner must be celibate. Still, he is not necessarily a monastic. The suttas represent this stage as an ideal stage for the laity to aspire toward. The attainment of the stage of non-returner is equivalent to the attainment of the first jhana.

Finally, the fourth developmental accomplishment is that of arahant.  The arahant has overcome all of the previous fetters plus five additional fetters, viz., craving for rebirth in any state, the ego-conceit, restlessness or agitation, and, finally, ignorance, the root of the chain of cause and effect. Thus, the arahant adds complete detachment, selflessness, peace, and wisdom to the accomplishments of the previous stages.

According to tradition, a householder cannot remain in the state of arahantship. Either he will attain arahantship at death or he will become a monastic immediately upon achieving arahantship. Strictly speaking, therefore, all arahants are monastics, at least after the fact. This is not true of the previous stages. Thus, the common identification of the ariyasangha with monasticism represents a conceptual confusion.

The arahant has also perfected the five faculties of faith, energy, mindfulness, concentration, and wisdom. According to the Buddha, an arahant is incapable of nine actions: killing, stealing, sex, lying, sensuality, and wrong actions based on desire, hatred, delusion, and fear. Even if powerful sensory experiences come into his range of perception, they will not perturb his mind.

One can see there is a kind of correspondence between these four stages and the Supermundane Eightfold Path. The stream-enterer has attained Perfect View. All the stages have attained some step of the Path. However, beyond that a simple one-to-one correspondence is difficult to show. The ten fetters have no direct correspondence with the Eightfold Path. However, the faculties of energy, mindfulness, and concentration, mastered by the arahant, suggest the final three steps of the Supermundane Path, viz., Perfect Effort, Perfect Mindfulness, and Perfect Concentration. Wisdom is the specific attainment of the first step of the path, viz., Perfect View or, in other views, the goal. An arahant has perfected all these. The Buddha says these five faculties are implicit in all the stages, but to different degrees. In the outsider or worldling, the puthujjana, they are completely absent. However, this begs the question of the nature of the attainment of the stream-winner, who has achieved Perfect View, overcome skepticism, and attained certainty in the truth of the dhamma.

Two stages that precede the stage of stream-winner consist of dhamma followers and faith followers. The former is higher than the latter. Dharma and faith followers are stages of intermediate development between an ordinary worldling and a stream-winner. They consist of ordinary wisdom and faith in the Buddha respectively. The Buddha says dhamma followers will attain enlightenment after an unspecified number of rebirths. Presumably, this number is greater than seven. The faith follower will be reborn as a dewa in a higher world. Both will attain stream-entry in their current life. Presumably, in order to distinguish the faith follower form the once-returner and the non-returner, the faith follower will only attain enlightenment after at least two additional rebirths.

The wanderer Vacchagotta wonders whether the Buddha is the only one who has attained to these states. The Buddha assures him others in the community have also attained. He includes both male and female monastics, who have attained the highest stage of arahantship; celibate male and female lay followers, who have attained the third stage of non-returning; and non-celibate male and female lay followers, who have attained the first and second stages of stream-entry and once-returning. Thus, the Buddha makes no spiritual distinction between the genders. However, he does say non-celibate practitioners cannot proceed beyond the second stage of once-returning, for the very practical karmic reason that the non-celibate person is still attached to sensual desire and rebirth. Nevertheless, once-returning is still a very advanced state of spiritual development.

A bodhisatta or future Buddha cannot attain any of these states, since they all imply non-rebirth as a human being at some point in the future. The Buddha says he has been reborn many times as a Bodhisatta over countless eons. One sees that the path of the arahant is not the only possible path, but only one possible path. 

Seven Kinds of Person

According to another classification, the Buddha recognizes seven kinds of persons: the two-ways-liberated person, the wisdom-liberated person, the body-witness, one who has attained-to-view, the faith-liberated person, the dhamma follower, and the faith follower. We have already discussed the concepts of liberation by wisdom and faith as well as the dhamma and faith followers. We have also discussed tranquility meditation (samatha) and insight meditation (vipassana). Samatha means literally “quietude of the heart.” Vipassana means “intuition.”

The practice of samatha results in the pacification of the physical body by means of the form and formless meditations, the eight jhanas. The practice of vipassana results in the pacification of the mental body through the destruction of the taints, viz., sensuality, lust for living, ignorance, and the detachment induced by deeply understanding the nature of existence, especially impermanence. Now this structure has been set up, one can see how these seven types of person fit into it. As the name implies, one liberated-both-ways has mastered both quietude and insight. The one liberated by wisdom has not mastered quietude, but he has mastered insight. Both of these types of practice are, the Buddha says, sufficient to attain arahantship. Nothing more remains to be done. Thus, there are different paths to the same goal, suited to different types of aspirant.

The body-witness has mastered quietude, but has only incomplete detachment. One who has attained-to-view has not mastered quietude, but has partly developed detachment, as well as an intellectual understanding of the dhamma. The one attained-by-faith has not mastered quietude, but has partly developed detachment and he has developed complete faith in the Buddha. The dhamma follower has not mastered quietude or detachment, but he accepts the dhamma intellectually and has acquired the five faculties of an arahant, viz., faith, energy, mindfulness, concentration, and wisdom, but only somewhat. Finally, the faith follower has not mastered quietude or detachment, but has complete faith in the Buddha and has developed the five faculties to a degree. All of these types of human being are capable of reaching enlightenment in this life, but not necessarily without further cultivation.

When one considers these classifications as a whole, one sees how deeply karmic the Buddha’s fundamental understanding is. Human beings are caught in a mirage, characterized by endless cycles of time and causality, entropy and negentropy, driven by the real force of kamma that is in turn actuated by intention based on ignorance and desirous attachment in an endless series of lives that have no discernible beginning or end, characterized by non-self-identity, impermanence and change, and suffering. However, human beings also have the innate capacity, through the quality of sentience, to “wake up,” to see the reality of their existence. Through the perfection of non-intentionality resulting from the cultivation of insight and tranquility, the direction of kamma can be reversed, resulting in emancipation from the mirage, and the attainment of perfect wisdom and bliss in a state of ultimate immortality that is beyond rational comprehension and trans-dual.

Non-intentionality itself is trans-dual, because it is not rooted in desire or revulsion. Non-intentionality is a state of perfect clarity of mind, without attachment to the dichotomies of thought. The Buddhist path is based on the essential idea of universal and individual causation. Kamma acts as both a glue and an energy that binds the whole process together, yet is in itself essentially mysterious. Kamma equates to volition in its primary, ignorant state. Kamma in itself is neither “good” nor “bad.” The same force that binds us is also the force of emancipation. It is the essential dynamic of reality itself. Without this ultimate and essential dynamic, there would be neither becoming nor liberation, but simply the stasis of nothingness.

Four Kinds of Persons

With respect to the ultimate goal, the Buddha further identifies four kinds of persons: those who attain nibbana through volitional exertion and those who attain it without volitional exertion, either during life or at death. Volitional exertion includes contemplating the unattractiveness of the body, impermanence, perceiving the repulsiveness in food, discontent with the world, and strong awareness of death. This is the classical model of the renunciant or ascetic. Attaining nibbana without volitional exertion includes seclusion from sensual pleasures and unwholesome states and the mastery of tranquility meditation and the four jhanas.  All these types of person must also cultivate the five powers of a trainee (sekha), viz., faith, shame, fear of wrongdoing, energy, and wisdom, and the five faculties of faith, energy, mindfulness, concentration, and wisdom. 

The Eight Jhanas

The renunciation of the five lower fetters, viz., self-view, skepticism, attachment to rites and rituals, craving, and anger, equivalent to the stage of the non-returner, is developed by means of the four jhanas or meditative attainments. The first jhana is attained by giving up possessiveness, unwholesome states, and “tranquilizing the bodily inertia.” It is a cognitive state associated with rapture, happiness, and seclusion. He experiences existence as impermanent, suffering, and empty of self. He turns his mind to the “deathless element,” nibbana, either experiencing the destruction of the taints or, if there is a trace of craving left, being reborn in the Pure Abodes. Thus, he experiences the stage of a non-returner.

With the subsiding of thought and examination, he experiences the second jhana.

With the fading away of rapture, he experiences the third jhana.

With the subsiding of pleasure and pain, he experiences the fourth jhana. He experiences perfect mindfulness and equanimity.

Upon the passing away of the perception of form and sensory impingement, he realizes the first formless jhana, called Infinite Space.

Upon transcending the perception of the infinity of space, he realizes Infinite Consciousness. This is the second formless jhana.

Upon transcending the experience of infinite consciousness, he realizes Nothingness. This is the third formless jhana.

Dying Consciously

The Buddha also taught the practice of yoga in conjunction with the process of dying. Dying consciously can be a powerful spiritual practice. When the lay follower Dighawu was dying, he asked his father, Jotika, to fetch the Buddha. The Buddha came to Dighawu to offer him spiritual instruction. Once the Buddha confirmed Dighawu was dying, he advised Dighawu to cultivate faith in the Buddha, Dhamma, and Sangha. That this advice was directed to Dighawu’s rebirth is made clear by the Buddha’s recommendation Dighawu resolve to cultivate the moral virtues – clearly not a recommendation that has much relevance to someone who is already in the final stages of life. These four factors are the standard list for stream-entry. The Buddha is clearly encouraging Dighawu to become a stream-enterer, either in this life or the next.

When Dighawu confirms he has already attained stream-entry, the Buddha recommends he cultivate six additional factors, viz., the progressive realization of impermanence, suffering, non-self, renunciation, “fading away,” and cessation. Dighawu declares he has already mastered these meditations too. By means of these meditations, Dighawu is declared to have achieved the stage of non-returning. He has overcome the five fetters and been born in a dewa world.

One can influence one’s future rebirths through intention. It also suggests that the stage of dying itself is a valuable opportunity to develop the spiritual life. This view was greatly developed in the Tibetan system of the phowa, based on the cultivation of the post-mortem state. It also shows, through the cultivation of the six things that partake of true knowledge, how one may overcome the five fetters and attain the state of a non-returner. Once again, wisdom takes priority in the practice of cultivation.

Seven Factors of Enlightenment

The Buddha identifies seven factors of enlightenment attained by five kinds of non-returners, including one who attains arahantship early in this life, at death, in “the interval,” “upon landing,” without volitional exertion, with volitional exertion, or, finally, in the Akanittha realm. Akanittha is the highest Pure Abode. This passage is exceptionally interesting, especially the references to attaining arahantship “in the interval,” “upon landing,” and “becoming one bound upstream.”

According to the orthodox Therawadin interpretation, based on commentaries written hundreds of years later, these refer to emancipation attained at death, upon rebirth as a dewa, during the first quarter of one’s lifespan in the Pure Abodes, during the second quarter, or during the second half. This interpretation ignores both the meaning of the terms and the sequence. Even Bhikkhu Bodhi, who is or was a Therawadin, recognizes the artificiality of this interpretation on purely linguistic grounds. Both Bodhi and Dr. Peter Masefield take the obvious meaning of this passage, based also on the famous simile of the flaming chip in the Anguttara Nikaya,[1] to refer to the current life, the moment of dying, the post-mortem state “in between” this life and the next rebirth, rebirth in the Pure Abodes, or finally during one’s life in the Akanittha state, after having passed through the Five Pure Abodes. With and without volitional exertion then become the two modes of attainment that apply to subsequent rebirths.

Bodhi’s interpretation is clearly the obvious and natural meaning. However, it presents a grave problem for Therawadins. They deny the reality of an intermediate post-mortem state. Bhikkhu Bodhi’s support for this interpretation is all the more remarkable for this reason. As an aside, Bodhi himself does seem to have changed his allegiances somewhat. He has left Sri Lanka and taken up residence in the Bodhi Monastery in New Jersey.[2] Bodhi Monastery is a Chinese Mahayana monastery with a strong basis in the Pali suttas. Apparently, Bodhi himself now teaches the Mahayana interpretation of the suttas in his classes, in addition to the Therawada view. In addition to recognizing the reality of an intermediate post-mortem state, Bodhi refers to the superiority of the path of a bodhisatta in his introduction to this section. Bodhi’s praise for the path of a bodhisatta is extremely unusual for a Therawadin monk. Also remarkable is the fact this is an early text.

One finds the post-mortem state described in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. The yoga of conscious dying is based on the teachings of the great guru Padmasambhava. Padmasambhava recognized the reality of an intermediate post-mortem state called the bardo. Bardo means interval or “the in between.” The Tibetan Book of the Dead develops an elaborate phenomenology and yoga of the bardo state. It is based on the significance of the moment of death. That this doctrine is presaged in the Pali Canon shows the degree to which the later Mahayana and Vajrayana traditions depend on a deep appreciation of the Pali suttas. The bardo or “interval” falls outside the ontological classification of the 31 planes of existence. Nevertheless, it is also a state from and within which one can attain nibbana. Tibetan Buddhism appears to be the only tradition that has preserved this particular aspect of the Pali Canon.

When the Venerable Khemaka is dying, he declares he has overcome the five aggregates subject to clinging, including the identification of the “I” with the five aggregates, but he has not overcome the notion or conceit of “I am.” Thus, he makes a distinction between “I am” and “This I am.” Bodhi explains this as a residual conceit and desire associated with the “odour of subjectivity” connected with the belief in personal identity. The “I am” is not identified with any particular form, feeling, perception, volitional formations, or consciousness, based on the metaphor of the flower’s scent. I would explain it as an underlying belief in a separate ego resulting from fundamental ignorance, still not overcome. Its root is the metaphysical underpinning of the delusion of atta (self), detached from identification with objects but not from self-identification or exclusiveness.

Atta is distinct from the idea of the mind stream, in that it is exclusive. The mind stream is a “true self” not exclusive of anything and thus trans-dual. I would regard the latter as the ontological underpinning of the illusory self still mired in ignorance. One can reconcile the doctrine of anatta with the idea of a mind stream. It is necessary if one is to regard sangsara as a mirage and not merely a (nonexistent) “illusion.” Even an illusion is grounded in ontology.

The Buddha and the Arhant

Both the Buddha and an arahant are liberated by non-clinging. Their essential identity raises the question of the difference between them. The Buddha says he is self-realized, whereas the arahant is liberated by the wisdom resulting from the dhamma discovered and taught by the Buddha. In other words, it is a matter of seniority. Thus, the Buddha says,

so long as a Tathagata has not arisen in the world, an Arahant, a Perfectly Enlightened One, for just so long there is no manifestation of great light and radiance, but then blinding darkness prevails, a dense mass of darkness; for just so long there is no explaining, teaching, proclaiming, establishing, disclosing, analyzing, or elucidating of the Four Noble Truths. But … when a Tathagata arises in the world, an Arahant, a Perfectly Enlightened One, then there is the manifestation of great light and radiance; then no blinding darkness prevails, no dense mass of darkness; then there is the explaining, teaching, proclaiming, establishing, disclosing, analyzing, and elucidating of the Four Noble Truths.

 In other words, time and history are intrinsically entropic, whereas the power of the truth of dhamma is inherently negentropic.

The Buddha identifies ten powers of the arahant and ten powers of the Buddha.

 Comparison of the Powers of an Arhant and a Buddha

Ten Powers of an Arahant Ten Powers of a Buddha
Impermanence Possibility and impossibility
Craving and suffering Results of actions
Seclusion and renunciation Ways leading everywhere
Four establishments of mindfulness Elements of the world
Four perfect kinds of striving Inclinations of beings
Four bases of spiritual power Disposition of beings
Five spiritual faculties Process of emancipation and attainment
Five powers of an aspirant Recalling past lives
Seven factors of enlightenment Divine eye (karmic destinations)
Supermundane Eightfold Path Emancipation (destruction of the taints)


Four establishments of mindfulness: contemplating the body, contemplating feelings, contemplating mind, contemplating phenomena

Four perfect kinds of striving: non-arising, abandonment, arising, maintenance (perfect effort)

Four bases for spiritual power: intention, effort, consciousness, investigation

Five spiritual faculties: faith, energy, mindfulness, concentration, wisdom

Five powers of an aspirant: faith, shame, fear of wrongdoing, energy, wisdom

Seven factors of enlightenment: mindfulness, discrimination, energy, rapture, tranquility, concentration, equanimity

Supermundane Eightfold Path: perfect view, perfect intention, perfect speech, perfect action, perfect livelihood, perfect effort, perfect mindfulness,  perfect concentration

There appears to be a one-to-one correspondence between these terms. However, an essential difference is that all of the powers of an arahant are primarily mental powers or realizations pertaining to the attainment of emancipation. These include various realizations concerning the nature of existence (impermanence, craving, suffering, etc.). However, the ten powers of a Buddha are all primarily ontological. A significant number of these powers are associated with kamma, viz., knowing what is possible and impossible; causes and possibilities; the types of conduct and future destinies to which they lead, including emancipation; the inclinations and dispositions of beings, corresponding to a kind of clairvoyance; recalling past lives; and seeing the karmic destinies of beings (the so-called “divine eye”).

The nibbana of an arahant appears to be exclusive of sangsara. The nibbana of a Buddha includes all this plus a deep understanding of sangsara, and not only from the perspective of the absolute. I suspect this comes about because of the difference between the path of the four stages of an arahant compared with the path of a bodhisatta in relation to sangsara: i.e., the arahant renounces sangsara, whereas the bodhisatta chooses to remain with the world. Thus, the realization of an arahant excludes sangsara; a Buddha includes it in a way the arahant does not, including what can only be called psychic powers. Rooted in the attainment of an arahant, the attainment of a Buddha takes precedence over that of an arahant, not only in relation to time but also in terms of the quality of his realization of kamma and the nature of experience. This is characterized by the perfect awakening, detachment, and truthfulness of a Tathagata, whose speech and actions are in perfect accord with each other and reality itself.

[1] Anguttara Nikaya, Book of the Sevens, Sutta 55.

[2] Bodhi Monastery was founded in 2000 by Master Jen-Chun, a disciple of Taiwanese Master Yin-Shun. The monastery adheres to a holistic, non-sectarian vision that seeks to harmonize ancient Pali and Mahayana approaches to the dhamma based on the bodhisatta ideal.

Fundamental View: Talk 9

Presented to the Buddha Center, Second Life on August 10 and 13, 2013

Talk 9

The Cultivation of Wisdom

Om Ah Hung Benza Guru Pema Siddhi Hung.


In previous talks we have discussed the importance of wisdom in the spiritual quest, but what kind of wisdom is this? The Buddha compares wisdom to the lights of the moon, sun, and fire; he declares the light of wisdom to be greater than these. In a remarkable simile, in a sermon presented, not to monks, but to nuns, the Buddha compares the supermundane wisdom of dhamma to a butcher’s knife “that cuts, servers and carves away the inner defilements, fetters, and bonds just as the butcher cuts, severs, and carves away the inner tendons, sinews, and ligaments of a cow.” This simile is remarkable, in the context of the universal Indian veneration for the cow and the quasi-tradition of Buddhist vegetarianism (I say “quasi,” because the Buddha himself never regarded vegetarianism as mandatory).

The Indian reverence for the cow must be very ancient. The Rigveda says, “[t]he fiend who consumes flesh of cattle, with flesh of horses and of human bodies, who slaughters the milk producing cow, O Agni, tear off the heads of such with fiery fury.” Nevertheless, the ancient Brahmans also sacrificed cows and ate their meat in a ritual context. The Buddha’s words must have struck the ears of his listeners as a very powerful and even offensive metaphor. Perhaps it was designed to offend the Brahmans, who the Buddha criticized openly, often, and severely.[1] In other words, the wisdom of the Buddha is an anti-Brahman wisdom.

Perfect View

The Buddha identifies eight preconditions for developing true wisdom. These preconditions include an attitude of reverence toward a teacher. The teacher may include a fellow monk – another indication of the Buddha’s egalitarianism. Also included are receiving teachings from a teacher; physical and mental withdrawal; ethical self-restraint; investigating and penetrating the teachings; effort directed toward abandoning the unwholesome and cultivating the wholesome; not engaging in rambling and pointless talk, either talking about the dhamma or keeping silent; and deeply realizing the truth of impermanence.

When asked, “What is Perfect View?”, synonymous with the realization of wisdom, Sariputta, renowned as the arahant foremost in wisdom, identifies 16 realizations. These realizations constitute Perfect View, viz., understanding the root of the wholesome and the unwholesome; the four “nutriments” so-called, which include food, contact, volition, and consciousness; the truth of suffering; aging and death; birth; existence; clinging; craving; feeling;  contact; the six senses; name and form; consciousness; volitional formations (sankhāras); ignorance; and the taints (āsawas). These realizations lead to the realization of the Supermundane Eightfold Path. Twelve of these, starting with aging and death and ending with ignorance, correspond to the twelve links in the chain of cause and effect (paticchasamuppāda). These include three of the four nutriments. 

The Five Complexes

The Buddha says that his enlightenment arose out of a state of direct knowledge or gnosis based on the realization of the Five Aggregates. The twelvefold chain of cause and effect, the general principle of interdependency, resolves itself into the twelve nidanas. The nidanas consist of ignorance, mental formations, consciousness, mind and matter, the six senses, contact, feeling, craving, clinging, becoming, birth, and aging and dying. The Five Aggregates are a subset of this list. They consist of mental formations, consciousness, form, perception, contact-feeling, and clinging. The latter is applied to the previous five, all rooted in desire. Thus, the Five Aggregates constitute a subset of the nidanas (literally, “causes”), but in a different order. One wonders if the aggregates preceded the causes as an early version of the latter.

Comparison of the Causal Chain and the Five Complexes

The 12 Causes (nidānas)

The Five Complexes (khandhas)

Unconscious (awijjā)
Potentiation (sankhāra) Volitional formations (sankhāra) (4)
Mentation (vinnyana) Consciousness (vinnyana) (5)
Psychophysical complex (nāmarūpa) Form (rūpa) (1)
Six apperceptions (salāyatana) Perception (sannya) (3)
Sensing (phassa) Feeling (vedanā) (2)
Feeling (vedanā)
Desiring (tanhā) “Rooted in desire”
Attachment (upādanā) “Subject to clinging”
Living (bhāwa)
Rebirth (jāti)
Dying (jāramarana)

All these factors must be understood in dynamic process terms, rather than as objective constituents or things. It is hard to convey this concept in English, due to the linguistic distinction between verbs (actions) and nouns (things). The closest one can come in English is the use of the process-participle, indicated by the suffix “ing.” Although presented in linear sequence, the nidanas are all connected by the doctrine of interdependency. Therefore, they are not truly linear – the nidanas are all aspects of a singular and complex, universal process, all aspects of which condition and are correlated to each other. Thus, they are essentially inseparable.

The Buddha states the Five Aggregates are rooted in desire, the craving that constitutes the eighth nidana of the twelvefold chain of cause and effect. He emphasizes, through desire or intention, that one can profoundly influence the state of one’s future rebirths. The idea of self arises from attachment to the Five Aggregates. Non-attachment to the Five Aggregates based on the realization of their essential nature, i.e., impermanence and suffering, results in non-identification with them. In this way, the realization of anatta, no-self, the third characteristic of existence, arises. Another basis for the arising of the realization of no-self is the inability to control form. If form were self, form would be amenable to change based on volition. However, this is not the case. So for the remaining aggregates. In other words, one experiences oneself as subject to the Five Aggregates. The fact the aggregates are not subject to volition proves the Five Aggregates are not a self.

A further subset of the Five Aggregates includes eye, forms, eye-consciousness, eye-contact, ear, mind, mind-contact, etc. The senses, the sensations, and the sensed altogether constitute “the all” (sabba). The first three aggregates, perception-form-feeling, are the essential core set. The Buddha says, without detachment from and renunciation of the All, suffering cannot be overcome. In a famous simile, the Buddha says the All is burning with lust, hatred, delusion, birth, aging and death, sorrow, lamentation, pain, dejection, and despair. Through detachment, the mind is liberated, birth is destroyed, the spiritual life has been lived, and there is no more rebirth through liberation from the taints by not clinging. Detachment is the result of realizing the essential truth of impermanence. In this way, one sees that the immediate causes of liberation are ultimately reducible to the realization of wisdom or insight, i.e., the realization or recognition of the true nature of things. Ananda declares the world is empty. The ontological realization of emptiness was further developed in the Mahayana. The Buddha confirms Ananda’s insight. He declares the world, consciousness, and the rest are empty of self.  Nothing samsaric is or can be self. 


The Buddha compares form to a bubble, a mirage, the coil of a banana tree, or a magical illusion. The Buddha refers to the magician who creates the illusion of samsara as doing so at a crossroads. The shamanic practice of meeting at crossroads is a universal archetype. In India, the god Bhairawa, an older version of Shiva, is said to guard the crossroads at the outskirts of villages. Stone phalluses and statues of Bhairawa’s watchful eyes represent him as a guardian of the boundaries. The Buddha recognizes form as inherently void, hollow, and insubstantial. It is remarkable in explanations of quantum physics that the underlying subatomic structure of matter is frequently described as quantum “froth.” It is as though one were to investigate the intricate structures of the froth of a wave breaking upon the shore. It exists for an instant, then is gone. If one looks at it closely and quickly enough, it contains worlds within worlds. Through this understanding, one is liberated.

We have referred to sangsara, the cycle of transmigration, commonly translated as “existence,” as a mirage. The Therawadins claim the Buddha did not talk about the trans-dual, despite explicit references to duality and its transcendence all through the Pali Canon. The Buddha says of sangsara,

This world … for the most part depends upon a duality – upon the idea of existence and upon the idea of nonexistence. But for one who sees the origin of the world as it really is with correct wisdom, there is no idea of nonexistence with respect to the world. And for one who sees the cessation of the world as it really is with correct wisdom, there is no idea of existence in regard to the world. … ‘All exists’: this is one extreme. ‘All does not exist’: this is the second extreme. Without veering toward either of these extremes, the Tathagata teaches the dhamma by the middle. (italics added)

Similarly, in the Udana the Buddha says,

There is, bhikkhus, that base (tadayatanam) where there is no earth, no water, no fire, no air; no base consisting of the infinity of space, no base consisting of the infinity of consciousness, no base consisting of nothingness, no base consisting of neither-perception-nor-non-perception; neither this world nor another world or both; neither sun nor moon. Here, bhikkhus, I say there is no coming, no going, no staying, no deceasing, no uprising. Not fixed, not movable, it has no support. Just this is the end of suffering. (Ud. 81.) (italics added)


Here, Bahiya, you should train yourself thus: “In the seen will be merely what is seen; in the heard will be merely what is heard; in the sensed will be merely what is sensed; in the cognized will be merely what is cognized.” In this way you should train yourself, Bahiya. “When, Bahiya, for you what is seen is merely what is seen … in the cognized is merely what is cognized, then, Bahiya, you will not be ‘with that.’ When, Bahiya, you are not ‘with that,’ then, Bahiya, you will not be ‘in that,’ When, Bahiya, you are not ‘in that,’ then, Bahiya, you will be neither here nor beyond nor in between the two. Just this is the end of suffering.” (Ud. 1.10) (italics added)

These passages and many others suggest the Buddha did teach non-duality, with apologies to Bhikkhu Bodhi.[2]

These passages imply the Mahayana doctrine of the two truths: relative and absolute. Therefore, to describe sangsara simply as illusory is oversimplified. Illusions do not simply “not exist.” Even if sangsara is illusory from the perspective of the absolute, or reality itself, it is nevertheless experienced and therefore real in some sense, i.e., in the sense in which it is experienced, from the perspective of the relative. The Buddha’s discussion of kamma in the context of nibbana “with residue” confirms this view.

I prefer the metaphor of a mirage – a metaphor the Buddha also used – to that of an illusion. From this, one may infer, absurdly, sangsara is not grounded in reality. It becomes appropriate to inquire into how sangsara comes about in the context of reality itself, i.e., what is the ontological function of sangsara?  Clearly, sangsara must fulfil some function in relation to reality. The Buddha says in the face of the doctrine of impermanence that the Four Truths are actual, unerring, and invariable. The doctrine of impermanence itself is relative. The “absolute” truth of sangsara is also relative from the perspective of the absolute, since suffering is definitely transcended in the experience of nibbana.

The Nirvana Element

The Buddha refers to nibbana as the non-disintegrating, the non-manifest, the non-proliferated, the deathless, and the non-conditioned. He explicitly alludes to the ontological character of nibbana as absolute reality. The Buddha says, “There is, monks, an unborn, unbecome, unmade, unconditioned [ajātang, akatang, abhūtang, asankhatang]. If, monks, there were no unborn, unbecome, unmade, unconditioned, no escape would be discerned from what is born, become, made, conditioned. But because there is an unborn, unbecome, unmade, unconditioned, therefore an escape is discerned from what is born, become, made, conditioned.”

People think of nibbana as singular. I have alluded to the view of Hanshan that there are two nibbanas: one imperfect, one perfect. I have also referred to the nibbana of the Buddha’s enlightenment and the nibbana associated with the Buddha’s “passing on,” or death (the parinibbana). The Buddha himself identifies two nibbanas – one “with residue,” and one without. The “residue” referred to is kamma. Karmic residue is inherited from the past. Therefore, it does not seem past kamma is necessarily destroyed entirely by the realization of nibbana. The arahant who has attained nibbana with residue still experiences pleasure and pain. The arahant without residue is completely liberated through final knowledge upon his passing on. Presumably, an arahant who attains emancipation with no karmic residue will die immediately upon his enlightenment. Arahantship is a state of perfect liberation and transcendence in which there is no experience of pleasure and pain. A bodhisatta, then, at least potentially, is an arahant with residue, the residue in this case being the kamma of compassion.


The common view of kamma is that kamma is the product of action. However, this is simplistic. It is more like the Jain than the Buddhist view. The Buddha says, “what one intends and what one plans and whatever one has a tendency toward: this becomes a basis for the continuance of consciousness. … But … when one does not intend and does not plan and does not have a tendency toward anything, no basis exists for the continuation of consciousness.” Non-intentionality is the true meaning of Buddhist detachment. One is reminded of the saying of Yeshua, “You shall not be concerned about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be concerned for itself.” Intention and not action is the essential causal factor. Once one realizes this fully, one realizes all rules, observances, social and ethical norms, rituals, and practices are mere skilful means (upāya). Skilful means are not at all like the imperious absolutes that have been the bane of so many religions, Buddhism included. However, this does not mean one becomes inactive. Rather, any actions are undertaken without attachment and are therefore non-intentional. The evidence for this is the life of the Buddha himself.

The Universal View

Some might take the view that the Buddha taught the entirety of the spiritual life. Therefore, there is nothing concerning the spiritual life he did not teach. However, the Buddha, as the most recent Buddha, was also the shortest-lived. He taught during the most degenerate age, when the lifespan of human beings is only 120 years. They cite for this view the statement of the Buddha that he held nothing back, holding nothing in secret. However, the Buddha directly contradicts this notion when he says, “the things that I have directly known but have not taught you are numerous, while the things I have taught you are few.” He compares the things he has taught to a handful of leaves in relation to the leaves of the simsapa tree. The simsapa was probably rosewood, the leaves of which are very numerous. It is more correct to say that the Buddha taught what is fundamental or essential to the spiritual life. He did not teach everything. This is consistent with our view that the Buddha taught the perennial philosophy. The perennial or primordial philosophy comprises the totality of the spiritual life by definition. In other words, the Buddha limited what he taught to the limitations of his hearers in this degenerate age. It follows, therefore, that the horizons of the spiritual life should open up before one as one progresses, rather than being limited to what the Buddha did and said. The fundamentalist view constricts the spiritual life.

When the Buddha says he eschews speculation, he is not saying that the subject matter of speculation is empty of meaning. Rather, the Tathagata has experienced the truth of the matter. For this reason, he eschews speculation. The Buddha does not refuse to discuss the trans-dual because it is meaningless or unreal. Rather, it is because it transcends the comprehension of his (unenlightened) audience.

[1] Compare Yeshua’s attitude to the Pharisees.

[2] Bhikkhu Bodhi, “Dhamma and Non-duality” (Access to Insight, 2011),


Bodhi appears to support the philosophical concept of a fundamental and non-reducible ontological dualism. Dualism has had a rather checkered history in philosophy.

Fundamental View: Talk 8

Presented by the Buddha Center, Second Life on August 3 and 6, 2013

Talk 8

The Art of Meditation

Om Ah Hung Benza Guru Pema Siddhi Hung.


Beefore we begin, I would like to briefly address a question I was asked last week about the relationship between nibbana and sangsara. I was asked whether one could “fall back,” as it were, from nibbana into sangsara. It is clear from the Pali Canon that nibbana is a qualitative change of state that cannot be reversed. The Tathagata, for example, is not reborn as a human being. There is no karmic factor operating based on which one could be reborn.

The person who asked me this question attributed this doctrine to Hanshan, a Chinese master. I promised to do some research into this question. There are in fact two Hanshans. There is Hanshan, a poet who lived in the 9th century, and Hanshan Deqing, a monk who lived in the 16th and 17th centuries. Both Hanshans were iconoclasts. Deqing praised prominent monks who practised meditation and asceticism with no official Dharma transmission as having acquired “wisdom without a teacher.”Jiang Wu writes Hanshan questioned the value of Dharma transmission. He believed the enlightenment of the mind was more important than nominal claims of transmission.

I suspect the person who asked me this question was referring to Hanshan the poet, a somewhat mysterious figure. He held that a “nibbana” that does not include sangsara is an inferior, inadequate, incomplete, or insufficient state of partial realization, and that true or final nibbana includes sangsara by definition. Surely, one can fall back into sangsara from a realization that excludes sangsara, but such a realization is not nibbana. True nibbana includes sangsara, so how can one fall back into it? To answer in a suitably Zen way, one never left it. I hope that addresses the question adequately.

Buddhism is primarily a method of mental cultivation. The Buddha says there is nothing as unwieldy, harmful, and prone to suffering as an undeveloped mind; there is nothing as wieldy, beneficial, and prone to happiness as a developed mind. Mental development or self-cultivation entails two things primarily – serenity (samatha) and insight (vipassana). Samatha is often translated as “calm” or “tranquility.” The development of serenity leads to the stilling of lust, craving, or attachment and develops the mind. The development of insight leads to wisdom and the abandonment of ignorance, the root cause of the chain of cause and effect (paticchasamuppāda). The combination of serenity and insight leads to the realization of the Supermundane Eightfold Path, and thence to enlightenment itself.

The development of serenity and insight are the two essential requisites of the path. All spiritual methods or techniques, no matter how apparently complex, are ultimately reducible to either one or the other or some combination of these two. Ananda, the Buddha’s main disciple, identifies four possible combinations: serenity followed by insight, insight followed by serenity, the progressive alternation of serenity and insight, and a rather interesting one – anxiety or agitation, spontaneously resolved by the arising of serenity and insight through some sort of spiritual crisis. Bodhi glosses this crisis as a spontaneous arising of awakening. This concept may be compared with the great European mystic George Ivanovitch Gurdjieff’s concept of the “shock” or Padmasambhava’s concept of the “leap” by which one achieves a fundamental change of state. Yehsua also cites such a state in the Gospel of Thomas.[1] Ananda declares these are the only ways to experience emancipation.

The Buddha identifies four types of person: one who gains internal serenity of mind but does not gain the higher wisdom of insight into phenomena; one who gains the higher wisdom of insight into phenomena, but not the internal serenity of mind; one who gains neither; and one who gains both. Thus, one should approach one who has developed the faculty or realization in which one is lacking for instruction on how to develop that realization. One who has developed both should establish himself in them, as well as applying himself to the further destruction of the taints (āsawas). The PED states that the taints consist of attachment to sensuality (kam), rebirth (bhaw), and ignorance (awijj). A fourth taint, which the PED translates as speculation or wrong view (ditth), was added to the list several centuries later by the commentaries.

In the context of memorizing the teachings, the Buddha identities sensual lust, ill will, dullness and drowsiness, restlessness and remorse, and doubt, as factors that disturb the equanimity of mind and so inhibit memorizing and, by implication, learning the teachings. These are the five hindrances. The hindrances disturb the mind and make it impossible to recognize its essential nature.

The Buddha compares the refinement of the mind to the process by which gold is refined. Gold is a metaphor for the inherent lucidity of sentience itself. Gold is washed, rinsed, cleaned, and finally melted, in a formula suggestive of European alchemy, explored deeply by C.G. Jung. The reference to melting is especially interesting. One of the popular notions about Buddhism is it is passive, but one finds references all through the Pali Canon to the cultivation of will and the development of energy as essential elements of the path. The Buddha himself was celebrated as a virile “bull of a man.” Here these metaphors are taken even further. If gold is the mind, what does melting the mind mean?  One finds a similar idea in the Tibetan concept of tumo or “psychic heat,” which is analogous to kundalini or even ch’i (qi).

Gold, originally brittle, becomes pliant, workable, and bright. The notion of mental pliancy is found all through the Pali Canon. It appears to refer to what used to be called “suggestibility.” Suggestibility is now better referred to as neuroplasticity.

Neuroplasticity, also known as brain plasticity, refers to changes in neural pathways and synapses due to changes in behavior, environment, and neural processes. Neuroplasticity has replaced the older view that the brain is a physiologically static organ. This concept is analogous to the old notion of “human nature.” Neuroplasticity occurs on many levels, from cellular changes due to learning to large-scale changes involved in cortical remapping in response to injury. The role of neuroplasticity is widely recognized today in modern medicine.

For most of the 20th century, the consensus among neuroscientists was that brain structure is relatively immutable after a critical period during early childhood. This belief has been challenged by findings revealing that many aspects of the brain remain plastic even into adulthood. Decades of research have now shown that substantial changes occur in the lowest neocortical processing areas. These changes can profoundly alter the pattern of neural activation in response to experience. Neuroscientific research indicates that experience can actually change both the physical structure (anatomy) and functional organization (physiology) of the brain. The brain can, and does, change. The Buddha’s conclusions derived from meditative experience concerning neuroplasticity or “pliancy” are another remarkable example of how Buddhism anticipated current innovative scientific discoveries by over 2,000 years.

The Buddha says, “there comes a time when [one’s] mind becomes inwardly steadied, composed, unified, and concentrated. That concentration is then calm and refined; it has attained to full tranquility and achieved mental unification; it is not maintained by strenuous suppression of the defilements. Then, to whatever mental state realizable by direct knowledge he directs his mind, he achieves the capacity of realizing that state by direct knowledge, whenever the necessary conditions obtain.” The scientific precision of this statement is remarkable.

The Buddha refers to various mental powers or psychic abilities (iddhis). These abilities may be developed by means of meditation. They include bilocation, invisibility, levitation, passing unhindered through matter, travelling cross-legged through the sky, mastery of the body, clairaudience, clairvoyance, telepathy, and remembering past lives, both of oneself and of others. Yogis also attest these powers. Techniques to develop them were highly developed by the Tibetans in particular.

Whether one accepts these powers literally or as psychic experiences, the literature of parapsychology contains many accounts of similar experiences and abilities. It is difficult for Westerners to appreciate how far such powers may be developed, since there is nearly no culture for their development in our secular materialist society. Nevertheless, over the past hundred years, science itself has gone far beyond the materialistic description of the world.

It seems more cogent to accept the reality of psychic powers, at least provisionally, rather than reject them altogether as mere fabrications.[2] The Pali Canon enumerates specific individuals in the ancient sangha to whom the Buddha attributed such powers. Westerners tend to reject such abilities dogmatically, but are the reality of curved space, time dilation, atomic energy, multiverses, the quantum act of observation, strings, black holes, singularities, the big bang, the holographic universe, or artificial intelligence (AI) any less fantastic? All of these are commonplaces of 21st century science.

As an aid to meditation, the Buddha recommended attending to an image or “sign” that opposes the distraction. Evil, unwholesome thoughts, such as hatred, desire, and delusion, can be counteracted by concentrating on some sign connected with what is wholesome. In this way, the mind becomes steadied, composed, unified, and concentrated.

Bodhi gives examples of the kinds of signs the Buddha recommended in specific situations. For example, sensual desire can be counteracted by contemplating the unattractiveness of the body. Desire toward inanimate objects can be counteracted by contemplating impermanence (aniccha). Hatred toward living beings can be counteracted by contemplating loving kindness, i.e., the metta meditation. Hatred toward inanimate objects can be counteracted by meditating on the elemental nature of things. Delusion can be counteracted by studying the dhamma.

If, after meditating on these signs, the distraction persists, the Buddha recommends meditating on the danger inherent in the distraction. If one continues to be distracted, the Buddha recommends simply ignoring the distraction.  If the distraction continues, the Buddha recommends inquiring into its causes in an indefinite succession leading to subtler and subtler causes, culminating finally in quiescence. Finally, if the distraction continues, the Buddha recommends “crushing the mind with the mind,” or forcibly repressing the distraction through sheer force of will and determination. The Buddha says, “this monk is called a master of the courses of thought. He will think whatever thought he wishes to think and he will not think any thought that he does not wish to think.”

Similarly, no matter how people speak to you, the Buddha recommends remaining indifferent and responding to them with an altruistic mind. As in the metta meditation, one expands that intention outward from that individual to all individuals and ultimately to all living beings and thence to the whole world, even, to use the Buddha’s metaphor, “if bandits were to sever you savagely limb by limb with a two-handled saw.” Yeshua famously recommended plucking out one’s eye or cutting off one’s hand in similar circumstances. (Short of advocating self-mutilation, I prefer to regard these as metaphors for the intensity of one’s concentration.)

For one who is on the path, the Buddha recommends contemplating the Tathagata, the Dhamma, the sangha, morality, generosity, and the dewas. One takes these things as objects of one’s concentrated meditation (samādhi). The qualities of the object of the meditation arise in the mind of the meditator, resulting in inspiration, gladness, rapture, calm, happiness, and concentration. Meditations on the Buddha and the dewas in particular became important practices within Tibetan Buddhism.

The Buddha declares the Four Foundations of Mindfulness to be the essential elements of the path that leads inevitably to nibbana. Each step, once acquired, is established in a progressive direction that cannot be reversed (the so-called “one way”). I follow Bodhi’s interpretation here. The path is negentropic, as distinct from the entropic nature of sangsara, which leads to ever-greater degeneration.

The four foundations of mindfulness are mindfulness of the body, feelings, mind, and phenomena, in an ascending arc that leads from the particular to the universal and from the gross to the subtle. Body corresponds to the element of earth, feelings to the element of water, mind to the element of air, and finally phenomena to the element of fire, i.e., the dynamic principle of kamma. Mindfulness of the body is established by means of seclusion, sitting, and cultivating awareness of the breath, the life force of the body reified in the Indian concept of self (the atta).

The Buddha emphasizes the importance of cultivating a global awareness of the entire body. Meditation is not a state of dissociation. Awareness may be extended to the posture, and finally to the comprehension of the three marks of existence – aniccha (impermanence or changeability), dukkha (suffering or unsatisfactoriness), and anatta (no-self).

Attachment to the body is undermined by contemplating the anatomical unattractiveness of the body in respect of its constituents, viz.., hair, nails, teeth, skin, flesh, sinews, bones and marrow, kidneys, heart, liver, diaphragm, spleen, lungs, intestines, mesentery, stomach, feces, bile, phlegm, pus, blood, sweat, fat, tears, grease, spittle, snot, oil of the joints, and urine. The nine charnel ground meditations include contemplating one’s body in various states of decomposition. These contemplations include a bloated corpse, a corpse being devoured by animals, a desiccated skeleton, and finally a pile of bones in the process of being reduced to their elements.

The corpse meditations bear a striking resemblance to the Chöd cult of Tibetan Buddhism. The practitioner visualizes their own body and offers their flesh as the offering at a ganachakra, or tantric feast. Iconographically, the skin of the practitioner’s body represents surface reality or maya. It is cut from bones that represent the true reality of the mind stream.

Bodhi suggests these practices may involve visualizations of the body in the various states. However, there is no doubt the charnel ground contemplations were also practised by advanced Buddhist adepts in actual charnel grounds.

Contemplation of the feelings (vedanā) is simply being aware of the pleasurable or unpleasurable state of one’s feelings, without attachment. In contemplating the mind, the awareness of feelings is replaced with awareness of one’s own mental state.

Contemplation of phenomena involves awareness of phenomena in terms of the five hindrances, the five aggregates, the six senses, the seven enlightenment factors, and the Four Supermundane Truths. This means being aware of attachment to phenomena, impermanence (aniccha), sense perceptions, one’s actual state of realization, and of suffering.

Recognizing the factors of enlightenment within oneself is included in the contemplation of phenomena because this refers to an objective recognition of the ontological status of one’s own realization. Realization is not subjective. It is classified as contemplation of phenomena rather than contemplation of mind. Enlightenment is not a subjective quality or state any more than the bliss or rapture of enlightenment is a “feeling.”

The Buddha states that the practice of the Four Foundations of Mindfulness over a period of seven years leads to stream entry. One either achieves final enlightenment immediately or is reborn in one of the Pure Abodes. From here, one attains enlightenment directly, with no more human rebirth. Rebirth in the Pure Abodes is the one rebirth in sangsara the Buddha says he had never experienced. To be reborn there means one is never reborn as a human being. The Buddha goes on to say something very remarkable:

Let alone seven years, monks. If anyone should develop these four establishments of mindfulness in such a way for six years … for five years … for four years … for three years … for two years … for one year, one of two fruits could be expected for him: either final knowledge here and now, or if there is a trace of clinging left, nonreturning. Let alone one year, monks. If anyone should develop these four states of mindfulness in such a way for seven months … for six months … for five months … for four months … for three months … for two months … for one month … for half a month, one of two fruits could be expected for him: either final knowledge here and now, or if there is a trace of clinging left, nonreturning. Let alone half a month, monks. If anyone should establish these four establishments of mindfulness in such a way for seven days, one of two fruits could be expected for him: either final knowledge here and now, or if there is a trace of clinging left, nonreturning.

This passage is repeated all through the Pali Canon. It directly contradicts the common assumption that enlightenment is an exceptional achievement that takes hundreds and thousands if not millions of rebirths to achieve. One finds this assertion repeated endlessly in the popular Buddhist literature. We have already alluded to the plentiful evidence, alluded to all through the Pali Canon, of householders achieving awakening, and even final emancipation, after a brief period.

The orthodox Therawadin interpretation of this fact is these were individuals who were associated with the Buddha in past lives. They were already advanced practitioners on the verge of awakening. Perhaps, but this quotation suggests this is not the whole explanation. The implication is clear. Establishing oneself in the four foundations of mindfulness leads to awakening at least after no more than seven years, but may result in awakening, and even final emancipation, almost immediately, if the karmic conditions are suitable.

There are examples in the canon of householders achieving final enlightenment within five days of “going forth.” The passage quoted is clear. Awakening is not the exclusive prerogative of a special elect of reborn prior associates of the Buddha. To repeat, “[i]f anyone [italics added] should establish these four establishments of mindfulness in such a way for seven days, one of two fruits could be expected for him: either final knowledge here and now, or if there is a trace of clinging left, nonreturning.”

Ananda’s Riddle

Ananda, the Buddha’s personal attendant, presents a riddle to the Buddha. This is a rare instance of an actual riddle in the Pali Canon. Of course, riddles became a popular pastime in certain sects of Zen Buddhism, the so-called koan.[3] In any case, the riddle is: Is there one thing that, when developed and cultivated, fulfills four things? And four things that, when developed and cultivated, fulfill seven things? And seven things that, when developed and cultivated, fulfil two things? It is curious that Ananda presents this riddle to the Buddha, and not the other way around.

The Buddha’s answer is that concentration by mindfulness of breathing is the one thing that, when developed and cultivated, fulfils the four establishments of mindfulness – body, feelings, mind, and phenomena. The four establishments of mindfulness, when developed and cultivated, fulfil the seven factors of enlightenment – mindfulness, discrimination, rapture, tranquility, concentration, and equanimity. The seven factors of enlightenment, when developed and cultivated, fulfil true knowledge and liberation. Wisdom and emancipation are set against each other as co-determining factors, similar to the co-determination of consciousness and namarupa in the paticchasamuppada. The pre-eminent importance of wisdom in the realization of emancipation is emphasized.

The sequence 1, 2, 4, 7 is the first four numbers in a mathematical pattern called the lazy caterer’s sequence. More formally known as the central polygonal numbers, it describes the maximum number of pieces of a circle that can be made with a given number of straight cuts. It is interesting the one thing in the sequence is not the goal, but rather the means, mindfulness of breathing.

Mindfulness of breathing is the quintessential technique. Specifically prescribed for restlessness, Bodhi notes that the Nikayas recognize mindfulness of breathing as a technique of fundamental importance. The importance of the breath meditation is due to the pan-Indian association of the breath with the soul. Even though the Buddha repudiated the theological doctrine of a soul, he emphasizes the breathing meditation technique itself.

The Buddha declares that mindfulness of breathing is the essential meditation by which he attained enlightenment. Even after attaining enlightenment, during his 45-year teaching career, the Buddha continued to practise mindfulness of breathing in retreat. He uniquely refers to this technique as “the Tathagata’s dwelling.” It is significant that the Buddha continues this practice, even after becoming a perfected being. The development of mindfulness of breathing underlies all four establishments of mindfulness. It constitutes the universal underlying technique leading to the seven factors of enlightenment and thence to wisdom and emancipation itself.

The 31 planes of existence are also levels or stages of realization. There is no ultimate distinction in Buddhism between macrocosm and microcosm, the universal and the individual, ontology and psychology, reality and mind. The three realms of reality are referred to as the worlds of desire, form, and formless mind.

The form world is divided into four sets of three worlds and five Pure Abodes. These worlds are superseded by the four formless worlds. The form and formless worlds correspond to the four meditative states (the jhānas), followed by the realization of infinite space, infinite consciousness, nothingness, and neither perception nor non-perception. Sometimes these are called the formless jhanas. Altogether, there are eight successive stages of realization.

The Bodhisatta achieved the realization of the state of nothingness under his first teacher, Alara Kalama. He realized neither perception nor non-perception under his second teacher, Uddaka. Although the jhanas are associated with the final step of the Supermundane Eightfold Path, Perfect Concentration, lay people are able to attain the jhanas. Thus, the Eightfold Path is not the prerogative of monastics.

The four jhanas are always referred to by number. The first jhana is the lowest. The first jhana corresponds to Mahabrahma with his minsters and retinue, a kind of divine kingdom. The king of this kingdom is Great Brahma. Great Brahma is a dewa originally from the next highest level who has been reborn in the brahma worlds due to loss of merit. Devolution is the fate that befalls all dewas. Some, perhaps most, human beings may have been dewas in previous lives.

One may simply regard Great Brahma as God. He is famous for his delusion that he is the creator of the universe. This idea is similar to the Gnostic view of Yahweh, the god of the Jews. The attainment of the first jhana is essentially equivalent to the Judaeo-Christian goal of reaching “heaven.” Residents of the Brahma realms are able to enter into our realm and interact with us. They are said to have visited and spoken with the Buddha at night. Communicating with dewas during long periods of seclusion is common in the Tibetan tradition.

The second jhana corresponds to three worlds of radiance.

The third jhana corresponds to three worlds of glory.

The worlds beyond the jhanas are split into two infinities, infinite space and infinite consciousness; nothingness; and the trans-dual. These are the Four Formless Worlds, consisting only of mind. This structure suggests the Cabalistic conception of Ein, nothingness; Ein Sof, limitlessness or infinite space; and Ein Sof Ohr, limitless light, followed by ten worlds of being (the sephirot). This diagram is called the Tree of Life (Etz Chaim). It is the fundamental ontological structure of the Jewish mysticism called Cabala. Modern Jews do not accept Cabala as Jewish any more than Christians accept Gnosticism or Muslims accept Sufism.

The first jhana is attained by withdrawing from sensual pleasures and unwholesome states. This state is still cognitive, combined with the rapture and happiness born of seclusion.

With further practice, the cognitive aspect of the first jhana disappears. It is characterized by the arising of confidence and unification of mind without cognition, and the rapture and happiness born of concentration. This is the second jhana.

With further practice, the quality of rapture disappears. Equanimity, mindfulness, and clear comprehension arise, accompanied by happiness in the body. This is the third jhana.

With further practice, pleasure and pain (i.e., of the body) and joy and displeasure disappear. This is characterized by the purification of mindfulness by equanimity. This is the fourth jhana.

With further practice, the perception of form, sensation, and diversity completely disappear. One enters into the realization of Infinite Space.  This is the first of the four formless worlds.

With further practice, the realization of the infinity of space disappears. One realizes that consciousness is infinite. This is the second of the four formless worlds.

With further practice, the realization of the infinity of consciousness disappears. One becomes aware there is nothing. This is the third of the four formless worlds.

Finally, with further practice, the realization of nothingness disappears. One enters a trans-dual state of neither perception nor non-perception. This is the fourth of the four formless worlds sand the highest samsaric state.

None of these states is identical with complete emancipation. Emancipation is beyond all of them.

[1] The Gnostic Society Library, The Gospel of Thomas Collection,  Logion 2,

[2] The Pali Canon refers explicitly to the creation of a “mental body,” commonly called the “projection of the astral body” or “lucid dreaming.” Most of these “psychic powers” can be experienced in an advanced dream or psychedelic state, to which they may refer.

[3] The koan may be regarded as a variation of the “pointing out” instruction in Dzogchen.