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Stream Entry

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by Sangharakshita

Lecture 10: Stream Entry - Edited Version

Going for Refuge May Seem radical enough, involving as it does a total reorientation of our lives towards the spiritual values symbolized by the Three Jewels. This, however, is by no means all that is implied by conversion in Buddhism; indeed, it is only the beginning. We may start off by Going for Refuge to the Three Jewels, but in the end we must ourselves become the Three Jewels. There must be a permanent shift of the centre of gravity of our being from the conditioned to the Unconditioned, from samsara to nirvana.

That is to say, conversion in Buddhism means not just a turning around to Buddhism, which happens when we go for Refuge to the Three Jewels, but a turning around within the context of our Buddhist practice itself.

I have chosen here to describe this essential shift in terms of gravity, but this particular point in one's spiritual career seems to lend itself to all kinds of metaphors. One of the most traditional, for example, is `Stream Entry'. The `stream' is the current which flows to Enlightenment, and the point of Stream Entry is the stage of spiritual practice at which your momentum towards Enlightenment is so strong that no obstacle can hinder your progress. Until this point, spiritual life is bound to be a struggle - you are going `against the flow' of your own mundane nature - but when you enter the stream, all the struggling is over.

In this chapter, we shall be looking more closely at the crucial experience expressed by metaphors such as `Stream Entry', a `shift in gravity', and several more. But first we will focus on another aspect of conversion, one which comes earlier in the spiritual life, and which in fact corresponds to Going for Refuge to the Three Jewels. This experience can also be described in terms of a metaphor: the metaphor of the Wheel and the Spiral. And to understand the metaphor of the Wheel and the Spiral, to get just a glimmer of what it means, we have to go back two-thousand-five-hundred years to the foot of the Bodhi tree, back to the night of the Buddha's realization of supreme and perfect Enlightenment.

What was attained on that night, only a Buddha can say - indeed, not even a Buddha can really describe it. The Lankavatara Sutra goes so far as to say that from the night of his Enlightenment to the night of his final passing away, the Buddha uttered not one word. In other words, the secret of his Enlightenment, the nature of the great transforming experience which he underwent, is incommunicable, and that is all that we can really say about it. We cannot say that it is this, or it is that, or even that it is not this or not that, because that would be to limit it. Nor can we say that it is this and that. According to the Buddha himself, we cannot even say that it is neither this nor that. All ways of speaking, all ways of telling, are transcended.

The Enlightenment experience is inexpressible, but we can get some hint of what it is by taking a more indirect view of it - by looking at it in terms of the difference which that experience made to the Buddha's outlook on existence as a whole. The scriptures tell us that when the Buddha surveyed the universe in the light of his supreme spiritual experience, he saw one prevailing principle or truth at work. He saw that the whole vast range and sweep of existence, from the lowest to the highest, in all its depth and breadth, was subject to what he subsequently called the law of conditionality. He saw that whatever arises anywhere in the universe, from the grossest material level up to the most subtle spiritual level, arises in dependence on conditions, and that when those conditions cease, the arisen phenomena also cease. He further saw that there are no exceptions to this principle. All things whatsoever within the sphere of phenomenal existence, from tiny cells to empires and great galactic systems, even feelings and thoughts, are governed by this law of conditionality. Expressed in conceptual terms, this great truth or law of `conditioned co-production' (pratitya-samutpada in Sanskrit) became the basis of Buddhist thought.

There is a lot that could be said about conditionality, but there is one point in particular which we must understand, not only to enable us to grasp Buddhist thought but, even more importantly, to enable us to practise Buddhism effectively. This crucial fact is that conditionality is of two kinds: the `cyclical' and the `progressive' or `spiral'.

In the cyclical mode of conditionality, there is a process of action and reaction between pairs of opposites: pleasure and pain, virtue and vice, birth and death and rebirth. What usually happens is that we swing back and forth between these pairs of opposites. We experience pleasure, for example, but sooner or later the pleasure goes and we experience pain; then, after some time, the pain swings back again into pleasure. In the spiral mode of conditionality, on the other hand, the succeeding factor increases the effect of the preceding one rather than negating it. When you are experiencing pleasure, instead of reacting in the cyclical order - with pain - you go from pleasure to happiness, and then from happiness to joy, from joy to rapture, and so on. The cyclical mode of conditionality, in which you go round and round, governs the samsara, the round of conditioned existence, but the spiral mode, in which you go up and up, governs the spiritual life, especially as embodied in the path or way laid down by the Buddha, and the goal of that path, Enlightenment.

In the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, the round of conditioned or mundane existence is commonly represented in pictorial form. If you walked into a Tibetan temple or monastery you would see on the right-hand side of the entrance, inside the vestibule, an enormous painting of the Wheel of Life. In the hub of the Wheel, you would see three animals: a pig, a cock, and a snake, each biting the tail of the one in front. These symbolize the three basic human passions. The pig represents ignorance, in the sense of basic spiritual confusion, lack of an appreciation of spiritual values, and mental bewilderment of the deepest and darkest kind; the snake stands for anger, aversion, or irritation; and the cock symbolizes desire, craving, and lust in all their forms. These three animals are at the centre of the Wheel to indicate that it is our basic spiritual ignorance, together with the craving and aversion connected with it, that keeps us within the round of existence, undergoing birth and death and rebirth. The animals are depicted biting each other's tails because ignorance, craving, and hatred are all interconnected. If you have one, then you will have the other two. They cannot be separated, being different manifestations of the same primordial alienation from Reality.

Round the hub of the Wheel of Life you would see another circle, divided into two segments, one side black and the other white. In the white half there are people moving upwards, happy and smiling; in the black half people are tumbling down in a very wretched and terrible condition. The white side represents the path of virtue; the dark one the path of vice. So this circle represents, on one hand, the possibility of attaining to higher states within the round of existence, and on the other, the possibility of sinking to lower ones. The white and black paths do not refer to spiritual progress - or lack of it - towards the Unconditioned, but only to higher or lower levels of being (determined by ethical or unethical actions) within conditioned existence itself.

Moving outwards from the hub, the third circle - which takes up the most space in the Wheel - is divided into six segments, each vividly depicting one of the spheres of sentient conditioned existence. At the top we see the world of the gods; next to that, working clockwise, the world of the asuras or anti-gods; then the world of the hungry ghosts; then the lower realm of torment and suffering; above that, on the other side, that of the animals; and then the human world. These are the six spheres of sentient existence within which we may be reborn, according to whether the deeds we have performed and the thoughts we have entertained have been predominantly ethical or unethical.

So the meaning of the Wheel, as far as these three circles are concerned, is that sentient beings - and that means us - dominated by greed, anger, and ignorance, perform either skilful or unskilful actions and are reborn accordingly in an appropriate realm of conditioned existence. But there is also a fourth circle, right on the rim, divided into twelve segments; this represents the twelve nidanas or links of the chain of conditioned co-production, the chain which explains in detail how the whole process of life comes about.

In the Wheel of Life's depiction of this chain, each segment contains an illustration of a particular nidana, and these illustrations proceed clockwise round the Wheel.

At the top we see a blind man with a stick, an illustration of avidya, which means ignorance in the spiritual sense of ignorance of the truth, ignorance of Reality. Next comes a potter with a wheel and pots, representing the samskaras or karma formations - volitional activities which issue from that ignorance. In other words, because of our primordial spiritual ignorance, and the things we have done in previous existences based on that ignorance, we have been reborn into our present life. Together, these two links make up what is called the `cause process' of the past life, due to which we have arisen in this new existence.

The third image is a monkey climbing a flowering tree. This represents vijnana, consciousness, which here means the first moment - almost, we might say, the first throb - of consciousness of the new being (or more accurately, the neither old nor new being) which ...

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