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Stream Entry

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by Sangharakshita

... and realize nirvana here and now, on the spot - as Bahiya, it seems, actually did.

The sudden way is obviously very, very difficult. In fact, it may even sound impossible. The example of Bahiya, and many similar cases, shows that it is possible, but for most people it is a much more reliable and sound procedure to try to follow not this sudden path but the gradual path (which of course does not mean the `never-never path'!). The gradual path can be laid out in terms of the Noble Eightfold Path, the seven stages of purification, the ten bhumis, and many other formulations, but in this context it is perhaps best explained in terms of the twelve positive links which constitute, psychologically and spiritually, the successive stages of the progressive movement of conditionality as it spirals away from the Wheel. For our present purposes we shall ignore the last four of these, as they take us beyond Stream Entry.<$FThe twelve links of the Spiral Path are described in detail in Sangharakshita, The Three Jewels, Windhorse, Glasgow 1991, chap.13.> Here we shall be concerned only with the first eight links, and particularly with the first and second and with the seventh and eighth.

The first and second links leading up and away from the cyclical mode of action and reaction are duhkha, suffering or unsatisfactoriness, and sraddha, faith or confidence. In the twelve links of the Wheel of Life, suffering corresponds to feeling, the last link in the effect process of the present life, and faith corresponds to craving, the first link in the cause process of the present life. What this means is that when sensations and experiences impinge upon us we do not have to react with craving and thus perpetuate the cyclical movement of existence. We can react instead in a positive way. As we experience pleasant, unpleasant, and neutral feelings, we can begin to see, to feel, that none of them are really very satisfactory, not even the pleasant ones. Even they are not enough. Even if we could perpetuate pleasant experiences and eliminate painful ones, there would still be some hidden lack, something unsatisfied and frustrated. So we begin to see, we begin to feel, we begin to realize, that this whole conditioned existence - our life, our ordinary experience - is not enough. It cannot give us permanent, true satisfaction or happiness. If we analyse it deeply, in the long run it is unsatisfactory.

As we start to see that this is so, we begin to sit loose to mundane existence. We begin to detach ourselves from it. We don't care about it so much. We start thinking that there must be something higher, something beyond, something which can give satisfaction of a more permanent, deeper, and truer nature - in a word, something spiritual, even something transcendental. So we begin to shift the focus of our interest, and eventually we develop faith. We `place the heart' less and less on our everyday experience, and more and more on the Unconditioned, the transcendental. At first our faith may be confused, vague, and inchoate, but gradually it clears, it settles down, it strengthens, and eventually it becomes faith or confidence in the Three Jewels. We begin to see the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha as the embodiments of those higher spiritual values which both stand above and beyond the world yet at the same time give meaning and significance to the world. We place our heart more and more on them, and when that faith waxes strong enough we are galvanized into action and we go for Refuge.

In this way, faith is the positive, spiritual counterpart of craving. Instead of craving arising in dependence upon feeling, we find that faith in the Unconditioned (as represented by the Three Jewels) arises in dependence upon the experience of the unsatisfactoriness of conditioned existence. At this juncture we have left the Wheel and entered the Spiral; we have begun to move not in a cyclical order, but in a progressive, spiral order. We have, in fact, entered upon the path leading to nirvana. This transition from the Wheel to the Spiral is a moment of conversion. In fact, although it is expressed in different terms, it corresponds to conversion in the sense of Going for Refuge, and there is the same sense of movement - away from the endless round of conditioned existence, towards the infinite Spiral of the transcendental.

The transition from the Wheel to the Spiral still leaves us a long way short of Stream Entry, but we could say - mixing our metaphors - that at this stage we begin to enter the tributary which leads, by way of the next six positive progressive links of the Spiral, to the Stream.

In dependence upon faith there arises pramodya, usually translated as satisfaction or delight. This is the feeling which arises when you see that you have no cause for self-reproach because you have not done anything, so far as you can recollect, which makes you feel guilty. You have a perfectly clear conscience.

In Buddhism, great importance is attached to this state. If you have anything on your mind that you regret or are ashamed of, anything unatoned for, anything you have not come to terms with, it is difficult, if not impossible, to make any further progress, certainly not progress in meditation. Buddhists therefore carry out various practices of confession of faults and self-purification which eliminate remorse or guilt and replace it with this state of satisfaction and delight, this state in which you are on good terms with yourself.

It is important, of course, to distinguish clearly between genuine remorse for unskilful actions of body, speech, and mind, and the irrational sense of guilt which dogs so many people, often because it has been instilled into them from early childhood, whether through the pervasive Christian doctrine of original sin or by some other means. In Buddhism, confession of faults is a straightforward acknowledgement of whatever one has done out of craving, hatred, or delusion. To be able to confess in this way requires not an abject submission to some external power but an awareness that one is responsible for one's own actions and a confidence that one is capable of developing skilful mental states. As the terms skilful and unskilful indicate, in the Buddhist way of looking at things there is no question of irredeemable evil.

On the basis of this mental state of delight there arises priti, which is usually translated as interest, enthusiasm, rapture, or even ecstasy. It represents an upsurge of joy from your very depths as a consequence of the liberation of all the emotional energies which have previously been blocked up, in the form of various mental conflicts, in the subconscious or even unconscious mind. Something lifts from your mind, freed energy comes bubbling up from within, and you feel much lighter. When all these submerged emotional energies are released, there is an experience not only of release but also of intense joy, enthusiasm, and rapture. It is psychophysical - an experience of the body as well as of the mind - so that your hair may stand on end and you may shed tears.

In dependence upon this experience of rapture, which can reach a very great degree of intensity, there arises prasrabdhi - repose or tranquillity. This represents the calming, the dying away, of the purely bodily manifestations of priti. And once priti has died away, what is left is a state of happiness, sukha, in which there is no sense consciousness. Sukha, which arises in dependence upon prasrabdhi, is a purely mental - or rather spiritual - feeling of bliss; this pervades the entire being with a concentrating and integrating effect which harmonizes it and makes it whole. Then, in dependence on this experience of bliss, there arises a state called samadhi. The usual translation is `concentration', but this is clearly far from adequate.

Samadhi is really an experience of perfect wholeness at a very high level of awareness.

At this point - and we have come quite a long way - we need to acknowledge two important facts. In the first place, samadhi is not something which can be acquired forcibly or artificially by means of exercises or techniques. They may be of incidental help, but fundamentally samadhi represents a spiritual growth or evolution of the whole being. It is not enough just to concentrate your mind on an object for half an hour at a time if the rest of your life is pulling in the opposite direction. If ninety-nine per cent of your life is oriented in the direction of the mundane, it is no use just spending half an hour a day trying to orient it in a spiritual direction. That would be like taking an elastic band and pulling it taut - as soon as you release it, it snaps back. Unfortunately, this is how meditation is most commonly practised. Meditation proper, however, represents the spearhead of a basic reorientation of one's whole being. Mere forcible fixation of the mind for a period of time on a certain point or object is certainly not true meditation in the sense of the total growth or spiritual evolution of the whole being.

The second fact is that it is possible for us to fall back from these first seven stages on the Spiral. Although they are part of the Spiral, although they do not constitute a cyclical reaction, although they are part of the path to nirvana, regression from them is possible. Even when you have gone up to samadhi, you can descend into bliss. From that you can lapse into tranquillity, from that into rapture, from that down into faith - and in that way you re-enter the Wheel. And this, of course, is what usually happens. Even if we really succeed in getting up the Spiral so far, up all those seven stages, it is only for a while. Even if it is a real experience, a real development - even if we are not just pulling the elastic - the experience is only temporary and we still fall back. We can balance ourselves at that level ...

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