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The Stages of the Spiritual Path

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by Sangharakshita

Lecture 28: The Stages of the Spiritual Path

Some of you I know have attended this series from the very beginning, and have heard practically all the lectures. Some of you I know have heard perhaps even all of them; and, no doubt, you already will have appreciated the fact that we have between us covered quite a lot of ground in the course of these last three months or so.

The first four talks, of course, were merely introductory. After that we came onto a talk on evolution; lower evolution and higher evolution, in the course of which we tried to place the whole Buddhist teaching within a rather more contemporary framework than is usually attempted. Then followed two talks on the Buddha. First of all as man or as Superman, and then, in relation to god and in relation to Reality.

After that, we came onto the Dharma; the Dharma being the second of the `Three Jewels', as they're called in Buddhism, even as the Buddha himself is the first. And this group of talks on the Dharma, the second of the `Three Jewels', began with talks on three of the most important doctrinal categories of Buddhism. First of all there was a talk on the analysis of man, dealing with the five skandhas or aggregates or heaps; then one on the dynamics of being, dealing with the twelve nidanas or links in the chain of dependent origination, and including a brief treatment of the whole subject of karma and rebirth; then finally one on the texture of Reality, dealing with what are called the three laksanas, the three characteristics of all mundane or conditioned existence - that is to say, its unsatisfactory, transitory, and insubstantial nature.

Then we had a lecture, a talk, on that most important topic, representing the goal of Buddhism or the spiritual life - that is to say, Nirvana. And finally, three weeks ago, the last talk which we had in this series, at the time of Easter, was one on the mystery of the void, in the course of which we tried to penetrate a little the mystery of sunyata.

Now today we come to a fresh group of talks - that is, a fresh group within the present series.

And this group of talks within this series will bring the series to a close. This group will deal with the Sangha. The Sangha is the third of the Three Jewels, even as the Buddha is the first and the Dharma is the second.

Now the first of these three talks on the Sangha, the one which we're having today, will deal with what are known as the stages of the path. Then the week after next - because next Sunday we'll be celebrating Vaishaka, as you'll be hearing presently - the week after next we shall be studying something about the Sangha in the sense of the spiritual community. And lastly we shall conclude this group of talks, and therewith the whole series of talks, with one on the pattern of Buddhist life and work.

Now in this group of talks the emphasis, one may say, will be practical rather than theoretical.

Especially will that be the case with regard to today's talk - that is to say, the stages of the path.

So far, in dealing with the Buddha and the Dharma, we have concentrated more on the theory, more on the philosophy of Buddhism, more on the wisdom aspect. But from today we'll be dealing more with the practical, pragmatic side of the Buddha's teaching - and especially, as I've said, today, when we deal with the stages of the path.

Now it does occur to me that the stages of the path is so practical an aspect of the Buddha's teaching that one feels some hesitation in speaking about it. Buddhism, one may say, as a doctrine, a philosophy, is comparatively - and I say only comparatively - easy to understand. But even the simplest, even the most elementary doctrine or teaching is very very difficult indeed to put into practice. We all know this very well. We all know that we come along, week by week, month by month. We learn a very great deal. Some of us study at home too, read many books about Buddhism. But we manage to put into practice very very little indeed.

And that is because whereas understanding in the sense of theoretical or intellectual understanding, is so easy comparatively, the practice is so difficult. And this puts me in mind of an incident from the history of Zen Buddhism. When one mentions, of course, the name Zen, at once people wake up, even on a warm summer's afternoon. This isn't exactly from the history of Zen as such, though it does concern the great founder of Ch'an, which afterwards became Zen, in China: that is to say, Bodhidharma, the last of the Indian patriarchs of the Zen school, the founding father of Ch'an or Zen in China.

When Bodhidharma came first to China his reputation seems to have preceded him, because in those days great Indian scholars, great Indian sages, were going every now and then from India, the motherland of Buddhism, to China, where Buddhism was just beginning to take root. And people were very interested to meet them, to learn something about Buddhism from them. And in those days it seems the then Emperor of China was quite an ardent Buddhist, though in rather a conventional sense - that is to say he built and endowed monasteries, he allowed monks to be ordained (because in those days imperial permission was necessary if one wanted to enter the Order, if one wanted to enter the Sangha), and he did all sorts of other things of this sort.

So when he came to hear, when he came to learn, that Bodhidharma, the great Indian sage, had just arrived in China, had just disembarked, he was very eager to meet him, very eager to have a talk with him. So before very long Bodhidharma received an invitation, before very long he was ushered into the palace, and into the Emperor's presence. And the Emperor apparently wasted no time in getting to the point. He had apparently a rather academic sort of mind, he was well trained in Buddhist philosophy, and he said to Bodhidharma, `Tell me in just a few words what is the fundamental principle of Buddhism, upon which everything else is based, from which everything else follows.' So Bodhidharma said very calmly, very quietly, `It's quite simple.' And he recited a little Pali gatha (a gatha means a verse): `sabbapapasa akaranam kusalasa upasampada sacitta pariyodapanam etam buddhana sasanam', which means `Abstention from all evil, the doing of good, purification of the heart - this is the teaching of the Buddha.' So when the Emperor heard this he was very very disappointed. He said to Bodhidharma `Is this all?' And Bodhidharma very matter-of-factly replied, `Yes, your majesty, that is all.' But the Emperor just couldn't believe this. He said, `Are you sure? Is this all? Simply ceasing to do evil, learning to do good, purifying your heart - is there no more to it than that?' So Bodhidharma said `There's really no more to it than that.' So the Emperor, who was a very learned man, and had expected apparently some very abstruse disquisition on Buddhist philosophy, said, `But even a child of three years can understand what you have said.' So Bodhidharma said, `True. Even a child of three can understand what I have said. But even an old man of eighty like you cannot put it into practice.' And that's the difference. That is the degree of incommensurability, as it were, between the theory of Buddhism and the practice of Buddhism. The practice is an entirely different matter. And most students of Buddhism, especially in Western countries, we must admit are rather like the Emperor. When they're confronted with something to put into practice, something apparently simple, they say `Is that all?' They want a long, learned, elaborate lecture on this and that, which they can really get their teeth into intellectually, discuss with their friends, and so on. As one of my Buddhist friends once wrote to me about some Buddhist gatherings, he described them as the witty word among the teacups. And that's very often just about what it is.

Sometimes, when I think over these things, I'm almost tempted to think that it might be rather a good thing if, in our Buddhist movement in this country, perhaps especially at this vihara, we stopped lectures altogether, or, if we to have one, say, once a year; and give another lecture only when people had not only understood but been able to put into practice the teaching of the first one. Because what is the use, as it were, of going on and on, deeper and deeper, intellectually, whereas your practice lags very very far behind.

That, after all, was the ancient Indian system of teaching, as you probably know. If you turn back not only to the Buddhist scriptures, not only to the Zen tradition, if you go even earlier than the Buddha, if you go back to the days, say, of the Upanishads, there's a very well-known Upanishad, it's one of the ten principal Upanishads, called the Chandogya. And there's a rather interesting anecdote in it. Apparently - and of course it's couched rather in terms of mythology, but one must not mind that - apparently, the story goes in the Upanishad, the gods and the demons, that is to say the asuras in the sense of anti-gods, they'd heard from somewhere or other about the true self, the atman, and they wanted to learn about it. Because they'd heard that whosoever realized the true self obtained the satisfaction of all his desires.

So the gods deputed one of their number, that's to say Indra; the demons deputed one of their number, that is to say Virochana, to visit the teacher Prajapati and learn from him, if possible, about the true self. So the Upanishad says, in just one short simple sentence, `They lived with him as his pupils for 32 years.' Now that doesn't mean that they were having lectures and classes and interviews every day. No, it means that they lived with him doing, as it were, the housework: going and gathering fuel for the fire, especially for the sacred fire; sweeping the compound, clearing away the dead leaves; ...

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