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The Stages of the Spiritual Path

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by Sangharakshita

... doing errands, perhaps, for the teacher's wife. Because in preBuddhistic days, of course, gurus were married brahmin gurus, and their wives used to make use of the gurus' disciples in this way, for little errands and little odd jobs.

So they spent 32 years like this, without receiving a word of teaching. Then Prajapati, at the end of the 32 years, just calmly enquired one day, `How is it, for what reason is it, that you've lived with me for so long?' You see, look at the difference - how patient they were in those days.

Thirty-two years simply serving in the house of the teacher. Nowadays if someone comes to see you and you keep them waiting even five minutes, they get a little bit disgruntled; or if they can't see you exactly when they want to this week, and perhaps even next week, they wonder what is the matter. But in those days they were prepared to wait 32 years.

So when at the end of this period Prajapati asked `Why is it that you are living here with me? What is it that you want to know?' they said `We want to learn about the true self.' So he didn't say very much. He didn't give them a long lecture - no, not even after 32 years. He said to his wife `Bring a mirror.' His wife apparently had one. `Bring a mirror.' So she brought it. So he asked the two disciples to look into the mirror. What did they see? - they of course saw their two faces. So he said, `That's the true self.' So in those days people had so much faith in the words of their teachers, they were quite satisfied just to know that the reflection which they saw in the mirror was their true self - so away they went, thinking the body is the true self. Off they went, quite satisfied. And Virochana, who went back among the demons, of course, he taught them this - that the body is the true self. But Indra, who went back among the gods, wasn't satisfied. He thought, `Well, this is what the teacher has said, but it seems that there's something more. I'm not quite satisfied with this answer. The teacher said that the body is the true self, but the body gets old, the body dies. Does that mean that the true self gets old, dies? Surely that can't be so.' So he decided to go back to the teacher. So he went back to Prajapati and he said `Please give me a further teaching. I'm not quite satisfied with what you said before.' So Prajapati said `All right - but wait another 32 years.' So he waited another 32 years, and then Prajapati gave him a higher teaching. We won't go into what that was now. Again he went away satisfied. But again he became dissatisfied, and again he went back. And he was asked to wait. In those days they lived very long lives. He was asked to wait another 32 years, which he did. And again he went away and again he came back, but this time he was asked to wait only five years. Then he got the final teaching, we are told, and he realized the true self.

So look at the patience, look at the immense period of time involved, and look at how little was said. The whole episode, the whole description, occupies about two pages in the Upanishad, not more than that. But you notice also that the disciple got his results. He realized the true self. So add 32 to 32 to 32 to five - well, even if some of us were to live as long as that, I wonder if after hearing all our lectures, and reading all our books, we will be able to say ever at the end of this time, `Well, I've realized the true self, or I've realized Nirvana or the Dharmakaya or whatever else it is that we aim at realizing.' And the difference is because in those days, in that ancient system, the theory and the practice went hand in hand. Now of course the theory invariably very much outstrips the practice; and one might even go so far as to say that we don't even always get our theory itself quite right. Even that seems to go a little wrong. So it's with thoughts of this kind in mind that one sometimes hesitates to speak about the more practical side of Buddhism - because one knows that very few people are really going to take one at all seriously. They might understand, they might appreciate, but very very few are really going to try to get down to putting into practice, actually applying, what one has been trying to say, what one has been trying to explain. However, let us say that we shall try once more, make a fresh attempt at least for the sake of the completeness of our present series of talks. So let us come back to the stages of the path.

Now before we set our foot on the first of these stages, at least metaphorically of course, let us just recapitulate a little - recapitulate, that is to say, from some of our previous talks. Those who have come at all regularly, whether here or at the Buddhist Society, will have come to understand by this time that from a more philosophical, from a more metaphysical point of view, the fundamental principle of Buddhism, the one enunciated by the Buddha immediately after his Enlightenment, as the first expression in conceptual terms of that Enlightenment, is the Law, or the Truth or Reality, if you like, of universal conditionality: the truth that whatsoever there is in the universe, on whatsoever level, whether material or mental, psychic or spiritual, whatsoever arises, whatsoever comes into existence, does so in dependence upon certain conditions, and ceases when those conditions are no longer operative.

We haven't time this afternoon to go into that in detail, but what we are concerned with more specifically is the fact that there are two great forms of that law of conditionality. That is to say, the law of conditionality functions in two particular ways, or that within the law of conditionality there are two particular traits of conditionality. One of those we call the cyclical, the other we call the progressive.

By the cyclical mode of conditionality - this is something which we've touched which we've touched upon many times before, so I'm not going into it in detail - by the cyclical mode of conditionality we mean a process of action and reaction between factors which are opposites, as when you get a process of action and reaction between happiness and unhappiness, or between depression and elation, or between birth and death and then rebirth, and so on.

And then by the progressive mode or type of conditionality we mean that type or trend of conditionality wherein one gets a process of action and reaction not from one opposite factor to its opposite, but from a factor to another factor which augments or increases the influence or the intensity of the previous one - as when we get a reaction say from pleasure to happiness, from happiness to rapture, rapture to bliss and so on. This is said to be an action and reaction in a progressive order rather than in a cyclical one. So there are these two trends of conditionality operating in the universe within the one great universal law of conditionality.

Now the first type or the first trend, the cyclical, action and reaction between factors which are opposites, which as it were alternately cancel each other out, is what we call in traditional Buddhist language the samsara, mundane existence itself, as depicted especially in the Tibetan Wheel of Life. Those of you who are familiar at all with Tibetan Buddhist art will have seen pictures of the Wheel of Life a number of times. I'm not going to describe it this afternoon; I've described it often.

We're particularly concerned this afternoon with the fourth, the outermost of the four circles into which the Wheel of Life is divided. The fourth circle, as you probably remember, is divided itself into twelve segments, and these twelve segments represent the twelve nidanas, or the twelve links in the chain, as it is called, of conditioned co-production, or dependent origination. These twelve links, these twelve nidanas, explain how the whole process of life, death and rebirth takes place; and they're therefore distributed, these twelve links or twelve nidanas, over three lives - that is to say the past life, the present life and the future life. There are two nidanas belonging to the past life, eight belonging to the present, and two belonging to the future.

And the nidanas themselves - again we're recapitulating, because this is ground we've often covered, and which should be well-known by this time - the nidanas themselves, the twelve nidanas, are subdivided into cause process and result process. The two nidanas of the previous existence are what we call the cause process of the previous existence. Then the first five of the present existence are called the result process of the present existence. Then the sixth, seventh and eighth of the present existence are called the effect process of the present existence. And the last two are called the result process of the future existence. I know this sounds a little bit complicated; we ought to have a chart to illustrate it all. But those who have followed a number of lectures from the past will know what one is talking about.

Now the point which we're concerned with most of all here today is that nidana, or those two nidanas, we might say, which represent the weakest link of the chain. You know there's a saying that a chain is only as strong as the weakest link. So that's true of the nidana chain too. So where is the nidana chain weakest? Where can it be most easily broken? Paradoxically, one might say, here the weakest link is the strongest link. Now what does one mean by that? The last link, the last nidana, of the effect process of the present life is vedana or feeling. Then the first link of the cause process of the present life is trsna or craving. So the formula for these two links is `In dependence upon feeling' - pleasurable feeling especially - `there arises craving.' And it's that which keeps the whole process going - the fact that we can't see things, we can't perceive things, in a purely mirror-like way, but that craving ...

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