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The Stages of the Spiritual Path

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by Sangharakshita

Lecture 34: The Stages of the Spiritual Path

Friends, if we look at Buddhism in a very general way, we see that it can be looked at from a number of different points of view, and especially I think that we can say that we can look at it principally from two points of view. We can look at it from a more theoretical point of view, a point of view which is more philosophical, if you like even speculative, and we can also look at it from a point of view which is more practical, even pragmatic.

Now this evening we are going to be concerned, in fact we are going to be very much concerned, with the practical aspect of Buddhism. For the time being we are going to leave aside the philosophy, leave aside the theory, and we are going to concern ourselves with that which is pre-eminently practical; we are going to try to understand this evening something at least of the stages of the spiritual path. And after all, hardly anything from a Buddhist point of view could be more practical than that.

But before we start on the path itself, just a few words, a few more general words of explanation.

What we call Buddhism, but what in the East is more generally known as the Dharma, the Truth, or the Teaching, or even the Doctrine, was founded, as we saw yesterday and also the day before yesterday, was founded by Gautama the Buddha. And as we saw in the first of our lectures of this retreat, the name, or rather the title Buddha, means simply, 'The One who knows', or, as we more usually translate it or more usually render it, it means 'the Awakened', or 'the Enlightened One', and the state of Buddhahood or the state of Enlightenment may be described as a state of absolute moral and spiritual perfection.

It is also, as Buddhism emphasises most strongly, a state which is within the reach of each and every individual human being. If Buddhism emphasises anything, it emphasises that each of us, if we only make the effort, can become, as the Buddha himself became, one who knows, one who is enlightened, one who is awake. And this is the great hope, this is in fact the glorious prospect, that Buddhism holds out to each and every human being, that they too can become Buddhas, that they too can become enlightened or awake. And what we call Buddhism is not just a religion, not just a religious teaching, but it is primarily the path on the way to this attainment, to this attainment of Buddhahood or Enlightenment or Nirvana, or whatever else we may choose to call it. And what we describe as the stages of the spiritual path or what Buddhism describes as the stages of the ? are simply the successive stages, if you like, accumulative stages, in our progress to that state of enlightenment.

Now these stages are laid down, these stages are demarcated, not in accordance with any purely objective or external criterion. These stages are psychological, they are dictated, as it were, by the very nature, by the very structure, of our own experience, our own spiritual experience, and they represent, the stages of the spiritual path, represent, we may say, a certain sequence of experience, one experience arising, then, in dependence upon another, just as out of the bud grows the flower, out of the flower the fruit, so, in the same way, out of one spiritual experience there grows or there blossoms another, out of that yet another, out of that another still, and with the twelve factors and eleven stages of the spiritual path each succeeding one higher, more refined, more beautiful, a little nearer, we may say, to Nirvana. So the whole series, the whole sequence of stages, of the states, is progressive and is cumulative.

Now this evening, we are going to deal, somewhat briefly, with twelve stages, twelve stages of the spiritual path, each stage arising in dependence upon, or conditioned by, the proceeding stage.

There are other formulations of the path: there are other enumerations of the stages of the Spiritual Path. We hear, for instance, as you know very well, of the Noble Eightfold Path, with its eight stages, or eight aspects. We also hear of the threefold path of Ethics, Meditation and Wisdom. We hear of the Path of the Paramitas, the Perfections to be practised by the Bodhisattva, either six or ten in number. But this evening we are concerned with the twelve successive stages, or twelve successive steps of the Spiritual Path, because this particular formulation exhibits more clearly perhaps than any other formulation, the nature of the Spiritual Path itself.

1 So we shall take up these stages one by one and try to understand what they all represent. We may say by way of introduction, we may say that each of these stages as enumerated in the scriptures represents an experience, a spiritual experience in process of transition to an experience more advanced still. It's as though, it is suggested, it's as though it's put to us that the experience is not something fixed and static, it's not really like a step in a staircase or on a ladder: it's all the time in process of developing into, growing into, something greater than itself. We speak of the spiritual path, but we mustn't be misled by metaphors. It isn't that the spiritual path is something fixed and rigid, and we just go up it - we move but the path remains stationary - it isn't like that. The path itself flows, we may say, the path itself grows, just like a plant grows, just like a flower grows, and one stage passes over into the next, so there's a constant upward movement, a movement of ascension. And this we shall see made clear in the very formulae with which the stages of the path are described; and if we traverse these stages, if we try to understand these experiences, which are continually merging into higher experiences still, then we shall find that we have, as it were, or that we've arrived at what we may describe as a sort of progressive phenomenology of the spirit.

Now the first stage of the spiritual path is described in the texts in the following formula: the formula says: dependent upon suffering arises faith. This is where the spiritual path begins: dependent upon suffering arises faith. So here we have two experiences: we have an experience of suffering and we have another experience which is called the experience of faith. And we are further told by this formulation that the former experience, suffering, gives rise to the latter, that is to say, gives rise to faith.

Now what does this mean? How does this come about? What in any case is meant by suffering? By suffering is meant here not just individual painful experiences, when you have say toothache, or when you cut your finger, or when someone disappoints you very bitterly. These are painful experiences, but it isn't just experiences of this kind that the text means when it speaks of faith arising out of suffering. By suffering here is meant, rather, unsatisfactoriness, the original word is duhkha, and I sometimes point out that one of the traditional explanations of the word duhkha, which we usually translate as suffering, is this: the prefix 'du' means 'ill', or bad; or 'incorrect' or 'improper', and the suffix 'kha' is the same word or part of a word that we find in the word 'cakra' which means 'wheel'. So 'duhkha' is sometimes traditionally explained - this may not be etymologically correct in the scientific sense - which throws a great deal of light on the Buddhistic meaning of the term - it's very often described as being originated from a chariot wheel which fits badly - du kha - the ill-fitting chariot wheel.

Now if you have an ill-fitting chariot wheel and you are driving along, even galloping along in that chariot, then what happens? You have a very bumpy journey, a very uncomfortable journey - there were no springs on chariots in ancient India. So, if you were so unfortunate as to be driving along - and in any case there were no proper roads - driving along in a chariot, the wheel of which was ill-fitting, loose, wobbly, then you had a very rough, and a very rocky journey, a very uncomfortable journey.

So duhkha, unsatisfactoriness, which we usually translate as suffering, means the sort of discomfort which arises in the course of our lives when things don't fit properly, when they don't work together properly, when there's a lot of jarring, when there's a lot of discomfort arising out of that jarring sensation. So this is really what is meant by duhkha. In other words it means a sort of disharmony that we experience, the jarring quality that we experience in the course of our everyday life in this world. And we all know what this sort of thing means.

We all know that things are never altogether 100 per cent right. There's always something, even if it's only a little something, that goes wrong. Even in the course of the most beautiful day, it seems, only too often, a cloud has to float across the face of the sky. Something goes wrong: maybe you've prepared very expectantly for a very beautiful day: you're going to meet somebody whom you liked, things were going to be so lovely, so beautiful. But then some absurd incident happens and it all goes wrong, and you feel completely out of tune, completely jangled, as it 2 were, by whatever has happened. And this is our experience of life very often most of the time, and this is how we go through life, with this sort of experience. We find that everything from which we expected so much fails and doesn't live up to our expectations. So this sort of experience is what is called 'duhkha', unsatisfactoriness, or suffering.

So then what happens? We start becoming ? dissatisfied, we start feeling that nothing is going to give us any real or true or lasting satisfaction. We might have tried all sorts of things - we might have tried worldly success, we might have tried pleasure, might have tried comfort and luxury, might have tried wealth, learning - but in the end we find them ...

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