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The Stages of the Spiritual Path

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by Sangharakshita

... unsatisfactory and there's a vague sort of restlessness inside us: it's not that we're actually suffering pain all the time, but we're just not really happy, we're not really at rest, we're not really serene, we feel some sort of vague discomfort all the time and we can't really settle down, we don't really feel that we belong, we feel perhaps in the words of the Bible that 'here we have no abiding city'. This is the sort of sensation, this is the sort of experience that arises.

So we start at first, almost unconsciously, looking for something else, looking for something other, searching for something higher. And at first we very often don't know what it is that we are looking for. This is the paradoxical situation in which we find ourselves. We don't know what we want but we're looking for it. We're looking, but we don't know what it is that we are looking for. There's just this vague sort of restlessness, groping and feeling around in all directions, perhaps, for it knows not what.

But eventually, searching in this sort of way, if it can be called indeed searching, we come into contact with something, for want of a better term, we label something spiritual. Now this word 'spiritual' is not a word that I really like, but we don't seem to have in English a better one. But I use this to mean something higher, or something which gives us a glimpse of something higher, something which is not of this world, something which is even, as the idiom goes, out of this world. And when we come into contact with it, howsoever we come into contact with it, at once there comes from us a response. We get the feeling, at least an inkling of a feeling, that this is what I am looking for, or this is what I have in fact been looking for, searching for all the time, even though I did not know it when I was actually searching.

So this sort of response to this spiritual something, when we first come into contact with it, this sort of emotional response, if you like, this is what, in the context of Buddhist tradition, we call Faith. And it's in this way that in dependence upon suffering, in dependence upon unsatisfactoriness, there arises Faith. The original word is Sraddha. We translate it as Faith, but it isn't Faith in the sense of belief, it isn't Faith in the sense of believing to be true something which cannot be rationally demonstrated. If we want a definition of Faith we may say that it is the response, even the emotional response of what is ultimate in us to what is ultimate in the universe. And for Buddhism Faith means specifically faith in the Three Jewels - faith in the Buddha, the Enlightened Teacher, faith in the Dharma, the Path or the Way leading to Enlightenment, and faith in the Sangha, the Spiritual Community, of those who are treading the Path leading ultimately to Enlightenment. And these three, the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha, represent for Buddhism, the highest values of existence. This is why they are called the Three Jewels, in the same way that jewels are the most precious things in the material world, similarly the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha are the three most precious things, the three highest values in the spiritual world.

So it is in this way we see, according to this formula, that in dependence upon suffering, in dependence upon our experience of the unsatisfactoriness of conditioned existence that there arises faith, in the sense of this intuitive, this emotional, even this mystical response to something higher, something supreme, something of ultimate value, when we first come into contact with it. And here we see the very beginnings of the spiritual life, the first step upon the Spiritual Path, the first stage in fact, of that Path.

And then secondly, dependent upon Faith arises Joy. This is the second stage, Faith developing 3 into Joy. After all, we have found what we were looking for. We might not have been able to seize hold of it, but at least we've had a glimpse of it, at least we've seen it, even behind a cloud, as it were. So naturally, after perhaps a period of long searching, long struggling, long discontent, we are pleased and happy and satisfied and contented. And we may even say more than that. Our contact with the spiritual, our contact with the higher values, which, for Buddhism, are represented by, in fact incarnate in, the Three Jewels, the Buddha, the Dharma, the Sangha, this contact has begun to transform our lives. It isn't something intellectual, it isn't something theoretical, our hearts have actually been lifted up, this is what the word Sraddha literally means, a lifting up of the heart, a cersum corda you may say, have been lifted up to something higher, have touched something higher, have experienced, even if only for a moment, something higher.

And on account of that contact, however brief, however electrical, as it were, a change begins to take place; we begin to be, we begin to become, just a little bit less self-centred. Our egoity is just a little disturbed, a little shaken up, and we become, or we begin to become, just a little bit more generous, a little bit more outward going. We tend not to hang onto things so very closely or so very convulsively. And what we may describe as the lower part of our nature, that part of our human nature which belongs to the lower evolution, that starts coming under the conscious control of that higher part of our nature which belongs to the Higher Evolution. And things like food, things like sleep, things like sex, begin to come under the control of that higher nature. Not only that, but we begin to lead a life which is more harmless and more simple than our life was before. And this too makes us feel more happy and more contented: we feel more at ease within ourselves, we don't rely so much upon external things. We don't need external things, we don't need material things so much as we used to do; we can do without them: we don't care if we haven't go a beautiful house in the suburbs, a beautiful car and all the rest of it, we sit very loose to all those things and we're much more free, we're much more detached than we were before, and we are at peace with ourselves.

But we may not have fully found, may not have fully discovered or explored what we were looking for, but we've made contact with it, we know that it is there, and that contact has at least begun to transform our lives, making us as I've said, less self-centred, more generous, and bringing our lower nature at least a little bit under control. We have a good conscience but there's no complacency, of course. And Buddhism I would say attaches very great importance indeed to this particular stage. It attaches very great importance to our having, we may say, a good and a clear conscience, feeling happy and joyful on account of our spiritual life. And this is certainly one of the things that you can notice in the East, certainly in the Buddhist East, that there, religious life, spiritual life, is much more associated with joy than it is in the West. In the West we tend to think that to be religious you must be at least a bit gloomy, or at least serious, keep a straight face, and certainly not laugh in church, or anything like that, that would be regarded as very improper. But it isn't like that in the East. There they tend to think that if you're a Buddhist or if you're leading a spiritual life, or you're following the spiritual Path, you should be more happy, more open and more carefree, more joyful than other people, and religious festivals and celebrations and occasions of that sort are occasions of joy, and I have more than once remarked on the fact that I was very, very surprised when I came back to this country after twenty years in the East, and found that the Buddhist movement was on the whole in this country such a gloomy and such a serious affair, with people hardly daring even to smile when you made a joke in the course of a lecture. This is how it was. I'm not going to elaborate on this or go into details, I have done that on other occasions. But the point which I am trying to make is that if you have found this something very precious that you were looking for, and if it has really begun to work in your life and has begun to transform it, well why should you not be happy? If you're not, if you're not happier than other people who haven't got this wonderful thing called Buddhism, who haven't got these Three Jewels, if you're not more happy than them, well, what's the use of being a Buddhist? or what does being a Buddhist or taking refuge in the Three Jewels mean? So if people who come into contact with those who have discovered this something, and who have discovered, so they believe, the Three Jewels, ought to feel that these people are more happy than people that you normally meet, and if they're not, well one can only put the question, well why not? 4 So much importance does Buddhism attach to this stage, of feeling happy and carefree and at peace with oneself, having a good clear conscience, and to be able to go about with a little song on your lips, as it were, that if for any reason, or on any account, you lapse from this, maybe you've done something that you shouldn't have done, so you get all sad and serious, you start beating your breast in the good old pre-Buddhistic fashion, and thinking what a terrible sinner you've been, and Buddhism says this is a very unhealthy state to be in, this state of guilt and remorse, having a bad conscience: the sooner you get out of it the better. It doesn't mean that what you did wasn't wrong - yes, it was wrong, yes you made a mistake, and you'd better admit that and own up to it and try to make up for it and not do it again. But once you've understood, and once you've tried to put it right, just put it out of your mind, just forget it and just walk on.

I hope I'm not stealing anyone's thunder using this phrase, but it just came - 'just walk on' - and ...

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