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On the Threshold of Enlightenment

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by Sangharakshita

Aspects of the Bodhisattva Ideal

Lecture 70: On the Threshold of Enlightenment It's for five weeks now that we've allowed ourselves to be carried along by a great stream. By the stream of the Bodhisattva Ideal. And week by week we have managed to travel just a little farther. And as we've travelled, week by week, we have seen that the stream has (as it were) broadened, widened. And we know that when this happens, or when this begins to happen, we eventually reach a point when the stream, when the river, is so broad, so wide, that we don't quite know, we aren't sure, whether we are still in the stream, or whether we have not started entering the great ocean. So this is the point that we reach today. Today we stand, in imagination at least, on the Threshold of Enlightenment.

And in order to come to this point, in order to be able to take up this position, we have had to cover, in the course of the last five weeks, quite a lot of distance. We've seen unfold, week by week, many different aspects of the Bodhisattva Ideal. We've seen how the Bodhisattva is the ideal Buddhist, one who lives for the sake of the Enlightenment, the supreme Enlightenment, of all sentient beings whatsoever. That he is the embodiment, the living embodiment, of Wisdom and Compassion. And we've also seen in some detail that one becomes a Bodhisattva, one is born as a Bodhisattva, by virtue of the arising of what is called the Bodhicitta, often translated as "Thought of Enlightenment", but we saw that it is in fact something much more, something much greater than that; not just an idea, not just a concept of Enlightenment in somebody's mind, not even in the Bodhisattva's mind, but something Transcendental, something universal. The Bodhicitta is only one, but individual Bodhisattvas participate in that one Bodhicitta, each to the measure of his capacity. And this Bodhicitta arises in a man or in a woman, transforming them into a Bodhisattva, in dependence upon certain conditions. And in this connection we examined Shantideva's Supreme Worship, as set of seven conditions in dependence upon which the Bodhicitta arises, as well as Vasubandhu's Four Factors, in dependence upon which the Bodhicitta arises.

And further we have seen in the course of the last so many weeks, that though the Bodhicitta itself is universal, the Bodhisattva is an individual being. And the Bodhicitta therefore expresses itself, universal though it may be, in his life and in his work, in a thoroughly individual, if not in a unique, manner. And this individual, this unique expression, of the Bodhicitta, in the life and in the work of the individual Bodhisattva, it's what we describe, what is known in the Buddhist tradition as, the Bodhisattva's Vow. And though we speak in fact of the Bodhisattva's Vow in the singular, in reality it is plural. And there are, you may recollect, several famous sets of vows, especially the Four Great Vows of the Bodhisattva, which we examined in detail.

We have seen, even, more than all this. We've seen that the Bodhisattva Ideal represents a union of opposites.

In general it represents a union of the mundane and the Transcendental, Samsara and Nirvana. And more specifically it represents a union of the altruistic and the individualistic aspects of the spiritual life, as well as the masculine and the feminine approaches.

Now you may recollect that the first pair of opposites, that is to say the altruistic and individualistic aspects of the spiritual life, are represented, in the context of the Bodhisattva Ideal, the Bodhisattva Path, by dana (or giving) and sila (or uprightness), which are of course the first two paramitas, the first two perfections or Transcendental virtues to be practised by the Bodhisattva.

And the second pair of opposites, that is to say the masculine and feminine approaches to the spiritual life, these are represented by the second pair of paramitas, the second pair of perfections: ksanti (or patience) and virya (which is vigour or energy).

Now all of these we studied in some detail. We saw, for example, what was the Buddhist attitude, the traditional Buddhist attitude, towards such things as food, work, and marriage. We saw that the conservation and unification of energy was one of the central problems of the spiritual life. We saw that the Bodhisattva is a spiritually bisexual being. And so on.

And today we come to a pair of opposites still more rarefied, and we shall be seeing how the Bodhisattva synthesises them in his life and his work, and his spiritual experience. And this still more rarefied pair of- opposites is represented by dhyana on the one hand, and Prajna on the other, that is to say by meditation, in the widest sense, and Wisdom. And these two are of course the last two paramitas. The fifth and the sixth of the perfections, of the Transcendental virtues, to be practised by the Bodhisattva. And inasmuch as this lecture deals with the last two paramitas, with the last two perfections or Transcendental virtues, it is entitled "On the Threshold of Enlightenment" because that is where we find ourselves when we practise, whether separately or together, Wisdom and meditation, meditation and Wisdom. These two between them represent the consummation of what is known as the 'establishment aspect' of the Bodhicitta.

Now it's very difficult to know where to begin. We have here two vast subjects: Meditation and Wisdom. One could well speak on either of these for a very long time, and perhaps not succeed in saying, in comparison with the enormity, the greatness, of the subject matter, really very much. In any case there's no question of trying to treat these two subjects exhaustively. All that can be offered in the course of the next forty-five or fifty minutes is a more or less connected account of certain topics of importance.

Now, first of all: dhyana. Dhyana. We've translated this as meditation, which will do; it's good enough for practical purposes. But the term dhyana, like so many other Indian, Buddhist, Sanskrit and Pali terms, is really untranslatable. But we shan't go very far wrong if we consider it as comprising two things: First of all what we may describe as higher states of consciousness. This is one of the meanings of dhyana, simply higher states of consciousness, supernormal states of consciousness, states of consciousness above and beyond those of our ordinary everyday waking mind. And secondly dhyana covers not only the higher states of consciousness themselves, but the various practices leading to the experience of these higher, these supernormal states of consciousness.

Now these higher states, these supernormal states of consciousness themselves, are of two kinds, very broadly speaking. On the one hand one has those higher states of consciousness which are still mundane, and on the other hand those which are truly Transcendental. What this distinction really means we shall see perhaps a little later on. We're going to deal with each of these topics in turn.

First of all, the higher states of consciousness, or the superconscious states. In Buddhist literature, in Buddhist tradition, there are quite a number of lists of these. And these lists, these sets (as it were), represent different levels within the higher consciousness, or different dimensions of the higher consciousness. And today we're going to concern ourselves with three lists. And these are: 'The Four Dhyanas of the World of Form', 'The Four Formless Dhyanas', and 'The Three Gates of Liberation'. These are the traditional terms, and the meaning I hope will emerge, will be disclosed, as we progress. And if we go through these three lists, then we shall have some idea of the whole subject; some idea of what dhyana, in the sense of higher states of consciousness, really means.

But we have to remember all the time that though we may understand what is said perfectly well, this is no substitute for our own first hand experience.

Now first of all, 'The Four Dhyanas of the World of Form'. And traditionally there are two descriptions of these, or two ways of describing these, two ways of looking at these. One way in terms of psychological analysis - trying to understand what psychological factors are present in each of these higher states of consciousness, or superconscious states. The other approach, the other method of description, is in terms of images. Even visual images. And these two descriptions of these higher states of consciousness, one in terms of psychological analysis, the other in terms of images, these correspond to the two principal modes (as we may call them) of human communication, or the two principal languages which we use, or may use. One of course is the language of ideas, the language of concepts. It's this sort of language which is spoken by science and by philosophy. And then there is the language of images, the language, if you like, of mental pictures, the language even of archetypes, comprising such things as metaphors, myth, and symbol, and so on. Now Buddhism, as we've seen on other occasions, uses both of these languages. It speaks on occasions the language of concepts, of abstract ideas, abstract thought. And on occasions also it speaks the language of images, of myth, of symbol, of mental pictures. And both of these languages are of equal importance. One of these languages, that is to say the language of concepts, this appeals more to the conscious mind, to our conscious rational intelligence. But the other language, the language of images, which is much more concrete, much more vivid, much more pictorial - in a way much more deeply moving - this appeals to the unconscious depths within ourselves.

Now most modern expositions of Buddhism, of the Buddha's ...

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