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Wisdom Beyond Words

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by Sangharakshita

... rather less, the asuras less still and so on, right down to the beings in states of suffering, the beings in hell, who enjoy no happiness at all, or very very little indeed. Sometimes this hierarchy of beings is understood as a hierarchy of power. And in that case the asuras are regarded as occupying a higher position than human beings, since although they are less happy than human beings, they are more powerful.

There's also a hierarchy of beauty. This hierarchy is illustrated by a well-known episode recounted in the Pali scriptures. The Buddha, as you know, had many disciples. Some were monks, some were, as it were, lay people. Some were old, some were young. And one of the Buddha's disciples was a monk, a young monk, called Sundarananda. Sundarananda left home, inspired by the Buddha's teaching; in fact he followed the Buddha into the forest. But though he had become a monk, though he had left home, though he'd followed the Buddha into the forest, he was still very attached to his former wife, who he married just a short while before going forth as a monk. His wife, we are told, was very beautiful, so it wasn't very surprising that Sundarananda, even though he'd become a monk, was still very much attached to her, and was in fact, we are told, always thinking of her. So there he was with the Buddha in the forest, sitting under a tree trying to meditate. But he just couldn't. His thoughts were always going back - back home, back to his beautiful wife, wondering `What is she doing? With whom is she talking? Does she miss me? Is she thinking about me?' So Sundarananda was in rather a state. Things were coming up, you know, for Sundarananda.

Human nature is the same, you know, all over the world, in all the centuries. So what did the Buddha do? Obviously the Buddha had to do something about it. The Buddha had to take action, maybe even drastic action. So the Buddha did take drastic action. He exerted one of his supernormal powers - powers which even the chairmen of FWBO centres don't possess. By his supernormal power the Buddha immediately, in a twinkling of an eye, he'd transported Sundarananda up into a higher heavenly world. And he showed him the inhabitants of that higher heavenly world. And among the inhabitants there were five hundred beautiful goddesses. And these goddesses were infinitely more beautiful than any human female. We're told that they were pink-footed, they were dove-footed. Because, you know, in India at least, doves, little white doves have pretty pink feet. And in India in ancient times, as well as in modern times, the ladies paint their feet pink, so that they look like little white doves, or big white doves.

So here in this higher heavenly world there were these five hundred dazzlingly beautiful goddesses, infinitely more beautiful than any human female, and all with pink feet. So when Sundarananda saw them, he was absolutely overwhelmed by this beautiful sight. And he at once lost all attachment to his wife. In fact, when he thought of his wife, she seemed in comparison with these five hundred goddesses with pink feet, she seemed positively ugly. And according to the text Sundarananda gave expression to his sense of the difference between them in a manner that might be considered rather ungallant. I won't tell you what he said.

So here we have a hierarchy of beauty: the lower earthly beauty, the higher heavenly beauty, and all the intermediate grades of beauty in between. And we find this hierarchy of beauty not only in the Buddha's teaching in the Pali canon. We find it exemplified not only in the Buddha's teaching in the Pali canon, but this conception of the hierarchy of beauty occupies a very important place in the teachings of Plato. You know, some of you at least have read Plato's Symposium, and the hierarchy of beauty is there. It features also in the somewhat later teachings of that great follower and disciple of Plato, Plotinus. There's a whole Tractata or Ennead of Plotinus simply called `On Beauty'. And this also features, the hierarchy of beauty, the earthly beauty leading upwards to the higher heavenly beauty. We also find this hierarchy of beauty figuring very importantly in the teachings of the various Sufi schools within Islam. If you read Persian Sufi mystical poetry, well, after a few lines you're sure to come across some reference to beauty in this sort of way, this sort of sense.

But in the case of Buddhism, historically speaking, even though we have that particular episode in the Pali canon, and though there are other references to beauty, even to a hierarchy of beauty, in the Buddhist scriptures, historically speaking Buddhists didn't develop this particular approach to the spiritual life. It's as though later Buddhists in the East didn't take that particular teaching of the Buddha's to heart, didn't develop it. Sometimes I wonder whether it might not be developed in the West among Western Buddhists. Because the Buddha's teachings after all are vast, oceanic, and not all those teachings have yet by any means received their full development - not in the East. And perhaps some of those teachings remain to be developed in the West. It's not that Eastern Buddhists did not, and do not, appreciate beauty. After all, they produced an enormous quantity of very fine, very great art. But they didn't recognize, it seems, that the appreciation of higher and ever higher levels of beauty can constitute a kind of spiritual path.

But be that as it may, we see that in Buddhism there are many different hierarchies. There's the cosmic hierarchy. There's the hierarchy of beings within the cosmos - the hierarchies of happiness and of power and the hierarchy of beauty, and so on. But above all in Buddhism there is the spiritual hierarchy. That is to say, in Buddhismm there is a system of person and/or states ranged according to their respective positions or degrees on the scale of - for want of a better term - spirit. And this system, this hierarchy, embraces both the conditioned and the unconditioned, both the mundane and the transcendental. Let me give you an example of this kind of hierarchy, this spiritual hierarchy - an example from Buddhist tradition. Don't try, so to speak, to memorise it; just get the feeling of a hierarchy.

In this example there are eight positions or degrees - that is to say positions or degrees on the scale of spirit. Some of you may have encountered these eight in the course of your reading. First of all, there's the prthjana or worldling, the person who is overpowered by greed, hatred and delusion, and has no higher spiritual ideals in his or her life. Then comes next, higher, the Stream-entrant - that is to say, the person who has broken the first three out of the ten fetters binding to mundane existence, who has entered the stream leading eventually to Nirvana. Such a person, we are told, will not be reborn in this world more than seven times. Then there's the once-returner, who's broken more fetters, and who will be reborn in this world more than once.

Then there's the non-returner, who doesn't come back to this world at all, but who gains full Enlightenment from a higher heavenly state. Then there's the Arhant, who's realized Nirvana, having destroyed all the fetters, and who's not reborn in any sphere again. And then sixthly there's the Pratyekabuddha. The Pratyekabuddha has no teacher, has no disciple, but is fully Enlightened. And seventhly the Bodhisattva, one who dedicates himself to full Enlightenment for the sake of all sentient beings. And eighthly and lastly the perfect Buddha.

I'm not going to give any further explanation of these terms. Some of them will be familiar to you anyway. I just want you to get the general idea of a spiritual hierarchy. Prthjana, Stream-entrant, once-returner, non-returner, Arhant, Pratyekabuddha, Bodhisattva, perfect Buddha. The great line of division here, of course, is that between the first and the second positions or degrees - that is to say between the prthjana or worldling and the Stream-entrant. The best, the most, from a spiritual point of view, that the prthjana or worldling is able to achieve is what we call in the FWBO effective Going for Refuge. That's the highest attainment, the highest achievement, of the person who is still effectively dominated by greed, hatred and delusion. The Stream-entrant achieves real Going for Refuge as we call it. The former is still mundane, whereas the latter is transcendental.

Now, corresponding to this spiritual hierarchy of persons there is a hierarchy of awarenesses or knowledges, using these words in the widest and loosest sense. In Buddhism there are a number of hierarchies of this kind - that is to say, hierarchies of awareness or knowledge. They all represent applications of the same basic principle, the principle of spiritual hierarchy, to the field of awareness or knowledge. Let me give you a few examples of these.

First of all, there's the hierarchy of what is known as the five eyes. The five eyes are the five dimensions of vision, partly physical, partly spiritual. First of all there's the fleshly eye - that is to say, the ordinary eye with which visible objects are seen. And its range is very limited.

Secondly there's the heavenly eye or divine eye. This perceives the decease and rebirth of beings in all the six realms, without meeting any obstacles, and remaining unimpeded by mountains, walls and forests. This corresponds roughly to what nowadays we usually call clairvoyance. And thirdly there's the wisdom eye. This eye cognizes the true characteristics of the various dharmas - that is to say dharmas with a small d, in the sense of ultimate elements of existence. Fourthly there's the Dharma eye. This eye is capable of knowing, with regard to individual people, by which expedient, which teaching, they can be made to find the path to liberation. And fifthly and lastly there's ...

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