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Noble Eightfold Path - Questions and Answers Tuscany 1983

by Sangharakshita

The Venerable Sangharakshita

Questions and Answers on "The Buddha's Noble Eightfold Path"
Held on the Tuscany Ordination Course 1983
Those Present: Sangharakshita, Vessantara, Devamitra, Anandajyoti, Punya, Devamitra,
Padmaraja, Ajita, Sagaramati, Ratnapani, Prasannasiddhi, Martin Redman (Vidyaratna)
Duncan Skinner (Dayaratna), Ian Wray (Advayacitta), Keith Mitchell (Vidyaraja), Chris
Pegrum (Bodhiraja), Ian Polke (Sanghaloka), Mike Howes (Satyapala), Steve Murray
(Sanghapala), Paul Lynch (Tejaratna), Agracitta, Satyadeva, Satyapriya, Viracitta,
Sanghadeva, Punyaraja.
S: So who's going to start off?
Vessantara: I'll start. I'd like to start by welcoming you on your first public appearance on this
course. (S: Thank you). So this morning we're going to have general questions arising out of
earlier, the first half of the path. I'll start with one from our group.
Talking about Perfect Vision and studying the first of the Perfect Vision Mitratas and in the
first year of Tuscany a number of people commented on the fact that sometimes Perfect
Vision seems relatively close, sometimes it seems a long way away. And it occurred to us that
there are almost two different criteria for establishing Perfect Vision. One seems to be seeing
Perfect Vision as a point from which you cannot fall back. For instance, you've talked in
terms of if you see somebody progressing steadily for 15 years, the pull of the unconditioned
becomes increasingly stronger than the pull of the conditioned, you can infer they're a Stream
Entrant. That seems to be rather closer to your model of...
S: You may be able to infer.
Vessantara: Yes, you may be able to infer (laughter). So there's a, as it were, gradual approach
which is more your grains of dust analogy. The second criteria is in terms of gaining Insight,
in overcoming subject/object duality. This seems to be a more, as it were, definite
"experience", inverted commas. If you - for instance in the last Padmaloka Men's Event you
were talking about things which were frightening. You were saying, "Well, what's really
frightening is contact with the Transcendental. My God this is it!" So it seems as if you have a
model of gaining Insight which is this gradual grains of dust. You don't even notice until
afterwards, you realize I must have become a Stream Entrant about then.
The second model which is an overcoming of subject/object duality, which you'd think would
be the sort of experience which you'd be aware of, it would be an experience of a different
order and you'd sort of know that you'd reached that point. So there seems to be a conflict
between one view of Stream Entry where it seems you can go past the point of Stream Entry
and you only realize later, and another one where it would seem you definitely know if you
had a certain kind of experience which would make you a Stream Entrant. Could you resolve
that for us?
S: I think... I don't think there are two models. I think there's still only one model. It is this old
difficulty, if you like, which is raised in the Sutra of Hui Neng - among other places - of the
apparent conflict between the gradual path and the abrupt path. I don't see any real conflict
and therefore I don't see any two models because, even when there is a question of this
gradual accumulation of grains of dust on the right side of the scale, well what is it that one is
accumulating, even though gradually? One is accumulating, even though gradually, a
transcendence, an increasing transcendence of the subject/object duality. I mean, this is what
one is basically concerned with in either of these two "models", inverted commas. In the one
case the subject/object duality seems to be resolved gradually, in the other it seems to be
resolved suddenly and abruptly. So I certainly didn't intend to convey that in the case of what
you've called the first model, there was no resolution of the subject/object duality. (blank in
tape). So what you've called the second model I didn't mean to suggest that there was no
resolution, say, so to speak, of unskilful mental states but barely the seeing through the
subject/object duality. I don't think one can really set up two models in that way.
Vessantara: So would the difficulty arise in, because one distinguishes so strongly between
the mundane and Transcendental, there's a tendency to think that attaining the Transcendental
is, is a leap, it's a jump and in a sense it is ...
S: Yes.
Vessantara: But it seems as if you, you're saying that you can, the subject and object can sort
of gradually merge, almost, to the point where you're not quite sure what point they finally
merged into one another.
S: Yes, but this is especially the case, perhaps, if Insight occurs as it, I think, usually does,
within the context of meditation where the meditation has become very refined. One is
perhaps having higher Dhyana experiences and where, therefore, the difference, the
distinction between subject and object becomes progressively attenuated to a degree where
one isn't, so to speak, sure whether there is an object as distinct from a subject, you know,
there or not. Whereas, if Insight occurs within a less refined context, let us say a non-dhyanic
context, well there is perhaps, you know, more likely to be a greater experience of abruptness
and discontinuity. (pause).
Vessantara: Sagaramati's group have a number of questions.
Sagaramati: There are actually two questions Bhante. I think they can be answered in one go.
I'll just ask the first one. It concerns the four levels of Sunyata. Do these four levels of
Sunyata each correspond to a transcendental experience, i.e. are they all deeper levels of
Perfect Vision? Do any of them correspond to insight with a small 'i', i.e. are any of them a
mundane insight or experience?
S: No, the intention was, in making that distinction which does follow tradition, is, was that
they are deepening, they do represent deepening degrees of Insight with a capital 'I'.
Sagaramati: With a capital 'I'?
S: Quite definitely.
Sagaramati: Because in our group we found the use of the word 'Sunyata' in that context as
very literalistic and didn't really correspond to the way we're trying to get a feel of what
Sunyata really means. We found it rather conceptual and very literalistic and didn't convey a
feeling of what Sunyata was trying to convey. I don't know if ( ?)
S: Well, assuming that one knew to begin with what it was trying to convey! (laughter).
Sagaramati: You have used the word like the "open dimension" and a ...
S: Well yes, I borrowed the expression "open dimension of being" from Guenther. I've used it
occasionally. But I have said that I have found, I do find, the whole tradition a very
conceptual Indian approach to the communication of the experience of Sunyata - I won't say
misleading, but, perhaps you know, not always very helpful and I think I have said on several
occasions, well recently, that I think it's helpful to think of Sunyata, rather the concept of
Sunyata, as trying to communicate, as trying to establish the fact that experience, I won't even
say Reality, but experience is essentially incommunicable. That there is something that
escapes communication, that escapes verbal communication, that escapes, you know,
conceptual construction and so on. That things in general, experience is empty, in the sense
that it's empty of any definitive concept which successfully communicates what it really is.
Sagaramati: How are we, we thought (I don't know whether it was we or me (laughter), I
mean, like the first one, you see that the conditioned is empty of any of the characteristics of
the unconditioned. Well, as the Insight is meant to be a transcending of the subject/object
dichotomy, that seemed a rather dualistic way at looking at what is really Insight.
S: Well if one is to speak at all one cannot but speak dualistically. For instance, I said a few
moments ago that one realizes that (well I mean, there is, strictly speaking, no one there to
realize, I mean that anything is anything. So if one is going to have recourse to words at all or
to concepts at all, one cannot but express oneself dualistically, that must be understood. So I
think it's the same here.
I think that that is a very useful way of approaching things, that the conditioned is empty of
the characteristics of the unconditioned. I think we're in fact on quite firm ground here. We're
really dealing with the viparyasas because, I mean, one of the main sources of human
confusion and suffering, if not the main source, is that they look, for what they, you know,
want to find, where in fact it cannot be found. And this is all that this first degree of Sunyata
is really saying. But it's saying a very great deal, it's saying a lot. That you cannot in fact find
unconditioned happiness in anything which is conditioned. That that kind of happiness,
unchanging happiness, is not a feature, not a characteristic, not a quality of anything that is
conditioned, but this is of course what we're doing all the time. We're expecting to derive that
unconditioned happiness which we seek from something which is conditioned, whatever that
may be. So this is really quite practical and, as I've said, down to earth, so it is very useful to
think in that sort of way.
Sagaramati: There again I mean, going on what you've said ...

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