Saturday, May 15, 2010

Kenneth Folk and Joel Groover - The Power of Progress: The Four Paths of Enlightenment

Nice discussion between Kenneth Folk and Joel Groover over at Buddhist Geeks on the Four Stages of Enlightenment.

As most regular readers here know, I am a skeptic in terms of reincarnation, which is the foundational belief system in this model of enlightenment stages. Still, there are interesting elements in the discussion, even for skeptics.

As a quick reminder, here is the basic progression, from Wikipedia:


The first stage is that of Sotāpanna (Pali; Sanskrit: Srotāpanna), literally meaning "one who enters (āpadyate) the stream (sotas)," with the stream being the Noble Eightfold Path regarded as the highest Dharma. The stream-enterer is also said to have "opened the eye of the Dharma" (dhammacakkhu, Sanskrit: dharmacakṣus).

A stream-enterer usually reaches enlightenment within seven successive rebirths upon opening the eye of the Dharma.

Due to the fact that the stream-enterer has attained an intuitive grasp of Buddhist doctrine (samyagdṛṣṭi or sammādiṭṭhi, "right view"), and has complete confidence or Saddha in the Three Jewels: Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha, he will not be reborn in any of the unhappy states or rebirths (an animal, a preta, or in hell).


The second stage is that of the Sakadāgāmī (Sanskrit: Sakṛdāgāmin), literally meaning "one who once (sakṛt) comes (āgacchati)". The once-returner will return to the human world only one more time, and will attain Nirvana in that life.


The third stage is that of the Anāgāmī (Sanskrit: Anāgāmin), literally meaning "one who does not (an-) come (āgacchati)". The non-returner does not come back into human existence, or any lower world, after death. Instead, he is reborn in one of the worlds of the Rūpadhātu called the Śuddhāvāsa worlds, or "Pure Abodes", where he will attain Nirvāṇa; Pāli: Nibbana; some of them are reborn a second time in a higher world of the Pure Abodes.

An Anāgāmī has abandoned the five lower fetters that bind the mind to the cycle of rebirth. An Anāgāmī is thus partially enlightened, and on the way to perfect and complete Enlightenment.


The fourth stage is that of Arahant, a fully enlightened being who has abandoned all fetters, and who upon death (Sanskrit: Parinirvāṇa, Pāli: Parinibbāna) will not be reborn in any world, having wholly abandoned saṃsāra.[2] [3]

If you want more on each stage, go check out the main articles.

With that foundation, here is the discussion.

The Power of Progress: The Four Paths of Enlightenment

The Power of Progress: The Four Paths of Enlightenment

12. May, 2010 by Kenneth Folk and Joel Groover

“At every level the flavor of the Teaching is of a single nature, the flavor of freedom. It is only the degree to which this flavor is enjoyed that differs, and the difference in degree is precisely proportional to the extent of one’s practice.” – Bhikkhu Bodhi

Kenneth Folk: You asked about the Four Paths and the Progress of Insight, so let’s talk about them.

Joel Groover: OK. So for me it has been kind of a revelation and… you know, it is funny to me. I’ve done a lot of reading of the magazines and dharma books and it was still a revelation that, actually, that these things are real—that these, the Paths, are actually something that people attain. I was really unaware of that. And now, I had studied in a Tibetan tradition when I was younger and took a class on Buddhism, but the Paths were presented, the Paths and Bhumis, along with like the nagas, the water spirits. It was just so bound up in … and this just may be my fault. I was a logical positivist at heart and maybe not listening carefully, but I didn’t really take this seriously.

KF: When I first began thinking about enlightenment, it was after my own first opening in 1982. And when I read about enlightenment it was mostly from the Zen point of view. A person could be forgiven for reading about Zen and concluding that enlightenment is just something that some people believe—in other words, that it is not an objective phenomenon, but just another thing to believe. Because the way it is sometimes presented in Zen, it sounds like an airy fairy, nebulous kind of wisdom that… it is a little bit hard to tell the difference between that and, say, any kind of religion.

JG: I heard one Zen student say, “Well, enlightenment is just moment to moment. You can be enlightened in one moment and not in the next.” What do you think of that?

KF: It is true from a particular point of view, from a particular perspective. From what I call the 3rd Gear perspective, that is true. There is only this moment. This moment is either awake or it isn’t. From another perspective, from the developmental perspective of 1st Gear, that is not at all true. There is an objective, developmental reality that is just as real as your body, to the extent that you can even say this body is real, which again is a matter of perspective, because it is possible to see this body arising and passing away in the mind.

But once you accept that this body is real, you can also accept that there is a developmental process that we call enlightenment, and it unfolds in a very predictable way. Although there are infinite variations depending upon… you can think about deep structure versus surface structure, which is a Noam Chomsky idea. Every human being has a face and most of us have two eyes and a nose and two ears, and so to a certain extent we are all the same, but within that structure, that deep structure of the basic face, there’s so much variation that you can recognize any of the several billion people on earth by the individual quirks of their face.

So we have deep structure and surface structure. The same thing applies to development, to just about any kind of human development. For example, every human being starts out as a fetus and is born an infant, becomes a toddler and adolescent, and eventually becomes a grown-up, should they be so fortunate to survive that long. And that is something we take for granted: that this development just happens in this particular order. Well, why does it happen in this order? Couldn’t it just be chaotic?

But the fact is, it is not chaotic. So when you think about the mind in the same terms, you can see that the mind develops, too. And there is a kind of development of the mind that is optional. Most people won’t ever experience it. If you just look at the raw numbers of all humans, most people will never get this kind of development we are talking about right now, which we are calling enlightenment. And they might not even believe it exists.

But it does exist, and it is just as real as this body.

JG: I hope this isn’t too big a subject, but do you consider the development process that you’re talking about to be wholly material in nature, in that there is no transcendent dimension to it and it could be eventually parsed out by physiologists if they could understand what was going on? Or is it something more mysterious and perhaps spiritual in nature, I guess you could say?

KF: Ultimately it is very mysterious because if you take it far enough, the entire universe is arising and passing away in the mind in this moment—all of this is happening within awareness; all of this is not other than awareness. So it is very mysterious. It certainly can be seen from the point of view of spirituality, and at the same time it can also be thought of, at least the developmental aspect of it, in a materialistic way.

In fact, I think of the developmental process of enlightenment as a physio-energetic process. The reason I say that, there is something quasi-physiological about it. “Quasi,” because apparently scientists cannot measure this energy that yogis experience and that is variously referred to as ki or chi or kundalini.

JG: Yes. Now my friend the neurologist, for example, will say, “Absolutely, thought is a material process. It is the brain acting upon itself.” And so it makes sense to him that cessation of thought in meditation, for example, would have a direct physiological correlate or experience. But talk about chi or prana and he starts to sneer. And he does not even believe that acupuncture works through any kind of energetic system but is just… I can’t remember the term he used for that, but it has to do with manipulation of the standard nervous system and pain-response, that sort of thing.

I don’t know if this is getting into tangential territory, but it is relevant, isn’t it? Because you are talking about an actual developmental process that does involve what traditionally has been called prana or kundalini energy, right?

KG: Yes. And we might do better not to be too eager to sneer. If you look at the history of science, if you sneer at anything that cannot be measured, you look foolish later because we keep finding ways to measure things we previously could not. It is certainly possible that someday we will find a way to measure kundalini.

JG: And to be fair, he is mostly upset about medical claims made—you know, “Put on these magnetic bracelets and your chi will do this or that.” He sees the real-world consequences of people excepting on faith the purported medical benefits of…

KF: I would have to agree with him that there is a lot of foolishness going on, basically having to do with selling people things. So yeah, I’m not so sure about magnetic bracelets. On the other hand, maybe I’m the fool and later we will find out that I sneered too soon. [laughs]

So with regard to kundalini, the important thing to me is that I do experience something that is very suspiciously similar to what other yogis have been writing about for thousands of years, and that my contemporaries also talk about. Now whether you embrace kundalini or not, there is something going on—there is a development going on and it is happening in a particular order. It doesn’t matter who the yogi is; the sequence of events cuts across individuals, traditions, and cultures. So that brings us to the Four Paths of Enlightenment as developed by Theravada Buddhism.

So we say that Theravada Buddhism has a particular system of understanding enlightenment, but it is important to point out that enlightenment is not unique to Theravada Buddhism. We are just talking about their way of describing it.

So they have mapped four “Paths,” or four levels of enlightenment. The “Path” word has to be clarified because in this context it is a technical term that refers to having attained a particular landmark of development. It does not mean the journey or the path leading up to that moment.

Any time somebody says First Path, Second Path, Third Path, they are talking about these developmental landmarks. So at First Path, also known as stream entry, the yogi is someone who has attained that particular developmental landmark called First Path. We’re not talking about a person working up to First Path, so it is a little bit confusing. After attaining First Path, a yogi is actually working toward Second Path.

Now within those four Paths, the territory can be further subdivided into the 16 Insight Knowledges. Altogether, this process that includes the 16 Insight Knowledges is called the Progress of Insight. So the Progress of Insight is a big deal in developmental enlightenment because it helps a teacher understand where a yogi is and, based on that understanding, to give targeted advice to tweak the practice to be more efficient.

Let’s talk about the Progress of Insight as it unfolds between the very beginning, a beginning yogi, and the time that that yogi attains First Path. Because once you understand the Progress of Insight, you have a very profound understanding of how your own mind is set up. I talked about how there are 16 Insight Knowledges, 16 subdivisions within the Progress of Insight. But there is a simpler way to pack it up, which is to divide the Progress of Insight into fourths. The first thing that happens is you are doing what Bill Hamilton called a “slow stirring of the mud,” trying to see what is going on in your own mind. Second, there is a time when the mind opens up and you are able to see the workings of your own mind on a moment-by-moment basis and see that things are arising and passing away in your mind.

That particular opening is called the Arising and Passing Away of Phenomena, often abbreviated to the “A&P.” The A&P is crucial to this whole thing, because before the A&P you are not really doing vipassana. You are doing the technique but you’re not penetrating the object, and so things seem solid. At the point of the Arising and Passing Away, everything can be seen to be made up of smaller phenomena that are coming and going momentarily—you just keep digging and drilling down, and you just keep uncovering things that are changing constantly.

Go read the whole discussion at the Buddhist Geeks site.

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