Wisdom: Getting it Done

You have worked on getting your act together and are perfecting morality. You have sat in meditation and are starting to experience deep concentration and are beginning to investigate your experience in the moment. Now you are ready to move toward the deepest, most profound experience a human being can have: enlightenment, or what I call “getting it done.”

The whole trajectory of the Dharma leads the meditator toward enlightenment. Practitioners often want to ask “…what is enlightenment?” but are afraid to do so because teachers can be evasive or even dismissive of students who ask such questions. But it is absolutely a fair question. After all, the practice of perfecting morality and deepening meditation can be a tremendous amount of work, and while there is a lot of talk among some teachers and meditators about doing practice for its own sake, there is nothing wrong with wanting to know what enlightenment is and why it is so special. Monks give up all the normal comforts of life to pursue it, and even lay practitioners will withstand intense deprivation and difficulty if it means getting closer to enlightenment (sometimes with tragic results). Before the Internet, people would literally travel around the world, climb mountains and walk hundreds of miles to learn how to become enlightened from somebody who was rumored to have done it. Clearly, enlightenment is worthwhile, but what is it?

This is where the Dharma begins to break down under the inexpressibility of what is being taught. It is where the teachings begin to sound mystical and nonsensical to students. The reason for this is that we are attempting to understand enlightenment with the mind, and the mind is just not good at getting it. Your mind cannot really grasp enlightenment in the same way that your hand cannot reach out and grasp “love” or “boredom” – it is just not able to work in that way. The mind deals in concepts, symbols and representations, but what happens during enlightenment is strictly non-conceptual. Language can’t express it and it can’t be represented in an image. This is why when students asked the Buddha what enlightenment is he simply gave them a very long explanation of what it isn’t. Even he, probably the best teacher ever on the topic, couldn’t explain it.

So the hard truth is that no one can simply say what it is. While I cannot express what enlightenment is in a way that the mind can actually grasp, what I can say is this: the predominant experience of enlightenment is one of relief. When I asked my teacher, Kenneth Folk, about it he explained that, “You just feel done”. This might not sound like anything special, and it isn’t – and yet at the same time it really is (see how confusing this can get?).

I’m not a big fan of “faith.” It is not something that I recommend to people who are serious about waking up. After all, to lay the groundwork for enlightenment, you need to investigate your experience with the precision and clarity of a scientist. Faith can create expectations that obscure honest observations. However, when it comes to waking up, some faith is needed.

How do I get enlightened?

Strictly speaking, “you” never get enlightened. Enlightenment is very impersonal, and does not really happen to an individual. It happens when the awareness that mistakenly thinks it is an individual is liberated from that illusion. It is a bit misleading (but I believe useful) to describe enlightenment as “getting it done” because there is no “self” that can actually make this happen. Rather, the “self” creates the conditions under which insight can ripen into a full-blown realization. After enlightenment it becomes clear that while the path to enlightenment was traveled by an individual, the leap into enlightenment is something that the “self” could not, and did not, really do. It happened. But who did it really happen to? Once the leap is made, the paradoxes become simultaneously unending and irrelevant. You cannot do this with an act of will or with a plan of action, but you can create the conditions under which it is likely to happen.

How do I create the conditions for enlightenment?

The conditions for enlightenment are created by deepening meditation to a point where you begin to move along what is called “the progress of insight“: a series of stages in the meditation that provide the insights needed to awake (look for more on states and stages in a future post).

The way to enlightenment is often called a “path” for a very good reason. In the same way that the Appalachian Trail has mile-markers and sections, the path of meditation has specific markers and recognizable sections which vary in difficulty. Students progress along this path in a fairly predictable and repeatable sequence. While “path” is a metaphor, it is much more accurate than most students realize. The path arises in our experience when we sit in meditation and follow the directions exactly. If the meditator daydreams or gets caught up in the content of the mind, it is like leaving the trail to explore the woods. Before you know it, the trail is lost. However, by following the directions exactly, using the maps, and getting some guidance, you will stay on the path and will experience the series of developmental stages that make up that path to enlightenment.

The progress of insight is a series of 16 stages, called “insight knowledges” that arise in a specific sequence. The first few stages are pretty mundane and easy to miss, a lot like trail markers hidden in tall grass. But eventually the markers become pretty easy to spot. There are sections of the path which are blissful and joyful, and some that are rough and difficult. Having a teacher to keep you moving through the tough times and keep you grounded through the joyful times is nearly essential as you make your way. If the meditator sticks with it and makes progress along all the states, eventually the path leads to a very important moment, called a “cessation,” where everything, including the sense of self, disappears for an instant. It happens so quick that some people miss it, and those who do notice it often wonder, “what was that?” It is a very important moment in the life of the meditator, because it is, for an instant, a direct experience of Nirvana. As time goes on they can master cessations, and experience them whenever they like (I take lots of breaks at my desk at work by dipping into Nirvana periodically).

When the meditator experiences a cessation there is a fundamental change that is made at a very deep level called a “path moment.” In the metaphor we are using here, it represents a switch in the trail you are on. You start over, so to speak, on a new trail. As you progress along the new trail, the 16 markers appear again and you eventually get to the direct experience of Nirvana again, and then to a new path moment and so on. Each time you switch to a new trail and the 16 markers arise again, and are the same each time. When this progression along the paths is done enough times it creates the conditions for the profound shift called enlightenment to occur. You could say that moving along through the 16 insight knowledges and experiencing Nirvana ripens the meditator in a way that increases the chances that enlightenment will happen. In the traditional models, the progress of insight, through the 16 insight stages, is done four times, and then the meditator is fully enlightened. In this four-path model, when the meditator has experienced the first path moment, they have attained the first stage of Enlightenment, and are known as a “Sotapanna” or “stream-winner”, second path is “Sakadagami”, third is “Anagami” and the fourth is “Arahat.” An Arahat is an enlightened being and is finished with the work of awakening (it is actually a little more complicated than that in reality).

The progress of insight and four-path model is the overall map that I use to guide students. I use them because the 16 stages are fine-grained enough to be verifiable in the student’s direct experience, while the four-paths are broad enough to encompass the whole path. But it is important for all students to know that there are many other maps out there from many different traditions, and not all the maps agree on what the path looks like. For example large parts of the Tibetan maps don’t really fit well with the Theravadin maps, and in the Zen tradition they refuse to use maps (to my knowledge). While there are some critical differences in the maps (sometimes profound differences), what is more remarkable than the differences are the similarities. A practitioner who has awakened can look at most of the maps and recognize what is being described in terms of personal experience, regardless of which map that practitioner used.

Arguments Against the Maps

I should state at this point that there are teachers who feel that focusing on the maps is a bad idea. And this has led to a situation in which a lot of experienced and serious practitioners don’t even know the maps exist, or think that they shouldn’t know them. Teachers worry that the maps will create expectations that interfere with “natural” progress (though I must wonder if there is such a thing as “unatural progress”). In particular there is a concern that practitioners reporting experiences in their meditation may just “script” the experiences from the maps. Additionally, students could get competitive about where they are on the maps, or become so focused on attainments that they lose sight of becoming liberated from the ego that is attaining. These are legitimate concerns, however they beg the question: if the maps are not really helpful to students, why have the major traditions developed them, refined them and passed them down for literally thousands of years?

As it turns out, using the maps in practice is not nearly as fraught with problems as might be believed. It turns out that students rarely deliberately make stuff up when reporting their meditation, and when they do it is easy to see. If they are unconsciously scripting their experience, that can be handled easily by a competent teacher. To go back to the metaphor of the Appalachian Trail, there is a huge difference in the descriptions of a section of trail from someone who actually hiked it and someone who only read about it. Experienced hikers can tell the difference in the descriptions easily. This is one of the marks of a solid Dharma teacher, they know the territory first hand and when you describe it, they’ll know exactly what you’re talking about.

Beyond the maps

Even though there is a good map that leads from first sit to awakening, astute students might begin to wonder what is really going on. After all, the maps simply explain what you experience along the way, but not why these experiences lead to awakening.

As it turns out, the insights that you experience along the path have a gradual but profound effect on the mind. Over time, the insights mature into what is called “wisdom” (panna). This kind of wisdom is not cognitive. It has very little to do with thinking and is closer in experience to the faculty of sight than thought. Wisdom is the ability to directly see what is true and what is not. It is a bit like seeing an optical illusion. What you thought was a vase suddenly resolves into two faces. In the same way, what you thought was real turns out to be false. What you could never have believed before becomes obvious. What you’ll discover as wisdom builds is that there are a lot of things that we take to be true which simply are illusions. The three illusions that are really important for enlightenment are:

1. The illusion that what is perceived as a “self” is real or has a core essence

2. The illusion that this “self” (or anything) is somehow permanent

3. The illusion that the things that make the self happy are truly satisfying

Corresponding with these three illusions are three core truths of reality, what are called the “three characteristics” in Buddhism. These are characteristics of reality that are so fundamental that deep and honest investigation of your experience at any given moment of your life will reveal them:

1. The self is a fiction (anatta)

2. Everything, including the perceived self, is in a constant state of change (anicca)

3. Most of the life of this “self” is very dissatisfying and often very painful (dukkha)

A close examination will reveal that the three characteristics are so interrelated that if you deeply understood one of them, the other two logically follow and become obvious to you. These are simply three ways of understanding one fundamental reality. The insights into the nature of reality that occur during meditation don’t seem to do much at first, but they have a cumulative effect on the mind. As the three characteristics become clearer, so do the illusions that obscured them. As these illusions weaken reality becomes more obvious to us, not in a conceptual sense, but in a way that is felt moment by moment.

The way that the progress of insight leads to awakening is that each of the insight knowledges experienced by the meditator has something important to reveal about the three characteristics. It is useful to think of each insight knowledge as a class on the three characteristics. When you “pass” the class you move on to the next insight knowledge, and when you experience a path moment, you graduate to the next level of your education. Eventually you get a complete education, and that is awakening.

It is this – fully understanding through the insights gleaned in meditation that you have been running on illusions, and really getting the three characteristics in your daily life – that sets the conditions for enlightenment to happen. Getting it done is all about fully comprehending the insights gleaned in meditation and letting them erode illusions at a very deep level.

General Dharma Teaching

Sila: Getting Your Act Together

Concentration: Getting Your Head Together

  1. Very nice and profound explanation of enlightenment. Thanks

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