Any undertaking which involves training and learning is a progressive process. Whether it’s athletics, mathematics, chess, a new language or learning to drive; they all involve a graduated path, a progressive process. First you have to learn the basics and gradually you begin to see how everything connects up and by degrees you gain mastery. When you have really gained mastery you can let go of everything you’ve learned and all the training manifests in an ability to be creative.
Spiritual life, which is a training, ( a metaphor used by the Buddha –e.g. see Bhaddali Sutta)is very similar; it’s a graduated progressive process. The major difference is that when it comes to spiritual life we are not talking about gaining knowledge in an area of expertise, we are not concerned with mastering some particular discipline; we are engaged in transforming all of us, the totality of our being and contributing to transforming the world. Spiritual life is not an aspect of life, it is the whole – it is a response to the existential dilemma facing every single human being – the inescapable fact of death. This is brought out in the story of Siddhartha and the four sights: his encounters with old age, sickness and death represent this existential dilemma facing every human being.
When we talk about following a spiritual path we are talking about teachings and methods which seek to explain our situation to us and tell us what to do about it. Following the path is mastering the teachings and practising the training methods. However that is not the whole of it, because mastering the teachings and practising the methods means allowing them to transform us, root and branch, and that means that as we learn, as we train, we become a new person, a different person and as that happens our whole perspective on what the training and practice is about also changes. The more we master the training and practice, and more fresh and new and meaningful it becomes.
Although Buddhism is often neatly packaged in a list of stages of a path, it is never quite that simple – but at the same time it is not complex – it’s just surprising.
We have the threefold path of ethics, meditation and wisdom; the six perfections of generosity, ethics, patience, energy, meditation and wisdom; the Noble Eightfold path – perfect vision, perfect emotion, action, speech, livelihood, effort, mindfulness and meditation and we have the five stages of spiritual life. All of these and many others are helpful and if we thoroughly engage with any of these teachings we will find that they all contain each other; they are just different formulations of the path – not different paths.
Bhante Sangharakshita has given talks and lectures on all of these formulations of the path and more and in more recent years he and Subhuti have been emphasising The Five Stages of Spiritual Life, perhaps because this formulation brings out the graduated progressive nature of spiritual life even more strongly than some of the other paths, and also because it can be more easily correlated with our practices of meditation, ethics, spiritual friendship and so on.
Over the next few months I will be exploring this five stage formulation of the path in a series of talks.
The main obstacle to spiritual life is an unwillingness to change or an unwillingness to change completely. Sometimes we want to change, but only on our own terms; we only want to change what we find uncomfortable. But sometimes it’s even more important to change what we find comfortable. The main requirement for spiritual life is not intellectual ability, it’s not ability as a meditator, it’s not the ability to give talks, it’s not about being articulate or clever or sociable – the main requirement for a successful spiritual life is the willingness to change – the willingness and ability to change and keep on changing. We need to be willing to change our behaviour, our ideas, views and opinions, our ways of thinking, our habits, our circumstances, our lifestyle, everything – everything is in the melting pot. We may not have to change everything, but the willingness is a key factor in making progress.
If we are really willing to change then the training and practices will work their magic on us and the caterpillar will emerge as a butterfly, the acorn will become an oak tree, we will emerge from the shell of our ignorance and soar into the skies of wisdom and compassion.
For all of this transformation to happen we need to pass through the stages of growth and development as laid out in the path of five stages – integration, positive emotion, spiritual death, spiritual rebirth and spontaneous compassionate activity. The first three of these stages are active, they are something we do, they belong to the realm of karma. The last two stages are the results of our practice. However we can also see all of these five stages as aspects of spiritual life, all of which we need to practice all the time. We could imagine them as five steps of a stairs – that is the five stages ascending and we could imagine each step of the stairs as having five different colours – that is the five aspects – integration, positive emotion, spiritual death, spiritual rebirth, and receptivity. The Five aspects are what we practice ongoingly – the colours on the steps – and the five stages are a map of what spiritual life looks like overall, over a lifetime.
I will be giving a talk on each stage. This introduction is the first talk. The second talk entitled All Things Great and Small is about integration and in that talk I will talk about three kinds of integration, I will talk about how we can become more integrated and I will tell you what I think are the key practices in relation to integration. The third talk is called Choosing the Best and is about positive emotion. In that talk I will talk about the basic choice we have in life, about how we can cultivate positive emotion, about motivation and faith and about karma. The fourth talk is on spiritual death and it’s called The Victorious One. In that talk I will go into what that particular metaphor, spiritual death, means to us and what it signifies for us spiritually. I will talk about the two paths and their associated practices and I tell you what I consider to be the key practices associated with spiritual death. The fifth talk is called A Buddha like No Other and in that talk I will go to the theme of spiritual rebirth and what that means for us. I will talk about the place of imagination in spiritual life and that talk will end with a special surprise. The sixth and last talk is called Getting Out Of the Way and in that talk I will talk about dharmic responsiveness and Spontaneous Compassionate Activity. I will have some more to say about faith, karma niyama and Dharma niyama and the importance of pauses and empty spaces.
Although the path is laid out like this and is gradual and progressive, the reality can be different. We might start with a spiritual death experience and then need to go back and integrate ourselves and develop positive emotion. We may have glimpses of the nature of reality right from the outset and then need to understand the conceptual framework, to contextualise our experience. Some people have a facility for meditation and find it easy to shoot up into the higher dhyanas and have wonderful peak experiences, even insight experiences and that is good for nurturing faith. However there is a danger and that is the danger of misinterpreting experience. Most serious wrong views are based on misinterpretation of strong meditation experiences. According to the Buddha in one Mahayana Sutra, we must always check that our experiences accord with the Dharma before giving them spiritual significance. He says “check whether what you have experienced accords with the Sutras. If it does not, you should regard it as a false mental construction.” So this is a recognition that meditation experience needs to be checked against the teachings of the Buddha, because wrong views are often wrong interpretations of experience. This also comes out in the Brahmajala Sutta, where the Buddha lists 62 wrong views which were around at the time. Many of them were based on meditation experiences.
The Noble Eightfold path starts with Vision, which could be some kind of Insight or glimpse of reality, and then comes the transformation. We never really stop needing to integrate, practice skilfulness, see reality more clearly and so on. Gradually the stages change from being a discipline or practice to being the spontaneous expression of our spiritual creativity.
Any formulated path is a helpful map and compass. We need to travel the path and we may get lost from time to time or get distracted by detours and interesting side streets. That’s why it’s not enough to have the map and compass of the formulated path – we also need friends and mentors to remind us and to guide us. Our friends and guides may be able to re-inspire us when we lose our motivation or remind us of our overall purpose when things are not going well. Our mentors may be able to guide us when we are confused or even when we are over enthusiastic about some particular method or aspect of training. If we are to benefit from friends and mentors we need to be receptive. If we are to benefit from a Dharma talk we need to be receptive.
Listening or hearing is the first level of wisdom - sruta mayi prajna. We have to listen and to hear the Dharma first, before we can reflect and meditate on it and begin to embody it. In order to listen or hear something we need an open mind, not one full of predetermined ideas and interpretations. We don’t want to be like the professor in the Zen story – when he went to see the Zen master, the master invited him to have tea and while pouring out of the tea the master just kept on pouring even after the cup was full. The professor cried out “my cup is full” and the Zen master said “yes indeed your cup is full and you are not ready to receive any teaching come back when your cup is less full.” When we hear these stories we like to identify with the Zen master, but the point of the story is that we are more likely to be in the position of the professor. Our cup is too full.
As well as an open mind we need to be interested and want to learn. But listening is not just a passive thing. We are so used to being entertained by movies and soap operas and box sets that it can be easy for us to approach Dharma talks in the same way. We sit back and wait to be entertained or informed. But listening to Dharma talks is part of the first level of wisdom and that means it is in itself a spiritual practice. We have to bring as much of ourselves as possible to the practice and actively engage. We will need to find our own way to actively engage; some people take notes because taking notes sharpens your listening, some people listen again to the recording, some people discuss the talk afterwards with friends. However we do it, if we are to make the most of hearing Dharma talks we need to actively engage with them. And of course it is much better to be actually present when somebody is speaking than just listening on Free Buddhist Audio later.
So the right spirit or attitude is important as we listen to Dharma talks, not just these talks but all Dharma talks. The right spirit is one of active engagement and receptivity. Receptivity is an essential ingredient on the path which I will visit in the last talk. But it’s worth mentioning it here at the beginning so that we can all approach these talks in the right spirit, with the right attitude. The spirit of openness to the Dharma and the keenness to learn and get different perspectives on things. It’s not about the speaker of the style or delivery. The speaker also has to have the right spirit and be receptive to the Dharma. Every Dharma talk is a good talk because the Dharma is good. Our task is to stay open to that goodness and allow it to touch us.
If you have an open mind and heart, if you want to learn or as the Scriptures say if you’re ‘eager for instruction’ and if you are willing to change, then you will have a stimulating few weeks as we go through this series of talks from getting going with integration and moving all the way through to the final letting go of the path and practitioner in the great wave of energy that is spontaneous compassionate activity. This is the road we are taking, the journey we are embarking on and here is a quote from Walt Whitman to get us started:
“Not I, not anyone else can travel that road for you,
you must travel it for yourself.
It is not far… It is within reach,
perhaps you have been on it since you were born, and did not know,
perhaps it is everywhere on water and on land.
Shoulder your duds, and I will mine, and let us hasten forth;
wonderful cities and free nations we shall fetch as we go.
If you tire, give me both burdens, and rest the chuff of your hand on my hip,
and in due time you shall repay the same service to me;
for after we start we never lie by again.”