Buddha: Unexcelled perfect enlightenment


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Buddhism: How enlightenment happens

Buddha statue.jpg

If you read the earlier Buddhist texts (the Pali Suttas) you get a very different feel of the Buddha’s teachings compared to the systematised versions of Buddhism that are often more prominently on display today. It becomes apparent that the Buddha taught in different ways to different people and that the true Dhamma (teaching) cannot be grasped.

The eight-fold path that we most often hear about was very probably a central and important part of the Buddha’s teaching, and a truly wonderful teaching in my view, but it is clear that many people came to enlightenment in various ways according to the suttas (Buddhist texts).

We read that some attained enlightenment without practising, and some attained enlightenment simply upon hearing the Buddha speak. Some had a great awakening before practice, and then a practice naturally developed afterwards. Others followed the more traditional way of engaging with spiritual practises first and then attaining arahantship (full enlightenment) afterwards. The fact that arahantship was preceded by many years of practice for the Buddha himself may have affected the way he taught. However the suttas indicate that the Buddha realised that not all came to the Dhamma in the same way. In the Yuganaddha Sutta, Ananda explains the 4 main ways arahantship can arise:

Venerable Ananda said: “Friends, whoever — monk or nun — declares the attainment of arahantship in my presence, they all do it by means of one or another of four paths. Which four?
“There is the case where a monk has developed insight preceded by tranquility…He follows the path, developing it & pursuing it — his fetters are abandoned, his obsessions destroyed.
“Then there is the case where a monk has developed tranquility preceded by insight…He follows that path…his fetters are abandoned, his obsessions destroyed.
“Then there is the case where a monk has developed tranquility in tandem with insight…He follows that path…his fetters are abandoned, his obsessions destroyed.
“Then there is the case where a monk’s mind has its restlessness concerning the Dhamma well under control. There comes a time when his mind grows steady inwardly, settles down, and becomes unified & concentrated. In him the path is born. He follows that path, develops it, pursues it. As he follows the path, developing it & pursuing it — his fetters are abandoned, his obsessions destroyed.”
“Whoever — monk or nun — declares the attainment of arahantship in my presence, they all do it by means of one or another of these four paths.”

You can see here that two aspects of the teaching become very prominent, namely that of achieving tranquility and that of insight. The key is that both are required, but the order in which they are achieved varies. Some naturally are drawn towards becoming more tranquil and insight comes later. Others are more drawn to understanding and insight first and it is this insight that leads to tranquility as ‘fetters are abandoned’ and ‘obsessions destroyed’.

I explain in more detail what is meant by tranquility and insight here, but briefly insight is seeing there is no separate self (anatta in Pali), specifically that there is no separate doer entity. Tranquility when it is cultivated before insight usually refers to the lessening of thoughts and increasing of peace which in turn paves the way for insight. Tranquility after insight usually means a purification of the mind which naturally happens after insight; rather than reducing thoughts, this is the tranquility of freedom, of not being bothered by thoughts or circumstances and not depending on the mind, body or world (ie. anything) for one’s happiness.

In later Buddhist developments many schools developed ‘enlightenment first, practice later’ schools of teaching, notably in the Mahayana traditions, a prime example being Korean Zen master Chinul (1158-1210):

‘There are many avenues of entry into the Way…Sages since time immemorial have all first awakened then cultivated practice, attaining experiential proof based on practice.’
Chinul, Secrets of Cultivating the Mind, verses 19-20
‘If a real teacher points out a way of entry for you, and for a single instant you turn your attention around, you see your own original essence. This essence originally has no afflictions; uncontaminated wisdom is inherently complete in it. Then you are no different from the Buddhas; thus it is called sudden enlightenment.
As for gradual practice, having suddenly realised fundamental essence, no different from Buddha, beginningless mental habits are hard to get rid of all at once. Therefore one cultivates practice based on enlightenment, gradually cultivating the attainment to perfection, nurturing the embryo of sagehood to maturity. Eventually, after a long time, one becomes a sage; therefore it is called gradual practice. It is like an infant, which has all the normal faculties at birth, but as yet undeveloped; only with the passage of years does it become an adult.
Question: By what expedient means can we turn our minds around instantly to realise our inherent essence?
Answer: It is just your own mind; what further expedient means would you apply?’
Chinul, Secrets of Cultivating the Mind, verses 27-30

Chinul talks about the importance of first recognising your true original essence first (insight) before using this insight to purify the mind (tranquility after insight). As a slight aside, this line of thought is prevalent in Mahayana Buddhism and was later incorporated into Vedanta by Gaudapada and Shankara, giving rise to Shankara’s Advaita Vedanta, which in many ways is more similar to Mahayana Buddhism than to other schools of Vedanta which are more firmly footed in the Upanishads, the source texts of vedanta.

Going back to the Pali suttas, the Buddha also repeatedly warned against being attached to any particular teaching or teaching tradition:

‘Do not go by oral tradition, by lineage of teaching, by hearsay, by a collection of texts, by logic, by inferential reasoning, by reasoned cogitation, by the acceptance of a view after pondering it, by the seeming competence of a speaker, or because you think, ‘This ascetic is our teacher.’
AN 3.65 Kesaputti [Kālāma] Sutta

This really is quite a stark warning, and we could see this as a very ‘modern’ and scientific way of approaching this search for freedom from suffering. Again in the Atthaavagga, perhaps the earliest of all the Buddhist texts we know of, the Buddha warns about having any fixed views:

Atthaavagga, Chapter 6
5. Having abandoned what was acquired, not taking up anything, he would not be in dependence even upon knowledge. He truly is not a partisan among the schoolmen; he does not fall back on any view at all.
Atthaavagga, Chapter 10
7. He does not train himself through desire of gain, and he is not upset at lack of gain. He is not opposed to craving, nor is he greedy for savory stimulations.
8. An indifferent onlooker, always mindful, He imagines nothing in the world to be equal, nor superior, nor lower. For him there are no distinguished positions.
14. He for whom there is nothing his own in the world, and who does not sorrow over what is not there, And who does not go by philosophies— He truly is said to be “at peace.”

The Buddha stresses non-clinging, including non-clinging to doctrines, teachings, knowledge and points of view. In fact the Atthaavagga goes even further. Most of the very earliest Buddhist texts do not even mention the four noble truths, let alone the eight-fold path (which is the fourth truth of the four noble truths).

The Atthaavagga appears to go further here by denying much of what is commonly taught. We are not to find this deeper ‘truth’ through seeing, hearing or by any kind of knowledge. We are not to cling to morality or purity, nor their opposites. We are to depend on nothing. Of course, reading the following lines and having insight into them reveals a core ‘truth’, a more sublime Dhamma that is not opposed to the classic eight-fold path at all:

3. [The Buddha said:] There is nothing of which I say, “I declare this,”…But looking among the views, not taking hold of anything, examining, I saw inner peace.
4. [The questioner responds:]…This “inner peace,” whatever it means, How is it made known by the wise?
5. [The Buddha said:] Not by what is viewed, not by what is heard, not by inner knowledge…nor by morality and observances is purity said to be; by absence of what is viewed, by absence of what is heard, by non-knowledge, by amorality, by nonobservance—also not by that. So having let go of these, not taking hold of anything, A peaceful one, not being dependent, would not have longings for existence.
6. [The questioner responds:] Then I imagine that to be a confused philosophy indeed. Some do rely on purity by view.
7. [the Buddha responds:]And having depended upon view, enquiring…you have become confounded by what you have seized upon; And so you have not seen the slightest sense in this. Therefore you hold it to be confused.

So where does this leave us? Should we practice according to a path, or instead cultivate insight and wisdom? I answer this in more detail in this article, but for now, let’s go back to the Korean Zen Master Chinul for the last word:

To practice spontaneous concentration and insight is the sudden approach, using effortless effort, both operative yet both tranquil, spontaneously cultivation intrinsic essence, naturally fulfilling the Way of Buddhas.
To practice formal concentration and insight is the gradual approach taken before enlightenment by those of lesser potential, using curative work, striving to direct each thought toward cutting off confusion and grasping quietude.
…Among those who are suited to the sudden approach, there are also those whose potentials are superior and those whose potentials are inferior. Thus their practice cannot be judged by the same standard.
As for those whose afflictions are slight, who are light and easy in body and mind, who are detached from good in the midst of good and detached from evil in the midst of evil…they rely on spontaneous concentration and insight, which they cultivate simultaneously without effort, naturally real and uncontrived, always in meditation whether active or still, and fulfill the design of nature. Why should they pursue formal practices for curative purposes? When there is no illness, one does not seek medicine.
As for those who, in spite of having first realised sudden awakening, have deep afflictions and rigid mental habits…it is appropriate for them to make provisional use of formal concentration and insight.
Chinul, Secrets of Cultivating the Mind, verses 88-92

Poetry: no way to talk about this

crescent moon.jpg

When this is seen,
It is seen there are so many ways to talk about this,
So many ways to guide others to this,
So many helpful ways,
– yet all of them false.

All ways are false,
All descriptions are false.
The Truth cannot be contained in words:
The best teaching is whatever works.

No self, True self, or just Self?
Freedom, Enlightenment or Bliss?
Emptiness, Fullness, or Infinite?
Personal, impersonal, or no story at all?
Duality, non-duality? Both, neither?

All can be helpful concepts pointing the way,

The proverbial finger points at the moon,
Don’t cling to the finger!


Buddha: Why do spiritual people fight with each other?

buddha side.jpg

“Why is it that, Master Kaccana, that ascetics fight with ascetics?”
“It is, brahmins, because of attachment to views, adherence to views , fixation on views, addiction to views, obsession with views, holding firmly to views that ascetics fight with ascetics.”
Anguttara Nikaya

Today’s spiritual scene is in many ways the same as it has always been: while some people wake up to things as they are and go beyond words and scripture, others stay fixed in their views, cling to their scriptures and concepts, and in doing so remain stuck in suffering and samsara.

So, why are so many spiritual people arguing with each other? Master Kaccana was one of the Buddha’s main disciples and was said to be the most skilled in espousing the dhamma (the teaching). He says it simply: people are wedded to their concepts, their views, their scriptures and their ideas, and that is why they fight with each other.

The true dhamma cannot be spoken. The true teacher knows their words are ultimately untrue and that words are merely conceptual pointers, indicators, and not descriptions of what is. The true teacher is not wedded to a particular teaching method, or a particular form of words, and naturally adapts the teaching to the situation at hand. A single word, a prescription for practice, a gesture, a glance, a lecture: the teaching comes to us in many forms.

If we truly listen, the living teacher constantly teaches the living teaching. The teaching is inseparable from our hearts and the life we find ourselves living: it is none other than daily life.

The teaching is here, already. Are we open to it?



Zen Master Huang Po: how to remove our illusions

Q: Illusion can hide from us our own mind, but up to now you have not taught us how to get rid of illusion.

zen circle

A: The arising and the elimination of illusion are both illusory. Illusion is not something rooted in Reality; it exists because of your dualistic thinking.

If you will only cease to indulge in opposed concepts such as ‘ordinary’ and ‘Enlightened’, illusion will cease of itself. And then if you still want to destroy it wherever it may be, you will find that there is not a hairsbreadth left of anything on which to lay hold.

This is the meaning of: ‘I will let go with both hands, for then I shall certainly discover the Buddha in my mind’.

The arising and the elimination of illusion are both illusory…If you will only cease to indulge in opposed concepts such as “ordinary” and “Enlightened,” illusion will cease of itself.

Q: If there is nothing on which to lay hold, how is the Dharma [The Teaching, Enlightenment] to be transmitted?

A: It is a transmission of Mind with Mind [Tom – note that the Chinese word for ‘mind’ can also be translated as ‘heart’, so this could be ‘heart to heart’ transmission].

Huang Po Zen Teachings

Q: If Mind is used for transmission, why do you say that Mind too does not exist?

A: Obtaining no Dharma whatever is called Mind transmission. The understanding of this implies no Mind and no Dharma.

Q: If there is no Mind and no Dharma, what is meant by transmission?

A: You hear people speak of Mind transmission and then you talk of something to be received. So Bodhidharma [the first Zen patriarch, the ‘founder of zen’] said:

The nature of the Mind when understood,
No human speech can compass or disclose.
Enlightenment is naught to be attained,
And he that gains it does not say he knows.

If I were to make this clear to you, I doubt if you could stand up to it.

Taken from The Zen Teaching of Huang Po (Chun Chou record no. 32)

Zen Master Huang Po: the true teaching

Huang Po Zen Teachings.jpg

Q: Up to now, you have refuted everything which has been said. You have done nothing to point out the true Dharma [the true teaching, the true way] to us.

Huang Po: In the true Dharma there is no confusion, but you produce confusion by such questions. What sort of ‘true Dharma’ can you go seeking for?

Q: Since the confusion arises from my questions, what – will Your Reverence’s answer be?

Huang Po: Observe things as they are and don’t pay attention to other people. There are some people just like mad dogs barking at everything that moves, even barking when the wind stirs among the grass and leaves.’

Taken from The Zen Teaching of Huang Po (Chun Chou record no. 28)

Tom’s comments:

The questioner appears frustrated at not being able to obtain anything tangible from Huang Po. ‘What is the true teaching? What is The Way?’, he asks.

The master replies: you yourself create the confusion, the questions being evidence of this. Is there even a ‘true Dharma’ to be sought?

The answer? Just be with what is, see things as they are, don’t worry about the words and ideas of others caught up in their own illusions and fears.


4 things you (may) need before you can be enlightened

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Over the centuries, the lives of countless enlightened and self-realised sages have been studied and investigated, contrasting how they were prior to and after enlightenment, searching for clues as to what may aid other seekers in reaching total and complete liberation. Through this investigation several common qualities have been found which, if developed, aid the spiritual seeker to reach their goal.

In Vedanta, traditionally, there are four qualities (sadhana catustaya in Sanskrit) that a person should cultivate prior to engaging with the higher teachings of vedanta. These qualities, or qualifications,  are deemed necessary to have, at least in some degree, before enlightenment can subsequently be achieved.

A similar notion that a certain level of attainment or qualification is required before higher teachings are taught are found throughout spiritual traditions, including many ‘no-path’ schools such as Dzogchen, Mahamudra and Zen (all types of Buddhism).

The idea is that without these qualities being present the seeker may have many insights and epiphanies, but the results will be unstable, with insights often coming and going, the results being a continued sense of lack and frustration. In a more mature seeker this may result in so-called ‘flip-flopping’, when the seeker has repeated experiences of being enlightened only to find, much to their dismay, that these experiences also end and suffering resumes.

The idea is that without these qualities being present the seeker may have many insights and epiphanies, but the results will be unstable, with insights often coming and going, the results being a continued sense of lack and frustration.

Conversely, when a seeker has developed these qualities, when exposed to the higher teachings of vedanta they make quick progress and quickly attain moksha (Freedom), which does not come and go.

Below Shankara, that great proponent of advaita vedanta (non-duality), tells us that these qualities are more important than other factors in attaining moksha. This quote is taken a text attributed to Shankara called vivekachudamani, one of his most famous texts and one of my favourites when I was a seeker:

Ultimate success in spiritual endeavours depends chiefly upon the qualifications of the seeker. Auxiliary conveniences such as time and place all have a place indeed, but they are essentially secondary.
Vivekachudamani by Adi Shankara, verse 14

The 4 Qualities (sadhana catustaya)

Here are the 4 qualities, sometimes known as the ‘4 Ds’, (with the Sankrit word in brackets):

  1. Discrimination (viveka): being able to tell the difference between what is permanent and what is transient
  2. Dispassion (vairagya): not desiring what is transient/impermanent; turing away from the impermanent towards what is permanent
  3. Discipline (samadisatkasampatti): dropping trivial activities and turning towards the teaching and what is permanent.(Samadisatkasampatti  more literally refers to the six treasures, each of which will be discussed in later posts).
  4. Desire for freedom (mumuksutvam): this helps overcomes the ups and downs that life may bring and enables the seeker to overcome obstacles along the way.

There are several texts that outline these 4 qualities, perhaps the most succinct being Shankara’s Vivekachudamani which I have already mentioned above:

17. He alone is considered qualified to inquire after the supreme Reality (Brahman), who has discrimination, detachment, qualities of calmness etc., and a burning desire for liberation.
18. Great sages have spoken of four qualifications for attainment which, when present, succeed in the realization of Brahman and in the absence of which the goal is not attained.
Vivekachudamani by Adi Shankara, verses 17 & 18

Risk Factors vs qualifications

Before we look at each of the qualities in turn (in forthcoming articles), I would like to give my view. I don’t think these qualities are definite prerequisites for Freedom or self-realisation, important as they are. I think of them more as risk factors – ie. there may be an increased risk of enlightenment if these qualities are cultivated. Having the qualities does not guarantee enlightenment, and not having them does not bar one from Freedom.

It should be obvious really, but just because a particular tradition states something is necessary, doesn’t mean it is so – that’s my take on things at least. For me this Freedom is so simple, beyond simple actually, as it already is, that the whole notion of qualifications seems a bit arbitrary.

That being said, I do think they are of importance, and understanding and practising them will benefit many seekers, both in terms of increasing their day-to-day happiness, and in  terms of realising Freedom.

It has been said that this knowledge of the four qualities required for enlightement has come about by looking at and studying the lives of hundreds of spiritual seekers and knowers-of-Freedom (Jnanis) and seeing if they had anything in common. When we go through each of the four qualities I hope that you will be able to see, in a commonsense way, how these qualities work together and the principles that underlie them, and how they can indeed aid the attainment of moksha (the realisation of Freedom).

At the same time I feel it is important that we bear in mind that there are also inherent problems with the notion of qualifications which must also be understood if one is to engage with them effectively, namely that the very idea of a progressive path to Freedom (implied by the need for qualifications) can itself be an obstacle to realising that-which-already-is.

I will explore each of the above 4D’s in turn in forthcoming articles.

Zen Buddhist Master Yuanwu: Ordinary everyday enlightenment

yuanwu letters

There are no mundane things outside Buddhism,

and there is no Buddhism outside mundane things


Tom’s comments:

Before we are spiritual seekers, there is just ordinary life. Whilst we are seekers, we learn about and may experience wonderful supernatural things such as mystic visions, psychic phenomena, other-worldly states of consciousness and bliss. We may seek transcendence and escape from the things of everyday life. When the truth is seen, all we are left with is this, just this, completely ordinary, ‘mundane’.

Sure it’s wonderful too, but there’s no getting away from the ordinariness of it all: wherever we look, wherever we go, whatever we do, it is here/there, always. What is more ordinary than that!

The ordinariness of my ‘enlightenment experience’:

Zen (Chan) master Yuanwu: No fixed teaching

A fresco from the Bezeklik Thousand Buddha Caves

All teachings are expedients

just for the purpose of breaking through obsessions, doubts,

intellectual interpretations & egocentric ideas

Yuanwu (1063-1135)

Tom’s comments:

If there was ever a dogma in Zen Buddhism* (and there is no dogma by the way) it is that there is no fixed Zen teaching. In Yuanwu’s letters, from which this quote was taken, Yuanwu gives us a no frills introduction and foray into the heart of Zen.

In this quote he gets straight to telling us how the Buddhist teachings work: the teachings are not necessarily  100% true in themselves, but are devices used to set us free. What is the correct teaching? It’s simply the teaching that works. This is what the word ‘expedient’ means: whatever works is the ‘correct teaching’.

And so we hear of zen teachings ranging from reading the scriptures to simply hearing the sound of a ringing bell; from seeing an object drop to the ground to the admittedly extreme physical blows that are often dished out (and received) by zen masters as a form of teaching – not a method I would advocate, I hasten to add.

So the teaching methods and expressions of truth may vary from person to person and from time and place, forged out of the cultures and characters of the moment. This is why the teaching reinvents itself from generation to generation, and varies from teacher to teacher, even when the core teaching and core ‘realisation’ is the same.

*Yuanwu was actually Chinese, so strictly speaking he is a Chan Master. When Chan Buddhism spread to Japan it became known as Zen, Zen simply being the Japanese word for Chan.