Ati Marga header
Books Online
Reading List
Senge Bio
Contact Us

An Overview
The Practice of Virtue
The Development of Insight
An Overview

Section 1: Delineation of Approach

Ethics, Concentration, Understanding
Understanding of the spiritual life, or the laws of awakening, is best cultivated if we approach it in a broad and general way. The threefold classification of Ethics, Concentration and Understanding or sila, samadhi and panna, is the most pithy and useful way to do this. The whole of the teaching of awakening can be described within these three categories. It could be said that a teaching of awakening is nothing more than a path, or a means, to develop these three aspects of consciousness.

The purpose of developing the path is to enable us to become free of the tangle created by craving and aversion. This eventually will lead us to what could be termed a true or genuine experience. This occurs when we disentangle ourselves from projections created by grasping and aversion.

On the most fundamental level, every existing organism strives for what it finds beneficial and moves away from what it finds harmful. We should recognize that this struggle is still the primary motivating force of even the most sophisticated members of our present day societies. It elaborates itself into innumerable forms of preference and aversion, which seem to be so diverse that it is hard to imagine they come from such a simple and ancient impulse. However, if we are honest with ourselves and do some direct observation of our own body-mind, we would in fact begin to see the truth of this statement. Our problem begins here, because unless we know what is actually beneficial for ourselves, we may in fact be grasping at something that is actually quite harmful. In one way the Teaching is simply saying that unless we come to terms with this unconscious aspect of craving and aversion in our being and see it as the source of suffering, it is unlikely that we will be motivated to become free of it. All beings wish to be free of suffering and pain, but who will achieve this goal? It will be a person who fulfills this path of first developing ethics, then concentration, and finally understanding.

The struggles that people faced during the time of the Buddha 2500 years ago, in many ways have not changed from those we face today. The teachings of awakening asserts that, unless we as human beings become free from these primordial, unconscious and instinctual drives for becoming, we will remain forever enslaved, and in fact, have very little free choice.

In the past, there have been many diverse and radically different types of individuals who have traveled this path to freedom. However, the one thing they all had in common was that in order to complete their path, they eventually had to commit all of their life energy to it. This presents a bit of a problem for us today, because in this age we seem to think that everything should come easily. However, it is only when we are willing to give up everything we think we have, that we can then enter this realm of experience. It is here that we come to the true knowing.

So my task in this book is to set out, as best as I am able, the meaning of these three aspects of the Teaching. I believe that there are individuals who are in true search and may not have come in contact with these principles. Or, if they have, it may not have been presented in a way that invites their investigation. In the final analysis we must come to know for ourselves the laws of awakening; we must become the living experiment that brings us through to direct insight knowledge.

The completion of the Path, or full purification, should be understood as the realization of Nirvana, the unborn, unoriginated, uncreated. This state is completely free of all the hindrances or defilements. “Virtue as the Path” refers to the particular method, or the process, leading to this state of realization. What most attracted me to the Teaching from the very beginning was that it invites investigation and question. It is not a belief system or theology, but is instead a collection of various methods that, when practiced diligently, bring about a direct realization in the aspirant.
{ back to top }

Ways to Achieve the Goal
In Buddhadharma purification or liberation is often referred to as Path Attainment. There are deep philosophical implications in this seemingly insignificant play of terminology. There are two uses of the word “path”. There is what we call “the path to the Path”; this is where the aspirant is still striving for purification. The attainment of “Path” is the first time the aspirant experiences the absolute. In this book when the Path is capitalized it is referring to the attainment. When it is used as a term to denote the progress of the aspirant before attainment path is spelled with a small ‘p’.

There are many ways to achieve the goal of liberation. This state of purity can be attained, for instance, by way of insight alone; this is sometimes called the ‘dry’ path. Or, on the other hand, it may be attained through the cultivation of ecstatic absorption; this is sometimes called the ‘wet’ path. A third approach is to develop both absorption and insight; this is sometimes called ‘twice-liberated’. In some of the great commentaries, such as the Visuddhimagga, it is stated that liberation or purification can be achieved through deeds or karmic activity. In this way by fulfilling a vision in action that is motivated by compassion, one can attain liberation.
{ back to top }

The Natural Mind
Another method described in the commentaries states that we can awaken through the practice of morality, or by living a completely ethical and blameless life. In the ancient Teaching, there is the fundamental assumption that if the human being were free from unwholesome states of mind, they would spontaneously respond in a wholesome and actively good way. This is why when we first begin to practice the Teaching, emphasis is placed on restraint in the development of morality. For instance, over time, as we train ourselves not to take the life of other living beings, then we would spontaneously preserve the life of the many beings with whom we share this planet. The entire path, from this point of view, could be seen as a delineation of what we should not do, but we would be incorrect to think of this as a negative teaching. Here, we do not focus on the cultivation of the positive, but through the elimination of the negative or unwholesome, we encounter the natural mind of enlightenment. In other words, if we are free of the obstructions to enlightenment, enlightenment is present. We should never think that we have to create the state of enlightenment, instead we should understand that when the mind is free from unwholesome patterns, enlightenment is naturally present.
{ back to top }

19 Methods
In the Majjhima Nikaya 77 the Buddha delineates nineteen methods by which many of his disciples abide, having reached the consummation and perfection of direct knowledge. These methods should not be considered mutually exclusive but instead, should be seen as related to each other; if we fulfil one approach the others will manifest to a greater or lesser degree.
{ back to top }

The foundation of all paths to liberation is mindfulness and the Buddha has delineated in the Digha Nikaya 22, four categories of mindfulness that must be cultivated. The first is to cultivate mindfulness of the body, the second is to cultivate mindfulness of feelings, the third is to cultivate mindfulness of states of mind, and the fourth is to cultivate mindfulness of objects of mind. That is, we must come to know how the bodily formations produce pleasurable and unpleasurable feelings; how the feelings produce pleasurable, unpleasurable or neutral states of mind; how these manifest in consciousness as objects of perception and are either clung to or seen as repugnant. It is this unconscious process of attraction and aversion to objects of mind that propels an individual into activities of blind becoming. When it is instinctual and happening automatically, without awareness, the individual creates through their ignorance many entanglements, which in turn result in all the various forms of suffering we manifest in this life. Comprehending this entire process we come to know the relationship between these four aspects of our being and how they create a continuum of mind and matter. It is through this understanding that we are freed from blind becoming. When an individual takes up any of these disciplines that were taught by the Buddha with true ardor and commitment, all the defilements are burnt up in the process.
{ back to top }

Ancient Commentaries
In the Samyutta Nikaya it is stated: While the Blessed One was living at Savatthi, a certain deity came to him in the night and in order to do away with his doubts he asked this question: “The inner tangle and the outer tangle - this generation is entangled in a tangle and so I ask of Gotama this question: Who succeeds in disentangling this tangle?” The Buddha replied: “When a wise man established well in virtue develops consciousness and understanding then as a Bhikkhu ardent and sagacious he succeeds in disentangling this tangle."

As I read this particular passage several things come to mind and the first is that the teaching occurs within a historical context. For instance, at the time of Sakyamuni Buddha there were many groups of wandering ascetics. Since the word ‘Bhikkhu’ literally means ‘wanderer’ it should be understood within the context of that culture. When the Buddha left the household life and went in search of the path to the cessation of suffering he met two teachers who taught him the jhanic absorptions. The Jain religion was flourishing at the time, along with quite a few other religions that taught various ascetic practices to attain spiritual realization. In general it could be said that the Hindu society at the time respected such endeavors and supported many of the wanderers by giving alms. We in our society do not have a similar tradition, so for one of us to become a wanderer would be seen as a failure to succeed in society, rather than something we would choose as a preferred way of life. We have the tendency to believe that such individuals have merely failed at adapting to the norm and generally we see them as not contributing to the culture. In retrospect, perhaps artists, writers, and revolutionaries can only become part of the culture if their ideologies or creations become part of our commodity-oriented system. In this sense our society is quite different, however, this generation certainly is caught in the same tangle of craving and aversion. The other thing that my mind is drawn to in this quotation is that there is a distinction made between the inner tangle and the outer tangle. The inner tangle could be described as the views we have incorporated into our perceptions of ourselves. The outer tangle could be defined as seeing nature or materiality within the projections of these conditioned views.

When the Buddha is asked the question he replies: "When a wise man..." meaning one who has a certain degree of innate wisdom, "...established well in virtue..." meaning that one lives a blameless life free of regret “...develops consciousness and understanding...” meaning one who has cultivated the mind through developing jhana and insight knowledge “...then as a Bhikkhu ardent and sagacious...” meaning the practitioner has devoted his complete life energy to the quest for truth “...he succeeds in disentangling this tangle...”, meaning he attains the goal of Nirvana, the unborn or uncreated and leaves far behind the tangle of karma causing blind becoming. It is the volitional mind that determines our becoming, however, it is the ignorance of causality that makes it blind and it is only through training the mind that we can become free.
{ back to top }

Historically the first ethical precepts given by the Buddha were the five precepts. It could be said that the later elaboration to 237 rules in the Vinaya Pitaka was to help those who had not yet attained Path realization to deal with the many varied circumstances of life. In these later precepts there are many which are culturally specific and to a certain extent were focused on the cultural conditions of the time. On the other hand, the five precepts are universal in their implications and practice. Because these five precepts are so central to the development of the life of purity, it would do us well to examine them here in brief.
  1. I undertake to train myself to abstain from killing.
  2. I undertake to train myself to abstain from stealing.
  3. I undertake to train myself to abstain from sexual misconduct.
  4. I undertake to train myself to abstain from lying.
  5. I undertake to train myself to abstain from intoxicants that cause heedlessness and cloud the mind.
So, in the governing of our behavior, there is a training we must undergo. To begin with, the purpose of this training in its negative sense is to know how to avoid or abstain from activities or circumstances that would lead to actions of unwholesome conduct. Secondly, it develops insight into the process of karma so that we would know the results of committing unwholesome actions and thirdly, it develops a keen sense of the protective power of wholesome karma. A person who lives by these principles lives a blameless life, which is the basis for happiness now and in the future.

When it is stated in the text "...that a wise man established well in virtue develops consciousness and understanding..." it means that the virtuous life is the base, or foundation, from which one can develop consciousness and understanding. The development of consciousness is the cultivation of ecstatic absorption and becomes the base for the development of understanding or insight knowledge. These are the three stages of the path and delineated in the Visuddhimagga as sila, samadhi and panna.

When the Buddha speaks of "...a Bhikkhu ardent and sagacious..." what I think is most relevant to us is that the Bhikkhu has freed himself from the expectations, duties and responsibilities of conventional society. Oftentimes in the text, a Bhikkhu is contrasted to a householder, and this always implies that the Bhikkhu has devoted his full life’s energies to the religious quest. Having said that, it also must be said that the state of blessedness, or the four stages of Holiness, could be present in individuals from many walks of life. In this instance the Buddha is speaking of those who would be most likely to succeed in disentangling this tangle, and we must recognize that it would be those who devoted themselves with the same degree of ardor and commitment as wanderers from ancient times. “...Ardent and sagacious...” means that he has aroused his energies and can focus fully upon the task of developing consciousness and understanding. This ardent and sagacious mind is used to destroy the tangle of conditioned and unwholesome views that have enslaved us from beginningless time.

So, in review, we have three types of training: the first being the development of wholesome and ethical behavior, the second being the cultivation of beautiful states of consciousness; and the third being the development of insight knowledge. It is often said that the teaching is good in the beginning, middle and end. When the three stages are embarked upon by one who already has a basis of wholesome karma present in the stream of their being, practicing with ardor and proper instruction, such a one may complete the task.
{ back to top }

Avoiding the Two Extremes
Buddha Dharma, as a teaching of natural unfoldment, stresses the avoidance of two extremes. The first extreme is to cling to the belief that there is a permanent self - eternalism. The second extreme is the belief that there are no results to actions and hence nihilism. These two extreme views seem to be the tendency of a human mind caught in clinging and aversion. The path that is the middle way, not caught in the extremes, is the means to overcome the states of loss, regret and conflicting emotions that are the hallmark of suffering in the human realm. The eight-fold Noble Path, when expounded as a means to the attainment of one of the four stages of Holiness, is a good description of the threefold liberation of sila, samadhi, and panna. When this path is practiced as a means to the Attainment of Path, the order is different than when it is used to describe the Fruition of the Path. Normally it is given in the Suttas as right view, right thought, right speech, right bodily action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness and right concentration. However, when this eight-fold Noble Path is a means to the attainment of the first stage of Holiness, first we cultivate right speech, then right bodily action and right livelihood ­ the practice of which develops ethical behaviour. Next we cultivate right effort, right mindfulness and right concentration, - the practice of which develops concentration. Finally we cultivate right view and right thought, - the practice of which develops insight knowledge. The purpose of the practice is to free an individual from the three types of defilements, which are greed, hatred and delusion. Equanimity towards the desires and aversions of the mind is the goal of correct view and understanding. A wise being who fulfills the path remains unshaken by the winds of praise or blame and is totally firm in their commitment to the complete flowering of the Bodhi mind.
{ back to top }

Resulting Benefits
In the ancient texts and commentaries, it is put forward that each of the three stages have resultant benefits or powers which eventually enable a practitioner to have complete insight. In the first stage, the development of virtue, or sila, is said to perfect clear vision in the sense that one is able to understand karma through experiencing past lives. One would also know directly that the defilements are no longer present. In the second stage - the development of concentration or samadhi - one sees that the mind is vast and capable of opening to great vistas, which sometimes are referred to as supernatural powers. We explore these states as a natural consequence of the mind opening to its many possibilities. The purpose for cultivating the mind in this way is to develop discrimination and knowledge. The mind having been opened to its powers sees things as they truly are. In completion of the third and final stage, the development of understanding or panna, we come to know the laws of karma, intelligence and language; by this we are able to see the limitations and potentials of the human condition.

Another way to see the three-fold exposition of the laws of awakening is to see the development of virtue as an antidote for indulgence in sense desires, the development of concentration as the antidote for self punishment, and the cultivation of the middle way as the antidote to wrong view.

When we cultivate a virtuous mind we abandon the gross defilements. This is achieved by abstaining from the unwholesome. Letting go of the obsessive qualities of clinging is possible through the development of beautiful states of consciousness and is a result of concentration. The direct perception of - and freedom from - the tenacious tendency of the mind to cling to partial views, is the result of insight knowledge.

Another way of putting this is that we purify ourselves of misconduct on the physical plane through the development of virtue, we purify ourselves of the defilements of craving through the development of concentration, and we purify ourselves of the defilements of false and unwholesome views through the development of understanding. Each of the three levels of purification correspond to the four stages of Holiness in the following way: the development of virtue leads to the attainment of the first and second stage of Holiness; the development of concentration leads to the third stage of Holiness; the development of insight knowledge leads to the fourth stage of Holiness.
{ back to top }

The Four Paths
In the first Path attainment, Sotapanna Magga or what is sometimes called Stream Entry, we become free of the three fetters that bind us to the sensorial sphere. The first is belief in a permanent entity or self; we are also freed of skeptical doubt and no longer believe in the mere following of rules and rituals as a means to purification. In the second Path attainment, Sakadagami Magga or Once Returner, sensuous craving and ill will (the fourth and fifth fetter) are almost completely overcome. In the third Path attainment, Anagami Magga or Non Returner, we become completely free of the five lower fetters: personality belief, skeptical doubt, clinging to mere rules and rituals, sensuous craving, and ill will. In the fourth Path attainment, Arahat Magga or Fully Purified One, we become free of the five higher fetters: craving for a fine material existence, craving for an immaterial existence, conceit, restlessness, and ignorance.

The four Paths or stages of sainthood described above have two levels in which they occur. The first level is magga, or Path experience; this should be understood as the initial experience of that level of consciousness. The second stage is called phala, which is sometimes translated as fruit, and can be seen as the complete fruition of the potential that is indicated in the first experience.

Two other levels of attainment are also mentioned in the ancient texts. The first attainment is Pacceka Buddha, a being who has all of the realizations of Buddhahood but does not possess the skill to impart that knowledge. The second is Samma-sambuddha, a being who has attained the full realization of Buddhahood and also possesses the ability to transmit that knowledge to others.

So, in review, the three Paths or stages of the teaching correspond to the four levels of attainment in the following way: Stream Entry and Once Returner by virtue, the Non Returner by concentration, the state of Arahatship by understanding or insight. The other two states, Pacceka Buddha and Samma-sambuddha are developed through the ten qualities of perfection, or the ten parami. For a full and lucid description of the development of the path of the Bodhisattva one should consult the Hwa Yen Sutta. This work is only partially translated in the book ‘The Buddhist teaching of Totality’ by Karma CC Chang; however, it has an excellent commentary.

So far our description of the Teaching has been broad and general, yet it contains all of the essentials to attain liberation. However, unless an individual is extremely well versed in the application of these principals they would find this brief summary of little use. Because of this, I believe it would be profitable to give a more elaborate and detailed exposition. I will proceed to do this to the best of my ability.
{ back to top }
Terms of use: You may copy, reformat, reprint, republish, and redistribute this work in any medium whatsoever, provided that: (1) you only make such copies, etc. available free of charge; (2) you clearly indicate that any derivatives of this work (including translations) are derived from this source document; and (3) you include the full text of this license in any copies or derivatives of this work. Otherwise, all rights reserved.