What is the great way sages use to become sages? It’s the spiritual path. It’s helpful to have an overview of it.
Two preliminary points are critical.
First, it has nothing to do with any particular set of beliefs, with any specific religious creed. Since I practice zen, I’ll use terminology familiar to Buddhism, but that’s only an accident. If you are more comfortable using other words or concepts, just replace mine with yours.
Second, I don’t know what I’m talking about in this post! I almost always try to discuss only topics that I understand or, at least, think that I understand. On this occasion, however, I’m relying largely on the understanding of others.
I feel like a blind, cave-dwelling salamander about to talk about sunshine!
I am not a sage. A sage is someone who is wise and lives well. A sage is a buddha, in other words, someone who is awake (enlightened).
The goal of the great way is to become a sage. Becoming a sage, realizing one’s inherent Buddha nature, is its purpose or destination. Kusan Sunim: “The purpose of practicing Zen meditation is to awaken . . .” Since awakening itself can be greatly increased, following the spiritual path is a lifetime quest. Zen Master Dogen: “Practicing Zen, studying the way, is the great matter of a lifetime.”
Why, then, should I attempt to discuss the stages of the great way?
Without some destination, it’s impossible to get started. All that is necessary is a vague understanding of where to go and, sometimes, even a misunderstood destination is sufficient. Most people have a very poor understanding of these stages.
The purpose of this post is to encourage you to get started.
It is not to attempt to provide a perfect map. In fact, there is no such map. Just as there are many ways to reach the top of a mountain, the great way is not one way but many.
The first stage of the great way is the commitment to begin. The first turning of the dharma wheel begins with the decision to start the journey. One vows with wholehearted determination to master a spiritual practice.
Although you will naturally begin with the idea of gaining something for yourself or others, this is a mistake. Dogen: “Proceed with the mind which neither grasps nor rejects, the mind unconcerned with name or gain.” Don’t worry: as your egocentric desires burn away, his advice here will eventually make sense.
The second stage of the great way is to begin practicing. There are many different spiritual or breathing practices. There’s no one practice that works for everyone. It’s not even necessary to begin doing one practice perfectly: just pick one, start, and correct mistakes as you proceed.
Living well is a skill to be mastered. It is not a theory or set of beliefs. Mastery comes from practicing [see my The 7 Steps to Mastery].
It’s sometimes difficult to find a suitable practice, which will be one that quickly enables you to feel “at home” when doing it. I suggest a simple stilling meditation such as zazen rather than any kind of moving meditation.
Zazen is simple and so easy to learn that anyone can do it. Mastering it, however, is very difficult, which makes it like all other legitimate spiritual practices.
My own practice is a koan practice in which the practitioner inquires nonconceptually into the nature of the koan. Thoughts, particularly of past and future, eventually begin to drop away. The task is simply to sit still and investigate the heart (nub, hwadu) of the koan.
The task is to press beyond all pain, dissatisfaction, and conceptualizing as well as to keep meditating in the midst of activity.
The goal is complete identification with the koan.
[From here on I’m only making educated guesses.]
The third stage of the great way is experiencing no-thought that comes from practicing.
No-thought is simply awake, alert, thoughtless awareness. It is a break from our normal addiction to compulsive thinking.
There are different ways to experience no-thought, and it would be surprising if you yourself have never experienced it. If you have ever felt “it” happening when you played a musical instrument or perfectly executed some athletic skill, for example, you have experienced it. For six alternatives, click here.
It’s joyful, selfless (without self consciousness), and very satisfying.
A problem is that, when experienced outside a spiritual practice, it’s not transferrable. It’s wonderful when it happens frequently when you are, say, playing the piano, but it is useless at all other times.
When experienced during zazen, Dogen writes: “your body and mind as well as the bodies and minds of others drop away,” in other words, all thoughts of body and mind fall away.
The fourth stage of the great way is, to use the traditional Sanskrit word, samadhi. It involves not only one-pointedness of mind, but also focused concentration that is not only intense but effortless.
Zen Master Hakuin says at this stage the practitioner “will transcend the emotions and sentiments of ordinary life. His heart will be filled with an extraordinary purity and clarity, as though he were standing on a sheet of ice stretching for thousands of miles.”
This is not yet awakening, but it is the prelude to awakening.
The fifth stage of the great way is awakening. This is the great tipping point. Here, finally, is the experience that Hakuin calls “the great ecstasy of joy.”
Unity cannot be thought by the bifurcating intellect. Awakening is direct apprehension of the truth, as Yasutani-Roshi puts it, “that the world is one interdependent Whole and that each separate one of us is that Whole.”
That, though, is just a thought. As Master Mumon famously says, what really happens is that “all of a sudden an explosive conversion will occur, and you will astonish the heavens and shake the earth.”
This explosion is the direct experience of Being, which means freedom from Becoming. Since concepts, thoughts, regularities, and so on are all forms, they cannot be used to understand Being, which is formless.
The mind is turned inside out. Everything changes, yet nothing changes. Instead of being trapped in Becoming, Becoming is experienced from Being.
Zen Master Sengcan writes, “This ultimate finality . . . can’t be described.”
He does add, though, some of what it is not. When the mind is one with the great way, “all ego-centered strivings cease; / doubts and confusion disappear.” It is a domain beyond all thought and feeling. It is beyond all discriminations, especially beyond the self/other distinction.
It is the initial unbinding of the three critical fetters of infatuation, greed, and delusion.
The sixth stage of the great way is breaking through the defilements (fetters) that obstruct fully enlightened existence. Eventually, Becoming is always experienced from Being.
There are four major stages along the supramundane path that result in the elimination of all defilements. The disciple becomes a stream-enterer, a once-returner, a nonreturner, and, ultimately, an arahant (fully enlightened sage).
The horizontal axis of time (Becoming) completely collapses into the vertical axis of timeless Being (eternity).
The Buddha presented himself humbly as the guide to nirvana, as one who shows the way. According to him, “there is . . . a delight apart from sensual pleasures, apart from unwholesome states, which surpasses even divine bliss. Since I take delight in that, I do not envy what is inferior, nor do I delight therein. . . I abide . . . with a mind inwardly at peace.” [Madandiya Sutta]
Finally, there is his stock description of a sage as “one with taints destroyed, who has lived the holy life, done what had to be done, laid down the burden, reached his own goal, destroyed the fetters of being, and is completely liberated through final knowledge.”