Some may see this as controversial.
Should we talk about the Stages of Enlightenment in Buddhist practice?
Plenty of teachers think that we shouldn’t. That’s been the standard view.
The situation has for a long time been teachers holding certain teachings back until they feel a student is ready. I think that in the old world, when it was hard for information to spread, that probably worked pretty well. But we live in a different world now. Information is everywhere and it will spread whether we like it or not.
I’m writing about the Stages of Enlightenment, as defined by one of the oldest branches of Ch’an Buddhism, the Caodong School. My intent is to explain them in a way that is simple without taking away from the profound nature of such a discussion.
Well, knowing the stages can tell us exactly what we are looking for and exactly why. Knowing the stages can help us to understand why the insights we have gained provide the ground for the next insights that are coming. It’s like following a map, or asking for directions, instead of just guessing which way is correct.
The stages can also help us be prepared for “falling of the wagon”. It’s a little easier to keep going if we know what we’re trying to do.
In ancient times one had to study with a teacher in seclusion because the most fundamental and profound teachings were kept hidden. It doesn’t have to be that way anymore.
Enlightenment is acknowledged in the Cao Dong School as integrating form and emptiness.The fundamental purpose of Ch’an practice is to assist the practitioner in eventually transcending duality, which is viewed as the root of all delusion in the mind and the cause of suffering.
By duality we mean, seeing ourselves as truly separate from other beings and from the world around us. We need to understand that everything is connected, not just intellectually but intuitively.
Enlightenment is a culmination in which one feels unity with all things.
The stages are described as three levels containing five symbols. Now, going over symbolism is beyond the scope of this article, so I’m going to take some time with the three levels and maybe save symbols for some other time.
When we study different paths, we can discover that many mystical paths happen to have three levels. Three stage models are echoed in unexpected paths like Wicca and Freemasonry.
We define the stages as: Seeing the Void, Relative Void, and Integration of Void and Form.
These stages are designed as a short expression of a very complex training path, that takes us from delusion to attainment.
In the first stage, one starts with a limited view. This view is the area of the mind that we are working on in our practice. We are mired in a stream of deluded thought that is preventing us from seeing the true nature of things. This causes our suffering. The way out of this suffering is by seeing through this stream of deluded thought and directly seeing our true nature.
In the beginning of the path, the true essence of our minds isn’t perceivable, but to one who has entered the first stage it is suspected. This suspicion pushes us forward. It offers doubt that our delusions are all that there is. This gives us energy that enables us to push through the veil of delusion and directly see what is beyond it.
Through great training and the experience of enlightened dialogue (interaction with one who has walked the path before) the veil of delusion can be penetrate and the essence of the mind can be directly perceived. We sometimes call this essence of the mind ‘void’ but that is only a placeholder because it can’t truly be defined in a single word.
Ch’an training requires a steady and careful progression.
Seeking the Void
This is the level of the ordinary individual. One whose mind contains the true nature, but is obscured by a stream of delusion. We call this true nature the void. The deluded mind must be focused through some form of meditation or other method of mystical practice. The outward form of this practice isn’t really important. What is important is that the mind must be disciplined in the right way so that the void can be glimpsed. Seeing the void encourages the practitioner to proceed further. When the training succeeds and there is a breakthrough, the practitioner enters the second stage.
At this level the practitioner starts to experience reality beyond delusion. Their grip of delusion starts to loosen on their minds. Once in a while moments will occur in which the practitioner is completely in the present moment, living in the here and now instead of constantly judging and labeling the world. Their mind begins to become calm, quiet, and still.
The Relative Void:
Delusion is penetrated through and a peaceful emptiness of mind manifests. This is a deep attainment. It’s been said that this level eliminates all of the negative karma from the past. This is called relative enlightenment and is defined as an empty mind (void) that exists in relation to the real and external world, which we call form. As void and form are still not integrated, this is an incomplete attainment. Through further training, the void mind begins to interact with the physical world. Only when this duality, void and form, are harmonized is when the we can enter the third stage.
In this second stage, the practitioner starts t o feel connected with everything. The borders between the self and the world start to dissolve. The practitioner begins to feel that they are in everything and everything is just a part of everything else. Many describe this as blissful.
Integration of Void and Form:
The entry to this level sees the void and form coming together. This is a time when great effort must be combined with meditative techniques. The empty mind or void mind appears to be one with the physical world. But, void and form are not yet integrated. There is still a level of duality because the void is still viewed as separate. This is a very subtle final delusion. This level is completed when the practitioner can become unattached, neither attached to the void nor hindered by the world of form. This can occur not just in the act of meditation, but also in ordinary life. The last step of Stage Three is the transcendence of our mistaken idea that our minds exist separately from the world. This process sees the barrier of subject and object dissolve through the power of meditative concentration. The resulting emptiness in the mind expands throughout the world, overcoming dualistic notions. This represents the transcendence of separate notions of void and form and signifies attainment of the way of the Buddha.
It could be said that attainment of the second stage is a feeling of being connected to everything. Attainment of the third stage is the realization that we are everything, experiencing the oneness that unites all of the universe directly.
Enlightenment sets us free. We can feel the bliss of completeness. In the first stage we have the feeling that we are seeking a certain light. In the second stage we are merging with the light. In the third stage we realize that we and the light are one. And we have been the whole time.