Eknath Easwaran, “The Dhammapada”, an excerpt, as an example of modern Hindu mysticism.
THE STAGES OF ENLIGHTENMENT
Despite the Buddha’s extraordinary capabilities, we must accept his own testimony that until the night of his enlightenment he saw life essentially the way the rest of us do. Yet after that experience he lived in a world where concepts like time and space, causality, personality, death, all mean something radically different. What happened to turn ordinary ways of seeing inside out?
In the Vinaya Pitika (III, 4) the Buddha left a concise roadmap of his journey to nirvana—a description of the course of his meditation that night cast in the kind of language a brilliant clinician might use in the lecture hall. In Buddhism the stages of this journey are called the “four dhyanas” from the Sanskrit word for meditation which later passed into Japanese as zen. Scholars sometimes treat passage through the four dhyanas as a peculiarly Buddhist experience, but the Buddha’s description tallies not only with the Hindu authorities like Patanjali but also with Western mystics like John of the Cross, Teresa of Avila, Augustine, and Meister Eckhart. What the Buddha is giving us is something of universal application: a precise account of levels of awareness beneath the everyday waking state.
On that night, he tells us, he seated himself for meditation with the resolve not to get up again until he had attained his goal. Then, he continues,
I roused unflinching determination, focused my attention, made my body calm and motionless and my mind concentrated and one-pointed.
Standing apart from all selfish urges and all states of mind harmful to spiritual progress, I entered the first meditative state, where the mind, though not quite free from divided and diffuse thought, experiences lasting joy.
By putting an end to divided and diffuse thought, with my mind stilled in one-pointed absorption, I entered the second meditative state quite free from any wave of thought, and experienced the lasting joy of the unitive state.
As that joy became more intense and pure, I entered the third meditative state, becoming conscious in the very depths of the unconscious. Even my body was flooded with that joy of which the noble ones say, “They live in abiding joy who have stilled the mind and are fully awake.”
Then, going beyond the duality of pleasure and pain, and the whole field of memory-making forces in the mind, I dwelt at last in the fourth meditative state, utterly beyond the reach of thought, in that realm of complete purity which can be reached only through detachment and contemplation.
This was my first successful breaking forth, like a chick breaking out of its shell….
This last quiet phrase is deadly. Our everyday life, the Buddha is suggesting, is lived within an eggshell. We have no more idea of what life is really like than a chicken has before it hatches. Excitement and depression, fortune and misfortune, pleasure and pain, are storms in a tiny, private, shell-bound realm which we take to be the whole of existence.
Yet we can break out of this shell and enter a new world. For a moment the Buddha draws aside the curtain of space and time and tells us what it is like to see into another dimension. When I read these words I remember listening to the far-off voice of Neil Armstrong that evening in 1969, telling us what it felt like to stand on the moon and look up at the earth floating in a sea of stars. The Buddha’s voice reaches us from no distance at all, yet from a place much more remote. He is at the center of consciousness, beyond the thinking apparatus itself. As in some science fiction story, he has slipped through a kind of black hole into a parallel universe and returned to tell the rest of us what lies outside the boundaries of the mind.
To capture this vision will require many metaphors. Like snapshots of the same scene from different angles, they will sometimes appear inconsistent. This should present no problem to the modern mind. We are used to physicists presenting us with exotic and conflicting models—phenomena described as both particles and waves, parallel futures where something both takes place and does not, universes that are finite but unbounded. The mathematics behind these models is consistent, experts assure us, and the models are the best that imagination can do. And we laymen are satisfied: we cannot check the mathematics, but we are quite content to get an intuitive sense of what such radical ideas mean. Let us give the Buddha the same credence. Beneath the simple verses of the Dhammapada he will show us a universe every bit as fascinating as Bohr’s or Einstein’s.
The Buddha’s dry description of the four dhyanas hides the fact that traversing them is a nearly impossible achievement. Even to enter the first dhyana requires years of dedicated, sustained, systematic effort, the kind of practice that turns an ordinary athlete into a champion.
This is an apt comparison, for the word the Buddha chose for “right effort” is one that is used for disciplined athletic training in general and gymnastics in particular. When the Buddha mentions with what determination he sat down for meditation that night, I remember the look on the face of Mary Lou Retton when she stood waiting the launch the gymnastics routine that won her an Olympic gold medal. She had trained her body for years, sharpened her concentration, unified her will, and that moment she had one thing on her mind and one thing only. Nothing less is required for meditation. Behind the Buddha’s apparently effortless passage through deeper states of consciousness lie years of the most arduous training.
The First Dhyana
When a lover of music listens to a concert, she is likely to close her eyes. If you call her name or touch her on the shoulder, she may not even notice. Attention has been withdrawn from her other senses and is concentrated in her hearing. The same thing happens as meditation deepens, except that attention is withdrawn from all the senses and drawn inward. Western mystics call this “recollection”, a literal translation of what the Buddha calls “right attention”. No one has given a better comparison than St. Teresa: attention returns from the outside world, she says, like bees returning to the hive, and gathers inside in intense activity to make honey. Sound, touch, and so on are still perceived, but they make very little impression, almost as if the senses have been disconnected.
Gradually, as the quiet settles in, we realize we are in a new world. For a while we cannot see. Like moviegoers entering a dark theater for a matinee, our eyes are still dazzled by the glare from outside. To learn to move about in this world takes time. A blind man has hearing and touch to help him from place to place, but in the unconscious, with the senses closed down, there are no landmarks that one can recognize.
At this level we begin to see how the mind works. Cut off from its accustomed sensory input, it runs around looking for something to stimulate it. The Buddha specifies two aspects of this: “divided thought”, the ordinary two-track mind, trying to keep attention on two things at once, and “diffuse thought”, the mind’s tendency to wander. The natural direction of this movement is outward, toward the sensations of experience. To turn inward, this movement has to be reversed. Throughout the first dhyana the centrifugal force of the thinking process is gradually absorbed as attention is recalled.
Ordinarily, thought follows a course of stimulus and response. Some event, whether in the world or in the mind, sets off a chain of associations, and attention follows. To descend through the personal unconscious, we need concentration that cannot be broken by any sensory attraction or emotional response—in a word, mastery over our senses and our likes and dislikes. Most people work through the first dhyana by developing this kind of self-control during the day. The Buddha, however, has covered this ground already. His passions are mastered and his mind one-pointed. When he sits down to meditate, he crosses this region of the mind without distraction.
This is only the first leg of a very long journey, but even in itself it is a rare achievement. The concentration it requires will bring success in any field, along with a deep sense of well-being, security and a quiet joy in living. No great flashes of insight come at this level, but you do begin to see connections between personal problems and their deeper causes, and with this comes the will to make changes in your life.
The Second Dhyana
To talk about regions of the mind like this, I confess, is a little misleading. Between the first and second dhyana, there is no demarcation line. Both are areas of what might be called the personal unconscious, that sector of the mind in which lie the thoughts, feelings, habits and experiences peculiar to oneself as an individual. In the second dhyana, however, concentration is much deeper, and the demands of the senses—to taste, hear, touch, smell or see, to experience some sensation or the other—have become much less shrill. The quiet of meditation is unassailed by the outside world. Distractions can still break the thread of concentration, but much less easily; gradually they seem more and more distant.
Here the battle for self-mastery moves to a significantly deeper leve. Associations, desires, and thoughts generated by the preoccupations of the day leave behind their disguises of rational, unselfish behavior and appear for what they are. The ego has retreated to more basic demands: the claims of “I” and “mine”. Here, to make progress, we become eager for opportunities to go against self-will, especially in personal relationships. There is no other way to gain detachment from the self-centered conditioning that burdens every human being. The Buddha calls this “swimming against the current”: the concerted, deliberate effort to dissolve self-interest in the desire to serve a larger whole, when eons of conditioning has programmed us to serve ourselves first.
This is terribly painful, but with the pain comes the satisfaction in mastering some of the strongest urges in the human personality. When you sit for meditation you descend steadily, step by step, into the depths of the unconscious. The experience is very much like what deep—sea divers describe when they lower themselves into the black waters hundreds of feet down. The world of everyday experience seems as remote as the ocean’s surface, and you feel immense pressure in your head, as if you were immersed under the weight of a sea of consciousness. The thread of concentration is your lifeline then. If it breaks, you can lose your way in these dark depths.
Here all the mind’s attention—even what ordinarily goes to subconscious urges and preoccupations—is being absorbed in a single focus. This seemingly simple state comes spontaneously only to men and women of great genius, and it contains immense power. The rush of the thinking process has been slowed to a crawl, each moment of thought under control. The momentum of the mind has been gathered into great reserves of potential energy, as an object gathers when lifted against the pull of gravity.
In these depths comes a revolutionary realization: thought is not continuous. Instead of being a smooth, unbroken stream, the thinking process is more like the flow of action in a movie: only a series of stills, passing our eyes faster than we can perceive.
This idea is one of the most abstract in Buddhism, and movies make such a concrete illustration that I feel sure the Buddha would have appreciated having a reel of film to show intellectuals like Malunkyaputra. “You wouldn’t say a move is unreal, would you?” he might ask. “But the appearance of continuity is unreal, and confusing a movie with reality is not right understanding.”
Most of us find it easy to get involved in certain kinds of movies. We get caught up in the action and forget ourselves, and our body and mind respond as if we were there on the screen. The heart races, blood pressure goes up, fists clench, and the mind gets excited and jumps to conclusions, just as if we were actually experiencing what is happening to the hero or heroine. The Buddha would say, “You are experiencing it: and that is the way you experience life too.”
This may sound heartless, as if he is saying that excitement and tragedy are no more than a celluloid illusion. Not at all. What he means is that as human beings, our responses should not be automatic; we should be able to choose. When the mind is excited, we jump into a situation and do whatever comes automatically, which often only makes things worse. If the mind is calm, we see clearly and don’t get emotionally entangled in events around us, leaving us free to respond with compassion and help.
Most of us have never thought much about the mechanics of film projection, so we are surprised to learn that every moment of image on the screen is followed by a moment of no-image when the screen is dark. We do not perceive these moments of emptiness. Action stimulates the mind; no-action bores it. Attention follows the desire to be stimulated and skips over what the mind finds meaningless. The power of imagination jumps the gap between images, holding them together in our mind. Only when the projector is slowed down do we begin to see the flicker of the screen.
When this happens in a movie, our interest wanes. Our attention is not powerful enough to hold together in a continuous flow of images that are broken by more than a fraction of a second. Such a feat requires the concentration of genius. I think it was Keynes who said that Newton had the capacity to hold a single problem in the focus of his mind for days, weeks, even years, until it was solved. That is just what is required at this depth of meditation. The thinking process is slowed until you can almost see each thought pass by, yet instead of one thought following another without rhyme or reason, the mind has such power that the focus of concentration is not disturbed.
At this depth in consciousness, the sense world and even the notion of personal identity are very far away. Asleep to one’s body, asleep even to thoughts, feelings and desires that we think of as ourselves, we are nevertheless intensely awake in an inner world—deep in the unconscious, near the very threshold of personality.
The Third Dhyana
If thought is discontinuous, we want to ask, what is between two thoughts? The answer is, nothing. A thought is like a wave in consciousness; between two thoughts there is no movement in the mind at all. Consciousness itself is like a still lake, clear, calm and full of joy.
When the thought-process has been slowed down to a crawl in meditation, there comes a time when—without warning—the movie of the mind stops and you get a glimpse right through the mind into deeper consciousness. This is called Bodhi, and it comes like a blinding glimpse of pure light accompanied by a flood of joy.
This experience is not what Zen Buddhists call “no-mind”. It is only, if I may coin a term, “no-thought”. The thinking process has such immense momentum that even at this depth, concentration has power enough to stop it only for an instant before it starts up again. But the joy of this experience is so intense that all your desires for life’s lesser satisfactions merge in the deep, driving desire to do everything possible to stop the mind again.
This point marks the threshold between the second and third dhyanas. Crossing this threshold is one of the most difficult challenges in the spiritual journey. You feel blocked by an impenetrable wall. Bodhi is a glimpse of the other side, as you get when you drop a quarter into the telescope near the Golden Gate Bridge and the shutter snaps open for a two-minute look at sea lions frolicking on the rocks. But these first experiences of Bodhi are over in an instant, leaving you so eagerly frustrated that you are willing to do anything to get through. You feel your way along that wall from one end to the other looking for a break, and finally you realize that there isn’t any. And you just start chipping away. It requires the patience of someone trying to wear down the Himalayas with a piece of silk—and you feel you are making about as much progress.
This is a rarefied world. Like the outside world, personal identity is far away. You feel as if the wall between yourself and the rest of creation were paper-thin. If you are to go further, this wall has to fall. For on the opposite side lies the collective unconscious: not necessarily what Jung meant when he coined the term, but what the Buddha calls “storehouse consciousness”, the strata of the mind shared by every individual creature. Here are stored the seeds of our evolutionary heritage, the race-old instincts, drives, urges, and experiences of a primordial past. To dive into these dark waters and stay conscious, you have to take off you individual personality and leave it on the shore.
Paradoxically, this cannot be accomplished by any amount of will and drive associated with the individual self. It is not done just in meditation but during the day. Doing “good works” is not enough; the mental state is crucial. There must be no taint of “I” or “mine” in what you do, no self-interest, only your best effort to see yourself in all.
One way to explain this is that karma has to be cleared before you can cross the wall. All the momentum of the thinking process comes from the residue of karma. To clear our accounts, we have to absorb whatever comes to us with kindness, calmness, courage, and compassion. Karma is not really erased; its negative entries are balanced with positive ones in a flood of selfless service.
When the books of karma are almost closed, the Buddha says you “come to that place where one grieves no more”. Then you see that the mistakes of your past and their karmic playback were part of a pattern of spiritual growth stretching over many lives. Once paid for, these mistakes are no longer yours. They are the life history of a person made up of thoughts, desires and motives that are gone. The karma of those thoughts applied to the old person; it cannot stick to the new. Then the past carries no guilt and no regrets. You have learned what was to be learned. Recollecting past errors is like picking up a book about someone else, reading a page or two, and then putting it back on the shelf.
You may wait and wait on this threshold, consumed in a patient impatience, doing everything possible during the day to allow you to break through in your next meditation. This can go on for days, months, even years; it is not really in your hands. But then, suddenly, the mind process stops and stays stopped. You slip through and the waters of the collective unconscious close over your head.
Beyond this, words are useless. Time stops with the mind, and many physiological processes are almost suspended. But there is an intense, unbroken flood of joy to which even the body and nervous system respond.
This experience cannot last. Like a diver, you have to come up for air. But unity has left an indelible imprint. Never again will you believe yourself a separate creature, a finite physical entity that was born to die. You know firsthand that you are inseparable from the whole of creation, and you are charged by the power of this experience to serve all life.
The Fourth Dhyana
Even this is not journey’s end. Like a traveler returning from another country, you remember clearly what you have seen in Bodhi; yet during the day, the everyday world closes in around you again. Such is the power of the mind that the mundane soon seems real, and unity something far away. In the third dhyana the conditioned instincts of the mind are stilled but not destroyed. They remain like seeds, ready to sprout when you return to surface awareness. The experience of unity has to be repeated over and over until those seeds are burned out, so that they can never sprout again.
We know what power a compulsive desire can have at the surface of the mind. In these depths, that power is magnified a thousand times. You feel as if you are standing on the floor of an ocean where no light has ever reached, buffeted by currents you cannot understand. Then you know that the mind is a field of forces.
But that does not tell you how to deal with these forces. In the unconscious, the will does not operate. Yet to make progress you have to learn to make it operate, so that you can harness the power of the unconscious in everyday life. That is the challenge of crossing the third dhyana, compared with which sky-diving and whitewater boating are armchair exploits.
Your goal is to reach such a depth that even in dreams the awareness of unity remains unbroken. Then every corner of the mind is flooded with light. The partitions fall; consciousness is unified from surface to seabed. You are awake on the very floor of the unconscious, and life is a seamless whole.
This is nirvana. The seeds of a separate personality have been burned out; they will not germinate again. When you return to the surface of consciousness, you will pick up the appearance of personality and slip it on again. But it is the personality of a new man, a new woman, purified of separateness and reborn in the love of all life.
Those who achieve this exalted state, the Buddha says simply, have done what has to be done. They have fulfilled the purpose of life. They may be born again, if they choose, in order to help others to attain the goal. But this is their choice, not a matter of compulsion. Therefore, the Buddha says, this body is their last. Samsara, the ceaseless round of birth and death, has no beginning, but it has an end: nirvana. Nirvana has a beginning, but once attained it has no end.
As a word, nirvana is negative. It means “to blow out”, as one would extinguish a fire, and the Buddha often describes it as putting out, cooling, or quenching the fires of self-will and selfish passion. But the force of the word is entirely positive. Like the English flawless, it expresses perfection as the absence of any fault. Perfection, the Buddha implies, is our real nature. All we have to do is to remove the veil of self-centeredness that covers it.
Someone once asked the Buddha skeptically, “What have you gained through meditation?”
The Buddha replied, “Nothing at all”.
“Then, Blessed One, what good is it?”
“Let me tell you what I lost through meditation: sickness, anger, depression, insecurity, the burden of old age, the fear of death. That is the good of meditation, which leads to nirvana.”
What draws one back from this sublime state? The separate personality is lost, yet we cannot say nothing remains. There is a kind of shadow which the Buddha wears, clothing him in humanity, yet it is so thin that the radiance of infinity transfigures him. Siddhartha dissolved in the fourth dhyana, and one called the Buddha returned from it; that is all we can say.