Study Guide - 7. The Path to Liberation

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In this chapter, we come to the unique distinguishing feature of the Buddha’s teaching, its “supramundane” or “world-transcending” (lokuttara) path to liberation. This path builds upon the transformed understanding and deepened perspective on the nature of the world that arise from our recognition of the perils in sensual pleasures, the inevitability of death, and the vicious nature of saṁsāra, themes that we surveyed in the previous chapter. It aims to lead the practitioner to the state of liberation that lies beyond all realms of conditioned existence, to the same sorrowless and stainless bliss of Nibbāna that the Buddha himself attained on the night of his enlightenment.

This chapter presents texts that offer a broad overview of the Buddha’s world-transcending path; the following two chapters will bring together texts that focus more finely on the training of the mind and the cultivation of wisdom, the two major branches of the worldtranscending path. I begin, however, with several suttas that are intended to clarify the purpose of this path, illuminating it from different angles. Text 7.1(1), The Shorter Discourse to Māluṅkyāputta (MN 63), shows that the Buddhist path is not designed to provide theoretical answers to philosophical questions. In this sutta the monk Māluṅkyāputta approaches the Buddha and demands answers to ten speculative questions, threatening to leave the Saṅgha if this demand is not satisfied. Scholars have debated whether the Buddha refused to answer such questions because they are in principle unanswerable or simply because they are irrelevant to a practical resolution of the problem of suffering. Two collections of suttas in the Saṁyutta Nikāya—SN 33:1–10 and SN 44:7–8—make it clear that the Buddha’s “silence” had a deeper basis than mere pragmatic concerns. These suttas show that all such questions are based on an underlying assumption that existence is to be interpreted in terms of a self and a world in which the self is situated. Since these premises are invalid, no answer framed in terms of these premises can be valid, and thus the Buddha must reject the very questions themselves.

However, while the Buddha had philosophical grounds for refusing to answer these questions, he also rejected them because he considered the obsession with their solutions to be irrelevant to the quest for release from suffering. This reason is the evident point of the discourse to Māluṅkyāputta, with its well-known simile of the man shot by the poisoned arrow. Whether any of these views is true or not, the Buddha says: “there is birth, there is aging, there is death, there are sorrow, lamentation, pain, dejection, and despair, the destruction of which I prescribe here and now.” Against the picture of the saṁsāric background sketched at the end of the previous chapter, this statement now takes on an expanded meaning: the “destruction of birth, aging, and death” is not merely the end of suffering in a single lifetime, but the end of the immeasurable suffering of repeated birth, aging, and death that we have undergone in the countless eons of saṁsāra.

Text 7.1(2), The Greater Discourse on the Simile of the Heartwood (MN 29), clarifies from a different angle the Buddha’s purpose in expounding his world-transcending Dhamma. The sutta is about a “clansman” who has gone forth from the household life into homelessness intent on reaching the end of suffering. Though earnest in purpose at the time of his ordination, once he attains some success, whether a lower achievement like gain and honor or a superior one like concentration and insight, he becomes complacent and neglects his original purpose in entering the Buddha’s path. The Buddha declares that none of these stations along the way—not moral discipline, concentration, or even knowledge and vision—is the final goal of the spiritual life. The goal, its heartwood or essential purpose, is “unshakable liberation of the mind,” and he urges those who have entered the path not to be satisfied with anything less.

Text 7.1(3) is a selection of suttas from “The Connected Discourses on the Path” (Maggasaṁyutta). These suttas state that the purpose of practicing the spiritual life under the Buddha is “the fading away of lust, … final Nibbāna without clinging,” the Noble Eightfold Path being the way to attain each of these aims.

The Noble Eightfold Path is the classical formulation of the way to liberation, as is already clear from the Buddha’s first sermon, in which he calls the Eightfold Path the way to the cessation of suffering. Text 7.2 gives formal definitions of the individual path factors but does not show concretely how their practice is to be integrated into the life of a disciple. The detailed application will be filled out later in this chapter and in chapters VIII and IX.

Text 7.3 throws a different spotlight on the path than we are accustomed to hear in standard Buddhist rhetoric. While we are often told that the practice of the Buddhist path depends entirely on personal effort, this sutta emphasizes the importance of spiritual friendship. The Buddha declares that spiritual friendship is not merely “half the spiritual life” but the whole of it, for the endeavor to attain spiritual perfection is not a purely solitary enterprise but occurs in dependence on close personal ties. Spiritual friendship gives the practice of the Dhamma an inescapably human dimension and welds the body of Buddhist practitioners into a community united both vertically by the relationship of teacher to students and horizontally by friendships among peers treading a shared path.

Contrary to a common assumption, the eight path factors are not steps to be followed in sequence, one after another. They are more appropriately described as components than as steps. Optimally, all eight factors should be present simultaneously, each making its own distinctive contribution, like eight interwoven strands of a cable that give the cable maximum strength. However, until that stage is reached, it is inevitable that the factors of the path exhibit some degree of sequence in their development. The eight factors are commonly distributed into three groups as follows:

  1. the moral discipline group (sīlakkhandha), made up of right speech, right action, and right livelihood;
  2. the concentration group (samādhikkhandha), made up of right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration;
  3. the wisdom group (paññākkhandha), made up of right view and right intention.

Within the Nikāyas, however, this correlation occurs only once (at MN 44; I 301), where it is ascribed to the nun Dhammadinnā, not to the Buddha himself. It might be said that the two wisdom factors are placed at the beginning because a preliminary right view and right intention are required at the outset of the path, right view providing the conceptual understanding of Buddhist principles that guides the development of the other path factors, right intention the proper motivation and direction for the development of the path.

In the Nikāyas, the Buddha often expounds the practice of the path as a gradual training (anupubbasikkhā) that unfolds in stages from the first step to the final goal. This gradual training is a finer subdivision of the threefold division of the path into moral discipline, concentration, and wisdom. Invariably in the suttas the exposition of the gradual training begins with the going forth into homelessness and the adoption of the lifestyle of a bhikkhu, a Buddhist monk. This immediately calls attention to the importance of the monastic life in the Buddha’s pragmatic vision. In principle the entire practice of the Noble Eightfold Path is open to people from any mode of life, monastic or lay, and the Buddha confirms that many among his lay followers were accomplished in the Dhamma and had attained the first three of the four stages of awakening, up to nonreturning (anāgāmī; Theravāda commentators say that lay followers can also attain the fourth stage, arahantship, but they do so either on the verge of death or after attainment immediately seek the going forth). The fact remains, however, that the household life inevitably fosters a multitude of mundane concerns and personal attachments that impede the singlehearted quest for liberation. Thus when the Buddha set out on his own noble quest he did so by going into homelessness, and after his enlightenment, as a practical way to help others, he established the Saṅgha, the order of monks and nuns, for those who want to devote themselves fully to the Dhamma unhindered by the cares of household life.

The gradual training occurs in two versions: a longer version in the Dīgha Nikāya and a middle-length version in the Majjhima Nikāya. The principal differences are: (1) the longer version has a more detailed treatment of the observances that pertain to monastic etiquette and ascetic self-restraint; (2) the longer version includes eight types of higher knowledge while the middle-length version has three types. However, as these three types are the ones mentioned in the Buddha’s account of his own enlightenment (see Text 2.3(2)), they are by far the most important. The main paradigm for the longer version of the gradual training is found at DN 2; the middle-length version is at MN 27 and MN 51, with variants at MN 38, MN 39, MN 53, MN 107, and MN 125. Here, Text 7.4 includes the whole of MN 27, which embeds the training in the simile of the elephant’s footprint that gives the sutta its name. Text 7.5, an excerpt from MN 39, repeats the higher stages of the training as described in MN 27, but includes the impressive similes not included in the latter version.

The sequence opens with the appearance of a Tathāgata in the world and his exposition of the Dhamma. Having heard this, the disciple acquires faith and follows the Teacher into homelessness. He then undertakes the rules of discipline that promote the purification of conduct and the right livelihood of an ascetic. The next three steps—contentment, restraint of the sense faculties, and mindfulness and clear comprehension—internalize the process of purification and thereby bridge the transition from moral discipline to concentration.

The section on the abandonment of the five hindrances deals with the preliminary training in concentration. The five hindrances—sensual desire, ill will, dullness and drowsiness, restlessness and remorse, and doubt—are the principal obstacles to meditative development, and thus they must be removed for the mind to become collected and unified. The stock passage on the gradual training treats the overcoming of the hindrances only schematically, but other texts in the Nikāyas provide more practical instructions, while the Pāli commentaries offer even more details. The similes in the version of MN 39—see Text 7.5—illustrate the joyful sense of freedom that one wins by overcoming the hindrances.

The next stage in the sequence describes the attainment of the jhānas, profound states of concentration in which the mind becomes fully absorbed in its object. The Buddha enumerates four jhānas, named simply after their numerical position in the series, each more refined and elevated than its predecessor. The jhānas are always described by the same formulas, which in several suttas are augmented by similes of great beauty; again, see Text 7.5. Although wisdom rather than concentration is the critical factor in the attainment of enlightenment, the Buddha invariably includes the jhānas in the gradual training for at least two reasons: first, because they contribute to the intrinsic perfection of the path; and second, because the deep concentration they induce serves as a basis for the arising of insight. The Buddha calls the jhānas the “footsteps of the Tathāgata” (MN 27.19–22) and shows them to be precursors of the bliss of Nibbāna that lies at the end of the training.

From the fourth jhāna three alternative lines of further development become possible. In a number of texts outside the stock passage on the gradual training the Buddha mentions four meditative states that continue the mental unification established by the jhānas. These states, described as “the liberations that are peaceful and formless,” are further refinements of concentration. Distinguished from the jhānas by their transcendence of the subtle mental image that serves as the object in the jhānas, they are named the base of the infinity of space, the base of the infinity of consciousness, the base of nothingness, and the base of neither-perception-nor-nonperception.

A second line of development is the acquisition of supernormal knowledge. The Buddha frequently refers to a set of six types, which come to be called the six kinds of direct knowledge (chaḷabhiññā). The last of these, the knowledge of the destruction of the taints, is “supramundane” or world-transcending and thus marks the culmination of the third line of development. But the other five are all mundane, products of the extraordinarily powerful mental concentration achieved in the fourth jhāna: the supernormal powers, the divine ear, the ability to read the minds of others, the recollection of past lives, and the knowledge of the passing away and rebirth of beings (see Text 8.4).

The jhānas and the formless attainments by themselves do not issue in enlightenment and liberation. Though lofty and peaceful, they can only silence the defilements that sustain the round of rebirths but cannot eradicate them. To uproot the defilements at the most fundamental level, and thereby arrive at enlightenment and liberation, the meditative process must be directed to a third line of development. This is the contemplation of “things as they really are,” which results in increasingly deeper insights into the nature of existence and culminates in the final goal, the attainment of arahantship.

This line of development is the one the Buddha pursues in the passage on the gradual training. He prefaces it with descriptions of two of the direct knowledges, the recollection of past lives and the knowledge of the passing away and rebirth of beings. The three together figured prominently in the Buddha’s own enlightenment—as we saw in Text 2.3(2)—and are collectively called the three true knowledges (tevijjā). Although the first two are not essential to the realization of arahantship, the Buddha probably includes them here because they reveal the truly vast and profound dimensions of suffering in saṁsāra, thereby preparing the mind for the penetration of the Four Noble Truths by which that suffering is diagnosed and surmounted.

 The passage on the gradual training does not explicitly show the process of contemplation by which the meditator develops insight. The whole process is only implied by the mention of its final fruit, called the knowledge of the destruction of the taints (āsavakkhayañāṇa). The āsavas or taints are a classification of defilements considered in their role of sustaining the forward movement of the process of birth and death. The commentaries derive the word from a root su meaning “to flow.” Scholars differ as to whether the flow implied by the prefix ā is inward or outward; hence some have rendered it as “influxes” or “influences,” others as “outflows” or “effluents.” A stock passage in the suttas indicates the term’s real significance independently of etymology when it describes the āsavas as states “that defile, bring renewal of existence, give trouble, ripen in suffering, and lead to future birth, aging, and death” (MN 36.47; I 250). Thus other translators, bypassing the literal meaning, have rendered it “cankers,” “corruptions,” or “taints.” The three taints mentioned in the Nikāyas are respectively synonyms for craving for sensual pleasures, craving for existence, and ignorance. When the disciple’s mind is liberated from the taints by the completion of the path of arahantship, he reviews his newly won freedom and roars his lion’s roar: “Birth is destroyed, the spiritual life has been lived, what had to be done has been done; there is no more coming back to any state of being.”


7. The Path to Liberation

1. Why Does One Enter the Path?

(1) The Arrow of Birth, Aging, and Death (MN 63)

(2) The Heartwood of the Spiritual Life (MN 29)

(3) The Fading Away of Lust (SN 45.41), (SN 45.42–48).

2. Analysis of the Eightfold Path (SN 45.8)

3. Good Friendship (SN 45.2)

4. The Graduated Training (MN 27)

5. The Higher Stages of Training with Similes (MN 39)


Next: 8. Mastering the Mind