As I have worked my way through the Little Books series and visited and revisited each topic, I have come to think of practice as having three levels:
- The worldly level, in which the goal of meditation is to ease the stress and suffering of ordinary life.
- The advanced level, where a skilled, experienced meditator attains jhāna.
- The transcendent level, where the meditator is one of the “four pairs of persons.” [MN 7.7] These are people who have either attained one of the four stages of Awakening or are working toward one of the stages of Awakening. The stages of Awakening are stream-entry, once-returner, non-returner and Arahant.
In the world of “Vipassana meditation” the vast majority of people fall into the first group. Just to be clear, this is not some inferior type of practice. Trying to become more skilled and happier in the world is much better than not doing that.
But this does explain why there can be tension in the Buddhist community. As I know from personal experience people in the second group can face a lot of hostility. Some years ago one of the Buddhist magazines did an issue devoted to jhāna and the letters to the editor in the following issue were disturbingly vitriolic. Yet anyone who has read the Buddha’s discourses knows the importance of jhāna in his teaching.
In the last year of t he Buddha’s life his teaching was almost entirely centered on “virtue, concentration, and wisdom” as the path. Notice that mindfulness is nowhere to be found. That is not to say that mindfulness is not important in Buddhist practice. Of course it is. It is the seventh factor of the path. But when the Buddha’s teaching matured into a final system, he organized it into virtue, concentration, and wisdom. And he defined right concentration as jhāna. So the importance of jhāna is clear.
(For more on this topic, read the paper “Jhāna in the Majjhima Nikāya” on the “Papers and Project tab.)
Then there is the transcendent level of practice.
It took me a long time to realize that one reason I do not fit well into conventional Buddhist groups – including one I started myself (!) – is because I want to attain stream-entry. This is not true for most people, at least in the Vipassana community. When I moved to New Mexico I had lunch with one of the senior members of the Albuquerque Vipassana Sangha. When I told him that I am working to attain stream-entry his response was, “Good luck with that.”
On the other hand, there are schools of Buddhism that emphasize Awakening to such an extent that they ignore the methodical, gradual way that the path must be developed. The Buddhist path is truly the journey of a thousand miles. The ground is generosity. The foundation is virtue. For lay people this is the Five Precepts. And the path is the Noble Eightfold Path: right view, right intention, right speech, right conduct, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration.
I once had a member of a Shambhala group dismiss the precepts because they were “empty.” This is a nihilistic doctrine that the Buddha would dismiss as a “doctrine of fools.” [MN 76.7] You can’t just jump to Awakening. It’s not a board game where you get to skip 12 spaces and collect $200. It is more like building a wood ship model. The rigging has to be glued in place one string at a time.
This is not to promote some kind of Buddhist chauvinism where one of these levels of practice is superior to another. Like many people I started at level one. I was very unhappy and meditation proved to be a wonderful gift, a way out of suffering at a time in my life when I really needed to find a more skillful way of living.
But over time life got better for me. This was mainly due to the Dharma. And as life got better for me, I began to see other possibilities.
This path does take incredible persistence. It not always a straight line. In fact, progress is hardly ever a straight line. But there is a carrot out there somewhere on the horizon. It is freedom from stress and suffering, transcendent wisdom and skill, and unimpeachable joy and happiness. It is at least worth considering that this is possible for you.