The Noble Eightfold Blog

Awakening and Nirvāṇa

by Eric Van Horn

Copyright © 2015 Eric K. Van Horn

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Table of Contents



For the first 20 years of my practice, I thought Awakening was like this cartoon. Practice Method One was to sit and sit and sit, and after a while a miracle would occur. Practice Method Two was to watch "whatever arises" - to just "be with it" - and a miracle would occur. No one connected the dots for me. How do you go from a breath awareness practice to opening to the deathless dimension? "Opening to the deathless" sounds ominous, and I felt like I was trying to build a house without any construction skills or a blueprint.

Fortunately the Buddha gives us good instructions on how to Awaken. Admittedly the instruction manual is pretty long, but everything you need is there.

What is Nirvāṇa?

The word “nirvāṇa” literally means “to extinguish”. The “Three Poisons” in early Buddhism were also called “The Three Fires”. [Richard F. Gombrich, How Buddhism Began: The Conditioned Genesis of the Early Teachings] Thus one definition of nirvāṇa is "extinguishing the fires of greed, hatred and delusion". Once the mind extinguishes the fires, it does not create any new karma. It is incapable of greed, hatred and delusion, and is only motivated by generosity, love, compassion and wisdom.

The Buddha focused on the process whereby the mind attains this experience. Thus the word “nirvāṇa” is more a verb than a noun. It is not a state of mind in which one exists. It is an experience, after which the mind is free from suffering and the rounds of rebirth. To use the often quoted phrase, the mind is “nirvāṇa-ed”, or “nirvāṇized”. There is still old karma to work out, but no new karma is created, and when the body dies, it is no longer subject to the rounds of rebirth. One enters the realm of the “unconditioned,” distinguishing it from the rest of the cosmology where all the realms are conditioned:

There is, bhikkhus, that base where there is no earth, no water, no fire, no air; no base consisting of the infinity of space, no base consisting of the infinity of consciousness, no base consisting of nothingness, no base consisting of neither-perception-nor-non-perception; neither this world nor another world nor both; neither sun nor moon. Here, bhikkhus, I say there is no coming, no going, no staying, no deceasing, no uprising. Not fixed, not movable, it has no support. Just this is the end of suffering. – [Ud 80]

Now we are dealing with the transcendent. It is beyond any conventional experience of time and space. Our normal frames of reference do not apply. In the "Aggivacchagotta Sutta: To Vacchagotta on Fire" [MN 72] the Buddha uses the simile of fire to make this point: 

“If someone were to ask you, Vaccha: ‘When that fire before you was extinguished, to which direction did it go: to the east, the west, the north, or the south?’ - being asked thus, what would you answer?”

“That does not apply, Master Gotama. The fire burned in dependence on its fuel of grass and sticks. When that is used up, if it does not get any more fuel, being without fuel, it is reckoned as extinguished.”

“So too, Vaccha, the Tathāgata has abandoned that material form by which one describing the Tathāgata might describe him; he has cut it off at the root, made it like a palm stump, done away with it so that it is no longer subject to future arising. The Tathāgata is liberated from reckoning in terms of material form, Vaccha, he is profound, immeasurable, hard to fathom like the ocean. ‘He reappears’ does not apply; ‘he does not reappear’ does not apply; ‘he both reappears and does not reappear’ does not apply; ‘he neither reappears nor does not reappear’ does not apply. The Tathāgata has abandoned that feeling by which one describing the Tathāgata might describe him…has abandoned that perception by which one describing the Tathāgata might describe him…has abandoned those formations by which one describing the Tathāgata might describe him…has abandoned that consciousness by which one describing the Tathāgata might describe him; he has cut it off at the root, made it like a palm stump, done away with it so that it is no longer subject to future arising. The Tathāgata is liberated from reckoning in terms of consciousness, Vaccha; he is profound, immeasurable, hard to fathom like the ocean. - [MN 72.20]

The Buddha famously refused to answer certain philosophical questions. We have already seen that he refused to answer the question of whether the self exists. The nature of an Arahant (or "Tathāgata", as in the quote) after death is another such issue. These questions are called - rather simply - "The Unanswered Questions", or "The Unfathomable Questions" (Sanskrit avyākṛta, Pali: avyākata - "unfathomable, unexpounded"). The Buddha goes even further to say that holding a view - an opinion - on these questions will actually keep us from Awakening.  In the "Nivāpa Sutta: The Bait" [MN 25] he compares anyone who holds such views to a deer that is trapped by hunters, where the views are the bait:

But then they came to hold views such as ‘the world is eternal’ and ‘the world is not eternal’ and ‘the world is finite’ and ‘the world is infinite’ and ‘the soul and the body are the same’ and ‘the soul is one thing and the body another’ and ‘after death a Tathāgata exists’ and ‘after death a Tathāgata does not exist’ and ‘after death a Tathāgata both exists and does not exist’ and ‘after death a Tathāgata neither exists nor does not exist’ That is how those recluses and brahmins of the third kind failed to get free from Māra’s power and control. - [MN 25.12]

Thus, the Buddha tells us to remain focused on solving the problem of suffering, and warns against trying to characterize the un-characterizable. It's a waste of time (and space), and a showstopper for our goal. Nonetheless, even during his lifetime monks tried to anyway, and he reprimanded them for doing so. [SN 22.85, SN 22.86] So of course speculation on the unconditioned has continued to the present day. You can lead a horse to water, as the saying goes.

The more important questions are a) do I want it and b) how do I get there?

As to the first question, the Buddha assures us in the strongest possible terms that the answer is “yes”:

Bhikkhus, suppose there were a man with a life span of a hundred years, who could live a hundred years. Someone would say to him: ‘Come, good man, in the morning they will strike you with a hundred spears; at noon they will strike you with a hundred spears; in the evening they will strike you with a hundred spears. And you, good man, being struck day after day by three hundred spears will have a life span of a hundred years, will live a hundred years; and then, after a hundred years have passed, you will make the breakthrough to the Four Noble Truths, to which you had not broken through earlier.’

It is fitting, bhikkhus, for a clansman intent on his good to accept the offer. - [SN 56.35]

So it must be pretty darned good.

As to the latter question, the answer is the eightfold noble path.

We also discussed another way to define nirvāṇa, and that is in terms of the 10 fetters. And still another way to understand it is “cessation”, as in the Third Noble Truth:

And what, friends, is the noble truth of the cessation of suffering? It is the remainderless fading away and ceasing, the giving up, relinquishing, letting go, and rejecting of that same craving. This is called the noble truth of the cessation of suffering. - [MN 141.22]

“Cessation” here means “the cessation of craving”. The chain of dependent co-arising is broken. One who is fully Awakened does not feed the chain of causation. This is because ignorance - which is at the root of the chain of dependent co-arising - is cut off. The ignorance is replaced by direct, clear, knowledge:

He fully understands by direct knowledge those things that should be fully understood by direct knowledge. He abandons by direct knowledge those things that should be abandoned by direct knowledge. He develops by direct knowledge those things that should be developed by direct knowledge. He realizes by direct knowledge those things that should be realized by direct knowledge. – [MN 149.10]

While the word "knowledge" is used here, a more appropriate term is "knowing". "Knowledge" is something you spit back on a test. It is a piece of information. "Knowing" is something that you experience directly. "Knowledge" is when the Battle of Hastings was fought. "Knowing" is how you felt when you got your driver's license.

The Buddha also defines the end of the path as the destruction of the “taints”:

I have proclaimed to my disciples the way whereby by realizing for themselves with direct knowledge, they here and now enter upon and abide in the deliverance of mind and deliverance by wisdom that are taintless with the destruction of the taints. And thereby many disciples of mine abide having reached the consummation and perfection of direct knowledge. - [MN 77.36]

The taints are 1) sense desire, 2) becoming and 3) ignorance.

Thus there are a number of ways by which the end of the path is understood:

  1. The extinguishing of greed, hatred and delusion.
  2. The destruction of the fetters.
  3. The cessation of craving.
  4. The destruction of the taints.

The realm is variously called “the deathless”, “the unconditioned”, the "unborn, unageing, unailing", etc. The attainment is called "enlightenment", "liberation", "release" and "Awakening". The term "enlightenment" fell out of favor in the West because it is confused with the Age of Enlightenment. But you hear all of these terms, and they all have some justification for their use. I generally use the term "Awakening" to describe the experience.  You Awaken to transcendent understanding, direct, clear knowing. And I tend to use “the unconditioned” to define the realm. But the preferred terms are somewhat a case of tomayto, tomahto.

Misconceptions About Awakening

There are a some common misconceptions about Awakening that are worth addressing.

As noted, attaining the first stage of Awakening - stream-entry - causes a fundamental change in the mind. This is why a stream-enterer attains a full Awakening in no more than seven lifetimes. Even the uncertainties of rebirth do not cause the mind to lose its positive, karmic momentum. The change is permanent.

There is a popular book that suggests that stream-entry is no big deal, that after you attain an Awakening, you just go back to the mundane activities of life. This is not correct. You are never the same after attaining stream-entry, and that is a very good thing.

You also see the quote that a "moment of mindfulness is a moment of Awakening". This "is something the Buddha would never say, because mindfulness is conditioned and nirvāṇa is not". [Ṭhānissaro Bhikkhu, "Mindfulness Defined"] Stream-entry is somewhat trivialized in the West. Attaining stream-entry is not easy, and when it happens to you, it is a pivotal moment in your existence.

But even if you do not attain stream-entry in this lifetime, it is important to set it as a goal. Even the aspiration for stream-entry makes you a member of the noble Saṅgha:

The noble Saṅgha consists of eight types of noble persons, who are joined into four pairs in relation to the four stages of Awakening. The two members of each pair are the one who has attained the stage itself and the one who has entered the path leading irreversibly toward that stage. They are stated concisely thus: “The stream-enterer, the one practicing for realization of the fruit of stream-entry; the once-returner, the one practicing for realization of the fruit of once-returning; the non-returner, the one practicing for realization of the fruit of non-returning; the arahant, the one practicing for realization of the fruit of arahantship.

- [Bhikkhu Bodhi, Aṅguttara Nikāya, Introduction]

And, of course, a stream-enterer is incapable of breaking the precepts:

Again, some person fulfills virtuous behavior but cultivates concentration and wisdom only to a moderate extent. With the utter destruction of three fetters, this person is a seven-times-at-most attainer who, after roaming and wandering on among devas and humans seven times at most, makes an end of suffering. This is the ninth person, passing away with a residue remaining, who is freed from hell, the animal realm, and the sphere of afflicted spirits; freed from the plane of misery, the bad destination, the lower world. - [AN 9.12.6]

The phrase "fulfills virtuous behavior" is sometimes translated as "accomplished in the precepts". So if you know anyone who claims to be a stream-enter, and they lie, steal, manipulate, commit acts of sexual misconduct, or any other breach of ethical conduct, you know that they are not.

Personality and Temperament

Ṭhānissaro Bhikkhu tells a story about a woman who read the Buddha’s teachings on non-self, and when she visited the monastery she was disappointed to find out that the monks have personalities.

In fact, our true personalities don’t have a chance to shine through because they are obscured by greed, aversion and delusion. If you are angry a lot of the time, the shyer aspects of your personality do not manifest. Negative mind states are powerful, and they overwhelm the positive ones.

We all have different temperaments and different karmas. This means that our paths to Awakening and how Awakening manifests in each one of us is unique. In the sutta "Foremost" [AN 1.188-267], there are seven chapters, four devoted to monks, and one each to nuns, lay men and lay women. In each chapter the Buddha lists who among that group is foremost in a particular quality:

Bhikkhus, the foremost of my bhikkhu disciples in seniority is Aññākoṇḍañña.

Bhikkhus, the foremost of my bhikkhu disciples among those with great wisdom is Sāriputta.

Bhikkhus, the foremost of my bhikkhu disciples among those with psychic potency is Mahāmoggallāna.

Bhikkhus, the foremost of my bhikkhu disciples among those who expound the ascetic practices is Mahākassapa.

Bhikkhus, the foremost of my bhikkhu disciples among those with the divine eye is Anuruddha.

Bhikkhus, the foremost of my bhikkhu disciples among those from eminent families is Bhaddiya Kāḷigodhāyaputta.

Bhikkhus, the foremost of my bhikkhu disciples among those with a sweet voice is Lakuṇṭaka Bhaddiya.

Bhikkhus, the foremost of my bhikkhu disciples among those with the lion’s roar is Piṇḍola Bhāradvāja.

Bhikkhus, the foremost of my bhikkhu disciples among those who speak on the Dhamma is Puṇṇa Mantāṇiputta.

Bhikkhus, the foremost of my bhikkhu disciples among those who explain in detail the meaning of what has been stated in brief is Mahākaccāna. – [AN 1.188-197]

(And so on for three more chapters.)

Bhikkhus, the foremost of my bhikkhunī disciples in seniority is Mahāpajāpatī Gotamī.

Bhikkhus, the foremost of my bhikkhunī disciples among those with great wisdom is Khemā.

Bhikkhus, the foremost of my bhikkhunī disciples among those with psychic potency is Uppalavaṇṇā.

Bhikkhus, the foremost of my bhikkhunī disciples among those who uphold the discipline is Paṭācārā.

Bhikkhus, the foremost of my bhikkhunī disciples among speakers on the Dhamma is Dhammadinnā.

Bhikkhus, the foremost of my bhikkhunī disciples among meditators is Nandā.

Bhikkhus, the foremost of my bhikkhunī disciples among those who arouse energy is Soṇā.

Bhikkhus, the foremost of my bhikkhunī disciples among those with the divine eye is Sakulā.

Bhikkhus, the foremost of my bhikkhunī disciples among those who quickly attain direct knowledge is Bhaddā Kuṇḍalakesā.

Bhikkhus, the foremost of my bhikkhunī disciples among those who recollect past lives is Bhaddā Kāpilānī.

Bhikkhus, the foremost of my bhikkhunī disciples among those who attain great direct knowledge is Bhaddā Kaccānā.

Bhikkhus, the foremost of my bhikkhunī disciples among those who wear coarse robes is Kisāgotamī.

Bhikkhus, the foremost of my bhikkhunī disciples among those resolved through faith is Sigālamātā. – [AN 235-247]

(Interesting little fun fact: Mahāpajāpatī Gotamī was the Buddha's stepmother, the one who raised him.)

The sutta continues with lay people.

Thus we all come to the Dharma in a different way, and the Dharma expresses itself in each of us in a different way.

Ajahn Chah once said, “We are all the same. But we are all different. But we are all the same.”

We have the same disease, and it works the same way in all of us. But we all have unique temperaments, unique strengths and weaknesses, unique personalities. The precise door that we use to end our suffering will not be the same. The Buddha’s two chief disciples were Moggalana and Sariputta, and while they were best friends, they were also quite different. As you can see in the sutta, Sariputta was foremost in wisdom. Sariputta would have made a great organic chemist or quantum physicist. Mogallana was foremost in psychic powers. He would have been a great fortuneteller or magician, maybe a fantastic stockbroker.

One of the things that happens as you practice is that you stop self-identifying with your temperament. Whatever your temperament is, some people will like it, some people won’t like it, and some people won’t care. It isn’t who you are, it is just how you are constructed in this lifetime. On the path to Awakening, you get to know it better, you learn how to make it work for you, and you stop worrying about whether it is good or bad or right or wrong.

(I heard this story about a Zen Master and one of his students. The Zen Master had this dynamic personality, and the student was rather shy and retiring. One day the student asked his teacher,  "If I become enlightened, will I be like you?" "No," the Master replied. "I was just born this way.")

If you have bricks, you build a brick house. If you have wood, you build a wooden house.

Your path to Awakening will not follow a precise formula. On the other hand, the end game is the same, and that is to end the process of fabrication. There is a map, but the map cannot tell you what your trip will be like, or the precise route you will take.


We start in the world of sense desire, and the Buddha tells us something that seems to go beyond all reason. It is something counter-intuitive. He tells us that sense desire is at the heart of the problem.

As our practice evolves, we replace sense desire with the desire born of seclusion, jhāna. Jhāna is peaceful, calm, serene, uncomplicated, and it does not have the dangers inherent in sense desire.

That is one of the things that the Buddha tells us about sense desire, that there are dangers involved:

Before my enlightenment, while I was still only an unenlightened Bodhisatta, I too clearly saw as it actually is with proper wisdom how sensual pleasures provide little gratification, much suffering, and much despair, and how great is the danger in them, but as long as I still did not attain to the rapture and pleasure that are apart from sensual pleasures, apart from unwholesome states, or to something more peaceful than that, I recognised that I still could be attracted to sensual pleasures. But when I clearly saw as it actually is with proper wisdom how sensual pleasures provide little gratification, much suffering, and much despair, and how great is the danger in them, and I attained to the rapture and pleasure that are apart from sensual pleasures, apart from unwholesome states, or to something more peaceful than that, I recognised that I was no longer attracted to sensual pleasures. - [MN 14.5]

Now we have something better, much better. And as we get better at practicing jhāna, we see for ourselves the danger in sense desire.

This evolves as your practice matures. When you see the danger in sense desire, you develop dispassion.

And what have I declared? ‘This is suffering’ - I have declared. ‘This is the origin of suffering’ - I have declared. ‘This is the cessation of suffering’ - I have declared. ‘This is the way leading to the cessation of suffering’ - I have declared.

Why have I declared that? Because it is beneficial, it belongs to the fundamentals of the holy life, it leads to disenchantment, to dispassion, to cessation, to peace, to direct knowledge, to enlightenment, to Nibbāna. That is why I have declared it. - [MN 63.9-10]

We tend to think of "passion" as a good thing. The things about which we care the most are the things for which we have a passion. We may even think that we are passionate about the Dharma.

The dispassion about which the Buddha is speaking here is passion for sense desire and becoming: "becoming" both in the sense of self-identification as well as continued existence. Dispassion is akin to "losing interest". As you see the problems in sense desire, and as you become more proficient in the superior pleasure of jhāna, they lose their appeal. You become bored with them. Likewise, as you see the risks and dangers in rebirth, you lose interest in becoming.

Again, this is something that will evolve in your practice. You will be sitting - perhaps in jhāna - and a thought about sense desire will arise. That will be followed by the thought, "Why would I want that?" There may be an aversion to it. The aversion may be quite strong. The Buddha sometimes used the word "revulsion". The Pāli word is "nibbiddā". It is also rendered as "disenchantment" (as in the above quote) or "disgust". "Revulsion" may sound too strong. However, when you experience it in your meditation, it may feel just like that.

The Many Moving Parts

Here, Ānanda, a bhikkhu develops right view, which is based upon seclusion, dispassion, and cessation, maturing in release. He develops right intention … right speech ... right action ... right livelihood … right effort … right mindfulness … right concentration, which is based upon seclusion, dispassion, and cessation, maturing in release. - [SN 45.2]

It is easy to get consumed by one part of the practice, and to make that the whole of your practice. But this is a multifaceted practice with a lot of moving parts. We start with our conduct: virtue, ethics, morality. We put our good conduct on a ground of generosity. We follow the lay precepts. Monks have over 200 precepts; nuns have over 300. We examine the results of our actions, and try to do only what is skillful, what is of benefit to ourselves and others now and in the future. We work on our intention, because skillful intention is the heart of good karma. In the eightfold noble path, parts 3, 4 and 5 are about right conduct.

Then we meditate. We have three major parts to meditation, the Four Foundations of Mindfulness, Mindfulness of Breathing, and jhāna. We weave them together like three different colors of yarn into a whole tapestry. The Four Foundations of Mindfulness show us the lay of the land. Mindfulness of Breathing takes us all the way to an Awakening in the fourth tetrad. And jhāna starts as a challenging goal to attain, and then becomes the springboard to stream-entry. In the eightfold noble path, parts 6, 7 and 8 are about meditation.

Right Understanding starts out as mundane right view: the Four Noble Truths, dependent co-arising, the law of karma, the Three Marks of Existence. As our practice grows we see them for ourselves. We see how our minds work in unskillful ways. As our practice progresses, mundane right view becomes transcendent right understanding. In the eightfold noble path, parts 1 and 2 are right view.

These are the pieces of the puzzle, and we develop them together. I once saw this stage act where a man started with a bunch of sticks and a stack of plates. One by one he picked up a stick and a plate, and started the plate spinning on the end of the stick. He then took the stick with the spinning plate and inserted it into a holder on a table. After a while he got about fifteen of these spinning plates on the table.

Eventually one of the plates would start to wobble and he gave it another spin to keep it going. With 15 of them going he had to keep a watchful eye on them, and when one started to wobble he had to run over to that one and give it a whirl.

Practice is like that. One part of your practice is going well, and then you find yourself engaged in wrong speech. Then you do something kind and generous, but you can't concentrate. You try to understand dependent co-arising and you can't make any sense of it, but your sitting is calm and relaxed.

So you keep a watchful eye on it all, and when one of the plates starts to wobble, you give it some extra attention; you give it a whirl. In this way you keep all the moving parts going.

The danger in not developing the whole path is that you lose site of the main objective. You go from creating mischief of the old sort to creating mischief of a new sort. There is a well-known meditation center where every year they hold a retreat for people whose sole practice is trying to attain the deathless. They just sit all day long trying to go from A to Z, skipping those nuisances B through Y. They do not practice the whole of the gradual path, the noble eightfold path. And according to the people who work at the retreat center, they are insufferable.

So develop your practice as a whole. It is like going 55 mph on the highway. If the car speeds up, you back off of the gas. If the car slows down, give it more gas. You really can't go 90 in this practice. Your mind won't tolerate it. That may even slow you down. This is about developing in an optimal way, not a maximal one. If you go 55 you will get there safely, without wasting any energy, and in good time.

Barriers to Stream-entry

Bhikkhus, the Dhamma well proclaimed by me thus is clear…free of patchwork. In the Dhamma well proclaimed by me thus, which is clear…free of patchwork, those bhikkhus who have abandoned three fetters are all stream-enterers, no longer subject to perdition, bound [for deliverance] and headed for enlightenment. - [MN 22.45]

In brief, the Buddha's path to Awakening is that a) we replace sense pleasure with the pleasure of jhāna, and then b) we become disenchanted with jhāna and let go of that as well. Jhāna, as we have been saying, for all of its wonders, is still conditioned, inconstant, and unreliable. When we see that, and we get frustrated with the limits of jhāna, we look for something better. But you can't rush this. You have to really get addicted to jhāna first, otherwise you will never get tired of it. It is an extremely pleasant form of aversion therapy.

There are a number of traps that can keep us from entering the stream. The first is that - as just discussed - we do not develop our practice in a balanced way. I know someone who is a master at jhāna. He can go back and forth, up and down through jhānas 1-8 like he is playing a video game. And he has been trying for years, with enormous effort, to become a stream-enterer, and he cannot.

When he talks about the Dharma I can see why. He does not understand the teaching on non-self and he holds many wrong views. He has a somewhat abrasive personality. He is opinionated. He seems pretty impressed with himself. Any one of these would be a barrier to stream-entry.

Another possibility is that you get stuck in jhāna. If you do not understand the whole path, you can end your meditation career at the mastery of jhāna.

This is especially true if you develop any of the supernormal powers. This is one of the more esoteric parts of the practice. Once you master the jhānas, It is possible that one of the supernormal (i.e., "psychic") powers may manifest:

If a bhikkhu should wish: ‘May I wield the various kinds of supernormal power: having been one, may I become many; having been many, may I become one; may I appear and vanish; may I go unhindered through a wall, through an enclosure, through a mountain as though through space; may I dive in and out of the earth as though it were water; may I walk on water without sinking as though it were earth; seated cross-legged, may I travel in space like a bird; with my hand may I touch and stroke the moon and sun so powerful and mighty; may I wield bodily mastery, even as far as the Brahma-world,’…

If a bhikkhu should wish: ‘May I, with the divine ear element, which is purified and surpasses the human, hear both kinds of sounds, the divine and the human, those that are far as well as near,’…

If a bhikkhu should wish: ‘May I understand the minds of other beings, of other persons, having encompassed them with my own mind…

If a bhikkhu should wish: ‘May I recollect my manifold past lives, that is, one birth, two births...Thus with their aspects and their particulars may I recollect my manifold past lives,’…

If a bhikkhu should wish: ‘May I, with the divine eye, which is purified and surpasses the human, see beings passing away and reappearing, inferior and superior, fair and ugly, fortunate and unfortunate; may I understand how beings pass on according to their actions thus:’... - [MN 6.14-18]

Supernormal powers are a recurring topic in the Pāli canon.

I do not have any direct experience with supernormal powers. However,  it is commonly known that some monks can read minds.

We have already discussed at least one monk who saw into his previous 6 lives.

The psychic power that is most popularly known is the ability to walk through walls. (Watch "Kung Fu".) So imagine that you are able to hold your mind in the realm of infinite space. We know that all physical objects are almost entirely of space. We know that only 4% of the universe is material, that the rest is dark matter. Imagine that you can hold that image of space in your mind.

Some people have an affinity for both the formless attainments and one or more supernormal powers. Mahāmoggallāna - who was one of the Buddha's two chief disciples - was "foremost among those with psychic potency". [AN 1.190] However, Mahāmoggallāna was an Arahant, so he had already attained a full Awakening. This also happens sometimes. After someone becomes an Arahant, they develop one of these powers. (The Buddha could do all of them.) However, if someone develops supernormal powers before Awakening, they may get so wrapped up in them they never progress beyond that point.

So, in summary, a) make sure you develop the whole path in a balanced way, b) don't get stuck at jhāna, and c) don't get seduced by it if you can fly or walk through walls or read someone's mind. Supernormal powers are akin to carnival tricks, interesting, but not necessarily of much value.

The Conditions for Stream Entry

Bhikkhus, these four things, when developed and cultivated, lead to the realization of the fruit of stream-entry. What four? Association with superior persons, hearing the true Dhamma, careful attention, practice in accordance with the Dhamma. These four things, when developed and cultivated, lead to the realization of the fruit of stream-entry. - [SN 55:5]

As with much of this path, you cannot make stream-entry happen. What you do is create the conditions, the "proximal causes", in which stream entry can arise. And the Buddha tells us what those conditions are:

  1. Association with superior persons
  2. Hearing the true Dharma
  3. Careful (appropriate) attention
  4. Practice in accordance with the Dharma

The first of those conditions is association with superior persons.

We have already seen the conversation between Ānanda and the Buddha about spiritual friendship, that it is the whole of the holy life. [SN 45:2] Admirable friends give us examples of what it means to have virtue, what it means to have concentration, and what it means to have wisdom.

In our spiritual journey, there are companions who are peers, and there are companions who are teachers, people who have a practice that is more advanced than ours. Of course, sometimes the distinction is somewhat arbitrary, but clearly there are people who are our mentors.

Finding a teacher is difficult. People who are on a spiritual path are vulnerable, and this can make us put trust into untrustworthy people. Some students are seriously damaged by bad teachers. We have already discussed examples of sexual abuse. The dynamic is very fragile.

(Some years ago I heard Larry Rosenberg say that he is always surprised at how many otherwise intelligent, capable, successful people check their common sense at the door when it comes to their spiritual practice.)

Being a teacher is a heady experience. That is a great danger. You start to think you know more than you do. And curiously in the West it seems like as soon as someone starts to meditate, they want to be a teacher. I have never understood that, but there it is.

In the West we also have a culture of Dharma for hire. You go to a retreat where they say that the teachings are "freely offered". But the retreat center charges hundreds or thousands of dollars, and at the end of the retreat they ask you to give even more money to support the center and the teachers. (This is the famous "dana talk".) This is the teacher's livelihood. It is how they earn a living.

When you pay for something, you expect something in return. You want decent accommodations. You want good food. You want entertainment. You want your money's worth. You want to be comfortable.

This, in turn, creates a Dharma class system. Some people have a lot of money, so they pay extra. Some people have almost no money. They are on scholarship, or they do extra work jobs to pay for their retreat. By the end of a retreat, you know who is who. It's like an Ivy League college. There are some people on scholarship, and everyone else has rich parents.

The most diverse retreats that I ever attended were free. Then the unit of measure is the quality of your practice. I went to one such retreat where there was a lovely older woman from Sri Lanka. She was partly crippled. But her heart was so big. I sat next to her, and it was a humbling experience. This is true Dharma, and you won't see people like that at a meditation country club.

The Buddha and his monks and his nuns never charged. They only asked, as Robert Thurman likes to put it, for one free lunch per day. If they didn't get alms food they didn't eat; if they didn't get robes they made do. And if they misbehaved, the laity stopped supporting them. The "Kosambiya Sutta: The Kosambians" [MN 48] tells the story of some quarreling monks who would not even listen to the Buddha. Eventually the people in the town refused to feed them. It was a pretty good system of checks and balances.

The Buddha was sensitive to the abuses of religious authority. That is why the Vinaya is so specific about what monks and nuns can do. In the "Cula-hatthipadopama Sutta: The Shorter Elephant Footprint Simile" [MN 22] he gives a lengthy description of how hard it is to know if a Buddha is genuine. Knowing a true teacher is not easy. You must spend a lot of time with someone before you know if they are a trustworthy.

This runs counter to how some Buddhist traditions evolved. The idea of a guru - someone to whom you give absolute authority - is missing from the Buddha's teachings. I call this "creeping Hinduism". In the first millennium there was a lot of cross-pollination in India between Buddhism and Hinduism. Today in Asia there are places where it is hard to tell the two apart. The word "guru" literally means "teacher", but it comes from the Hindu tradition, and in Hinduism the guru "imparts transcendent knowledge".

This is not how it works in the Buddha's system. The Buddha is a guide showing us the way over a mountain pass. He points the way, but you make the journey, and you do it under your own power.

The Buddha says "my teaching is not a dogma or a doctrine, but no doubt some people will take it as such." The Buddha goes on to say "I must state clearly that my teaching is a method to experience reality and not reality itself, just as a finger pointing at the moon is not the moon itself. A thinking person makes use of the finger to see the moon. A person who only looks at the finger and mistakes it for the moon will never see the real moon."

- [Thich Nhat Hanh, Old Path, White Clouds]

You must know that your guide knows how to get you there. In the "Cankī Sutta: With Cankī" [MN 95] the Buddha gives instructions on how to determine if a teacher is worthy, and if a teaching is worthy.

There is also "bad spiritual friendship", or simply, "bad friendship". If you spend your time with people of dubious character, that makes following this path extremely difficult. It is hard to find good spiritual companionship. The Buddha himself said that if you cannot find compatible spiritual friends, you are better off going it alone:

If, while on your way,

You meet no one your equal or better,

Steadily continue on your way alone.

There is no fellowship with fools. - [Dhp 61]

It is better to have a community of 0 or 1 than it is to have a big community that is holding you back. But you are never really practicing alone. You have the company of the Buddha and the Arahants, maybe even some devas. Devas like to hang around good people.

The next factor the Buddha gives us is to hear the true Dharma:

Therefore one desiring his own good, aspiring for spiritual greatness, should deeply revere the true Dhamma, recollecting the Buddha's teaching. - [SN 6.564]

Larry Rosenberg says that even in Asia, true Dharma is hard to find.

(Note: It may sound like I am being particularly hard on Western Buddhism. That is only because I am writing for a Western audience. I do not think that Asian Buddhism is inherently superior. There is a lot of atrocious behavior in Asian Buddhism. On balance, we may actually being doing better in the West.)

I went to a retreat a few years ago where the retreatants were all very experienced practitioners, and at one point we were discussing the things we were told at retreats that we knew were not true. As Buddhism in the West has grown, sometimes the teachers have not kept up. Sometimes what they learned was wrong to begin with, and now they have to unlearn that before they can learn what is true. We know a lot more now than we did 20 or 30 or 40 years ago, and the average student is often quite sophisticated.

But this is not just a modern day Western problem. In the centuries that followed the Buddha's parinibbāna a lot of revisionism took place. The commentaries and later writings are often at odds with what the Buddha taught. This is why it is important to go back to the original sources. The best source for the Buddha's teachings is his own words.

We are blessed to have good translations of the Pāli canon. The Internet is an extraordinary resource. We also have eBook versions of the canon. This makes it easy to find specific passages, and to verify things we are told.

(Do an Internet search for "fake buddha quotes". It is illuminating.)

There are many academic discussions about what parts of the canon are the earliest. The implication is that the earliest parts of the canon are the most authentic. But just because something is later doesn't mean that it is inauthentic. A better test is to read the canon, to understand it as best you can, and to put it into practice. If you start getting too technical about the literature you miss the point, which is to pursue the training and to end suffering. If you know that you can take I-40 to get from North Carolina to New Mexico, you don't really care how it was built.

The Buddha was a practical person. He was not attempting to explain metaphysics. He was not trying to give a scientific or mathematical treatise on how everything works. He wasn't trying to tell us how I-40 was built. He was teaching us a way to solve our fundamental problem of living:

This leads on to the misconception that the Buddha was a philosopher, in the sense in which that term has been used in the Western tradition. I am not the only person to have insisted that he makes it quite plain that his interest was purely pragmatic: he intended to help people and only attempted to teach the truth to the extent that it was helpful; further speculation he tended to discourage...

...because of this pragmatic intent, the Buddha (unlike most philosophers) aimed not at what we would call mathematical accuracy, but only at engineering accuracy. For example, he taught that the laws of causation in the world show that things do not happen at random, while on the other extreme, determinism is false. Otherwise there could not be the moral choice on which the law of karma depends. Free will, and hence moral responsibility, must lie somewhere between these two extremes, but it was pointless to try to define exactly where. I believe that the Abhidharma, which codified and categorized the teachings while stripping out metaphor, tended to misinterpret the Buddha by attributing mathematical accuracy to his statements, when that was not his intention. One example of this may be that the Abhidharma says that nirvāṇa is always an identical phenomenon. I think this is more specific than the Buddha was.

- ["What the Buddha Taught: An interview with Richard Gombrich", Fall 2012 Tricycle Magazine]

In order to know that you are hearing the true Dharma, you must be diligent. But approach it with curiosity and a certain lightness. Work as hard as you can to understand what you are reading, but when you sit, keep it simple.

The third thing the Buddha tells us we need is "careful attention", also called "appropriate attention".

Bhikkhus, I do not see even a single thing that so causes unarisen wholesome qualities to arise and arisen unwholesome qualities to decline as careful attention. For one who attends carefully, unarisen wholesome qualities arise and arisen unwholesome qualities decline. - [AN 1.67]

Appropriate attention means knowing to what to attend, and how to attend to it. We are attending to the wholesome, and not attending to the unwholesome. We are abandoning the hindrances and sprinkling water on the Three Fires. We are cultivating the factors of Awakening. We are attending with right intention and right view as our foundation. That is appropriate attention.

Finally, there is practicing Dharma in accordance with the Dharma.

This may be a little confusing at first. How, you might ask, can one practice the Dharma in a way that is not in accordance with the Dharma?

We have just discussed one case, where people teach the Dharma as a way of earning a living. The Dharma should be taught as a way to help others attain Awakening. Money should never be a part of the equation. Charging money is not practicing Dharma in accordance with the Dharma.

Behaving in a virtuous way is practicing Dharma in accordance with the Dharma. Practicing meditation and then breaking the precepts is not. Virtue is an important part of this equation. When the Buddha discusses practicing Dharma in accordance with the Dharma, he usually means virtue.

It is by reason of conduct in accordance with the Dhamma, by reason of righteous conduct that some beings here, on the dissolution of the body, after death, reappear in a happy destination, even in the heavenly world. - [MN 41.5]

Practicing Dharma in accordance with the Dharma is practicing the whole path with the intention of entering the stream, and ultimately abandoning the fetters and the Three Fires, perfecting the factors of Awakening, and becoming an Arahant.

The Still Mind

Two monks were watching a flag flapping in the wind. One said to the other, “The flag is moving.”

The other replied, “The wind is moving.”

[Huineng] overheard this. He said, “Not the flag, not the wind; mind is moving.

- [Paul Reps, Nyogen Senzaki, Zen Flesh, Zen Bones: A Collection of Zen and Pre-zen Writings]

Be still!

- [My mother]

One way to look at the entire practice is from the standpoint of cultivating stillness. Even our practice of virtue is a way of stilling our actions, of making them more quiet, and doing them with greater awareness.

When we first sit, the mind is very wild. We try to get the mind to settle down and we can't. This is the function of discernment. The Tibetans call this "attaining the cascading mind". We see the wild mind. This is how we begin the path, by using discernment to see our wild mind, and to develop concentration.

And as the mind settles, it gets quieter. As the mind gets quieter, we see more of what is happening in the mind. This is how concentration develops discernment. This is why these two qualities are linked together and develop together, supporting each other.

The deepest silence in the mind comes not from concentration – as important as that is as a help – it comes from understanding. When the mind begins to understand itself, it’s that understanding that brings a different kind of stillness altogether. It doesn’t bring stillness; the stillness is already there. It lets you let go of that which should not be attached to if you want real peace. And when you do that, the stillness is just waiting.

- [Larry Rosenberg, "The Power of Silence, Talk #1"]

And finally we have a moment of real stillness. It is such a relief! Even just a brief moment of stillness shows us the state our poor mind is in. Usually our mind is running and running and running, but then for the briefest moment it is still. It is like a suddenly arising cool breeze on a hot summer day. Ah!

It’s not easy to come by, stillness – deep stillness - because it’s very shy. And if you have any desire for stillness, want to use anything in order to get it, or want to get it, it will slip away, crawl under a rock, run off into the woods, but avoid you. Really, the only time stillness comes out, is when we stop trying to make it come out, when we have patience and love, particularly love of stillness.

- [Larry Rosenberg, "The Power of Silence, Talk #1"]

The first time that we experience deep stillness, the mind will pull back. One part of our mind wants the stillness, but another one - the more powerful, habitual one - doesn't want to go there. There is fear, because our habitual mind can't go there. It's not allowed in. It is being threatened.

So you approach the stillness gently. Give the mind an opportunity to see the calm and the peace and the comfort of the stillness. Settle into it. After a while you will find that you can simply go there. You catch the mind prattling on, and simply drop the noisy mind and go straight to the stillness. You will like it, and then you will love it.

As the mind becomes more quiet and more still, we see increasingly subtle movements in the mind. At first you will see a thought. Then you will see the process of stirring, arising, falling, and ending in the thought. As the mind gets quieter still, the thought never forms. You see just a slight movement - a slight motion, a stirring - in the mind, but the thought never manifests.

So our concentration makes the mind more still, while our discernment watches what is going on. This requires some throttling, moving the attention in and out like that zoom lens. The concentration improves and the mind is very still. Now make the slightest change in your attention so that you are watching the mind in concentration. Look for any - even miniscule - stress. Look for any movement in the mind.

Even when the mind seems to be completely quiet, there is still activity there: the mind gets really, really still, nothing seems to be going on in the mind. But there is still a kind of commentary. Just the commentary that says, “space, space,” or “knowing, knowing” or “nothing, nothing.” That’s a movement of the mind. And you’ve got to turn around and look at that and say, “Oh. There’s this movement here. Everything else seemed to be still. I thought everything was nice and still, but there is still this happening.” It is seeing both sides, Seeing whatever movements of thought or feeling or perception are going on, and also the part of the mind that seems to be humming along with it, or following along with it, commenting on it.

- [Ṭhānissaro Bhikkhu, "The Need for Stillness"]

Cultivating the still mind is very important. And once you can do it on the cushion, take it with you all the time. See how much of the time you can keep the mind still throughout the day. Let go of your involvement with thoughts, and the movements of the mind. Make a choice not to get involved with them.

The still mind is not the end of the path, but we are getting closer:

Now there are people who will get the mind very still and just curl up in that stillness and not use it to any purpose. But that is not what the Buddha taught. You get the mind still and you want to be aware all around. This is why Ajahn Lee, when he defines “alertness,” talks about us going back and forth. You look at, say, your breath, and then you turn around and look at the mind. You are alert to both. You see how they are connected. And to be aware of any movement where the mind pulls away. It’s that all around kind of awareness that you want.

- [Ṭhānissaro Bhikkhu, "The Need for Stillness"]

This "all around kind of awareness" is the quality of "knowing". Normally when we are aware of something, there is verbal fabrication associated with it. We perceive, and we turn that into a sentence, even if it is just internal.

Knowing is without verbal fabrication. There is no language associated with it. People who have near death experiences report this type of consciousness. They are aware of what is going on, but it is not tied to language.

This is something you train yourself to do. As the mind gets quiet, look for this quality, and learn how to settle into it.

Intention, Fabrication and Cessation

That was one of the Buddha’s most important insights: that even when you’re sitting perfectly still with the intention not to do anything, there’s still the intention, and the intention itself is a doing. It’s a sankhara, a fabrication. It’s what we live with all the time. In fact, all of our experience is based on fabrication. The fact that you sense your body, feelings, perceptions, thought-constructs, consciousness - all of these aggregates: To be able to experience them in the present moment you have to fabricate a potential into an actual aggregate. You fabricate the potential for form into an actual experience of form, the potential for feeling into an actual experience of feeling, and so on. This element of fabrication lies in the background all the time. It’s like the background noise of the Big Bang, which hums throughout the whole universe and doesn’t go away. The element of fabrication is always there, shaping our experience, and it’s so consistently present that we lose sight of it. We don’t realize what we’re doing.

- [Ṭhānissaro Bhikkhu, "Watch What You're Doing"]

One of the things that the Buddha discovered in his Awakening is that we fabricate our own experience. As we saw in the teaching on dependent co-arising, that fabrication process is conditioned by ignorance, specifically ignorance of the Four Noble Truths. Until we end this process of fabrication, we will continue to be reborn and we will continue to suffer. The Buddha, after his Awakening, famously uttered these words:

Seeking but not finding the housebuilder,

I have traveled through the round of countless births.

How painful is birth over and over again.

Oh housebuilder! You have now been caught!

You shall not build a house again.

Your rafters have been broken. Your ridgepole demolished.

The unconditioned consciousness has been attained.

And every kind of craving has been uprooted and destroyed.'

- [Dhp, 153,154]

To see the process of fabrication, the mind must be quite still. Then you can see how phenomena are fabricated. Thoughts are the easiest phenomena to see. If the mind is still enough you can see perception at work. You can hear a sound and watch the process by which the mind turns that sound into "airplane".

We even fabricate our feelings of pleasant, unpleasant and neutral. We are always constructing our experience. Some of that activity comes from past karma, and some of it comes from present karma, i.e., how we choose to meet the present moment. If I am grumpy I will experience it one way, if I am happy and content, I will experience it another way.

We are cultivating the skill whereby the mind becomes concentrated, which is jhāna. When we are in jhāna, we also develop the ability to step back and examine that concentrated mind. This is the quality of discernment. We go back and forth between these two subtly different states of mind. The concentrated mind creates serenity and stillness. The discernment helps us to see and understand. Thus the qualities of samādhi and pañña develop "yoked together".

As the mind gets more still, one thing you can discern is the "commentator":

Once there was someone from Singapore who wrote a letter to Ajahn Fuang describing his practice which was to learn how to see everything in terms of the three characteristics. When he was at work or watching TV he kept noting to himself, “This is impermanent, stressfulness,” whatever. Ajahn Fuang’s advice to him was, well, turn around and see who is doing the commenting, because he said that the problem lies there. It’s not in the inconstancy of TV shows, or the stress of your work, it’s the inconstancy of this commentor/commentator. Because once the commentator passes judgment on something, then some intentions arise, and the intentions are what keeps everything going. And until you see that then there is no true letting go. The letting go isn’t total, it’s only when the letting go is total that you open up to something that has no motions. It’s the motions of the mind that keep the whole process going, kind of like a weaver. It keeps weaving your experience of space and time. And it can weave it with craving, and it can weave it with perception, and feelings and all off these other things, but is the element of intention and attention that’s what keeps it all going.

And until you can see those things moving, nothing really disbands. Once your stillness is still enough and your awareness is all around enough, to the point where you catch even the slightest movement, anywhere in the mind, that’s when things open up.

- [Ṭhānissaro Bhikkhu, "The Need for Stillness"]

Perhaps you can see why the fourth jhāna is such a good tool for Awakening. In the fourth jhāna the mind is quite still, equanimous, "purified, bright, unblemished, rid of imperfection, malleable, wieldy, steady, and attained to imperturbability..." [MN 4.27] We don't get distracted by the pleasant sensations of the lower jhānas, although as noted, the Buddha says that it is possible to attain Awakening in any jhāna. It is just that the fourth jhāna is the optimal one.

What we must do is to take that still mind and direct it to the process by which the mind fabricates our experience. This is step 2 in the process of dependent co-arising, "saṅkhāra", "fabrications", "volitional formations". These are the willful activities of mind that are conditioned by ignorance.

Our discernment begins by looking at grosser forms of saṅkhāra, like thoughts and perceptions. But even when the mind seems quite still, when there does not seem to be anything at all happening, there is still an intention in the mind. This intention is the most subtle form of saṅkhāra. Ultimately, it is this subtle intention to fabricate experience that stands in the way of the greatest happiness, the end to suffering. So you let go of that intention, and open to the deathless.

You cannot force this to happen. You can only put into place the precipitating factors, the "proximal causes". The mind must get there on its own and in its own good time. Most of the descriptions of Awakening are descriptive, not proscriptive. You cannot consciously eliminate the fetters, or put out the fires of greed, aversion and delusion. That happens as your concentration, stillness, discernment and understanding grow, fueled by virtue, appropriate attention, right intention and patience and persistence:

From that point on I kept at it. I kept investigating out in the area of discernment, ranging out widely, then circling back in again. As soon as I would understand, step by step, the mind would let go and circle inward in an ever-narrowing sphere, investigating the khandhas [aggregates] and elements, separating the khandhas and elements.

This is where it began to be 'samuccheda-pahana' - absolute relinquishment, arising from the investigation in the period that followed. As long as the investigation hadn't been absolute, it would win out for only a period of time, just enough to serve as evidence and proof. It still wasn't absolute relinquishment. But when discernment came to a really clear understanding while investigating, then it pulled out and severed all ties, step by step - severed things so that there were no connections left; severed them step by step, leaving just plain awareness.

The body (rupa) was severed from attachment. Vedana [feelings], sañña [perceptions], sankhara [fabrications], and viññana [consciousness] were severed from attachment. Or you could say that the 'heart' was severed from 'them.' Things kept being severed until only awareness was left - in other words, the mind with unawareness buried inside it. So I probed on in, smashed things to bits, slashed them to smithereens with up-to-the-minute mindfulness and discernment. The mind of unawareness broke apart, and when the mind of unawareness broke apart, that was all!

- [Venerable Acariya Maha Boowa Ñanasampanno, "At the End of One's Rope"]

When you Awaken, what is left is the knowing:

When he knows and sees thus, his mind is liberated from the taint of sensual desire, from the taint of being, and from the taint of ignorance. When it is liberated there comes the knowledge: ‘It is liberated.’ He understands: ‘Birth is destroyed, the holy life has been lived, what had to be done has been done, there is no more coming to any state of being.’ - [MN 51.27]

Move forward, relentlessly, moment by moment, breath by breath, never forgetting the main prize: freedom, liberation, Awakening, the end to suffering.


In this chapter we looked at the final goal, Awakening. We discussed seeing the danger in sense desires, and developing dispassion for them. We discussed developing the whole path, attending to all eight steps. We discussed cultivating a still mind, and how discernment and concentration develop together and support each other.

Finally we looked at Awakening, becoming disenchanted with even the pleasure born of seclusion - jhāna - and looking for something better, something that is unconditioned. We discussed looking for the root of how we fabricate our experience, how we find it, see it, understand it, and release it.

Those who

Fully cultivate the Factors of Awakening,

Give up grasping,

Enjoy non-clinging,

And have destroyed the toxins,

Are luminous,

And completely liberated in this life.

- [Dhp 89]