The Nine Stages of Liberating Insight

a. Contemplation of arising and passing away (udayabbayānupassanā-ñāṇa): seeing the arising of physical and mental phenomena together with their falling away.

b. Contemplation of dissolution (bhaṅgānupassanā-ñāṇa): seeing the falling away of physical and mental phenomena.

c. The appearance of dread (bhayatūpaṭṭhāna-ñāṇa): seeing all fabrications (i.e., all physical and mental phenomena) as something to be dreaded, just as when a man sees a deadly cobra lying in his path or an executioner about to behead a criminal who has broken the law.

d. Contemplation of misery (ādīnavānupassanā-ñāṇa): seeing all fabrications as a mass of pain and stress, arising only to age, sicken, disband, and die.

e. Contemplation of disgust (nibbidānupassana-ñāṇa): viewing all fabrications with a sense of weariness and disenchantment with regard to the cycle of birth, aging, illness, and death through the various way-stations in the round of wandering on; seeing the pain and harm, feeling disdain and estrangement, with no longing to be involved with any fabrications at all. Just as a golden King Swan—who ordinarily delights only in the foothills of Citta Peak and the great Himalayan lakes—would feel nothing but disgust at the idea of bathing in a cesspool at the gate of an outcaste village, in the same way the arising of insight causes a sense of disgust for all fabrications to appear.

f. The desire for freedom (muñcitukamyatā-ñāṇa): sensing a desire to escape from all fabrications that appear, just as when a man goes down to bathe in a pool and—meeting a poisonous snake or a crocodile—will aim at nothing but escape.

g. Reflective contemplation (paṭisaṅkhānupassanā-ñāṇa): trying to figure out a way to escape from all fabrications that appear, in the same way that a caged quail keeps looking for a way to escape from its cage.

h. Equanimity with regard to fabrications (saṅkhārupekkhā-ñāṇa): viewing all fabrications with a sense of indifference, just as a husband and wife might feel indifferent to each other’s activities after they have gained a divorce.

i. Knowledge in accordance with the truth (saccānulomika-ñāṇa): seeing all fabrications—all five aggregates—in terms of the four noble truths.

All of these stages of insight are nothing other than the sixth level of purification:

6. Purification through knowledge and vision of the way (paṭipadā-ñāṇadassana-visuddhi): At this point, our way is cleared. Just as a man who has cut all the tree stumps in his path level to the ground can then walk with ease, so it is with knowledge on this level: We have gotten past the corruptions of insight, but the roots—avijjā, or unawareness—are still in the ground.

The next step is to develop the mind higher and higher along the lines of liberating insight until you reach the highest plane of the mundane level leading to the noble paths, beginning with the path opening on to the stream to nibbāna. This level is termed:

7. Purification of knowledge and vision (ñāṇadassana-visuddhi): At this point, devote yourself to developing and reviewing the stages of liberating insight through which you have passed, back and forth, until you become confident in them, so that each stage leads on to the next, from the very beginning all the way to knowledge in accordance with the truth and back, so that your perception in terms of the four noble truths is absolutely clear. If your powers of discernment are relatively weak, you will have to review the series three times in immediate succession before change-of-lineage knowledge (gotarabhū-ñāṇa, knowledge of nibbāna) will arise as the result. If your powers of discernment are moderate, change-of- lineage knowledge will arise after you have reviewed the series twice in succession. If your powers of discernment are tempered and strong, it will arise after you have reviewed the series once. Thus the sages of the past divided those who reach the first noble path and fruition into three sorts: Those with relatively weak powers of discernment will have to be reborn another seven times; those with moderate powers of discernment will have to be reborn another three or four times; those with quick powers of discernment will have to be reborn only once.

The different speeds at which individuals realize the first path and its fruition are determined by their temperaments and propensities. The slowest class are those who have developed two parts tranquility to one part insight. The intermediate class are those who have developed one part tranquility to one part insight. Those with the quickest and strongest insight are those who have developed one part tranquility to two parts insight. Having developed the beginning parts of the path in different ways—here we are referring only to those parts of the path consisting of tranquility and insight—they see clearly into the four noble truths at different mental moments.

In the end, it all comes down to seeing the five aggregates clearly in terms of the four noble truths. What does it mean to see clearly? And what are the terms of the four noble truths? This can be explained as follows: Start out by fixing your attention on a result and then trace back to its causes. Focus, for instance, on physical and mental phenomena as they arise and pass away in the present. This is the truth of stress (dukkha-sacca), as in the Pali phrase,

nāma-rūpaṁ aniccaṁ,

nāma-rūpaṁ dukkhaṁ,

nāma-rūpaṁ anattā:

‘All physical and mental phenomena are equally inconstant, stressful, and not-self.’ Fix your attention on their arising and changing, seeing that birth is stressful, aging is stressful, illness and death are stressful; sorrow, lamentation, pain, distress, and despair are stressful; in short, the five aggregates are stressful. What is the cause? When you trace back to the cause for stress, you’ll find that craving for sensual objects—sights, sounds, smells, tastes, tactile sensations and ideas—is one cause, termed sensual craving (kāma-taṇhā). Then focus in on the mind so as to see the intermediate-level cause and you’ll see that ‘At this moment the mind is straying, wishing that physical and mental phenomena—form, feelings, labels, fabrications, and consciousness—would be in line with its wants.’ This wish is termed craving for becoming (bhava-taṇhā). Focus in again on the mind so as to see the subtle cause and you’ll see that, ‘At this moment the mind sways, wishing that physical and mental phenomena wouldn’t change, that they would stay under its control.’ This wish is termed craving for no becoming (vibhava-taṇhā), i.e., craving for things to stay constant in line with one’s wishes.

These three forms of craving arise when the mind is deluded. Focus in and investigate that deluded mental state until you can see that it’s inconstant, stressful, and not-self. Tap Craving on his shoulder and call him by name until, embarrassed and ashamed, he wanes from the heart, in line with the teaching: ‘The lack of involvement with that very craving, the release from it, the relinquishing of it, the abandonment of it, the disbanding of it through the lack of any remaining affection: This is the disbanding of stress.’

The mind that switches back and forth between knowing and being deluded is all one and the same mind. Craving lands on it, not allowing it to develop the path and gain true knowledge, just as flocks of birds landing on a tall, unsteady, tapering tree can cause it to shudder and sway and come crashing down. Thus the noble disciples have focused on craving and discarded it, leaving only nirodha, disbanding. The act of disbanding can be divided into two—the disbanding of physical and mental phenomena; or into three—the disbanding of sensual craving, craving for becoming, and craving for no becoming; or into four—the disbanding of feelings, labels, fabrications, and consciousness of various things. Add the disbanding of forms to the last list and you have five. We could keep going on and on: If you can let go, everything disbands. What this means simply is that the heart no longer clings to these things, no longer gives them sustenance.

Letting go, however, has two levels: mundane and transcendent. Mundane letting go is only momentary, not once-and-for-all, and so the disbanding that results is only mundane. It’s not yet constant. As for the path of practice, it’s not yet constant either. It’s the noble eightfold path, all right, but on the mundane level. For example:

1. Mundane right view: You see into stress, its causes, its disbanding, and the path to its disbanding, but your insight isn’t yet constant—for although your views are correct, you can’t yet let go. This is thus classed as mundane right view.

2. Mundane right resolve: Your resolve is to renounce sensual pleasures, not to feel ill will, and not to cause harm. These three resolves are correct, but they’re not yet constant. You haven’t yet freed yourself in line with them. This is thus classed as mundane right resolve.

3. Mundane right speech: right speech is of four types—refraining from lies, from divisive tale-bearing, from coarse and abusive speech, and from idle, aimless chatter. You know that these forms of speech are to be avoided, but you still engage in them out of absent-mindedness. This is thus classed as mundane right speech.

4. Mundane right action: Your activities aren’t yet constantly right. Sometimes you act uprightly, sometimes not. This is classed as mundane right action.

5. Mundane right livelihood: Your maintenance of right livelihood by way of thought, word, and deed isn’t yet constant. In other words, it’s not yet absolutely pure—in some ways it is, and in some it isn’t. Thus it is termed mundane right livelihood.

6. Mundane right effort: Right effort is of four types—the effort to abandon evil that has already arisen, to avoid evil that hasn’t, to give rise to the good that hasn’t yet arisen, and to maintain the good that has. Your efforts in these four directions aren’t yet really consistent. Sometimes you make the effort and sometimes you don’t. This is thus termed mundane right effort.

7. Mundane right mindfulness: Right mindfulness is of four types—being mindful of the body, feelings, the mind, and mental qualities. When you aren’t consistent in staying mindful of these frames of reference—sometimes keeping them in mind, sometimes not—your practice is classed as inconstant. This is thus termed mundane right mindfulness.

8. Mundane right concentration: Right concentration is of three sorts—momentary concentration, threshold concentration, and fixed penetration. If these can suppress unskillful mental qualities for only certain periods of time, they’re classed as inconstant: sometimes you have them and sometimes you don’t. This is thus termed mundane right concentration.

These eight factors can be reduced to three: virtue, concentration, and discernment—i.e., inconstant virtue, inconstant concentration, inconstant discernment—sometimes pure, sometimes blemished. These in turn reduce ultimately to our own thoughts, words, and deeds. We’re inconstant in thought, word, and deed, sometimes doing good, sometimes doing evil, sometimes speaking what is good, sometimes speaking what is evil, sometimes thinking what is good, sometimes thinking what is evil.

When we want to make the path transcendent, we have to bring the principles of virtue, concentration, and discernment to bear on our thoughts, words, and deeds, and then focus on cleansing those thoughts, words, and deeds so that they’re in line with the principles of virtue, concentration, and discernment to the point where we attain a purity that is radiant and lasting. Only then can the path become transcendent.

The results of each path, whether mundane or transcendent, follow immediately on the practice of the path, just as your shadow follows immediately upon you.

To return to the discussion of the mundane path: Although the mundane path is said to have eight factors, this eightfold path—as it’s put into practice by people in general—forks into two: eight right factors and eight wrong, making a sixteen-fold path. This is why regress is possible. What this comes down to is the fact that virtue, concentration, and discernment aren’t in harmony. For example, our virtue may have right view and our concentration wrong view, or our discernment may have right view and our virtue and concentration wrong view. In other words, our words and deeds may be virtuous, but our thoughts—overpowered by the hindrances—may not reach singleness; or the mind may reach stillness, but without being able to let go of its preoccupations with the elements, aggregates, or sense media. Sometimes our discernment may have right view, but we haven’t abandoned unvirtuous actions. We know they’re harmful and we’re able to abstain for a while, but we still can’t help reverting to them even though we know better. This is why we say the mundane path has sixteen factors, eight right and eight wrong, sometimes turning this way and sometimes that.

If, however, you really decide to train yourself and then watch over mundane right view so as to keep it right without letting the wrong path interfere—so that your virtue, concentration, and discernment are in harmony—in other words, they all have right view—then this very same mundane path, once it is made constant and consistent, will become transcendent, leading to the stream to nibbāna. Once you reach the transcendent level, the path has only eight factors: Your virtue, concentration, and discernment all have right view in terms of your thoughts, words, and deeds. In this way they transcend the mundane level. The mundane level is inconstant: inconsistent, undependable, dishonest with itself. One moment you do good; the next evil. Then after you’ve regressed, you progress again. If you were to classify people of the mundane level, there are four sorts:

1. Some people have done evil in the past, are doing evil in the present, and will continue doing evil in the future.

2. Some people have done evil in the past, but are doing good in the present, and aren’t willing to abandon their goodness in the future.

3. Some people have done good in the past, are doing good in the present, but will give it up in the future.

4. Some people have done only good in the past, are keeping it up in the present in all their actions—i.e. virtue, concentration, and discernment are constantly with them—and they plan to keep on doing good into the future.

So there’s nothing constant about people on the mundane level. They’re greedy, they’re rich. They do both good and evil. Two hands aren’t enough for them; they have to carry their goods on a pole over the shoulder, with one load on the front end and another on the back. Sometimes the back load—the past—is good, but the front load—the future—is evil. Sometimes the front load is good and the back load evil. Sometimes the front and back loads are both evil, but the person in the middle is good. Sometimes all three are good. When we’re loaded up like this, we’re not balanced. One load is heavy and the other one light. Sometimes we tip over backwards, and sometimes fall flat on our face—back and forth like this, from one level of becoming to the next. This is how it is with virtue, concentration, and discernment on the mundane level. There’s no telling where they’ll lead you next. So once you’ve come to your senses, you should start right in keeping careful watch over the mundane path so that you can bring mundane virtue, concentration, and discernment into line with the transcendent.