MCTB Beyond First Path (What Next)

Obviously, it can be easy for a meditator to think that they have completed a progress of insight and gotten stream entry when in fact they haven’t. It is also possible for a meditator to have actually completed a progress of insight and yet think otherwise, but this is much less common. Sometimes a practitioner will be correct in thinking that they have, but their teachers will remain unconvinced. Sometimes a teacher may think that the student has and yet be wrong. Regardless, just keep practicing and see what happens. This is the most fundamental principle for all of these stages. A particularly useful and traditional guideline is to wait a year and a day before completely making up your mind. This is slippery stuff sometimes, and many states and stages can easily fool a student or teacher into thinking that they are something they are not.

When a meditator successfully completes a progress of insight, they have permanently debunked certain illusions to some degree, but many remain. These tend to include a new fascination with the understanding that has arisen from that path. However, if one’s “realization” doesn’t stand to the test of time, or if there is not some sort of fundamental and unalterable reduction in suffering, write it off and keep going. Even if one does complete a progress of insight, it is easy to imagine that more has been debunked than actually has, so continue to practice training in morality throughout your life as before to avoid being bitten by those unskillful potentials that remain but are hidden. Strangely, the temptations to screw up can become more subtle and seductive as practice deepens. These tend to be at their worst around the next Arising and Passing Away or during the next Re-observation.

An extended series of progresses of insight tend to proceed as follows. They may be called “Paths” in the Theravada and “Bhumis” in the Tibetan, though there are some problems that arise in trying to resolve the inconsistencies in these two models that will be touched on a bit later. Thus, a more general treatment follows, and the descriptions of the stages here are not taken directly from any particular tradition. From one point of view, all of this is not necessary information, as continued practice just as before will continue to move things along quite naturally. On the other hand, if one has expectations about what might come next that are not in accord with reality or interfere with practice, then this information might be helpful.

The meditator masters this stage of awakening by continued practice as before. They can quickly learn to rise through all of the stages, starting from the Arising and Passing Away, through the Dark Night, up to Equanimity and Fruition in a single sitting or even during some of the activities of daily life. Merely sitting down on a cushion, or being awake for that matter, will involve naturally moving through these cycles, though the speed and clarity of these can vary widely depending on the practitioner and circumstances. They may even find it interesting to purposefully hang out in some of the stages of the Dark Night just to learn more about them and from them, as they have some very important lessons to teach and are very interesting territory. However, they may also come to realize that this is really just a new beginning in some ways, sort of like graduating from high school but then becoming a lowly freshman in college.

The period after completing a progress of insight and after gaining some strong sense of mastery of its stages is also a great time to work on one’s concentration practice abilities. The reason for waiting is that concentration practices and insight practices tend to have a certain inertia to them. If you have recently been trying to get into really stable samatha states, this can make it harder to see things flicker for a while. If you have recently been training hard to see things flicker, it can be hard to get into really stable samatha jhanas. Thus, what you don’t want to do is to gunk up the natural mastery phase of your practice until you are comfortable enough with these stages to get stuck in one and not have it be a big deal. This usually takes at least a few weeks, but this is a very crude guideline, and everyone is different regarding issues of timing. Judge for yourself how well you handle stages such as Re-observation and decide if you would be alright if you got stuck in it for a few hours.

The time after gaining some mastery of these stages is also a great time to work on one’s stuff. Actually, doing concentration practices and working on one’s stuff go very well together, as concentration states tend to cause our stuff to come bubbling to the surface where we can work with it. The time during a mastery phase is also a great time to make sure that one’s daily life is functioning well, particularly if one made a mess of it while trying to get enlightened or more enlightened.

Mastery of these stages tends to peak at some point, and the sense can arise that one has really “got it.” Fruitions tend to occur fairly quickly, clearly and easily. Given time and practice, the meditator may begin to become somewhat bored with their current level of attainment and with their ability to attain these stages and Fruition. Their practice can begin to seem sloppy, and the quiet bliss wave after Fruition can diminish somewhat unless they do not attain it for some long period of time (which would probably require resolutions to that effect).

The understanding that there is more suffering to uproot grows. They begin to see more levels of reality that are clearly not well understood or illuminated by their current understanding, hints of which probably showed themselves very soon after their attainment of that path. Subtle thoughts and mental patterns may be noticed at the edge of one’s perceptual threshold. Attention begins to incline towards the next level of reality that must be understood and away from familiar territory. More fresh insights begin to show up.

The meditator begins to investigate reality with more effort and clarity as before and begin a new progress of insight from the beginning, i.e. access concentration and then Mind and Body and the rest. This might play out as follows: fairly soon after the sense of strong mastery, one will simply be meditating along, perhaps a Fruition will occur, and then suddenly the mind drops into this new state rather than a new review cycle beginning again. It is stable, interesting, and somewhat jhana-like. It is sort of like re-inhabiting one’s life or reconnecting with the sense of the observer. It is also likely the next Mind and Body. This could also happen when one was just going about one’s day.

The postural obsession, odd movements, strange tensions and pains, emotional volatility, vibratory stuff that seems new, a fresh and clearer sense of what dualistic perspectives remain, and all of the other early progress of insight stuff may arise in its time naturally and perhaps sooner than one might wish. The phrase “leading onward” is often used to describe the wisdom that arises from dharma practice. Strangely, it is a phrase and a fact that I have cursed just as often as blessed, and entering new insight territory at inopportune times or before one feels ready can reveal why. Insight cycles can sometimes be very traumatic, and it is often advisable to take a break to recover one’s sense of humor and appreciation of life before plunging on. However, at this point the dharma waits for no one and may plunge on regardless of your wishes.

Note well, those of you between stages, there initially is still the ability to attain easily any of the previous stages starting at the level of the current Arising and Passing Away, so things can get quite murky if you are trying to figure out what stage you are in or attain specific new stages. It can be as if the early stages of a new progress of insight (one through three) are opening up to us, whereas for a while things always started out at the level of the Arising and Passing away.

Fixating on thoughts about what stage you are in is guaranteed to cause some degree of suffering that is worthy of investigation, especially in the in-between stages, though a gentle awareness of the maps can still be slightly useful. There can be a sort of a fork in the path for a while, with the meditator seemingly able to choose whether to review previous stages or press on. It can seem as though the background is solidifying and the mind is growing nosier as well as less predictable and skillful. More of our stuff is suddenly bubbling up to the surface. We notice subtler thoughts and mental images, many of which we may wish we hadn’t. We may feel less “enlightened,” as if our realization were fading. Clear and consistent insight practice, i.e. understanding the Three Characteristics of all types of sensations, which includes thoughts of maps and goals, is the only thing that finally helps, just as before.

After the meditator crosses the next Arising and Passing Away Event, which may happen relatively quickly if they practice well and often, they will tend to have a very hard time re-attaining Fruition for a while. One may meditate along and then get stuck in a stage that seems to lead nowhere and is sort of like low equanimity, in that there are clear vibrations that are not varying with the breath or any other movement, and yet the background is too dense, noisy and poorly perceived for clear and complete formations to show themselves.

Finding the proverbial fork in the road to familiar territory can now be quite tricky, and even if they do find the way back, the old territory is unlikely to be particularly appealing. Old Fruitions may arise, but they may do so in a way that is less reliable or certain. Suddenly, the meditator is “on the ride” again, and will soon have to face the fullness of the next Dark Night with all of its implications. It may even be more challenging than before, but could just as easily be less so. One friend of mine sailed through one Dark Night in about six minutes, and the next one took him many years. There is no predicting these issues of timing.

It can happen that many times they will try to meditate to equanimity but fall back when they get to Re-observation. They may thus try to re-attain previous stages, as they may feel “in over their heads”. They may get into the next stage of Desire for Deliverance, wish very strongly to go beyond all of this, and do so by re-attaining to a Fruition of the current path instead of attaining the next one.

However, even if they are able to retreat into the old territory, they will still be haunted to some degree by the Dark Night in their life and will have to learn to navigate skillfully in this territory one way or another. Sometimes re-mastering the current path is helpful for building a sufficient foundation from which to proceed well into the new territory. Eventually, there is no way to go back, and one is simply left facing the new territory without an obvious skillful escape route.

There can arise an odd phenomenon that has been referred to by one of my teachers as “Twelfth Path,” though this phrase is not in common usage. It is, however, a common phenomenon in those who have attained at least stream entry and is probably the most important concept in this book for those working on the higher paths, particularly beyond second path. Twelfth Path is making a joke about the fact that there are at most four stages of enlightenment in the Theravada map and five or ten in the Tibetan maps. However, it can easily seem that more than ten brand-new and full-blown cycles of insight have been completed and yet there is still much more to go. If one is going to get obsessed with the fractal model that I mentioned earlier, it is likely to happen around here. Unfortunately, the fractal model is even more useless now than it was earlier, and so I strongly recommend avoiding it like the plague if you think you are in a new progress cycle rather than a review cycle.

Things might proceed as follows. It seems certain that a cycle has been completed. Next, there seems to be a clear mastery stage that withstands all of the most rigorous tests, then more early progress of insight stuff shows up, the cycle begins to go around again, perhaps with more backsliding, moving forward, falling back again, remastering the old territory, more progress and suffering shows up with its associated struggles and rationalizations, then there comes a sense of there being no other option but progress and acceptance, and finally the sense that the cycle has completed itself. Soon enough there is a clear sense of a mastery stage, and so on. In this way, it may seem that some large number of paths or bhumis have been attained, twelve in the joke, when in fact they have not. Or have they? Unfortunately, this is a tough question, and one that cannot easily be resolved.

One may think that one is now at a higher stage of realization that is clearly different from before, but the “magic numbers” four or ten simply may not seem to apply to one’s journey. It can also happen that, with increased clarity and progressive deepening of one’s practice, distinct progress of insight patterns may seem to be repeating within each of the smaller units of the larger pattern of the progress of insight, very much in the way of fractals, as detailed earlier. Beware! Do not get sucked into identifying with these idealized stages as actually being “where you are”!

New progress cycles and their accompanying vagueness can be very confusing if we are fixated on models but are not aware that the in-between territory is nearly impossible to map successfully in real-time. We may sometimes feel that we have just gone through the larger progress of insight cycle when we may have actually only gone through a small part of it. We may begin to think we see first, second, third and fourth vipassana jhana aspects of each of the four larger vipassana jhanas. We may even begin to see patterns similar to those of a full progress of insight within each of the stages of the larger progress of insight or even within parts of each stage. A similar observation can arise in concentration practice with the samatha jhanas, but this tends to not be nearly as problematic or dramatic.

I have come to the conclusion that fear, anxiety, confusion, indecision and even certainty about these issues are clear markers of what needs to be investigated, i.e. those things themselves. In this way, these aspects of suffering have become trusted friends, clear signposts and red flags, as well as aspects of the goal, which is the path in the end. The more we realize that those very processes are it, those very sensations are it, the closer reality is to understanding itself. The closer reality is to understanding itself, the less fundamental suffering there is.

I have also come to the conclusion that the best reason to take these detailed maps to this extreme is that eventually they become way too ridiculous and cumbersome. Thus, eventually they can be laughed at and yet make their few useful points also, while leaving us with no option but to be with reality, one aspect of which is the sensations that make up thoughts about maps. We can learn to laugh at ourselves and our deep-seated but futile desire to simplify fresh patterns of sensations and solidify them into a sense of an attainment that “we” have.

On the darker side, when we are unable to do this, unable to laugh at our deluded attempts to fix or freeze a sense of what some illusory “we” has done or attained, the phenomena of Twelfth Path and the complexity of the territory between paths can cause considerable doubt, pain, frustration and cynicism, the flip side of which is grandiosity. The more afraid we are of not making progress, the worse these sorts of feelings can become. The more we compare our practice to the misunderstood sensations that make up the sense of “others,” the more needless suffering arises. These sensation patterns must be investigated clearly and seen as they really are, as always.

When this all ends is a subject of considerable controversy, though like an idiot I am going to take on the topic of Full Enlightenment shortly. Anyway, it should be noted that a long-term view is very helpful sometimes, particularly if it helps one just be with what is happening today. It will often not be clear which event was actually the new Arising and Passing Event or which event was really a new Path until one has the benefit of a few more months or years of practice. One may experience many strange events, state shifts, insights and profound openings, all of which can be very compelling for some period of time. However, there tend to be just a few of these memories that, on careful reflection, stand out in the mind as being really significant and by which one can clearly mark permanent shifts in one’s fundamental relationship to the experiences of life and the world.

In the next chapter, I will lay out a number of models of awakening that involve various numbers of shifts in understanding. One may be tempted, as I foolishly have been, to count the landmark events in one’s practice and try to correlate them with these models based purely on the number of them that seem to have occurred. This is a setup for trouble, so please learn from those who have learned the hard way and do not try it, as tempting as counting paths can be. A vastly superior form of inquiry and investigation is to examine carefully anything that seems to involve a sense of a split, of a this and a that, particularly at the rate of one to ten times per second or even faster if you can pull it off. What sensations seem to be the watcher, and what sensations seem to be watched? Try to see the true nature of these sensations one by one as they occur.

It must be said that after three or four of what seem like complete insight cycles or paths it can take quite a while to get a clear sense of what subtle dualities remain. You might find yourself walking around for days to months thinking, “Dang, I’ve really got it now. I’m just seeing it no matter what happens. Cool! I might have cracked the thing! Dude.”

Give things time and beware of assuming that you have attained to more than you have. It is a very common and embarrassing problem, but those who know this territory will understand. However, those who do not know this territory may not be so forgiving, so beware of claiming a specific level of realization, particularly final realization, however you define it, until you have carefully checked things out for a very long time. I would advise thinking along the lines of, “Well, my working hypothesis is that it seems that I have achieved whatever, but I will keep an open mind and be cautious in what I say.”

Use the descriptions of realization that follow to give yourself a general sense of the territory and what tends to need work and investigation. Avoid whenever possible the traps mentioned above, but when you realize you have fallen into them, which is ever so human and common, then accept this, learn from it and laugh! Should you realize that you have failed to heed this advice, that you have bought into some limited definition of yourself as a realized being of some defined rank or level despite the warnings, you can try to deny it for a while, that’s okay. You can imagine that you are very sure you know “where you are,” as that sort of artificial solidification of reality is common enough. You can get pissed off at yourself, that’s normal. You can beat yourself up if you think that it will help, though it rarely does. You can get bitter, though such responses tend to wear out their welcome. You can pump yourself up, dwelling on “your” imagined or real successes, though this tends to ring hollow soon enough. You can try to pretend you don’t care what stage or level you have achieved, though eventually this gives itself away. However, when you feel you are done with these things, accept, learn and laugh! Repeat as necessary and then get back to investigating those sensations.

MCTB Models of the Stages of Enlightenment

Additional commentary:

Daniel on The Types of Stream Enterers