Schools of Buddhism


This is the best graphic I could find on the branches of Buddhism.  You can get a sense of just how much diversity exists within Buddhism, to the point that it may not even be helpful to talk about "Buddhism," but rather "Buddhisms."  


From what I understand, Theravada, sometimes called "the Way of The Elders," is the most conservative branch, and strives more than the others to follow every rule and every teaching of the Buddha strictly as found in the Pali Canon.  "Western Buddhism" draws mostly from the Theravada tradition.  Mahayana, sometimes called "the Great Vehicle," is the most liberal of the branches, being freely combined with other philosophies such as Confucianism and Taoism and even adding unique Buddhist texts, creating "hybrid schools."  In general, there is less stress on following the Buddha's teachings strictly and more openness to new developments in Mahayana schools.  Vajrayana, sometimes called the Thunderbolt Vehicle, is a smaller branch and is focused on ritual and tantras/mantras.  Tibetan Buddhism is probably the most well known modern expression of Vajrayana.  

Zen stands out as a "sub-branch" which is also familiar to Westerners.  I have heard Zen referred to as "Buddhism gone to China," and also as a fusion of Buddhism and Taoism.  There are, of course, sub-divisions of Zen as well.  

The branches of Buddhism seem to me far more diverse than the major branches of Christianity.  When studying a particular Buddhist teaching, it is important to know which type of Buddhism you are engaging.  

This will end the extended series on the Four Noble Truths and Eightfold Path of Buddhism.  

Jhana Meditation


Right Concentration is the eighth branch of the Eightfold Noble Path and involves the practice of Jhana meditation.

I understand the concept of a concentration practice, but dang official Jhana meditation is complicated.  The basic practice itself seems to start fairly simply, with concentration on the breath (as a side note, this is essentially zazen meditation), but as it progresses you are moving through a lot of different objects of concentration and there is a high degree of systematizing of various mindstates that arise (i.e. am I in First Jhana?  Second Jhana?  etc.).

From a non-Buddhist perspective this is extremely esoteric.  I can see why mindfulness practice is extremely widespread while Jhana meditation is not.  It's just flat out complicated, and far more embedded within the Buddhist structure itself.

This is about as accessible a conversation I have heard about Jhana meditation and the book is good as well.  


Joseph Goldstein on Vipassana Meditation

This is a guided vipassana meditation and lecture from Joseph Goldstein, a senior teacher at the Insight Meditation Society.  The first 20 minutes is a guided meditation; the next 40 minutes is a lecture on mindfulness; and the rest is a question and answer time.  Goldstein defines mindfulness as "observing present experience, free of any filters" (41:30).  This is sometimes stated as "non-judgmentally" observing present moment experience.  Right Mindfulness is the seventh step of the Buddhist Eightfold path.  

St. John of the Cross and Buddhism

Non-attachment is a fundamental concept in virtually all contemplative traditions.  You could even say that the only difference between a St. John of the Cross and the Buddha's presentation of the Four Noble Truths in the Pali Canon is that St. John commends non-attachment from all things so that one can be ultimately and completely attached to God. 

Union with God and Nibbana could also, almost, be equated depending on how much similarity you want to see in the traditions.  

You could also draw comparisons between the final stages of Jhana meditation, which, supposedly, Buddha was practicing on the day of his Enlightenment, with the Christian concept of contemplation.  In the final stages of Jhana meditation, one is absorbed into "the base of boundless consciousness," "the base of nothingness," "the base of neither perception nor non-perception," while the Christian contemplative is "absorbed into God."

Although St. John of the Cross and Siddhartha Gautama come from different theoretical viewpoints, one could argue that they are experiencing virtually the same thing.  

Of course this depends on how much similarity you want to emphasize between the traditions.  But the parallels stand out to me. 


A Poisoned Arrow

The following is a famous passage from the Pali Canon which is often used to claim that the Buddha was strictly practical, and did not make metaphysical claims.  The passage certainly affirms this, but it must be held in balance with other Suttas which show the Buddha accepting the existence of various metaphyiscal realms, the reality of reincarnation, etc.  

I don't think it's accurate to say that, "the Buddha didn't make any metaphysical claims."  But I do believe we can say that he downplayed their importance in favor of practical spiritual practice.

In this passage, a disciple declares that he will not follow The Master unless he declares his position on various metaphysical statements.  In response, the Buddha gives an example of a man wounded by an arrow.  The man will not let the surgeon pull the arrow out until he knows who shot him, what he looks like, where he lives.  The wounded man dies without knowing the answers.  In the same way, we will die without knowing the answers to a host of metaphysical questions.  What we should be concerned about, according to this parable, is how to pull out the arrow of suffering in the here and now.  

"Suppose, Malunkyaputtta, a man were wounded by an arrow thickly smeared with poison, and his friends and companions, his kinsmen and relatives, brought a surgeon to treat him.  The man would say: 'I will not let the surgeon pull out this arrow until I know whether the man who wounded me was a khattiya, a brahmin, a merchant, or a worker.'  And he would say: 'I will not let the surgeon pull out this arrow until I know the name and clan of the man who wounded me;... until I know whether the man who wounded me was dark brown, or golden-skinned;... until I know whether the man who wounded me was tall, short, or of middle height...until I know whether the man who wounded me lives in a village, town, or city'...

All this would still not be known to that man, and meanwhile he would die.  So too, Malunkyaputta, if anyone should say thus: 'I will not lead the spiritual life under the Blessed One until the Blessed One declares to me: 'the world is eternal' and 'the world is not eternal;' 'the world is finite' and 'the world is infinite;' 'the soul is the same as the body' and 'the soul is one thing and the body is another;' and 'after death a Tathagata exists' and 'after death a Tathagata does not exist' and 'after death a Tathagata both exists and does not exist' and 'after death a Tathagata neither exists nor does not exist;' that would still remain undeclared by the Tathagata and meanwhile that person would die...

Therefore, Malunkyaputta, remember that what I have left undeclared as undeclared, and remember what I have declared as declared.  And what have I left undeclared?  'The world is eternal' - I have left undeclared.  'The world is eternal' - I have left undeclared. 'The world is finite' - I have left undeclared.  'The world is infinite' - I have left undeclared.  'The soul is the same thing as the body' - I have left undeclared.  'The soul is one thing and the body is another' - I have left undeclared.  'After death a Tathagata does not exist' - I have left undeclared.  'After death a Tathagata both exists and does not exist' - I have left undeclared.  'After death a Tathagata neither exists nor does not exist' - I have left undeclared.  

Why have I left that undeclared?  Because it is unbeneficial, it does not belong to the fundamentals of the spiritual life, it does not lead to disenchantment, to dispassion, to cessation, to peace, to direct knowledge, to enlightenment, to Nibbana.  That is why I have left it undeclared.

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 spiritual life, it leads to disenchantment, to dispassion, to cessation, to peace, to direct knowledge, to enlightenment, to Nibbana.  That is why I have declared it.  

Therefore, Malunkyaputta, remember what I have left undeclared as undeclared, and remember what I have declared as declared.  That is what the Blessed One said.  The Venerable Malunkyaputta was satisfied and delighted in the Blessed One's words."

– Majjhima Nikaya 63, Culamalunkya Sutta; I 426-32


The Four Noble Truths and Eightfold Path Reflection: Desires Extinguished or Non-Attachment to Desire?

A final reflection on the Four Noble Truths and Eightfold Path is an open question.  

Is there a conceivable point, at the end of the Buddhist journey, where personal desire is completely extinguished?  Does a real life Enlightened Buddha (if there is such a thing) never experience thirst for water?  A natural wish to avoid physical pain?  Or a personal desire for sex?  A candy bar?  Comfort?  The company of others?

If suffering is a result of desire, as the Second Noble Truth would lead us to believe, this would seem to be a natural understanding of Enlightenment.  No desire, no suffering.  There are also various texts which seem to imply this.  For instance, here are some statements from the Dhammapada (the term trishna – thirst/craving – is here translated as "selfish desire"):

"How can you describe him in human language – the Buddha, the awakened one, free from the net of desires and the pollution of passions, free from all conditioning?" (14:180)

"They are true followers of the Buddha who rejoice in the conquest of desires." (14:187)

"He is a real monk who has extinguished all selfish desires, large and small." (19:265)

"Not by rituals and resolutions, nor by much learning, nor by celibacy, nor even by meditation can you find the supreme, immortal joy of nirvana until you have extinguished your self-will." (19:271-272)

"Cut down the whole forest of selfish desires, not just one tree only.  Cut down the whole forest and you will be on your way to liberation." (20:283)

"Abiding joy will be yours when all selfish desires end." (21: 305)

Or... is a realistic picture of the end of the journey simply non-attachment to desire?  That is, we still experience normal desires, we just become unconcerned if they are fulfilled.  

A quote from Katsuki Sekida's Zen Training captures this idea well:


"Every time we succeed in banishing a mean or restricted ego—a petty ego—another ego with a broader outlook appears in its place, and eventually what we may call an “egoless ego” will make its appearance. And when you have acquired an egoless ego, there is no hatred, no jealousy, no fear; you experience a state in which you see everything in its true aspect. It is a state in which you cling to or adhere to nothing. It is not that you are without desires, but that while desiring and adhering to things you are at the same time unattached to them... True freedom is freedom from your own desires."



I tend to think that even someone at the end of the path, a "non-returner" or an aharant in Buddhist nomenclature, would still experience desire. 

Maybe I'm just splitting hairs.  


The Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Noble Path Reflections: Non-Attachment to People

I've written before about how I don't like how it sounds to be "non-attached" to people.  It feels wrong to say that I shouldn't be attached to my family or friends.  

Maybe it's just the language.  It sounds bad.  

The Second Noble Truth can be interpreted in several ways.  Suffering is sometimes said to be a result of "attachment," "craving," or even "ignorance."  Part of it is a decision about how you translate, and I believe part of it is because different texts from the Pali Canon may use slightly different language here.  

I'm much more comfortable saying "I shouldn't crave what others can give me."  Maybe that's the same thing as being unattached to people.  

It sounds better.  Non-craving instead of non-attachment when it comes to people.


The Four Noble Truths and Eightfold Noble Path Reflections: Spiritual Practice as Part of a Wider Path

On the Eightfold Noble Path, it is important to remember that meditative practice is only one element of the wider path.  Philosophy, ethics, practice.  It all works together.  

In regards to ethics, I am reminded of a quote from The Perennial Philosophy:

"Nor are changes in the knower’s physiological or intellectual being the only ones to affect his knowledge. What we know depends also on what, as moral beings, we choose to make ourselves. 'Practice,' in the words of William James, 'may change our theoretical horizon, and this in a twofold way: it may lead into new worlds and secure new powers. Knowledge we could never attain, remaining what we are, may be attainable in consequences of higher powers and a higher life, which we may morally achieve.' To put the matter more succinctly, 'Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.'"

On nearly all spiritual paths, meditative practice works in conjunction with other elements of life, such as the ethical choices we make.  "Just meditation" isn't enough.  All of life is practice. 

I think a lot in terms of selflessness.  We have to choose to be selfless.  It doesn't just happen magically.  This is part of the ongoing tension between forming yourself and being formed.


The Four Noble Truths and Eightfold Path Reflections: It's Complicated

One thing that has struck me while reading through The Noble Eightfold Path and In The Buddha's Words is that, although there is an outer simplicity to the Buddhist Eightfold Path, things get really complicated really quickly.  The Dhamma (the entire Buddhist teaching) is much more than just the Eightfold Path.  

Here are some quotations from Bhikkhu Bodhi's introduction to the chapter Shining the Light of Wisdom in In The Buddha's Words.

"The Five Aggregates.  The five aggregates are the main categories the Nikayas use to analyze human experience.  The five are: (1) form, the physical component of experience; (2) feeling the 'affective tone' of experience – either pleasant, painful, or neutral; (3) perception, the identification of things through their distinctive marks and features; (4) volitional formations, a term for the multifarious mental factors involving volition, choice, and intention; and (5) consciousness, cognition arisen through any of the six sense faculties – eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, and mind.  Examination of the five aggregates...is critical to the Buddha's teaching..."


"The Six Sense Bases.  The Salayatanasamyutta, the Connected Discourses on the Six Sense Bases, contains over two hundred short suttas on the sense bases.  The six internal and external sense bases provide a perspective on the totality of experience different from, but complementary to, the perspective provided by the aggregates."


"The Elements.  The elements are the subject of the Dhatusamyutta.  The word 'elements' is applied to several quite disparate groups of phenomena, and thus the suttas in this chapter fall into separate clusters with little in common but their concern with entities called elements.  The most important groups consist of eighteen, four, and six elements.  The eighteen elements are an elaboration of the twelve sense bases..."


"Dependent Origination.  Dependent origination is so central to the Buddha's teaching that the Buddha said: 'One who sees dependent origination sees the Dhamma, and one who sees the Dhamma sees dependent origination.'  The ultimate purpose of the teaching on dependent origination is to reveal the conditions that sustain the round of rebirths and thereby to show what must be done to gain release from the round.  To win deliverance is a matter of unraveling the causal pattern that underlies our bondage, and this process begins with understanding the causal pattern itself.  It is dependent origination that defines this causal pattern.  An entire chapter of the Samyutta Nikaya, the Nidanasamyutta, is devoted to dependent origination.  The doctrine is usually expounded as a sequence of twelve factors joined into a chain of eleven propositions..."

Five aggregates, six sense bases, eighteen elements, twelve factors, eleven propositions.  One could go on.  This kind of "hyperclassification" seems to be prevalent in other forms of Indian philosophy as well, so I don't think it's necessarily unique to Buddhism.  But it does get complicated.

It also stands out to me that the rhetoric of the Pali Canon lends itself to statements like this: "One who sees dependent origination sees the Dhamma, and one who sees the Dhamma sees dependent origination."  You continue to find statements that imply, "If you just get this, you'll get the entire teaching."  Or, "The Dhamma is summed up in this."  Unfortunately that thought is applied to many concepts within the Canon.  I've come to just see this as part of the rhetoric to be aware of.  But it continues to make me confused as to what is, and what is not, essential in the teaching.  

The Four Noble Truths and Eightfold Path Reflections: Forming Yourself vs. Being Formed

The Eightfold Path seems to be very much a systematization of spiritual experience.  The claim is, if you just do A + B + C + D you will get to Enlightenment.  It's spiritual math.

In a lot of the contemplative traditions there is a tension between forming yourself (i.e. disciplining yourself morally, willing your mortification, "right effort" in the Buddhist path) and being formed (i.e. letting the meditative practice, or God, from some points of view, "do It's work").  

Theravada Buddhism is more on the "forming yourself" end of the spectrum.  Karma is an immutable law.  The effort you put in is what you will get out.  The meditative practices do need to "act on you," but the emphasis is more on personal effort.  

In the Christian tradition, we can open ourselves, we can prepare our spirits, but at the end of the day we are dependent upon the work of God for transformation:

"Then why is this work so toilsome? The labor, of course, is in the unrelenting struggle to banish the countless distracting thoughts that plague our minds and to restrain them beneath that cloud of forgetting which I spoke of earlier. This is the suffering. All the struggle is on man’s side in the effort he must make to prepare himself for God’s action, which is the awakening of love and which he alone can do. But persevere in doing your part and I promise you that God will not fail to do his."

The Cloud of Unknowing


"Now, very briefly, I must just touch on the means for reaching this state. Here, again, it has been constantly stressed that the means do not consist in mental activity and discursive reasoning. They consist in what Roger Fry, speaking about art, used to call 'alert passivity,' or in what a modern American mystic, Frank C. Laubach, has called 'determined sensitiveness.' This is a very remarkable phrase. You don’t do anything, but you are determined to be sensitive to letting something be done within you."

– Aldous Huxley, Symbol and Immediate Experience, The Divine Within

There is certainly also a tension in the Christian tradition.  We are responsible for our moral lives.  We are responsible for putting ourselves in a place for God to act.  But in the end, true transformation has to come passively.  It has to be a gift.  

Personal effort and "alert passivity" are required in both paths.  It's a matter of emphasis.

The Eightfold Noble Path: Summary Text

I found this text, which seems to sum up the Eightfold Noble Path, in a different collection by Bhikkhu Bodhi called In the Buddha's Words.  I'm a little confused as to why I haven't seen this elsewhere as it gives a succinct overview of the Path.  There are some details and elaborations missing (for instance there is no discussion of what constitutes "Right Livelihood" and no discussion of the immaterial jhanas), but overall I think it is a helpful text for putting it all together.

The following is from the Samyutta Nikaya 45:8 V 8-10:

"'Monks, I will teach you the Noble Eightfold Path, and I will analyze it for you. Listen and attend closely; I will speak.'

'Yes venerable sir,' those monks replied. The Blessed One said this:

'And what, monks, is the Noble Eightfold Path? Right view, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration.

And what, monks is right view? Knowledge of suffering, knowledge of the origin of suffering, knowledge of the cessation of suffering, knowledge of the way leading to the cessation of suffering: this is called right view.

And what, monks, is right intention? Intention of renunciation, intention of non-ill will, intention of harmlessness: this is called right intention.

And what, monks, is right speech? Abstinence from false speech, abstinence from malicious speech, abstinence from harsh speech, abstinence from idle chatter: this is called right speech.

And what, monks, is right action? Abstinence from the destruction of life, abstinence from taking what is not given, abstinence from sexual misconduct: this is called right action.

And what, monks, is right livelihood? Here a noble disciple, having abandoned a wrong mode of livelihood, earns his living by a right livelihood: this is called right livelihood.

And what, monks, is right effort? Here, monks, a monk generates desire for the nonarising of unarisen evil unwholesome states; he makes an effort, arouses energy, applies his mind, and strives. He generates desire for the abandoning of arisen evil unwholesome states... He generates desire for the arising of unarisen wholesome states...He generates desire for the continuation of arisen wholesome states, for their nondecline, increase, expansion, and fulfillment by development; he makes an effort, arouses energy, applies his mind and strives. This is called right effort.

And what, monks, is right mindfulness? Here, monks, a monk dwells contemplating the body in the body, ardent, clearly comprehending, mindful, having removed longing and dejection in regard to the world. He dwells contemplating feelings in feelings, ardent, clearly comprehending, mindful, having removed longing and dejection in regard to the world. He dwells contemplating mind in mind, ardent, clearly comprehending, mindful, having removed longing and dejection in regard to the world. He dwells contemplating phenomena in phenomena, ardent, clearly comprehending, mindful, having removed longing and dejection in regard to the world. This is called right mindfulness.

And what, monks, is right concentration? Here, monks, secluded from sensual pleasures, secluded from unwholesome states, a monk enters and dwells in the first jhana, which is accompanied by thought and examination, with rapture and happiness born of seclusion. With the subsiding of thought and examination, he enters and dwells in the second jhana, which as internal confidence and unification of mind, is without thought and examination, and has rapture and happiness born of concentration. With the fading away as well of rapture, he dwells equanimous and, mindful and clearly comprehending, he experiences happiness with the body; he enters and dwells in the third jhana of which the noble ones declare: 'He is equanimous, mindful, one who dwells happily.' With the abandoning of pleasure and pain, and with the previous passing away of joy and dejection, he enters and dwells in the fourth jhana, which is neither painful nor pleasant and includes the purification of mindfulness by equanimity. This is called right concentration.'"


The Eightfold Noble Path: Right Effort, Right Mindfulness, Right Meditation

Right Effort, Right Mindfulness, and Right Mediation/Concentration make up the meditative portion of the Eightfold Noble Path.

Right Effort

Bodhi defines Right Effort as "the energy in wholesome states of consciousness directed to liberation from suffering."  

He elaborates more fully:

"Time and again the Buddha has stressed the need for effort, for diligence, exertion, and unflagging perseverance. The reason why effort is so crucial is that each person has to work out his or her own deliverance. The Buddha does what he can by pointing out the path to liberation; the rest involves putting the path into practice, a task that demands energy. This energy is to be applied to the cultivation of the mind, which forms the focus of the entire path. The starting point is the defiled mind, afflicted and deluded; the goal is the liberated mind, purified and illuminated by wisdom. What comes in between is the unremitting effort to transform the defiled mind into the liberated mind."

Specifically, effort is supposed to be directed:

1. to prevent the arising of unarisen unwholesome states
2. to abandon unwholesome states that have already arisen
3. to arouse wholesome states that have not yet arisen
4. to maintain and perfect wholesome states already arisen

Right Effort is the energy, drive, and perseverance expended toward these ends. 

Right Mindfulness

Right Mindfulness is the cultivation of a specific faculty of mind referred to as sati in Buddhist texts.  This faculty is our ability to be fully aware of the "pure data" of the present moment, without getting lost in our mental constructs and interpretation of the present moment.  Bodhi calls this state of mind "bare awareness":

"What brings the field of experience into focus and makes it accessible to insight is a mental faculty called in Pāli sati, usually translated as 'mindfulness.' Mindfulness is presence of mind, attentiveness or awareness. Yet the kind of awareness involved in mindfulness differs profoundly from the kind of awareness at work in our usual mode of consciousness. All consciousness involves awareness in the sense of a knowing or experiencing of an object. But with the practice of mindfulness awareness is applied at a special pitch. The mind is deliberately kept at the level of bare attention, a detached observation of what is happening within us and around us in the present moment. In the practice of right mindfulness the mind is trained to remain in the present, open, quiet, and alert, contemplating the present event. All judgements and interpretations have to be suspended, or if they occur, just registered and dropped. The task is simply to note whatever comes up just as it is occurring, riding the changes of events in the way a surfer rides the waves on the sea. The whole process is a way of coming back into the present, of standing in the here and now without slipping away, without getting swept away by the tides of distracting thoughts.

It might be assumed that we are always aware of the present, but this is a mirage. Only seldom do we become aware of the present in the precise way required by the practice of mindfulness. In ordinary consciousness the mind begins a cognitive process with some impression given in the present, but it does not stay with it. Instead it uses the immediate impression as a springboard for building blocks of mental constructs which remove it from the sheer facticity of the datum. The cognitive process is generally interpretative. The mind perceives its object free from conceptualization only briefly. Then, immediately after grasping the initial impression, it launches on a course of ideation by which it seeks to interpret the object to itself, to make it intelligible in terms of its own categories and assumptions. To bring this about the mind posits concepts, joins the concepts into constructs—sets of mutually corroborative concepts—then weaves the constructs together into complex interpretative schemes. In the end the original direct experience has been overrun by ideation and the presented object appears only dimly through dense layers of ideas and views, like the moon through a layer of clouds."

Traditionally Vipassana, Insight, or "Mindfulness" meditation, which helps a practitioner become aware of this bare data, is also seen as leading to the direct experience of the three "marks of existence":

1. Dukkha: Suffering, unsatisfactoriness
2. Anicca: Impermanence
3. Anatta: "No-self," egolessness, the non-personal nature of reality

Bodhi also discusses the four foundations of mindfulness: awareness of the body, feelings, states of mind, and phenomena.  The practice of mindfulness is most fully addressed in the Satipatthana Sutta.

Right Concentration

Right Concentration or Right Meditation involves focusing the mind on a suitable object until one achieves "one-pointedness," or unification of mind.  Through Jhana meditation, a practitioner becomes one-pointed on an object and moves through the jhanas, or "meditative absorptions."  According to the Pali texts, the Buddha taught eight jhana stages, each stage having its own mix of "jhana factors," or states of mind.  Jhana meditation culminates in the four immaterial jhanas where a meditator changes the object of concentration to:

Fifth Jhana: The base of boundless space.
Sixth Jhana: The base of boundless consciousness.
Seventh Jhana: The base of nothingness.
Eighth Jhana: The base of neither perception nor non-perception. 

Of these stages, Bodhi remarks:

"These states represent levels of concentration so subtle and remote as to elude clear verbal explanation. The last of the four stands at the apex of mental concentration; it is the absolute, maximum degree of unification possible for consciousness."


According to Bodhi, achieving the final jhana is not equivalent to Enlightenment, the end of the path.  Instead, if all eight parts of the Path are perfected, when an aspirant directs their mind toward "the development of wisdom," they can "see Reality as it is," or experientially know the Four Noble Truths.  It is through the attainment of this experiential knowledge that one may become an Arahat, an Enlightened One, a Buddha.  


The Eightfold Noble Path: Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood

The second grouping of the Eightfold Noble Path includes what Bodhi and others refer to as the moral practices – Right Speech, Right Action, and Right Livelihood.  

Moral discipline is seen as a core prerequisite to obtaining Nibbana.  Just as a Christian mystic would say that one cannot make progress towards Union with God while being uncharitable towards their neighbor, practicing deceit, or regularly stealing goods, so too a Buddhist monk would see moral purity as a non-negotiable part of the Path.  Success in meditative practice is, in fact, dependent on one's moral state:

"Though the principles laid down in this section restrain immoral actions and promote good conduct, their ultimate purpose is not so much ethical as spiritual. They are not prescribed merely as guides to action, but primarily as aids to mental purification."

While aiding toward one's progress in spiritual practice, moral discipline – Sila – also leads to harmony – Samadhana – within one's own inner being and in human community.  

Right Speech

The moral disciplines are often presented in Buddhist texts as abstentions – things one should abstain from doing.  Right Speech is thus presented as:

1. Abstaining from false speech
2. Abstaining from slanderous speech
3. Abstaining from harsh speech
4. Abstaining from idle chatter

Bodhi quotes the Buddha as recorded in the Angutara Nikaya to explain each of the abstentions.

"Herein someone avoids false speech and abstains from it. He speaks the truth, is devoted to truth, reliable, worthy of confidence, not a deceiver of people. Being at a meeting, or amongst people, or in the midst of his relatives, or in a society, or in the king’s court, and called upon and asked as witness to tell what he knows, he answers, if he knows nothing: 'I know nothing,' and if he knows, he answers: 'I know'; if he has seen nothing, he answers: 'I have seen nothing,' and if he has seen, he answers: 'I have seen.' Thus he never knowingly speaks a lie, either for the sake of his own advantage, or for the sake of another person’s advantage, or for the sake of any advantage whatsoever."


"He avoids slanderous speech and abstains from it. What he has heard here he does not repeat there, so as to cause dissension there; and what he has heard there he does not repeat here, so as to cause dissension here. Thus he unites those that are divided; and those that are united he encourages. Concord gladdens him, he delights and rejoices in concord; and it is concord that he spreads by his words."


"He avoids harsh language and abstains from it. He speaks such words as are gentle, soothing to the ear, loving, such words as go to the heart, and are courteous, friendly, and agreeable to many."


"He avoids idle chatter and abstains from it. He speaks at the right time, in accordance with facts, speaks what is useful, speaks of the Dhamma and the discipline; his speech is like a treasure, uttered at the right moment, accompanied by reason, moderate and full of sense."

An interesting note that Bodhi discusses under idle chatter is the difference between monastic and lay practice, acknowledging that "small talk," is more necessary, and even good, in the lay life.  Monastic communities from a variety of traditions discourage talk that is frivolous, or merely "idle chatter." 

Right Action

As with Right Speech, Right Action is presented in terms of abstentions, specifically:

1. Abstaining from taking of life
2. Abstaining from taking what is not given
3. Abstaining from sexual misconduct

Again, Bodhi quotes the Buddha's words for each.

"Herein someone avoids the taking of life and abstains from it. Without stick or sword, conscientious, full of sympathy, he is desirous of the welfare of all sentient beings."


"He avoids taking what is not given and abstains from it; what another person possesses of goods and chattel in the village or in the wood, that he does not take away with thievish intent."


"He avoids sexual misconduct and abstains from it. He has no intercourse with such persons as are still under the protection of father, mother, brother, sister or relatives, nor with married women, nor with female convicts, nor lastly, with betrothed girls."


Avoiding the taking of life includes all sentient beings, making strict Buddhists vegetarians and perhaps vegans.  The distinction between monastic and lay practice again comes up in sexual misconduct as monks and nuns take vows of celibacy while lay practitioners restrict sexual activity to specific partners.  

Right Livelihood

Right Livelihood deals with how one makes his or her living.  This applies mostly to lay members as monks and nuns typically rely on financial support from the community to survive.  The lay Buddhist following the Path should make their living legally, peacefully, honestly, and in ways that do not harm other beings.  Specifically five kinds of occupations are mentioned as needing to be avoided: dealing in weapons, dealing in living beings (prostitution, slave trade, cattle for slaughter), dealing in meat production, dealing in poisons, and dealing in intoxicants.  

Thus the moral group of the Eightfold Path regards how we speak, how we act, and how we make a living.  

The Eightfold Noble Path: Right View, Right Intention

The last of the Noble Truths directly leads to the Eightfold Noble Path.  Following the Eightfold Path is, according to the Buddha, the way to reach Nibbana – the end of suffering.  

For this series, I will be drawing from the work of Bhikkhu Bodhi, an American Buddhist monk.  Bodhi was born in New York, but ordained in Sri Lanka.  He then spent over twenty years in Sri Lanka, serving as the president of the Buddhist Publication Society, before returning to the States, living in a rural monastic community.  He has also translated and provided commentary on various divisions of the Sutta Pitaka of the Pali Canon.

At the outset, it is important to note that systematizing the Buddha's teaching on each individual part of the Eightfold Path involves drawing from a wide array of texts.  There do seem to be some "summary texts," in which each part of the Path is briefly addressed, but other portions of the Canon add to the teaching in different ways.  This can lead to a diversity of thought when modern Buddhist teachers explain these concepts.  Lineage (i.e. this is the teaching according to ____, who learned from ____, who learned from the Most Venerable teacher _____) thus becomes an important piece to keep in mind when studying any Buddhist teaching.

According to Bodhi, the Eightfold Path can be broken into three divisions:

Wisdom – Right View, Right Intention
Morality – Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood
Concentration/Meditation – Right Effort, Right Mindfulness, Right Concentration

Each group will be addressed in a different post.

Right View

In its fullness, Right View includes the entire Dhamma – all the teaching of the Buddha.  But for practical purposes, Bodhi presents two primary types – Mundane Right View and Superior Right View.

Mundane Right View simply entails accepting the law of kamma, a fundamental concept in both Hinduism and many forms of Buddhism.  Kamma (/Karma) refers to the idea that our actions, whether wholesome or unwholesome, will eventually produce the corresponding fruit in our lives.  Wholesome action will lead to our ultimate good; unwholesome action will lead to our ruin.  Bodhi explains the concept as follows:

“Beings are the owners of their actions, the heirs of their actions; they spring from their actions, are bound to their actions, and are supported by their actions. Whatever deeds they do, good or bad, of those they shall be heirs."

Kamma is seen as a universal law.  Although we may not see the fruit of wholesome action in the short term, ultimately good action will always produce good fruit.  This is not always understood in physical terms, but often as a positive transformation in the soul.  Physically, positive kammic action is often seen as leading to a better circumstance in future births.  Accepting the law of kamma is Mundane Right View.

Superior Right View entails accepting the Four Noble Truths, first intellectually, and finally, after following the entire Path, experientially.  At the start of the journey, one can contemplate the Noble Truths and accept them as logically true, but it takes years of following the Path to come to an experiential realization:

"This right view that penetrates the Four Noble Truths comes at the end of the path, not at the beginning. We have to start with the right view conforming to the truths, acquired through learning and fortified through reflection. This view inspires us to take up the practice, to embark on the threefold training in moral discipline, concentration, and wisdom. When the training matures, the eye of wisdom opens by itself, penetrating the truths and freeing the mind from bondage."

Right Intention

Right Intention is defined by Bodhi as "the application of mind needed" to achieve the ultimate goal of the Path – the Cessation of Suffering.  Intention is essentially the will of the mind to move toward its goal.  Bodhi identifies three "intentions" in the Buddha's teaching: the intention of renunciation, the intention of good will, and the intention of harmlessness.

The Intention of Renunciation is the intention to turn away from the pull of our desires and attachments.  If one accepts the Four Noble Truths, the root cause of our suffering is our desire for and attachment to things.  Renunciation is simply turning away from our craving for those things.  In the Catholic tradition, this is spoken of as "mortifying the passions," and entails abstaining from the things we want, especially sense experience (i.e. sex, material comforts, etc.).  It is not that the things themselves are bad, but that our attachment to them, our need for them, traps us and ultimately leads to suffering. 

The Intention of Good Will is the intention to act in a way that leads to the ultimate good of all living things.  Metta – lovingkindness – must be developed for all sentient creatures.  This is sometimes achieved through a form of meditation called Metta meditation, and extends to the animal kingdom, often manifesting in vegetarianism, etc.  

The Intention of Harmlessness is the intention to act in a way that leads to freedom from suffering for all living things.  

When practicing Right Intention, the mind is willed, over and over again, towards wholesome thoughts and actions which ultimately lead to the cessation of suffering.

"The unwholesome thought is like a rotten peg lodged in the mind; the wholesome thought is like a new peg suitable to replace it. The actual contemplation functions as the hammer used to drive out the old peg with the new one. The work of driving in the new peg is practice—practicing again and again, as often as is necessary to reach success. The Buddha gives us his assurance that the victory can be achieved. He says that whatever one reflects upon frequently becomes the inclination of the mind. If one frequently thinks sensual, hostile, or harmful thoughts, desire, ill will, and harmfulness become the inclination of the mind. If one frequently thinks in the opposite way, renunciation, good will, and harmlessness become the inclination of the mind (MN 19). The direction we take always comes back to ourselves, to the intentions we generate moment by moment in the course of our lives."

Thus the wisdom group of the Eightfold Noble Path includes Right View and Right Intention.


The Four Noble Truths

I am going to begin a short series on The Four Noble Truths and The Eightfold Noble Path of Buddhism.  It's not uncommon to hear that "the teaching of the Buddha surrounds the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Noble Path," and Western Buddhist teaching is often introduced in this way.  

I'm not convinced that it's as straightforward as that.  In fact, browsing through the texts of the massive Pali Canon, it sometimes seems that these concepts are just a very small subset of an extremely large and diverse body of teaching.  I agree with Eknath Easwaran when he makes the following remarks about the Pali Canon and its relation to the Eightfold Path:

"...not even a fraction of this literature directly deals with the steps of the Buddha's Eightfold Path.  Instead there is much discussion of insights attained on that path, and the philosophical doctrines derived from those insights – so much, in fact, that the reader of Buddhist scriptures might tend to forget that the actual practice of the Eightfold Path was the Buddha's central teaching."

In my opinion, these comments apply to the Four Noble Truths as well.  Because "the Dhamma" (the full body of Buddhist teaching) is so large and diverse, it's hard to say what is and is not an essential piece.  Even in the Dhammapada, which, in the minds of some, boils down Buddhist teaching to the basics, the Noble Truths and Eightfold Path are only mentioned twice, and are never defined, simply alluded to.

That said, almost all Buddhist teachers do see these concepts as essential to Buddhist philosophy and practice, and there are texts which make these concepts primary.  

One such text is the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta (found in the Samyutta Nikaya, a division of the Sutta Pitaka – the division of the Pali Canon which contains the Buddha's discourses), in which the Buddha is recorded as briefly introducing both the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Noble Path.

"And what, monks, is that middle way awakened to by the Tathagata?  It is this Noble Eightfold Path; this is right view, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, right concentration.  This, monks, is that middle way awakened to by the Tathagata, which gives rise to vision, which gives rise to knowledge, and leads to peace, to direct knowledge, to enlightenment, to Nibbana.

Now this, monks, is the noble truth of suffering: birth is suffering, aging is suffering, illness is suffering, death is suffering,; union with what is displeasing is suffering; separation from what is pleasing is suffering; not to get what one wants is suffering; in brief, the five aggregates subject to clinging are suffering.

Now this, monks, is the noble truth of the origin of suffering: it is this craving that leads to renewed existence, accompanied by delight and lust, seeking delight here and there; that is, craving for sensual pleasures, craving for existence, craving for extermination.

Now this, monks, is the noble truth of the cessation of suffering: it is the remainderless fading away and cessation of that same craving, the giving up and relinquishing of it, freedom from it, nonattachment.

Now this, monks, is the noble truth of the way leading to the cessation of suffering: it is the Noble Eightfold Path..."


Thus, the Four Noble Truths, according to this text, are:

1. Suffering
2. The Origin of Suffering
3. The Cessation of Suffering
4. The Path to The Cessation of Suffering


The First Noble Truth paints a frustrating picture of life.  Although we experience periods of happiness and peace, in Buddhist thought, life is ultimately marked by suffering.  We are born into the world crying, confused, and immediately dependent on our parents to save us from starvation and death.  As we develop, we experience bodily injury as well as mental anxieties.  We find things in life that promise to please us; we strive for them, and yet often can't have them.  Even when we do attain what we desire, the enjoyment seems to only last a moment before we are attracted to something new, with its own promise.  "It never seems to be enough."  If we find something that does seem to give lasting happiness, we immediately develop anxiety around the need to keep it, lest we lose the object that completes us.  Over it all looms old age, sickness, and death.  All this is duhkha – suffering, unsatisfactoriness.  

The Origin of Suffering

The origin of suffering lies in our natural way of approaching life.  Various authors (and I believe various texts in the Pail Canon, although I am not sure on this point) present the Origin of Suffering in different ways.  I have seen the root cause of suffering referred to as craving/desire (as it is in this text), attachment, and ignorance.    

Craving/Desire and Attachment: The most common way the Origin of Suffering is presented is in terms of desire and attachment.  These seem to be two ways of saying virtually the same thing, desire referring to our inner disposition and attachment usually referring more to the actual things we desire (i.e. What are we "attached to"?).  In this particular sutta, the phrase "seeking delight here and there" stands out as an appropriate image.  We seek delight for ourselves here and there.  I want physical comfort.  I want money.  I want sex.  I want to be seen as attractive.  I want to be seen as intelligent and successful.  I want a nice house in a good part of town.  We desire many exterior things in the world and become attached to them because we believe they will bring us happiness.  Attachment can be to physical things, to people, and often to ideas about ourselves.  The attractive young woman worries about wrinkles.  The wealthy man worries about having more money or status than his neighbor.  Any threat to losing something which we are attached to brings ongoing anxiety.  Thomas Keating, speaking from a Christian contemplative perspective, refers to this state of being (a state of being we naturally inherit as human beings) as "The False Self."  Our craving is never quite satisfied and leads to ongoing unrest and suffering.

Ignorance: Some authors present the Origin of Suffering in terms of ignorance.  From this point of view, suffering arises because we do not experientially know the truth about reality (i.e. the Four Noble Truths and the entire Dhamma).  Ignorance leads to seeking happiness in places it cannot be found. 

Although these ideas are complimentary, I find it confusing that different authors present the Second Noble truth in different ways.  Correct translation of this concept seems to be an ongoing debate within Buddhism as a whole.  

The Cessation of Suffering

The Third Noble Truth essentially states that there is a way to end suffering.  To do so, personal craving needs to be extinguished and one must become "unattached" to all things.  

The Path to The Cessation of Suffering

The way to the Cessation of Suffering is to follow the Eightfold Noble Path.  

The Four Noble Truths lead directly to the Eightfold Noble Path.  The Truths are the philosophical underpinning, the Path is the concrete and pragmatic Way.  


Here is also a short take on the Four Noble Truths from Alan Watts:

Non-Attachment vs. Stoicism

I was listening to a podcast this week about Pascal's Pensées.  In the discussion, one of the participants made a passing comment lumping the Buddhist idea of non-attachment and Stoicism together.  

I've heard this before, and I think it is a misunderstanding of the idea of non-attachment.

Stoicism has the connotation of moderating emotion.  Not getting too high.  Not getting too low.  It has the connotation of disengaging from the exterior world, because getting too caught up in things will always disappoint.  

When the mystics tell us that we must become unattached to the things of the world, the ultimate goal is not to disengage from them entirely (although this may be needed for a time), but to engage with them fully without finding our life in them, without needing them for our happiness.  

Take the situation of a wedding day.  The Stoic is going to say: "Don't get too excited.  This day is only a temporary high.  The feeling of joy will soon pass, so don't let yourself get carried away."  The Stoic will tell you to moderate your emotion.  The mystic encouraging non-attachment will say: "Enjoy this day.  Fully enter into it.  It is one of the most meaningful and joyous days of your life.  The immediate emotion of this day will pass, yes, but your ultimate well-being does not lie in temporary events or emotions, but in Something deeper within you."

The goal of non-attachment is to fully enter in to life, but without clinging, without looking to the things of the world for our ultimate well-being.  



The Pali Canon

I'm about to start a short series on the Buddhist Eightfold Noble Path, but before that, I'd like to do a post on the Pali Canon. 

As I've mentioned before, Buddhism has always seemed incredibly diverse to me.  Every time I read a new Buddhist author, it almost seems like I have to pick up a whole new vocabulary, and engage in a whole new set of concepts.  Sure, there seem to be some constants – the Four Noble Truths and Eightfold Noble Path stand out here – but I find myself wondering if even those "basics" are as core to the tradition as some authors make it seem.  My hunch is that even saying that "the Buddha's teaching surrounds the Four Truths and Eightfold Path" may be a gross oversimplification.  That's just my hunch.   

Part of why I believe Buddhist teaching seems to be so diverse is that the primary set of Scriptures (at least for Theravada and what may be called "Western" Buddhism), the Pali Canon, is absolutely massive.  

Estimates vary, and page counts depend on the translation (and page size), but you are talking about a group of writings that is probably more than 10 times the length of the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures, perhaps 15,000 - 20,000 pages of printed text.  To get a feel, look at this translation of the Samyutta Nikaya, which is one of the five subdivisions of the Sutta Pitaka – itself only one of the three divisions of the entire Pali Canon.  The translation of the Samyutta Nikaya itself is almost 2,000 pages.  

That is a ton of text to draw from.  On top of that, it doesn't seem the each individual sutra is necessarily connected to what surrounds it.   It's more just a list of sayings/discourses, mostly grouped simply by the length of the discourse (i.e. "the long discourses," "the middle length discourses," "the short discourses"), than a connected narrative.  

The Canon is separated into three "baskets" (sometimes referred to as the Tipitaka): the Vinaya Pitaka consisting mainly of rules for monks; the Sutta Pitaka consisting of basic teachings of the Buddha in discourse form; and the Abhidhamma Pitaka which contains systematic Buddhist philosophy and is sometimes referred to as the "higher dhamma" (i.e. it is more esoteric, philosophical, and specialized teaching).  Each basket is also further separated into smaller subdivisions.   

What the nature of the Pali Canon leads to, it seems to me, is the potential to choose a select group of sutras, and form a "Buddhist teaching" based on them.  Teacher A's analysis of what is "core" to all these texts may be vastly different than the view of Teacher B.  Hence the emphasis on lineage within Buddhism (i.e. I follow the Dhamma as taught by Teacher X who is of the ____lineage.).

This dynamic is true of all religion.  People read the Christian, Jewish, and Muslim Scriptures and come up with different theologies.  But it seems to me that Buddhism is more open to a huge diversity of teaching due to the nature of its Scriptures.  In Christianity, the recorded teaching of Jesus is contained in the four Gospels – maybe 100 pages of text.  In Buddhism, the recorded teaching of Siddhartha Guatama is contained in 20,000.  

What's Wrong With Mindfulness : Review

In What's Wrong with Mindfulness (and What Isn't), a host of Zen authors critically interact with the current mindfulness movement in the West.  Having witnessed the rise and fall in the popularity of Zen practice, these authors are in a unique position to offer advice to leaders in the mindfulness movement.  Contributors to this book range from being extremely critical of the direction of mindfulness to more sympathetic outlooks.  Mindfulness instructors and practitioners as well as those engaged in Western Buddhism as a whole will benefit from reading this collection of essays. 

Overview: The book is divided into two large sections: Critical Concerns, a series of essays which addresses the problems Zen authors see with the mindfulness movement, and Creative Engagement, a series of essays which explore Zen perspectives on mindfulness meditation itself.

Part One:  In Part One, Critical Concerns, each contributor offers their unique critique of the state of the mindfulness movement in the West.  Recurring themes, as discussed in the Introduction, are the realities of secularization (pulling meditation from its monastic setting, complete with ritual, the sangha, study, etc.), instrumentalization (seeing meditation primarily as a means to a particular personal end), and deracination (extracting meditation from the wider religious context of Buddhism as a whole, including its ethical and philosophical dimensions).  

Of these three concerns, the most common critique from the book's contributors surrounds instrumentalization, or seeing meditation as simply the means to a personal end.  Mindfulness meditation has been hailed as a method for stress reduction, a way of focusing and paying attention, a way to regulate emotions, a treatment for physical illness, an aide in psychotherapy, a path for personal happiness, a means of increasing kindness and compassion, and a way of living more in the moment.  The problem is not that mindfulness meditation may, in fact, lead to these positive effects, but that meditation is often seen as simply a means to an end that the practitioner finds desirable.  This focus on positive effects has, in the view of several contributors, led to the commercialization of meditation, or what has been dubbed "McMindfulness."  The examples of mindfulness being used by businesses (specifically Google) in order to improve production, or even by the military to help soldiers' performance, are pointed to as ways in which mindfulness has been co-opted and used for ends that are far from the original intention within the Buddhist tradition.  

Many of these authors feel that the Buddhist ideals of non-striving, or realizing the impermanence, unsatisfactoriness, and impersonal nature of all things is being lost when the focus is placed in improving a particular element of a practitioner's life.  

Other concerns discussed in this section of the book include the seeming "buffet" of options on the meditation and spirituality market and mindfulness' place in this New Age market, the divorce of mindfulness from a complete way of life, ambiguity in the meaning of the term "mindfulness" in popular usage, and skepticism, or at least caution, about the supposed scientific studies surrounding the movement, especially as it relates to brain research.  

Part Two:  In Part Two, Creative Engagement, Zen practitioners give their perspectives on mindfulness meditation itself.  Several of the authors in this collection either practice both forms of meditation or have even been officially certified in both.  Focus is placed on how both forms of meditation can be complimentary to one another, although, for these authors, Zen is the primary practice.  This section can be thought of as "seeing mindfulness meditation through a Zen paradigm" in the sense that the Zen tradition colors the authors' understanding of mindfulness, not the other way around. 

Of particular interest in this section is an essay on the word sati, often translated as "mindfulness," and a conversation between a teacher and student who are both trained in Soto Zen and Vipassana.  

Reflections:  As with any collection of essays, there were some that I found valuable and some that I didn't.  As a whole, I thought the first section of the book, which focused on the perceived problems with the mindfulness movement, was more thorough and more interesting.  I think those involved in Western Buddhism will find this part of the book to be far more important than Part Two.  Conversations surrounding these authors' critiques could lead to real change within the mindfulness movement (assuming it is just one movement).   Essays within this collection that I found to be the most helpful were Mischief in the Marketplace for Mindfulness, Mindfulness Myths, One Body Whole Life, and Two Practices One Path.  

Overall, I think the major trends within the mindfulness movement which are pointed out in these essays are accurate.  Mindfulness has become significantly unbundled from a Buddhist framework, probably moreso than any other form of spiritual practice has been uprooted from its religious context in history, and this is probably the biggest concern for those who approach the practice from a Buddhist understanding.  

Personal Takeaways:  I do not actively practice mindfulness meditation, although I sometimes go for "mindfulness walks" in which I feel I can cultivate the state of mind associated with vipassana meditation (i.e. creating an inner observer and simply watching physical and mental phenomena rise and fall).  My form of meditation – Centering Prayer – is much closer to Soto Zen practice than it is to mindfulness.  

One of the biggest takeaways for me comes from the forceful critique of using meditation for some perceived higher personal end (i.e. to have less stress, to be able to concentrate more, etc.).  Meditation, and in my case Centering Prayer, is more about changing the way you see things than changing the things themselves.  Maybe it is inevitable that people will come to meditation practices looking for a way to benefit their lives.  We are driven in large part by self-interest.  The paradox is that the more you deepen your practice, the less it becomes about you. 

One other takeaway I had was a connection with a line in the book's first essay.  When discussing the dangers of having beginners to the practice with no long-term training become instructors over others, Marc Poirier warns that students "may experience insights or rushes of psychological turmoil that an inexperienced instructor may be ill-equipped to address or perhaps even recognize."  As I've written about before in Centering Prayer, TM, and Emotional Struggle, I rarely see those from the TM movement, or Zen/Mindfulness movements talk about the emotional turmoil that can result from these practices.  It was just mentioned in passing here, but it caught my attention as a point of contact.  

This book will appeal mainly to leaders in the mindfulness movement, and it will be interesting to see the reaction from popular teachers.  It is sure to provoke plenty of discussion.  

The Path of Shinzen Young

A few posts back I quoted Shinzen Young on his understanding of Enlightenment and how it looks across religious traditions.  This is a podcast in which he recounts his spiritual path.  I especially relate to his realization of the universality of mystic experience (7:30 and following) which can be an important point of contact in inter-religious dialogue.  

Shinzen teaches mostly vipassana "mindfulness" meditation.

Shinzen Young on Enlightenment Across Traditions

As I start the blog, my posts are a little random.  Part of that is because I am building the Spiritual Practice pages and my thoughts are bouncing across traditions.  Part of it is because I'm simply posting quotes that I have found interesting for a long time and am finally putting them in one place.  This is one of those quotes.

I've had this interview from Shinzen Young bookmarked for about a year and have come back to it several times recently.  I was introduced to him through the Buddhist Geeks website, which I link to frequently.  

In the interview, Shinzen talks about the Enlightenment experience as he interprets it from his background.  He also has a really interesting statement about how this experience is talked about differently among those from other traditions.  Here he talks about what he thinks the "common denominator" is in the experience:

"The salient feature that is characteristic of enlightenment that’s independent of the tradition, whether it’s Christian, Buddhist, Moslem, Hindu, Sikh, Native, Atheist, etc.—the common denominator is that 'shift in perception of I-amness.' However, depending on a person’s background, and also how a person interprets the experience, the language that’s used to describe what is realized may be very different.

Buddhists formulate the shift in perception of I-amness as 'there truly is no self. Within a lot of Hinduism the very same experience is described as discovering the True Self in a way that implies it’s a thing – the Witness, the True Observer, Pure Consciousness, etc., etc. You might think just based on the language that the Buddhist formulation and what many of the Hindu’s talk about are unrelated or perhaps even opposite experiences.

It can get even more confusing when you read the classical texts in the original language they were written in. The Buddhists say enlightenment is to realize there is no Atma, which is interpreted as self-as-thing. Most Hindu teachers say enlightenment is to find the Atma, which is interpreted as the True Perceiver, or the Nature of consciousness that’s in some way behind all the appearances. So one says find the true Atma and the other says there truly is no Atma. You might think they’re talking about completely different experiences but as far as I can see they’re using different descriptions in talking about the same thing.

When you meet the Hindu babas and the Buddhists masters and you talk and interact with them, you get the same body language and you get the same vibe. It seems the same re-engineering of the human has taken place in both cases, but the language they use to describe this sounds antithetical.

The Christian mystics will often talk about the soul merging with God. Based on the words alone you might think that what they’re describing is quite different from the Hindu or Buddhist adepts. As far as I can see it’s part of the same re-engineering of the human. For example when St. Theresa of Avila talks about merging with God she says 'it’s like water and water.' But then she also says 'the self-forgetting is so profound it seems as though the soul no longer exists.' When a Roman Catholic in the sixteenth century says, 'when you merge with God it seems like your soul doesn’t exist anymore,' it is an extraordinary statement.

St. Theresa’s description of the contemplative path not only passed the test of orthodoxy, it has become orthodoxy! It is the standard map in the Roman Catholic tradition of the Christian meditative and contemplative path. So we can see that the Buddhist no-self model can be interpreted as akin to some of the things that St. Theresa says.

So a dramatic and permanent shift in the perception of identity is what to look for if you want to spot enlightenment across various spiritual traditions worldwide. Somehow it shakes the normal identity either in the sense of seeing there’s no thing called a self, or in the sense of identifying with a Pure Consciousness that is other than one’s mind and body, or in the sense of merging with one’s Source."

I tend to agree with Shinzen in that although mystics from different backgrounds speak in drastically different ways, they are undergoing the same type of spiritual transformation.  In Shinzen's words, they give off "the same vibe."  

For more from Shinzen Young, check out this post