Introduction

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Discussion Question
How do traditional models (four stages, five paths etc.) of the path to awakening help you in your practice?

 

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  1. How Gotama Became God

 

 

The Sutrists present the epistemic journey from ignorance to enlightenment within the soteriological framework of five paths:

 

  1. The path of formation
  2. The path of unification
  3. The path of vision
  4. The path of meditation
  5. The path of no-more-learning

 

In providing the spiritual, moral and psychological qualities needed for this cognitive process to mature and reach completion, these paths disclose the core logic of the path to awakening itself. The Nalanda tradition of Tibetan Buddhism maintains that, despite their different motivations, goals, practices and philosophies, Hinayana and Mahayana practitioners alike follow this same five-phased sequence from formation to no-more-learning.

 

During the path of formation one strengthens the resolve to awaken by renouncing attachments to this world, cultivating the virtues required for spiritual development, and establishing a practice of mindfulness, all of which serve to consolidate a justified belief in no self as well as in the Four Noble Truths. One enters the path of unification when justified belief is replaced by inferential certainty about no self. With assured confidence, you focus your energies, refine your discriminating intelligence, and deepen your insight through meditative practice. As this process “heats up,” the conceptual element of your understanding fades away until you gain a direct yogic perception of no self.

 

With this breakthrough to non-conceptual insight you enter the path of vision. From here there is no going back. Your final enlightenment and liberation are assured. Yet you still need to further refine your non-conceptual insight in order to dissolve the subtle residues of habitual confusion and emotional affliction that keep you fettered to samsara. This process of purification constitutes the path of meditation. For Hinayanists, it involves passing through the stages of the stream-entrant, once-returner and non-returner, until all the fetters are removed and you attain the path of no-more-learning to become a liberated saint, who will never again be reborn.

 

For the Mahayana practitioner, the path of cultivation entails passing through the ten bodhisattva stages.  On the tenth and last stage, one overcomes the final hurdle on realising how Ultimate Truth and Conventional Truth are not contradictory. Then you enter the path of no-more-learning and become a fully awakened buddha.

 

For me the primary strengths of Sutrist philosophy were its recognition that ultimate truth lay in ordinary experience and that spiritual development required the integration of reason and mindful attention. Its primary weakness lay in its being a closed system anchored to the worldview of late Indian Buddhist thought and science, which had little room for any further development. For centuries, Tibetan scholar-monks had debated and further refined its epistemological doctrines, but did not question its axiomatic assumptions about the nature of the phenomenal world and the structure of the path to awakening. When the Dalai Lama lectures on the Buddhist “science of mind” at conferences worldwide today, he continues to base much of what he says on the Sutrist ontology and epistemology he learned as a young monk in Tibet. Since the demise of Buddhism in India nearly a thousand years ago, another systemic way of thinking about the dharma has yet to emerge.