In this second part of lesson #, Stephen reflects on the topic of #insert-topic [#add text].


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How does the first task of “embracing life” involve mindfulness, strategic effort and creativity?


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  1. Thirty-Two Dimensions of Awakening (2)




It took me about thirty years to resolve this conundrum. And logic provided the key. It gradually dawned on me that the logic of the five paths was the same as the logic of the four tasks. I had failed to notice this partly because of the different terminology and partly because there were five paths but only four tasks. But since the fifth path — that of no-more-learning — refers to the goal of awakening rather than the process of awakening, it is not strictly speaking a path. For unlike a path, it doesn’t lead anywhere; the work is done. As soon as the path of no-more-learning is bracketed off, it becomes easier to see how the first four paths are a somewhat garbled version of the four tasks.


The four tasks follow exactly the same logic as the first four paths: if a, then b; if b, then c; if c, then d.Once you embrace suffering (a), then you can let go of reactivity (b); once you let go of reactivity (b), then you can behold the stopping of reactivity (c); once you behold the stopping of reactivity (c), then you can cultivate the eightfold path (d). Like the first four paths, the four tasks amplify the logic of conditioned arising — “if this is, that arises; if this is not, that does not arise” — into a sequence of discrete yet interconnected practices.


While the logic of the four paths (as I will now call them) and the logic of the four tasks is the same, the logic of the Four Noble Truths is quite different. As with the paths and the tasks, these truths are logically connected to each other in terms of cause and effect, but not in the same way. Suffering, the first truth (a), is the effect of its cause, craving, the second truth (b), while the cessation of suffering, the third truth (c), is the effect of its cause, the eightfold path, the fourth truth (d). In logical terms this would be expressed:


if b, then a; if d, then c.


This provides the rationale of a metaphysical theory, which explains how suffering, i.e. life, originates and how it can be brought to an end. The logic of the four truths also draws on the logic of conditioned arising, but as the basis for a set of truth claims — concerning what is — rather than a sequence of practices — concerning what ought to be done.


The following diagram compares the logic of the four paths, the four tasks and the four truths:


            Four Paths:   formation      > unification > vision          > meditation

            Four Tasks:   embracing   > letting go    > beholding  > cultivating

Four Truths:  suffering       < craving       cessation      < path


The paths and the tasks are framed in terms of practice and agency. The truths are framed in terms of theory and belief. While the four paths and the four tasks are not incompatible with the four truths, it is not necessary to believe in the four truths in order to practice the paths and tasks. There is no need to believe that craving is the cause of suffering in order to embrace suffering and let go of craving. You let go of craving not in order to bring suffering to an end but in order to free yourself from its grip in order to flourish as a human being by entering the stream of the eightfold path.


The path of formation describes the foundational phase of one’s practice where one gathers together those forces, skills, tools, resources, virtues and perspectives needed to pursue the project of human flourishing. It is comparable to the German idea of Bildung, the process of life-long learning whereby a person harmonises her faculties of heart, mind and imagination to achieve greater personal integration as well as the ability to lead a dignified, autonomous and creative existence within society. As Bildung, the path of formation fleshes out what it means to perform the first task of embracing life. Both entail coming to terms with the poignancy of being human. By assembling the existential skill-set of a practicing human one acquires the tools needed for a reflective and responsive ethical life.


The second path is that of unification. “Unification” is payoga in Pali. Pa- is the prefix that turns ññā(knowing) into paññā (wisdom). In this case, it turns yoga (union) into payoga (unification). Payoga is the disciplined and focused inner practice enabled by and built upon the existential integration achieved on the path of formation. It involves a keen awareness of one’s psychological and emotional life, the resolve to come to terms with the “wild elephant of the mind,” and the refinement of the contemplative skills and insight needed to quieten and disentangle oneself from such turbulence. This yogic discipline is equivalent to the second task of letting go of reactivity. Unification is a remedy for the dispersive nature of reactivity, which scatters attention through the proliferation of thoughts and anxieties, thereby fragmenting one’s inner cohesion.


The second path and the second task both culminate in a transformative way of seeing. The path of unification leads to the third path of vision, while letting go of reactivity leads the third task of beholding the stopping of reactivity. “Vision” (Skt: darśana) and “beholding” (Pali: sacchikaroti) both mean “to see.” At this point the terminologies of the paths and the tasks coincide. Both describe a way of seeing human experience that becomes the fulcrum of the path, where one turns away from a life driven by habitual reactivity towards a life dedicated to non-reactive responsiveness. Such seeing allows one to dwell with equanimity in emptiness or nirvana. One is now poised to enter the stream of the path.


With the fourth path (of meditation) and the fourth task (of cultivating the path), the terminology again converges. In Pali, the “path of meditation” is bhāvanā magga, while “cultivating the path” is magga bhāvanā. The order of the words bhāvanā and magga has simply been inverted. We have no idea when this happened. Yet over time cultivating the entire eightfold path became transformed into the path of refining the meditative insight needed to achieve final understanding of the nature of reality. With remarkable economy, the inversion of these two key words encapsulates the entire turn from ethics to epistemology, which further consolidated the fatal transition from the four tasks to the four truths.


At some point, this holistic sense of bhāvanā as the cultivation of the eightfold path in its entirety came to be replaced by the narrower sense of bhāvanā as the practice of meditation alone. This is how the term bhāvanā is generally used by Buddhists today. Your bhāvanā (or, in Tibetan, sgom) is what you do when you sit cross-legged on a cushion to practice a formal spiritual exercise. Bhāvanā mutated into the private, introspective activity of a meditator. Yet the Indo-Tibetan tradition continues to maintain that only when you enter the path of meditation do you begin to practice the eightfold path.


Yet it made no sense that only after having completed the paths of formation, unification and vision would one then begin to practice the humble eightfold path. My Tibetan teachers taught that the completion of these first three paths was in itself an arduous achievement that could take many lifetimes. It also involved attaining magical powers, such as walking through walls and flying in the air. In spite of having taken taken refuge in the Triple Gem, renounced all interest in this world, committed myself to the attainment of buddhahood for the sake of all beings, achieved certainty about ultimate truth on the path of unification, and experienced direct non-conceptual insight into emptiness on the path of vision, only then, it seemed, would I set foot on the eightfold path.


It eventually dawned on me that to mention the eightfold path in this context was no more than the lingering echo of a doctrine that had been forgotten. That the eightfold path was mentioned at all bore witness more to a conservative respect for tradition than its having any particular significance at this advanced stage of spiritual practice.


A first clue as to what this forgotten doctrine might have been is found in a discourse of the Pali Canon aptly entitled On Cultivation. The discourse opens with Gotama imagining a person who is tormented by her compulsive patterns of reactivity despite a sincere longing to be freed from them. “Why is that so?” he asks. “Because she has not cultivated herself.” He then lists six groups of virtues that need to be cultivated for her to achieve such freedom. These are:


The four foundations of mindfulness

The four strategic efforts

The four bases of creativity

The five powers

The seven facets of awakening

The noble eightfold path


Only by cultivating — bringing into being — these thirty-two dimensions of awakening (as they came to be called) will the person be able to achieve the liberation she seeks. Even should someone have no interest at all in awakening, adds Gotama, by developing these qualities in her life, she will nonetheless attain it.


The process of awakening is rational, natural and organic. It does not depend on what you believe in or long for. Whether or not you are a Buddhist is irrelevant. Once the conditions for awakening are in place, the consequences will follow. If p, then q. Gotama illustrates this with an analogy:


Imagine a hen with eight or twelve eggs, who had not properly sat on them to keep them warm and incubated. Despite her wish that her chicks break out of their shells with their claws and beak and hatch safely, they will fail to do so. But if she has sat on them properly, then even if she doesn’t want her chicks to hatch safely, they will.


Just as the mother hen turns and rearranges her eggs with her feet to ensure that all will be kept equally warm, so does the practitioner of the dharma constantly adjust and rebalance the elements of her practice to ensure that no one factor predominates while others are ignored. In the case of the eightfold path, over time meditation came to assume the dominant role, while factors such as imagination, work and survival were sidelined.


A clutch of eight shifting eggs in a nest has no intrinsic order. The sequence in which the limbs of the eightfold path is traditionally presented is just one of many possible iterations. Imagining the limbs of the path as a clutch of eggs liberates you to arrange them in ways that are adapted to the needs of changing circumstances. By reordering them to culminate with work and survival rather than meditation, such a secular iteration reconfigures the dharma to help us face our uncertain future on earth. While each egg is a garbha or womb that brings a new life into being, the brood of hatchlings could be seen as a metaphor for bringing another kind of society into being.


In the Indo-Tibetan tradition, these six groups of virtues are correlated with the four paths of formation, unification, vision and meditation. This is how it breaks down:


  • The path of formation involves cultivating the four foundations of mindfulness, the four strategic efforts, and the four bases of creativity.
  • The path of unification involves cultivating the five powers.
  • The path of vision involves cultivating the seven facets of awakening.
  • The path of meditation involves cultivating the noble eightfold path.


To equate the eightfold path with the path of meditation is not, therefore, a curious anomaly, but part of a wider pattern of correlation that relates the four paths to the thirty-two dimensions of awakening. This pattern of correlation in turn reveals how these six groups of thirty-two virtues are not ordered arbitrarily but in a logical sequence that conforms to the unfolding of the four paths.


If, as I have argued, each of the four tasks is a practice of one of the four paths, then each task will likewise entail the cultivation of a specific group or groups of virtues. This allows us to understand the ethical makeup of each task in finer detail and greater complexity. It breaks down as follows:


  • Embracing life involves cultivating the four foundations of mindfulness, the four strategic efforts and the four bases of creativity.
  • Letting go of reactivity involves cultivating the five powers of faith, mindfulness, energy, wisdom and focus.
  • Beholding the stopping of reactivity involves cultivating the seven facets of awakening: mindfulness, questioning, energy, joy, stillness, focus and equanimity.
  • Cultivating a path involves cultivating the noble eightfold path: perspective, imagination, application, mindfulness, focus, voice, work and survival.


What starts to emerge from this archaeological excavation of scattered texts is a dynamic, thirty-two part matrix for a culture of awakening: the template for Gotama’s vision of a restored civic space. If the fragment of dialogue between Sāriputta and Koṭṭhita in The Great Discussion is like a barnacle encrusted amphora from a shipwreck, this matrix of interlocking paths, tasks and virtues is like the skeletal structure of the sunken ship itself. Here, I believe, lies the forgotten doctrine of Gotama’s task-based ethics of uncertainty, long submerged beneath Buddhism’s truth-based metaphysics of certainty.



Had I not been exposed to the Indo-Tibetan soteriology of the five paths and trained in Buddhist logic, I may never have noticed the significance of the four tasks, which was hidden in plain sight within the doctrine of the Four Noble Truths. Preserved inside what my Tibetan teachers taught me was the deep logic of Gotama’s awakening. The Pali tradition of Theravada Buddhism lost sight of the four paths and their correlation with the thirty-two dimensions of awakening, but somehow this doctrine survived in the Mahayana traditions that made their way to Tibet. What may have been just an historical accident enables us to understand how Gotama’s dharma is ultimately concerned with an eightfold path of human flourishing rather than the complete end of suffering and thereby of life itself.


Of the six groups of virtues, half of them — the four mindfulnesses, four strategic efforts and four bases of creativity — are included on the first path of formation. The first task of embracing life, therefore, involves a complex, multifaceted engagement with your being in the world. This embrace is grounded in sustained, empathetic attention to the physical, affective and psychological experiences of yourself and others. Such mindfulness provides a stable and lucid foundation on which to pursue the strategies required to optimise the conditions for individual and communal flourishing. As a person situated in specific historical, social, economic and political conditions, these strategies need to be creatively attuned and adapted to the particular circumstances of your life-world. Following the intuitions of heart and soul, the creative person experiments with diverse approaches to achieve these goals, learning as much from her mistakes as her successes, ironically aware of life’s unpredictability.


The ethical path Gotama advocates is a lifelong project. Its transformative effects on one’s character only become apparent over time. And since you are the person undergoing this gradual change, the effects may be more obvious to others than yourself. In letting go of reactivity, which is the task of the path of unification, you need faith in a process that may not deliver either immediate or permanent results. Since reactivity is built into the limbic system of the brain, it is liable to keep flaring up no matter how many years you have devoted to mindfulness, wisdom and focus. Unification is a fragile achievement, constantly threatened by renewed eruptions of reactivity and, as you age, with the breakdown of your physical and mental faculties. This is a faith that requires patience, humility and a sense of humor.


At the heart of the process of cultivation lies the path of vision, where you learn to see the stopping of reactivity and dwell in a non-reactive space. The seven facets of awakening provide a topography of such introspection. In addition to being mindful, focused and energised, this introspection involves a heightened curiosity, questioning and wonder. As the mind quietens down, you find a contentment and joy that is independent of external stimuli. More and more you discover an inner stillness that remains with you even in the midst of turbulence and chaos. The process culminates in equanimity: a sensibility that is fully aware of the push and pull of attraction and aversion but is not thrown off balance by either. As the affective corollary of a non-binary perspective, equanimity provides the contemplative underpinning for the practice an ethics of uncertainty.


In examining the connections between the paths, tasks and virtues, it is clear that the virtue of mindfulness serves as the guiding thread of the entire process of awakening. For among the thirty-two virtues, mindfulness alone is found on each of the four paths. In the performance of the four tasks, mindfulness works in concert with the other virtues it accompanies. By grounding each task in immediate experience, mindfulness ensures that one’s practice is informed by emotional intelligence and embodied know-how as well as cognitive reasoning. And by holding in mind what each task is for, mindfulness serves as the compass that keeps each group of interconnected virtues directed toward one’s ethical goals.


Had I not been a collage artist, the aesthetic beauty and economy of this interlocking matrix of paths, tasks and virtues might have escaped me. As someone who uses the imagination to visualise possible configurations of my materials in mosaic-like grids, I am acutely aware that by multiplying the four paths with the eight limbs of the eightfold path, you end up with thirty-two. This immediately resonates with Gotama’s lists of the thirty-two parts of the human body and the thirty-two physical marks of a “Great Person.” I am not surprised that the crone whose shadow terrified Naropa in his cell at Nalanda was described as having thirty-two hideous features on her body.


There is nothing magical about the number thirty-two. As a multiple of four and eight, it would have served well as a mnemonic device in a pre-literate society. Visualising the thirty-two parts of your physical body during mindfulness meditation or imagining the thirty-two marks of an idealised body as a way of recollecting the Buddha would both help you remember the thirty-two dimensions of awakening, from which you could then derive the paths, tasks and and other associated practices. This would have been akin to the “Memory Palace” (or Method of Loci) system of storing and retrieving information that traces its origins to the Greek lyric poet Simonides, who died around the time Gotama was born. While the city-dwelling Greeks, Romans and their European successors employed a visualised map of a familiar building or landscape to aid memorisation, it would have been in keeping with the culture of homeless ascetics for them to employ visualised maps of their own bodies.


As an ethical system founded on a non-binary perspective, Gotama’s dharma is constructed from basic fourfold units — similar to the way four nucleotides make up the structure of DNA, the genetic code for all forms of organic life. This fourfoldness is everywhere: four paths, four tasks, four mindfulnesses, four sacred dwellings and so on. When Koṭṭhita asked Sāriputta to explain what perception perceived, Sāriputta answered: “it perceives yellow, it perceives red, it perceives white, it perceives blue.” These are the four primary colours in Buddhism, which can be correlated to the four elements: earth (yellow), fire (red), air (white), and water (blue). Sāriputta may have been making a coded reference to the four paths, which went over the literalist Koṭṭhita’s head. Rather than providing factual examples of visual percepts, Sāriputta could have been reminding Koṭṭhita to embrace life (yellow / earth), let go of reactivity (red / fire), see its stopping (white / air), and enter the stream of the path (blue / water).