Notes for talk five in the 2014 dhamma talk series Long-listed for Enlightenment Each week during the Rains Retreat Series of Talks in Bangkok the notes will be published. If anything is mentioned during the session that needs clarification or links for further details, then it will be easily found.

We talk about staying in the present moment. Like it is a good thing.

The present moment is special, but only if treated wisely. Don’t neglect your pension, your long term health, your intellectual life …

Strictly taking a short term view, is short sighted. Consider the following gentleman, stuck forever in the present moment:

Meditation has a goal. That goal that Saints and Sages throughout the ages have told us about. Enlightenment, Moksha, Liberation, Self, Nibbana, the Unconditioned, Union with God … all kinds of terms and descriptions. It is the Summum Bonum of life itself.

Is it real? Is it attainable? Each individual can decide. But for many of us it is to intriguing to ignore. It might seem a long way off, or just around the corner. In fact, it really is already right there in our experience, but overlooked. Being in the present moment is one side of the practise. Taking the long view is another.

The Lotus Sutra is considered in many Mahayana Schools to be the most important teaching of the Buddha (according to scholars it is considered a much later teaching than the historical Buddha). It is hundreds of pages long, but the essence of its message is pretty simple: We are all destined not only for enlightenment, but to become full perfectly enlightened Buddhas. It’s just going to take quite a bit of time (!) Curiously for a Mahayana text, it states clearly there is no Hinayana (lesser/lighter path), no Mahayana (greater path) and no Vajrayana (diamond path).

The Lotus Sutra also states, curiously, that even if a person was to hear a single word of the sutra, that person would be destined for total perfect enlightenment. Similarly in Tibetan Buddhism, they say that if a person only glimpsed one of the Sutras (scripture) then that person is destined for perfect enlightenment.

You can see the theme here – one is being encouraged to take the long view. Meditation is not just about reducing stress in the present moment.

SOME of you might have heard about Ramana Maharshi. He was a guru who lived in India in recent times. Even Carl Jung heard of him and went to see this master, but reportedly turned back without ever meeting in person.

Arunacula Mountain, South India

If you go to Arunacula where Ramana lived all his adult life, you will be encouraged to walk right around the mountain (walk around the base, where it takes 6 hours, not around the top where it takes a few minutes!). If you complete the walk, then, they say, you are guaranteed full enlightenment. It’s quite popular with tourists! The various Ashrams around the mountain are to this day busy – with tourists and with genuine spiritual seekers. Again, undertaking the pilgrimage is an encouragement to take the long view. Our meditation is not to get a bit of stress relief. It is not to lower the blood pressure. We should set our sights on full enlightenment. Whatever that may be.


Along the way are certain ‘Paths’ – which denote progress. These were not a big part of original Buddhism, and are not often mentioned in suttas considered to be closest to the actual words of the Buddha.

But in the Commentarial tradition, they were talked about much.

The Commentarial tradition is the way of understanding Buddhism that arose over several hundred years from the time of the historical Buddha. As this particular branch of interpretation became cemented, it came to be known as Theravada Buddhism, or The Way of the Elders. This is the form of Buddhism we find in Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Thailand and Cambodia – although each of those cultures has added it’s own unique cultural aspects too.

So the discussion becomes a little academic. It might not be relevant to a meditator. Nonetheless it is a part of the Buddhist heritage, and raises some interesting questions and observations. While the dhamma talks we arrange in Bangkok are mostly orientated to practical meditation, there is merit in looking at some of the more academic side of Buddhism once in a while.

The main four ‘Paths’ then are:

  • Sotapanna – Stream enterer. Guaranteed not to slip into hell realms, and will become enlightened within maximum seven lifetimes. (Wikipedia information here)
  • Sakadagami – Once-returner. They will be reborn only one more time, before full enlightenment
  • Anagami – Non-Returner. They will be born in heavenly realm (‘Pure Abode’), from where they will be enlightened.
  • Arahant – Enlightened being.

(lots of information on the four paths can be found around on the internet. Wikipedia entry is here)

Three sub-types of an Arahant :

  • Anubuddha – regular enlightened being who heard the teachings, practised accordingly, and became enlightened.
  • Paccekabuddha – one who has stumbled on Enlightenment, without being taught. They have the curious quality that they cannot teach others. (Wikipedia entry here)
  • Sammasambuddha – Fully enlightened Buddha. This being has practised the Perfections (spiritual qualities) for many lifetimes, and so, when they become enlightened they have a huge sphere of influence and can teach others to reach the same enlightenment. (Buddhahood Wikipedia entry here)

A Sammasambuddha also is of three types:

  • Faith based Buddha – lower sphere of influence
  • Wisdom based Buddha – larger sphere of influence (Sakyamuni, or Gotoma Buddha – that is the ‘current’ Buddha in India 2500 years ago is of this category)
  • Heroic-struggle based Buddha (Viriya) – largest sphere of influence. The next Buddha, Maitreyya, will bo of this kind.

Each of these lists, especially the last one, is actually fairly obscure, and there is strong
arguement that they are part of the ‘mythology’ that arose after the historical Buddha. 

The 10 qualities that keep a being ‘fettered’ to the cycle of birth and death are called the Samyojana:

There are 10 fetters tying beings to the wheel of existence, namely:

A Sotapanna (stream-enterer) has eliminated the first 3 fetters.
A Sakadagami (Once-returner) has eliminated the first 3, and reduced 4 and 5
An Anagami (Non-returner) has elminated the first 5 fetters
An Arahant has eliminated all the fetters.


The most talked about ‘Path’ is the Sotapanna, and there is always speculation about monks or lay meditators if they have attained to this level. It is important to realise that there are no signposts. You don’t get a badge that you can show King Yama (the Buddhist equivalent of Saint Peter) after you die. There is no way you can tell what a person has attained to, and engaging in idle speculation is not productive. Most meditation lineages discourage this kind of speculation.

Although Sotapanna universally translated as ‘Stream-enterer‘, there is good cause to translate as ‘Sound-enterer‘. ‘Sota’ can mean either ‘stream’ or ‘sound’. The Dharma was said to resonate like a drum (in those days the biggest sound or signal that could be made). The disciples were called ‘Savakka’ or those who have heard.

Either way, in the Suttas there was an alternative explanation of the qualifications of a Sotapanna,

  • he has understood that a Buddha (fully enlightened being) has arisen in the world
  • he has understood that the dharma has been properly proclaimed
  • he has understood that there are nobles ones, who have attained to the Unconditioned
  • he has the ‘virtues of the devas’

So there you are – quite possibly you are already a Sotapanna and destined to live no more than seven lifetimes!!


There are some other attainments of the Path. One is called ‘Opening the Eye of the Dhamma’. Kondannya, one of the original five ascetics who travelled with Sakyamuni Buddha, was said to have opened this ‘eye’ after hearing the Dhammacakka Sutta (first sutta of the Buddha here). The associated insight that arises with this ‘dharma eye’ is that ‘all things that arise will cease‘.

Remember, these ascetics are seeking the Amata – or that which does not die. So the above insight rules out all possible ‘states’ of mind – as these arise and cease. The content of the mind or experience can’t be manipulated into Enlightenment. This leaves nowhere else for the mind to go. Nothing left to do. The process of meditation is one of letting things be, letting things stop still. Then, the mind can become aware of itself, independent of the content.

One more point that can be raised about the insight into impermanence – it means that all rites and rituals will not get you enlightened. You can’t light candles, build stupas, or take a karma-cleansing bath in the Ganges. Rites and rituals might help keep you focussed, but that is all. Thinking that some kind of ritual will purify you was a prevalent idea in ancient India, and probably still is today. In Buddhism it is listed as on of the four kinds of wrong attachment.


The other set of insights is something found in Chinese Cha’an Buddhism, and Japanese Zen Schools. It is called ‘Satori‘, and seems to be a deep insight, or enlightenment experience that marks a deep change. It may or may not be full enlightenment. Some schools talk about the experiencer wandering off for months or years to come to terms with the special insight. In typical Zen fashion, there is no academic or structural analysis of the experience. But there is an ‘utterance’ by which someone else might come to the same insight. These are Koans. You will likely have heard of famous Koans such as What is the Sound of One Hand Clapping, or the rather more stark ‘What is It‘.

Koans are not to be answered intellectually. Only by attaining tot he same ‘Satori’ experience will the teacher give you a passing grade.


If Enlightenment is not an ‘experience’ as an object of the mind or consciousness, it must be pretty hard to describe to someone. Descriptions, by definition, are trying to isolate particular characteristics and qualities.

Science is the art of dividing the world up into parts, characteristics and patterns. It divides. It spreads out in ever larger circles as our knowledge increases. Atoms were once the smallest, most indivisible things there can be. Now we think that even atoms are made up of smaller units called Quarks – can you remember the names of the six quarks? Before that, it was thought the organic cell was the building block of all things. Hopefully the human race will always go on pulling things apart.

It must be like trying to describe colours to a blind man.

Or, as mentioned during the talk, if you read Daniel Tammet‘s very interesting book Born on a Blue Day you find something similar. He is a Savant – one gifted with extraordinary abilities. The movie Rain Man showed some of the abilities of Savants. Tammet can calculate impossible sums in his head in an instant. Including the world record live calculation of pi (note, he was working it out live, not reciting it from memory).

How does he perform these sums? He sees numbers as having colour, form, light and depth. Give him a number and he ‘sees’ and ‘feels’ it. Give him two numbers and he puts the two forms together in his mind, and a new shape/colour emerges, which is the answer to the question.

He does try to explain – that ascetics guide us more than logic. See his 10 minute TED Talk here.

Reckon you can learn the method from him? Of course not. We just don’t see numbers in that way. He can tell us what is going on in his mind, but it is not that easy to replicate.

Meditation is similar. One can give all kinds of descriptions, but that is not the same as experiencing the real thing. That is why Buddhism focusses on how to do the meditation practise, rather than fanciful descriptions of god(s) or supernatural states. Descriptions we are supposed to believe in.

We don’t want to worship someone for their meditation attainment, we want to experience the same thing that they did. This is a key feature of Buddhism. The Buddha did not claim any experience that other people can’t know. He did not claim some special enlightenment that others cannot also experience. It is after all, the nature of everyone.

The Boy with the Incredible Brain – Daniel Tammet Documentary (sometimes available on Youtube – take a look there)


The experience of the mind, rather than the content of the mind is what esoteric traditions are pointing to. You can’t do it in one go, but bit by bit you get less entangled in the myriad manifestations of the mind. After all, how many tastes can you taste before you realise they are all just tastes. How many sights can you see before you realise they are just other colours and forms to see? Maybe you should try the new Oculus Rift – the amazing 3D Virtual reality experience that is so immersive and real, wearers of the head set report being extremely disoriented. See some of their reactions on Youtube here. Imagine where this is leading!? Pretty soon you will be able to have a date in 19th Century China or on the USS Enterprise! What will the world be like, when we can create any world we like?

The mind in the Buddhist lexicon is Citta. The content of the mind is Arammana. In the 1902 psychology classic Varieties of the Religious Experience William James notes that psychology has not been able to get to consciousness – only we can know what we are conscious of. Even today, psychology is still stuck with this problem. In Buddhism, citta without arammana is one of the descriptions of enlightenment. As one reflects on the nature of the six senses, then one becomes detached. Hanging on to the feeling of consciousness, or the light of awareness itself, slowly the citta comes into focus. Just touching it for an instant, is immensely healing. Just a glimpse, and you are guaranteed full enlightenment. Why? Because it is your own real nature.

In the last days of the Buddha (Mahaparinibbana sutta) the Buddha warns ‘not to be content with lesser attainments’. So take the long view.