14 May 2010

Progress is Natural

SangharakshitaOne of Sangharakshita's great contributions to the Dharma has been his exegesis on what he called 'the spiral path'. This is a teaching that was lost to the Buddhist world, despite being preserved in the texts, until it was brought to light by Mrs Rhys Davids in the introduction of her translation to the Saṃyutta Nikāya. It is a vital counterpart to the application of paṭicca-samuppāda found in the twelve-fold nidāna chain. In this long lost twin we find an answer to the question of how enlightenment is possible for unenlightened people. Having lost what seems like the Buddha's original answer to this question, the Buddhist tradition came up with many and varied answers of its own, some more successful than others. But for me none has the simplicity or the raw intensity of this Pāli text. When Sangharakshita wrote about this teaching [1] he was only aware of the Upanisā Sutta (SN 12.23, PTS S ii.29) however myself and other scholars in the Triratna Buddhist Order have subsequently discovered a number of other texts which explore the second form of paṭicca-samuppāda. [2] This one from the chapter of tens from the Aṅguttara Nikāya is my personal favourite.

The Discourse on Forming an intention [3]

The virtuous one, endowed with virtue [sīlavant sīlasampanna] need not form an intention 'may my conscience be clear'. It is natural for the virtuous one endowed with virtue to have a clear conscience. Having a clear conscience [avippaṭisāra] there is no need to will 'may I feel joy'. Joy naturally arises in those who have a clear conscience. The joyful [pāmojja] need not decide 'may I be filled with rapture'. Joyfulness naturally produces rapture. There is no need for the enraptured [pītimana] to resolve 'may my body calm down'. It is natural in the enraptured for the body to calm down. With a body at rest [passaddhakāya] there is no need to form the intention 'may I experience bliss'. With the body at rest they naturally experience bliss. The blissful [sukhina] don't need to will 'may my mind become composed'. The mind of the blissful is naturally composed. When the mind is composed [samādhiyatu] there is no need to think 'may I have knowledge and vision of experience as it is'. With the mind composed one naturally sees and knows experience as it is. Knowing and seeing experience as it is there is no need to form an intention 'May I become weary [of experience], may I become dispassionate [towards it]. It is natural when seeing experience as it is [yathābhuta jāna passa] that one becomes fed up and turns away from experience. Weary of experience and disinterested in it [ nibiddāvirāga] there is no need to wish 'may I experience for myself the knowledge and vision of liberation'. For, weary of experience and disinterested in it one naturally experiences knowledge and vision of liberation [vimuttiñāṇadassana].

Thus knowledge & vision of liberation is the benefit [attha] and blessing [ānisaṃsa] of being fed up and turning away. Being fed up and turning away is the benefit and blessing of knowledge & vision of experience as it is. Knowledge & vision of experience as it is, is the benefit and blessing of absorption. Absorption is the benefit and blessing of bliss. Bliss is the benefit and blessing of serenity. Serenity is the benefit and blessing of rapture. Rapture is the benefit and blessing of joy. Joy is the benefit and blessing of a clear conscience. A clear conscience is the benefit and blessing of moral competence..

Thus each one fills up the next, each one is fulfilled by the next, and goes from the near bank to the far bank.
This sutta seems to require very little in the way of commentary. however I do need to say a little about the word I have translated as 'naturally' or 'it is natural'. The word in Pāli is dhammatā. this is an abstract noun formed by adding be abstract suffix - to the familiar word dhamma. Bhikkhu Bodhi renders this as 'natural law'. The meaning relies on that sense of the word dhamma corresponding to the English 'nature', and is more literally 'nature-ness' i.e. natural.

The sequence of states (dhammā) mentioned in Pāli is:
sīlavant sīlasampanna > avippaṭisāra > pāmojja > pīti(mana) > passaddhakāya > samāhita/samādhi > yathābhūta jānata passata > nibbinna riratta > vimuttiñāṇadassa sacchikaroti.
The message of the text is very simple. Enlightenment is a natural process. One thing leads to another, each one 'filling up' (abhisandeti) the next, and becoming its fulfilment (paripūreti). I think it's a very interesting reflection for us moderns who are wont to say "I just want to be happy". In this way of looking at things there is no need to form an intention to be happy. If one wants to be happy than one needs to look at the conditions that bring about happiness, especially by being virtuous.

The text is saying that if only we practice virtue in the Buddhist sense of that word, then all else follows quite naturally. There is a compelling logic to this. But it is also pragmatic, and very much in the spirit of 'come and see' (ehi passiko). It is not that no effort is required, far from it. But if we pay attention to the fundamentals, then the rest will take care of itself. Accepting this scheme as a possibility is the beginning of the spiritual life. Finding it to be true in one's own experience is the beginning of faith. Giving oneself up to it is the beginning of insight.

  1. See: A Survey of Buddhism. 7th Ed. 1993, p.135ff [Chp 1, sect. 14 'Saṃsāra and Nirvāṇa']; and The Three Jewels. 3rd Ed. 1991, p.108ff [chp 13 'The stages of the path'].
  2. I discuss the examples that I have located at the end of my essay: A Footnote To Sangharakshita's 'A Survey of Buddhism'. This is in need of a rewrite, but my friend Dhīvan is the expert and his book on the subject, This Being, That Becomes: The Buddha's Teaching on Conditionality, is due out soon.
  3. Cetanākaraṅīya Sutta AN 10.2, PTS A v.2. My translation based on the Pāli text as tripitaka.org. Also translated by Bhikkhu Bodhi in his AN anthology 'The Numerical Discourses of the Buddha', p.238-9 as 'The Lawfulness of Progress'.
image: Sangharakshita, from Manchester Triratna Buddhist Centre.

The main sources are for the Spiral Path:
  • Upanisā Sutta - SN 23.15
  • Pamādavihārī Sutta - SN 35.97
  • AN 10 1-5 and 11 1-5
  • AN 8.81; which recurs with fewer steps as AN 7.65, 6.50, 5.24, 5.168.
  • Samaññāphala Sutta - D2, repeated in D 9, 10, 11, 12, 13.
  • Dasuttara Sutta - DN 34
  • Vatthūpama Sutta MN 7
  • Kandaraka Sutta - MN 51
  • Visuddhimagga: I.32 (p.13 in Ñāṇamoli's translation).

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