By Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche
When we talk about stages on the path, in relationship to our meditation practice, we have a problem with the terminology. We tend to think of a staircase: We take the first step, and then we take the next step and the step after that. We think meditation practice is like being in an elevator. As things become defined or clarified on the path, we go up in the elevator, and the numbers of each floor appear as we rise from one stage to the next.
The problem is that meditation is not like progressing through stage after stage after stage. Rather, meditation is more like the process of growing up and aging. Although you may celebrate your birthday on a particular day, that doesn’t mean that, when you blow your candle out at your party, you suddenly go from being two years old to being three. In growing up, there is a process of evolution, a process of development. That is precisely the issue as far as meditation practice is concerned. Meditation is not based on stages, but it is a process that takes place in you. Such a process takes place in accordance with your life situation.
In the Buddhist tradition, it has often been recommended that you become a monk or nun, leave your home and family, leave all your relatives, your village, your province, and then join another home, which is called a monastery. However, we have a problem here. If you leave home and become an inmate of a monastery, you are re-establishing yourself as “being at home.” You left home, but you have found another home. Conscience, your sense of right and wrong, is very powerful here. You may feel that you are in a better home, one that is a divinely enlightened and improved home sanctioned by the buddhas. Or for Christians in a Christian monastery, they would feel it’s sanctioned by God. That is another problem. Again, we are thinking about attaining stage after stage, rather than understanding spiritual development as an evolutionary process.
In the Indian Hindu tradition, the recommended approach might be to learn the craftsmanship of your trade and worship God simultaneously. As a young man you practice your craftsmanship and do your pujas. As you are evolve, you become more and more in contact with reality or God. Finally, when you are ready to retire, you get a divine pension. As an old person you are regarded as practically and spiritually wise. You retire and follow the spiritual life, and you die in a state of spiritual ecstasy.
There are many disciplines that talk in terms of stages and landmarks of spirituality. You take a certain vow, you take on a discipline, and from that point onward you are a different person. For example, in the Jewish tradition you have your bar mitzvah or bat mitzvah; you enter manhood or womanhood. There are many things like that.
It’s deceptive if we see the process as a sudden one: once you get your title and the deed that goes with your title, you think you have become a slightly advanced and different person. From the point of view of true spirituality, we have to face this misunderstanding. There is nothing that should be regarded as a sudden jump at all. Rather, there is a gradual process, an actual process that takes place constantly.
People talk about sudden enlightenment, a sudden glimpse, satori, and all kinds of other spiritual attainments. But those things require the conditions for you to pull yourself together. You need to be in the right frame of mind to experience such a thing. So-called sudden enlightenment needs enough preparation for it to be sudden. Otherwise, it can’t happen at all. If you have a sudden accident in your motor car, you had to have been driving in your car. Otherwise, you can’t have the accident. That is the whole point: whenever we talk about suddenness and sudden flashes of all kinds, we are talking in terms of conditional suddenness, conditional sudden enlightenment.
Sudden enlightenment is dependent on the slow growth of the spiritual process—the growth of commitment, discipline, and experience. This takes place not only in the sitting practice of meditation alone, but also through the lifelong experience of dealing with your wife, your husband, your kids, your parents, your job, your money, your sex life, your emotions, whatever you have. You have to deal with everything you experience in life, and you have to work with and learn from those situations. Then, the gradual process is almost inevitable.
Scholastically and experientially there is no such thing as sudden enlightenment in Buddhism. So-called sudden enlightenment is simply insight, or understanding, that depends on what we have already experienced. We call it sudden in the same way that you might say, “Suddenly I saw the sunrise.” Or, “Suddenly I saw the sunset.” But what you are seeing is dependent on the situation that already exists, and you are just making it sound dramatic. The sun doesn’t suddenly rise or set, although you may suddenly notice that it’s happening. It depends on your experience.
The point here is that there is continuity in the spiritual journey. You begin solidly, you progress solidly, and you evolve solidly. Don’t expect supernormal magic of any kind on the spiritual path. Some of you may have experienced some kind of magic, maybe so. Some of you have read that such magic does exist, did exist, or will exist. However, magic doesn’t suddenly exist. The magic depends on the magician, and the magician depends on his trainers, so magic cannot appear unless there is a magical situation or environment. The sudden, magical “zap” we have been told about is purely mythical. The zap cannot take place unless you are in the situation to be zapped. Automatically, the zapping is part of a gradual process rather than a sudden experience.
Read the rest of “Beyond Past, Present, and Future is the Fourth Moment” at the Shambhala Sun.
View the video for “Meditation and the Fourth Moment” on the Chronicles of Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche. The Chronicles has online videos for all fourteen talks in the “Tibetan Buddhist Path” series from Naropa Institute in July 1974, courtesy of the Shambhala Archives.
Shown here by permission of Shambhala Sun magazine, a non-profit publication of Shambhala Sun Foundation: www.shambhalasun.com