Buddhist paths to liberation

The Buddhist path (magga) to liberation, also referred to as Enlightenment in Buddhism, is described in a wide variety of ways.[1] The classical one is the Noble Eightfold Path, described in the Sutta Pitaka, where it is also preceded by an even older version. A number of other paths to liberation exist within various Buddhist traditions and theology.

There are various expositions of the path to liberation in the Early Buddhist texts, the following examples are drawn from the Pali Nikayas.

The Noble Eightfold Path is widely known as the description of the Buddhist path. In the Sutta Pitaka it is summed up as follows:

The Blessed One said, "Now what, monks, is the Noble Eightfold Path? Right view, right resolve, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, right concentration.[web 1]

Alternate, and possibly older, sequences of the stages on the Buddhist path to liberation, can be found throughout the Pali Canon.

According to Vetter, a standard sequence of developments can be found in the Nikayas, which may predate the more stylised four noble truths.[2] For example the Tevijja Sutta verse 40–75 (Dikha Nikaya 13):[web 2]

According to Rod Bucknell, another listing of path stages occurs in various places in the Majjhima Nikaya, and can be illustrated with the following list of stages from the Cula-Hatthipadopama-sutta (Lesser Discourse on the Simile of the Elephant's Footprints).[3]

According to Bucknell, in this sutta the Buddha gives the following list of "things that are to be done by recluses and brahmans":[3]

According to Bucknell, in the Sekha sutta the Buddha prompts Ananda to teach a "learner's course" to a group of disciples, which goes thus:[3]

According to Bhikkhu Sujato, the Chinese Madhyama Agama of the Sarvastivada school includes some exposition of the gradual path not available in the Pali Nikayas of the Theravada school.[4] He outlines three main such expositions of the path, from the following sutras, MA 44, MA 54, and MA 55:

Mindfulness & clear comprehension → protection of sense faculties → protection of precepts → non-remorse → gladness → rapture → bliss → samādhi → knowledge & vision of things as they have become → repulsion → fading of lust → liberation → Nibbana.[4]

Honouring and attending upon → approaching → listening to the good Dhamma → giving ear → consideration of the meaning of the Dhamma → learning the Dhamma by heart → recital → reflective acceptance → faith → right consideration → mindfulness&clear comprehension → protection of the sense faculties → protection of precepts → nonremorse → gladness → rapture → bliss → samādhi → knowledge & vision of things as they have become → repulsion → fading of lust → liberation → Nibbana.[4]

Ignorance → conceptual activities → cognition → name & form → six senses → contact → feeling → craving → grasping → existence → birth → aging & death → suffering → faith → right consideration → mindfulness & clear comprehension → protection of sense faculties → protection of precepts → non-remorse → gladness → rapture → bliss → samādhi → knowledge& vision of things as they have become → repulsion → fading of lust → liberation → Nibbana.[5]

According to Rupert Gethin, the Buddhist path to awakening is frequently summarized in the Pali Canon in a short formula as

abandoning the hindrances, practice of the four establishings of mindfulness, and development of the awakening factors...[6]

Various practices lead to the development of the bojjhaṅgā, the seven factors of awakening, which are not only the means to, but also the constituents of awakening.[7] According to Gethin, there is a "definite affinity" between the four jhanas and the bojjhaṅgā,[8][9][10][11] the development of which is aided by .[12] Together with satipatthana (mindfulness) and anapanasati (breath-meditation), this results in a "heightened awareness," "overcoming distracting and disturbing emotions."[13]

Another formula is anupubbikathā, "graduated talk, in which the Buddha talks on generosity (dāna), virtue (sīla), heaven (sagga), danger of sensual pleasure (kāmānaṃ ādīnava)[note 1] and renunciation (nekkhamma). When the listener is prepared by these topics, the Buddha then delivers "the teaching special to the Buddhas,"[14] the Four Noble Truths (cattāri ariya-saccāni),[15] by which arises "the spotless immaculate vision of the Dhamma."[14] In the Tibetan Lamrim teachings, the Bodhisattva-path, with its training of the six perfections, is added to this formula.

The Atthakavagga, one of the oldest books of the Sutta Pitaka, contained in the Sutta Nipata, does not give a clear-cut goal such as Nirvana, but describes the ideal person.[16] This ideal person is especially characterized by suddhi (purity) and santi (calmness).[16]

Commentaries on the Atthakavagga, namely the Mahaniddesa and the commentary by Buddhaghosa, show the development of Buddhist ideas over time. Both commentaries place the Atthakavagga in their frame of reference, giving an elaborated system of thought far more complicated than the Atthakavagga itself.[16]

In the Pali commentaries, the term bodhipakkhiyā dhammā is used to refer to seven sets of such qualities regularly mentioned by the Buddha throughout the Pali Canon. Within these seven sets of Enlightenment qualities, there is a total of thirty-seven individual qualities (sattatisa bodhipakkhiyā dhammā).[note 2] nonetheless, the seven sets of bodhipakkhiya dhammas are themselves first collated, enumerated and referenced in the Sutta Pitaka and Abhidhamma Pitaka.[note 3]

The classical outline of the Theravada path to liberation are the Seven Purifications, as described by Buddhaghosa in the Visuddhimagga. These purifications are:[18]

The "Purification by Knowledge and Vision" is the culmination of the practice, in four stages leading to liberation.

The emphasis in this system is on understanding the three marks of existence, dukkha, anatta, anicca. This emphasis is recognizable in the value that is given to vipassana over samatha, especially in the contemporary vipassana movement.

The Sarvāstivāda Vaibhāṣika school developed an influential outline of the path to awakening, one which was later adapted and modified by the scholars of the Mahayana tradition. This was called the "five paths" (pañcamārga), and can be seen in their Abhidharma texts as well as Vasubadhu's Abhidharmakośa (AKBh).[19]

Mahāyāna Buddhism is based principally upon the path of a bodhisattva. Mahāyāna Buddhism encourages everyone to become bodhisattvas and to take the bodhisattva vows. With these vows, one makes the promise to work for the complete enlightenment of all sentient beings by following the bodhisattva path. The path can be described in terms of the six perfections or in terms of the five paths and ten bhumis.

The six paramitas are the means by which Mahayana practitioners actualize their aspiration to attain complete enlightenment for the benefit of all. In Mahāyāna Buddhism, the Prajñapāramitā Sūtras, the Lotus Sutra (Skt., Saddharma Puṇḍarīka Sūtra), and a large number of other texts, list the six perfections as follows:

The Mahayana commentary the Abhisamayalamkara presents a progressive formula of five paths (pañcamārga, Wylie Tibetan lam lnga) adopted from the Sarvastivada tradition's Abhidharma exposition. The Five Paths as taught in the Mahayana are:[22]

The "bodhisattva bhūmis" ("enlightenment-being grounds/levels") are subcategories of the Five Paths. The Sanskrit term bhūmi literally means "ground" or "foundation", since each stage represents a level of attainment and serves as a basis for the next one. Each level marks a definite advancement in one's training that is accompanied by progressively greater power and wisdom. The Avatamsaka Sutra refers to the following ten bhūmis:[24]

Lam Rim describes the stages of the path. Tsong Khapa mentions three essential elements:[25]

In the highest class of tantra, two stages of practice are distinguished, namely generation and completion. In some Buddhist tantras, both stages can be practiced simultaneously, whereas in others, one first actualizes the generation stage before continuing with the completion stage practices.

In the first stage of generation, one engages in deity yoga. One practices oneself in the identification with the meditational Buddha or deity (yidam) by visualisations, until one can meditate single-pointedly on being the deity.[note 4]

In the generation stage of Deity Yoga, the practitioner visualizes the "Four Purities" (Tibetan: yongs su dag pa bzhi; yongs dag bzhi)[web 3] which define the principal Tantric methodology of Deity Yoga that distinguishes it from the rest of Buddhism:[26]

In the next stage of completion, the practitioner can use either the path of method (thabs lam) or the path of liberation ('grol lam).[27]

At the path of method the practitioner engages in Kundalini yoga practices. These involve the subtle energy system of the body of the chakras and the energy channels. The "wind energy" is directed and dissolved into the heart chakra, where-after the Mahamudra remains,[28] and the practitioner is physically and mentally transformed.

At the path of liberation the practitioner applies mindfulness,[29] a preparatory practice for Mahamudra or Dzogchen, to realize the inherent emptiness of every-'thing' that exists.[30]

Mahāmudrā' literally means "great seal" or "great symbol". The name refers to the way one who has realized mahāmudrā. "Mudra" refers to the fact that each phenomenon appears vividly, and "maha" refers to the fact that it is beyond concept, imagination, and projection.[31]

Mahāmudrā is sometimes divided into four distinct phases known as the four yogas of mahāmudrā. They are as follows:[32]

These stages parallel the four yogas of dzogchen semde. The four yogas of Mahāmudrā have also been correlated with the Mahāyāna five Bhumi paths.

Although the Rinzai Zen-tradition emphasises sudden awakening over the study of scripture, in practice several stages can be distinguished. A well-known example are the Ten Ox-Herding Pictures which detail the steps on the Path.

The , attributed to Bodhisharma, refers the entrance of principle (理入 lǐrù) and the entrance of practice (行入 xíngrù).[33][note 5]

To enter by principle means to realize the essence through instruction and to believe that all living things share the same true nature, which isn’t apparent because it’s shrouded by sensation and delusion. Those who turn from delusion back to reality, who "meditate on walls," the absence of self and other, the oneness of mortal and sage, and who remain unmoved even by scriptures, are in complete and unspoken agreement with principle. Without moving, without effort, they enter, we say, by principle.[35]

According to John R. Mcrae, "the “entrance of principle” refers to interior cultivation, mental practice undertaken deep within the individual's psyche, and the “entrance of practice” refers to practice undertaken actively and in interaction with the world."[38] Yet, McRae also notes that it's not clear what exactly the "entrance of principle" entailed.[39] The phrase "wall contemplation," biguan, is not explicated. Later tradition graphically depicted it as practicing dhyana while facing a wall, but it may be a metaphor, referring to the four walls of a room which prevent the winds from entering the room.[40]

In the 8th century the distinction became part of a struggle for influence at the Chinese court by Shenhui, a student of Huineng. Hereafter "sudden enlightenment" became one of the hallmarks of Chan Buddhism, though the sharp distinction was softened by subsequent generations of practitioners.[41] Once the dichotomy between sudden and gradual was in place, it defined its own logic and rhetorics, which are also recognizable in the distinction between Caodong (Soto) and Lin-ji (Rinzai) chán.[42] But it also led to a "sometimes bitter and always prolix sectarian controversy between later Chán and Hua-yen exegetes".[43]

In the Huayan classification of teachings, the sudden approach was regarded inferior to the Perfect Teaching of Hua-yen. Guifeng Zongmi, fifth patriarch of Hua-yen ànd Chán-master, devised his own classification to counter this subordination.[44] Guifeng Zongmi also softened the edge between sudden and gradual. In his analysis, sudden awakening points to seeing into one's true nature, but is to be followed by a gradual cultivation to attain Buddhahood.[44] Chinul, a 12th-century Korean Seon master, followed Zongmi, and also emphasized that insight into our true nature is sudden, but is to be followed by practice to ripen the insight and attain full Buddhahood. To establish the superiority of the Chán-teachings, Chinul explained the sudden approach as not pointing to mere emptiness, but to suchness or the dharmadhatu.[45]

This is also the standpoint of the contemporary Sanbo Kyodan, according to whom kensho is at the start of the path to full enlightenment.[46] This gradual cultivation is described by Chan Master Sheng Yen as follows:

Ch'an expressions refer to enlightenment as "seeing your self-nature". But even this is not enough. After seeing your self-nature, you need to deepen your experience even further and bring it into maturation. You should have enlightenment experience again and again and support them with continuous practice. Even though Ch'an says that at the time of enlightenment, your outlook is the same as of the Buddha, you are not yet a full Buddha.[47]

In Rinzai, insight into true nature is to be followed by gradual cultivation. This is described in teachings such as The Three mysterious Gates of Linji, and the Four Ways of Knowing of Hakuin.[48]

Although Sōtō emphasizes shikan-taza, just-sitting, this tradition too had description of development within the practice. This is described by Tozan, who described the Five ranks of enlightenment.[web 5]