stream-entry

How to enter the stream

What you need to do to become a stream entrant

There are certain things you need to do, and attitudes that you need to cultivate, if you’re going to set up the conditions for insight to arise.

You’ll need periods of intensive practice, such as going on retreat. And I don’t mean just getting away for the odd weekend, which is all some people say they can manage. You need to have intensive spells of meditation for a week, ten days, two weeks, preferably longer.

Sometimes we find it hard to have the time. I heard someone say that when you say you don’t have time to do something it’s not a statement of fact, it’s a statement of values. When we say we don’t have time to go on retreat, this is a statement of what we think is important. Certainly there are practical difficulties — if you have a young child it’s very hard to get away for those first few years — but with time (and willingness) we can overcome these difficulties.

You need to do a lot of work to become a more positive person. You need to get rid of the gross manifestations of greed, hatred, and delusion. You need to be reasonably ethical. You need to work on being kind. You need to take responsibility for yourself. You have to have done a lot of letting go. You need to work on bringing Buddhist practice into your daily life. Your practice can’t be a hobby, and has to be the central orienting principle in your life. So your life has to be your practice. Your work has to be your practice, your parenting has to be your practice, your parenting and your friendships have to be your practice. Every aspect of your life has to become an avenue for cultivating mindfulness, compassion, and insight.

You’re going to need a sangha to do all of the above. We need other people to encourage us — and to challenge us. It’s all too easy for us to kid ourselves on about how spiritual we are, or to let ourselves off the hook when we face a spiritual challenge. A sangha holds a mirror up in front of us, so that we can see ourselves more clearly.

You need to have an enquiring mind. It’s very difficult to develop insight if you’re not prepared to question. And by this I don’t mean making a pain of yourself and arguing about everything. Gaining insight is about questioning your experience and questioning your assumptions about the world — your assumptions about where happiness comes from, your assumptions about who you are, your assumptions about things having permanence. Unless you’re prepared to question, you can’t break the fetters.

The enquiring mind is not afraid of uncertainty. In fact the enquiring mind thrives on uncertainty. I think a lot of what holds people back is too quickly assuming that they understand. It’s so easy to assent to Buddhist concepts, and being clever and having a quick mind can be a problem as well as a blessing. It’s easy to take ideas on board because they seem reasonable, without really thinking them through. The reason I decided to go study Buddhism at university was after I started noticing this in myself. I discovered that I could hold two contradictory ideas in my head at the same time. I could switch seamlessly from one to the other without ever noticing the contradiction, and I wanted an opportunity to be forced to think clearly. To give one example, it’s common to hear that the “eastern tradition” is that we should never talk about spiritual accomplishments such as enlightenment. So if we get enlightened we should be modest and never say anything about it. And then five minutes later we’ll read a sutta where the Buddha, or one of his disciples, proclaims his spiritual attainment, and think how wonderfully confident this all is. Another example would be believing that we literally have to aim to save all sentient beings in order to awaken, and in the next moment reading the Buddha’s life story in which he first gets awakened and then feels impelled to teach and help others. Often we never notice that we have two contradictory ideas in our mind, since each is only evoked under specific circumstances.

Stream entry involves breaking three fetters

Stream entry involves breaking three out of the ten fetters that hold us back from full awakening. These fetters are habits and views and acts of clinging that stop us from making progress.

The first fetter is “self-view.” It’s often expressed as “fixed self-view.” This is the assumption we have that we have a fixed and separate self that’s running the show of our lives. It’s not just that if we think we can’t change, we won’t, although that is true. This fetter is rather more subtle than that. It’s the view that there is a self that is somehow separate from our ever-changing experiences. So we may notice that our experiences are changing, but assume there’s some kind of stable, permanent self that has those experiences. But where could this kind of self lie?

To break this fetter, we have to simply notice, over and over again, that there’s nothing permanent in our experience. It’s not that we just understand impermanence intellectually. That’s often what we do. We talk about impermanence rather than just looking.

We watch our physical sensations. over and over, and see that they’re changing. We enquire. We look deeply. We question assumptions. So we find ourselves thinking “I’ve had this headache all day.” Well, actually you haven’t. Look closer. You’ve had it for a microsecond. Before that you had a slightly different headache for a microsecond. You’ve had a gazillion headaches, all a microsecond long, and each one different. So you notice this endless parade of headaches, coming and going, pulsing and throbbing. You come to realize that the headache is not a permanent thing. At some point you realize that everything that constitutes our sense of self is like that. Even the consciousness that notices the headaches coming and going is changing all the time. There’s nothing here but change. There’s no room for the kind of permanent self that we assume “has” our experiences.

This fetter, although we call it “(fixed) self view” is literally the fetter of “real body view” (sakkāya ditthi) and this literal sense of the term is an important component of the fetter. At a certain point we lose the sense of having a body, and instead we experience ourselves as a mass of ever-changing sensations. There’s a loss of the sense of solidity and permanence of the body. But this experience of the body dissolving doesn’t stop with the body. It extends to every aspect of our experience, and even to our sense of self.

So this is all you need to do. Just look. Notice that everything’s changing. And keep doing this until the penny drops that all there is is change. It’s really simple. We do this with physical sensations, feelings, thoughts, etc.

The second fetter is doubt. All three fetters break at the same time, so this one goes automatically when the fetter of self view breaks. When we break the fetter of self view, we see everything’s changing. This is changing, that is changing, everything is changing. And then it clicks, there’s nothing here that’s permanent. There’s nothing solid in my self.

Now this is very liberating! We’ve been under the grip of a delusion all our lives — the delusion of having a fixed and separate self. There’s been doubt about all this Freudian stuff lurking under the surface. There’s been doubt that we may be fundamentally incapable of becoming enlightened because of all the baggage we’ve been dragging around. And there’s been doubt about whether Buddhist practice can even go beyond making us a bit happier. Now doubt vanishes. Now we have confidence — confidence that comes from the evidence of our senses. So where could there be doubt? Where could it exist? How can your baggage hold you back when it’s impermanent and insubstantial? You’ve seen the reality of not-self, and there’s no room for doubt. (There will be other doubts about other things, but this particular doubt has gone).

The third fetter is “dependence on ethics and religious observances.” The wording of this fetter is strangely complex compared to the others, and it’s also harder to connect this with an experience that happens at the same as the other two fetters break. But apart from the stunning insight that there is no substance to the self, and the surge of confidence we feel as doubt falls away, there’s one other powerful experience that happens at stream entry — a sense of the immediacy and obviousness of the insights we’ve just experienced. Now that we’ve seen, we wonder why we haven’t seen before. After all, the reality of the insubstantiality of the self is out there in the open, just waiting to be seen. The reality of impermanence is not exactly a secret. So there’s this sense of wonder that this is all so easy to do, and we puzzle over why we haven’t seen it before.

So how does this relate to dependence on ethics and religious observances? Basically, this fetter seems to refer to the practices we’ve done that have ended up being a distraction from seeing impermanence and seeing the insubstantiality of the self. We get caught up in external practices that are distractions, like trying to be a “good Buddhist” and trying to impress, and especially trying to understand intellectually rather than just looking and seeing what’s right there in front of us.

Of course we need, in a way, to rely on ethics and religious practices. But sometimes we use them as distractions. We cling to the form of our practice and forget the spirit. We keep forgetting, on some level, what the purpose of practice is. And actually all we have to do is look. And look again. And again. Until finally the penny drops.

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The anxiety of the long-distance meditator

Jeff Warren, New York Times: “You want to cultivate the crackling intensity of the ninja,” Daniel Ingram told me. Ingram made a living as an emergency doctor, but his real passion was teaching advanced meditation. It was day one of a 30-day solitary retreat, and this was my first meditation instruction. We were sitting in Ingram’s straw bale guesthouse, a squat round building next to the main house at the end of a long country road in rural Alabama. Behind the house a thick forest buzzed with insect life.

Ingram stood and began to walk, arms outstretched and eyes shock-widened, as though his …

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“A little bit pregnant”

Woman holding her hands in a heart-shape over her pregnant belly.

In the Buddha’s day, many people got enlightened quickly. Some people would say this is because the Buddha was such a great teacher, and to some extent that’s got to be true. What better than to have an expert around? But most of the monks and nuns and householders would have had very little contact with the Buddha. After all, he couldn’t be everywhere!

What they did have, that was every bit as helpful as the presence of the Buddha, was the belief that enlightenment was possible. Having the Buddha around was helpful, perhaps, not so much because he was a “personal trainer” who was around to say just the right thing. It was more that he was a living example of what was possible. And as a result of the confidence this brought about, people awakened.

Even when people at the time of the Buddha talked about getting awakened in future lives, they didn’t talk in terms of the “countless lifetimes” that the Mahayana later came to regard as being necessary. They usually expected to get enlightened very soon, perhaps in the very next life. But the focus was very much on awakening here and now.

Nor did people at the time of the Buddha talk about deferring their own awakening until all others were awakened. This is another peculiar Mahayana idea that I believe makes enlightenment seem further away. It in fact makes enlightenment impossible. You just have to look at the Buddha’s own life to see how hollow this concept is; after all, the Buddha didn’t defer his own awakening! It might sound very noble and compassionate to say that we won’t get enlightened before others do, but surely the most compassionate thing we can do is to wake up right now, so that we can help others free themselves from suffering.

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Now the first stage of enlightenment is traditionally held to be not far away from where we are. This use of “stages” of enlightenment can be confusing for people. We don’t always know there are stages to awakening. We think it’s all or nothing. Once I was teaching a class and I mentioned the traditional stages of awakening, and someone said, “Can you be a bit awakened? Isn’t being a bit awakened like being a little bit pregnant?” Actually, pregnancy’s a good metaphor. There is a big difference between having just conceived and being nine months pregnant, and between that and giving birth, and between that and having a toddler or a teenager. In other words, just as having a child is a process, so too awakening is a process. We’re all involved in this process of conceiving Buddhas, in giving birth to Buddhas, in giving birth to our own awakened selves.

So there are these stages in the process of awakening, of which the first stage is called “stream entry.” Like getting pregnant, this first stage, stream entry, is not that difficult. Well, stream entry is a bit more difficult than getting pregnant, at least for most people. My own teacher, Sangharakshita, encourages us to take stream entry as a “doable” goal for this life. It’s a significant goal because it’s irreversible. Up until stream entry our movement in the direction of awakening is reversible. We make progress, and then we fall back. We begin to wake up, and then we fall back into a sleep. Perhaps the dreams are interesting! But at stream entry there’s an unstoppable momentum behind the change, because you’ve really seen the truth of the marks for yourself. You’ve seen something, and you can never unsee it.

We’re all, I’d say, half way to that point of no return. Stream entry is a doable goal. It’s quite concrete, and quite achievable. Even non-Buddhists seem to be able to attain this.

Now people still try to see stream entry as being more distant than it is! It’s quite extraordinary how we try so hard to make goals unattainable. Some people take the idea of stream entry and raise it up to a kind of perfection. They imagine the stream entrant as being close to perfect: not capable of being unethical, never getting into bad moods, never getting anxious, never annoying anybody, never having cravings. But that description is more like full Buddhahood (with the exception of annoying people — the Buddha really annoyed a lot of people). To get to full awakening, we have to break ten fetters, and these include ill will and craving, and those are going to be there for two out of the four stages of awakening. To get to stream entry we only have to break three fetters, so we still have greed, hatred, and a lot of delusion to overcome.

At a guess I’d say a reasonably diligent practitioner — not a monk, but someone with a job and family, for example — could go all the way to stream entry in 15 to 20 years. Some people think that’s a long time and get demoralized. But what are you going to do with your life anyway? And it might take much less time. Insight can come out of the blue. It involves a slight shift of consciousness. It could happen right now, right this very moment!

Although meditating is important, awakening probably won’t happen for you when you’re meditating. It’s more likely to happen when your mind is wandering, or when you drop something, or when you hear something and suddenly you see things in a different way. In the scriptures it’s recorded that some people awoke when they were depressed, or even on the point of suicide. For me it happened when I was putting my daughter to bed.

I think it’s supremely important to believe that enlightenment is possible for us, and that it’s not too far away. If you believe something’s impossible for you, it effectively becomes impossible. Once awakening happens, the thing that strikes you most about it is how easy it all was. Once it’s happened — once you’ve seen the truth that your “self” is not a “thing,” but a beautifully unfolding process — you wonder why it took you so long. The truth was sitting there in plain view the whole time, but for some reason you never looked.

So I’d urge you to open to the idea that awakening could happen anytime. That it’s just around the corner. That it’s a slight shift in perspective away. Once you accept that, anything can happen.

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Not knowing how near the Truth is, people seek it far away

Some years ago I noticed an odd thing; a lot of the Buddhists I knew (including myself) didn’t talk much about getting enlightened. We didn’t talk much about what, specifically, we were doing in order to get enlightened. We didn’t talk much about what enlightenment was. And this was not just my impression. I asked other people whether this was what was going on, and they all agreed: enlightenment was not on our radar. And this is very odd, since the only reason that Buddhism exists is to help get us enlightened. The Dharma is nothing but the Way to enlightenment. And it seemed few of us were interested in going all the Way. So what were we interested in?

When think about what we’re doing in our Buddhist practice, we often think in worldly terms. We think about becoming a better person, about being kinder and more content. We think about how the Dharma can help us with specific problems we have. We think about being happier. These are all very good aims, and I’m not going to knock them. But Buddhism’s about much more than becoming more positive. It’s about transforming, on a very deep level, the way we see the world.

So I made it a project to be more concerned with enlightenment and how to get there. I made a point to make this concern more central in my life, to reflect on what enlightenment means, and what I should be doing to get there. And that brings us on to insight meditation, or vipassana. Vipassana is the next step beyond being more positive, which is a samatha activity. Vipassana is the practice of looking closely at your experience in order to recognize that everything constituting that experience is constantly changing. This what we call the “mark” or impermanence, or anicca. When we recognize the impermanence of our experiences, on deeper and deeper levels, this leads to us recognizing that there’s nothing in our experience worth grasping on to; after all, if our experiences are all constantly changing, then none of them can be the basis of lasting happiness. That’s the mark of unsatisfactoriness, or dukkha. And an awareness of impermanence, applied to ourselves, drums in the fact that there is no permanent self here to do any grasping. This is the mark of anatta, or not-self. These are the three marks. This is what vipassana is about. It’s about recognizing these three marks. It’s not just about intellectually understanding them, although some intellectual engagement is necessary, but about seeing their truth in our own experience.

Vipassana is an activity that we can do in any meditation practice. It’s not a special kind of meditation. So we can do it in the mindfulness of breathing practice, the metta bhavana, or just sitting. There are practices in which vipassana is more explicit, however, such as the six element practice, but this isn’t an exception. We could do the six element practice as a samatha (calming) practice, but as a matter of course we include insight reflections: “This is not me, this is not mine, I am not this.”

We can do vipassana reflections outside of meditation as well — when walking, taking the bus, having a conversation, cooking — although activities in which there’s some mental quiet are more conducive to this kind of reflection. And to reiterate an important point, vipassana is not opposed to samatha. What we’re meant to do is to calm and concentrate the mind, and then to take that calm, focused mind, and apply it to investigating the existential issues of the three marks. Samatha and vipasssana are like two wings, and we need both if we want to go the way to enlightenment.

Not knowing how near the Truth is, people seek it far away.

Now, how far away is enlightenment? We generally think of it as being very remote, which is perhaps why we don’t think about it very much. But as Hakuin said:

Not knowing how near the Truth is,
People seek it far away. What a pity!

I think there are a number of reasons why we think Enlightenment is far away, when it’s actually close by — right under our noses, or even closer than that.

Some of the perspectives of the Mahāyāna don’t help. In early days, when the Buddha’s feet were walking India’s dusty soil, people often got enlightened immediately. Many, many people seem to have had a radical shift of consciousness just upon hearing the Buddha speak for the first time. It just took a slight reorientation of the way they saw things, and bam! they were awakened. This didn’t happen to everybody, of course. Obviously some people had to practice for years. But many of them became awakened in this lifetime. Now the later Mahāyāna tradition, starting from about 500 years after the Buddha, were keen to build up the status of the Buddha. Presumably they were playing the game of “our teacher is the best.” So they built up the goal of Buddhism. Buddhists were now seeking enlightenment for the sake of all sentient beings, not just in our world but throughout the entire universe. And achieving this task would take countless lifetimes. Countless lifetimes, needless to say, is a long time. Elevating the status of the Buddha and of enlightenment in this way may have been very inspiring, but it also made the goal seem very remote. And those ideas still linger and influence us.

It’s interesting to note that although many contemporary schools call themselves Mahāyāna, few if any of them still emphasize these cosmic timescales. The Zen schools focus on awakening right here, right now. The Theravadin schools emphasize awakening in this life. The Pure Land schools are slightly different, because they emphasize awakening after death: we die and, through the grace of Amida Buddha, we are reborn in his Pure Land paradise, Sukhāvati, where we are assured enlightenment. So even there we’re aiming for enlightenment just after this very lifetime — not countless lifetimes from now. The Tibetan schools, or at least most of them, emphasize the possibility of awakening in this life. I think we need to embrace the notion of enlightenment in this lifetime, and not be overly swayed by this Mahāyāna perspective.

Another reason we think of enlightenment as being far away is because of a lack of self-worth. We think we have so many problems. We’re unworthy! We’re often very aware of our flaws. And then what do we not know about ourselves? Freud gave us this idea what there’s all this nastiness under the surface. I remember a scene from the comedy movie The Front Page where a Viennese Freudian psychoanalyst asks a condemned murderer about his childhood. The murderer replies that he had a perfectly normal childhood, to which the shrink replies, “I see. You wanted to kill your father and sleep with your mother.” So this is quite literally what Freud thought a “normal” person was like — a incestuous parricide kept in check by the super-ego. We’ve been affected by these ideas and we fear that there is unknown emotional baggage holding us back from enlightenment.

And I think we fear enlightenment. Being fully enlightened would surely involve a big change. What would it be like? Would I be a different person? Would I still have my life. What about all my likes and dislikes? We like our attachments! We fear that there might in fact be so much change that enlightenment would be a kind of death. So this is scary. We might fear that we’re going to lose ourselves, and our individuality. I remember having this thought once, that if Buddhas are all perfect, then are they all the same? They’re clearly not, but we can fear that our personalities are going to be erased.

The models and language we use — even very traditional language and models — can be unhelpful. The Buddhist tradition has tended to talk in terms of exalted states of consciousness. We think of the jhānas. There are these four jhānas, and most of us have only limited experience of these. And then the commentaries take another set of four meditative states — the formless spheres, or ayātanas, and pile them on top of the jhānas. So there’s now this towering skyscraper that we might thing of as ever-more blissful states of consciousness, disappearing up into the sky. And we might think of enlightenment as being piled on top of all that. And here we are on the ground, or maybe, if we’re lucky, on the first floor from time to time. If even the jhānas are hard to get into, then enlightenment must be quite literally unattainable for us!

But this way of looking at enlightenment is inaccurate. Enlightenment is not a meditative state similar to the jhānas. It’s a way of looking at the world. We need some jhānic experience to prepare ourselves for having a breakthrough into insight, but we don’t need to have experienced all of the jhānas to have insight, and we don’t go through all the jhānas and find enlightenment awaiting us at the top. Enlightenment is more likely to happen at a time of crisis, or during a conversation, than during meditation. Many people, according to the Pāli scriptures, got enlightened when they were depressed and suicidal, or when they heard a teaching and had a “holy crap!” moment.

Another aspect of language that can mislead is when we talk about the “path” from saṃsāra to Nirvāṇa. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this language, but we often take it too literally and slip into thinking that saṃsāra and Nirvāṇa are almost literally like separate places, geographically isolated from each other. We think of the path as disappearing somewhere over the horizon, vanishing goodness-knows where. And then we think that this isn’t the place, this is not the life, in which we’re going to get enlightened. We may think that on some level we have to move away from this life in order to get to this “place” called enlightenment.

But saṃsāra and Nirvāṇa are not separate places. They’re not even places — they’re states of mind. The way to nirvāna is by looking closely at your samsāric mind. It’s not by getting away from where you are now, but by totally being where you are and getting to know that place intimately. We need to look at how we structure our experience into self and other. We need to question our assumptions and come to see how we misinterpret our experience. We need to look at things we think are permanent and come to see them as they are. We need to look at things we think are sources of lasting happiness and realize that actually they aren’t, and can’t be, sources of lasting happiness. We need to look at what we take to be a permanent and substantial self and to see that there’s no self like that to be found.

This is the place where we get enlightened. Awakening is just a shift in perspective away. So I suggest adopting the perspective that awakening is not far, but is right here. And when you make that shift in perspective, one of the first things that’s going to strike you is, “Why did it take me so long to see something so obvious?”

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“To see what is in front of one’s nose needs a constant struggle.” George Orwell

“To see what is in front of one’s nose needs a constant struggle.” George Orwell

Metaphors can be traps. We can end up taking them too literally. The point of a metaphor is to help us see things more clearly (“time slips through our hands like sand” helps us connect something intangible and abstract, like time, to a physical experience, like sand trickling through our fingers). But sometimes metaphors mislead, and make it harder for us to see things clearly. The image of the spiritual path is one of those metaphors that can potentially trap and mislead us.

The Buddha himself used the image of his teaching being a path. One of his key teachings is the Eightfold Path (aṭṭhaṅgika magga), and in a famous teaching he explained that he was like an explorer who had beaten a path to an ancient city that had been lost in the jungle, and has come back to lead others along the path to see his discovery for themselves. It’s a venerable image. The problem isn’t the image itself, but how we relate to it.

How long is this path?

The thing that strikes me as a problem with the path metaphor could be expressed in a question: how long do we think the path is?

In the Buddha’s day, people would often get enlightened very quickly. In some cases they just had to hear a phrase, and insight would arise. In some cases it would take longer — perhaps some years of practice. But it was doable. Even people living householder lifestyles would get enlightened without too much difficulty. I’m not aware of examples of householders getting enlightened immediately, but there were, according to the scriptures, thousands of lay followers who attained the first level of enlightenment, and many hundreds who were just short of full awakening. The path was short. In the case of those who got enlightened immediately, it wasn’t so such a path as a single step.

The later Mahāyāna teachings tended to elevate enlightenment in order to glorify the Buddha’s attainment and inspire faith. The bigger his attainment, the greater the spiritual hero he was, right? And the greater a spiritual hero he was, the more inspiring he was. The problem was that they started talking in terms of the path to awakening stretching over an uncountable number of lifetimes. Sure, this was meant to inspire us, but if you believe enlightenment is unattainable in this very lifetime, what’s the chance that it’s actually going to happen? If you think it’s going to take thousands of lifetimes to get enlightened, you probably doing think it might happen to you in this life. And certainly not right now, in this very moment.

An alternative to the “path” metaphor

So what’s the alternative to thinking of enlightenment as being at the end of a long, long path? You could think of it as being at the end of a short path: that’s pretty much what the Buddha seemed to have in mind. Or you use a different metaphor, and think of awakening as being right here, right now, but you’re not seeing it because you’re looking at your experience the wrong way. It’s like one of those “Magic Eye” 3D pictures from the 1990s that looks like a mess of squiggles and images fragments, until you let your eyes refocus in just the right way, and suddenly there’s a stereoscopic image right there in front of you. In a way, the image has been there all along, but you weren’t looking in the right way. Maybe at certain points you didn’t believe that you could ever see the image. Maybe you started to doubt there was anything there. But if you persist then — boom! — there it is.

Our spiritual cognitive distortions

There are a couple of Buddhist teachings that I think relate to this metaphor of the image that’s right in front of us, but unseen. One of these is the “Four Vipallāsas.” The word vipallāsa means “inversion, perversion, derangement, corruption, distortion.” It’s similar to what psychologists nowadays call a “cognitive distortion.” These four vipallāsas — or “spiritual cognitive distortions” — are that we see things that are impermanent as being permanent, see things that are sources of pain as being sources of happiness, see things that are lacking in inherent selfhood as having inherent selfhood, and see things that are ugly as being attractive.

Here’s the interesting thing: it’s not as if impermanence, for example, is hidden from us. We just don’t see it. It’s right in front of us, all the time, but our minds don’t seem to be equipped to notice it. In fact, I’ve noticed that Buddhists often like to talk about impermanence more than actually observe it.

So it’s happening right now. Anything you notice is changing. When you notice your body you may think “Oh, there’s my body” but actually all you’re noticing is an ever-changing pattern of sensation. There’s no “body” there that you can perceive. Right now you’re reading these words. What you’re seeing is constantly changing. What’s in your mind is constantly changing. Everything in your mind is constantly changing. Try looking for something in your experience that doesn’t change. Having any luck? You say that the coffee cup in front of you isn’t changing? But you don’t ever experience a “coffee cup.” You have sense impressions of a coffee cup, and those sense impressions are in constant flux. Your eyes are jittering around all the time, because the receptors in your retinas stop responding if they’re exposed to the same stimulus for more than a fraction of a second. If your eye was frozen in place you’d literally be blind. The only reason you can perceive anything is because of change — impermanence.

So change, non-self, etc., are there all the time. We just need to pay attention. Look. Look right now. Everything you’re experiencing is changing. Keep looking. Eventually, as with the Magic Eye pictures, you’ll see what’s been there all along.

Not seeing the wood for the trees

I said there were a couple of teachings relating to not seeing what’s in front of us. The vipallāsas constitute one such teaching. The third fetter of “sīlabbata-parāmāsa,” usually translated as “dependence on rites and rituals,” is another. This is one of the three fetters that we break when we attain stream-entry, the first level of enlightenment.

The first fetter is straightforward — it’s when we no longer believe that we have a permanent, unchanging self. We keep observing that our experience is changing all the time, and eventually it clicks — that’s all there is. There’s just change.

The second fetter is doubt. Until we experience the breaking of the first fetter, there’s always some kind of doubt that it’s even possible. We may doubt that we can do it. (“Sure, other people can see these Magic Eye pictures, but I can’t.”) Or we may doubt that there’s a picture there. (“It’s a trick,” we say, as we stare hopelessly and the jumbled image.) Once we’ve seen that the separate and permanent self we’ve always taken for granted is an illusion, and once we’ve realized that it’s true that everything in our experience — everything! — is a constant flux, we feel a surge of confidence. We’ve stepped out of illusion, we know that the Buddha’s teaching is right, and we have confidence that further progress is possible. Actually, it’s inevitable.

But that third fetter — “dependence on rites and rituals” — what’s that got to do with anything? First it’s not a very good translation. “Sīla” is ethics or behavior, and “vata” (the second part of sīlabbata) is a religious duty, or observance, or spiritual practice. This is referring to the problem of our getting caught up in spiritual practices so that they become a hindrance to enlightenment, rather than a means to realizing enlightenment. For example, if we’re trying to be a “good Buddhist,” saying and doing all the right things, that’s of limited spiritual use. If we’re trying to impress people with our mastery of the teachings, that’s even worse.

Enlightenment is right here, right now

One of the most striking aspects of the experience of stream entry is a feeling of immediacy. When we have that perceptual shift and realize that what we’ve thought of as our “self” (permanent, unchanging, separate) is nothing more than a constellation of constantly changing events, it also strikes us that this is “obvious.” It’s right in front of our nose. It’s been in front of our nose our whole lives. But we just haven’t noticed.

Even the spiritual practices (sīla and vata) that we’ve been engaged with have sometimes prevented us from seeing the truth. We’ve been talking about impermanence, but not looking at it. We’ve been studying the path rather than walking it. Sometimes perhaps we’ve been walking the path, but haven’t wanted to stray too far, because it’s safe staying with the known.

So I suggest that sometimes, at least, we forget about the metaphor of the path, and instead think of enlightenment as being right here, right now. It’s just a question of recognizing what’s really going on — of allowing ourselves to see the impermanence that permeates every one of our experiences. We just need to look, and keep looking, until we see the obvious that’s sitting right in front of our noses.

“To see what is in front of one’s nose needs a constant struggle” is from Orwell’s essay “In Front of Your Nose,” which was first published in the Tribune newspaper, London, March 22, 1946.

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Want to get enlightened? Here are some tips.

Last night I taught the first night of a class on achieving Insight through meditation.

This being the first night there was a bit more talking than there will be in the rest of the four-week course, so I thought I’d record the talk, in which I discuss why we should think more about getting Enlightened, what holds us back, and what we need to do to set up conditions for Insight arising.

I also recorded the guided meditation that I led.

By the way, I had a cold, so there’s some coughing, hacking, and nose-blowing!

Both the talk and the meditation are unedited, and the sound quality isn’t great.

Here’s the talk, which is 41 minutes long:

The meditation was in three parts:

1. A brief mindfulness of breathing
2. A brief period of lovingkindness
3. A reflection on the Earth Element

Here’s the meditation, which is 45 minutes long. All three parts are included in this recording.

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