September 2, 2017; revised September 14, 2019; May 5, 2022
1. These days, it is customary to state that the Noble Eightfold Path consists of three steps: sīla (moral conduct), samādhi (Concentration), and paññā (wisdom). However, that sequence holds only for the mundane Eightfold Path. It does not lead to Nibbāna but only sets up the conditions to get into the Noble Eightfold Path.
- In this initial stage, one cultivates sīla by living a moral life by making a determined effort not to violate the five precepts; see “2. The Basics in Meditation“.
- Samādhi is much more than concentration; see, “What is samādhi? – Three Kinds of Mindfulness”. When one lives a moral life, one’s mindset will gradually change to a calm state (“sama” + “adhi“), as explained in that post.
- With this calm mindset, one will be able to get rid of the ten types of micchā diṭṭhi (“Micchā Diṭṭhi, Gandhabba, and Sotāpanna Stage.” Then one reaches mundane Sammā Diṭṭhi, or the first level of wisdom.
2. One must first follow the mundane Path before understanding anicca, dukkha, and anatta, and get into the Noble Path; see “Buddha Dhamma – In a Chart” and “What is Unique in Buddha Dhamma?“. Thus, there are three necessary steps to Nibbāna:
- Follow the mundane Eightfold Path by living a moral life (sīla) to remove the ten types of micchā diṭṭhi. Those include not believing in kamma vipāka, rebirth, etc. Then one can get to mundane samādhi and gain the first level of wisdom (paññā): sīla, samādhi, paññā.
- Then start removing a DEEPER layer of micchā diṭṭhi (that this world can offer lasting happiness) by learning the CORRECT versions of anicca, dukkha, and anatta (Tilakkhana).
- Once one grasps the basics of Tilakkhana, one becomes a Sotapaññā Anugami. One then starts living with an unbreakable sīla to attain Sammā samādhi and the four stages of Nibbāna by following paññā, sīla, samādhi.
3. The first level of wisdom, achieved in the mundane path, is called kammassakata Sammā diṭṭhi: understanding that one’s actions, speech, and thoughts (kāya, vaci, and manō saṅkhāra) — one’s kamma — WILL have consequences in the future, both in this life and in future lives.
- With kammassakata sammā diṭṭhi, one understands and accepts the fact that what we experience (kamma vipāka, good and bad) is due to our past kamma.
- One understands that to encounter good kamma vipāka in the future (including future lives), one needs to cultivate GOOD kamma (i.e., good manō, vaci, and kāya saṅkhāra).
- Even more importantly, one starts avoiding strong BAD kamma. Thus one starts getting rid of the coarse levels of lōbha, dōsa, and mōha, which is the same as preventing dasa akusala.
- When one follows this “sīla step,” one will start experiencing the early stages of Nibbāna of “cooling down”; see “Niramisa Sukha” and “How to Taste Nibbāna.”
4. Some people think that if one kills animals without knowing, that will have consequences that will not lead to kamma vipāka. That is not correct.
- There is no superhuman being that keeps track of what one is doing. But when one intentionally kills an animal, one’s mind knows that, and one’s viññāṇa will adjust accordingly. See “Viññāṇa – What It Really Means.”
- The more one kills animals that viññāṇa capable of killing will only grow. That will lead to a corresponding bhava in the niraya realm (hell), where similar suffering exists.
- Therefore, being ignorant of nature’s laws is not an excuse. When one gets caught doing an illegal act, not knowing it was unlawful will not be an excuse.
- There is another type of action where one kills animals unintentionally. For example, we kill many insects every time we take a walk. That does not lead to any kamma vipāka.
- So, only those saṅkhāra (or more correctly abhisaṅkhāra) done with intention lead to viññāna (via “saṅkhāra paccayā viññāṇa“) and subsequently lead to births in different realms via “viññāna paccayā nāmarupa,” etc. to …” bhava paccayā jāti.”
5. Most people also think that kamma vipāka arises only due to bodily actions (via kāya saṅkhāra.) But physical movements, speech, and thoughts all contribute to kamma. It is the cetana (intention) involved in thoughts, speech, and actions (i.e., manō, vaci, and kāya saṅkhāra) that is kamma. That is explained in the subsection, “Living Dhamma – Fundamental.”
- When one starts comprehending the laws of kamma (that causes lead to similar effects IF suitable conditions are present), one will gradually get to mundane sammā samādhi. Then one’s ability to grasp more profound Dhamma concepts (paññā) will grow; see “Mundane Sammā Samādhi.”
- One can stop future suffering only by eliminating the corresponding abhisaṅkhāra, i.e., “saṅkhāra nirōdhō bhava (and jāti) nirōdhō.“
- But saṅkhāra can be only stopped by removing avijjā since saṅkhāra are unavoidable as long as avijjā is there. “Avijjā paccayā sankhārā.” That is why Sammā Diṭṭhi (understanding Tilakkhaṇa) is so important.
- One will have a good idea of how births in different realms are associated with different types of suffering. Furthermore, one would see how one’s actions (saṅkhāra) lead to such births. I have summarized them in the table below.
|Realm(s)||Level of Suffering||Causes||Generation/Stopping of Saṅkhāra|
|Niraya (Hell)||Incessant suffering||Dōsa: Killing (especially humans), torture, rapes, etc|
|Peta (Hungry Ghosts)||Starvation||Lobha or Excess greed (may I get all, not others)|
|Vinipāta Asura||Spend time aimlessly; mostly heavy bodies not movable||Moha : Tina middha, vicikicca (lazy, lacking wisdom).|
|Animal (Tirisan: "tiri" + "san" or with all 3 causes)||Combinations of above three types||Combinations of lobha, dosa, moha|
|Human (Manussa: "mana" + "ussa" or with advanced mind)||In between lower and higher realms||In between lower and higher realms||Almost all saṅkhāra responsible births in all realms occur here.|
|Deva (similar to human bodies, but much less dense)||Mostly no physical suffering and abundant sense pleasures (kāma). But there is mental stress.||Good kamma vipāka (done with alobha, adosa, amoha). Mental stress arises due to kama raga.|
|Rupāvacara Brahma (only manomaya kāya; cannot be even seen with a microscope)||Mental stress is much reduced. Mainly jhanic pleasures. Viparinama dukha when close death.||Suppression of kāma rāga and cultivation of rupāvacara jhāna (while in the human realm)|
|Arupāvacara Brahma (only hadaya vatthu and mind)||Only arupavacara jhanic pleasures. Viparinama dukha when close death.||Cultivation of arupāvacara jhāna (while in the human realm)|
|Nibbāna||Permanent release from all suffering.||Elimination of all causes for existence, i.e., rāgakkhaya, dosakkhaya, mohakkhaya.||Mostly attained in the human realm, but possible in higher realms, especially after the Sotapanna stage.|
6. Now, it is clear how future suffering arises via one’s actions, speech, and thoughts (saṅkhāra). It is also clear that suffering decreases, and “niramisa sukha” grows at successively higher realms.
- When one lives a sinful life and engages in dasa akusala like killing, raping, etc., one is likely to be reborn in the lowest four realms (apāyā) and face much suffering. Such actions involve kāya, vaci, and manō saṅkhāra with lōbha, dōsa, mōha,
- One is likely to be born in rupa or arupa Brahma lōka when one cultivates jhānā by even abandoning kāma rāga (at least temporarily).
- When one has reduced lōbha, dōsa, mōha to rāga, paṭigha, avijjā (see, “Lōbha, Dōsa, Mōha versus Rāga, Patigha, Avijjā“) by following the mundane eightfold path, one is likely to be reborn in the human or deva realms. In these realms, suffering is much less, and especially in the deva realms, most remaining suffering is mental.
7. However, there is much suffering that we tend to ignore. Saṅkhāra dukha and viparinama dukha belong to that category; see “Introduction – What is Suffering?” and the follow-up post.
- That suffering arises due to kāma rāga, i.e., craving (upādāna) for sense pleasures. Thus even if one is not engaged in dasa akusala, one would not be released from kāma lōka as long as one has kāma rāga.
- At the next higher level in the rupa and arupa realms, kāma rāga is absent, and thus one enjoys jhānic pleasures.
- Unlike sense pleasures, jhānic pleasures can be sustained for longer times and are much-refined. However, that is still not permanent as the Nibbānic bliss arrived at by eliminating all suffering.
8. As humans, we can overcome suffering in the kāma lōka during this life itself by cultivating jhānā. That essentially means being able to “temporarily live” in rupāvacara or arupāvacara realms.
- One gets to rupāvacara and arupāvacara jhāna via either REMOVAL or SUPPRESSION of kāma rāga and paṭigha. Of course, that is not possible if one engages in dasa akusala.
- There are Buddhist and non-Buddhist meditation techniques to achieve this. We will discuss this in detail in an upcoming series on jhāna.
- If one develops jhānā, one will be born in rupa or arupa realms in the next birth. However, as we can see from the above table, any future births in those rupa and arupa realms are temporary. One could later be reborn in the apāyā.
- The only permanent solution to end all future suffering is to attain Nibbāna, as shown in the above table.
9. When one gets into mundane sammā samādhi by cultivating sīla, one will be able to see the truth of the overall picture shown in the table above. At this stage –with this broader world picture — one can take the second important step towards Nibbāna by comprehending the Tilakkhana. However, one needs to know the correct versions of Tilakkhana; see “Anicca, Dukkha, Anatta.”
- That is the paññā (wisdom) associated with the first path factor (Sammā Diṭṭhi) in the Noble Eightfold Path.
- One will then be able to comprehend the First Noble Truth about the suffering in this world, the Dukkha Sacca.
10. The Buddha’s key message is that one cannot find permanent happiness anywhere among the 31 realms in this world. Any such temporary happiness would be minuscule compared to suffering in the apāyā and kāma lōka. That is very hard to comprehend (no matter how well-educated one may be).
- This fundamental fact of nature is called anicca nature. It means that NOTHING in this world can bring a permanent state of happiness (and WILL only bring suffering). The only permanent state of happiness is Nibbāna.
- When one has the opposite perception of nicca and focuses on seeking long-term happiness in this world, one WILL face suffering (dukha) in the long run.
- Thus, eventually, one will become helpless in this rebirth process, which is the anatta nature.
- Those are the Three Characteristics of nature. Therefore, the crucial second step toward Nibbāna (permanent happiness) is to learn these critical characteristics of Nature from a true disciple of the Buddha.
11. When one starts comprehending the Tilakkhana to some extent, one becomes a Sotapaññā Anugami and enters the Noble Path; see, “Sotāpanna Anugāmi and a Sotāpanna.”
- In this third and last step towards Nibbāna, one starts with a NEW mindset about this world’s real nature. One can see that unimaginable suffering in the future if one does immoral things to get sensual pleasure.
- Thus one starts to understand the First Noble Truth or the Dukkha Sacca: There is unimaginable suffering in this world of 31 realms. It is hard to see the dangers/suffering in the human and deva realms at this initial stage. But if one has comprehended the fact that apāyā (four lower realms) must exist for the laws of kamma to work, then one can see the unimaginable suffering in the apāyā.
- The Buddha said that one would simultaneously understand the other three Noble Truths when one understands the First Noble Truth. One will see that lōbha, dōsa, and mōha are the origins of that suffering (Samudaya Sacca). That one needs to remove those causes (Nirōdha Sacca). And, the way to accomplish that is to follow the Noble Eightfold Path (Magga Sacca).
12. This understanding becomes permanent forever (through future lives) when one attains the Sotapaññā stage. From that point onward, one will NOT be CAPABLE of doing a kamma that could make one eligible for rebirth in the apāyā. Thus, one will be free from the worst suffering in the future.
- The post, “Akusala Citta – How a Sotāpanna Avoids Apāyagami Citta,” explains how Nature enforces laws of kamma.
- One’s mind will automatically reject any apāyagami action, even on an impulse.
13. Understanding Paṭicca Samuppāda is critical. It explains how future bhava (existences) arise due to how one thinks, speaks, and acts (with vaci and kāya saṅkhāra). See, “Saṅkhāra – What It Really Means” and “Correct Meaning of Vacī Sankhāra.”
- If one can hurt and kill others, one is making conditions for himself to face similar situations in the niraya.
- If one has excessive greed and is willing to hurt others to get pleasure, one could be born a peta (hungry ghost).
- Those who are lazy and depend on others cultivate asura saṅkhāra. That leads to asura viññāna and thus gives rise to an asura existence.
- If one can think, speak, and act like an animal, one is cultivating animal saṅkhāra. Thus one could be born into an animal existence.
14. At this stage, one starts living by the ariyakānta sīla. This sīla is different from the sīla in the first step.
- In the first type of sīla, one forcefully avoided doing pāpa kamma or immoral acts. But there could have been occasions where one “could not help breaking the sīla” because the temptations were too strong.
- However, this new ariyakānta sīla is unbreakable, no matter how intense the temptation is. One’s mind has grasped that it is NOT WORTH to commit apāyagami actions. That is regardless of how much wealth or pleasures they could bring.
- For example, it is not worthwhile to make a lot of money by killing animals or fish, selling drugs that can harm others, lying, bribing, etc.
- At this stage, one could still have cravings for sensual pleasures. Thus one could live everyday married life, i.e., “moral living.”
15. It is unnecessary to attain any jhāna to get to the Sotāpanna stage. These days there is too much emphasis on jhāna.
- One must realize that rupāvacara and arupāvacara jhāna are sensory experiences in the rupa and arupa realms. Therefore, such experiences still belong to “this world” of 31 realms.
- The Buddha stated that any of his lay disciples with the Sotāpanna stage is million times well-off than a yōgi who had attained all jhānā and all abhinnā powers.
- While those jhānā and abhinnā powers last only during this life, a Sotapaññā is freed from the apāyā FOREVER.
- However, understanding jhānā is important since it confirms the Buddha’s broader worldview in the above table. There are many in the world today who can experience jhānā.
- But some people mistakenly believe that jhānā are necessary to attain magga phala. But as the above table shows, jhānā are still part of “this world” and can be achieved even by following “non-Buddhist meditations.” More details at “Samādhi, Jhāna (Dhyāna), Magga Phala.”