September 2, 2017; revised September 14, 2019
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 just 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 ditthi (“Miccā Ditthi, Gandhabba, and Sotapaññā Stage.” Then one reaches mundane Sammā Ditthi or the first level of wisdom.
2. One must first follow the mundane Path before one can understand anicca, dukkha, 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 ditthi. 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 ditthi (that this world can offer lasting happiness) by learning the CORRECT versions of anicca, dukkha, 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 ditthi: understanding that one’s actions, speech, and thoughts (kāya, vaci, and manō sankhāra) — one’s kamma — WILL have consequences in the future, both in this life and in future lives.
- With kammassakata sammā ditthi, one understands and accepts the fact that what we experience (kamma vipāka, good and bad) are 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 sankhāra).
- Even more importantly, one starts avoiding strong BAD kamma. Thus one starts getting rid of the coarse levels of lōbha, dōsa, 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 viññāna will adjust accordingly. See, “Viññāna – What It Really Means.”
- The more one kills animals that viññāna 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, just like when one gets caught doing an illegal act, one will not be excused for not knowing that it was an unlawful act.
- 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 sankhāra (or more correctly abhisankhāra) done with intention lead to viññāna (via “sankhāra paccaya viññāna“), and subsequently lead to births in different realms via “viññāna paccaya namarupa,” etc. to …” bhava paccaya jāti.”
5. Most people also think that kamma are only bodily actions, done via kāya sankhāra. But physical actions, speech, and thoughts all contribute to kamma. It is the cetana (intention) involved in thoughts, speech, and actions (i.e., manō, vaci, and kāya sankhāra), that is kamma. That is explained in the subsection, “Living Dhamma – Fundamental.”
- When one starts comprehending 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 Samma Samadhi.”
- Future suffering can only be stopped by stopping the corresponding abhisankhāra, i.e., “sankhāra nirōdhō bhava (and jāti) nirōdhō.“
- But sankhāra can be only stopped by removing avijjā since sankhāra are unavoidable as long as avijjā is there. “Avijjā paccayā sankhārā.” That is why Sammā Ditthi (understanding Tilakkhana) 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 be able to see how one’s actions (sankhāra) lead to such births. I have summarized them in the table below.
|Realm(s)||Level of Suffering||Causes||Generation/Stopping of Sankhara|
|Niraya (Hell)||Incessant suffering||Dōsa: Killing (especially humans), torture, rapes, etc|
|Peta (Hungry Ghosts)||Starvation||Excess greed (may I get all, not others)|
|Vinipatha 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 sankhara 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 vipaka (done with alobha, adosa, amoha). Mental stress arises due to kama raga.|
|Rupavacara Brahma (only manomaya kaya; cannot be even seen with a microscope)||Mental stress is much reduced. Mainly jhanic pleasures. Viparinama dukha when close death.||Suppression of kama raga and cultivation of rupavacara jhana (while in the human realm)|
|Arupavacara Brahma (only hadaya vatthu and mind)||Only arupavacara jhanic pleasures. Viparinama dukha when close death.||Cultivation of arupavacara jhana (while in the human realm)|
|Nibbana||Permanent release from all suffering.||Elimination of all causes for existence, i.e., ragakkhaya, 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 (sankhāra). 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 (apāyas) and to face much suffering. Such actions involve kāya, vaci, and manō sankhāra with lōbha, dōsa, mōha,
- One is likely to be born in rupa or arupa Brahma lōka when one cultivates jhanas by even abandoning kama raga (at least temporarily).
- When one has reduced lōbha, dōsa, mōha to rāga, patigha, 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. They are sankhāra dukha and viparinama dukha; 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 jhānas. That essentially means being able to “temporarily live” in rupavacara or arupāvacara realms.
- That is done via either REMOVAL or SUPPRESSION of kāma rāga and patigha. Of course, that is not possible if one is engaging 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 jhānas, 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 apāyas.
- The only permanent solution to end all future suffering is to attain Nibbāna, as shown in the above table.
9. When one gets to mundane sammā samādhi by cultivating sīla, one will be able to see the truth of the overall picture shown in the table above. It is 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 Ditthi) in the Noble Eightfold Path.
- It is then one will be able to comprehend the First Noble Truth about the suffering in this world, the Dukkha Sacca.
10. The key message of the Buddha is that one cannot find permanent happiness anywhere in this world. Any such temporary happiness would be minuscule compared to suffering in the apāyas and kāma lōka. That is very hard to comprehend (no matter how well-educated one maybe).
- 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 and that is called anatta nature.
- Those are the Three Characteristics of nature. Therefore, the crucial second step towards 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, “Sotapaññā Anugami and a Sotapaññā.”
- In this third and last step towards Nibbāna, one starts with a NEW mindset about the real nature of this world. One can see that unimaginable suffering in the future if one does immoral things to get sense pleasures.
- Thus one starts to understand the First Noble Truth or the Dukkha Sacca: That there is unimaginable suffering in this world of 31 realms. At this initial stage, it is hard to see the dangers/suffering in the human and deva realms. But if one has comprehended the fact that apāyas (four lower realms) must exist for the laws of kamma to work, then one can see the unimaginable suffering in the apāyas.
- The Buddha said that when one understands the First Noble Truth, one will simultaneously understand the other three Noble Truths. One will be able to see that lōbha, dōsa, 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 apāyas. Thus, one will be free from the worst suffering in the future.
- The post, “Akusala Citta – How a Sotapaññā 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 Paticca Samuppāda is critical. It explains how future bhava (existences) arise due to the way one thinks, speaks, and acts (with vaci and kāya sankhāra). See, “Sankhāra – What It Really Means” and “Correct Meaning of Vacī Sankhāra.”
- If one is capable of hurting and killing others, then one will be subjected to similar conditions in the niraya.
- If one has excessive greed where one is willing to hurt others to get pleasures, then one could be born a peta (hungry ghost).
- Those who are lazy and depend on others cultivate asura sankhāra. That leads to asura viññāna and thus gives rise to an asura existence.
- And if one is capable of thinking, speaking, and acting like an animal, one is then cultivating animal sankhāra. Thus one could be born in 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 the fact 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, or by lying, bribing, etc.
- At this stage, one could still be attached to sense pleasures. Thus one could live a normal married life, which is “moral living.”
15. It is not necessary to attain any jhāna to get to the Sotapanna stage. These days there is too much emphasis on jhāna.
- One needs to realize that rupavacara and arupāvacara jhāna are the sensory experiences of the beings 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 Sotapanna stage is million times well-off than a yōgi who had attained all jhānas and all abhinnā powers.
- While those jhānas and abhinnā powers last only during this life, a Sotapaññā is freed from the apāyas FOREVER.
- However, understanding jhānas is important since it confirms the broader world view of the Buddha in the above table. There are many in the world today who can experience jhānas.
- But some people mistakenly believe that jhānas are necessary to attain magga phala. But as the above table shows, jhānas are still part of “this world” and can be attained even by following “non-Buddhist meditations.” More details at “Samādhi, Jhāna (Dhyāna), Magga Phala.”