To Enlightenment and Beyond

To Enlightenment and Beyond

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Most Buddhist practice systems assert that there are various stages on the path to enlightenment. Perhaps the most well-documented example is the Ten Bodhisattva Bhūmis which in Mahayana Buddhism, are understood to reflect ten stages of spiritual awakening – culminating in Buddhahood – that a Bodhisattva (a highly compassionate spiritual being) progresses through. Another  perhaps less known  example is the Four Vidyadhara Levels in the Nyingma tradition of Tibetan Buddhism. A vidyadhara (which means ‘awareness holder’) is believed to progress through the following four stages: 1. matured vidyadhara, 2. vidyadhara with power over life, 3. mahamudra vidyadhara, and 4. spontaneously accomplished vidyadhara. In Theravada Buddhism, various states of spiritual awakening are likewise recognised, including the state of ‘Arahant’, which is generally understood to correspond to a level of spiritual awakening in which the cycle of samsara (the perpetuating round of birth, suffering, death and rebirth) has been broken, but that is still below the level of a Buddha. In order to arrive at the state of Arahant, Theravada Buddhism (and other early Buddhist schools) assert that the spiritual practitioner progresses through stages of ‘stream-enterer’ (Pāli: Sotapanna), ‘once-returner’ (Sakadagami), and ‘non-returner’ (Anāgāmi).

Although there are numerous systems of thought in Buddhism regarding levels of spiritual awakening, all Buddhist schools appear to accept that there is a state of ‘full’ Buddhahood, which is unsurpassable. The Sanskrit term is ‘anuttarā samyak-sambodhi’ (Pāli: anuttarā sammā sambodhi), which literally means ‘unsurpassable perfect enlightenment’. There are specific references to the state of ‘anuttarā samyak-sambodhi’ in the Buddhist canonical literature (such as in the Astasāhasrikā Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra of the Prajñāpāramitā collection), but the term is mostly employed to teach the principle that even when an individual attains a high level of spiritual realisation, there are invariably still subtle levels of ignorance that must be transcended. The state of ‘unsurpassable perfect enlightenment’ is understood to be a state that does not require any deliberate effort or ‘practice’ on the part of the spiritual practitioner.

Our take on the various levels of spiritual awakening and the state of ‘unsurpassable perfect enlightenment’ differs from that of many Buddhist scholars and teachers. We accept that there are different levels of spiritual awakening, but labelling these states is not as easy as most people think. Each spiritual practitioner is an individual, and their spiritual journey is unique. Therefore, although there are some common ‘signposts’ that spiritual practitioners may encounter, it is difficult (and unwise) to assign a label to a person’s level of spiritual awakening. Indeed, for the diligent spiritual practitioner, spiritual development happens (or should happen) every moment of every day. Consequently, an individual’s level of realisation in the morning, is unlikely to be the same as the evening.

Our view differs from consensus opinion even more when it comes to the state of ‘unsurpassable perfect enlightenment’. We accept that there is a state of Buddhahood, in which all forms of suffering are transcended, and in which spiritual awareness is self-sustaining (i.e., it does not require deliberate effort). We also accept that arriving at Buddhahood, a spiritual being penetrates fully, and abides as, the underlying ‘fabric’ of the universe. However, we don’t accept that there is such a thing as an ‘absolute’ level of spiritual awakening. If the state of Buddhahood reflects the upper limit of spiritual awareness, then logic dictates that there must also be a lower limit of spiritual awareness – a state of absolute spiritual ignorance. Based upon an observation of the life forms around us, it seems improbable that there is a lower limit to ignorance. Taking hatred amongst human beings as an example, it can consume a person’s mind to such an extent that they will harm and kill other humans, only to hate themselves and others more intensely. Perhaps this is what Einstein was referring to when he said: “Two things are infinite: the universe and human stupidity; and I’m not sure about the universe”.

When a person becomes a ‘stream enterer’ that we referred to earlier, they become a child of the Buddhas, and enter a completely new world. They leave behind a life of living a soap opera and their – as well as other people’s – existence, takes on new meaning. When a person enters the stream that leads to liberation, their ‘wisdom eye’ is opened, compassion takes root in their being, and they begin to emanate spiritual presence. However, a similar thing happens when that same ‘stream enterer’eventually attains Buddhahood. They are born into a completely new way of being and perceiving. In fact, the Sanskrit root of the word Buddha is ‘Budh’, which literally means, ‘to wake up’ or ‘to be awakened’ to a new way of seeing.

When a being awakens to Buddhahood, it is not the case that their spiritual journey has finished. Rather, it has just begun. A Buddha has an inconceivable amount of wisdom and compassion at their disposition, but they have to learn how to apply that wisdom, how to grow with it, and how to transcend it. Buddhahood is a dynamic state; a Buddha is continuously evolving. Therefore, there are young Buddhas, mature Buddhas, and ancient Buddhas. There are Buddhas who are learning how to harness and mould the energy of the universe, and how to best apply it in order to help suffering beings. There are also Buddhas who are primordial, who are ‘masters of reality’, and who ‘gave birth’ to other enlightened beings.

Try not to reduce spiritual development into a system of limits, levels, and labels. For as many Buddhas that exist, there are that many different levels of Buddhahood. How inspiring that there is no upper limit to the amount the mind can expand and awaken. How beautiful that the spiritual journey continues for eternity. How amazing that within every sentient being, there exists the potential to attain Buddhahood, and then go beyond.

Ven Edo Shonin and Ven William Van Gordon


Verso l’illuminazione e oltre

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La maggior parte dei sistemi di pratica buddista affermano l’esistenza di varie tappe del percorso verso l’illuminazione. Forse l’esempio meglio documentato è quello dei Dieci Bodhisattva bhumi, che nel buddismo Mahayana riflettono le dieci fasi di risveglio spirituale, che culminano nella Buddità, attraverso cui un Bodhisattva (un essere spirituale altamente compassionevole) progredisce. Un altro esempio – forse meno conosciuto – è quello dei Quattro Livelli di Vidyadhara nella tradizione Nyingma del Buddismo Tibetano. Si ritiene che un Vidyadhara (che significa ‘detentore di consapevolezza’) progredisce attraverso le seguenti quattro fasi: 1. Vidyadhara maturato, 2. Vidyadhara con potere sulla vita, 3. Vidyadhara di mahamudra, e 4. Vidyadhara che è spontaneamente compiuto. Nel Buddismo Theravada, si ritrovano similmente vari stati di risveglio spirituale, compreso lo stato di ‘Arahant’, con cui generalmente si intende un livello di risveglio spirituale in cui il ciclo del samsara (il ciclo perpetuo di nascita, sofferenza, morte e rinascita) è stato interrotto, ma che è ancora al di sotto del livello di un Buddha. Al fine di raggiungere lo stato di Arahant, il Buddhismo Theravada (e altre scuole buddiste dello stesso periodo storico) affermano che il praticante spirituale progredisce attraverso le fasi di ‘colui che entra nella corrente’ (Pāli: Sotapanna), ‘colui che ritorna una sola volta’ (Sakadagami) e ‘Anāgāmin’ (colui che non-ritorna).

Anche se ci sono numerosi sistemi di pensiero nel Buddismo per quanto riguarda i livelli di risveglio spirituale, tutte le scuole buddiste sembrano accettare il fatto che vi sia uno stato di Buddità ‘assoluta’, che è insuperabile. Il termine Sanscrito è ‘anuttara samyak-sambodhi’ (Pali: anuttara Samma sambodhi), che letteralmente significa ‘illuminazione perfetta insuperabile’. Ci sono riferimenti specifici allo stato di ‘anuttara samyak-sambodhi’ nella letteratura canonica buddista (come nel Astasāhasrikā Prajnaparamita Sutra della collezione di Prajñāpāramitā), ma il termine viene impiegato principalmente per insegnare il principio che, anche quando un individuo raggiunge un alto livello di realizzazione spirituale, ci sono inevitabilmente ancora sottili livelli di ignoranza che devono essere trascesi. Lo stato di ‘illuminazione perfetta insuperabile’ è inteso come uno stato che non richiede alcuno sforzo intenzionale o ‘pratica’ da parte del praticante spirituale.

Il nostro punto di vista sui vari livelli di risveglio spirituale e sullo stato di ‘illuminazione perfetta insuperabile’ è diverso da quello di molti studiosi e insegnanti buddisti. Accettiamo che ci siano diversi livelli di risveglio spirituale, ma l’etichettatura di questi Stati non è così facile come molti pensano. Ogni praticante spirituale è un individuo, e il suo cammino spirituale è unico. Pertanto, anche se ci sono alcuni ‘segnali’ comuni che i praticanti spirituali possono incontrare, è difficile (e non è saggio) assegnare un’etichetta al livello di risveglio spirituale di una persona. Infatti, per il praticante spirituale diligente, lo sviluppo spirituale avviene (o dovrebbe avvenire) ogni momento di ogni giorno. Di conseguenza, sarà improbabile che il livello di realizzazione di un individuo al mattino sarà come quello della sera.

Il nostro punto di vista differisce ancora di più dall’opinione diffusa per quanto riguarda lo stato di ‘illuminazione perfetta insuperabile’. Accettiamo che ci sia uno stato di Buddità, in cui tutte le forme di sofferenza sono trascese e nella quale la consapevolezza spirituale è autosufficiente (cioè, non richiede sforzo intenzionale). Accettiamo anche che, arrivando allo stato di Buddità, un essere spirituale penetra completamente – e rimane o resta come – la ‘matrice’ alla base dell’universo. Tuttavia, non accettiamo che ci sia qualcosa come un ‘assoluto’ livello di risveglio spirituale. Se lo stato di Buddità riflette il limite superiore di consapevolezza spirituale, allora la logica impone che ci debba essere anche un limite inferiore di consapevolezza spirituale – uno stato di ignoranza spirituale assoluta. Tuttavia, sulla base dell’osservazione delle forme di vita intorno a noi, sembra improbabile che ci sia un limite inferiore per l’ignoranza. Prendiamo, per esempio, l’odio tra gli esseri umani, che può consumare la mente di una persona a tal punto da nuocere e uccidere altri esseri umani, solo per odiare più intensamente se stessa e gli altri. Forse questo è ciò a cui Einstein si riferiva quando ha detto: “due cose sono infinite: l’universo e la stupidità umana; riguardo l’universo ho ancora dei dubbi”.

Quando si diventa una persona, come quella a cui abbiamo fatto riferimento in precedenza, ‘colui che entra nella corrente’, si diventa un bambino dei Buddha e si entra in un mondo completamente nuovo. Si lascia alle spalle una vita vissuta da soap opera e la sua esistenza – così come l’esistenza delle altre persone, assume un nuovo significato. Quando una persona entra nella corrente che porta alla liberazione, si apre il suo ‘occhio della saggezza’, la compassione si radica nel suo essere e comincia a emanare una presenza spirituale. Una cosa simile accade quando un praticante spirituale raggiunge alla fine lo stato di Buddità. Nasce in lui un modo completamente nuovo di essere e percepire. Infatti, la radice sanscrita della parola Buddha è ‘Budh’, che significa letteralmente,  ‘svegliarsi’ o ‘essere risvegliato’ a un nuovo modo di vedere.

Quando un essere si risveglia alla Buddità, non significa che abbia terminato il suo cammino spirituale. Piuttosto, è appena iniziato. Un Buddha ha una quantità inimmaginabile di saggezza e compassione a sua disposizione, ma deve imparare ad applicare quella saggezza, come crescere con essa, e come trascenderla. Lo stato di Buddità è uno stato dinamico; un Buddha è in continua evoluzione. Di conseguenza, ci sono giovani Buddha, Buddha maturi e Buddha antichi. Ci sono Buddha che stanno imparando a sfruttare e plasmare l’energia dell’universo e come applicarla al meglio al fine di aiutare gli esseri che soffrono. Ci sono anche Buddha che sono primordiali, che sono ‘maestri della realtà’ e che ‘hanno fatto nascere’ altri esseri illuminati.

Cercate di non ridurre lo sviluppo spirituale in un sistema di limiti, livelli ed etichette. Così come esistono molti Buddha, ci sono numerosi diversi livelli di Buddità. Quanto è stimolante il fatto che non esista un limite superiore a quanto la mente possa espandersi e risvegliarsi. Quanto è bello che il cammino spirituale continui per l’eternità. Quanto è incredibile che all’interno di ogni essere senziente, esista la possibilità di raggiungere la Buddità, e poi andare oltre.

Ven Edo Shonin & Ven William Van Gordon


Mindfulness in Mental Health: A Critical Reflection

Mindfulness in Mental Health: A Critical Reflection


We were recently invited to write a paper for the inaugural issue of the Journal of Psychology, Neuropsychiatric Disorders and Brain Stimulation. Our contribution (which was co-authored with our friend and colleague Professor Mark Griffiths) was entitled ‘Mindfulness in Mental Health: A Critical Reflection’. In light of the substantial growth of scientific and public interest into the health-related applications of mindfulness, our paper discussed whether the scientific evidence for mindfulness-based interventions actually merits their growing popularity amongst mental health practitioners, scientists, and the public more generally. We concluded that mindfulness-based interventions have the potential to play an important role in mental health treatment settings. However, due to the rapidity at which mindfulness has been taken out of its traditional Buddhist setting, and what is possibly evidence of media and/or scientific hype concerning the effectiveness of mindfulness, we recommended that future research should seek to:

  1. Establish whether the benefits of participating in mindfulness-based interventions are maintained over periods of years rather than just months.
  2. Examine whether there are any risks or unwanted consequences associated with participating in mindfulness-based interventions.
  3. Make sure that research findings are not influenced by what is perhaps best described as a form of ‘intervention effect’. Rather than behavioural and psychological changes arising from actually practising mindful awareness, it is possible that some of the positive outcomes observed by researchers actually reflect a belief amongst participants that they are receiving a very popular and ‘proven’ therapeutic or ‘spiritual’ technique. In other words, rather than mindfulness practice per se leading to health improvements, one of the reasons that mindfulness-based interventions are effective might be due to participants’ expectations, and their belief that mindfulness works.
  4. Investigate the Buddhist position that sustainable improvements to mental and spiritual health typically require consistent daily mindfulness practice over a period of many years (i.e., they do not arise after attendance at just eight two-hour classes with some self-practice in between).

The full reference for the article is shown below, and the article can be downloaded (free of charge) from here: Mindfulness_A critical reflection 2015

Article Reference: Van Gordon, W., Shonin, E., & Griffiths, M. D. (2015). Mindfulness in Mental Health: A Critical Reflection. Journal of Psychology, Neuropsychiatric Disorders and Brain Stimulation, 1(1), 102.

Ven Edo Shonin & Ven William Van Gordon

Can a Buddha become Angry?

Can a Buddha become Angry?


      Given that Buddhahood is frequently described as a state of limitless compassion that is completely free of negative and afflictive emotions, it might seem strange that we have decided to write a post addressing the question of whether it is possible for a Buddha to become angry. However, believe it or not, the answer to this question is not a straightforward ‘no’. In today’s post, we begin by exploring some Buddhist and psychological perspectives on anger and then provide our view on the above question.

Within Buddhism, in addition to attachment and ignorance, anger is known as one of the three root poisons (Sanskrit: trivisa). Anger can be thought of as a form of aversion towards another person, situation, or even ourselves. Because we see, hear, smell, taste, or touch something that we don’t like or that we perceive as a threat to our wellbeing or sense of self, we quickly want to remove or destroy it so that things return to normal. Basically, anger manifests because we are trying to keep things orderly and under control – people or situations that threaten to disturb or interfere with the world that we have created for ourselves make us feel angry and afraid.

Although in the Buddhist teachings anger is often described as a form of aversion, it can actually also be thought of as a form of attachment. Indeed, the reason we have aversion towards a particular situation is because we have allowed ourselves to become attached to what we deem to represent the ‘opposite’ of that situation. For example, imagine that for some time everything was cushy at work and things were going really well with the career. But then along comes a work colleague who makes us angry and who starts to create problems – it seems that they deliberately go out of their way to cause us trouble. However, if we stop and think about it, the anger and aversion that we experience arises because we have become attached to the idea of everything being cushy and comfortable at work – the perfect environment where we will always be recognised and rewarded for our efforts and where we can swiftly move up the career ladder.

If we didn’t harbour attachments or have unrealistic ideas in the first place, then we wouldn’t become so angry when our plans and ideas are disrupted. Buddhism asserts that a person’s propensity for anger is closely associated with how much attachment they harbour. A person that becomes very attached to their possessions – which in some people’s minds can also include family members, partners, and friends – is likely to be quick to anger. In a paper that we recently published in the American Psychological Association journal Psychology of Religion and Spirituality, we defined the Buddhist notion of attachment as “the over-allocation of cognitive and emotional resources towards a particular object, construct, or idea to the extent that the object is assigned an attractive quality that is unrealistic and that exceeds its intrinsic worth”. As demonstrated by our definition, attachment takes on a very different meaning in Buddhism compared to its use in Western psychology where attachment (e.g., in the context of relationships) is generally considered to exert a protective influence over mental health problems.

In the same way that the Buddhist root poisons of attachment and anger (or aversion) are closely related to each other, they are also both closely related to the other root poison that we mentioned – ignorance. Ignorance is described as one of the three root poisons, but it is actually the primary cause of each of the other poisons and of suffering more generally. Ignorance in the context that we are discussing it here refers to the extent to which a person views themselves as an independently or inherently-existing entity. The more a person is caught up in themselves and thinks that they possess a definite self, the more ignorant they become – and the larger their ego inflates itself. Thus, aversion or anger is a direct result of attachment, and attachment is a direct result of ignorance or ego.

When a person becomes angry, it basically means that the ego-monkey that we talked about in our last post has decided to raise its head. Although ego underpins all of our emotions and behaviours, this is particularly the case when anger is ravaging the mind. In fact, you only have to look at an angry person and it is as though their ego is trying to burst through their skin. We touched on this in our post on the Top Five Beauty Tips for Men and Women where we made reference to research demonstrating that anger is associated with physiological responses such as contraction of the brow muscles, facial flushing (i.e., turning red), flared nostrils, clenched jaws, increased perspiration, increased heart rate, and general tension in the skeletal musculature of the facial and neck regions.

Anger has a tendency to overrun the mind and body and it is generally accepted by Western psychologists that anger can distort a person’s perspective of a situation and reduce their ability to make wise decisions. As we discussed in a paper that we published in the psychology journal Aggression and Violent Behaviour, in addition to causing people to say and do unpleasant things, anger can also cause people to behave irrationally. For example, a few years ago we were guiding a meditation retreat in the Snowdonia Mountains of North Wales where one of the participants was a middle-aged lady who was very angry because she couldn’t get her mind to relax. Part way through one of the meditations, it became apparent that one of the male participants in the group was a ‘breather’. ‘Breathers’ are those people that breathe really deeply and loudly during meditation so that everybody else can hear them and so that everybody knows they are ‘serious’ about their practice. Anyway, about half way through this particular meditation session, it just became too much for the lady who broke her silence and in an angry voice suddenly shouted out ‘stop breathing’!

The point we have been trying to make above is that anger is a major obstacle to happiness and spiritual development. It is a sign that a person’s ego is very much in tact – which from the point of view of the meditation or spiritual practitioner – means that there is still a tremendous amount of work to do. As a general rule, the smaller the degree to which a spiritual practitioner’s thoughts, words, or actions are influenced by ego (and therefore anger), the closer they are to attaining Buddhahood. However, whilst this general rule applies for practically all stages of the spiritual practitioner’s journey, it no longer applies when they have awoken to full Buddhahood.

For a fully enlightened Buddha, the moment a thought or feeling arises in their mind, it is immediately liberated. The Buddhas perceive clearly that all phenomena – including those of a psychological nature – are absent of an intrinsically—existing self. They see that everything that manifests has no more substance than a mental projection or a dream. As it says in the heart sutra, the Buddhas understand that form (i.e., phenomena) is emptiness and emptiness is form. The Buddhas are not bound by concepts such as self and other, past and future (i.e., time), or here and there (i.e., space). Consequently, their mind is unlimited – it is free of any form of attachment or aversion.

This ability of Buddhas to never become attached to physical or mental objects means that they are free to manifest whatever feelings might be most skilful and compassionate within a given situation. In effect, the Buddhas have uprooted the causes of negative emotions to such an extent, that they are now free to use so-called ‘negative emotions’ as they see fit. Ultimately, the Buddhas are 100% focussed on liberating other beings from suffering. They are overflowing with unconditional kindness, compassion, and patience, but if it is a blast of anger that is required to jolt a person to start truly practicing spiritual development, then it will be duly administered. This is very different than pretending to be angry (e.g., as a parent might do) in order to communicate feelings of disapproval towards another person. The type of anger that we are referring to here is very real – it is primordial anger but there is absolutely no ego mixed in with it. Due to the rawness of this anger and the fact that it is not tainted by ego, it enters deeply and directly into the recipient’s mind and gives them a clear choice in terms of embracing or rejecting the Dharma (truth/teachings).

There are quite a number of examples of enlightened beings using this primordial anger to benefit others. Probably the best known example amongst Westerners is that of Jesus Christ when he over-turned the tables and started throwing the traders out of the temple. Buddhist practitioners might have heard about the 11th century Tibetan spiritual adept Marpa who would even administer a physical beating where he felt it would be of some long-term benefit. Another reasonably well-known and much more recent example is Lama Yeshe who died in 1984 – there are reports that he once got hold of a pick-pocket (i.e., a thief) and gave them a right good shaking in order to make them see sense. There are also examples of Zen teachers becoming angry with their students and in some cases this actually prompted an intuitive leap or a sudden flash of realisation.

For the everyday meditation practitioner such as you and us, anger can make it almost impossible to stabilise the mind and it can significantly disrupt a persons’ spiritual progress. Consequently, every effort should be made to practice patience and kindness and to never act out of anger. However, for the fully enlightened Buddhas, although their very being overflows with joy, wisdom, and compassion, it does seem that they can and do use primordial anger as a very skilful and effective means of teaching. This is quite a dangerous subject to write about because some meditation practitioners or teachers could misinterpret what we are saying and start believing that it is acceptable to be angry. However, given that there are reports of Buddhas exhibiting anger, then it seems appropriate to offer an explanation as to why this might be. Another reason for writing this post is because in the event you are one of those handful of people fortunate enough to meet a fully-enlightened teacher – you’ll be less likely to become all haughty and self-righteous if they decide to give you verbal kick-up the backside!

Ven. Edo Shonin & Ven. William Van Gordon

Further Reading

Dalai Lama. (2001). Stages of Meditation: Training the Mind for Wisdom. London: Rider.

Day, A. (2009). Offender emotion and self-regulation: Implications for offender rehabilitation programming. Psychology, Crime and Law, 15, 119-130.

Huang Po. (1982). The Zen teaching of Huang Po: On the transmission of the mind. (Blofeld, J., Trans.) New York: Grove Press.

Novaco, R. W. (2007). Anger Dysregulation. In T. A. Cavell, & K. T. Malcolm (Eds.), Anger, Aggression, and Interventions for Interpersonal Violence (pp. 3-54). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

Shonin, E., Van Gordon W., & Griffiths, M. D. (2014). The emerging role of Buddhism in clinical psychology: Toward effective integration. Psychology of Religion and Spirituality, 6, 123-137.

Shonin, E., Van Gordon, W., & Griffiths, M. D. (2014). Mindfulness meditation in American correctional facilities: A ‘what-works’ approach to reducing reoffending.Corrections Today: Journal of the American Correctional Association, March/April, 48-51.

Shonin, E., Van Gordon W., Slade, K., & Griffiths, M. D. (2013). Mindfulness and other Buddhist-derived interventions in correctional settings: A systematic review. Aggression and Violent Behavior, 18, 365-372.

Wright, S., Day, A., & Howells, K. (2009). Mindfulness and the treatment of anger problems. Aggression and Violent Behaviour, 14, 396-401.