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The Five Paths and the Ten Levels

The Graduated Path to Liberation is a rendering in English of teachings given by Geshe Rabten Rinpoche in Dharamsala, India, in 1969. It follows the traditional lam-rim (graduated path) format, which originated with the teachings of Shakyamuni Buddha and has been passed down through an unbroken succession of Indian and Tibetan masters.

Four Noble Truths
The Five Paths and the Ten Levels
The Six Perfections
Conclusion and Notes

There are five successive paths on which a bodhisattva develops:

  1. The path of accumulation (sambharamarga)
  2. The path of training or preparation (prayogamarga)
  3. The path of seeing (darshanamarga)
  4. The path of intense contemplation (bhavanamarga)
  5. The path of liberation or no more training(vimuktimarga)

When bodhicitta has been developed until it is natural and intrinsic, the bodhisattva has completely obtained the sambharamarga (which has lower levels before this point). Then many spiritual powers (rddhi) are attained, such as psychic power (mahabhijna), which enables the bodhisattva to know other people's thoughts, to know the past and future events of other beings' lives, to fly, to have multiple bodies, and so forth. A bodhisattva does not concentrate on these techniques specially to get a particular power; these powers come naturally. But the bodhisattva is able to put them to good use because these powers aid greatly in seeing the karma, spiritual development and potentialities of other beings, and whether or not they are in a state where they can be helped escape from samsara. The bodhisattva can see at which place beings can receive teachings from the buddhas and bodhisattvas in the various buddha-fields. 14 Many other virtues also accrue to the bodhisattva.

At this point the most important thing for the bodhisattvas is to meditate on emptiness, which is still not perceived clearly. When emptiness becomes clearer the second path, the path of training, is attained; this stage immediately precedes becoming an arya-bodhisattva.

Then, after much meditation, the feeling arises within the bodhisattva that the mind that meditates and emptiness are one, like water poured into water; (this feeling, though, is deceptive). This signifies the attainment of the path of seeing and the becoming of an arya-bodhisattva. Although the arya-bodhisattva still retains old karma as well as some defilements, no new karma is produced from this level of attainment onwards, and there is a great increase in psychic powers. For instance, the arya-bodhisattva begins obtaining the power to eradicate past karma and even deeper defilements. Because there are many different layers of avarana, they have to be removed one by one; as the psychic powers grow stronger, the bodhisattva can remove more and more layers.

Due to the first direct perception of emptiness on the path of seeing, the bodhisattva removes the first layer of obscuration of defilements (kleshavarana). The bodhisattva now has greater wisdom because there are fewer layers of defilements covering or hiding reality. On the first two paths, the obscurations are suppressed but are not truly eradicated and therefore they can still rise again. But on the path of seeing, one layer is actually removed forever. In all, there are ten layers of defilement-obscurations; they are like ten cloths which hide reality and have to be peeled or washed away. The practitioner removes the veils covering reality in the same way that one washes clothes, by using the strength of washing soap appropriate to the amount of dirt.

There are ten levels 15 of arya-bodhisattva:

  1. The joyous (pramudita)
  2. The stainless (vimala)
  3. The light-maker (prabhakari)
  4. The radiant (arcishmati)
  5. The very hard to conquer (sudurjaya)
  6. The turning-toward (abhimukhi)
  7. The far-going (durangama)
  8. The unshakable (acala)
  9. The good mind (sadhumati)
  10. The cloud of dharma (dharmamegha)

"The joyous" level, pramudita, is reached on the path of seeing, and all the other nine on the path of intense contemplation. At each of the ten levels, the bodhisattva has increasingly greater virtue and has overcome more defilements. In several scriptures, the amount of increase in virtue is given for each level; at some levels the virtues are innumerable. All these levels are a connected stream. One layer of defilement-obscuration is removed at each of the first seven levels; at the eighth, "The unshakable," the remaining three are removed so that the bodhisattva is then free entirely from kleshavarana. With respect to the removal of defilements, the bodhisattva is equal with the lower arhats, but in terms of the virtue amassed through such practice, the bodhisattva is much higher. These defilements are all removed by meditation on emptiness; at the level of the unshakable there is particularly strong growth in the strength of this meditation on emptiness.

At the ninth level, "The good mind," the bodhisattva begins at last to remove the wisdom-obscuration— jneyavarana. This is very subtle and difficult to perceive. If we put some garlic or onion into a pot and then remove it, the smell still remains. In the same way, although the defilement has gone, this obscuration still remains. At the level of "good mind," the bodhisattva is out of samsara but the wisdom is not quite perfect. At this point the bodhisattva can recognize and begin to remove the only remaining factor obscuring reality: the wisdom-obscuration, Without the removal of the wisdom-obscuration, the bodhisattva cannot help beings to the extent that a fully enlightened buddha can. The degree to which we can help others depends on the depth of our own wisdom.

While defilement-obscuration is like a cut that gives pain, the wisdom-obscuration is like the painless scar that remains when the cut has healed but not finally disappeared. "The cloud of dharma" is the level immediately before buddhahood, on which the last traces of the wisdom-obscuration are taken away. The removal of obscurations is like removing increasingly fine and wispy veils. The development of greater spiritual power is like having stronger and stronger binoculars to see more and more clearly. At the buddha stage, all obscurations are gone. Even a small part of a buddha's mind can see all things clearly at the same time. If there is even a tiny cloud in the sky there is still a small shadow on the earth, but when this cloud has disappeared the sun can shine everywhere. At the level called "The cloud of dharma," the bodhisattva meditates on emptiness with perfect concentration. Although emptiness can be seen clearly and completely, the tenth level bodhisattva cannot perceive both emptiness and phenomena simultaneously; a buddha, however, can see both at the same time. Things are empty of independent self- existence, but they themselves are not emptiness. The moment this final trace of the wisdom-obscuration disappears, phenomenal existence and emptiness suddenly appear together. At this moment a buddha can see phenomenality and emptiness simultaneously, not only with eye-perception, but also with the other sense-perceptions. At the time of becoming a buddha, not only is knowledge of the deepest nature of everything attained, but also the final virtues of body—such as easily multiplying the body an infinite number of times—and speech—such as being able to give teachings to any being without difficulty.

The virtue of a buddha's speech is unlimited. If, for instance, a thousand people each ask a different question in a different language at the same time, a buddha, by saying just one word, can answer all their questions immediately. We do not have the inner power to do this kind of action because of our avaranas. In all, there are sixty-four virtues of a buddha's speech: sweetness, softness, an attraction that makes people want to listen, a quality that gives a feeling of peace to those who hear it, and so forth. The different virtues of the body, speech and mind of a buddha can be found throughout many different sutras, and are presented collectively in a work by Lama Tsongkhapa. 16

There are one hundred and twelve different virtues of a buddha's body. The duty of a buddha is to help sentient beings; if it is helpful, in one second he can multiply himself as many times as there are beings, or can manifest as any kind of being or object such as trees, water, and so on. The buddha performs this type of miraculous action always and only to help beings find release from samsara.

To receive such help, we must also contact the buddha from our own side. At night, when the moon is shining on the surface of a lake that is clear and smooth, the light can shine on all parts of it, but if the surface is disturbed or overgrown the moon cannot penetrate or be reflected; when it is smooth and clear, the moon is reflected clearly in it, the reflection being just like the moon in the sky. In the same way, the buddha's help goes out to all beings equally; it is the beings' receptivity that varies. We must, for our part, make contact with the buddha; if it were not necessary for us to act from our own side, the buddha would have already taken us all out of samsara. A buddha has the ultimate mahakarunika, so he would not leave beings in suffering if by his own efforts alone he were able to take them out of it. If you clap your left hand with your right, your left hand must be there to receive the blow, otherwise there is no sound.

Once all coverings are removed and the power of the virtue that has been built up is at its full height, there is nothing we cannot do. We can multiply our bodies infinitely and can give teachings on all levels, from the beginning of the path to the goal; the virtue of a buddha's mind is that even a small part of it knows the reality of everything. This buddha stage is the effect of many causes, achieved through an enormous amount of Dharma practice.

After the historical buddha, Shakyamuni, had finished his teaching on earth, all the beings there at the time who had the karma to see and hear him had done so, and so he went to continue his work in other realms. Although this form has disappeared, he can still help beings in other forms. Buddhas can take ordinary forms such as a friend, guru and so forth.

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