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Seven Stages of Enlightenment

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 NOTE: The stages are nothing authoritative, merely for sharing purposes. The article On Anatta (No-Self), Emptiness, Maha and Ordinariness, and Spontaneous Perfection is a good reference for these 7 phases of experience. The original six stages of experience has been updated to seven stages of experience, with the addition of 'Stage 7: Presence is Spontaneously Perfected' for readers to understand that seeing the nature of reality as the ground of all experiences which is Always So, is important for effortlessness to take place.

Stage 1: The Experience of “I AM”

It was about 20 years back and it all started with the question of “Before birth, who am I?” I do not know why but this question seemed to capture my entire being. I could spend days and nights just sitting focusing, pondering over this question; till one day, everything seemed to come to a complete standstill, not even a single thread of thought arose. There was merely nothing and completely void, only this pure sense of existence. This mere sense of I, this Presence, what was it? It was not the body, not thought as there was no thought, nothing at all, just Existence itself. There was no need for anyone to authenticate this understanding.

At that moment of realization, I experienced a tremendous flow of energy being released. It was as if life was expressing itself through my body and I was nothing but this expression. However at that point in time, I was still unable to fully understand what this experience was and how I had misunderstood its nature.

Stage 2: The Experience of “I AM Everything”

It seemed that my experience was supported by many Advaita and Hindu teachings. But the biggest mistake I made was when I spoke to a Buddhist friend. He told me about the doctrine of no-self, about no ‘I’. I rejected such doctrine outright as it was in direct contradiction with what I had experienced. I was deeply confused for some time and could not appreciate why Buddha had taught this doctrine and worse still, make it a Dharma Seal. Until one day, I experienced the fusing of everything into ‘Me’ but somehow there was no ‘me’. It was like an “I-less I’. I somehow accepted the 'no I' idea but then I still insisted that Buddha shouldn't have put it that way...

The experience was wonderful, it was as if I was totally emancipated, a complete release without boundary. I told myself, “I am totally convinced that I am no longer confused”, so I wrote a poem (something like the below),

I am the rain
I am the sky
I am the ‘blueness’
The color of the sky
Nothing is more real than the I
Therefore Buddha, I am I.

There is a phrase for this experience -- Whenever and wherever there IS, the IS is Me. This phrase was like a mantra to me. I often used this to lead me back into the experience of Presence.

The rest of the journey was the unfolding and further refining of this experience of Total Presence, but somehow there was always this blockage, this ‘something’ preventing me from recapturing the experience. It was the inability to fully ‘die’ into total Presence..

Stage 3: Entering Into a State of Nothingness

Somehow something was blocking the natural flow of my innermost essence and preventing me from re-living the experience. Presence was still there but there was no sense of ‘totality’. It was both logically and intuitively clear that ‘I’ was the problem. It was the ‘I’ that was blocking; it was the ‘I’ that was the limit; it was the ‘I’ that was the boundary but why couldn’t I do away with it? At that point in time it didn’t occur to me that I should look into the nature of awareness and what awareness is all about. Instead, I was too occupied with the art of entering into a state of oblivion to get rid of the ‘I’... This continued for the next 13+ years (in between of course there were many other minor events and the experience of total presence did occur many times, but with gaps a few months long)…

However I came to one important understanding
The ‘I’ is the root cause of all artificialities, true freedom is in spontaneity. Surrender into complete nothingness and everything is simply Self So.

Stage 4: Presence as Mirror Bright Clarity

I got in touch with Buddhism in 1997. Not because I wanted to find out more about the experience of ‘Presence’ but rather the teaching of impermanence synced deeply with what I was experiencing in life. I was faced with the possibility of losing all my wealth and more by financial crisis. At that point in time I had no idea that Buddhism is so profoundly rich on the aspect of ‘Presence’. The mystery of life cannot be understood, I sought for a refuge in Buddhism to alleviate my sorrows caused by the financial crisis, but it turned out to be the missing key towards experiencing total presence.

I wasn’t that resistant then to the doctrine of ‘no-self’ but the idea that all phenomenal existence is empty of an inherentself’ or ‘Self’ did not quite get into me. Were they talking about the ‘self’ as a personality or ‘Self’ as ‘Eternal Witness’? Must we do away even with the ‘Witness’? Was the Witness itself another illusion?

There is thinking, no thinker
There is sound, no hearer
Suffering exists, no sufferer
Deeds there are, no doer

I was meditating on the meaning of the above stanza deeply until one day, suddenly I heard ‘tongss…’, it was so clear, there was nothing else, just the sound and nothing else! And ‘tongs…’ resounding… It was so clear, so vivid!

That experience was so familiar, so real and so clear. It was the same experience of “I AM”… it was without thought, without concepts, without intermediary, without anyone there, without any in-between… What was it? IT was Presence! But this time it was not ‘I AM’, it was not asking ‘who am I’, it was not the pure sense of “I AM”, it was ‘TONGSss….’, the pure Sound
Then came Taste, just the Taste and nothing else….
The heart beats…
The Scenery…

There was no gap in between, no longer a few months gap for it to arise…
There never was a stage to enter, no I to cease and never had it existed
There is no entry and exit point…
There is no Sound out there or in here…
There is no ‘I’ apart from the arising and ceasing…
The manifold of Presence…
Moment to moment Presence unfolds…


    This is the beginning of seeing through no-self. Insight into no-self has arisen but non-dual experience is still very much 'Brahman' rather than 'Sunyata'; in fact it is more Brahman than ever. Now "I AMness" is experienced in All.

    Nevertheless it is a very important key phase where the practitioner experiences a quantum leap in perception untying the dualistic knot. This is also the key insight leading to the realization that "All is Mind", all is just this One Reality.

    The tendency to extrapolate an Ultimate Reality or Universal Consciousness where we are part of this Reality remains surprisingly strong. Effectively the dualistic knot is gone but the bond of seeing things inherently isn't. 'Dualistic' and 'inherent' knots that prevent the full experiencing of our Maha, empty and non-dual nature of pristine awareness are two very different 'perceptual spells' that blind.

    The subsection "On Second Stanza" of the post "On Anatta (No-Self), Emptiness, Maha and Ordinariness, and Spontaneous Perfection" further elaborates this insight.

Stage 5: No Mirror Reflecting

There is no mirror reflecting
All along manifestation alone is.
The one hand claps
Everything IS!

Effectively Phase 4 is merely the experience of non-division between subject/object. The initial insight glimpsed from the anatta stanza is without self but in the later phase of my progress it appeared more like subject/object as an inseparable union, rather than absolutely no-subject. This is precisely the 2nd case of the Three levels of understanding Non-Dual. I was still awed by the pristineness and vividness of phenomena in phase 4.

Phase 5 is quite thorough in being no one and I would call this anatta in all 3 aspects -- no subject/object division, no doer-ship and absence of agent.

The trigger point here is the direct and thorough seeing that 'the mirror is nothing more than an arising thought'. With this, the solidity and all the grandeur of 'Brahman' goes down the drain. Yet it feels perfectly right and liberating without the agent and being simply as an arising thought or as a vivid moment of a bell resounding. All the vividness and presence remains, with an additional sense of freedom. Here a mirror/reflection union is clearly understood as flawed, there is only vivid reflection. There cannot be a 'union' if there isn't a subject to begin with. It is only in subtle recalling, that is in a thought recalling a previous moment of thought, that the watcher seems to exist. From here, I moved towards the 3rd degree of non-dual.

The Stanza One complements and refines Stanza Two to make the experience of no-self thorough and effortless into just only chirping birds, drum beats, footsteps, sky, mountain, walking, chewing and tasting; no witness whatsoever hiding anywhere! 'Everything' is a process, event, manifestation and phenomenon, nothing ontological or having an essence.

This phase is a very thorough non-dual experience; there is effortlessness in the non-dual and one realizes that in seeing there is always just scenery and in hearing, always just sounds. We find true delights in naturalness and ordinariness as commonly expressed in Zen as 'chop wood, carry water; spring comes, grass grows'. With regards to ordinariness (see "On Maha in Ordinariness"), this must also be correctly understood. A recent conversation with Simpo summarizes what I am trying to convey with regards to ordinariness.

    Non-dual is ordinary as there is no 'beyond' stage to arrive at. It appears to be extraordinary and grandeur only as an afterthought due to comparison.

    That said, the maha experience appearing as "universe chewing" and the spontaneity of pristine happening must still remain maha, free, boundless and clear. For that is what it is and cannot be otherwise. The "extraordinariness and grandeur" that result from comparison must also be correctly discerned from the 'what is' of non-dual.

    Whenever contraction steps in, it is already a manifestation of 'experiencer-experience split'. Conventionally speaking, that being the cause, that is the effect. Whatever the condition is, be it the result of unfavorable situations or subtle recalling to arrive at a certain good sensation or attempting to fix an imaginary split, we have to treat it that the 'non-dual' insight has not pervaded into our entire being like the way 'karmic tendency to divide' does. We have not fearlessly, openly and unreservedly welcomed whatever is. :-)

    Just my view, a casual sharing.

Practitioners up to this level often get over excited believing that this phase is final; in fact it does appear to be a sort of pseudo finality. But this is a misunderstanding. Nothing much can be said. The practitioner will also be naturally led into spontaneous perfection without going further in emptying the aggregates. :-)


    The drop is thorough, the center is gone. The center is nothing more than a subtle karmic tendency to divide. A more poetic expression would be “sound hears, scenery sees, the dust is the mirror.” Transient phenomena themselves have always been the mirror; only a strong dualistic view prevents the seeing.

    Very often cycles after cycles of refining our insights are needed to make the non-dual less 'concentrative' and more 'effortless'. This relates to experiencing the non-solidity and spontaneity of experience. The subsection "On First Stanza" of the post "On Anatta (No-Self), Emptiness, Maha and Ordinariness, and Spontaneous Perfection" further elaborates this phase of insight.

    At this phase, we must be clear that emptying the subject will only result in non-duality and there is a need to further empty the aggregates, 18 dhatus. This means one must further penetrate the emptiness nature of the 5 aggregates, 18 dhatus with dependent origination and emptiness. The need to reify a Universal Brahman is understood as the karmic tendency to 'solidify' experiences. This leads to the understanding of the empty nature of non-dual presence.

Stage 6: The Nature of Presence is Empty

Phase 4 and 5 are the grayscale of seeing through the subject that it does not exist in actuality (anatta), there are only the aggregates. However even the aggregates are empty (Heart Sutra). It may sound obvious but more often than not, even a practitioner who has matured the anatta experience (as in phase 5) will miss the essence of it.

As I have said earlier, phase 5 does appear to be final and it is pointless to emphasize anything. Whether one proceeds further to explore this empty nature of Presence and move into the Maha world of suchness will depend on our conditions.

At this juncture, it is necessary to have clarity on what Emptiness is not to prevent misunderstandings:

    • Emptiness is not a substance
    • Emptiness is not a substratum or background
    • Emptiness is not light
    • Emptiness is not consciousness or awareness
    • Emptiness is not the Absolute
    • Emptiness does not exist on its own
    • Objects do not consist of emptiness
    • Objects do not arise from emptiness
    • Emptiness of the "I" does not negate the "I"
    • Emptiness is not the feeling that results when no objects are appearing to the mind
    • Meditating on emptiness does not consist of quieting the mind

    Source: Non-Dual Emptiness Teaching

And I would like to add,

Emptiness is not a path of practice
Emptiness is not a form of fruition

Emptiness is the 'nature' of all experiences. There is nothing to attain or practice. What we have to realize is this empty nature, this ‘ungraspability’, ‘unlocatability ’ and ‘interconnectedness’ nature of all vivid arising. Emptiness will reveal that not only is there no ‘who’ in pristine awareness, there is no ‘where’ and ‘when’. Be it ‘I’, ‘Here’ or ’Now’, all are simply impressions that dependently originate in accordance with the principle of conditionality.

    When there is this, that is.
    With the arising of this, that arises.
    When this is not, neither is that.
    With the cessation of this, that ceases.

The profundity of this four-liner principle of conditionality is not in words. For a more theoretical exposition, see Non-Dual Emptiness Teachings by Dr. Greg Goode; for a more experiential narration, see the subsection "On Emptiness" and "On Maha" of the post "On Anatta (No-Self), Emptiness, Maha and Ordinariness, and Spontaneous Perfection".


    Here practice is clearly understood as neither going after the mirror nor escaping from the maya reflection; it is to thoroughly 'see' the 'nature' of reflection. To see that there is really no mirror other than the on-going reflection due to our emptiness nature. Neither is there a mirror to cling to as the background reality nor a maya to escape from. Beyond these two extreme lies the middle path -- the prajna wisdom of seeing that the maya is our Buddha nature.

    Recently An Eternal Now has updated some very high quality articles that better described the maha experience of suchness. Do read the following articles:

    - Emancipation of Suchness
    - Buddha-Dharma: A Dream in a Dream

    The last 3 subsections ("On Emptiness", "On Maha in Ordinariness", "Spontaneous Perfection") of the post "On Anatta (No-Self), Emptiness, Maha and Ordinariness, and Spontaneous Perfection" elaborates this phase of emptiness insight and the gradual progress of maturing the experience into the effortless mode of practice. It is important to know that in addition to the experience of the unfindability and ungraspability of emptiness, the interconnectedness of everything creating the Maha experience is equally precious.

Stage 7: Presence is Spontaneously Perfected

After cycles and cycles of refining our practice and insights, we will come to this realization:

    Anatta is a seal, not a stage.
    Awareness has always been non-dual.
    Appearances have always been Non-arising.
    All phenomena are ‘interconnected’ and by nature Maha.

All are always and already so. Only dualistic and inherent views are obscuring these experiential facts and therefore what is really needed is simply to experience whatever arises openly and unreservedly (See section "On Spontaneous Perfection"). However this does not denote the end of practice; practice simply moves to become dynamic and conditions-manifestation based. The ground and the path of practice become indistinguishable.


    The entire article of On Anatta (No-Self), Emptiness, Maha and Ordinariness, and Spontaneous Perfection can be seen as the different approaches toward the eventual realization of this already perfect and uncontrived nature of awareness.