The Four Stages of Practice (2019)
Let’s talk about stages of practice.
This is something that we started talking about when we were in Poland and it turned out to be quite useful for people. So I want to summarize some of the work we did in Poland regarding these four different stages of practice, and I also want to go a little bit deeper into some aspects of this framework.
The idea of of talking about stages of practice is definitely not unique to me and obviously every tradition will talk about stages of practice, including the traditions that say it’s all about sudden awakening. Everyone’s got a stage model, whether they admit it or not. In fact, the whole controversy about whether there is such a thing as sudden enlightenment or gradual enlightenment or whether some people need a gradual path and other people can take a super fast path, a sudden path, that whole thing is kind of beside the point on the one hand; and on the other hand, it’s actually based on a series of doctrinal disagreements that we’ve lost mostly track of. So nowadays when we talk about the stages model or the sudden model or the gradual versus sudden distinction, we tend to think of it in terms of does somebody wake up suddenly or not? But that’s only partly a reflection of the original controversy. In fact, the history of Buddhism is absolutely littered with the kind of disagreement that we’ve inherited as Sudden versus Gradual. And there’s doctrinal evidence for both being important, as well as experiential and anecdotal evidence. There is always a way to distort the entire literature of Buddhism from the early days through its development in India, through to China, Japan, Sri Lanka, Missouri, all these places. There’s a way to misrepresent it, to make a case for one or the other as being more true and important. And unfortunately, there’s no way to actually settle the debate because Buddhism is a very old tradition and it has. branched out into different forms and they can’t really be reconciled doctrinally. Then you get texts like the Lankavatara Sutra that explicitly talk about a sudden and a gradual path and don’t really make it very clear how you should interpret that. That’s why I said the other day that the history of Buddhism is the history of making a mess in the living room while you try clean up the kitchen.
Nevertheless, there are stages. You may think of them as absolutely real stages or you can think of them as helpful fictions. It doesn’t matter. It really doesn’t make a difference in practice. Because unless you’re so naive that you think that all that matters is to have the right attitude and the right state experience and you’ll be set forever, unless you’re that naive, in which case you will find out the hard way how wrong you are, then there will be indeed stages. Just as you have to be twenty before you are thirty. And I think it’s helpful to talk about stages in extremely broad rather than specific terms. So imagine that you’re never going to hear from me again after today. In fact, let’s pretend that you’re never going to hear from any other practitioner ever again. And all you’ve got is all the teachings you’ve received up until now, and then you’re going to be trapped somewhere or maybe lost on a desert island or something. So what you’ve got is what you’ve got. And now you’re going to have to figure out the rest of the journey by yourself.
What’s the bare minimum you need to know about the stages? If I had to break it down to four stages, then here’s my breakdown. It’s based on some of the basic categories that you find across many Buddhist traditions, but it’s also a ridiculous oversimplification.
First, you need to listen. So I call the first stage the Listening stage. And that’s not my term for it. That’s actually a very traditional way of talking about early practice. In the Mahayana, they often say that the Mahayana path begins with actually listening, listening. The Mondo Zen approach begins with the “listening” koan. And the Hinayana-Mahayana distinction includes this notion of the Shravaka path or the path of the people who have heard the teachings.
So it’s not like it’s my innovation here. When I say listening, I really mean taking in, being educated. You’re getting reindoctrinated, is how the Mondo Zen manual puts it. And what it really means is you have to shut up. And this isn’t so easy. But if you had it all figured out, you wouldn’t need a path to begin with. And if you knew how to get yourself out of the bind that you’re in, then you wouldn’t care about the teachings.
I’m not saying this in an aggressive way, but there’s a value in just shutting up and taking in new concepts, new models, new frames of reference, new frameworks. And there’s no end to the listening stage. That’s just the truth. There’s always more that you can understand simply by making the effort to listen and then understand. So let me give you a concrete example. Someone teaches you to concentrate at the beginning of the path. Basic concentration training. If you think you know what concentration is, then when you ask someone to teach you how to concentrate, you’re going to be listening through the filters that you’re bringing in. So if you think that concentration is about getting your mind really quiet, you may be right in your own way, but that may not be what the other person means. You think concentration means having a quiet mind so that you can focus on something, so what if the person who’s teaching you how to concentrate has a slightly different emphasis? For example, what if for them it’s making the mind workable or serviceable, using the mind as it’s “meant” to be used? Then you’re not going to hear what the person is teaching you because you’re going to be holding up this ideal of having a very quiet mind. And you’re going to be comparing everything that happens in your practice, as you follow this other person’s instructions, to what you think should be happening.
You see, something as simple as that is massively important. It’s absolutely crucial. The biggest obstacle that everybody encounters when they begin practice, and even when they deepen their practice, and no matter how far they go, is being wrong about what is expected. When you follow instructions that are not yours, if someone gives you instructions, someone points out things about experience, and you don’t actually understand what they’re trying to teach you, it will go wrong. You may not go wrong for very long. You may be able to correct things or you may have a good teacher who is able to pinpoint exactly where you’re going wrong, but the fact is that where you’ve gone wrong is in assuming that you knew what the other person was talking about in the first place. You’ve got this idea of what it’s all about and what you want to use other people for. Whether it’s the teacher or the sangha or books, you have to let them help you to get the thing that you think it’s all about. It’s not a coincidence that the Mu koan, assigned at the start of practice, is basically a monk asking a question and getting an answer he doesn’t expect. Does a dog have Buddha nature or not? No.
Listening is an active, compassionate, difficult and humbling experience. It’s not just this moral thing, like, Oh, it would be good if we all listened to each other. You have to be receptive to feedback. And once you start listening, life is full of important feedback that you’ve been ignoring up until now. So when I talk about the Listening stage, I’m talking in a broad way, to say that you need to listen to what’s actually being said to you in your life. Whether by other people or the teachings or your own body. If you’re numb to your own emotions, you’re not listening to yourself. If you have a habit of going against your own conscience, you’re not listening to your conscience. See, if people keep telling you something and you just don’t listen, and you think they’re wrong or they don’t understand you or whatever, you’re not listening. And if you can’t even listen, you’re certainly not going to be able to say anything meaningful about practice. There’s an intersubjective domain in practice, in Sanghas and communities across space and time, that has nothing to do with individual people. Everyone’s got their own subjective experience and everyone’s got their own craziness and their own stupidity and their own brilliance. And where you need to be looking is not what you think the whole thing’s about, but what other people consistently discover it’s all about.
The Listening stage never really ends. Because other people have been wrong too. And they’ve cleared up these problems before you. So your job, if you want to make life easy for yourself, is not to fall into the same traps that generation after generation before you have fallen into. Is that clear? There are words that mean specific things. There are texts that point to particular insights. And unless you’re willing to do the work necessary to understand what’s actually on the page or what’s really behind the instructions, you are wasting your time. No, not totally. But there’s a purely optional hurdle.
OK, so when I say the Listening stage doesn’t really end, what I mean is that there are always nuances. You discover there are always new aspects of practice that someone else has figured out before you. There are always different traditions, there are always subtleties in your practice that you have no idea about. And they won’t become relevant, necessarily, until you’re at that stage. So the Listening stage is the foundation, it’s listening to life, it’s listening to people who are smarter than you, people who are dumber than you, people who have no idea what you’re even up to. It’s just shutting up and listening. That doesn’t mean that this whole path is about shutting up. But most of us need to learn to shut up first. I mean, really, I’d say all of us need to learn to just shut up and listen. Except me, of course.
Whatever form it takes, listen. Learning to concentrate is a form of shutting up internally, right? So let’s assume that the Listening stage never ends. This model is like a pyramid. And the base is listening. You can never do too much of that. It keeps the whole thing from falling apart.
What’s next? Discipline. And when I say that there is a thing called the Discipline stage, I don’t mean that the most important part is fetishizing discipline. It’s that once you’ve learned to shut up and listen, the next step is shut up and do the work. See the things that are pointed out. If there are instructions available and you ask for those instructions, then shut up and follow the instructions. Or don’t. But I’m trying to point to what has to happen in what order. You can’t follow the instructions if you don’t understand them. And the problem is, if you don’t really train yourself to listen, you won’t even know that you don’t understand the instructions. The assumption will be, “I’m following the instructions and it’s not working.” No, you’re not following the instructions. You’re following words plus interpretation. There’s a necessary shift in attitude, at some point, that involves having taken in a new or contradictory message. In other words, the way you’ve been doing it doesn’t work. So you’ve taken in an alternative. And the alternative has practical applications and a step by step sequence of things you should be doing to follow in that tradition. So once you’ve listened to all that and you’ve understood it, now you have to do it. And it’s shocking to me how few people really understand that. You have to actually do the work. That might sound silly, to stress that or even say it. But let’s face it, in all likelihood, you don’t really do the work. If you’re like most people, what happens is you get very inspired after listening and then you start talking. You go off and you talk about what you’ve heard and you talk to yourself about how interesting it was to discover this tradition or that tradition. And you just talk to yourself about how this is going to change your life and how you’re going to practice so well now and all this stuff. But the Discipline stage is about coming to a point where what you do today is the same thing that you did before and it’s the same thing you’re going to do tomorrow because it’s all about consistency. It’s not about deepening your practice as fast as possible. It’s not about getting something out of your practice. It’s not about being impressive with your practice. It’s just about practicing.
If you’re able to build a solid practice, come rain or shine, whether things are going well or not, you’re just doing it, then you’re way ahead of most people because most people simply won’t. And if you tell them that, they’ll get outraged, and outrage is one of the absolute key markers that they’re not practicing. No one who is genuinely consistent in their practice gives a fuck if you tell them that they’re not practicing. Because if you tell them they’re not practicing, or they’re not consistent, they can point to the hour they sat yesterday and the hour they sat the day before and the hour they’re going to sit every day from now on, plus all the retreats they’ve booked. They may get insecure, but they’re not going to get outraged.
When it comes to the Discipline stage, it’s a yes or no. Are you practicing or not? Are you doing what you said you would do or not? Every day. No exceptions. And I don’t want you to think of Listening and Discipline as totally separate stages. But those two lower levels of the pyramid of practice are enough to take you so extraordinarily far that you wouldn’t even need anything more. Really. In other words, if you understand what you need to do and you do it, then you’re gold. The Listening stage can last the whole of your life. It can supplemented with actually doing the practice. That would be good.
After that comes what I call Forging practice. And that term “forging” is a Zen term. It’s when your practice is no longer about being disciplined and consistent, but rather actively looking for the ways in which you’re still not listening and you’re still not practicing. It’s a much more aggressive and courageous level. It’s where you deliberately test yourself. You throw yourself into circumstances that will disrupt your practice, that will expose the cracks in your armor. So you can think about this in terms of fragility, robustness and antifragility, which you’ve heard me talk about plenty. The Listening stage is more or less fragile in the sense that, if you’re not listening, the whole thing falls apart. The Discipline stage is robust because whether circumstances are favorable or not, you’re still practicing, so it doesn’t really matter. But when you get to the forging practice, it’s about being antifragile. Why? Because it it really makes no difference in a sense, whether you are sitting or not. Your entire attitude has shifted so that if anything bad happens in any way, you know that is just practice, and you welcome the challenges that life will vomit upon you.
It is not something you need to remind yourself of. You just know that it’s all practice. So if someone triggers you, that’s a good thing. That’s when we get to the whole “your angst is your liberation” stage. Let’s take the example of a blade. You’re blacksmith. You want to make a really good sword, so you’re not just going to pass it through the fire once, but over and over; Hakuin liked that metaphor. You want to refine gold by smelting it many times. It’s not just once or twice, it’s thousands and thousands and thousands of blows and hits, it’s life smacking you right in the mouth again and again. Because of the arrogance of the human mind, anyone who’s been practicing for more than a year thinks that they’re at the Forging level. So let me put it this way. When you’re at the Forging level, you’re so advanced compared to most people that what other people think Forging practice means is not what it means, and you know it. We’re talking about a fundamental shift in how the mind perceives experience and how you interpret what’s happening in practice and in life. It’s when you’re not just allowing things to happen to you, but you’re actually running headfirst into challenge, and saying, Fuck it, see what happens.
So there’s no need to pretend to be at the Forging level. This is once you’ve really stabilized access to states of mind that most people consider impossible. And then you’re like, “OK, how can I lose this so I can get it back?” You see the difference? You’re either open or closed, awake or asleep. Well, if you’ve figured out how to open the mind up so it’s actually a stabilisation of kensho and not just what you think is “nondual”, then the Discipline stage is when you’re doing this every time that you can. All day long from rigid, suffering mind to open, liberated mind, over and over. Whatever the circumstances, you wake up in the morning, you’re back to this open mind first thing in the morning. Open it up. The mind gets opened up over and over. With forging practice, this is your default. This is the baseline. Now, what you’re doing is running into situations where you can feel it going rigid and closing up, so you can open it up again. You get the difference. Most good teachers are at the Forging stage, at least.
But there is the Heroic stage as well, which is something that you can get a taste of at the Forging stage, but to be living at the Heroic stage is quite a feat. And, you know, I’m not living at the Heroic stage, but I’ve had tastes of it, and I can tell you what I understand by it and I can tell you what some other people understand by it. It’s the full realization of Satori in daily life, and what that really means is that it’s no longer about meditation in any normal sense. It’s what they call removing the stink of Zen completely. It’s the stage where mountains are mountains again. If you don’t understand that reference, there’s a famous line in Zen: At first mountains are mountains. But then, with Zen practice, suddenly mountains are not mountains. But then after Zen, mountains are mountains again.
Heroic practice has absolutely nothing to do anymore with whether your mind is calm or not, whether you like this or like that. It’s when you’ve surrendered fully to what needs to happen. And your practice is all about the inevitability of what needs to happen. Something needs to be done. It has to be done. It has nothing to do with you. It really involves a kind of stripping away of the personal element of experience. Completely. There’s a real feeling of no agency, surrender to life. And you certainly don’t want to hear about Zen anymore.
We could add a fifth stage, Buddhahood, which does have several technical definitions. But I don’t want to muddy the waters with that, especially given my frequent bouts of stupidity.
So, to recap, if you see this as a pyramid of practice, these are not stages that end. You don’t go from Listening upward and then you’re done with Listening. If you move into Discipline practice, you’re not done with Listening. If you move into Forging practice, you’re not done with Listening and Discipline. If you move into Heroic practice, you’re not done with the other levels. There’s always more to learn and understand. And so if you were to go to a desert island and you had nothing else, and this was all you had to go on, then you’d be well served by remembering how it works. The more time you spend listening and trying to understand what people actually mean, or in this case, alone on your island, what the teachings that you can remember actually point to, the better. What do the words actually mean? What does your situation actually call for? The more time you spend really wrestling with that, the clearer your view will be of things.
Now, the more clarity you have about what the situation is and what the journey ahead looks like, the easier it will be to discipline yourself and to make that journey. So the Listening stage could be compared to having a map. And there’s an X on the map and you know where you have to go. The Discipline stage involves walking step by step by step. The map says to go over there. I’m over here. I’m going to take every step that I have to take to get there. The Forging stage would involve developing a mastery of the actual terrain, so that whether it’s steep or not, whether there’s a river blocking you or not, whether your feet hurt like hell or not, you know exactly what needs to happen for the journey not to end. And every setback is just part of the journey, so there’s no problem. And the Heroic stage is understanding that it doesn’t matter where you end up. The map still holds. The map is not a perfect reflection of reality. It never can be.
So at the Heroic stage, you’re no longer driven by this incessant desire to get to that destination because the destination is a lie. And yet not a moment was wasted.
It’s important to understand that whether you’re in this tradition or another, the steps will be more or less the same, at least in these broad terms. Just as you can’t learn to write until you learn to speak for most people — you’re not going to write a sonnet before you can spell your own name, right? — there’s a kind of a sequence to this. Some things have to happen. At Listening stage, you’re learning a language, you’re learning a vocabulary, you’re learning to write. At the the Heroic stage, you can be Shakespeare.