What Exactly is Spiritual Enlightenment, Liberation, Self-Realization, Experiencing the Clear Light, Attaining the State of No-ego, Union With God or Seeing the Tao (Path)?

Did you know that there is a whole magazine out there on what is enlightenment? Unfortunately, all the articles in the magazine miss the mark by far. Most of it is New Age puffery. When Buddha awakened to enlightenment, he awakened to the emptiness of the ego and phenomenon, the emptiness of interdependent origination, and saw through to the root source of the material and spiritual spheres. But what does that entail ... and how can you describe it?

To do so the Zen school has had to develop a particular vocabulary over the centuries so that the seeds of enlightenment can be transmitted on to the later generations. What I'm about to transmit is rather deep in terms of vocabulary and content, but it tells you exactly what it means to become enlightened. In short, seeing the Tao means transforming the sixth and seventh consciousness, but that's not complete enlightenment. That's not the whole picture, but just the start of the cultivation trail.

After that you have to transform the eighth and first five consciousnesses (of seeing, hearing, tasting, etc.) in order to reach complete Buddhahood or perfect enlightenment, which entails transforming the body and cultivating the four dhyana.

Now if this vocabulary is difficult, you can find more in our How to Measure and Deepen Your Spiritual Realization manual. It contains everything you need to know to get started and orient yourself on the cultivation trail, and if you had to buy just one thing in the spiritual field I'd recommend that ebook. Kinkos can print it off and bind it for you, but we can only deliver it in ebook form since it's so big, which means it's comprehensive. Anyway, here's a very high level excerpt from my Stages course to tell you a little bit more about what enlightenment entails. If you think you've been studying meditation and cultivation for many years but don't know this terminology or these concepts, then you've just found out what you've been missing:

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A famous cultivation story illustrates how easy it is to mistake someone for having attained liberation or enlightenment when they're still working on the lower cultivation attainments. In fact, our account even comes from the Zen school and concerns the Chinese monk T'ien-wang Wu. At the time, many felt T'ien-wang Wu was enlightened, but he had only progressed to the stage of working on purifying his seventh consciousness:

In the Zen school there was a Zen master called T'ien-wang Wu. He was a disciple of Ma-tsu. Before he was enlightened, he cultivated practice until his meditative accomplishments and his power of samadhi were excellent. Once a provisional military governor saw how great his power to attract people was, and thought that he might incite the masses with seditious talk, so he had him thrown in a river. As it turned out, a lotus flower popped up on the surface of the water, and T'ien-wang Wu was in the lotus flower sitting in meditation. As soon as the military governor saw this, he thought he was enlightened, so he had him pulled out of the water and became his disciple. At this time T'ien-wang Wu was not yet enlightened, but still his abilities were great.

Later on, after T'ien-wang Wu was enlightened, no more lotuses came. Subsequently, when he was on the brink of death, he was in so much pain he lay there crying and moaning. One of the monks in the house asked him, "Master, could you make a little less noise? Before you were enlightened, you were thrown into a river, and you floated up on a lotus. That was such a famous event that now everyone says you are enlightened. If the news gets out that you are crying in pain so much now that you are about to die, we will be very embarrassed. Please try to be a little quieter."

When T'ien-wang Wu heard this, he knew the monk was right. He asked him, "You know that right now I am in great pain. But do you realize that in the midst of the pain there is one who is not in pain?" The disciple said he did not know this. So T'ien-wang Wu said to him, "These cries of pain are the one that is not in pain. Do you understand?" The disciple said he did not understand. He didn't understand, and that did it. T'ien-wang Wu drew his legs up so he was sitting cross-legged, and died.
If you say T'ien-wang Wu had ability, then why was he in so much pain that he was crying nonstop? If you say he had no ability, then how was it that when someone asked him not to cry, he did not cry? This is another meditation case.

Strictly speaking, Zen master T'ien-wang Wu had only transformed his sixth and seventh consciousnesses; he had not transformed the first five consciousnesses and the eighth consciousness. At most he had attained the dharmakaya, but he had not yet transformed the sambhogakaya and nirmanakaya. Therefore those who study consciousness-only must realize, as the Sixth Patriarch said, "The sixth and seventh consciousnesses are transformed at the level of cause. The first five consciousnesses and the eighth consciousnesses are transformed at the level of effect."

The sixth and seventh consciousnesses are easy to transform. Once thoughts are empty, and past, present, and future are emptied out, the sixth consciousness is transformed into a pure illuminated realm of immediate awareness. If your meditation work advances further, the seventh consciousness can also be emptied out. This is easy: it is a transformation at the level of causal basis. Many people who cultivate practice reach at most to the station of bodhisattvas at the level of the causal basis.
Transformation at the level of effect is difficult. The first five consciousnesses, the consciousnesses associated with the eyes, ears, nose, tongue, and body, encompass this physical body. The eighth consciousness, the alaya consciousness, encompasses not only the physical body, but the whole material world. The first five and the eighth consciousnesses can be transformed only when the level of effect is complete, only when you have realized the level of the fruit of enlightenment. How can this be called easy?

So if you want cultivation, cultivate the whole thing. If you only cultivate half, all you can do is come again in future births. If you have enough time, the best thing to do is complete the whole project in this lifetime.

Here's the key which is difficult to find in any cultivation books: the stage of Seeing the Tao is seeing the emptiness of the sixth consciousness and seventh consciousness, but at that stage, the first five consciousnesses (of seeing, hearing, tasting, touching, etc.) have not yet been transformed. Seeing the Tao is only a stage where you've been able to pacify the sixth consciousness and experience its function of direct knowing. This knowing aspect is close to the seventh, or root consciousness, but it's still a projective function or applicational aspect of the original mind. When you achieve the purity of the sixth consciousness, it's still not enlightenment!

To see the Tao you must also transform the seventh consciousness, too, but you cannot transform the seventh consciousness unless you have already transformed the sixth. Reaching the stage of no-ego and no-self is a seventh consciousness attainment - the transformation or purification of the seventh consciousness (however you may wish to word it). On the other hand, a feat such as transforming an angry mind to a happy mind is a transformation of the sixth consciousness, but to see the Tao you have to go well past this. You have to transform negative mental states into good ones at will, and next be able to cut off thoughts completely so that there is mental purity, and then past this you have to reach a peaceful state of clear and bright awareness like an endless open sky. That's the true transformation of the sixth consciousness. The Zen school calls this "10,000 miles of cloudless sky."

Most people cannot transform negative mental states into wholesome states, so it's a waste of time to even talk about the higher accomplishment of cutting off thought afflictions. Nevertheless, that's why most cultivation methods are build upon the basis of cessation (cutting off) and contemplation (bright awareness) principles that converge into samadhi and prajna wisdom. For those who are skillful enough to learn how to cut off thoughts and reach a realm of stillness, they still have to cultivate to achieve the highest transformation of the sixth consciousness where the mental realm becomes totally open, clear and bright. At the same time you are working on this feat you also have to be working on transforming - or purifying - the seventh consciousness to achieve "selflessness." In cultivation terminology, this transformation into purity is called "returning both to the root," or origin.

Upon this achievement, we also say that "you become the master," meaning that the sixth and seventh consciousnesses no longer control you. They no longer impel you at this stage of spiritual practice since they have been transformed to become empty, clear and bright. That's why you are free to do whatever you want at this stage without their impelling you; you simply select what you want to do. So to see the Tao, which means to totally understand or see through all eight consciousnesses and the material realm - the whole shebang -- it means that the field of consciousness becomes "open."

Without you tasting the state yourself, that's the best description I can give you. You train for that stage by cultivating dhyana through cessation and contemplation, and also by being mindful of "letting it go." Once the roots of mindfulness and "letting things go" become deep enough, you can transform them into a strong force of cultivation that can succeed in seeing the Tao. The result is actually something beyond words, but the Buddhist cultivation school has developed all this terminology to help you understand and ultimately succeed in the task. It's not as simple as cultivating "The Power of Now," which is a misleading teaching at that. Spiritual cultivation practice isn't so easy.

The famous Confucian Wang Yang Ming, who greatly influenced Japanese and Korean culture, was a very hard cultivator and did achieve a level of attainment. However, he, too, mistakenly thought that the cognitional knowing of the sixth consciousness is the original nature when he had only reached the seventh consciousness. His own problem in cultivation was that he didn't proceed far enough in his spiritual attainments to recognize the eighth consciousness, or alaya consciousness known as the Tathagata Storehouse. Awareness and understanding aren't actually the original nature, but just another characteristic ability or function of our fundamental essence. The ultimate host should not be mistaken for its guests, but when you mistake this knowing ability for the original nature, you're mistaking Great Functioning with Great Essence.

So-and this is very important--you're not really, really empty at the Stage of Seeing the Tao because the first five consciousnesses are still untransformed. Only the high stage Bodhisattvas can transform them when they attain the level called "the wisdom which can only be attained at the final stage." This is also called the "latter attained wisdom," and that's what's needed to transform the emptiness Stage of Seeing the Tao to the latter purity of complete and perfect enlightenment. That's when the five sense consciousnesses "return to their root" and all become interchangeable in an extraordinary way. The latter wisdom stage corresponds to completely cultivating the mind and material realm.

This is why there are stages of the cultivation path even after the Stage of Seeing the Tao, which various religions also call initial union with God, realizing the clear light, or recognizing your fundamental face and so on. As to what goes past the stage of initially seeing the Tao, even the Arhats cannot understand this teaching fully. The first stage Bodhisattvas only have a little inkling of this topic, too, for this entails truly mastering the emptiness of phenomena. It's a stage when you are cultivating all the consciousnesses into wisdoms, including the sense consciousnesses.

Upon this sort of accomplishment, you can become totally in line with the Tao and seamlessly exhibit it in all you do. You will have transformed both mind and matter (the body) completely, and upon complete enlightenment you will have access to the real miraculous abilities of Buddhahood that Buddha rarely described because they are unfathomable. This is when you can become really empty or pure or free, and as the Surangama Sutra explains, this accomplishment is also when the five consciousnesses can all inter-function since you've reached the ultimate level of Buddhahood.

As explained in the last chapter of the Surangama Sutra, the ear can see, the eye can hear, and so on upon real enlightenment because you penetrate through and become master of the undifferentiated root source of consciousness which gives rise to the individual sense consciousnesses. This becomes possible because as Vasubandhu explains, "The arising of the first five forms of consciousness, together or separately, within the foundational consciousness, is like the waves in the water." In other words, the differentiation of the root consciousness produces the five sense consciousnesses, so when you finally reach that root source then you access the mother capabilities of all these consciousnesses.

Using other terminology, it's only at the stage of No More Learning, or Buddhahood, that you can attain a stage of "no leakage" in regards to the five sense consciousnesses, and that's when all sorts of miraculous, indescribable abilities become possible. While Buddha often described many unbelievable things, he refused to talk too much about this stage because few can understand it and if he talked too much, people would turn away from the path because of disbelief. People in Tibetan Buddhism always talk about empowerments or initiations, but the real stage of spiritual empowerment or initiation occurs only at the very final stage of the path just before Buddhahood.

Another way to explain these teachings is to recognize that the first five consciousness are the direct cognition state of the alaya consciousness, so as rather pure direct conduits they are the last things to be transformed on the path. First see the Tao, then finish transforming the body completely along with all the relevant aspects of mind. In actual fact, the first five consciousnesses belong a bit to the volition skandha as well as to the alaya storehouse consciousness. They also have connections or interrelationships with all five skandhas as well, so you cannot say they are purely one thing. You cultivate the body so that you can see the Tao, and after seeing the Tao you still have to cultivate the four dhyana in order to finish the transformation of the body. That's what Zen Patriarch Hui-neng did during his many years of hiding.

As Zen master Hui-neng said, the sixth and seventh consciousnesses can therefore be transformed at the level of cause, which leads to seeing the Tao, but the first five consciousnesses can only be transformed when you reach the fruits of Buddhahood. This means that you can see the Tao after you've transformed, purified or emptied the sixth and seventh consciousness (however you may wish to word it), but after that feat you still have the task of working on transforming the eighth consciousness and the first five. As the Sixth Zen Patriarch Hui-neng explained:

The first five vijnanas (consciousness dependent respectively upon the five sense organs) and the Alayavijnana (Storage or Universal consciousness) are 'transmuted' to Prajna in the Buddha stage; while the klista-mano-vijnana (soiled-mind consciousness or self-consciousness) and the mano-vijnana (thinking consciousness), are transmuted in the Bodhisattva stage.

These so-called 'transmutations of vijnana' are only changes of appellation and not a change of substance.

This is why the story of T'ien-wang Wu offers the addendum, "The first five and the eighth consciousnesses can be transformed only when the level of effect is complete, only when you have realized the level of the fruit of enlightenment." Let's put it this way to explain. In order to cultivate the complete dharma, you must totally transform both your body and mind, the material and spiritual (mental) realms. Your physical body belongs to the realm of the eighth consciousness, which encompasses both matter and mind, so after your awakening to see (understand) the Tao - which means to thoroughly see through or comprehend the emptiness of all eight consciousnesses as well as interdependent origination … everything! -- you have to finish cultivating the body and the alaya and first five consciousnesses to become a Buddha. If you finish the whole thing it's complete enlightenment but only partial attainment means you're a Bodhisattva.

Since Shakyamuni's day, perhaps less than a dozen individuals have accomplished this completely. Some people even argued whether Shakyamuni Buddha finished completely, but when he stuck his legs out from his coffin after his death, we can take that as evidence of his success. It took six incarnations for the first Dalai Lama of Tibet to finally succeed in this feat. As the Sixth Dalai Lama he finally completed the whole sequence of cultivation, which is why he practiced sexual cultivation during that final incarnation (and not during the others). He did so in order to help finish transforming his body. It's an open secret in the Esoteric school, but not for public consumption, that after he completely succeeded in his life as the Sixth Dalai Lama, he never reincarnated as the Dalai Lama again. Everyone else who has worn the "Dalai Lama" mantle since that time has just been another cultivator with enough of the appropriate merit. This is the true esoteric teaching, so don't be cheated into thinking it's still the same person. When you think about it, does that really make sense?

Enlightenment is also often referred to as a "transformation of the basis" because our deluded experience of an imaginary nature is "exchanged for" or "transformed" into an authentic self-realization of our essence. Ignorance is like nighttime to the alaya consciousness whereas enlightenment is like daylight and awakening. This radical transformation of the basis, which refers to how reality is perceived, therefore corresponds to a transformation of the alaya basis of consciousness and the first five sense consciousnesses, which represent its functioning of direct cognition (perception)!

In cultivation terminology, we also say that these factors are finally transformed only after you achieve the wisdom that beholds the essential equality of all things. In other words, self and phenomena become equal in that they're empty of true existence, and when you realize that the emptiness of self and emptiness of phenomena are equivalent, and when you cultivate so as to prove this is so, then you can fully penetrate through to the origins of interdependent origination. To fully realize the emptiness of this through personal experience is to realize Buddhahood, which is when you get superpowers of the real kind. But like we said, you have to prove this by fully cultivating the transformations to perfection completely.

When you finally reach the stage where you are no longer grasping at the concept of an inherent ego or a self, we say that the seventh consciousness transforms into the "Undifferentiated Wisdom" or "Universal Equality Wisdom" whereby you can see all beings, including yourself, as equals. In other words, at this stage of spiritual attainment, because of high wisdom attainment you stop differentiating between yourself and others and realize the equality of the essential nature of all things-the emptiness of self, of dharma, and of other sentient beings. What this means is that when you're empty of grasping to a self, you can achieve the Equality Wisdom. At the highest stages of cultivation, samsara and nirvana are seen as a display of equal purity, and this is the full measure of the pristine awareness of equality where there is sameness of all things. Bearing on the universal identity of the equality between self and all beings, it manifests as the sambhogakaya body for the spiritual benefit of others.

On the other hand the sixth consciousness, when it empties, becomes the "Subtle Discerning (Observing) Wisdom" or "Profound Contemplation Wisdom." This wisdom allows you to contemplate all dharmas without obstruction, including innumerable methods of samadhi. It penetrates delusion and represents the subtle, enlightened perception that realizes the essential purity of all things as integral parts of one whole. It knows the nature of things and perceives them in their variety, so it is also called the "Discriminating Wisdom" that distinguishes subject-object and the variety of things in existence.

The first five consciousnesses, when transformed, become the "Accomplishing Action Wisdom" or "Perfect Achievement Wisdom" which represents the infinite manifestations of undivided reality. Because all that is done is achieved through the freedom and purity of all phenomena, it is also called the "All Accomplishing Wisdom" or "Wisdom to Accomplish Actions." This wisdom manifests itself in acts of body, speech and mind in innumerable and varied transformation bodies that accomplish all sort of enlightened actions. It is the wisdom behind the direction of doing all that is to be done.

Does accomplishing these wisdoms constitute the achievement of final enlightenment? No, because you still have to go further in cultivation. You still have to continue cultivating all sorts of virtues and merits, you still have to wipe out the stain of impulsive karmic habits, and you must still transform the root eighth consciousness, or alaya. When you finally transform the alaya consciousness it becomes the "Great Mirror Wisdom," and this is something truly extraordinary. The mind becomes like a polished omniscient mirror that can see everything without sticking, and awareness does not become caught up with these transient displays. Actually, the mind associated with the Great Mirror Wisdom has the Tao as its object only because it is a fundamental nondiscriminating wisdom.

On the true path of spirituality, all the various forms of consciousness must be transformed into wisdoms-the Great Mirror, Equality, Observation and Action Wisdoms-for enlightenment to become complete. For teaching purposes in the Esoteric school, these four wisdoms are typically represented in mandalas by the Buddhas of the four directions surrounding the Buddha Vairocana: Akshobya in the east, Ratnasambhava in the south, Amitabha in the west and Amoghasiddhi in the north accordingly. Most spiritual schools never tell you about these lofty matters because they don't reach very high, and yet this is a true discussion on the genuine path of spirituality.



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