Stages On The Path

Radha Burnier

This article was originally published in The Theosophist, the international journal of the TS, October 1982.

It is important to grasp, not merely as a concept, but as a fact, that the Path is oneself. The Voice of the Silence states that one cannot travel on the Path until one has become the Path itself. The Path is the qualitative change which takes place in one’s consciousness and in the vehicles through which consciousness functions.

It is said that consciousness, in its absolute form, is ever pure and that no change can, or needs to, take place in it. But ‘consciousness’ is an ambiguous term. The Sanskrit chaitanya is more accurate and indicates the ever pure, ever free, unlimited consciousness which does not change. Eastern philosophy speaks of two kinds of truth: one is paramarthika satya, absolute truth; the other is vyavaharika satya, relative truth. From the absolute point of view, consciousness cannot change, but, from the relative point of view, change must take place. Consciousness is identified with and entrammelled by the material vehicles through which it acts and, practically speaking, works in ways which are not natural to itself. It is unable to express its natural purity and freedom so long as these vehicles are not made into perfect instruments able to respond to its every vibration.

Theosophical studies show that all the bodies—physical, emotional and mental—have their own consciousness. In fact, every particle in every body, as a living unit, has its own consciousness, for life, functioning at its own level and in an appropriate manner, is found in all matter. The aggregate which is the body—whether it is the physical, emotional or mental aggregate—also has a consciousness of its own. There is also a further aggregate which is the physical-astral-mental body consciousness, and which is the ‘personality’ of man in Theosophy.

This body consciousness is activated by habits. What is habit? When certain vibrations pass through matter and are repeated again and again, that substance is liable to fall into the pattern of those vibrations, facilitating further repetition. For example, nature herself has built into the physical body the desire for survival. This is an instinct, a strong force animating the physical body consciousness. In The Years of Awakening, it is described how at times when J. Krishnamurti’s consciousness was far away, the entity left behind would cry, ‘Where is Krishna? Where is Krishna?’ and also say, ‘I must not call him back. I have been told to keep quiet. He will not like it if I call him.’ It seems as if the body consciousness is often alarmed when the real consciousness is absent.

The body consciousness, impelled by its desire for survival and separate existence, makes all kinds of demands. It lives on sensations, it wants excitement, and so forth. The transformation or change mentioned earlier lies in the body consciousness surrendering its own habits, vibrations, and modes of functioning, and becoming an instrument. As At the Feet of the Master says, the body must become like a pen in the hand of the writer—a fine instrument which will respond to the slightest touch of the inner Atma—the consciousness which is ever pure, free, and boundless. The bodies must cease to pull in different directions as they have been accustomed to do. This is the beginning of the Path. There is no one in whom change is not taking place—slowly, in the course of long ages, through many incarnations—but a time comes when a person at last understands and says, ‘I shall not wait for the change.’ He takes himself in hand when his awareness is clear enough for him to see the contradictions in his life and that body consciousness is pulling him in every direction but the one in which he wants to go. This is the beginning of self-understanding.

Even before entering the Path, there must be a certain understanding of life. If there is no discernment about what is worth while and what is not, and if one is running after things which are useless, engaged in pursuits which are ‘for one life only’ as At the Feet of the Master says, one is not ready for the Path.

The word ‘Path’, however, gives a wrong picture, as if one were going somewhere outside oneself; but it is meant to indicate an inner change and nothing else. Before that change can take place consciously, there must have been not only some discrimination but also a little detachment, a certain self-restraint, implied in the six points of conduct spoken about in Vedanta, parallels for which exist in other traditions. Further, there must be the urge to change—the feeling that there must be a right-about turn in life. The most difficult stage of one’s life is this turning point. Previously, while one moved outwards to gain experience and obtain stimulation, there was no problem. The man who wants worldly things goes after them. After entering the Path proper, there is no problem either. One who has definitely ‘entered the stream’ knows in what direction his is going. The time between, where perhaps most seekers are, when they are neither quite worldly nor definitely unfolding their spiritual nature, is a stage of doubt and struggle. People claim to want enlightenment, yet cling to the pleasures and attachments of the world. Light on the Path states that ‘though the ordinary man asks perpetually, his voice is not heard’. It also says ‘Those that ask shall have.’ The difficulty is that ‘the voice of the mind is only heard on that plane on which the mind acts.’ Those who want the enlightenment of liberation must not ask only with the mind—that is, conceptually—they must learn to ask at a deeper level, without wanting wisdom together with the pleasures and objects of the world. There must be a radical change of direction. When the direction becomes absolutely clear, the Path proper begins.

The first of the initiations is called in Buddhism srotapatti or ‘entering the stream’, and this describes clearly what it is. When passing things cease to have meaning except as a kind of a ‘sport’ (lila) of the Infinite Reality, when a sense of the immortal truth has dawned and there is a definite sense of direction, that is srotapatti. Dr Besant says the term parivrajaka ‘one who wanders’, refers to the same stage. As the concept degenerated, people put on the Sannyasi dress and wandered about with a begging bowl. A parivrajaka is aniketa, which means he has no home in the worldly sense. The worldly home is a place of shelter from the rest of the world, from where each one fights his battles against the world with allies in the form of husband, wife, children. So the home represents an exclusive, egocentric way of life. But to be a homeless one—a wanderer—means that fixations and attachments come to an end. The word Sannyasi has also been misunderstood and what, in fact, represents a wonderful inner change has been made trivial by tradition. The Sannyasi severs his sacred thread, gives up ceremonies and his very name because he is no more attached. The world is his family; the earth itself is his home. So, srotapatti means that worldly attitudes to my house, my family and religion, my country and nationality, all come to an end. We identify ourselves as Hindus or Buddhists, by class, nationality, mental characteristics and so on. To dis-identify at a deep level means a widening and deepening of our sympathy. When we see a brother or a friend suffering, we feel that suffering ourselves; but when a neighbour or someone less well known suffers, do we feel it? Generally not, because we are more closely identified with brother and friends. When we see somebody poverty-stricken, do we really care? If one is a srotapatti, a parivrajaka, an aniketa, he does. Attachments decrease, and false concepts based on the body are shed. Most or our attachments are body attachments. An Indian is suspicious of another man because, due to karmic forces, his body happens to be Pakistani in his present incarnation. That is the sole reason.

Before the first ‘initiation’ takes place, various fetters have to fall away. The personality must become harmonized, and become a voluntary servant, no longer struggling against the inner nature.

Both doubt and certainty are fetters. As mentioned earlier, while turning round from the ‘outward path’ towards ‘home’ much of the time there is doubt. People who say they want to tread the spiritual path wish, at the same time, to act as others want. The man who is free from doubt does what he knows to be right and not because others want it; this does not mean, of course, that one should not be considerate to others. Doubt ceases when the direction is clear. One who has come to that stage always chooses that which leads to the eternal and not that which is of the passing moment.

When Mr Krishnamurti speaks of choicelessness, it puzzles many people. But it is very simple to understand that for a person who has turned towards the spiritual heights, there is only one direction; not many, and therefore no choice. The word ‘initiation’ is another much misunderstood and, indeed, degraded word. A Guru puts his finger on someone’s forehead and this is said to be initiation. It is, in fact, superstition. Initiation is not an outer event at all. The factors lie within; when preparation has taken place, there is an inward transformation. The consciousness undergoes a dimensional change, and this cannot be brought about by someone else any more than someone else can see on behalf of a blind man. Without the required six points of conduct and detachment, and the shedding of at least some of the attachments of the personality, initiation cannot take place. The Sanskrit word for disciple—shishya—denotes one ‘who is capable and worthy of being taught’. One of the Masters of the Wisdom wrote that most of their secrets are incommunicable. If this were not so, wisdom could be passed on by publishing a textbook and distributing it to the world. A great deal of what needs to be said about the spiritual life has already been said many times over, but, since words do not achieve anything, people have not thereby become more spiritual. Somebody else’s thought does not bring change; one can make use of it, but the real work must be done by oneself.

Initiation means entering a new world and beginning to live at a different level. There are various grades of consciousness. A dog, watching a philosopher working on a book, sees the physical actions of its master—the hand moving, the man going to a bookshelf or turning pages. But the dog does not know what is going on within its master’s consciousness because its own consciousness is not at the same level. The final change of dimension for the human being is that of liberation—the freedom that is the utter abolition of ego. On the way to that stage, self-centredness and self-importance have to diminish. There are so-called spiritual experiences which make a person deceive himself into thinking that he has become enlightened; if he talks about it, there is something wrong, for no enlightened man claims to be so. A true inner change is self-evident in the sense that there is less of the feeling of selfhood, a widening sense of unity and a deepening harmony. The one thing that any seeker must watch for, whatever experience he may have had, whatever progress he may have made, is this I-sense; it is dangerous, and will cause him to fall.

It is very difficult to describe the change of dimension brought about by a new quality of consciousness. A hologram demonstrates that a part represents the whole. That is true of life also. In every part of life, the whole exists in all its fullness, and it is a little bit of this that some people have experienced as a new level of awareness, an ‘expansion of consciousness’. Expansions of consciousness vary in degree and duration. Trouble arises when, after experiencing a little, people begin to feel that they are very special and spiritual. Such ‘ego trips’ destroy the possibility of further progress.

After the stage which in Buddhism is called srotapatti, there is that of the sakridagamin or kutichaka who has come near to the end of compulsory incarnations. At this stage, there is said to be a wider vision of the meaning, beauty and truth of existence. Much of manifestation is incomprehensible to us. We see suffering and cannot understand it. But a person undergoing the second initiation begins to realize the beauty of its meaning. The third is that of the anagamin or hamsa whose karma has been wiped away and who is not, therefore, under compulsion to return into a physical body. The compulsion of karma is the compulsion of one’s own thirst for experience. At this stage the last shred of desire dies. Light on the Path describes how ambition can take new and subtle forms and ambition for worldly things may turn into ambition for the spiritual. In the same way, yearning for liberation can be a form of ambition. But when the sense of unity is fully established, what is there to be ambitious about? Ambition and desire die, even desire for the spiritual.

It is said that there is a difference between the Buddhic consciousness and the Nirvanic. The Buddhic consciousness is a wonderful feeling of unity with everything—with the grass, sand, animals, human beings, even with what before seemed disgusting or painful. There is oneness with the suffering of those who suffer and with the joy of those who are happy. But in the Nirvanic consciousness there is no trace of the feeling that ‘I am one with the other.’ There is undivided unity, deep and steady.

The fourth initiation is that of the Arhat or Paramahamsa. Even at this stage, there are said to be some ‘fetters’ but they are of necessity very subtle. At this stage, the person has learned all that manifestation has to teach of the nature of Reality. Here manifestation is no longer an arena of pain; it has become a great song. The seed of the banyan tree is tiny and, looking at it, one cannot know fully what lies within it until one sees the great tree itself. Manifestation is like that. In its original simplicity, the Be-ness cannot be known in al its glory except through manifestation. Manifestation has something glorious and indescribable to reveal. It is this that the Arhat is said to experience.

The Arhat is the embodiment and essence of compassion. When we see suffering, we either suffer with the sufferer or we are indifferent. But to understand the meaning of suffering, to feel compassion and yet not be agitated, is different. Thus, the Buddhas and Arhats, while they are immeasurably compassionate, have that perfect ‘peace that passeth all understanding’.

These are said to be the stages in which qualitative changes of consciousness take place. Every change is a growth into further universality, a deeper sense of unity, a greater abnegation of the self. Ramana Maharshi taught that there is no such thing as self-realization because, when the truth is realized, there is no longer a ‘self’ to realize it. The idea of progress on the Path and of initiation as a form of self-survival is utterly mistaken. As The Voice of the Silence says, one has to give up being to non-being, self to non-self.

•   •   •

Radha Burnier is the International President of the TS since 1980. She holds a M.A. degree in Sanskrit from the Benares Hindu University, has lectured extensively worldwide and is the author of a number of books, including Human Regeneration and No Other Path to Go.

Picture of Radha Burnier

Radha Burnier