84 steps to Awakening

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A step by step guide to Awakening, adapted from a chapter in The Complete Book of Buddha's Lists -- Explained by David N. Snyder, Ph.D.

This will attempt to guide you through a step-by-step procedure to Awakening. Each individual experiences the Dhamma in different ways and may have different experiences, so presented here is just one example of what a step-by-step guide might look like. The actual steps you take and especially the order may be slightly different, but the basic ideas and training levels are based on the Buddha’s words. References to stages of Realization, jhanic levels, and hindrances eliminated are from the exact teachings of the Buddha.

At each level of the four stages of enlightenment, there is no turning back. Enlightenment is guaranteed in a certain amount of time or less. One does not return downward once even the first stage is reached. “So too, bhikkhus, when a bhikkhu is developing and cultivating the Noble Eightfold Path . . . it is impossible that he will give up the training and return to the lower life. For what reason? Because for a long time his mind has slanted, sloped, and inclined towards seclusion. Thus, it is impossible that he will return to the lower life.” Samyutta Nikaya 45.160

This step by step guide is based on the exact and general teachings of the Buddha and emotional intelligence skills, and from some of my own observations and experiences. It is not meant to be a hard-fast, written in stone declaration, just a general guideline. As of the writing of this book, I know of no other Dhamma book that has made this attempt to put in writing a general guideline such as this one to assist practitioners on the Path.

The Step by Step Guide to Awakening

Presented below are potential steps that could be taken along the Path that could lead to full enlightenment. A person proceeds from one step to the next one only after the current step is completed in full.

In one of the Buddha’s discourses there is a list of 37 factors of enlightenment and they are listed as: the four foundations of mindfulness, the four supreme efforts, the four means to accomplishment, the five faculties, the five strengths, the eightfold middle path, and the seven factors of enlightenment. The step by step guide presented here includes these steps and other insights of the Buddha mentioned in other discourses which are also important requisites to enlightenment. Also included in this list are some “emotional intelligence” traits which correspond to the appropriate hindrances to enlightenment which are being eradicated. This list is written in more modern language with specific practice information, such as how much time should be spent on meditation and when each jhana level should be realized.

As you practice meditation on the Dhamma Path, you work to “avoid all evil, cultivate the good, and purify your mind.” Progress should not be the focus of your Path. But we also need to know how we are doing and where we are faltering. This is why it is good to check your progress with a competent Dhamma teacher or through this guide printed here, but do not make it a focus or an opportunity to express your ego, such as informing everyone of the exact “step” you are on and how “close” you might be to full enlightenment. As you will see from this guide, people will know how advanced you are by how you are able to deal with everyday problems and issues and not by any certification from a teacher or course. There is no set minimum or maximum time period for each step unless it is listed and it can vary from one week to many years (or even many lifetimes) per step, depending on the person and their determination and effort.

1. Economic house in order. The first step is to have your “economic house” in order. This means that you have no serious economic problems, you have a Right Livelihood, or if you are a student under the care of a parent, you are doing well in your studies and perform any required chores of the household. This is important because if we are struggling to put food on the table we will not be able to focus on spiritual issues. The Buddha understood the importance of economic conditions and outlined a budget for lay people and found that immorality is largely caused by poor economic conditions.

This should not be construed to mean that the poor are not able to access the stages of enlightenment. If a person is poor, but otherwise is not too focused on budget problems, the practice can still be worked on and progress can be made. At the same time, a rich person must not be too focused on the accumulation of further wealth, as this too will distract the person from the spiritual goals.

2. Read several Dhamma books. Never underestimate the power of reading and knowledge. The ultimate enlightenment experiences may be through an experiential event, but we must first start with some faith or confidence in the teachings. This is achieved through much reading. You also read and investigate other religions and philosophies if you have not done so already, before you embarked on this path.

3. Start a regular meditation practice. Try to meditate at least one hour per week at the start. If you can do more, great, but if you find it difficult for time constraints or frustration, then meditate just one hour per week. At first you can simply meditate with a Dhamma group, which typically meets one day per week. If you meditate at home, try to do at least one hour per week or alternatively at least ten minutes per day. Even ten minutes per day is better than no time at all for meditation.

4. You begin to see the value and logic of the moral issues of the 5 precepts and The Noble Eightfold Middle Path and the 10 Paramitas and attempt to practice the virtues therein.

5. Continue meditating at home, with a group, and reading Dhamma books for another long period of time. The time may vary person-to-person, but this step can range from three months to over 20 years. You develop a wholesome desire to learn more about the Dhamma and wish to attain higher spiritual states.

6. Participate in Dhamma discussion groups at Dhamma centers. Now you tend to associate more with people who are also practicing the Dhamma. You lose interest in other discussions that are not related to Buddha-Dhamma. You still participate in all kinds of conversations with people in all subjects, as you are still a part of the conventional world, but your preferred interest is more towards Dhamma.

7. Your practice has now increased from one hour per week to about four hours per week, or at least 30 minutes per day. You regularly meditate with a group and also attend other groups on different occasions. You meditate using the contemplation of the breath and now you also move to other subjects of the sensations, the mind, and the Dhamma.

8. At this point your confidence in the teachings has gone from a faith or confidence in the teachings to an informed knowledge from intellectual analysis and understanding. You understand the teachings in a way that makes sense from the point of analysis, common sense, and logic.

9. Your new knowledge has increased your interest even further. You attend at least one 7 day or 10 day retreat. On the retreat you meditate up to 12 hours per day with periods of sitting meditation, walking meditation, and personal interviews with a teacher. (If you can not attend a retreat due to financial or time constraints, you can do a self-guided retreat at your home for a 7 to 10 day period.)

10. You return from retreat and continue your practice with at least four hours of meditation per week. You have your first insight on the Path. This is the understanding that kamma is something very real and can be experienced. You understand, not only intellectually, but also from your experiences the workings of kamma. You see how things have happened to you in the past as a result of your deeds.

You see how the present is shaped by your kamma and how the future will also hold for you based on your present deeds.

11. At this point there is at least an intellectual understanding that there is no permanent self. As we have seen in the chapter on Buddha and Science, this can be done with some information we have from knowledge of the natural sciences. This paves the way toward eliminating the first hindrance to enlightenment, “The belief in a permanent personality, self, or ego, also known as soul.”

12. You have insight into mind and matter and the distinction between consciousness and the objects of consciousness. This is the first main insight of the Path. You now have somewhat of an understanding of no-self, but you have not yet completely understood or experienced no-self yet.

13. You come to the realization that kamma is your only real property. You may own a house, a car, hold various degrees, etc., but you will take none of that with you when you die. The only thing you take with you is your kamma and / or stage of Realization, if you have attained to any of the levels of enlightenment.

14. Knowing the above realizations, practicing morality, such as the five precepts, becomes easier because you understand the workings of kamma. You are able to follow the four supreme efforts better in guarding your thoughts so that they remain wholesome for as much as possible.

15. One understands the workings of kamma to such an extent that one knows that there is no external force at work controlling the universe or the natural laws of cause and effect.

16. There are enough confidence and understanding in the Path that one eliminates the second hindrance to enlightenment of “doubt, extreme skepticism.”

17. After the elimination of doubt and with continued confidence and understanding, one realizes that rites, rituals, and ceremonies are useless and do not make one progress on the Path. One may still participate in ceremonies as a formality or to participate with a group function, but one realizes that such rituals have no intrinsic worth and do not make one progress.

18. At this point one has eliminated the first three hindrances at least intellectually, but one is still not a stream-entrant, the first stage of enlightenment, because there has not been an experiential view or glimpse of nibbana yet. One continues to practice, now about one hour per day or seven hours per week. The concentration and mindfulness are growing stronger.

19. You notice that you are able to express your feelings more openly and do not hide feelings as much as you may have before.

20. You are able to identify and label your feelings. You note different feelings in your meditation sessions.

21. You are able to manage your feelings.

22. You are able to delay gratification for higher goals easier. For example, attending college or graduate school and putting off entertainment choices for higher goals. Or it can be working harder at your employment to acquire a promotion or taking up some other kind of on-the-job training. If you are not young and have met most of your life goals, this step can still apply to you by foregoing some entertainment choices to go to a retreat, for example.

23. You are better able to control your impulses and do not react so quickly to what someone says, especially if it is critical.

24. You are able to understand the difference between feelings and actions.

25. You notice that you frequently engage in a self-talk where you have an inner dialogue as a way to cope with a topic or to challenge or reinforce your behavior.

26. You understand the behavioral norms of what is acceptable behavior and what is not.

27. You see yourself in a positive light with good self-confidence. You recognize your strengths and weaknesses.

28. You are able to laugh at yourself. For example, if someone makes a joke that is slightly insulting to some weakness you might have, you can laugh with the person, instead of starting an argument.

29. One continues the practice and reaches a point of heightened concentration and enters the first jhana of pleasant sensations (see chapter on jhanas for the typical procedure for entering the jhanas). One experiences an insight into the three characteristics of existence: the un-enlightened life is suffering, impermanence, and no-self. By seeing the arising and passing away of pleasant and painful sensations, one gains insight into these three characteristics of existence.

30. One continues the practice and reaches a point of further concentration and enters the second jhana of joy. One experiences the insight that mental and physical phenomena arise and pass away and one clearly sees this.

31. One continues the practice and reaches a point of further concentration and enters the third jhana of contentment. One experiences the insight of what is path and what is not-path. One gains the insight that the blissful states of the jhanas are pleasant, but it is the wisdom of insight that leads to the goal of nibbana. Confidence in the Path is now even stronger.

32. One continues the practice and enters the fourth jhana of utter peacefulness. An insight into dissolution is gained which further experiences the impermanence of all phenomena. Neutral feelings and equanimity begin to grow in the meditation sessions.

33. There is an insight into the fearsomeness of all phenomena due to their impermanence.

34. One sees the disgusting nature of all phenomena as they decay and fall apart.

35. One has an insight arising from a profound conviction to continue the practice to reach the cessation of suffering.

36. One has an insight experience of equanimity where there is a great calming peace, giving the meditator a slight glimpse of what an arahant, enlightened person feels.

37. One continues the practice and reaches a point where mental and physical phenomena momentarily come to a stop. One gains an insight so profound that it is a glimpse of nibbana. This is the enlightenment experience of stream-entry. One sees the three characteristics of suffering, impermanence, and no-self very clearly at this point. One is now a stream-entrant. One is guaranteed no more than seven more re-births before complete, full enlightenment. The number of re-births can not be more than seven, but it could be less than seven with continued effort and determination. Re-birth will only be in a higher realm of human or the heavenly planes. This is a place of “safe-haven.” One can not revert back to a lower level at this point. From this point, one can not “lose” the insights gained up to this point or regress to a lower position, even after death. If one makes no further progress beyond this point, the stage of stream-entry still “goes” with you on to the future lives.

A total of 37 steps are needed based on this guide to reach the first stage of enlightenment. As you can see the practice is not easy and not something to be taken too lightly. It is very serious and very difficult. But with much determination and effort, stream-entry can be reached in this lifetime. The famous vipassana teacher, Dipa Ma, from India, once said that not reaching at least the level of stream-entry is a waste of a human life. I agree with Dipa Ma, as I also always felt that not living the spiritual life is wasted as you spend your time focusing on pleasures of the senses, food, and sleep, which is basically no different than a life as an animal. If we are not spiritual and make no spiritual practice we will have lived the life of a common animal and have wasted a precious human life and opportunity.

38. As a new stream entrant one no longer knowingly violates any moral issue, including the five precepts. One may accidentally violate a moral precept, but what matters is intent. If you find yourself purposely violating a moral precept, then the experience of stream-entry must not have been genuine and one must go back to a step before number 37 above.

39. One has unshakable confidence in the Buddha-Dhamma at this point and does not sway or have any remainder of doubt in the ability of the Path to reach full enlightenment.

40. One continues with the meditation practice, including an effective life meditation with lesser amounts of ill-will and anger.

41. One continues with the meditation practice and attends more 7 to 10 day retreats.

42. One feels a great inner peace and noticeably less stress than what was experienced prior to being a stream-entrant.

43. At this point the knowledge and insight of Dhamma is strong enough that one may wish to be a part-time or full-time teacher or to assist with instruction at Dhamma centers or one may continue as an aspiring “silent” buddha, by attending more retreats.

44. One has good verbal skills in making clear requests.

45. One is more likely to observe rather than react, for example, when anger arises.

46. One responds to criticism more effectively.

47. One does not try to force certain things to happen, is able to “let go” more and not get obsessed about various things.

48. One is able to resist negative influences better.

49. One has less interest in conflict and argumentation.

50. One is able to listen to others better and in helping others.

51. You tend to be more flexible and less dogmatic.

52. One has accepted full personal responsibility for whatever happens. One does not blame others for mistakes or misfortunes in one’s life.

53. One has greater empathy for others and greater care and concern for others.

54. One can clearly distinguish between one’s feelings, thoughts, and reactions.

55. There is a loss of the need to fear and worry.

56. One is able to communicate effectively through non-verbal communication, knowing how to make the correct contact through facial expressions, tone of voice, gestures, and so on, without offending others.

57. One becomes more skillful at problem solving and decision making, for example, controlling impulses, setting goals, identifying alternative actions, and anticipating potential consequences.

58. One has a better understanding of the perspective of others.

59. One sees and recognizes social influences on behavior and sees oneself in the perspective of the larger community.

60. One continues the practice and enters the fifth jhana of infinity of space. This is the first immaterial jhana or realm of the form-less. Re-birth is likely to a heavenly plane for those who have attained to the fifth jhana or higher.

61. One continues the practice and enters the sixth jhana of infinity of consciousness.

62. During a meditation session or when in a jhanic state, one feels an inter-connection to other living beings and nature.

63. At this point one sees the value of the Dhamma and equanimity very well. Attachment to sense desires is greatly weakened. For example, if you have attachments to certain food cravings, these will be greatly weakened at this point. If there are other items or people you are too attached to, these too will be weakened. Metta or loving-kindness for others will not be weakened, just attachment.

64. One gains the enlightenment experience and stage of once-returner by once again seeing the universal characteristics of existence, this time more clearly and with the insights of some of the form-less jhanas. One has not eliminated any more of the ten hindrances to enlightenment, but the fourth and fifth hindrances of attachment to sense desires and ill-will / anger, have been greatly weakened. This is another “safe haven” where one can not regress to a lower level in this life or any future lives. Full enlightenment is guaranteed in no more than one more life.

Re-birth for the one last time will be either as a human or a deva in a heavenly plane.

65. At this point all of the perfections have been completed. These include the perfections of: generosity, morality, renunciation, wisdom, energy, patience, truthfulness, determination, loving-kindness, and equanimity. You have performed and perfected all of these perfections by this point. You are very generous, moral, able to restrain, wise, full of energy, patient, truthful, full of determination, and full of loving-kindness and equanimity.

66. One continues the practice and enters the seventh jhana of no-thingness.

67. One continues the practice and enters the eighth jhana of neither perception nor non-perception.

68. Compassion is very strong and one feels no animosity for others at this point.

69. You lose interest in criticizing others.

70. You tend to notice the similarities, rather than the differences between people.

71. One further develops the brahma-vihara of joy with others. One has sympathetic joy where one feels happy at the joy experienced by others. One is no longer jealous or feels any envy for others.

72. Anger is completely eliminated. One may still display some anger, for example, to make a point when someone has done something seriously wrong, but the mind will not be filled with agitation and heat. The Buddha and Jesus both still displayed anger to make a point, for example, when there were people exchanging money in the temple in the story in the New Testament and Jesus storms through over-turning the tables. Ill-will towards others, including hatred is completely eradicated.

73. Attachment to sense desires is completely eliminated. One does not find it necessary to engage in many entertainment functions to have “fun” or pleasure. One finds more interest in the Dhamma and associating with people who are also on the Dhamma Path.

74. You now have a tendency to live in the present moment, not dwelling on what is past or speculating on the future.

75. One gains an insight into the universality of impermanence, suffering, and no-self. One sees that these characteristics are true for all time periods and all world systems of the universe. You can see things arising and passing away very clearly down to microseconds and nanoseconds. This is the insight that puts you to the stage of non-returner. You have now completely eliminated the first five of the ten hindrances to enlightenment. You are guaranteed not to return to earth or any other worldly existence. You will be re-born to a heavenly plane and realize full enlightenment there. This is another “safe haven” and you can not regress to a lower level either in this life or the final future life.

76. One continues the practice and enters the ninth jhana of cessation.

77. One is very close to full enlightenment, but there are still some defilements left in the mind. As one meditates, some of the defilements may arise. One puts equanimity toward the defilement and it is released, one at a time. A subtle craving for existence or craving for existence in a pleasant heavenly realm is eradicated through an equanimous meditation.

78. Craving for non-existence or existence in a formless heavenly realm is eradicated through an equanimous meditation.

79. At this point, even at this advanced stage, there can still be some residual feelings of ego and conceit. This is because you may feel that you are more spiritually advanced and therefore, better than others. As this hindrance arises one is able to eradicate this hindrance once and for all.

80. One is so close to full enlightenment that one may still have restlessness in an extreme effort to attain the final goal. One practices patience and equanimity and eradicates this hindrance.

81. One is able to remain mindful and equanimous for long periods. During meditation sessions one is able to enter any of the jhanas at will and very easily.

82. One gains insight into noble fruition right understanding, which reviews all the defilements and hindrances. All of the hindrances except the final one have been eradicated, but there are still “embers” of the defilements and these are cooled.

83. One gains insight into reviewing consciousness right understanding, which is compared to “splashing water on the embers” thus, completely extinguishing all defilements.

84. Your concentration is very strong and you may have previously had meditation sessions where several enlightenment factors were present in you. But now you are able to obtain all seven enlightenment factors, simultaneously. While all seven enlightenment factors are present, you take nibbana as your meditation subject as an object of consciousness. The final hindrance of ignorance is eliminated. One sees nibbana very clearly and remains in a “state” of nibbana for a long time. One reviews the insight wisdom learned from the above insights. Through the power of the mind one sees beings arise and pass away. One can see the past lives of others as well as one’s own past lives. One sees the truth of suffering and the cessation of suffering, completely from experience. One sees the workings of Dependent Origination backwards and forwards and the rest of the Dhamma teachings from a very clear experience. At this point one is a fully enlightened arahant, the task is completed and the goal is completed. A fully enlightened arahant no longer needs to sit in meditation, but does so anyway to lead by a good example. There is mindfulness and equanimity all the time, during sitting meditation or not, but out of compassion for others, the arahant continues to sit with others and teach.

The above guide lists 84 steps to full and complete enlightenment. This is just a guide, which is based on the teachings of the Buddha and may not represent the exact step-by-step procedure for everyone. Some of the steps may take a slightly different order for some people. The order of the jhanas, insights, hindrances to enlightenment and types of right understanding are directly from the Buddha’s teachings with no deviations or new interpretations.

Although there are only 84 steps listed, it must be remembered that each step can take years to complete, especially the latter steps. The Buddha went through many lifetimes in animal, deva (angel), and human forms working on the ten perfections and the steps to enlightenment. It is not something that can just be achieved in a few months or even a few years of practice. The Buddha spent six years working on enlightenment after he left the palace. But we must not forget the time he spent in past lives working on the steps. For these reasons we must be very cautious and skeptical of anyone, including teachers who claim full and complete enlightenment. There can be teachers and lay people, however, who have attained to the level of stream-entrant, once-returner, or non-returner. But at the same time we should still strive for full and complete enlightenment, for the benefit of all beings, to eradicate suffering and bring true peace to the world.

May you attain full and complete enlightenment. May you be well, happy, and peaceful. May all beings in the universe be well, happy, and peaceful.