Buddhist Paths to liberation

The Buddhist tradition gives a wide variety of descriptions of the Buddhist Path (magga) to liberation.[1] The classical description is the Noble Eightfold Path, described in the Sutta Pitaka. This description is preceded by even older descriptions in the Sutta Pitaka, and elaborated in the various Buddhist traditions. A number of other paths have been developed and described within the various traditions.

Early Buddhism

Main articles: Sutta Pitaka and Early Buddhism

Early description of the path

A standard sequence of developments can be found in the Nikayas, which may predate the more stylised four noble truths.[2] For example the Tevijja Sutra verse 40-75 (Dikha Nikaya 13):[web 1]

The Noble Eightfold Path

Main article: Noble Eightfold Path

The Noble Eightfold Path is widely known as the description of the Buddhist path. In the Sutta Pitaka it is summed up as follows:

The Blessed One said, "Now what, monks, is the Noble Eightfold Path? Right view, right resolve, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, right concentration.[web 2]


The Atthakavagga, one of the oldest books of the Sutta Pitaka, contained in the Sutta Nipata, does not give a clear-cut goal such as Nirvana, but describes the ideal person.[3] This ideal person is especially characterized by suddhi (purity) and santi (calmness).[3]

Commentaries on the Atthakavagga, namely the Mahaniddesa and the commentary by Buddhaghosa, show the development of Buddhist ideas over time. Both commentaries place the Atthakavagga in their frame of reference, giving an elaborated system of thought far more complicated than the Atthakavagga itself.[3]

Theravada tradition

Path of purification

Main article: Visuddhimagga

The classical outline of the Theravada path to liberation are the Seven Purifications, as described by Buddhaghosa in the Visuddhimagga. These purifications are:[4]

  1. Purification of Conduct (sīla-visuddhi)
  2. Purification of Mind (citta-visuddhi)
  3. Purification of View (ditthi-visuddhi)
  4. Purification by Overcoming Doubt (kankha-vitarana-visuddhi)
  5. Purification by Knowledge and Vision of What Is Path and Not Path (maggamagga-ñanadassana-visuddhi)
  6. Purification by Knowledge and Vision of the Course of Practice (patipada-ñanadassana-visuddhi)
    1. Knowledge of contemplation of rise and fall (udayabbayanupassana-nana)
    2. Knowledge of contemplation of dissolution (bhanganupassana-nana)
    3. Knowledge of appearance as terror (bhayatupatthana-nana)
    4. Knowledge of contemplation of danger (adinavanupassana-nana)
    5. Knowledge of contemplation of dispassion (nibbidanupassana-nana)
    6. Knowledge of desire for deliverance (muncitukamyata-nana)
    7. Knowledge of contemplation of reflection (patisankhanupassana-nana)
    8. Knowledge of equanimity about formations (sankharupekka-nana)
    9. Conformity knowledge (anuloma-nana)
  7. Purification by Knowledge and Vision (ñanadassana-visuddhi)
    1. Change of lineage
    2. The first path and fruit
    3. The second path and fruit
    4. The third path and fruit
    5. The fourth path and fruit

The "Purification by Knowledge and Vision" is the culmination of the practice, in four stages leading to liberation.

The emphasis in this system is on understanding the three marks of existence, dukkha, anatta, anicca. This emphasis is recognizable in the value that is given to vipassana over samatha, especially in the contemporary vipassana movement.

Bodhisattva path

Main article: Bodhisattva

Mahāyāna Buddhism is based principally upon the path of a bodhisattva. Mahāyāna Buddhism encourages everyone to become bodhisattvas and to take the bodhisattva vows. With these vows, one makes the promise to work for the complete enlightenment of all sentient beings by following the bodhisattva path. The path can be described in terms of the six perfections or in terms of the five paths and ten bhumis.

Six paramitas

Main article: Pāramitā

The six paramitas are the means by which Mahayana practitioners actualize their aspiration to attain complete enlightenment for the benefit of all. In Mahāyāna Buddhism, the Prajñapāramitā Sūtras, the Lotus Sutra (Skt., Saddharma Puṇḍarīka Sūtra), and a large number of other texts, list the six perfections as follows:

  1. Dāna pāramitā: generosity, the attitude of giving
  2. Śīla pāramitā : virtue, morality, discipline, proper conduct
  3. Kṣānti (kshanti) pāramitā : patience, tolerance, forbearance, acceptance, endurance
  4. Vīrya pāramitā : energy, diligence, vigor, effort
  5. Dhyāna pāramitā : one-pointed concentration, contemplation
  6. Prajñā pāramitā : wisdom, insight

Five paths and ten bhumis

Five paths

The Mahayana commentary the Abhisamayalamkara presents a progressive formula of five paths (pañcamārga, Wylie Tibetan lam lnga). The Five Paths are:[5]

  1. The path of accumulation (saṃbhāra-mārga, Wylie Tibetan: tshogs lam). Persons on this Path:
    1. Possess a strong desire to overcome suffering, either their own or others;
    2. Renunciate the worldly life.[5]
  2. The path of preparation or application (prayoga-mārga, Wylie Tibetan: sbyor lam). Persons on this Path:
    1. Start practicing meditation;
    2. Have analytical knowledge of emptiness.[5]
  3. The path of seeing (darśana-mārga, Wylie Tibetan: mthong lam) (Bhūmi 1). Persons on this Path:
    1. Practice profound concentration meditation on the nature of reality;
    2. Realize the emptiness of reality.[5]
  4. The path of meditation (bhāvanā-mārga, Wylie Tibetan: sgom lam) (Bhūmi 2-7). Persons on this path purify themselves and accumulate wisdom.[5]
  5. The path of no more learning or consummation (aśaikṣā-mārga, Wylie Tibetan: mi slob pa’I lam or thar phyin pa'i lam) (Bhūmi 8-10). Persons on this Path have completely purified themselves.[5]

Ten Bhumis

The "bodhisattva bhūmis" ("enlightenment-being grounds/levels") are subcategories of the Five Paths. The Sanskrit term bhūmi literally means "ground" or "foundation", since each stage represents a level of attainment and serves as a basis for the next one. Each level marks a definite advancement in one's training that is accompanied by progressively greater power and wisdom. The Avatamsaka Sutra refers to the following ten bhūmis:[6]

  1. The Very Joyous (Skt. Paramudita), in which one rejoices at realizing a partial aspect of the truth;
  2. The Stainless (Skt. Vimala), in which one is free from all defilement;
  3. The Luminous (Skt. Prabhakari), in which one radiates the light of wisdom;
  4. The Radiant (Skt. Archishmati), in which the radiant flame of wisdom burns away earthly desires;
  5. The Difficult to Cultivate (Skt. Sudurjaya), in which one surmounts the illusions of darkness, or ignorance as the Middle Way;
  6. The Manifest (Skt. Abhimukhi) in which supreme wisdom begins to manifest;
  7. The Gone Afar (Skt. Duramgama), in which one rises above the states of the Two vehicles;
  8. The Immovable (Skt. Achala), in which one dwells firmly in the truth of the Middle Way and cannot be perturbed by anything;
  9. The Good Intelligence (Skt. Sadhumati), in which one preaches the Law freely and without restriction;
  10. The Cloud of Doctrine (Skt. Dharmamegha), in which one benefits all sentient beings with the Law (Dharma), just as a cloud sends down rain impartially on all things.

Tibetan Buddhism

Main article: Tibetan Buddhism

Lam Rim

Main article: Lamrim

Lam Rim describes the stages of the path. Tsong Khapa mentions three essential elements:[7]

Annuttara-yoga tantras

Main article: Anuttarayoga Tantra

In the highest class of tantra, two stages of practice are distinguished, namely generation and completion. In some Buddhist tantras, both stages can be practiced simultaneously, whereas in others, one first actualizes the generation stage before continuing with the completion stage practices.

Generation stage

Main article: Generation stage

In the first stage of generation, one engages in deity yoga. One practices oneself in the identification with the meditational Buddha or deity (yidam) by visualisations, until one can meditate single-pointedly on being the deity.[lower-alpha 1]

Four purities

In the generation stage of Deity Yoga, the practitioner visualizes the "Four Purities" (Tibetan: yongs su dag pa bzhi; yongs dag bzhi)[web 3] which define the principal Tantric methodology of Deity Yoga that distinguishes it from the rest of Buddhism:[8]

  1. Seeing one's body as the body of the deity
  2. Seeing one's environment as the pure land or mandala of the deity
  3. Perceiving one's enjoyments as bliss of the deity, free from attachment
  4. Performing one's actions only for the benefit of others (bodhichitta motivation, altruism)[web 4]

Completion stage

Main article: Completion stage

In the next stage of completion, the practitioner can use either the path of method (thabs lam) or the path of liberation ('grol lam).[9]

At the path of method the practitioner engages in Kundalini yoga practices. These involve the subtle energy system of the body of the chakras and the energy channels. The "wind energy" is directed and dissolved into the heart chakra, where-after the Mahamudra remains,[10] and the practitioner is physically and mentally transformed.

At the path of liberation the practitioner applies mindfulness,[11] a preparatory practice for Mahamudra or Dzogchen, to realize the inherent emptiness of every-'thing' that exists.[12]

Four yogas of mahāmudrā

Main article: Mahamudra

Mahāmudrā' literally means "great seal" or "great symbol". The name refers to the way one who has realized mahāmudrā. "Mudra" refers to the fact that each phenomenon appears vividly, and "maha" refers to the fact that it is beyond concept, imagination, and projection.[13]

Mahāmudrā is sometimes divided into four distinct phases known as the four yogas of mahāmudrā. They are as follows:[14]

  1. One-pointedness;
  2. Simplicity, "free from complexity" or "not elaborate";
  3. One taste;
  4. Non-meditation, the state of not holding to either an object of meditation nor to a meditator. Nothing further needs to be 'meditated upon' or 'cultivated at this stage.

These stages parallel the four yogas of dzogchen semde. The four yogas of Mahāmudrā have also been correlated with the Mahāyāna five Bhumi paths.


Although the Rinzai Zen-tradition emphasises sudden awakening over the study of scripture, in practice several stages can be distinguished. A well-known example are the Ten Ox-Herding Pictures which detail the steps on the Path.

Sudden and gradual

Main article: Subitism

Once the dichotomy between sudden and gradual was in place, it defined its own logic and rhetorics, which are also recognizable in the distinction between Caodong (Soto) and Lin-ji (Rinzai) chán.[15] But it also lead to a "sometimes bitter and always prolix sectarian controversy between later Chán and Hua-yen exegetes".[16] In the Huayan classification of teachings, the sudden approach was regarded inferior to the Perfect Teaching of Hua-yen. Guifeng Zongmi, fifth patriarch of Hua-yen ànd Chán-master, deviced his own classification to counter this subordination.[17]

Guifeng Zongmi also softened the edge between sudden and gradual. In his analysis, sudden awakening points to seeing into one's true nature, but is to be followed by a gradual cultivation to attain Buddhahood.[17]

Chinul, a 12th-century Korean Seon master, followed Zongmi, and also emphasized that insight into our true nature is sudden, but is to be followed by practice to ripen the insight and attain full Buddhahood. To establish the superiority of the Chán-teachings, Chinul explained the sudden approach as not pointing to mere emptiness, but to suchness or the dharmadhatu.[18]

This is also the standpoint of the contemporary Sanbo Kyodan, according to whom kensho is at the start of the path to full enlightenment.[19]

This gradual cultivation is described by Chan Master Sheng Yen as follows:

Ch'an expressions refer to enlightenment as "seeing your self-nature". But even this is not enough. After seeing your self-nature, you need to deepen your experience even further and bring it into maturation. You should have enlightenment experience again and again and support them with continuous practice. Even though Ch'an says that at the time of enlightenment, your outlook is the same as of the Buddha, you are not yet a full Buddha.[20]


In Rinzai, insight into true nature is to be followed by gradual cultivation. This is described in teachings such as The Three mysterious Gates of Linji, and the Four Ways of Knowing of Hakuin.[21]


Main article: Sōtō

Although Sōtō emphasizes shikan-taza, just-sitting, this tradition too had description of development within the practice. This is described by Tozan, who described the Five ranks of enlightenment.[web 5]

See also


  1. A comparison may be made with the "Role theory" of Hjalmar Sundén, which describes how identification with a religious figure can lead to conversion. See (in Dutch) N. Hijweege (1994, Bekering in de gereformeerde gezindte, which describes how the story of Paulus conversion on the road to Damascus serves as an example of the "ideal-conversion" in orthodox Protestant churches.





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Further reading

External links

Seven Stages of Purification

Lam Rim

Creation and Completion


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