The Theravada Four Path Model

The Emotional Models   |  A Revised Four Path Model

The root of the complexity in standard Buddhism comes to us from the Theravada four-path model. This is the original model presented in the Pali canon and the oldest Buddhist model we have to work with. All the subsequent schools (i.e. the many and varied strains of the Mahayana and Vajrayana), react to it in their own way but are still influenced by it even if they say they are not, so you need to know it to understand the debate.

The problems began long before the Buddha in the various ancient traditions that would eventually and collectively be referred to as “Hinduism” (which had a huge impact on Buddhism, despite what some naive Buddhists will tell you) and probably long before that, but this is as good a place to start as any. I shouldn’t blame ancient India and Nepal for what is really a perennial human wish. Let’s face it: we all want emotional perfection, as a large chunk of the pain felt in our lives relates to our emotions causing trouble. I propose that not perceiving our emotions clearly is a far greater problem than the emotions themselves, but I seem to be in the minority in this regard. As I stated in the chapter “Harnessing the Energy of the Defilements”, there is a lot to be said for the skillful aspects of what we usually consider negative emotions. It is important to realize that empty compassion drives all our emotions, whether filtered through the illusion of duality or otherwise.

“Really?” you might reasonably reply, “Even the heinous acts of ‘terrorists’ and telemarketers? Really, these are in some twisted way resulting from empty compassion?”

[If you have no option but to be a telemarketer to feed yourself and your loved ones, accept my deepest apologies and sympathies. Otherwise, stop calling my phone! Thanks.]

To which I reply, “Yes.”

Does that make their actions ethical? Often not, obviously, though ethics is sometimes in the eye of the beholder, and there is the rub that makes a bare bodkin of us all, to bastardize Mark Twain’s bastardization of Hamlet, and of course meaning no offense to those whose parents weren’t married at the time of their conception. [“But get thee to a nunnery—go!”—from The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, by Mark Twain.]

The Theravada four-path model has four stages of awakening, namely first path: “stream enterer” or in Pali, sotapanna; second path: “once-returner” or sakadagami; third path: “non-returner” or anagami; and, finally, fourth path, which gets translated in various ways in various sources, with some including “perfected person”, “holy one”, “saint”, or “conqueror” (one who has conquered the defilements that prevented the realization of nibbana), or arhat, arahant, or arhant, pick your favorite spelling, but I will use arahant, realizing that I used arahat in the previous version. The terms once-returner and non-returner have to do with issues relating to the dogma that those who have attained to second path cannot be reborn more than once before attaining arahantship, and certainly not in the lower realms (i.e. hell realms, hungry ghost realms, or animal realms, see the “Samsara” Wikipedia article section on realms of rebirth, and/or Chögyam Trungpa’s Transcending Madness for a discussion of the six realms), and that those who have attained to third path, if they do not attain to arahantship in this lifetime, will at worst be reborn in a heavenly realm where the conditions are optimal for achieving awakening.

However, the core of the Theravada four-path model is the dogma that enlightenment involves progressively eliminating the ten defilements (also often called the ten fetters, and so this is sometimes called the “Ten Fetter Model”). In this model, stream entry eliminates the first three defilements: 1) skeptical doubt; 2) attachment to rites and rituals; and 3) “personality belief”, meaning belief in a separate, independently existing self. Second path attenuates the fourth and fifth defilements, usually translated as: 4) greed; and 5) hatred (or, more technically, attraction and aversion to everything that is not a jhanic state). Third path is said to eliminate those same fourth and fifth defilements, however translated. Fourth path, that of arahantship, eliminates the remaining five defilements: 6) attachment to formed jhanas (the first four jhanas); 7) attachment to the formless realms (the second four jhanas); 8) restlessness and worry; 9) “conceit” (in quotes because the Pali word māna is a bit hard to translate); and something called 10) “the last veil of unknowing”.

It is important to note that arahants who are said to have eliminated “conceit” (in limited emotional range terms) can appear to us as arrogant and conceited, as well as restless or worried, etc. That there is no fundamental suffering in them while this is occurring is an utterly separate issue. That said, conceit in the conventional sense and the rest of life can cause all sorts of conventional suffering for arahants, just as it can for everyone else. While discussing conceit, perhaps I should take on the subject of the word “ego” in a more comprehensive way than I have done so far.

The pop psychology meaning of the word “ego” is something like arrogance, self-absorption, pride, narcissism, conceit (in the conventional sense), and a failure to consider the feelings, rights, needs, and/or existence of others. This is also the definition that is most commonly behind such mainstream Buddhist statements as, “That action or statement [that I really didn’t like] had a lot of ‘ego’ in it.” I think that this definition of ego can sometimes be slightly useful for training in morality if we are very kind to ourselves and those around us, but often it seems to me to be pop spirituality turned into a weapon and a form of denial of someone else’s difficulties, feelings, and suffering.

Worse, people often take this definition, mix it in with their own insecurities and unfortunate fear of existing or asserting themselves in the conventional sense, and then take this neurotic mélange and use it to continue to flog themselves and those around them. Please don’t do this. It is misguided and will not help you or anyone. This pop psychology definition of ego also has nothing to do with the “self” that is being seen through in the quest for awakening in the formal sense, so don’t bring it to mind when you read this chapter except to dismiss it.

Another definition of ego is the formal psychological one put forward by Freud. In this definition, ego is the moderator between the internalized parents or police of the super-ego and the id’s primal drives, those largely involving survival and reproduction. In this sense, ego is extremely important and should be cultivated consciously. This definition has to do with the more formal psychological concept of “ego strength”, a strength that is very positive and necessary for the deep and often difficult personal growth that we all want for ourselves. One of the explicit requirements for entering intensive psychoanalysis (and intensive meditation for that matter) is highly developed ego strength, the ability to face our reality and dark stuff without completely freaking out. Thus, eliminating this form of “ego” would be a disaster.

For reasons completely beyond me, the word “ego” is also used in a high mystical sense to describe the elimination of the experiential illusion of there being a special reference point as described in the section on no-self in the chapter “The Three Characteristics”. One who had eliminated this form of ego, which is in this case a useless illusion, might describe their experience in this way: “In this full field of experience or manifestation, there seems to be no special or permanent spot that is observing, controlling, separated from, or subject to any other point or aspect of the rest of this causal field of experience or manifestation.”

This is the experience and realization of the arahant. Notice that this use of the term “ego” seems to have nothing whatsoever to do with the other usages of the term. This is exactly the point, and so I strongly advocate never using the word “ego” to substitute for “self” as understood in the context of describing realization of ”no-self”. Those who do otherwise continue to cause an astounding amount of unrealistic, disempowering, and life-denying thinking in mainstream Buddhists. It is my sincere wish that the misuse of the word ego and the associated negative side effects stop immediately and forever.

Since the Theravada four-path model explicitly states that realization is mostly about eliminating greed, hatred, restlessness, worry, etc., this suggests a limited emotional range model, and deserves some serious skepticism. In fact, this is a good time to go into what I love and despise about the Theravada. [For the societal growth process of thesis, antithesis, and synthesis to take place, some poor fool has to be willing to state the antithesis part and trust the synthesis to the organic process that follows and, in this case, that poor fool is me, and the person in whom I am putting my trust to synthesize well is you.] I absolutely love its emphasis on the three characteristics, love the astounding power of its techniques, and am grateful beyond words for the maps it provided me with for the territory before second path, however incomplete and idealized. I am profoundly grateful, at times to the point of tears, and I mean that, for the monasteries I got to sit in, for its preservation of what has been true and useful in Buddhism for over 2,500 years, and for the chance to have sat with real, awakened teachers.

And yet, its maps of enlightenment still contain a hefty helping of scary market-driven propaganda and so much garbage that is life-denying, dangerously out of touch with what happens, and an impediment to practice for millions of people. That the enlightened lineage holders of the modern Theravada and their ex-monk and ex-nun Western counterparts don’t have the guts to stand up and say, “We are deeply sorry that for 2,500 years, many of our predecessors perpetuated this craziness to put food in their bowls and fool ignorant peasants so that they might be supported in their other useful work, and we vow to do better!” is a crying shame. The huge question is, how many of the monastics are really practicing deeply, really giving attainment of actual realization everything they have, rather than being monastics for worldly reasons, that, while potentially of benefit to them and their supporters, lack the key focus for which the Buddha founded the order?

Due to this lack of realization found in so many monastics, they are chained to the texts, myths, and the ancient exaggerations, as well as the culture, seemingly doomed to indoctrinate and brainwash generation after generation of monks and nuns, practitioners, and devoted followers with their delicious poison, however benevolently intended. What a freakish paradox that the meditative techniques and technologies that I consider among the most powerful and direct ever developed should come from a tradition whose models of awakening contain some of the worst myths of them all. I have sat with numerous arahants who were monks or former monks who just couldn’t seem to overcome their indoctrination and so when giving dharma talks would occasionally mix in the junk with the gold when it was obvious they knew better from their own direct experience.

Here’s an example from one of my favorite, realized, arahant teachers who taught me a ton and to whom I am extremely grateful. Someone asked him, “Are you suffering?”

He answered, referring to himself, “This [name withheld] is not suffering!”

Except that I was aware of the details of this teacher’s life, and this teacher’s life involved all sorts of real, ordinary, straightforward misery and problems, the sort of suffering that is listed by the Buddha as being an integral part of the suffering of having been born into this life.

I have at times dreamed that all the great, realized teachers from all the Buddhist practice lineages would get together, come up with a plan to jointly get themselves out of the trap, and in a big formal ceremony present the truth as a new beginning, like a mass intervention, like a family gathering around an alcoholic to try to force them to reform their ways. None of them on their own seems to be fully able to take the heat, as each one that steps out of line in a direct fashion tends to get blasted, squashed, silenced, shunned, etc., though there are a few gentle and subtle exceptions, such as Jack Kornfield’s After the Ecstasy, the Laundry. Thus, I think they should all try to do it together, with Zen Masters, Roshis, Lamas, Rinpoches, Tulkus, Sayadaws, Ajahns, and their Western counterparts all sitting side by side around a large table saying, “Enough is enough! We are declaring a new era of honest, open, realistic, relevant dharma teaching, free from finely honed sectarian fighting, free from mythic and archaic models of awakening, and free from denial of humanity!” Enough of my ranting, back to the models …

I have no significant problems with most of the traditional descriptions of stream entry. It does make people realize somewhat that rites and rituals are not the primary reason that they got enlightened, though I know practitioners who awakened with the significant help of techniques involving various rituals in their practice, and why not? It should also be noted that there are rituals and there are rituals. Some rituals involve high degrees of concentration, altered states of consciousness, and profound investigation, elements that can be conducive to deep insights.

Stream entry does counter in some semi-intellectual way the sense that there is a permanent, separate self, though exactly how meditators know this is much more mysterious than at the higher stages of awakening, and the degree to which this is noticed varies depending on the practitioner. Regardless of the degree to which they notice it, it beats any understanding of this that is pre-stream entry. However, beware the pernicious descriptive fallacy that states that all stream enterers will describe their reality and realizations exactly as we imagine they should and thus automatically state that they are totally free of “personality belief”.

Further, they know that awakening is possible and can be done in this lifetime, assuming they know they are awakened in the first place, which strangely not all awakened beings do. Those persons that encounter this understanding outside of established traditions may fail to recognize that what they have understood is called awakening, among other names. Regardless, stream entry is metaphorically understood as “the opening of the dharma eye”, as contrasted with the “wisdom eye” of arahantship. These are simply poetic metaphors for some aspects of clearly perceiving things and don’t refer to anything beyond those attainments themselves. I hesitate even to mention those terms, as I get all sorts of totally strange questions about them, as if they are some bizarre psychic or anatomic phenomena. They are poetic metaphors, not some extra eye on your forehead à la Lobsang Rampa. [Twentieth-century author of some occult books, the most notable one called The Third Eye, the cover of which features an eye in the middle of his forehead.]

My real problem with the Theravada four-path model comes as soon as it starts talking about second path, that is, the attenuation of greed and hatred or attraction and aversion, and by the time it promises eliminating these in their ordinary forms, as they say occurs in third path, I think that a serious critique of their language and dogma is called for. Those in more explicitly dogmatic, traditional Theravada circles may notice the third path glass ceiling they find after second path, meaning that they can find lots of examples of people who are second path by their definitions, but then suddenly there is a total disconnect in which people continue to progress and practice, go through cycles, and gain all sorts of additional insights into the basics of reality, but still have the emotions that the dogma said should be eliminated by third path. It is a problem. They still might get angry. They still might get sexually aroused. They still might feel and do all sorts of things that those who are anagamis are not supposed to be able to feel and do.

Then, if you try to find living examples of those who are out past second path by the standard models, people suddenly get vague and the talk either quiets down or becomes full of zealous bluster and pontification. Hints are put out there that so-and-so might be third or fourth path, but then everyone is watching them to see if they do things that might imply they still have emotions related in any way to greed and hatred. In this way, the whole topic gets covered in this neurotic mass of complexity, shadow stuff, and reality-theory conflict.

What the models at their best are attempting to say is that the sense of the observer, centerpoint, continuous and separate subject, watcher, or however you want to describe the sense that there is some self at the center of all this stuff that so compellingly seems to be divided into over here and over there is, in fact, just a bunch of sensations. When these begin to be perceived as they are, the sense of how special the center point is begins to lose its grip on perception, which begins to become broader, more inclusive, and more even in its basic treatment of and interaction with phenomena.

Accomplishing this is fundamentally a matter of direct sensate clarity about those processes as they occur, hence the simple beauty of insight practice. When this is better understood and becomes part of our baseline way of experiencing, there doesn’t seem to be so much of a “this” side and “that” side. This perceptual improvement reduces the imagined mental dance involving attempts to get away from that side when it is bad, get to that side when it is good, or just tune out the whole thing when it is boring. Thus, the system functions better as it gets better at realistically perceiving the information coming into it. As these perceptual insights encounter old, outdated emotional patterns based on the previously poor way of perceiving reality, there can be transformation of those patterns.

This is a very tough topic to talk about and even harder to map. It certainly doesn’t sell as well as saying, “Do these things, and you will be free from all negative emotions,” or, worse, “We did these things and so are free from all negative emotions, and so you should worship us, give us donations, support our center, buy our books, give over power to us, think of us as very special, divine, or extraordinary, stand in awe of us, sleep with us, allow us to act like raving lunatics, etc.” I think you get the picture. Thus, what really happens is that aspects of the misperception that seems to make specific categories and patterns of the causal, sensate field into a separate “self” are reduced and then stop. However, many of the traditions advertise eliminating negative emotions and the sensations of all forms of craving or aversion, even things like hunger and thirst. The two couldn’t be more different, and yet they are described as the same.

The Emotional Models   |  A Revised Four Path Model