Four Stages of Enlightenment

The Four Paths or Four Stages of Enlightenment are an organizing structure that is part of Theraveda teachings.  The first path is stream-entry.  The second path is a once-returner.  The third path is a non-returner and the fourth path is an arahant or enlightened person.

Sometimes people consider obtainment of first path, “enlightenment”, so you have to watch your terms.  This distinction is used because people that have reached first path cannot be reborn in any lower realm (hell, hungry ghosts, animal) and have insight into reality that clearly sets them apart from ordinary humans.

The technical attributes of the different stages have to do with removal of specific limitations.  The limitations that fall away at each stage and consequently define that stage are referred to as fetters.

The ten fetters are:

  1. view that one is a separate self
  2. belief that rites and rituals alone could lead to liberation
  3. doubt or uncertainty, especially about the teachings regarding liberation (i.e. the eightfold noble path)
  4. sensual desire
  5. ill will
  6. craving for material existence
  7. craving for existence in the formlessness realm
  8. conceit
  9. restlessness
  10. ignorance

The first three fetters are eliminated when one reaches the first path (stream-entry or aryahood).  Someone that has reached second path has significantly weakened the next two fetters as well as eliminated the first three.  A non-returner (third path) person has eliminated the first five fetters.  Elimination of the last five fetters results in enlightenment or obtaining fourth path (arhat).



Second Path

In Buddhism there seems to be a lot of lists and steps and stages.  We have the Three Principal Paths, the Ten Bodhisattva Bhumis, The Seven Step Method to achieving Bodhichitta, etc.  There are also two other ways, besides the Three Principal Paths, to organize the realizations needed for enlightenment that are called the Five Paths and the Four Paths.

The Four Paths or Four Stages of Enlightenment are an organizing structure that is part of Theraveda teachings.  The first path is stream-entry.  The second path is a once-returner.  The third path is a non-returner and the fourth path is an arahant or enlightened person.  Sometimes people consider obtainment of first path, enlightenment, so you have to watch your terms.

I’ve been thinking about second path a lot lately.  The task of the second path is ending all craving especially:  1) the desire for sensual pleasures and 2) the aversion towards unpleasant things.  Although I have not had a direct experience of no-self (or emptiness), which some people consider a requisite for first path, I am intrigued by the possibility of ending all cravings.

It is clear to me that my gross cravings for my drug of choice are unpleasant, but I am becoming more and more aware that all of my subtler cravings are also tiring and useless.  And, unfortunately it is most likely that these subtle cravings are in control of much of my behavior.  How can I possibly get rid of them all?!

I was talking to Master Culadasa of the Dharma Treasure Buddhist Sangha about this just last month.  First, the task of getting rid of cravings is a task of someone that has already achieved, and perhaps solidified, their first path position.  It is not a task of someone in an earlier stage of spiritual development.

(Ahhhh, yes, I need to be able to walk before I can run and dance. Never mind that I feel ready to fly.)

Let’s take a peak into the future.

Once you get the realization that the only acceptable state of mind is one free from craving, Master Culadasa, says that you will then seek to eradicate craving by putting yourself into situations where it arises and turning your mindfulness on it. For instance, you go for ice cream and watch craving arise when you enter the store and as soon as you take the first bite you watch craving arise for the second bite, etc..

Now this is the opposite action that people with addiction are advised to do.  In early recovery you want to avoid your drug of choice and the people, places and things associated with it in order to avoid uncontrollable cravings. Unfortunately, this can be very hard to do and it is not unheard of for people to relapse due to cravings arising from a trigger.

However, the idea of seeking out triggers when you have the proper support is an idea supported by the information in the Pharmacology of Addiction class I’m taking. If the sight of something associated with your drug use gives you cravings or a physiological change, then it is better to desensitize yourself before you encounter that something without support.  This means actively putting yourself in situations that trigger cravings and not using  – so the body can establish a new predictable reaction to the trigger.

In dog training language this is called extinguishing a behavior.  Lets say your dog likes to bark and you don’t like the noise.  The trick is to teach your dog to bark and consistently reward it whenever it does.  Then, to extinguish the behavior all you need to do is never reward the dog again and the behavior will die out.  However, if you are inconsistent and reward it one more time or intermittently, the behavior will persist, perhaps forever.

Once again we see that addictive cravings may be on the same continuum with regular everyday cravings given the same advice is offered to eliminate them.  The idea is to not react when craving arises, but to turn mindfulness upon it. Mindfulness leads to wisdom and wisdom is the tool that cut all dysfunctional behavior.

I find that not feeding my cravings only makes them stronger:  what I resists persists.  This perhaps supports Master Culadasa’s point that the task of removing cravings is appropriate after first path has been reached.  I feel like I am weak-willed, but the truth is I’m simply powerless to make the change at this stage.  The power to make the change is given by the wisdom obtained in spiritual practice leading up to second path.  Not only are we given power at that time, but also the motivation and desire to eradicate cravings.


Pharmacology of Addiction

School just started up again and I’ve been busy with my Pharmacology of Addiction class.  The ideas presented in class have been bringing up a lot of thoughts regarding the biochemical changes that could be occurring during the dark night of the senses (St. John the Cross – Catholic) and the releasing of the fetters of craving that is part of second path (Stages of Enlightenment – Theravada Buddhism).  Needless to say, I’ve been having a lot of thoughts trying to put the pieces together in away that I can talk/write about them.

In the class we are being taught how substance use changes the brain in fundamental and long-lasting ways.  Some of the researchers are suggesting the changes may be permanent, but we know this cannot possibly be true.  Healing techniques like ThetaHealing and the testimony of enlightened beings demonstrate that everything can be healed and changed.  Very few things are permanent and unchanging.  And all changing things only last a moment before most of them are recreated again.

What changes in the brain with drug use?

First, the substance being used becomes a salient focus.  This is because the substance is such a good activator of the pleasure and reward system (or mesolimbic dopamine system) in the brain.   After we start using a drug it changes our brain.  In any environment we find ourselves, we notice our drug of choice and associated things effortlessly and they will begin to occupy more and more of our attention.  This is what I mean by the substance becoming a salient focus.  This change isn’t because of a conscious shift.  It is a biological shift.  The biochemical and neurological changes the substance creates in the brain result in compulsive and uncontrollable drug seeking behavior.  Interesting and scary!

Increased dopamine leads to pleasure, and normally we release dopamine when we do normal activities that are pleasurable:  being with people we love, eating good food, and doing enjoyable activities.  However, drugs are such powerful stimulators of the pleasure circuit that they decrease our endogenously produced dopamine. This means that they exhaust our dopamine stores and our ability to produce more dopamine.

This reduction in dopamine results in two things.  First using the drug no longer gets us “high”.  Long term we become dependent of the drug just to keep us feeling normal.  We have to hit that pleasure center hard in order to get any pleasure feelings once we’ve adapted to using.  The second problem is that if we stop using the drug it may take over a year to reestablish normal dopamine.  This means we will not get pleasure out of activities that gave us pleasure before we started using our drug of choice.  We have to recalibrate.  During the recalibration period we will feel depressed and if we are not aware of the “detox” process we are going through we may become quite hopeless.

The other intriguing part of the addiction and craving process is the development of condition responses and memory.  An example of a condition response would be getting cravings when driving though a neighborhood where you used to use or obtain the substance you used. A condition response includes not just flashbacks, but also biochemical changes in the body.

I remember the first time I had non-alcoholic wine when I was abstaining from alcohol.  I was shocked when my body reacted by having some of the same feelings as if I was buzzed.  Now, some people think this is because the label claims that there may be 0.5% alcohol in the bottle.  These people claim I really am having alcohol.  This is not true.  I was a wine chemist at the time and I personally knew that that bottle didn’t have any appreciable alcohol.  I was experiencing a conditioned response.  Further, I’ve always used alcoholic tinctures which were made of high proof alcohol without any noticeable effects.

Here is another interesting point made in the class in regards to conditioning to drug use.  An addict that always shoots up in a certain environment may overdose if they shoot up in a novel environment.  This is because the body “knows” that in the first environment the drug is coming and before it enters the veins the body has ramped up to detoxify it.  In the new environment the body is not prepared to handle the dose and that may result in death.

What is especially relevant is that the drug addiction process is really just a dramatization of the problems that most people take as normal.  Most people’s predicament is that they crave and seek out things that are pleasurable and crave that things that are unpleasant will end.  The drug addict will lie, cheat, steal, and harm others to get what they want.  However, that is the same list that the “average” person is dealing with.  The drug addict may do this list in a more dramatic fashion, but I know “average” people that will tell a “white” lie to get a job, will not tell the teller at check-out when she forgets to ring up a purchase and will call people names when they are feeling uncomfortable.

It seems to me that addictive and “non-addictive” cravings control most human behavior.  The problem is just on a continuum.   It would seem the solution could be similar as well.  And if the pharmacologists are right, it is going to require some major rewiring.