After the Ecstasy, the Laundry is Jack Kornfield’s classic journey into modern spirituality and what is means to be a student of spirituality in the contemporary world. In the book, he uses first-hand accounts of various people’s experiences of awakening, satori or kensho and goes into some detail about what these states actually feel like, and what they mean. This kind of an approach is a departure from that of many other teachers who prefer not to put too many words to the subject of awakening. In this excerpt, Kornfield talks about the map of awakening according to the Theravadan Elders of Southeast Asia, about the four progressive stages of Noble Understanding that begin with Entering the Stream.
One of Buddhism’s best-known maps of awakening comes from the Theravada tradition of the Elders of Southeast Asia. The Elders’ map describes enlightenment as four progressive stages of “Noble Understanding,” each of which brings a new level of freedom. The initial stage is called “Entering the Stream.” Stream entry occurs when we have our first taste of the absolute freedom of enlightenment, a freedom of the heart beyond all the changing conditions of the world.
Like satori or kensho (a profound awakening) in Zen, stream entry brings a breathtaking change of understanding. In this first enlightenment a person sees through the illusion of separate self, releases identification with body and mind, and awakens to the timeless peace of Nirvana. Through it the direction of our life is forever changed, and we enter a stream that will carry us to greater freedom as inevitably as a swift-flowing current carries a leaf to the sea.
But even though we have seen the truth, the Elders say, further purification remains necessary for us to transform our character and embody this new understanding in our life. Thus begins the journey from stream entry to the second stage, “Returning Again.” Through a deep process, often requiring many years, we discover and release the coarsest habits of grasping and aversion that re-create our fearful and limited sense of self. Attaining the second stage requires a continual and heartfelt attention to the suffering that comes when we cling to our desires and fears, to our ideas and ideals. As these forces of human life are understood, they lose their hold on us. Finally, in a deep realization, the strongest forces of desire, grasping, anger, and fear significantly drop away. We fulfill the second stage.
The third stage the Elders call “Non-Returning.” In this we are irrevocably released from any remaining desire, grasping, anger, and fear, nevermore to return to their sway. The very few who progress to this third stage do so through a long process of abiding in profound calm and emptiness. When wisdom grows, the subtle movements of clinging in the heart are abandoned the moment they arise. At this stage we rest in freedom and the reality of the present, and the heart’s deep peace is rarely disturbed.
Finally comes the fourth and most extraordinary stage, called “Great Awakening,” in which the last traces of subtle clinging— even to joy, freedom, and meditation itself—fall away. Now without the slightest identification with self, we are freed from the vestiges of pride, judgment, restlessness, and separation that veil pure being. The radiance of our true nature shines unhindered throughout our life.
This map of the Elders explains how it is possible that a person who has experienced an obvious and deep enlightenment can still be caught in greed, anger, and delusion. After stream entry, a person can give genuinely inspired teachings on realization and illumination, yet still not be living them. That is why further stages of awakening are essential.
Most masters agree that after the first illumination, there can still arise periods of fear, confusion, loss of spiritual bearings, and unskillful conduct. No matter how compelling the vision, how profound the initial sense of freedom and grace, a process of maturation must follow. Over the years I have not seen a single Westerner for whom this was not true, and it seems to be true for most Asian teachers as well. If we fail to acknowledge this truth, we simply fool ourselves. When a proud mother once announced to Mullah Nasruddin, “My son has finished his studies,” Nasruddin replied, “No doubt God will send him more.” It is like that for us all.