Dear Francis, Thank you so much for readily taking questions, especially ones that can be long, like this. My question involves a dilemma that has bothered me for a long time, almost for the entire time I have been on the spiritual path. It is this: among those persons who are what we call “self-realized,” are there varying levels of self-realization (as in, partially realized compared to fully realized, for example) and do certain lifestyle choices imply certain levels realization? My struggle started when I read about the four levels of enlightenment in Theravada Buddhism—stream-enterer, once-returner, non-returner, and arhat. Each is said to lead to progressively greater levels of renunciation and abandonment, until finally, at the final stage, the arhat must leave family life if he or she hasn’t already because at this stage he or she has perfectly eliminated all attachments, thus rendering him or her unable to carry on with the responsibilities of family, household, career, etc. In this tradition, one generally becomes a monk, leaving behind the family, etc, before the arhat stage. Those who are enlightened are taken to be somewhere on this hierarchy of enlightenment. Like this system, I catch my mind reflexively judging and ranking spiritual teachers and even other individuals, placing them in hierarchies of greater and lesser degrees of realization. For example, I think to myself, “Well such-and-such spiritual teacher meditated for twenty years and did not have a wife and children. He is therefore more realized than such-and-such other spiritual teacher who lived with wife and kids and had a job. Only one who has abandoned such things could be fully realized.” This thinking causes me a great deal of anxiety because I worry that I must eventually abandon everything (my family, job, etc) if I am to reach final enlightenment. On one level, I recognize this thinking as egoic because it involves a goal that is to be attained in the future through great effort. Some teachers, such as Ramana Maharshi, do not seem to feel that abandonment of one’s family is necessary for complete self-realization. Others, like the Buddha, seem to have said that such abandonment is necessary to abide in the highest levels of enlightenment (the arhat). This debate is all just mind chatter, I know, but it really gets me sucked in sometimes and causes me a great deal of anxiety and judgement toward myself and others, regarding who is more realized than who, or who is less realized than who. I simply do not feel capable of leaving my family like the Buddha did, and on some level, I feel that it should not be necessary for complete realization. But I dwell endlessly in this debate of what constitutes “perfect,” “final” realization and what it means in terms of life style for those who have it. What is the truth that can put an end to this? Thank you, God bless.
I hope my answer will relieve you from your burden. No, definitely no, monastic life or celibacy are not necessary to reach enlightenment and self realization. In fact the only prerequisite for it is an overwhelming desire for the Truth, which leads to a total surrender of our belief and feeling to be a separate entity. THAT IS ALL. Those who say otherwise don’t speak from experience but from some kind of self serving religious dogma. If they need more young monks in the monastery to chop the wood and carry the water, their doctrine will prescribe that to live as a monk is the only path to Nirvana! Fundamentalism, attachment to religious doctrines is in fact a major obstacle to the realization of our Buddha nature.
Now, there is some value, on the relative level, attached to the traditional distinctions among various spiritual stages. The following is the most straightforward classification:
Stage 1: total ignorance, no interest in the Truth, the existence of the bull is ignored, the mountains are mountains = the belief and the feeling to be a separate consciousness remain firm and unquestionned.
Stage 2: mitigated ignorance, truth seeker on his way to the path, the traces of the bull have been discovered or its existence has been heard of, the mountains may not be mountains after all= the belief or the feeling to be a separate consciousness begins to be under suspicion, the self inquiry has started. The guidance of an awakened guru already advanced on the path towards stabilization is usually necessary at this stage to facilitate the awakening of the truth seeker.
Stage 3: enlightenment, satori, final glimpse, mukti, liberation, nirvikalpa samadhi, awakening, entry on the path, truth lover on the path, Jivanmukta, the bull has been seen, the mountains are definitely not mountains, but pure emptiness = the belief and the feeling of being a separate consciousness have been dissolved, and will never return. Old patterns and habits created by ignorance are still running, but their momentum is wearing off. The fruit of liberation is not fully enjoyed at that stage due to the residual samskaras. The guidance of a karana guru (one who is knowingly established in universal consciousness) is usually necessary at this stage to help stabilize the realization of the awakened disciple.
Stage 4: self realization, sahaja samadhi, sagehood, establishment in our true nature, buddhahood, arhant, buddha, the end of the path, the bull has been tamed and the sage is back to the village, playing with the children, the mountains are mountains again = the old patterns are silent, equanimity, peace and joy are the continuous experience of the sage.
I hope this helps.