Friday, December 6, 2013

Gradual Instruction to Enlightenment

Amber Larson and Dhr. Seven, Wisdom Quarterly; "Gradual Training" (

Gandhara-style Buddha
The Buddha's teaching, or Dharma, has the notion of steady, incremental self-development. This method of "gradual instruction," anupubbi-katha, appears in countless sutras. It always follows the same arc: 

As a skillful teacher, a master physician, the Buddha guides hearers from first principles to progressively more advanced teachings, all the way to the fulfillment of the Four Noble Truths, which is the full realization of nirvana.

Perceiving those capable of understanding the liberating message, regardless of their appearance or caste or social standing, he taught them this way. There is the example of the leper:
Having encompassed the awareness of the entire assembly with his awareness, the Blessed One asked himself, "Who here is capable of understanding the Dharma?" He then saw Suppabuddha the leper sitting in the assembly, and the thought occurred to him, "This person is capable of understanding the Dharma." 

The Buddha taught daily for 45 years
Turning his attention to Suppabuddha the leper, he gave a step by step discourse, that is, a talk on generosity, a talk on virtue, a talk on heaven(s). He declared the drawbacks, degradation, and danger of sensual attachments and the rewards of internal-renunciation, of letting go, of freedom.
Then when he perceived that Suppabuddha the leper's mind/heart was ready, malleable, free from hindrances, joyful, bright and temporarily purified (released), he gave a talk on the Dharma unique to enlightened ones (who have realized it for themselves):
  1. suffering
  2. origination
  3. cessation
  4. the path leading to liberation.
And just as a cloth freed of stains would properly absorb a dye, as Suppabuddha the leper was sitting in that very seat, the stainless eye of the Dharma arose in him: "Whatever is subject to arising is also subject to cessation" (Verses of Uplift 5.3).

This "gradual instruction" pattern of a sutra (a suture, unifying string) progressing through stages was utilized by the Buddha to prepare listeners' hearts/minds before speaking on the more advanced teaching of the Four Noble Truths. The stock passage (e.g., DN 3, DN 14, MN 56) runs as follows:

"Then the Blessed One gave a gradual instruction -- that is to say, speaking on liberality, virtuous conduct, and the heavens, then explaining the peril, the folly, and the depravity of [addiction to] sensual pleasures and, moreover, the advantage of freedom.

"When the Blessed One perceived that the listener's mind was prepared, pliant, freed of obstacles, elevated and lucid, he explained that exalted teaching particular to the buddhas, that is: suffering, its cause, its undoing, and the path [to its undoing]."

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