Buddha statue quiet lake
Eight Realizations of Enlightened Beings
Listen to this talk:
Eight Realizations of Enlightened Beings (33 min.)
Transcript of a talk delivered by Terry Cortes-Vega
May 3, 2015 - Dallas, Texas

Bobbie: We are so happy to have Terry Cortes-Vega to teach us tonight the Eight Realizations of Enlightened Beings.

Terry: So, tonight I have been asked to give a talk on the Eight Realizations of Great Beings, and because there are Eight Realizations, it is going to take a little longer time than most of my talks. If there were just one, well, we would get it done and get out of here, but there are eight. So this will be a little longer talk than you are used to.

I would like to begin by paying homage to our teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh. He wrote this poem. "My smile this morning"—we will say this evening. "My smile this evening is to bring you the everlasting spring. Be the Tathagata. Be one with the smile. The day when you pierce through illusion, you will also find that smile. Nothing remains, and yet nothing will be lost. Today, the birds in the spring beckon. Continue singing, my little flower."

So, in his poem, our beloved teacher calls us his little flowers, and he invites us—or maybe he is challenging us to continue singing when we leave here. "Be the Tathagata," he says. Be the Buddha. So, the Buddha offered many teachings for how to be him—how to be compassionate, kind, inclusive, understanding, and generous, loving, and joyful. So we will look at just one teaching found in the Sutra on the Eight Realizations of Great Beings, and we will see what the great beings tell us to do to be the Buddha.

So the first realization of the great beings focuses on meditation. So the Buddha taught many different kinds of meditations, but one that I really like that he taught us to use on and off the cushion is a two-part meditation. The first part is samatha meditation, and I begin every one of my meditations with this samatha meditation. Samatha means "to stop." So the first thing we do when we sit down to meditate is to ground ourselves, to anchor ourselves, to clear our minds, so—

We are thinking people. Thoughts are—we are not just going to be hearing, "Ah. Now I am not thinking." Thoughts are not going to go away. We are thinking people. So the idea of samatha meditation is to notice when we are thinking and not get hooked by our thoughts. You see the difference? It is not that you sit down with the goal of not thinking. You sit down with the goal of noticing when you have a thought and not getting hooked to it. Often, I don't notice I am having a thought until I am hooked to it. So then I just notice I am hooked to a thought and then let it go.

It is not that we sit here and struggle to be calm. It is kind of funny though. I'm going to be calm now. It's not that we sit and struggle to be calm. We just notice our thought, smile, and let it go. And then another one rushes in. We smile and let it go. And that is the process of samatha meditation. And in this way, we create a calm and tranquil and peaceful space where we can rest, where our bodies and our minds are quiet—not silent, but quiet. And then we can rest in that quiet space.

Often, we do not really want to go through this sit down and get quiet business. We want to skip over that part and go straight to the, I've got something to look deeply into part, which is called Vipassana meditation. We want to get straight to the part where we can get to insights. But you know yourself when you start thinking, you think in circles, and until you get your mind clear—until you get a little bit quiet, until you settle your self, you cannot have an insight. It will not come. You will just keep thinking the same stories over and over.

This is a short samatha meditation by a 14th century Japanese Zen teacher. I really love this. "Abandoning myself to breathing out, and letting breathing in naturally still me, all that is left is an empty cushion under the vast sky, the weight of a flame." That is samatha meditation. But if samatha meditation were all we ever did, we might never be addressing the things that we are doing to cause ourselves or others suffering. Pickpockets, for example, are very aware of what is going on in the present moment.

So sometimes we add that Vipassana meditation, the insight meditation. And with Vipassana meditation, we become more acquainted with ourselves. We get to know what is happening in our bodies, our feelings, our thoughts. We get familiar with our fears, our impatience, angers, sorrows, joys, insights. We come to know what makes us truly safe and healthy and happy, and we come to know what we can do to help other people, other beings—animals, including people, but also plants and minerals, such as air and water and soil. We come to know what we can do to help them be healthy and safe and happy.

So, to do Vipassana meditation, we bring up an object. After we have done samatha, after we have gotten ourselves still, we bring up an object for our meditation. Or sometimes we have such a strong emotion that it just pops up on its own. We don't have to do anything to bring it to our attention. So the object of our meditation could be an unhappy state of mind, like anger or fear or sorrow, despair. It could be an issue. We could bring up an issue in our lives, such as a difficulty in a relationship, or we can bring up an unpleasant memory from the past to look deeply into, or we could bring up a concept that we would like to understand better, such as emptiness, interbeing. Or, the object of our meditation could be our body.

In a retreat that our teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh, gave to the United States Congress in 2011, he described how he meditates. He says, "When I practice sitting meditation, I do not open the doors of the eyes, the ears, the nose, the tongue, the body, or the mind, and yet I feel very alive. I feel cozy. I practice breathing in mindfully, and I touch the fact that I am alive. I touched the miracle of life within me. I enjoy breathing in and breathing out. I generate the energy of mindfulness."

So, I've invited Milarepa, a famous 11th century Tibetan Buddhist, to offer a short teaching for each of the Eight Realizations. So he says, "For meditative stability, nothing to do other than rest in presence." (Bell sounds)

So, the second, third, and seventh realizations of Great Beings focus on sila, and sila has many translations. Our teacher translates it as the Five Mindfulness Trainings. Other teachers translate sila as morality or ethics or precepts or discipline.

I am thinking that our precious teacher calls it the Five Mindfulness Trainings because he knows that when we hear words like discipline, many of us get a little fidgety. We don't like the idea of control or regulation or obedience or rules that the word discipline brings up for us. But in the Buddhist context, discipline means something like living in grace, living a fluid, elegant life. It means living a life with compassion, love, kindness, joy, and equanimity, gratitude. Discipline means slowing down enough and being present enough to be able to take care of ourselves and others. The word discipline comes from the same root word as disciple, which means learner or open to learning. So discipline in the Buddhist context arises as an openness to whatever comes to us. Discipline arises out of curiosity, courage, understanding, and love.

So the Five Mindfulness Trainings spell out in a concrete way how this kind of discipline works in our lives. The Five Mindfulness Trainings show us how to relate to ourselves, to our sweetheart, to our children, to our neighbors, to our coworkers, to the folks on 635, to our neighbors, our enemies, to difficult folks in our lives. The Five Mindfulness Trainings, this discipline, shows us how to relate to our pets and also to wild things, pests, to our gardens, to trees and weeds and poison ivy and flowers. The Five Mindfulness Trainings show us how to relate to rivers and oceans and the air, to our Mother Earth. So the Five Mindfulness Trainings, this discipline that the Buddha offered us, helps us dissolve our harmful habits. They help us uncover our Buddha nature, our innate wisdom and kindness.

So this little poem about the Mindfulness Trainings is based on a pebble meditation that our teacher offers to children sometimes at retreats. "May I offer to give you a gift of five wonderful pebbles? One of the pebbles protects your beautiful life, and the lives of all other beings. Another pebble reminds you how happy you are when you are generous with your time, your smiles, and your stuff. One of the pebbles helps you rejoice in the divinity of your body and the bodies of others. A fourth reminds you to cultivate loving speech, and the fifth pebble reminds you that you have enough and you are enough, and there is enough for everyone."

Here is Milarepa's teaching on sila: "For discipline, nothing to do, other than stop being dishonest." (Bell sounds)

The fourth realization of Great Beings focuses on virya, which means energy or enthusiastic effort or joyous exertion. Virya means practicing diligently, practicing joyfully, practicing continuously. (Cell phone rings) There you go. That is joyful, continuous practice. Virya is not about struggling or working hard. It is more simple and beautiful than that.

Thay—Thich Nhat Hanh—defines virya, practicing continuously, practicing joyfully, as engaged Buddhism. So engaged Buddhism is a word that Thay coined that has been misunderstood a little bit. It is not just fighting for a cause. It is not just fighting for some cause, like social justice or stopping the destruction of the earth. Engaged Buddhism is the kind of Buddhism that you practice all day long. When you wash your dishes, when you brush your teeth, Buddhism is there. When you drive your car on 635, Buddhism had better be there.

You're not an engaged Buddhist just during the time you are sitting in meditation or chanting or reading a Buddhist book. If you feel obligated to practice or you practice with some idea of some reward in the future, then Thay says you should consider changing the way you practice. Our teacher says mindfulness is the celebration of life in the present moment. That means when you go to the kitchen to prepare dinner, be born there. And when you finish preparing the meal, die. Then be born again at the table, and as you sit down, die. When you take a bite, be born again, and when you swallow, die. When you get into bed at night, die there, and when you wake up in the morning, be born again.

The way you sit, the way you walk, the way you think and speak, and everything you do should not be about Buddhism, but instead be a living, engaged Buddhism. Always come into being now in this moment, now this one, and now this one, and always give yourself to death now, in this moment. Something that happens only once in a lifetime is a very special occasion, and everything happens only once in a lifetime. So when you see a star or pull a weed or cook rice or hear sad news or cut your toenails or smile or cry or sit at a red light, each of these is an opportunity to be an engaged Buddhist.

Milarepa: "For effort, nothing to do, other than practice continuously." (Bell sounds)

The fifth realization of Great Beings is prajna. Prajna means wisdom. Wisdom does not mean knowledge.

Prajna is not the wisdom that we gain from study and analysis. That would be receiving wisdom from some external source. The Buddha taught us to rely on what we have experienced. Knowledge isn't based on our experience. Wisdom is. So wisdom, the Buddha said, is beyond words, ideas, and concepts, which are just—he said—tools, tools that we have created ourselves to help us in our relationships. All words, ideas, concepts, and beliefs, even scientific ones, are too small to contain the deep reality and mystery of life.

Prajna knows the interconnectedness of all things and all beings. The Buddha taught that to overcome suffering, we have to let go of our clinging to our small, separate self and identify with all aspects of creation in each moment. This is a poem by Anne Alexander Bingham. It is called, "It is Enough." She is talking here about the Fifth Realization of Great Beings, wisdom.

"To know that the atoms of my body will remain, to think of them rising through the roots of a great oak to live in leaves, branches, twigs, perhaps to feed the crimson peony, the blue iris, the broccoli, or rest on water, freeze and thaw with the seasons. Some atoms might become a bit of fluff on the wing

of a chickadee, to feel the breeze, know the support of air, and some might drift up and up into space, star dust returning from whence it came. It is enough to know that as long as there is a universe, I am a part of it."

Milarepa, for wisdom: " Nothing to do, other than to know directly how things are." (Bell sounds)

The sixth realization of Great Beings is dana. Dana means generosity. To be generous, we have to realize that we can't give what we do not have. So if we want to share money, we have to have money. If we want to share our skills, we have to have this skill that we want to share. If we want to share time, give away some of our time, we have to have time. If we want to give away love, we have to be love. It is also true that we often find if we often find fault in ourselves, it is likely we will find fault in others because we give what we have, whether we want to or not.

It is all very logical, but it is something we keep on forgetting. When we are generous, we give what we have—only what we have—whether we want to or not. So when we are not able to give something away, we should take note of it. If we can't give something, then we are not in possession of the thing. Instead, this thing that we think we possess is possessing us. So if we are not able to share money, then the money that we think we possess actually possesses us. The things that possess us, the things that we cannot give away, start to create a clinging mind, and we become poorer and poorer.

And the Buddha says to try to be rich so you can share. He says there are three things we can share: material gifts, like money and our stuff, the Dharma, and the teachings and practices. And the Buddha noted that the best way to share the Dharma is not to preach it out someone, but to live it. And then the third thing he said we could share is non-fear, to share confidence and hope.

We also need to notice what happens to us when we are generous. The Buddha taught that when we open our hands and give, we actually receive everything. That is hard to do if we are grasping tightly to our belief systems or our superiority, or our assumptions about others or ourselves. I volunteer at—I have for about 20 maybe years, a long time—in a jail. I volunteer and teach meditation, and one—it was a couple of years ago—of the inmates and I decided that we would all practice one random act of kindness every day. And then when we came back together—we meet once a week—we would share what happened. So we went away.

We came back that next Thursday, and Josh could hardly stand it. He had to tell his story because what he had shared—well, I have to tell you that in a jail, you are not allowed to have money, but friends or family can put money on your books, and then you have kind of like a bank account, and then you can use that to buy stuff at the commissary. And a real common thing to buy is Ramen noodles—which by the way, cost $2.99 or $2.79 or $2.59—around there. Anyway. They buy Ramen noodles, and then they use those noodles as money. So if you're watching a football game, you can bet, "I bet two Ramen noodles. I bet four noodles." Or if you're playing checkers or poker or whatever, I guess.

So, what Josh decided to do is to buy seven Ramen noodles and every day, he just went and gave some random person—nobody he knew or anything—just even sometimes he would just lay it on their bed. You know, these guys do not stay in one-person cells like you see on TV. There are 5-0, 50 men, in one big dorm. Well anyway, Josh gave the Ramen noodles to six different people, and on Wednesday—we meet on Thursday. On Wednesday, one of the guys that he had given Ramen noodles to earlier in the week came up to him and said, "I just got released. I am going home, and there is $10 on my books. I want you to have it." Have the $10. Josh said, "I can't believe it. I got 20 times what I gave," which wasn't exactly the right math, but the idea was that he had given it without any hope of anything back, and he received back like the Buddha said. By giving, he received.

So, Dominic was in our group, and he said, "You know, something like that happened to me too." We had been studying in our class deep listening and how we can help people by just listening to their stories. So Dominic says, "So, these two guys were telling me about their case, and I had heard about their case every day for weeks, but they just went on and on and on. But I just sat and listened, and I didn't want to, but I just sat and listened. And finally after hours, they stopped." And then he said, "At prayer circle one night this week, one of those guys"—we were going around the circle and saying what we were grateful for like we did tonight—"and one of the guys said he was grateful to Dominic because he listened to me."

So generosity becomes a path of letting go. In fact, that is the essence of dana, letting go. Pain is always a sign that we are holding onto something. When we are unhappy, we get stingy. We hold on tight. Dana, Generosity, is an activity that loosens us up. So I would invite you to try this week a little experiment with holding tight and letting go.

So if you will just get in your meditation position for a moment and bring your attention to your breath. Breathing in, I am aware of my in breath. Breathing out, I am aware of my out breath. Please rest with your palms up. In your mind, place some material thing that you treasure in your left hand. Now squeeze your left hand tightly. Really hold on to your treasure. Notice how it feels to hold on tight. Now release. Notice how it feels to let go of your treasure. In your mind, place someone who is dear to you, someone you love in your right hand. Squeeze tightly. Notice how it feels to hold on tight to her, to him. Now release and notice how it feels to let go.

This is from a poem by Mary Oliver. "To live in this world, you must be able to do three things: to love what is mortal; to hold it against your bones knowing your own life depends on it; and, when the time comes to let it go, to let it go."

Milarepa: " For generosity, nothing to do, other than stop fixating on self." (Bell sounds)

The Eighth Realization of Great Beings is kshanti, which is usually defined as patience, but which our teacher translates as inclusiveness. The story of the Buddha's enlightenment points to kshanti. Maybe you know this story. Siddhartha, who was later to become the Buddha, had tried just about everything he could to end suffering. He studied with some of the most famous sages of the time, and after hearing and learning everything they had to offer, he left them and joined some guys who were trying to find the end of suffering by denying their bodies, by going around naked in the forest and eating and sleeping only a little bit. Siddhartha did this practice and came within days, maybe hours, of starving himself to death, and then he left that practice and tried meditation and mindfulness.

And after many years, he realized that he was finally coming close to enlightenment. So, Siddhartha sat down under a sacred fig tree and vowed not to get out until he had found the end of suffering. Well right away, here comes Mara and all his demon soldiers riding in on big elephants. So you can tell right now that this is a true story. They shot arrows at Siddhartha, but the arrows turned to flowers right at Siddhartha's feet. Mara made mountains explode with fire. Siddhartha just kept on sitting. Mara's most beautiful daughter danced to try to seduce Siddhartha, but her efforts also failed.

Finally, Mara, who was pissed off by this time shouted, "Hey! Siddhartha! Get out from under that sacred tree. That seed of enlightenment belongs to me, and I've got witnesses to prove it. Right, fellas?" And he looked over at the demon soldiers, and they say, "Right, boss. Right. That's right, boss." So then he looked down at Siddhartha, and he said, "And who is your witness?" Siddhartha smiled serenely and slowly reached his right hand down to touch the earth, and the earth roared, "I bear your witness."

And at that moment, Mara and all the demon soldiers and all the big elephants and the dancing ladies and everything went whoosh and disappeared. So, Mara of course represents the temptations that snare us. He came with everything he could think of—mean and ugly and beautiful—to unseat Siddhartha, but Siddhartha sat through it all, unmoving, open, and calm.

Now, I don't know if Siddhartha was feeling angry or scared or impatient or disgusted or all of the above or none of the above, but we know from the story how he responded to Mara's temptations. He did not respond by lashing back or arguing with Mara. He didn't count. He didn't cry. He didn't say, "Fine. Take the dumb tree. I will go find another one." Siddhartha also didn't back down. He didn't give in. Siddhartha received with equanimity every temptation that Mara sent. He embraced it all, which is to say that he understood at and accepted it for what it was. In this way, Siddhartha was transformed. He transformed the temptations, and was enlightened. That is what kshanti means—to receive and embrace whatever comes to us and transform it. So you can see why our teacher calls this eighth realization inclusiveness.

The 14th century Sufi mystic Rumi talks about inclusiveness in his famous poem, "The Guest House." You may know it. "This being human is a guest house—every morning a new arrival. A joy, a depression, a meanness, some momentary awareness comes as an unexpected visitor. Welcome and entertain them all! Even if they are a crowd of sorrows, who violently sweep your house empty of its furniture, still, treat each guest honorably. He may be clearing you out for some new delight. The dark thought, the shame, the malice, meet them at the door laughing and invite them in. Be grateful for whatever comes, because each has been sent as a guide from beyond."

And how do we train ourselves to welcome whatever comes to us—our restless energy, shame, fear, anger, physical pain, despair, depression and all—to welcome it all with perseverance and patience? Well, here is what we do not do. Like Siddhartha, we do not struggle against our suffering, our unhappiness. We do not run from it. We do not even just put up with it. Our teacher says we embrace our suffering. This has been a difficult teaching for me. Embrace my anger? But I have been experiencing vertigo now and then, and when the world starts flipping and rolling around, I automatically hold my head, and I notice that it makes me feel solid and safe in this whirling world.

Thay wrote a beautiful poem about holding his face in his two hands. Maybe you have heard it. Here is a portion: "I hold my face in my two hands to keep my loneliness warm, to cradle my hunger, shelter my heart from the rain and the thunder. Two hands protecting, two hands nourishing, two hands preventing my soul from flying in anger."

So, if I am feeling pitiful or sad or angry or impatient or overwhelmed or scared or whatever, I am that feeling. So, if I embrace me, I am embracing my strong emotion. It helps. It helps me feel loved, cared for. I feel strong. Sometimes I hold my hand, and I realize that it is my daddy holding my hand or my mom or my sweetheart or one of my children or my grandchildren.

So we can train ourselves to embrace our emotions. It is possible. Embracing my head or my face or my arms or my hands, I bring my mind to my body. I embody my feelings, and then I can embrace them. And then, I can bring my breath to them, and I can slow my breath and calm my body. And then after a few minutes or a few hours or a few days, we should take whatever time we need. We should not rush. We should just be patient with our feelings.

Sometimes the suffering that we have embraced just goes away on its own. Or, when we are ready, we can begin looking deeply into the causes of our unhappiness. We can become enlightened. It might take a little time. It might take three days or three seconds or a nanosecond. How much time it takes depends upon how patient you are. The more patience you have, the less time it will take. The less patience you have, the more time it will take.

So if you want to be enlightened or if you want to be a happy person or if you want to learn to meditate or skydive or make a soufflé or write a comic book or walk on a tight rope, drop all of your impatience. Forget about when it is going to happen and just enjoy the process. Enjoy each moment of the process. Enjoying the moment, being totally in it, one day, suddenly it is there. Actually, it was there all along, but when we are in a rush, we can't see it. So we train in patience. As we train in patience, we first train ourselves to be patient with ourselves. We learn to relax with the restlessness of our energy or our anger, our boredom, our excitement.

Milarepa: "For patience, nothing to do, other than not fear what is ultimately true." (Bell sounds)

So the tools offered to us by the great beings, the Eight Realizations, are: meditation, the Five Mindfulness Trainings, continuous joyful effort or engaged Buddhism, generosity, patience or inclusiveness, and wisdom.

I will end with another poem by Mary Oliver.

"I don't know exactly what a prayer is. I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass, how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields, which is what I have been doing all day. Tell me, what else should I have done? Doesn't everything die at last, and too soon? Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?"

Transcribed by Jessica Hitch

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