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Experience, Realization, Liberation

How many times have we heard or seen these terms, in conversation or in some text? So many spiritual terms are bandied about, with the assumption that the listener or listeners have the same or similar notions to the concepts of the speaker, which is, I believe, very rarely the case.

In 1991 I went to see Andrew Cohen, and was given a front row seat. I asked him the following question, ”Why do some people merely have big experiences (which fade), whereas for others realization occurs?” He gave me a most surprising answer: “I don't know”. I was impressed with his honesty (he didn't feel compelled to shine it on, being a famous teacher; recently I heard the Dalai Lama answer a question with the same “I don't know”), but disappointed by his lack of a sufficient answer. One reason for my disappointment was that I thought I had an idea why this is so, and today I am more sure of it.

This essay seeks to look at the difference between the terms in the above title and by doing so, come to a general, non-sectarian definition of these. Though this may seem somewhat elementary to some, I would guarantee that if you asked ten individuals what the above terms mean, you would get up to 10 (or more!) different answers. To add to the confusing mess, some schools have very clear and precise definitions for various terms such as realization, samadhi, enlightenment, etc., and their definitions differ!

Spiritual Experiences and Realization

What separates a spiritual experience from genuine realization? Certainly, from personal observation, I've seen individuals proclaim that they have had a profound realization (or had it claimed for them by a confused or agenda-laden 'teacher') when in fact what occurred was a powerful spiritual experience. Here is a list of differences:

  1. The difference between something permanent and something that recedes over time.

    All experiences come and go, since they are based upon causes and conditions, and are condition based themselves. Being condition based, they are subject to decay over time. So, no matter how rapturous or enlightening an experience has been, its potency (and perhaps a resultant understanding) fades and is lost over time. Some experiences may last for months and these kinds of events may be difficult to correctly categorize.

    Realization, on the other hand, is not a direct result of causes and conditions (i.e. spiritual practice doesn't cause realization, but provides the grounds or context by which realization can occur). And certainly realization is not condition based, supported by any kind of cause or condition – if it were so, it could not have any permanency. Not being conditionally based, realization must transcend that which is necessarily bound by space and time, the framework of conditions.

  2. The difference in what is assumed to be the 'self-position'

    In the event of a personal spiritual experience, no matter how sublime or profound, it happens to a “me”. At this point there has been no fundamental breakthrough in recognizing the illusion of a solid substantive self that is the center-pole of personal reality.

    The very nature of realization affords a transformative shift in what is assumed to be the self-position – the imputation of self is destroyed in the spontaneous recognition of the nature of self and all. The shift in recognition of the emptiness of a substantive self is, in my opinion, the cornerstone upon which non-dual and transpersonal stages of spirituality are supported.

  3. The “aha” of personal insight is a shadow of the innate wisdom or realization

    Insights into the nature of existence still occur within the context of an assumed personal self that is having wonderful insights. There is a kind of ownership to that insight, which makes it subject to decay or change. Personal insights will most likely occur within the context of a conceptual mind that has not been set to rest in the transcendency of realization.

    In realization, the insight is not based upon a context of a me having or owning important or correct knowledge – there is no ownership as the concept of a one to own anything has been put to rest. In the understanding of innate wisdom, the one in whom a realization has occurred has no agenda to hold onto something that is completely Evident and known – since the wisdom wasn't manufactured, rather discovered, it cannot be lost.

Realization and Liberation

This is a potentially tricky subject, as there are varied definitions as to what constitutes realization. Some schools consider realization, or a better term, enlightenment identical to liberation (or the choice of liberation into nirvana), whereas other schools will recognize a spectrum of realizations leading to liberation. Often one can read “perfect and complete enlightenment” which contains the implicit assumptions that there are imperfect and incomplete enlightenments.

My contention is that realization occurs within the spectrum of consciousness, when enough of the karmic burden has been relieved for an individual. This can lift certain veils and obstructions and untie certain knots that are preventing the realization, or true recognition, seeing and abiding, to occur.

Essentially, at its root, the spiritual process is one of karmic purification, which results in the promotion of awareness over time. In the midst of the process of purification, one wakes up in a realization of the nature of self and of existence. The process occurs over time, since the various vehicles preventing recognition are in time. And it appears that the profundity of a realization is dependent upon the degree of karmic purification in an individual. Tibetan Buddhists call a Buddha “Sang Gye”, which translated means “a completely purified one”, and one in whom realization/enlightenment is perfect and complete.

There are a number of people who have had what would be considered a realization, but due to karmic circumstances, that realization has yet to stabilize in what would be considered 'perfect and complete' as in the case of a Buddha. But once a realization occurs, it catalyses a process by which the bodily vehicles are transformed at an accelerated rate. However, this still takes time, and how much time is anyone's guess. It takes time for a realization to bear fruit and stabilize, so that the essential freedom is not disturbed or forfeited, available in all situations at all times. In other words, the mechanisms of identification, differentiation and desire may arise such that realization is temporarily clouded, and one's view is simply one of ordinary dualism. And it is clear that situations will naturally arise that will test whether the 're-cognitive' quality of a realization is stable, and well they should! There are a number of traditional stories of extreme challenges by a realizer, and many current stories of how individuals, under torture, threat of death, or severe sickness, remained free, particularly in the arena of the Chinese torture of Buddist monks and lamas.

Realization begins with the unraveling of the 'causal knot' (of the anandamayakosha) which dissolves the deeply held imputation of “I” or self. The other bodies or koshas, which have been purified to a degree, still require further purification over time, which serves to elevate and stabilize the initial realization – all of which serves to underscore the importance of preliminary practices. Almost all esoteric schools have set up preparatory practices and stages to accommodate the beginners and intermediates who seek to grow. This setup is not necessarily for the purposes of keeping people down or keep the tradition in the spiritual business, as some of the more cynical have declared – people have different capacities at different times and this has been recognized since time immemorial. Only in our push-button, 'gotta have it now' world does this come into question. Very few have been able to tackle advanced algebra in first grade, and this is an agreed upon truth, so why should the realm of spiritual growth be any different?

Liberation, simply stated, is a level of purification by which all the tethers and bonds to samsaric or phenomenal existence are cut, thus alleviating the necessity for rebirth (though many of these fortunate few take the vow to return to the phenomenal realms to guide and help others, as in the classic Buddhist Boddhisattva vow). Think of it in these terms: if someone put a gun to your head right now, or if you could imagine dying right this moment, what kind of freak-out would occur in your psyche? What would you miss? What would you be happy to be avoiding? What are you attached to? If you look deeply enough, you will see that you're deeply attached to phenomenal existence, in a love affair of sorts with samsaric existence – and those are only the mind forms that you have encountered! There are deeper ties that don't disappear, even if you are wishing to end it all, commit suicide, that certainly is no doorway to liberation, as aversion is still a focus, an obsession with form, from the dark side, in a matter of speaking. Aversion is simply the shadow of attachment, both are in the mode of fascination with form.

The Spectrum of Realization

Consider the following diagram, which represents an implicit assumption of a process of karmic purification over time. Certainly, spirituality is not a clear cut, black and white linear process, but if one takes a ten thousand foot viewpoint of a lifetime committed to spiritual growth, one will probably see a trend towards greater purification, balance, release of knots, greater freedom over time. (Unfortunately the nature of two dimensional pictures forces an inherent linearity to the process, and my capacity for art-work is limited!)

The letters A through F represent points at which recognition of one's inherent nature may occur.

The letter A represents those 'mysterious' openings that can occur long before someone has even entered onto the spiritual path or has just begun it. At this point there is such clinging to a sense of self that any disruption in that core belief/imputation can have serious pathological effects. I am sure that various psychiatric institutions have welcomed individuals who have had, from some karmic reason, very large glimpses of the Void or the empty, open nature of all existence, and they just could not handle it.

Consider the case of Susan Siegel, a woman who was doing TM meditation at the time, stepped off a bus in France, and had a very big event occur which took her many years to come to terms with. She had enough psychic balance to not go seriously insane, but it was a difficult time for her. (But personally speaking, since she was involved in TM, one would think that she would have some kind of understanding or at least ask some mature practitioners in the organization, but apparently that was not the case).

The letter B represents early opening in the spiritual process, often called the honeymoon phases where profound events can occur but again there is not enough maturity to be able to be useful. A 'wha happened' without much else. Alternatively, there may be just enough understanding that a profound moment (or moments) of clarity has just occurred, but inevitably, due to the lack of purification, which can be stated in terms of excessive conceptuality and thinking in general, the experience fades and the individual is both excited at the event and disappointed or distraught by its cessation. It may be a one time occurrence in the lifetime of an individual, and hopefully a goad to practice, and certainly a snapshot of what is possible.

The letter C. Maturity begins but still not enough capacity for spaciousness to hold the awakening. It is registered as a profound experience and often with a bitter and painful sense of loss. These can happen infrequently or very frequently, depending on the particular makeup of an individual. A friend calls this point “snooze alarm time” – you wake up for awhile and there is just enough momentum and maturity in the process to hit the snooze bar on your internal alarm clock before going back to sleep, and before waking up in the near future again. These may be categorized as satoris, events of realization that occur in the context of an individual who is just not yet capable of understanding the fundamental bases underlying the event – as one teacher stated, the difference between satori and realization is that satoris happen to a 'me' whereas in realization the fundamental notions of I and other have been understood, in a profoundly deep way, for what they are.

The letters D, E and F represent points where a stable awakening occurs. At these points there is a certain level of quality of karmic purification such that a condition of “ripeness” occurs, in which an awakening or realization will have a stable affect to some degree or another.

As this is not rocket science, the issue as to what constitutes ripeness for realization is perhaps impossible to measure, or to even come up with a unit and tool of measurement. How would one measure karmic purification? On the other hand, the history of spirituality is flooded with stories of how teachers performed such and such an action or uttered some statement to send a student 'over the edge'. And in the Buddhist tradition, it is stated that advanced Bodhisattvas and Buddhas can see the entire karmic histories of individuals which assumes the capacity of 'skillful means' to enlighten others.

The letter D can happen at the early points of ripeness, and there is a “grogginess” and “instability” to the awakening – the subtle bodies still require much time for purification in order for the realization to stabilize in all situations at all times. As stabilization occurs, the process is one of integrating all apparent aspects of human psyche, behavior, energies, etc to that realization, which is a process that naturally occurs over time, with the complicity of the individual. There still may be some possibilities of holding back.

The letter E is a point where the karmic purification is so profound that the awakening is nearly total and complete, resulting in spontaneous liberation of the individual – no more work needs to be done, a fairly rare event. Don't need to come back.

In Buddhism D through E represent the stages towards the perfect and complete Enlightenment of a Buddha that are known as the ten bhumis (stages) of the Bodhisattva. These represent milestones in a post-realization process leading towards greater purification, and thus greater stabilization and enhanced profundity of the realization, to say the least.

The ten bhumis of Buddhism describe ten stages of advancement of a Bodhisattva on the way to perfect and complete Buddhahood. The notion of bhumis/stages stands in contrast to a popularly held notion that there is little on the post-realization process. Certainly there is quite a bit less documentation than pre-realization processes, for reasons that the attainment of each bhumi is a more refined and rare event.

The letter F represents awakenings of extremely evolved individuals, 'heaven born', Buddhas, avatars in which supreme omniscience is revealed. The 10 levels of Boddhisattvahood come into this area: numerous previous lives of oneself and others are opened. Buddhahood is when nothing is left to reveal.