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I immediately doubt if someone tells me they’re a certified mindfulness instructor. The Buddha didn’t receive a diploma, certificate, or BA in meditation from any institution.
Padmasambhava, the teacher from India who brought Buddhism to Tibet, also didn’t receive authorization to teach from a university.
Master Dōgen, the founder of the Sōtō tradition, the most important school of Zen Buddhism in Japan, even refused to receive “Dharma Transmission.” For those who don’t know, receiving transmission in Zen Buddhism is equivalent to becoming the official successor of a Buddhist tradition in Japan. Dōgen did not believe in those sorts of appointments.
None of them needed official certifications. What made them meditation and Dharma Masters was their realization of the truth. Their spiritual awakening.
If you think about it, why would we want to receive teachings from someone who has yet to verify the wisdom of the Buddha?
They can’t guide us properly if they haven’t realized crucial aspects of the Dharma. Why? Realization is the internalization of the Dharma in our body and mind. It is the irrevocable union with the Buddha’s teaching; it is the direct perception of truth.
Only people who have gone through the transformation that Dharma gives you know what they are talking about.
Spiritual attainments reveal our progress on the spiritual path. They’re not modules you must complete to finish an online course or practice hours you must gather to earn credits. Instead, spiritual attainments reveal our progress on the spiritual path.
And what are these achievements? It depends on the spiritual tradition you follow. Even within Buddhism, achievements are set according to different Buddhist traditions.
In Theravada Buddhism, for example, there is talk of the Four Stages of Awakening:
- Sotāpanna: refers to the one who enters the stream that leads to Nirvana and who’s free from self-view, attachment to rituals, and doubts about the Buddha’s teachings. This person reincarnates a maximum of seven more times before becoming enlightened.
- Sakadāgāmin: the one who reincarnates once more and, in addition to being free from the previous fetters, has substantially weakened his or her sensory desire and ill will.
- Anāgāmin: the one who no longer returns and has completely eradicated the previous fetters, including his or her sensory desire and ill will.
- Arhat: the one who is worthy of honor, has eradicated the previous fetters, and is also free from the attachment of meditative absorptions, formless realms, delusion, restlessness, and ignorance.
On the other hand, Mahayana Buddhism speaks of the Five Paths:
- The path of accumulation: Where you accumulate merit and conditions that lead to awakening.
- The path of unification: You establish the connection with the truth of Dharma.
- The path of seeing: Where you verify the emptiness of reality and, according to tradition and intention, you become a Bodhisattva or a Sotāpanna.
- The path of meditation: Where, as the name implies, one meditates on the true nature of reality.
- The path of no more learning: There is nothing to learn or training to do.
And if we talk about the path of the Bodhisattva, we find ten levels which, once accomplished, you then achieve Buddhahood.
In addition, the Buddha also spoke of specific stages that you go through in your meditation practice:
- First meditative absorption: Characterized by the presence of applied and sustained attention, ecstasy, and pleasure.
- Second meditative absorption: Applied and sustained attention disappears, and there is only ecstasy, pleasure, and unification of mind.
- Third meditative absorption: Ecstasy disappears, and there is only pleasure, equanimity, and mindfulness.
- Fourth meditative absorption: Pleasure and pain are transcended, and there is only equanimity and pure and clear awareness.
And he also spoke of the Four Formless Realms:
- The realm of infinite space
- The realm of infinite consciousness
- The realm of nothingness
- The realm of Perception and Non-Perception
If you suddenly become more compassionate or stop being a slave to sensory addictions, that symbolizes advancement. There are many ways to check your progress.
The point is to remember that you don’t need certifications of these stages, levels, paths, or absorptions. Only experience reveals whether you have achieved these signs of practice. And believe me, when these experiences happen, you know.
Talking about it with a meditation teacher is essential because it helps you identify what happened and what stage you reached. But, again, the teacher who guides you must have been through the experience before.
How to identify someone with genuine spiritual experience
The Buddha gave specific instructions for evaluating people’s spiritual progress:
“And how does a good person have good qualities? It’s when a good person is faithful, conscientious, prudent, learned, energetic, mindful, and wise. That’s how a good person has good qualities.”Culapunnama Sutta, MN 110
“And, what are good friendships?…[those] of good culture,…full of faith, virtue, charity, and wisdom. They always act in accordance with the faith of the faithful, with the virtue of the virtuous, with the charity of the charitable, with the wisdom of the wise. These are the good friendships.”Dīghajāṇu Sutta, AN 8.54
Tibetan Buddhism teachers gave specific guidelines for evaluating the quality of spiritual teachers. In short, they emphasized skipping teachers whose behavior is questionable and sticking with teachers of impeccable virtue, meditation, and wisdom.
Of course, there are levels. Finding a Buddha is very rare. Maybe there’s one or two out there, but it is more feasible to find a first-level Bodhisattva or a Sotāpanna. Nowadays, there are quite a few of those out there. In my opinion, these are reliable teachers. Maybe they haven’t mastered the Dharma 100%, but they have tasted it; they already know what it is and is not. They have already seen the destination and the path that leads to that destination.
Once you come under the instruction of a realized teacher, aspire to the absorptions, the paths, the stages, the Bodhisattva levels, and, of course, aspire to Buddhahood.
As I have said a thousand times, it doesn’t matter if you achieve it in this lifetime. The important thing is to try without giving up. By doing that, your life will change radically for the better.
May you aspire to the spiritual achievements that a consistent practice of the Dharma grants you.
If you want to learn the training given by the Buddha to purify body, speech and mind, this year I will give a course (without certificates) on it. More details soon.
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