A lecture given by Shih-fu Sheng-yen on July 24, 1980 during a 7-day retreat.


There are four barriers that you must pass through when you are working hard and beginning to obtain some benefit from the practice :

1) the experience of limitless light and sound

2) a state of extreme peace and purity

3) attainment of the enlightened state

4) breaking emptiness apart

At the first level, you feel as if you are in samadhi. There is limitless, extremely bright light which makes you feel very clear and extremely relaxed. The sound is like music, but not music as we usually think of it, but rather an indescribable sound which goes floating on. At this level you are actually not beyond time and space because the light is taking up a place in space, and the music is going on in time. But from your standpoint, this light and sound are both limitless and you feel as if you’ve been liberated.

At the second level of extreme purity and peacefulness, although time and space are still existing for you at that time, you feel as if they weren’t. In that kind of state the whole day or night could pass by in a flash. A lot of people who reach this stage feel that they are in deep samadhi, or that they are already enlightened. But at the first two levels, you have not yet attained enlightenment, although you may think you have.

At the first level, as long as you are sitting in meditation, there is no problem. But when you stop sitting and go out into the everyday world then you can still be influenced by the environment and subject to various temptations. In other words, there is still attachment. By the time you pass through the second barrier, after you leave the state of samadhi, your mind is still able to remain clear and peaceful, and vexations won’t arise very easily, but this condition cannot be maintained for more than a week at most, except in rare cases where it may last for two weeks. After that, the whole state will begin to fade. But this is not to say that every time you sit down you can just say, “Well now I want to return to samadhi” and just do it. In both of these stages there is still attachment. In the first stage there is attachment to the limitless light and sound which is experienced, and a great feeling of delight in that. At the second stage there’s an attachment to the feeling of purity and peace and a great delight in that. Since you have attachment, to sit down and attempt to recapture the same experience is very difficult. The only thing you can do is put the whole thing aside, forget about it, and sit down and start from the very beginning without attaching to the previous experience.

On a previous retreat, I described the stages of emptiness in meditation, and how one goes step by step into a deeper state of meditation. [Note – see Ch’an Newsletter No. 8 Sept. 1980. The stages of emptiness refer to the 5 levels one goes through from the time one sits down to meditate until samadhi. The 4 great barriers described here starts from a deeper level of meditation up to “Ch’an”.] The same applies here – it would be impossible to go from the attachment (to any kind of state) in your normal mind right into a deep meditative state. You have to first start from a shallower condition of meditation and then go into a slightly deeper one, and deeper and deeper. As you’re going into these deeper levels of meditation your mind is gradually becoming purer, so that by the time you reach that stage you would have already dropped off the attachment. If you don’t have a master to guide you when you get to this stage you’re in a lot of trouble, for two reasons : 1. You want to enter the condition again very often. Of course, you still may have an opportunity to experience it again, but this desire is very troublesome. 2. You think this is the highest possible stage that can be reached. The problem here is that although you think that, you still don’t fully believe it because during daily life, vexations and attachments will arise here and there, and when they do you’re going to experience a feeling of doubt. “Now did I really reach the highest stage or not? Was I enlightened or not?” After tossing this question back and forth in your mind, you may finally reach a conclusion, like “Yeah, I probably did reach the highest stage, even go beyond this.” So because you have a feeling of doubt in yourself, you try to boost up the conviction that you did indeed reach the highest level by assigning the masters of the past to the same stage, and therefore give rise to a kind of pride.

In the first two stages it is possible to describe the experience, particularly in the first stage. But when you reach the third stage there is no way to describe it.

A person who reaches the stage of enlightenment sees that the world or the universe is just as it is. But there’s no way to describe it, no way he can use words or anything else. Indeed what he sees is completely different than what the ordinary person perceives. When he sees a leaf he may see the great 3,000 chilicosms contained in it. This is not psychic power. At this point there is nothing which he does not see and nothing which he does not know. But it’s not normal knowledge. If you asked him to tell us about it, he couldn’t say anything. At that time he wouldn’t have any feelings either of delight or aversion towards the experience. It’s just a condition of awakening. When an ordinary person reaches this stage, they feel they have reached the stage where what had to be done was done, they’ve been liberated from birth and death and they are the same as Buddha. So this is already very good, right? But it’s still not good enough. If you stop here, there’ll still be something in your mind. What’s in your mind? The enlightened state, just the feeling that you’ve attained great awakening.

Therefore, we have to go to the fourth level, when one reaches the last stage – stage of emptiness also being smashed apart. While in the condition of emptiness, one feels that everything is existing, but without obstruction. That is what is meant by emptiness. The meaning of smashing up emptiness is breaking up the enlightened state. You no longer have the feeling that you’ve attained great awakening. I tell you all — only at that time can you go to sleep. At that time you would be truly liberated from all vexations. According to the course of progress of the Hinayana, then you’ve reached the fruit of Arhatship. But he still has to cultivate. Why? Because possibly in the future he still may fall back. So he must continue on and on working hard. Maybe some people are thinking – How can we ever do all this? It sounds so far away. If I was to deceive you and tell you if you attain that first stage, that already is great liberation, this would just be harming you. If you are far away, you should practice hard.

(The four great barriers should not be taken as absolute. Due to the differences in each person, the process of the experience may not be the same in each case. For example, some people may be able to reach the 4th level right away without passing through the other three.)

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