More on the stages of Spiritual Death and Spiritual Rebirth
Our meditation system uses a set of five meditations that the Buddha taught and which later tradition listed as antidotes to the ‘Five Poisons’. The Poisons are the principal obstructions to Awakening: Doubt, Hatred, Craving, Conceit and Ignorance.
The five meditations are called the Basic Methods or the Five Dharmas and work as follows. Mindfulness of Breathing counteracts doubt (initially in the sense of indecisiveness and hesitation); Metta Bhavana counteracts hatred; Contemplation of Impermanence counteracts craving; Six-Elements Contemplation counteracts conceit; and Contemplation of Conditionality counteracts ignorance.
In terms of the overall Mandala of spiritual practice, these are mainly associated with the phase of development – cultivation, that is, of Integration, of Positive Emotion, and of Spiritual Death. The first two cultivate Integration and Positive Emotion/Intention respectively; they are broadly in the category of śamathā or calming meditation. Then the three contemplations, which are insight or vipaśyanā practices, cultivate Spiritual Death, the collapse of the fixed view of self.
The remaining core practices, Sadhana and Just Sitting, are not directly mentioned in the early scriptures. The Buddha taught their precursors in the form of Mindfulness practice (satipatthana) and Buddhānusmrti, ‘Recollection of the Buddha’. The two are most associated with Spiritual Rebirth, with genuine realisation (and integration of that at a new, deeper level. Realisation is an aspect of the receptive phase of spiritual development, the fruition of development-oriented meditation.
Spiritual Rebirth is the stage mainly associated with Sadhana and Just Sitting because they generate a very open attitude, and are generally done when there is more experience of the Dharma. However, they will also cultivate or strengthen the stages of integration, positive emotion and spiritual death in the natural course of practice. Additionally, experiences associated with spiritual rebirth may also arise as a result of practising one or more of the Five Basic Methods, especially when they are used to contemplate the ‘Marks’ of impermanence, insubstantiality or non self.
Spiritual Death is the collapse of delusion that comes about when you look deeply into reality with the concentrated, positive mind of Integration and Positive Emotion. That collapse triggers a transformational process so fundamentally different from what went before that it is in effect a new life. It is a renaissance or spiritual rebirth.
Spiritual death comes when you have a glimpse of nondual reality and see, even if just for a moment, the insubstantiality of everything and feel what that means. Yet it is not any kind of reasoned understanding: in that moment you know nothing at all about what is happening. You see only that all your ideas are empty, that even what you assumed was your actual experience is actually ideas, assumptions and concepts superimposed on indescribable reality. That knowledge, and that reality, is experienced intensely.
Every kind of insight meditation leads to this realization. All mundane, unrealized experience contains a subject, which you assume has some real substance but which, in reality, has no substance at all, and an object, which you assume to be some kind of thing but find, on closer examination, to have no stable existence. There is no actual thing! And every judgement, conclusion, feeling and emotion that takes place between this non-existent subject and object lacks reliable meaning when it is based on such a fundamental mistake. The real meaning lies deeper: when their emptiness is seen, the assumed subject and object naturally drop away, leaving peace, space and depth of understanding.
This really is like death, because it is the end of the world as the ordinary unawakened mind knows it. It can feel like death too, but then the idea of death affects people in different ways. It’s understandable if spiritual death sounds like a frightening idea, but the actual experience may be blissful, beyond words, awe-inspiring or indeed anything. It can’t be predicted. Descriptions sound abstract, and of course they are. The experience is overwhelming, yet it is subtle, so that, oddly, it may easily be missed or discounted. It’s not as though something new has sprouted into existence: something has merely been revealed as not being there that you had unthinkingly assumed was there. It’s become clear that your delusions were never reality, but suddenly to see without them is peculiar. In a strange way, there’s nothing to change – and everything in the world carries on pretty much as normal. It’s simply because you’ve seen, for a moment, that all of it is insubstantial and not really there in the way that you will continue, once the vision fades, to assume it to be. To others who have not had this experience it can only sound abstract. To avoid feeling misunderstood and creating confusion, you are strongly advised to be very careful about how and to whom you communicate about it.
Insight experience comes right into the centre of your life, and from that point you are subtly guided by it. Such experiences of spiritual death take us within the orbit of the dharma niyama, the special nature of conditionality connected with Awakening that is inherent in life. Shifting into that orbit is the start of spiritual rebirth. With the right preparation and conditions, the practices detailed in this chapter will stimulate and quicken the potential for both spiritual death and spiritual rebirth.