Three Levels of Spiritual Perception

I have finally finished the translation of Deshung Rinpoche’s The Three Levels of Spiritual Perception into Thai. It took me more almost two years to do it because the book had more than 500 pages and I can’t spend whole day every day to do it. In any case the translation is finished and I have only to translate the small introductory sections in front of the book plus perhaps some glossary at the end. Then the book will be finished.

The plan is to publish this one in the Thai edition. Thanks to Wisdom Publications for granting us the permission to publish the Thai translation. I am sure this will be of tremendous benefits to Thai Buddhists. It will be quite a big book, though.

What Deshung Rinpoche did was to expound the meanings of “The Three Perceptions” (gnang sum), which is one of the most famous texts in Tibetan Buddhism. These perceptions are: (1) the perception of those who are still bound within samsara; (2) perception of those already on the Mahayana path, and (3) perception of the enlightened ones. 

H. E. Deshung Rinpoche III
H. E. Deshung Rinpoche III

Those who are still mired in samsara perceive things as they appear, and they take them to be real. This is the predicament of all of us, who are not out of samsara yet. This is the reason why we are still inflicted with suffering. In this sense we are like those people who willingly, unknowingly, take a hat full of spinning knives on our head, thinking that it is so beautiful. Or we are like moths who think that the flame is so seductively beautiful, and we fly into it, getting burned as a result. We suffer, but we think this is the normal condition of everybody. It is due to the Buddha’s infinite compassion toward beings that he pointed this out to us so that we realize how foolish we have been for so long.

The goal of the first level of perception is to get us to realize the suffering nature of all of samsara. We need to realize that the flame is hot and that we must not fly into it. Or that the house is burning and we have to hurry out of it. This is realized through full understanding of such issues as the extreme rarity of human birth, impermanence and pervasiveness of death, and the law of karma. 

Then the second kind of perception is called “perception of experience.” This refers to the experience of dharma practitioners who have internalized the awareness of the suffering nature of samsara and is taking the practice to find a way out. However, we also realize that it is quite inappropriate to become released from samsara only individually. Since every sentient being is interconnected and since we already owe a great deal to them, each of whom in fact used to be our caring mother, then we feel a sense of obligation to them. Hence we can’t leave them alone to continue to suffer in the ocean of samsara. Realizing this, we do whatever we can to be able finally to help them. This is the Mahayana Path, which distinguishses it from the solitary path of getting only oneself liberated. 

Topics within this level of perception are, then, generation of bodhicitta, the genuine resolve and commitment to be able to help all sentient beings out of the sea of samsara through becoming an enlightened Buddha. There are two kinds of bodhicitta. One is relative, or conventional, bodhicitta, where one feels strong compassion toward all beings, identifying with them and sharing in their sufferings, committing oneself to take up their sufferings to the full. The other is ultimate bodhicitta, which is the realization that everything is empty of their inherent nature. One generates conventional bodhicitta through cultivation of great love (maitri) and great compassion (karuna), and generates ultimate bodhicitta through the two practices of calm abiding (shamatha) and insight (vipasyana). The goal of this level is to develop fully both conventional and ultimate bodhicittas.

Then the third and final level of spiritual perception is the pure perception of the enlightened ones. This is comparable to that of those who have finally achieved the ultimate goal. The Buddha’s perception is completely pure. He perceives things exactly as they are and is totally omniscient.

I will give a talk in Thai about the book and about the three levels of spiritual perception in Buddhism at the Thousand Stars Foundation House, 695 Ladprao 11, Jatujak, Bangkok. Please click this link for more information.


4 thoughts on “Three Levels of Spiritual Perception

  1. Bruce June 2, 2009 / 12:44 pm

    If you can answer, do you personally consider yourself to be at the first, second, or third level of perception?

    If the world of samsara is illusory, how are we burned by our illusions? If we see the attractive flame to fly into, but it’s just an illusion, how can it harm us (other than that we’re not seeing things clearly)? By this logic, is not the suffering we endure but an illusion?

    Is Mahayana called “Greater Vehicle” because it fits more people besides just one’s individual self onto the path at the same time? Is this part of the explanation, or a misunderstanding/oversimplification? I had been thinking to myself that it was called Mahayana because it appealed to the masses and was easier, if you will, to follow.

    Is there any direct quote attributed to the Buddha about others being able to become Buddhas (same or different sense of just enlightened)? Did he acknowledge the existence of other paths to enlightenment that diverged from the one that he took? Or perhaps would all right paths eventually arrive at the truth?

    I realize that these are a lot of questions and apologize.

  2. soraj June 2, 2009 / 2:18 pm

    Your questions are good. I’ll try to answer:

    1. We can certainly be harmed by illusory things, because we believe them to be true. The belief is so strong that we never pause to reflect that in fact they are actually illusions. But the fly is certainly burned by the flame. This is physical action. The suffering the Buddha talks about is not so much about physical action. The accomplished ones can get a serious disease yet not troubled by it because they see that the disease and their bodies are in fact “illusory.”

    2. Mahayana certainly translates as “Great Vehicle”, but the main intention of it is for one to become a Buddha eventually. Those who aspire and practice to become a Buddha is called “bodhisattva.” In terms of the intention, to ferry as many sentient beings across as possible, it certainly refers to a broader range of people, but in fact those who actually do aspire to undertake the bodhisattva practice are relatively few.

    3. There are stories about other Buddhas than Shakyamuni in the Pali canon, so the story is certainly known to Theravadas. The Buddha’s immediate task, however, is to teach people how to get rid of the sufferings that are afflicting them at the moment. So he focused more on that rather than how to practice to become a Buddha later on. This is why Mahayana teachings came later.

    So it’s nice to know you. I might be able to tweet back immediately though.

  3. Bruce June 2, 2009 / 3:12 pm

    Thank you for the thoughtful answers and the time you took. Your website is very engaging. Is Bodhisattva one who has attained enlightenment capable of entering into Nirvana, but postpones it in order to help others to do the same? Are they in any way similar to a Christian notion of a living saint?

  4. soraj June 2, 2009 / 10:43 pm

    There are two kinds of bodhisattvas. The first ones are those who have not yet achieved nirvana, so their action is rather limited since they are not out of samsara yet. The seoncd ones are those who have achieved Liberation already. They are able to help beings because they live in “non-abiding nirvana.” This means that they on the one hand live among us to help us achieve the Goal, but on the other they are completely free from the fetters of samsara. They stay with us out of their great compassion.

    Sorry I don’t know much about the Christian saints. But I think you can make your own comparison.

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