The Seven Stages of Purification and the Insight Knowledges: A Guide to the Progressive Stages of Buddhist Meditation by the Venerable Mahathera Matara Sri Ñanarama. Buddhist Publication Society 1983/2000. 74 pages.
Do not be fooled by the page count. This is a dense little book with lots of Pali outlining in detail the stages of meditation development originally described in Buddhaghosa’s work the Visuddhi Magga. Its purpose is not to teach you how to meditate. The assumption here is that you’ve already been given the instructions and are now in a position to put them into practice. What the book describes are the results of that practice, from your first meeting with the bare phenomena of experience until the moment everything winks out of existence–i.e. nibbana (nirvana).
I’m not going to attempt here to explain what the seven stages are–that’s the purpose of the book, after all. What I will say is that if you are planning to take up vipassana (i.e. insight, or satipatthana) practice in a serious way, you need to read this book or some equivalent substitute. In other words, it behooves the one who would travel in his own mind to get a map and to master it–to know the terrain–before traveling there. Failure to do so is likely to result in confusion, disorientation, lost time and wasted effort, not to mention needless pain and suffering. You should view this as what it is–an atlas of mental states to be experienced by those who drive the vehicle of insight.
As a guide, the book is excellent. It tells you in detail what you’ll encounter, along with the dangers, rewards, and tips on what needs to be done to keep up momentum and keep the goal in sight. Do not look for scintillating prose or touchy-feely New Age fluff–it isn’t here. This is hardcore, to be known, used, and–ideally–mastered. The goal is to make this material your own, not to debate its merits as a “philosophy” book. All the philosophy the West has produced will do less for you than will following this little guide. The dialogues of Plato, Aquinas’ Summa Theologica, the aphorisms of Nietzsche–none will give as much to you if you are willing to sit down and do the work this thin text recommends.
That goes for me, too, by the way.
Other books and resources in a similar vein you should check out are: The Progress of Insight by Mahasi Sayadaw, Practical Insight Meditation, by Mahasi Sayadaw, Daniel Ingram’s talk at Brown University’s Cheetah House, Kenneth Folk’s writings on the progress of insight. Use them all.
My Amazon rating: 5 stars