The Science of Enlightenment: Intermediate Realms of Power

(via Flickr ~ wignaz)

In my previous posts I transcribed tracks from Session 13 of The Science of Enlightenment. Session 13 is one of my favorite sessions in the series because it’s a good reminder for everyone who are consciously taking a spiritual path.

In this post I’ve transcribed the last three tracks in the session. This is the part where Shinzen Young described in detail three possible extreme reactions or attitudes of people in the Intermediate Realms of Power.

Before reading my transcription below, if you haven’t read my previous posts yet, I suggest that you read them first so you can appreciate this post from a bigger context. Here are the links to the previous tracks that I have transcribed.

The Science of Enlightenment: The Pathless Land

The Science of Enlightenment: Consciousness as a Three-Layered Cake

The following are last the three tracks on Session 13. I hope this helps you along your journey. May you be safe, be healthy, live with ease… and may Happiness be.

Session 13: Track 4 – Relating to Your Intermediate Realms

As I mentioned, in my book, the yardstick, the barometer of spiritual maturity lies in how one conceives of and relates to the phenomena of this Intermediate Realm. I can suggest to you that there are three extreme cases and an infinity of intermediate cases.

One extreme relationship to the phenomena of the Intermediate Realm is as follows. A person starts out on the surface like everyone, either because of a cultivated path, or simply spontaneously, or perhaps because of some condition like and illness or being expose to sleep deprivation or hot or cold or who knows what — drugs. For whatever reason a person turns 90 degrees from the surface and starts to go down a bit into the substance of consciousness. They go down a bit and they encounter some phenomenon that may be unusual. It may be strange, and they get frightened, and they say, “That is not for me. I don’t ever want to go back to that place.” So one extreme response or relationship to this intermediate realm is, you go down a little bit you freak out, you scramble back to the surface, and you stay on dry land, you stay on that surface for the rest of your life, and you do not go back there.

A second extreme relationship, once again for whatever reason, either through a cultivated path or some circumstance, or spontaneously due to random flow of probabilities, for whatever reason you have an experience when you go into the substance of consciousness below the surface. Start to move towards the source, something happens, and you like it. It’s interesting. It’s empowering. It’s enticing. You say, “This is for me. I want to learn about this.” You start to explore. But the way that you explore is not by going any deeper. You turn 90 degrees again and you begin to go out horizontally out into the phenomena of that realm. Now you start to go out and explore this rich, empowering, interesting world of special phenomena — kundalini energy, psychic powers. I think you can see that the range of phenomena that constitute that realm is pretty much the range of mainline New Age stuff. That’s the New Age material down there. There’s no end. Once you go out horizontally there’s no end to new stuff you can experience — more interesting stuff, more powerful stuff, weirder stuff. The problem is you think you’re making spiritual progress. You think you’re getting closer to the spiritual source. But in this extreme case you are not, and you don’t know it. And your followers don’t know it. Because the vocabulary that you use is almost indistinguishable from the vocabulary used by the people that are going the mainline plummeting straight down to the source without following any byways horizontally out. The vocabulary is almost indistinguishable. The concepts is almost indistinguishable. It’s all spiritually correct stuff. And this is one of the reasons why teachers are very useful, if not absolutely necessary. Only somebody that has traversed those realms can really distinguish whether you’re going on a horizontal path out into the powers or whether you’re following a direct line to the spiritual source.

Session 13: Track 5 – Problems with the Realms of Power

There are a number of problems with this whole New Age phenomenology. Of course New Age is just a late 20th century term for something that has been recognized and known for millennia. In the Buddhist terminology it is sometimes called the Realms of Power. The surface ordinary awareness is referred to in traditional Buddhism as the Nirmanakaya — which means kaya, the body of appearance. The phenomena in the intermediate realm are called the Sambhogakaya — which means the body of glory. And the Source is called the Dharmakaya — the body of the Absolute, or the supporter, dharma means that which supports. So they talk about the three kaya, or three bodies. Every buddha has three bodies — nirmanakaya, sambhogakaya, and dharmakaya — because every buddha, every fully enlightened man or woman, has experience in each of these three realms.

So here are the problems with the phenomena of the Realms of Power. The first and foremost is, because the realms of power are near the Source, if you get caught up in the appearances in the realms of power, you’re losing this wonderful opportunity to have a direct experience of the Source. You have to be able to see through those phenomena just like you have to be able to see through the phenomena of conventional reality. That’s the first problem. The second problem of course is, this whole aspect of turning 90 degrees again and going out into exploring these realms, because as I say without knowing it you could think that you are on a spiritual path and you could convince others that this is a spiritual path. When in fact it is literally parallel to the movement that people make on the surface of consciousness which is a movement of statis. When we move on the surface of consciousness we get statis. Basically the same trip that’s why this phenomena, this extreme case of going out horizontally is sometimes referred to as “spiritual materialism.”

The other problem is for every person that is interested in traversing the vertical path to the Source, there are a thousand people that are interested in the ego ornaments of the realms of power. So the ration is about a thousand to one in terms of where people’s money goes, where their time and energy goes, who they’re likely to follow on a spiritual path. The more you have a component of the powers, the more likely you are to attract a lot of people and to make money.

Another extreme, the third extreme, I’ve already obviously implied what it is: You go straight down. Whatever comes up you just view with mindfulness and equanimity. If nothing special happens, you pay attention to the ordinary. If something special happens and it’s frightening and painful, you view it with mindfulness and equanimity. If something special happens and it’s blissful and gives you special powers, you view it with mindfulness and equanimity. You make no distinctions. It’s a zero-tolerance policy. It also represents a certain extreme. In general, the Buddhist tradition would prefer that people follow that extreme. However, I should say that I have had teachers whose main interest was the special powers, BUT from a certain context.

I live with this teacher in Taiwan for almost a year, just he and I living together. He was a total Taoist Tantric Wizard. His entire interest was in the spirit realm and getting powers, BUT that interest had developed after his enlightenment. Why he had that interest was, within his culture and given his educational background, that was the best way he could help people — by curing their illnesses, by locating runaway children with psychic powers, by exorcising people that have been demonically possessed (which I saw him doing. very fascinating. Chinese possession phenomena, culturally quite different from Western possession phenomena). In any event, he cultivated all this stuff because that was part of his path of engagement to help other people. It wasn’t he was particularly interested for himself. He was liberated. He lived in the Source.

In the Buddhist tradition, if you’re interested in this stuff, it’s ok to put a lot of time and energy into it AFTER you have contacted the Source. Because after you have contacted the Source all of this phenomena take on such a different context. You realize where it really comes from. And until you have realized where it really comes from, there’s every probability that you’re going to develop problems in your relationship to these powers, which will then translate into problems in relationship with your fellow human beings.

We have three extremes:

You go down a little way, you encounter this stuff, you freak out, and you pop back up.

You go down a little way, you encounter this stuff, you get interested, and you go out into the world of exploration.

The third extreme: You go down and whatever you encounter you view it with mindfulness, equanimity, and a cognizance of its impermanence, and you just auger, auger, deeper, and deeper, and deeper, until you touch the Source. And you have direct experience of where both the surface and the intermediate zone come from.

Session 13: Track 6 – The Ascent of St. John of the Cross

Ascent of Mt. Carmel - English Translation of the Terms Used in St. John the Cross' Original Drawings

A good historical example of the third extreme, from the Western tradition, is St. John of the Cross. He was a great Christian mystic-poet. lived in the 16th century in Spain. He used the model of going up rather than going down but the idea is the same. He described the path to God as Subida Del Monte Carmelo (The Ascent of Mt. Carmel). He belonged to the Carmelite order of Christianity, which is one of the main meditating orders in the Roman Catholic tradition. He drew a picture (and we actually have the picture that he himself drew) of this Mt. Carmel — different stages that you go through as you’re ascending. And of course, the peak of Mt. Carmel is Dios, it’s God. Except he didn’t write Dios on the peak. Here’s what he wrote: At each stage of going up this mountain, he wrote Nada, Nada, Nada, Nada. And on the very top he wrote Y El Monte Nada. And at the peak also you’re going to experience Nada. Nothing, ok. But of course, the Nada of that peak is a very special nothing: the Zero of which you have heard me speak, many, many times. That’s the Nada that is Todo. And with this picture is a poem in Spanish. And I’m paraphrasing, I can’t remember either in Spanish or in English the exact thing that he said but it is something to the effect of: If you want to climb this mountain, you cannot let yourself be frightened by the beasts, neither can you stop to pick any flowers. It’s exactly the description of a really mature relationship to the intermediate realm — Not frightened by the beasts, but you’re not picking any flowers either.

Comments (7)

  1. Duncan wrote::

    This is great stuff! It’s fascinating to find a popular buddhist teacher who dares to directly address magick and its role and usefulness in seeking the Source.

    The problem with the buddhist approach is that it can easily lead people into ignoring or suppressing this realm of experience. The problem with the western magical approach is that it introduces people to this realm, but most of them never get beyond it!

    I look forward to the day when there are open discussions and retreats based around this stuff at my local buddhist centre…

    Friday, October 30, 2009 at 1:52 am #
  2. Puerhan wrote::

    Thanks for transcribing and sharing the Shenzen Young talks, really enjoyed reading what you’ve posted. His clarity and directness is certainly refreshing.

    Sunday, November 1, 2009 at 6:50 am #
  3. Diana wrote::

    I’m a bit confused about the “layers.” If “One possible model for the path to enlightenment is to look upon it as a journey from the surface of consciousness to the Source of consciousness” then I’m understanding his explanation of the surface consciousness whereby we experience consensual reality to be the first layer. And I understand his explanation of the thirds layer (or core layer), but the intermediate realm is a little fuzzy for me.

    Shinzen said:
    “By consciousness I mean, of course, just the six senses. Hearing, seeing, smelling, tasting, the feeling body, and the thinking mind are the six doors of consciousness. And collectively, taken together, we can use the word consciousness to describe the collective of these six senses. We’re starting to go into consciousness rather than moving on the surface of consciousness. It’s a kind of journey from the surface of consciousness to the Source of consciousness. In doing so, we pass through successive strata or layers of consciousness, encounter different kinds of phenomena.”
    Are there just the three layers though? And if one is practicing mindfulness and equanimity with the six senses, where are they in terms of the three layer cake? This is where I’m confused. It would seem that if one were bringing mindfulness and equanimity into their sitting practice they would not be hanging out on that top layer (surface layer of consciousness.) But if they aren’t experiencing the surface layer of consciousness does that mean they would automatically be in the second layer of the cake, (the intermediate realm.) I realize that Shinzen says that one doesn’t necessarily experience some of the wild phenomena he gives as examples. But if they don’t experience these kinds of phenomena I’m wondering more specifically what they DO experience instead.
    When Shinzen said:
    “When we shine the lights of mindfulness, and when we pour the water of equanimity into any experience that brightness and softening agents seep down into those areas where the blockages are and things get clarified and dissolved. And so the surface gets closer and closer to the Source.”
    This made me think that here too was an example of moving from the surface layer to the Source—I’m guessing this is what the intermediate realm can look like when experienced, (even without the phenomena he says some others experience in the intermediate realm) Is that right?

    So, when Shinzen says:

    “Some people traverse the whole intermediate realm from surface to Source and are never aware of anything other than very ordinary banal experiences like the touch of their clothes, or aches and pains in their body, or the feeling of the breath. That’s all that ever happens to them, and yet they’re able to go to the Source”

    What are the bench marks people can tune into to know what layer they are experiencing? I’m not actually all that wrapped up in “getting to the Source” but I’ve heard Shinzen talk about the value of benchmarks briefly before so it’s kinda stood out in my mind as something I should maybe be more aware of—afterall, without them, how the heck do you know where you are? If your progressing? If you’ve become static in your practice?

    Sorry this is so long, and I hope my questions make some sense. Your transcriptions of Shinzen’s sessions are AWESOME! I’ve been diving into his Enlightenment series myself (just finished my first of what will undoubtedly be several rounds of the whole series.) And it was your review I found on amazon (as well as your kick ass blog here) that made me purchase it.

    Many Blessings to you C4

    Monday, November 2, 2009 at 3:01 pm #
  4. c4chaos wrote::

    hi Diana,

    thanks for reading. as to your questions, the best person who can answer them is, of course, Shinzen himself.

    that said, allow me to share my opinion based on my intellectual and experiential understanding. but take them for what they are: just opinions. if you find them useful great, if not then feel free to set them aside 🙂

    first of, remember that the layers are just metaphors for dividing different states or modes of consciousness. the general model used here comes from the Buddhist tradition. other traditions (or even different schools of Buddhism) have differet number of layers in their model.

    in general,in the Buddhist tradition, the three layers correspond to the three bodies or “kayas”: Nirmanakaya–corresponds to the first layer (or surface layer) which is our waking consciousness (or consensual reality)’ Sambhogakaya–corresponds to the second layer (or Intermediate Realm) which includes the subtle realms (ie, dreaming), subsconscious, and unconscious. so the this layer is very thick compared to the first layer. Dharmakaya–corresponds to the body of the Absolute (the nondual), which really is not a layer. it can also be viewed as the totality of everything (including the first and the second layers). for simplicity, we just refer to it as a layer to make the metaphor more tangible.

    the Intermediate Realm, as i understand it, is the “layer” (or altered, or mode of consciousness) wherein we can have experiences that are “outside” of consensual reality (e.g. lucid dreams, visionary/hallucinations, psychic experiences, ghosts, etc.) so in short, first layer = everyday consensual reality’; third layer = Absolute; all the rest falls within the second layer.

    you said: “What are the bench marks people can tune into to know what layer they are experiencing?”

    i guess the benchmarks would be something like: if you have experiences that are subtle (lucid dreaming) or visions or what not, which is not generally available in everyday consensual reality, then that would fall under the category of Intermediate Realm (or second layer); as for the third layer (the Source), i’ll let you know once i get first-hand experience 🙂

    you said: “do you know where you are? If your progressing? If you’ve become static in your practice?”

    i guess the benchmark for this can only be answered by you: if you can maintain mindfulness and equanimity to all the different experiences with minimal craving or aversion to the experience then i think that would be a good benchmark. another is if you observe yourself having positive changes in your behavior and overall attitude then i think that’s a good benchmark that your practice is having a positive effect on you. i look at this as a good thing 🙂

    good to know that you’re listening to the Science of Enlightement series. i suggest to keep listening to it when you get the chance. in my experience, i can connect the dots the more i listen. in short, i learn something new everytime i listen to it 🙂

    godspeed on your practice.

    take care.


    Monday, November 2, 2009 at 4:11 pm #
  5. Mark wrote::

    As far as I know the trikaya is a purely Mahayana concept, not a “general” Buddhist concept, certainly not shared by the Theravadins. What is the source for your descriptions of the kayas?

    Wednesday, November 4, 2009 at 11:41 pm #
  6. c4chaos wrote::


    good point. Buddhism is very nuanced. and it’s really hard to generalize without misrepresenting the other schools of Buddhism.

    that said, Mahayana is a big school in the Buddhist tradition (which include Zen and Tibetan buddhism), in “general” Western Buddhism is more familiar with these two main schools.

    so when i use the term “general” i use it very loosely to mean the general presence of Buddhism in the Western culture, especially here in the U.S.. for example, for a lot (if not most) people here in the U.S. when you mention Buddhist, the first image that would come to mind is that of a Zen Master or the Dalai Lama.

    you may also want to look at this “What Buddhists Believe – Trikaya: The Three Bodies of the Buddha”. i think it did more generalizing than what i did here 🙂 –

    that said, the three kayas correspond also to the three modes of consciousness (in the Buddhist and Hindu tradition). the three modes are: waking, dreaming, and deep sleep.

    so if you prefer not to talk about kayas. the three modes of consciousness would provide similar metaphors.

    thanks for clarifying.


    Wednesday, November 4, 2009 at 11:58 pm #
  7. lisa lindenlaub wrote::

    This is a very clear and helpful ‘map’ of possible experiences and pit falls of one’s spiritual journey. I certainly will use this as a resource. I have faith and trust that each beings journey will unfold as it should, but i will admit that i find it somewhat frightening that spiritual powers are so attainable and so often midused. I hope as consciousness evolves that a certain level of integrity becomes a prerequisite for these gifts. Thank you for this well thoughtout and explored roadmap. You are a very gifted writer. Your care and concern for the wellbeing of fellow travelors on the path really shines.

    Saturday, June 16, 2012 at 1:57 pm #

Trackbacks/Pingbacks (5)

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