Can one work one's way through the whole path as it is described in the Mahayana literature, and then realize: Even though you were being sincere, and the "right" experiences in the literature describe your work, you were actually not on the Buddhist path at all, but merely on an intellectual path without genuine actualization; without "direct seeing".

Can this nevertheless be preparation for the true Mahayana path?

  • 1
    When you say "work one's way through the whole Buddhist path" in this question, I suppose you don't mean "become an Arhat". So what does "work one's way through the whole Buddhist path" mean, in this question? And what is "genuine actualization" (what does that mean)?
    – ChrisW
    Commented Jan 13, 2015 at 2:00
  • Please think of some actual title for the question. Every other question has a title ...
    – ChrisW
    Commented Jan 13, 2015 at 2:02
  • er, ok.... i will edit it, the best i can anyway !
    – user2512
    Commented Jan 13, 2015 at 2:06
  • better ?????????
    – user2512
    Commented Jan 13, 2015 at 5:49
  • Unfortunately I still don't understand the question: because to me, "the whole path" means "all the way to complete/permanent enlightenment", which seems incompatible with "actually not on the Buddhist path at all". Perhaps instead of "(actually) work one's way along the whole path" you mean "(try to) work one's way along (the start of) the path"?
    – ChrisW
    Commented Jan 13, 2015 at 11:20

3 Answers 3


Isn't there a story in the commentaries about a monk who had very advanced intellectual understanding of the Buddhist path, and was even a very good teacher of others, and brought many of them to enlightenment, but was not himself enlightened. The story goes that eventually something happened to make that problem clear to him, then he did some stuff -- lived in a cave and meditated or something -- and finally was enlightened. Maybe someone can remember who the guy was; IIRC it's a pretty mainline Buddhist story.

The suggestion is that, yes, it's absolutely possible to seem to be very advanced on the path but to be far less so than one thinks. And the second suggestion I take from the story is that if the intention is good, then even if one isn't as advanced as one might think, one may still be better off than having ignored the path completely.

  • The story of Asangha and his brother! Great story by the way for his question. I read like 20 pages about it in "How to Measure and Deepen Your Spiritual Realization"
    – Ahmed
    Commented Jan 14, 2015 at 20:44

Absolutely, it is possible to be incorrect about the notion that one was on the Buddhist path. I have had plenty of this sort of experience in my own meditation practice.

Very frequently I would have unusual experiences in meditation, such as seeing lights, being filled with joy, a sense of time coming to a stop, etc. And I would ask my teacher what these experiences meant, hoping for this kind of answer or that kind of answer. Each time, he would tell me that these experiences don't mean anything and that I should focus on seeing these experiences as they are.

While I wanted these experiences to return quite badly, I failed to recognize the fact that I wanted them to return. Entire meditation sessions were wasted waiting for the lights, or time stopping, etc. It is in this sense that I "thought I was on the path" but now know that I was somewhat stubbornly misleading myself. Well, try and try again.

Although this example is from practice in a Theravadan context, the general principle should still translate to Mahayana practice or any kind of practiced skill: Sometimes it takes a lot of mistakes to realize you need a different approach. This is definitely the case for me.


Yes and ... yes.

One can be wrong about the foundation, the method one chooses, one can be wrong about anything! This is why it is important to study the Buddhadharma first and understand its foundational teachings (any introductory book will do) and to continue to study it outside of practice sessions. Practice is very important because there is a lot you will sort out through the extremely simple practice and heart of Buddhism: vipassana meditation aka self-observation.

The thing I believe you are talking about though is can one be wrong about one's own experiences? One can do this, dangerously generating what Master Huai-Chin Nan calls "false gong-fu", things that you learn from somewhere and you want that experience so strongly that your subconscious mind (which is very powerful in creating entire experiences such as dreams) replicates the experience, oftentimes as a precursor and obstacle to the real phenomenon.

For example, this can happen with kundalini in your body, chi rotations, mental phenomena, and even great peace and ease that occur when you practice Buddhist meditation (or any meditation) correctly. (See the end of the first chapter of Tao & Longevity of Master Huai-Chin Nan for excellent discussion of this.)

This is why the Buddha never talked about chi, chakras, and various things. All of those things he labelled "fire element" (which is absolutely correct). Thus, his monks did not create mental obstacles for themselves and rapidly progressed to the heart of understanding of non-self and interdependent origination.

That is the answer to the first question. As for your second question, a master would say "no, you are wasting your time, you can lose your life and opportunity to Awaken any day, any hour.. why waste your breath with false phenomena?"

And that master would be right by saying "no" to your second question.

Nonetheless, I would append my own answer: I would argue though that some of these false phenomena, although they can confuse and betray a person for years and make a person lose decades of lifetime... they can serve as very specific lessons about oneself in the future towards Buddhahood cultivation, (whether one is almost a bodhisattva or whether one is already a bodhisattva and working towards Buddhahood) where the smallest hairline of an error can cause drastic errors. This lesson-about-lessons has a thousand Buddhist parallels and parables (e.g. cosmological time in being stuck in the higher absorptions, wrongs when committed in higher realms, deadly result of losing your essence when in a higher stage of physiological cultivation).

This is similar to how overcoming small past failures (e.g. overeating, drug addiction, tv addiction, etc.) can give you the edge you need (discipline, focus, sorrow, memory) to succeed in later challenges, the failing of which can end your career or cripple or kill you.

So yeah, if you stumbled over something and ran in circles, contemplate the lesson you learned, be grateful you had the lesson to learn something valuable about yourself for such a relatively small cost, write an essay, swear to reform and move forward!

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