Making Progress on the Spiritual Path: Network Theory

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Linear and Nonlinear Models of Progress

We all wish to make progress on the spiritual path, but because we have unrealistic ideas about how progress happens, we are frustrated. Many want instant and consistent results, and that does not happen. Consequently, following an initial phase of enthusiastic idealism, many become discouraged and may even give up. To gain a realistic attitude, we need to understand that progress occurs only through a slow process in which from day to day things go up and down. This is because we have both positive and negative karmic aftermaths from our previous constructive and destructive behavior and, every moment, our constant grasping for impossible ways of existing activates different potentials for happiness, unhappiness, success, or failure.

Thus, progress occurs through a combination of both linear and nonlinear models. The linear model is with graded paths and the nonlinear one is with networks. Let us explore the sources of these models in the teachings and their manner of fitting together.

The Three Rounds of Transmission

Mahayana organizes the Buddhist teachings into three rounds of Dharma transmission (chos-skor gsum, three turnings of the wheel of Dharma) – one Hinayana and two Mahayana.

Although the different Tibetan traditions mostly agree on which texts belong to which round, they explain differently what defines each round. Tsongkhapa, the founder of the Gelug tradition, asserts that the scheme is not according to time sequence, but according to topic. If we take the topic to be tenet systems regarding voidness, then Gelug and non-Gelug define them differently.

For Gelug:

  1. Hinayana tenets
  2. Madhyamaka
  3. Chittamatra.

For other-voidness (gzhan-stong) non-Gelug:

  1. Hinayana tenets
  2. Madhyamaka self-voidness (rang-stong)
  3. Madhyamaka other-voidness.

However, if we define the three rounds in a way acceptable to all schools, the main themes of the three are:

  1. For Hinayana, the four noble truths
  2. For Mahayana, the Prajnaparamita (far-reaching discriminating awareness, perfection of wisdom) literature, concerning voidness and the stages of its realization
  3. The Buddha-nature literature.

Let us use this last scheme.

The Hinayana Round as Linear and the Mahayana Ones as Nonlinear

The Hinayana teachings are the basis for the Mahayana teachings, which are vast and farther reaching. We can understand this in terms of the motivation and the goal. The Hinayana motivation is renunciation and the goal is liberation; the Mahayana motivation is bodhichitta and the goal is enlightenment. Based on renunciation, we develop a farther-reaching motivation: bodhichitta; and based on liberation, one gains a farther-reaching goal: enlightenment.

Similarly, the Mahayana manner of presenting the teachings is based on and goes further than the Hinayana one, as seen in the teachings of the three rounds.

  • Hinayana teaches the four noble truths in a linear manner. True problems come from their true origins (true causes) – karmic impulses and the disturbing emotions and attitudes – and both stem from unawareness (ignorance). Their true stopping (true cessation) comes from true pathway minds (true paths) that remove them forever – namely, non-conceptual cognition of a person’s lack of an impossible “soul” (gang-zag-gi bdag-med, selflessness of persons).
  • The two Mahayana rounds teach their topics in terms of basis, path, and result (gzhi-lam-’bras-bu gsum), present the three as networks, and describe the path in both linear and nonlinear fashions.

The Mahayana presentation of networks and nonlinear progress appears most clearly in the two texts of Maitreya that are the main commentaries on the last two rounds of Dharma transmission:

  1. For Prajnaparamita, A Filigree of Realizations (mNgon-rtogs rgyan, Skt. Abhisamaya-alamkara)
  2. For Buddha-nature, The Furthest Everlasting Continuum (rGyud bla-ma, Skt. Uttaratantra).

The former presents the path and the result, while the latter presents the basis, path, and result, but focuses in depth on the basis and the result.

The Presentation of Linear and Nonlinear Networks in Filigree of Realizations

In Filigree of Realizations, Maitreya presents the path in both a linear and a nonlinear fashion. The linear process entails progressing through five pathway minds (five paths), a scheme accepted in common with the Hinayana linear presentation. The nonlinear progress is in terms of networks of eight intertwining sets of realizations (dngos-po brgyad). The text concludes by presenting the result as the intertwining network of the four Buddha-bodies.

The five pathway minds are:

  1. The building-up pathway mind (tshogs-lam, path of accumulation)
  2. The applying pathway mind (sbyor-lam, path of preparation)
  3. The seeing pathway mind (mthong-lam, path of seeing)
  4. The accustoming pathway mind (sgom-lam, path of meditation)
  5. The pathway mind needing no further training (mi-slob-lam, path of no more learning).

The Presentation of Networks in The Furthest Everlasting Continuum

In The Furthest Everlasting Continuum, Maitreya presents the basis for the path, Buddha-nature, as a network of factors, and the result as a network of not only Buddha-bodies (a Buddha’s physical bodies, speech, and mind), but also a Buddha’s enlightening qualities (yon-tan), and enlightening activity or influence (phrin-las).


  1. The basis, as described in The Furthest Everlasting Continuum, is a network of Buddha-nature factors
  2. The path, as described in A Filigree of Realizations, is a network of realizations gained both linearly and nonlinearly
  3. The result, as described in both, is a network of Buddha-bodies.

Basis, Pathway, and Resultant Networks All in Terms of Buddha-Nature

The network of Buddha-nature factors or traits is a complex of several networks of evolving traits (rgyas-’gyur-gyi rigs) intertwined with abiding traits (rang-bzhin gnas-rigs).

  • The networks of evolving traits evolve into the networks of nonstatic Buddha-bodies (the physical bodies, speech, and mind of a Buddha).
  • The abiding traits, such as the voidness of the mind when tainted with obscuration and the voidness of the networks of evolving traits, allow transformation to occur.

Moreover, a further Buddha-nature factor is the fact that the networks of evolving traits can be stimulated or inspired (byin-rlabs, “blessed”) to evolve into the networks of Buddha-bodies.

The network of realizations, along with inspiration from the network of the sources of safe direction (Three Precious Gems) and from the network of one’s spiritual mentors, affects the basis network of the Buddha-nature factors so that it evolves to become the resultant network of Buddha-bodies. Thus, the networks of evolving traits as the basis, the networks of these traits along the paths, and the networks of the Buddha-bodies as their resultant states all refer to the same networks, just in different stages.

What is a Network?

A network is not simply a collection of the items that comprise it, but is the interactive web of all the comprising items connecting to each other in many ways, and interacting and harmoniously functioning together. In Buddhist terms, it is a nonconcomitant affecting variable (ldan-min ’du-byed, an affecting variable that is neither a form of physical phenomenon nor a way of being aware of something). It is merely an imputation – in other words, something abstract that nevertheless functions to produce effects.

Thus, the network of Buddha-nature factors in their basis, pathway, and resultant stages all produce effects, such as benefiting ourselves and others. The effects that the networks produce are greater or lesser depending on the level of purification, the extent of their size, and the level of their strength.

Further, to progress on the path, we need to network progressively more items within the basis and pathway networks in progressively more ways. On the path, we need to apply different combinations of them to suit specific situations in ourselves (to overcome disturbing emotions and attitudes) and in others (to help them do the same).

Note that although the majority of the items that comprise the networks are Buddha-nature factors with no beginning, we may add elements to the networks that have not been there before. Examples are the first moment of developing bodhichitta and the first correct cognition of voidness.

Levels of Functioning of Networks

In The Furthest Everlasting Continuum, Maitreya describes the difference in levels of functioning of these network traits by explaining that these traits may be:

  1. Unpurified – the basis situation, when the Buddha-nature network is obscured by confusion,
  2. Partially unpurified and partially purified – along the path, when some of the confusion is removed,
  3. Fully purified – at the resultant stage, when all confusion and its habits are totally removed forever.

Recall that Gelug speaks of the preliminaries (mngon-’gro) as “collecting and cleansing” (bsags-sbyang). This refers to the process of purifying the networks of confusion (unawareness, ignorance) and expanding and strengthening the Buddha-nature networks. This process continues along the entire path to enlightenment.

Evolving Traits

Three Systems

Let us discuss three main systems of evolving traits.

  1. The various good qualities (yon-tan) of the mind/heart (mental activity), such as its giving rise to appearances of objects (gsal, clarity), cognizing objects (rig, awareness), responsiveness (snying-rje, compassion), warmth, understanding, and taking care of someone. We may also include constructive (virtuous) mental factors such as generosity, love, patience, and so on.
  2. The network of positive force (bsod-nams-kyi tshogs, collection of merit) from constructive actions.
  3. The network of deep awareness (ye-shes-kyi tshogs, collection of insight or wisdom).

The Network of Good Qualities

Good qualities such as warmth, compassion, generosity, and so on, may accompany moments of awareness and behavior. Even when those moments are over, we may impute on them a network of good qualities. Moreover, all our various good qualities interconnect, interact, and function together as a network. The purer and stronger each of the good qualities is and the more frequently they accompany our cognition and behavior, the stronger the network imputed on them will be. Moreover, the stronger and more frequent will be the functioning and the effects of this network; namely, the future presence and strength of these good qualities accompanying our ways of thinking, speaking, and acting.

When tainted (zag-bcas, mixed with confusion, “contaminated”) and thus unpurified (impure), the good qualities function weakly or rarely. In addition, they may become negative qualities, such as responding insensitively or in a hypersensitive manner, being emotionally cold, having no understanding, being selfishly concerned only with ourselves, and so on.

When untainted (zag-med, free from all confusion, “uncontaminated”) and thus fully purified (pure), the network of these good qualities functions without interruption or variation in strength as the network of enlightening good qualities of a Buddha.

The Network of Positive Force

Each of our constructive actions – whether physical, verbal, or mental – functions as a positive force (positive potential, merit). That force ends when the action ends, but we may impute a network of positive force on them. The strength of that network is directly proportional to the number of individual constructive actions that serve as its basis for imputation. It is also directly proportional to the various factors that affect the strength of the ripening of karmic actions, such as the motivating mental factors that accompany them from the network of good qualities. The stronger the network of positive force, the stronger and more frequent will be the results that ripen from it.

When not dedicated with bodhichitta as a cause for enlightenment, this network functions as a samsara-building network. In other words, various combinations of elements from the network of positive force ripen into samsaric results. These include the experience of the aggregate factors of a samsaric rebirth state most conducive for experiencing the other things that ripen from this network – happiness and feeling like repeating the constructive actions.

When tainted with confusion about behavioral cause and effect and thus unpurified, we have a network of negative force (sdig-pa, negative potential, “sin”) built up from our destructive behavior. It is also samsara-building and ripens into the aggregate factors of a samsaric rebirth conducive for experiencing unhappiness and feeling like repeating destructive actions.

Even when the network of positive force is tainted by being mixed with confusion about reality (unawareness of voidness), if items in it are dedicated with bodhichitta as causes for enlightenment, it is partially unpurified and partially purified. The purified aspect becomes an enlightenment-building network and functions as a cause for attaining the purified aggregates of a Buddha. The unpurified aspect still functions as a samsara-builder, continuing to bring circumstances conducive for reaching enlightenment, such as a precious human rebirth. When dedicated with renunciation as a cause for liberation from samsara, the network of positive force becomes a liberation-builder.

When fully purified, the network of purified positive force brings the aggregates of a Buddha’s body, specifically the network of all the form bodies of a Buddha, including both the body and speech, plus their enlightening activities.

The Network of Deep Awareness

If we define this network in its strictest sense, it includes only moments of nonconceptual cognition of the sixteen aspects of the four noble truths or of voidness.

If we define it in a more general manner, it also includes moments of conceptual cognition of the sixteen aspects, voidness, and moments of the five types of deep awareness (ye-shes lnga, five Buddha-wisdoms):

  1. Mirror-like deep awareness (me-long lta-bu ye-shes)
  2. Equalitizing deep awareness (mnyam-nyid ye-shes)
  3. Individualizing deep awareness (sor-rtog ye-shes)
  4. Accomplishing deep awareness (sgrub-byed ye-shes)
  5. Deep awareness of the sphere of reality (chos-dbyings ye-shes, dharmadhatu wisdom). This includes deep awareness of both the superficial and deepest true facts about things (conventional and ultimate truths) – their appearance and their voidness.

Moments of deep awareness cease to exist after they occur, as in the case of moments of constructive behavior. However, we may impute on them a network of deep awareness. Moreover, all these types of deep awareness interconnect and function as a network.

When mixed with confusion about reality and thus tainted and unpurified, the network of the five types of deep awareness functions only in a limited fashion. When not dedicated with bodhichitta as a cause for enlightenment, it is samsara-building. It ripens into the basis level of the five types of deep awareness as qualities of mind of either one of the three better rebirth states or one of the three worse. This it does in connection with the ripening of the samsara-building network of positive or negative force. Further, the unpurified network of the five types of deep awareness also functions as a network of disturbing emotions (nyon-mongs, Skt. klesha, afflictive emotions). Respectively, the five become naivety (gti-mug, Skt. moha, closed-mindedness), pride and miserliness, greed and attachment, jealousy and envy, and anger and fear.

When still tainted by being mixed with confusion about reality, but dedicated with bodhichitta as a cause for enlightenment, the network of five types of deep awareness is partially unpurified and partially purified. The unpurified aspect is samsara-building, while the purified aspect is enlightenment-building, acting as a cause for achieving the fully operational five types of deep awareness of a Buddha.

Regarding the network of deep awareness as a network of moments of correct cognition of voidness, if these moments are dedicated with bodhichitta as causes for enlightenment, the network becomes an enlightenment-building network. If they are dedicated with renunciation as causes for liberation from samsara, it becomes a liberation-building network. If they are not dedicated with either renunciation or bodhichitta, it becomes a samsara-building network that ripens into intelligence in a samsaric rebirth. In all three cases, even if the moments of cognition are conceptual, and in this sense unpurified, they contribute to their respective results.

When fully purified, the network of deep awareness transforms into a Buddha’s enlightening network of deep awareness that encompasses everything (ye-shes chos-sku, Skt. jnanadharmakaya, Wisdom-Dharmakaya).

How We Progress

Purifying, Strengthening and Combining

Progress on the spiritual path, then, comes from purifying, building up, and strengthening these three networks of Buddha-nature factors. Moreover, we need to work on all three together, combining them also as a network, like fitting together pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. When properly dedicated with bodhichitta, the networks of positive force and of deep awareness network together to bring about the attainment of the enlightening networks of the Buddha-bodies. Let us examine this more closely.

Strengthening the Networks of Positive Force and Deep Awareness

When we analyze the networks of positive force and of deep awareness more precisely, the network of positive force is built up or strengthened by a mind that focuses on the superficial truth (kun-rdzob bden-pa, conventional or relative truth) about beings – their conventional appearances – while acting constructively toward them.

The network of deep awareness is built up or strengthened by a mind that focuses non-conceptually on the deepest truth (don-dam bden-pa, ultimate truth) about all phenomena.

According to the Gelug presentation, the deepest truth or fact about all phenomena is their voidness alone, but according to the non-Gelug schools, it is their voidness inseparable from their appearance – in other words the two Gelug truths inseparably together, which is how they always are in any case. When we present the network of deep awareness in terms of the five types of deep awareness, when completely purified, they are also with cognition of the two truths together.

Both Networks as Causes and Conditions for Buddha-Bodies

The network of enlightenment-building positive force is the obtaining cause (nyer-len-gyi rgyu, material cause) for a network of enlightening forms (gzugs-sku, Skt. rupakaya). The network of enlightenment-building deep awareness is the obtaining cause for a network of enlightening deep awareness that encompasses everything.

An obtaining cause is the item from which one obtains the result. It functions as the natal source (rdzas) giving rise to the result as its successor and ceases to exist simultaneously with the arising of its result.

To produce its result, however, an obtaining cause needs to have simultaneously acting conditions (lhan-cig byed-rkyen, accompanying conditions). Results do not come from just one cause alone. Each of the two networks serves as the simultaneously acting condition for the other when the other is functioning as an obtaining cause. The simultaneously acting condition works together with the obtaining cause to produce the result, but it is not the natal source of the result. How do we understand this?

The network of enlightening forms consists of a network of subtle forms (longs-sku, Skt. sambhogakaya) and a network of grosser forms emanated from them (sprul-sku, Skt. nirmanakaya). All the subtle forms and the supreme emanation forms (mchog-gi sprul-sku) (such as Shakyamuni Buddha) have a network of 32 qualities that are ripenings (rnam-smin-gyi yon-tan). This refers to their networks of 32 excellent bodily signs (mtshan-bzang, major features), which ripen from and indicate their causes, namely enlightenment-building networks of purified positive force. Thus, from taking care of others like a mother animal licking her young, these enlightening forms have long tongues.

Although a network of 32 qualities that are ripenings results from a network of positive force as its obtaining cause, that obtaining cause must have as its simultaneously acting condition moments of cognition of voidness as a network of deep awareness. Otherwise, the positive force of constructive actions committed without any prior cognition of voidness will result in merely a fortunate rebirth in samsara. Thus, the moments of cognition of voidness need not occur simultaneously with the constructive actions that serve as the positive forces.

A network of deep awareness Dharmakaya consists of the network of a Buddha’s 32 qualities that are states of being parted (bral-ba’i yon-tan). These are qualities of a Buddha’s omniscient awareness (rnam-mkhyen), which are the result of the removal or true stopping of the two obscurations, and encompass the ten forces, four fearless proclamations, and eighteen unshared qualities.

True stoppings come from non-conceptual cognition of voidness. However, since the 32 qualities that are states of being parted are awarenesses, of not just voidness but also of the two truths inseparably, one needs as the simultaneously acting condition cognitions of superficial true facts with the buildup of a network of positive force.

Accompanying Good Qualities

Not only do we need to work on purifying and strengthening the networks of positive force and deep awareness together (and in tantra, in one moment of mind), we also need to accompany the cognitions of appearances or of voidness with various elements of the network of good qualities. For the networks to function as improved samsara-builders, liberation-builders, or enlightenment-builders, these accompanying good qualities include the three levels of motivation of lam-rim (the graded path) – namely, the wish for rebirth in one of the better states (specifically, a precious human rebirth), renunciation, and bodhichitta.

For achieving each of these three aims, the accompanying good qualities also need to include what are called in the Mahayana context the six far-reaching attitudes (phar-phyin, Skt. paramita, perfections). The six attitudes are far-reaching – meaning that they lead to the attainment of enlightenment – only when accompanied with bodhichitta. When not accompanied by bodhichitta, but merely with the wish for improved samsara or liberation, they are not “far-reaching.”

  • In general, the far-reaching attitudes of generosity, ethical discipline, and the patience of not becoming angry at difficulties with others and at one’s own problems contribute to or strengthen the network of positive force when they accompany one’s cognition of conventional appearances during constructive behavior.
  • The far-reaching attitudes of discriminating awareness, mental stability (concentration), and the patience of not becoming frustrated at the difficulties in practicing Dharma contribute to or strengthen the network of deep awareness when they accompany one’s cognition of voidness.
  • The far-reaching attitude of perseverance contributes to or strengthens both networks.

The four supports for perseverance are:

  1. The intention to achieve our goals and to build up the causes for achieving it
  2. Self-confidence and steadfastness
  3. Joy
  4. Taking a rest, when needed.

The two forces that enhance perseverance are:

  1. Accepting that to achieve our goals, we need to do this or that, and accepting that until the attainment of liberation, our samsaric experience will continue to go up and down
  2. Self-will or taking control.

Although the various far-reaching attitudes contribute to strengthening different networks, we try to have all six together at all times, functioning among themselves as a network.


  • We make progress on the path by working to strengthen the network of deep awareness during total absorption cognition (mnyam-bzhag, meditative equipoise) of voidness, and the network of positive force during subsequent attainment (rjes-thob, “post-meditation”) periods of one’s meditation and in between meditation sessions when helping others. These will network together.
  • In addition, we try to fit together the experiences and insights of all these periods like the pieces of a multidimensional jigsaw puzzle, so that they form a multidimensional network.
  • At the same time, we work to purify away and remove completely the network of negative force (built up from destructive actions) and the network of tainted positive force (from constructive actions mixed with confusion) so that they do not give rise to samsaric rebirth and the samsaric situation of no certainty, with things going up and down.
  • Also at the same time, we work to purify the network of tainted deep awareness, by removing from it not only accompanying confusion, but its habits, as we progress from conceptual to nonconceptual cognition of voidness and finally to the removal of appearances of true existence.


Furthermore, because of the Buddha-nature factor that the foundational networks can be stimulated to grow, we make progress by networking “collecting and cleansing” with inspiration from the Three Precious Gems, and from the spiritual mentor. We gain the inspiration through conviction that they have good qualities and conviction that the strength of these good qualities comes from causes and that we can develop the same ourselves, and from appreciating their kindness to help us.

In addition, on the level of tantra,

  • the Buddha-nature factors are activated through empowerment.
  • We can also stimulate them to grow by reciting mantras and imagining inspiration coming in graphic forms from Buddha-figures (yi-dam).
  • Furthermore, Buddha-figures with all their faces, arms, and legs that represent good qualities, the types of deep awareness, and so on, graphically represent a network, as does a mandala of figures. This too is inspiring. Visualizing ourselves in these forms helps to network everything together.

Perseverance through the Ups and Downs

As for how these networks ripen along the path and at the time of the result – as in the laws of systems analysis, networks ripen nonlinearly. Thus, although in the long term, we progress linearly from one path to the next; nevertheless, within each of the five paths, we go up and down from hour to hour. That is one of the characteristics of samsara – no certainty of what ripens next.

Thus, we need patience to endure difficult periods without getting frustrated, and armor-like perseverance, to continue striving no matter how difficult or slow progress may be, and even if we do not feel like practicing. After all, feeling like practicing (‘dod-pa) and not feeling like practicing also are mental factors that ripen from the networks of positive force and negative force.

Quantum Leaps on the Mahayana Path

From systems analysis, these networks are organic systems, which means they are open systems – things continually go in and come out – and thus it is self-organizing (rang-byung, self-arising). This means that when a network reaches a certain critical mass, the network jumps to a new quantum level and reorganizes itself to function on this new level.

On the basis level, quantum leaps occur each time that we die. When throwing karma for the next rebirth ripens, all our network systems reorganize so that they give rise to the five aggregate factors of experience (five aggregates) of our next rebirth state.

On the Mahayana pathway level, the main jumps, according to the Gelug-Prasangika scheme, are:

  • Going from a beginner to attaining a building-up pathway mind. This occurs when we develop unlabored (rtsol-med) bodhichitta as our primary motivation.
  • Jumping to the attainment of an applying pathway mind. This occurs when we gain a conceptual state of shamatha (zhi-gnas, serenely stilled and settled mind, calm abiding) on voidness and the sixteen aspects of the four noble truths.
  • Jumping to the attainment of a seeing pathway mind and thus going from an ordinary being to an arya. This occurs when we gain nonconceptual cognition of voidness and the sixteen aspects of the four noble truths, so that we remove forever our doctrinally based ­­­disturbing emotions and attitudes and our doctrinally based grasping for true existence (bden-’dzin).
  • Jumping to the attainment of an eighth level bhumi mind within the scope of an accustoming pathway mind, going from the unpurified to the purified levels of bhumi minds, and from an arya to a liberated arhat. This occurs when our nonconceptual cognition of voidness and of the sixteen aspects of the four noble truths also removes the automatically arising disturbing emotions and attitudes and automatically arising grasping for true existence. At this point, we have removed forever the emotional obscurations (nyon-sgrib) that are disturbing emotions and attitudes and which prevent liberation. There is nothing left to activate our karmic legacies (sa-bon, seeds, tendencies) and so we are also free of karma. Thus, we are liberated from samsara.
  • Jumping from an arhat to the attainment of Buddhahood. This occurs when our nonconceptual cognition of voidness and of the sixteen aspects of the four noble truths removes the cognitive obscurations (shes-sgrib) regarding all knowables and which prevent omniscience. This set of obscurations includes the habits of grasping for true existence, which cause the arising of cognitive appearances of true existence (bden-snang) and prevent the simultaneous cognition of the two truths (bden-gnyis).

Because of differences in asserting the two sets of obscurations, the various Tibetan traditions explain slightly differently the realizations and what we rid ourselves of in order to make the jumps from one pathway quantum level to the next. Particularly crucial is how to make the quantum leap from a conceptual cognition of voidness to a nonconceptual one.