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The Gradual Training

Updated: Oct 3, 2023

The gradual training is another way to describe the Noble Eightfold Path.

The gradual training refers to the gradual removal of the five hindrances, the upakilesa in the Pali language. They are desire, ill-will and aversion, dullness and drowsiness, restlessness and remorse and doubt. These are also known as defilements.

The stages in the gradual training are:

1. First, a Buddha, a fully Awakening being, arises in the world. This Buddha then teaches the Dhamma (reality, laws of nature) in a complete way that is good in the beginning, good in the middle and good in the end.

2. On hearing these teachings, those with "little dust in their eyes" are inspired and acquire faith and confidence. This is a cause of joy.

3. Some people then decide to become monastics, to give themselves optimum support to Awaken. The rest of us remain in the household life, carrying out the training as best we can.

4. Living a virtuous life, following the precepts (a moral code of living). We also incline towards living more simply. This also leads to joy, as we are living a blameless life with fewer burdens.

5. Being content. This leads to joy as we aren't agitated by always wanting something, feeling a lack. Or agitated by feeling averse to situations in life.

6. Wise reflection in regard to the senses. We don't let ourself be sucked in by advertisements, by the marks and features of tempting things or the marks and features of aversive things. Peace is our most valuable possession. We must guard it, not throw it away when someone lets us down or behaves unskillfully. We use wisdom to help us see the impermanence of any happiness that comes from getting something we want or the unhappiness of focusing on aversion.

7. Mindfulness and clear comprehension. This means being fully aware of every action we do, knowing it's purpose and suitability. Our overall purpose, when on the Path, is to give our body and mind the conditions needed to be peaceful.

8. Meditation. Finally, after the preparation of the first seven steps, we come to our meditation practice.. We find a secluded place to sit, we bring mindfulness to the fore and abandon the hindrances. The style of meditation we choose to practice is not important. Our intention is what is abandon the hindrances. So, is our chosen meditation method helping us abandon the hindrances? Once the hindrances are fully abandoned, at least temporarily, the jhanas happen. When we emerge from the jhanas we turn our attention to the impermanence, unsatisfactoriness and not self nature of all things. Due to our clear seeing that arises from the abandonment of the hindrances and the mindfulness developed in the jhanas, we gain insight into reality and Awaken.

We need to remove the gross forms of the hindrances before we attempt to remove the subtle forms. If we try and remove the subtle forms first, it won't work.

First we purify the gross defilements of our actions, speech and thoughts. The gross thoughts are when we hold the intention to act or speak badly. Then we purify thoughts of desire and ill-will. Next we purify the subtle thoughts that remain. Abandoning desire and ill-will automatically purifies the last three hindrances since they are largely caused by the first two.

The Precepts

- Don't kill. Have compassion for the welfare of all beings.

- Don't take what is not offered.

- Don't cause harm with your sexual energy

-No lying, deceiving. Be reliable. No divisive speech, no gossiping to split people apart. Reconcile those who have broken apart and cement those who are united. Have a love of concord. Speak in a way that creates concord. No abusive speech. Speak words that are soothing, affectionate, that go to the heart, are polite, appealing and pleasing. No idle chatter. Speak at the right time what is factual and is in accordance with the Dhamma. Speak words worth treasuring. Speak words that are reasonable and circumscribed. Don't argue, saying, "I am right and you are wrong". Don't criticize others.

- Don't take intoxicants that lead to heedlessness.

We can't expect ourselves to follow these precepts perfectly....remember, it's a gradual training. We make the intention to follow the precepts and do our best to carry out this intention. Gradually, our habit energy changes and we follow the precepts more and more completely. Happiness arises naturally when we do this. It's the happiness of blamelessness: freedom from regrets and remorse.


Being content with little and content with what we have. Possessions are a burden. When we get something we may worry about it being stolen or lost or damaged. Often things require maintenance, thus our valuable time. When we are attached to things, we suffer when we are separated from them. And desires don't lead to contentment because as soon as one desire is satisfied, another one pops up! And every time we indulge in a desire, we reinforce the habit of desiring. This makes it more likely we'll be attracted to sensory objects in the future.

We practice contentment with our everyday life as well as during our time in meditation. We practice contentment with whatever our mind throws up at us during meditation.....because it's the reality of that moment. We will respond to it skilfully but with contentment. We won't add the "second arrow" of more suffering to the suffering the mind threw at us.

Being content is the first stage of reducing desires. It falls under Right Effort. Contentment leads to happiness. Once we are content, the next step in the gradual training is possible.

Wise reflection in regard to the senses

When seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, touching or experiencing bodily sensations and when thoughts arise, we don't grasp at the details of the experience which could cause desire or aversion to arise.

For example: if we see something that could arouse desire in us, of if the desire has already arisen, we can let go i.e. stop focusing on the details of what we are seeing and focus on "just seeing". Or we can use wise reflection: consider if satisfying the desire will put us in debt, break our precepts, cause too much maintenance or attention etc. Consider that, yes, satisfying this desire will bring some happiness, but will it be so short lived it's not worth it or does any subsequent suffering outweigh the happiness? With this reflection we may feel the "hot coal" of suffering in our hand. Then we don't need any effort to let go of the desire. As soon as we feel the hot coal, we reflexly drop it! This is wisdom power versus will power. This is the gift of wise reflection.

[Note: please read the article on "What does the Buddha say about Wealth". How much we satisfy our desires depends on our income and where we are on the continuum of the spiritual path. Renouncing all attachments to desires is for those who are ready to do so. We don't "force" ourself to let go of our desires before we feel ready to do so. When we are ready, it is because we have seen the suffering inherent in the sensory world and feel ready to abandon it for the joy of a renounced life (fewer burdens), the joy experienced in deep meditation and the relief of not returning to an existence of suffering.

For example: if we hear an irritating noise: (this assumes it's not convenient to remove ourselves, close a window, put in ear plugs etc): we stop focusing on the details of the sound. It's just sound waves contacting the ear drum. Bhikkhu Thanissaro visualizes himself as a screen and the sound waves just pass right through. If aversion arises, notice how this is a "second arrow" i.e. more suffering added on top of the suffering of the noise. Wisely reflect on the added effect of the second arrow until you feel the hot coal and drop it.

For example: Touch or physical sensations can be pleasant or unpleasant. If pleasant, use wise reflection to determine that no precepts are being broken and it's not inappropriate for the present moment and then just enjoy! But it's important to enjoy without attachment. The sensation is impermanent and if there is attachment there will be suffering when it ends. So use wise reflection to prevent attachment or use it to feel the "hot coal".

If it's unpleasant, and assuming there is nothing more to be done to alleviate the discomfort, we can employ the "holding technique" described in Lesson Three.

Another method is to focus on a part of our body that is comfortable and gradually extend this good feeling to the area of discomfort.

Wise reflection can be applied at any time we become aware that a hindrance has arisen.....or we are aware that there is a danger of one arising. If we know certain situations will arouse a hindrance that we can't yet abandon, then we are wise to avoid those situations.

Wise reflection in regard to the senses leads to an unsullied happiness that is greater than the happiness of the previous steps in the Gradual Training.

Mindfulness and Clear Comprehension

This is awareness of what we are doing, what the purpose is of this action and knowing if this action is suitable or not to accomplish the purpose. This is to be practiced for every action we undertake in our daily life.

A natural happiness arises when the hindrances are gone due to mindfulness and clear comprehension that is even greater than the happiness that results from wise reflection in regard to the senses.

Once we have accomplished these four steps of the Gradual Training, we are now ready to sit down and do breath meditation. At this point, breath meditation will easily bear the fruit of stillness and jhana.

This is what the Buddha taught. If we have another method to overcome the hindrances that works, it is good. If it doesn't work, it's not good.

What does meditation practice look like during the different stages of purifying our mind?

From my experience, there is not a distinct line drawn between the different stages of mind purification. Once we set the intention to follow the precepts, to live a moral life, we slide back and forth between the three stages due to triggers and habit energy.

In the first stage of purification, Right Speech is difficult to maintain all the time. Refraining from killing irritating insects is another challenge. If we use harsh speech and then try and meditate, we may be too agitated with remorse to sit and watch our breath. Walking, or even running, meditation may be the best option at this time. Once we are settled enough to sit, we can use wise reflection to review the situation that led to the harsh speech. Forgiveness of ourself, plans to apologize to the other and metta meditation may be helpful.

At another time, we may feel settled when we approach our meditation practice. But once sitting, aversion may arise due to the temperature being wrong or due to the presence of some noise or craving for food may arise etc. This is the second stage of purification. We aren't acting out any hindrances....just experiencing them in our mind. This is the time to do wise reflection.

At another time, we may be very peaceful when we sit to meditate and remain that way. Or, in the above two situations, we may settle down due to the hindrances being temporarily abandoned. So now is the time for breath meditation (anapanasati). This is the third stage of purification.

We need guidance to overcome the hindrances - until we experience the jhanas. Once we can easily experience the jhanas, we are self sufficient. So the time to approach a teacher is when we are overcome with the hindrances.

To meditate, the Buddha instructs us to go to a secluded place, to sit comfortably and to put in the causes for mindfulness to arise in front. The causes for mindfulness are the steps of the Gradual Training. The phrase "in front" means to give it priority.

The reason breath meditation comes in at this point is that, to work, breath meditation needs mindfulness. And mindfulness deepens with the overcoming of the hindrances. And the hindrances are overcome with the Gradual Training. So once the hindrances are subdued to a subtle form, we are ready to sit down in a secluded place, bring our mindfulness into the present moment and wait...patiently.....with contentment. If a subtle hindrance arises, we let it go. We keep our attention on the Path, not on the destination.

In this third stage of purification, we are dealing with the subtle hindrances. Our mind going out to a sound is a subtle hindrance. Planning is restlessness as we are going out to the future....not being content with resting in the here and now. Doubt means doubt about what is a skilful or unskilful state of mind, or how best to meditate. Therefore, it is difficult to purify our mind if we don't know what to abandon or how to do it. We mustn't suppress our doubts. It important to discuss them with a teacher. The Buddha listed the subtle defilements of thought as those of relations, country and reputation. These all relate to a sense of self.

Breath meditation (Anapanasati) is the technique to carry out Satipatthana (the four focuses of mindfulness). Both are based on sila (morality) and Right View. The Gradual Training addresses morality. Right View is understanding the Four Noble Truths: there is suffering, there is a cause for it (desire), it's possible for this suffering to cease, and the Path to its cessation is the Noble Eightfold Path: Right View, Right Intention, Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood, Right Effort, Right Mindfulness Right Samadhi...stillness. Meditation techniques other than Anapanasati are suitable as long as they assist us in abadoning the hindrances.

Once all the subtle hindrances are gone, what is left are thoughts of the Dhamma (loving friendliness, harmlessnes, letting go). So the mind is still not completely tranquil. There is still a subtle sense of a doer who is in control. Once these final thoughts are tranquilized, we enter the jhana states. And when we emerge from the stillness of the jhanas, we can direct our mind towards the inconstancy, unsatisfactoriness and not self nature of our world. The stillness that lingers after emerging from the jhanas helps us really see these characteristics on a deep level....not just an intellectual level. We also look at the Four Noble Truths. We can now understand them on a very deep level. When this deep level of understand clicks in, like a light bulb turning on, we have experienced the first level of Awakening.

In summary:

We hear the teachings of the Buddha and become inspired to try out the Path. Our first effort is to stop behaving and speaking in a harmful manner and to stop planning such acts.

Next we develop contentment with life as it is. We let go of ill will and aversion and to some degree, desires, depending where we are along the Path.

Then we develop a meditation practice that aids us in letting go of the subtle restlessness of the mind.

When all the hindrances are cleared, we then let go of the positive mind states, the last vestige of movement of the mind.

This now allows us to enter the jhanas, the states of profound stillness and bliss.

When we emerge from the jhanas, we direct our attention to the three characteristics of everything:

- impermanence or inconstancy

- inherent unsatisfactoriness

- not self nature (no solid, unchanging core to anything, anyone)

This results in Awakening.

This article is based on a series of Sutta Study talks given by Ajahn Brahmali and one Sutta Study talk given by Ajahn Brahm.

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