The Fourth Noble Truth is called "the Truth of the path" because a path leads one to the ultimate goal. One does this step by step, stage by stage, progressively completing one’s journey. The main stages of Buddhism are called "the five paths" because by progressively traversing them one eventually reaches one’s destination which is cessation. This path of the Buddha can be analysed through its five main stages which are called the five paths - Lam (Tib.) - Marga – (Skt.)
The names of the five paths are:
- 'Tshog Lam' - the stage of accumulation;
- 'Jor Lam' - the stage of junction;
- 'Tong Lam'- the stage of insight ;
- 'Gom Lam'- the stage of cultivation; and,
- 'Mi-lob Lam' - the stage of no more learning.
Properly speaking, the first four of these are the path with the fifth one being the effect.
The first path is called the "path of accumulation" because gathering or accumulating a great wealth of many things. This is the stage in which one tries to gather all the positive factors which enable one to progress. One tries to cultivate diligence, the good qualities, and the wisdom which penetrates more deeply into the meaning of things. One commits oneself to accumulate all the various positive aspects of practice. One gathers the positive elements into ones being while at the same time working on many different ways to remove all the unwanted elements from one’s life. One also applies various techniques to eliminate the various blockages and obstacles which are holding one back. This is called the stage of accumulation because one engages in this manifold activity and gathers all of these new things into one’s life.
In ordinary life we are caught up in the level of worldliness. Even though we don't want to be, we are still operating on a level of conditioned existence (Skt. samsara) because we are still under the influence of the defilements. They have a very strong habitual grip on our existence.
We need to get rid of these defilements in order to find our way out of samsara. Of course, we want to find this happiness and peace and we know it is possible. But even with the strongest will in the world, we cannot do it overnight. It is like trying to dye a large cloth in that, one needs to bring many different elements together to change the colour.
So, first of all, in order to gain the good qualities, we need to work on creating all the different conditions which will make those qualities emerge. To develop the various insights of meditation and real wisdom, we need to develop great faith and confidence in the validity and usefulness of that wisdom. Once we are convinced of its value, we need to change our habits so that we have the diligence to do all the things necessary to make insight and wisdom emerge. Therefore, there are many factors and conditions we must generate within our life that will bring about our happiness.
To remove all the unwholesome factors binding us in samsara, we must uproot belief in a self, eliminate the various defilements which are hindering us, and bring together the many different conditions that make this transformation and purification possible. We talk about accumulation because we are assembling all the different conditions that make this transformation possible. We won't be able to progress in a significant manner until we have gathered all these causes and conditions in a proper and completely perfect way within ourselves. For that reason, the purpose of this stage of accumulation is to complete all the necessary conditions by gathering them into our existence.
Eventually, because of the complete gathering of favourable conditions, we will reach the third path which is the "path of insight." This is the stage during which insight into the way things actually are is developed which is beyond the veil of delusion. Linking the path of accumulation and the path of insight is the second path of junction. Here our inner realization, the very way we can perceive things, begins to link up with the truth of the actual nature of phenomena because we are gathering all the favourable circumstances that will eventually lead us to the actual insight itself. When we attain insight into the way things really are and this insight develops beyond the level of delusion and mistaken views, we realize that there is no self.
Once there is no longer a belief in self, there are no longer any root defilements of attachment, aggression, or mental darkness associated with the idea of self. Once there are no longer any defilements, one does nothing non-virtuous and has no more suffering. Now, it is true that once we have that insight, all suffering is immediately removed, but in another way, that is not true. This is because the delusion of a self is a habit which has been built up for such a long time and is very, very hard to remove. For example, when we believe in the self and we hit our finger with a hammer, it hurts.
Even when we have realized that an unchanging self is just a delusion fabricated by our minds, still when we hit our finger with a hammer it hurts. We still have the feeling, "I am suffering" because there is an enduring built-up association of "I" with the flesh of our body. Removal of that long-established conditioning of self is carried out through a long process of identification to the truth of non-self. This is the fourth stage of the cultivation of insight.
The fourth stage is called the path of cultivation - gom-lam (Tib.). The word gom is usually translated as "meditation" but actually means "to get used to something" or "to accustom oneself." This is why it is translated here as "the path of cultivation," while other texts translate it as "the path of meditation." But this stage is the idea of getting used to the insight into the nature of things. Through becoming more and more familiar with the truth of things, we can remove the very fine traces of defilements and subconscious conditioning that still exist. Through gradual working on these, the goal of Buddhahood will be attained.
Through the cultivation of insight we eventually reach the goal of the fifth path which is called "the path of no more study." Through cultivation we remove even the most subtle causes of suffering. Once this is completed we have reached the highest state and there are no more new paths to go along making this "the path of no more study" or "the path of no more practice."