Watering Down the Dharma
I have been accused of “watering down the dharma.” By defining an arahat (also arhat and arahant) as someone who has “gotten off the ride” and can see experience as process, as opposed to a cartoon saint, I have ruffled more than a few feathers. Here are some questions, along with my responses:
Why are you redefining the Four Paths of Theravada Buddhism?
There is an old joke in which a man is asked, “Do you still beat your wife?”
The person being asked is put into an untenable situation by the false assumption built into the question. The assumption is that you have beaten your wife in the past. If you answer “no,” the questioner will follow up with “when did you stop?”
Best to reject the question entirely.
Why are you redefining the Four Paths?
I reject the question. It is false to assume that there is One Right Way to interpret ancient texts, providing an infallible orthodoxy against which all other interpretations must be compared and inevitably found lacking. There is no One Right Way.
The authors who penned the early Buddhist texts are no longer available for comment. We can only guess at their intentions. Modern commentators who insist that they know the original meaning of arahat are overplaying their hand, regardless of how scholarly or ostensibly traditional their arguments.
Like everyone else who has an opinion about this, I am simply throwing my hat into the ring; I offer one possible interpretation of the Four Paths model. This interpretation is based on the Pali Canon and commentaries, rooted in observed reality, and nurtured by pragmatism. Implausible claims are sooner discarded than taken at face value. But even after discarding the implausible, the unprovable, and the downright silly, what is left is too good to ignore; enlightenment is much more than a myth, it happens to real people in our own time, and it can be systematically developed through known practices.
It seems likely that the Buddhist definition of “fully enlightened” changed over time in a kind of slow motion frenzy of one-upmanship. Here is a passage from palikanon.com, attributed to W.G. Weeraratne, author of several books on Buddhism and editor-in-chief of the prodigiously researched Encyclopaedia of Buddhism, published by the government of Sri Lanka:
In its usage in early Buddhism the term [arahant] denotes a person who had gained insight into the true nature of things (yathābhūtañana). In the Buddhist movement the Buddha was the first arahant… The Buddha is said to be equal to an arahant in point of attainment, the only distinction being that the Buddha was the pioneer on the path to that attainment, while arahants are those who attain the same state having followed the path trodden by the Buddha.
Note that “insight into the true nature of things” sounds as though it might be within reach of anyone. (In a moment, we’ll discuss what the early Buddhists believed this “true nature” to be.) And indeed it was not the least bit unusual for people practicing the Buddha’s system to become “fully enlightened arahats” according to early Buddhist texts. But look what happened next:
But, as time passed, the Buddha-concept developed and special attributes were assigned to the Buddha. A Buddha possesses the six fold super-knowledge (chalabhiññā); he has matured the thirty-seven limbs of enlightenment (bodhipakkhika dhamma); in him compassion (karunā) and insight (paññā) develop to their fullest; all the major and minor characteristics of a great man (mahāpurisa) appear on his body; he is possessed of the ten powers (dasa bala) and the four confidences (catu vesārajja); and he has had to practise the ten perfections (pāramitā) during a long period of time in the past.
When speaking of arahants these attributes are never mentioned together, though a particular arahant may have one, two or more of the attributes discussed in connection with the Buddha (S.II.217, 222). In the Nidāna Samyutta (S.II.120-6) a group of bhikkhus who proclaimed their attainment of arahantship, when questioned by their colleagues about it, denied that they had developed the five kinds of super-knowledge—namely, psychic power (iddhi-vidhā), divine ear (dibba-sota), knowledge of others’ minds (paracitta-vijānana), power to recall to mind past births (pubbenivāsānussati) and knowledge regarding other peoples’ rebirths (cutū-papatti)—and declared that they had attained arahantship by developing wisdom (paññā-vimutti).
Hmmm… So it looks as though the meanings of the words Buddha and arahat changed over time, with more and more powers and attributes layered on. Eventually, the lists of things arahats could do and the lists of things they had left behind became so long that no living person, past or present could reasonably be expected to make the cut. This is where we find ourselves today, assuming we believe the currently popular (among Buddhists) kitchen-sink version of enlightenment.
Let’s go back to the beginning for a moment.
In its usage in early Buddhism the term [arahat] denotes a person who had gained insight into the true nature of things.
It would be useful to know what the early Buddhists may have meant by the “true nature of things.” Here is more from Weeraratne:
At the outset, once an adherent realised the true nature of things, i.e., that whatever has arisen (samudaya-dhamma) naturally has a ceasing-to-be (nirodhā-dhamma), he was called an arahant…
Are you seeing what I’m seeing? Not only is full enlightenment (arahatship) a perfectly reasonable thing for ordinary people to aspire to and attain, the Buddha himself was initially considered just another enlightened man, albeit the first of his group. All that was required was to see that anything that “has arisen, naturally has a ceasing-to-be.” (And may I humbly submit that this is precisely what I mean when I advocate learning to see this experience as process. While trivial as a mere concept, the ability to see this in real time is life-changing.) I find this empowering beyond words. Although I would be perfectly willing to dispense with Buddhism entirely if it did not have anything to offer us at this point in our history, I love the fact that 2500 years ago, humans discovered a technology for mental development that still works today. And I love the fact that once you strip away the accretions of thousands of years of can-you-top-this storytellers, it all seems perfectly do-able to us ordinary folks. It is perfectly do-able, of course, and this is my entire point.
In interpreting ancient Buddhist maps, it is necessary to begin with a few assumptions. Here are mine: I begin with the assumption that the chroniclers of early Buddhism were pointing to something that was happening around them (or to them), but were limited by the obligatory biography-as-hagiography storytelling style of their day. I continue with the assumption that what was possible in the 5th Century BCE is still possible today. Next, I strip away the implausible and preserve the plausible. It is implausible that ancient meditators defied gravity, traveled through time, performed miracles, or overcame their human biology. On the other hand, it is plausible that awakening, as it was then understood, was commonplace among meditators in the time of the Buddha. (A common theme of early Buddhist documents is that nearly everyone who did the Buddha’s practice became fully enlightened.) I conclude that there is an organic process of development that results from meditation. It need not be mystical or magical, and we can just as easily think of it as brain development. Finally, and most importantly, I reality-test these assumptions with observations of present day humans, using my subjective experience, interviews with other meditators, and the carefully documented reports of present-day meditators available in books and online forums.
Before I present a side-by-side comparison of two competing models of arahatship, we might reasonably ask whether a stage model of contemplative development has any value at all. I believe it does. Humans learn best when they are given discreet goals and regular assessments of progress. I have heard the protestations of those who believe that meditation must never be a goal-oriented activity, and that this holy truth renders all stage models either counterproductive or irrelevant. I refer such people to the success of my students. And for those who crave a more authoritative (authoritarian?) voice, I would point out that according to that most definitive of Buddhist sources, the Pali Canon, the dying words of the Buddha were “Strive diligently.”
We can compare and contrast my model (let’s call it the Pragmatic Model) with a model that is currently in vogue among Buddhists, and which we might reasonably call the Saint Model.
First, the definitions:
The Pragmatic Model of Arahatship
These people know they are done; they have come to the end of seeking. Although they may continue to meditate with great enthusiasm, and continue to deepen and refine important aspects of their understanding throughout their lives, they do not feel there is anything they need to do vis a vis their own awakening. This is in marked contrast to the pre-arahat meditator, who tends to be obsessed with meditation and progress. Equally important, the Pragmatic Model arahat is able to see experience as process. There is no enduring sense of self at the center of experience. The Buddhist ideal of insight into not-self has been completely realized and integrated.
The Saint Model of Arahatship
This person does not suffer. No negative emotion is felt or expressed. Ever. (I have emphasized the expression of negative emotions because there will always be individuals who claim not to feel negative emotions even while expressing them in a way that is obvious to everyone around them. Doesn’t count.) No anger, resentment, annoyance, irritation, aversion, impatience, or restlessness is allowed. There is no sensual desire, and this applies to both food and sex. This person cannot compare himself/herself with others, either favorably or unfavorably. This person is unable to lie, steal, speak harshly, or kill a sentient being, including insects. Did I mention omniscience and diverse psychic powers including mind reading? This person is a saint by the most rigorous interpretation of the word.
Comparing the models
For a developmental model to be relevant to modern humans, it should describe something that actually happens and can be observed today. It should happen often enough to form a reasonable sample size for study. The Pragmatic Model does this. I estimate that I have communicated with 20-30 people who might be considered arahats by this model. Since I personally know only a tiny fraction of the humans on Earth, it is reasonable to assume that this is only the tip of the iceberg, and there are many hundreds or thousands of such people whom I have not yet met.
By contrast, the Saint Model is a high bar indeed. I have never met anyone who could approach it, in spite of the fact that in the natural course of my life, first as dedicated seeker, and later as meditation teacher, I have met many highly accomplished and/or revered meditators. As for dead saints, in many cases there is little record of the phenomenology of their day-to-day experience, either subjective or as observed by others. In cases where there is such a record, candidates are quickly eliminated from the Saint Model for displaying or reporting unseemly amounts of human behavior.
A useful model describes a repeatable process and has clear metrics for success. The Pragmatic Model identifies specific phenomena that are experienced by the meditator at each stage along a typical sequence of events. (See, for example, the Progress of Insight section of this book, and my criteria for attainment of each of the Four Paths.) The Saint Model, on the other hand, does not offer clear metrics for success, either in the beginning or the middle. In the end, you will know you have achieved it because you will never experience or express irritation, and you will lose your enjoyment of food.
The Hercules Effect: Why “watering down” a high standard might be a good idea
In Greco-Roman mythology, Hercules was the very embodiment of physical fitness. He did a great deal of slaying and capturing in his illustrious career, and even had time to hold up the world for a moment when Atlas needed a break. Hercules was invincible and almost infinitely strong. Compared to Hercules, the most decorated athletes of our own day are scarcely worth mentioning. Hercules would outbox Mike Tyson with one hand while simultaneously defeating Serena Williams at tennis and Michael Jordan (in his prime!) at basketball. Are we watering down our definition of physical fitness by not believing in Hercules? Or are we simply acknowledging that Hercules is but a myth and is therefore not relevant to us as we probe the limits of human excellence?
Similarly, we can dispense with the myth of enlightened sainthood and concentrate on what actually happens to flesh and blood humans when they meditate. We can define enlightenment/awakening in a way that comports with observed reality. A four paths model that is teachable and learnable is infinitely more interesting than one that never happens.
We stopped believing in Hercules some time ago. Perhaps it’s time to stop believing in magical cartoon saints. This is an eminently practical step, as letting go of our fantasies allows us to focus on meditation in earnest. And effective meditation practice allows us to realize the remarkable benefits of awakening for ourselves, rather than through the intermediary of an imagined champion.