Watering Down the Dharma

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.

12 thoughts on “Watering Down the Dharma

  1. Derek

    Hello, Kenneth. A thoughtful post as always.

    Taking as our starting point the four-fold model of enlightenment in the Sutta Pitaka —

    Is that what you mean by “magical cartoon saints”?

    Are you certain there are no arahants (by the sutta model) in the world today?

  2. apperception

    Two questions:

    First question is similar to Derek’s: It really does seem like there are people in the world today – people like Thanissaro Bhikkhu or Bhante Sujato or other people in the Thai Forest tradition or even the Mahasi tradition – who are following out this magical cartoon saint path you’re talking about, and their experiences are matching what’s described in terms of the fetters (things like anger vanishing, sensual desire going away, etc.). And these are people who are also in some cases strong Pali Canon scholars and who have differentiated between what the original teaching was and what was added on later. It seems like from their point of view, they would say (a) this is not something that’s at all out of reach, but it’s not easy to get to, and (b) you ARE in fact “watering down” the paths, and they’d point to their experiences and scholarship to show why.

    You might say – in my opinion, with a lot of justification – that’s not a useful path for me to follow, because … (and here you could give a lot of reasons, like that a renunciate path isn’t the only/best path to follow, etc.). But then you’d still have to answer for the fact that you’re using this path terminology and this word “arahant” (however you spell it) in an incorrect way. Wouldn’t it be better to just give them the path terminology and the word “arahant” and use some other word, not just because it would be more accurate, but because it might be less confusing?

    Second question: What’s the relationship between non-grasping and perceiving experience as process (not-self)? This continually confuses me. The Buddha taught that grasping (really: desire) was the source of dukkha. Even where he’s talking about not-self, it’s basically a pivot to get his disciples to renounce sensual desire. “You can’t have the body be the way you want, it’s unstable, so it’s not you … you can’t have consciousness be the way you want, it’s unstable, so it’s not you, etc. … so become disillusioned with these things, go for the deathless (nibbana) instead.” And this seems like a very different emphasis (if not goal) from modern Buddhist teachings (what you’re teaching but a lot of others too) which is not to escape desiring but to escape this illusion of there being a centerpoint to experience. So desire isn’t a problem, you just have to be mindful of it or see it as not-self. These two tasks aren’t obviously the same – at least not to me. The Buddha seemed to be teaching that desire was the problem; you (and others) say the sense of a separate self is the problem. What’s the relationship between these two things? Not just as concepts but as spiritual projects or practices.

  3. Derek

    apperception — the relationship between desire and self is easy to observe in direct experience. You just have to watch the way a sense of self arises out of opposition to that which is, the desire for things to be other than they are or other than one imagines they might be. The self is constructed as the supposed actor one believes can effect this change. The defense mechanisms, the conditioned desires, and the constructed self are all tied together.

  4. Kenneth Folk Post author

    @Derek: Yes, the “kitchen sink” interpretation of arahat from the suttas is what I mean by cartoon saint. My hypothesis is that the original Buddhists defined the word much as I do, and that the arahat-as-superman legend formed later.

    “Are you certain there are no arahants (by the sutta model) in the world today?” -Derek

    There are subtle do-you-still-beat-your-wife assumptions built into this question.

    1) The question assumes that there is only one way to interpret the sutta model (and that everyone agrees on it).

    2) Because of the qualifier “today” one might assume that even if there were no such creatures today, there must have been some in the past.

    Can you phrase the question differently?

    @apperception: I have no reason to believe that Thanissaro Bikkhu or Bhante Sujato, (or anyone else) has eradicated anger or sensual desire. Have they claimed this?

    It certainly is possible, while living a monastic lifestyle, to go for extended periods without feeling much desire or ill will. I have experienced this for myself while on long-term retreat in Buddhist monasteries. But this is a function of the lifestyle, often including many hours a day of formal meditation. As a thought experiment, I like to imagine what would happen if you took one of these monks out of the monastery and dropped him into the middle of New York City with a partner, a job, a minivan, and three kids.

    re: “using the nomenclature in an incorrect way.” My point is that there is no “correct way.” There are only interpretations. This is fundamental to our discussion, and without agreeing on that much, we’ll just be talking across each other.

    Since I believe that my interpretation of enlightenment is in alignment with the way the first Buddhists used the word, it makes no sense for me to cede the word to people I believe have got it wrong, however popular their interpretation.

    re the “relationship between non-grasping and perceiving experience as process:” When experience is seen as process, nothing is privileged. This includes the momentarily arising sense of self, along with momentarily arising desire and ill will. In other words, whether you focus on non-clinging, non-desiring, seeing through the illusion of a separate self, or seeing experience as process, these might all be ways to talk about the same thing. On the other hand, different teachers do have their own views and desired outcomes, so it’s good to consider these things. One teacher’s enlightenment may be another teacher’s cul-de-sac. It’s an uncertain business, no matter how you slice it.

    What I really want to say is that developmental awakening, using a model that parallels developmental psychology, i.e., iteratively objectifying what was previously taken as subject, is possible, desirable, and carries built-in safeguards against inadvertent dead-ending. But it does not result in sainthood. Is it as good as sainthood? Meaningless question, if sainthood is but a myth.

    My teacher, the late Bill Hamilton, used to say, “Highly recommended. Can’t tell you why.” Still one of the best answers I’ve heard to the question “what is enlightenment?”

    1. apperception

      Hi Kenneth, thanks for the thoughtful reply.

      I’m not sure what Bhante Sujato’s day-to-day experience is like, but Thanissaro Bhikkhu did an interview awhile back in which he described his experience in such a way that led me to believe he’s an non-returner and has abandoned the first 5 of the 10 fetters.


      The relevant part is on page 4, though the whole thing is interesting for an insight into what it’s like living day-to-day after following that particular path for that long.

      As for the rest, of course I support your project and have followed this path as best I can myself. We’ll just have to agree to disagree over the relative worth of using some terms. It’s in my own nature to heavily qualify words when they seem to carry a lot of intellectual or emotional baggage. For this reason I’ve backed away from some of these words, but not the practice. If someone wants to call the end result “Hoagie Haven,” I’m indifferent. I’ll be a Hoagie Havenist then.


  5. Derek

    Hi, Kenneth, I just mean the ordinary definition of enlightenment from the four-stage model, as handily summarized in Wikipedia (not that I’m appealing to Wikipedia as an authoritative source LOL):


    By that definition, an arahant is one who is free from the ten fetters. As I’m sure you know.

    The other definition of an arahant that’s repeatedly given is one in whom the three āsavas have been extinguished. In fact it is this definition that seems to be the most primitive and fundamental, since it is the extinguishing that gives us the very word for enlightenment, nibbana (which means extinguished).

    In the passages you quote, W.G. Weeraratne isn’t arguing that either of THESE definitions dates from after the time of the Buddha. He’s arguing that the extravagant descriptions of special powers came later.

    So my question is, can you be sure that no one now (or ever) met the ten-fetter or the extinction definition of an arahant?

  6. Ona

    Hi Kenneth – I think your comment about the monastic environment mentioned in your second post is interesting and probably relevant. Most of the folks I know via pragmatic dharma are not only “householders” but 21st century householders, living in a fast-paced, industrial society.

    Moreover, among those who are awake, most of them have not had years of monastic experience *before* waking up, and usually have had no interest in a lifestyle of renunciation, self-discipline, virtue, etc. (in fact not having to do that stuff is part of the appeal of pragmatic dharma for some). They may have (or have had) a lot of psychological stress or “baggage,” addictions, emotional difficulties, and so on. Or not.

    But the monastic life not only provides a very stable, consistent and structured context, but also acts as a filter – those who can’t adapt to the discipline, obedience, and routine are unlikely to stay.

    I’m obviously painting with a broad brush here, but I think it does make a lot of sense to take into account context when comparing awakening as described by monastics and by our contemporary peers.

    (I think the other things you mentioned are also relevant and interesting, but just wanted to focus on this one feature for the moment.)

  7. Kenneth Folk Post author

    Thanks for clarifying, Derek. Great question. Whether anyone alive or dead meets the ten-fetters definition or the extinction definition of arahat again depends on the interpretation of the ten fetters and the asavas. (Apologies to those not familiar with these terms. For the purposes of my argument, it’s enough to know that any word from an ancient scholars’ language has to be interpreted today… and we may get it wrong.)

    I can interpret those words in a way that satisfies my common sense, and by such an interpretation, there were and are people who qualify as arahats. Such an interpretation, however, is unlikely to satisfy a certain group of folks who may think of themselves as purists.

    In the most rigorous interpretation that I can imagine, I do not believe anyone alive or dead meets the standards of either definition. Can I be sure? Certainly not, much in the same way I can’t be sure there are no unicorns or fairies; one can never prove a negative, and as Bertrand Russell argued with his teapot, the inability to disprove does not prove. I don’t believe in unicorns, fairies, or purified humans because I’ve never seen any credible evidence that they exist.

    For me, the more fantastical claims about enlightenment only serve to obscure the fact that enlightenment is possible for real people today. Believing in an unattainable goal can easily serve as a rationalization for not attempting it. A friend shared a link yesterday making a similar point:

    Researchers found that depressed people had less specific goals and that this contributed to a downward spiral.

    “Having very broad and abstract goals may maintain and exacerbate depression. Goals that are not specific are more ambiguous and, therefore, harder to visualise. If goals are hard to visualise it may result in reduced expectation of realising them which in turn results in lower motivation to try and achieve them.”


    Yet another reason to choose a model of awakening that comports with observed reality.

    1. stephencoe100

      Hi Kenneth,

      Enjoyed your article very much! And I am in whole hearted agreement.

      Stephen Batchelor is someone who is very much on the same page as your self and I would encourage everyone to visit his website – stephenbatchelor.org

      Peace and contentment Steve Coe.

  8. Christian_A

    Hi Kenneth – and hello to everybody else also since this is my first comment here (although I have spent a lot of time following the great teachings and interesting discussions)!

    I think this is brilliant, very much needed, and very helpful!

    Thanks Jim for sharing the interesting interview with Thanissaro Bhikkhu. My interpretation is that he is implicitely saying that he is not an Anagami (according to the traditional definition), since he says that “occasionally there are irritations” (which is a form of aversion, and an Anagami “can not be aroused to aversion, anger or discontent”. Source: Bhikkhu Bodhi, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/bodhi/waytoend.html).

    Metta, Christian

  9. Eva

    I also wondered what people meant by ‘enlightenment’ and was not able to find a clear definition. Each sect and belief system had different standards. However, I did see clear hints of the general idea and there does seem to be certain commonalities of experience at least. I think also, its good to consider much of the definitions may have come from the interpretation of the not so ‘enlightened’ ones looking from their view of how the enlightened ones seemed to them while being heavily biased and in awe of said personages at the same time. In many cases it would be a clear case of blinded by idol worship and even the enlightened ones probably did not have the power to bring the rest back down to Earth.

    Also, I suspect that there really is never a a state of completely enlightened. There may well be a state where we can finally get off the Earth ride of reincarnation if we so choose and I think that somewhere around that level is also the point where you start to see how it really works basically and how you were thinking of it backwards previously. But I don’t think it’s ever at a point where there is nothing left to learn about the self and no more growing to do.

    So some people are attached to names and labels of points of progress and they sometimes spend time debating and what points along the path deserve what names and labels. But I also think that it’s not super productive to spend too much time arguing about the places on the path and who might have gotten there and who didn’t yet, but instead to get on the path yourself and start walking. It’s not about blind obedience to the word’s of some other guy, it’s about open eyed observation of yourself.

    Who knows, maybe there really were people who got really far along the path compared to where we have gotten so far (wouldn’t that be so cool if some of that were really true!), and maybe at that time, those people were really needed or those times were more conducive to that level of progress. Or maybe it was all hype. Or maybe it was a bit of both. But either way, will that change much your own progress down the path?

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