11 September 2009

How to spot an Arahant

A group of Indian AsceticsOne time when the Buddha was living in Sāvatthī, not as he frequently did in the Jeta Grove, but in the garden of Migāra's mother, King Pasenadi played a little trick on him. [1] As they were sitting together a band of wanders walked past - there were seven Jains, and seven Ājivakas, and Seven naked ascetics, and various other types of wanderers. The King asked the Buddha if he thought any of these worthy men was an arahant - if they were awakened or enlightened. Being used to idealised representations of arahants with halos and beatific smiles we might be forgiven for thinking that it must be easy to see who is an arahant and who is not. But the Buddha is quite wary of giving his opinion, and says:
Saṃvāsena kho, mahārāja, sīlaṃ veditabbaṃ. Tañca kho dīghena addhunā na ittarena, manasikarotā no amanasikarotā, paññavatā no duppaññena. Saṃvohārena kho, mahārāja, soceyyaṃ veditabbaṃ. Tañca kho dīghena addhunā na ittaraṃ, manasikarotā no amanasikarotā, paññavatā no duppaññena. Āpadāsu kho, mahārāja, thāmo veditabbo. So ca kho dīghena addhunā na ittaraṃ, manasikarotā no amanasikarotā, paññavatā no duppaññena. Sākacchāya kho, mahārāja, paññā veditabbā. Sā ca kho dīghena addhunā na ittaraṃ, manasikarotā no amanasikarotā, paññavatā no duppaññenāti .

Intimacy is needed to know virtue, O Mahārāja. And for a long stretch, not a brief one; by paying attention not thoughtlessly; with intelligence not ignorance. Association is required to know purity... In adversity is commitment witnessed... In discussion is wisdom assessed. And for a long stretch, not a brief one; by paying attention not thoughtlessly; with intelligence not ignorance.
At this point in the sutta the King confesses that in fact these men are his spies - sent out undercover to provide information on nearby Kingdoms. Once they have cleaned themselves up he is going to debrief them and see what his enemies are up to. Apart from the insight into ancient statecraft the text provides us with some useful criteria for assessing spiritual maturity in ourself and other people. These might be useful in thinking about selecting a teacher or preceptor for instance, or trying to decide whether to ask someone's advice or not. At the very least they are reminders that it is difficult to know someone's spiritual maturity without knowing them quite well.

The first thing to notice that each test is to be applied only over the long term - over a long stretch of time (dīghena addhunā) as the text says. These things can't be rushed. We have to know someone a long time before we really know them. First impressions can be deceptive. Sometimes we need to see a person under different circumstances in order to get a fuller picture of them. The text suggests several criteria: virtue, purity, (what I've called) commitment, and wisdom.

'Virtue' here translates sīla. Other words for this might be ethics, or morality. I think we can take virtue to mean behaviour of body and speech generally, as the next term, purity, seems to focus on the mental side of things. So here we're looking at ethics as behaviour. And the text says that we need intimacy (saṃvāsa) in order to be clear about this. We need especially to see how a person behaves in private, in moments when they do not feel themselves to be under scrutiny. One of my teachers used to like playing volleyball with men who'd asked him to ordain them. He found that on the volleyball court they lost their self-consciousness and he saw a side of them that he might not see if they were being more guarded. Often we are concerned to be seen to be ethical, and so we are very guarded when we think we are being watched, and we enjoy letting out hair down when the authority figure (whoever they might be) is not watching. But this is not the right spirit at all. We are responsible primarily to ourselves for our own behaviour. So we know someone's true virtue, their real practice of ethics, only when we see them in private.

Then, secondly, we can only know the purity (soceyya) of a person by close association (saṃvohāra). These two words saṃvohāra and saṃvāsa are more or less synonymous. I take purity here to mean the mental aspects of virtue. Someone might behave virtuously, but be in mental turmoil over it. Sometimes we can keep up appearances for a long time, but eventually our state of mind - the extent of our craving and aversion - become apparent. Soceyya is an abstract noun which comes from a root √śuc which means 'to shine, flame, gleam, glow, burn'. The other common term for purity is suddha from √śudh 'to be cleared, or cleansed, or purified, to become pure'. The concern for purity and for a return to purity is a major pre-occupation in Indian religions generally. [2] The Buddha retained the words, but gave them an ethical significance they didn't otherwise have. Purity in Buddhism is purity of intention - pure intentions are free from craving, aversion and confusion; impure are the opposite. This is the distinctive characteristic of Buddhist morality. So purity could be seen as the extent to which our motivations match our values. This makes it difficult to assess in others, let alone ourselves. As the text says: we have to pay attention (manasikarotā), which might also be translated as 'take to heart'.

Thirdly and quite importantly it's not until we see a person in adversity (āpadāsu) that we see how 'committed' (thāmo) they really are. The word thāmo comes from the root √sthā which means 'to stand or remain'. Thāmo is the ability to stand - steadfastness, the ability to resist the worldly winds, that is the extent to which our commitment finds expression in reality. It is one thing to say that the Buddha is our refuge, but on what do we stand when the chips are down? Where do we turn for a refuge? So it is necessary to see a person coping with adversity to really know whether or not they have the three jewels as their refuge, or whether they resort to other refuges. We all know about things like comfort eating, or 'needing' a cup of tea or a beer, or finding solace in sex. These are false refuges. They temporarily provide us with pleasure and reinforce the happiness = pleasure delusion. The true refuge is not to be found in objects of the senses, or in the sensual realm. Not in ideas or ideologies either. It is found in awareness. A little note here that I was mainly concerned to avoid repetition in translating veditabbo here as 'witness' in this case, but in fact both derive from the same Proto-Indo-European root √*wid (Sanskrit: √vid; English: wit) meaning 'to see' and therefore abstractly 'to know'.

Lastly the text tells us that a person's wisdom (paññā) is discovered only through discussion (sākacchāya). It's often said, too often perhaps, that enlightenment is ineffable. It is ineffable but only, in my opinion, in the way that all experience is ineffable. No experience can be conveyed in words, there is no substitute for experience. And yet we can describe what it is like to have had an experience and what we feel about it now. Ideas and emotions can be communicated. Attitudes can be conveyed. Note that this criteria doesn't stand alone from the others, it's not that talking things over in isolation is enough, but clearly a person's wisdom should be discernible in how they talk and what they talk about. If, to cite a common example, a person pretending to wisdom preaches compassion but is sarcastic and sardonic, then there is a mismatch.

Above all what we are looking for in ourselves and other people is authenticity and congruity. We want our actions to flow from our values, for words and actions to add up. We want words and tone of voice and body language to be congruent. Even if we're not conscious of it, we are all able to detect such things. When this knowledge comes unconsciously we may express it vaguely - e.g. we might say that we have a good/bad 'feeling' about someone. In order to clarify our 'feeling' and/or to know how deep it goes we need to be in intimate association with the person, we need to hear a consistent message in their words, and see that words and actions match. We can always get a reality check on our own progress by comparing our behaviour with the ideal. Sometimes it is sobering when we realise how far we have to go; sometimes encouraging when we realise how far we have come. In applying these kinds of criteria we can be less naive about our relationships with other spiritual practitioners, especially if they are more experienced than us. We need not, and should not, jump to conclusions (positive or negative), or rely purely on reputation for instance.

  1. Sattajaṭila sutta, Udāna 6.2 (PTS Ud 64-66). Pāli text from www.tipitaka.org. My translation. The sutta is also found with a different verse attached in the Saṃyutta Nikāya 3.11 (PTS S i.77 ff) translated by Bhikkhu Bodhi in The Connected Discourses of the Buddha p.173-4.
  2. Purity is an important theme in my article "Did King Ajātasattu Confess to the Buddha, and did the Buddha Forgive Him?" in the Journal of Buddhist Ethics vol 15 2008.

image: ascetics from Indian Routes.
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