Sunday, October 25, 2009

Arahantavagga: Arahants

This is almost becoming onerous. I’m going to stick with this, but I have to admit that I am developing a sense that in blogging about the various chapters within the Dhammapada I am being very superficial. However, how can I be otherwise? Faced with chapter seven, I see the subject of the Arahantavagga is Arahants, which in the Theravada tradition is a term referring to an enlightened being. I’m not certain, but I believe in the Mahayana tradition, an Arhat is similar, but is someone who’s not quite there yet.

Regardless, I am not an Arahant. And I have no real desire to strive to attain enlightenment. And I’m sure that most lay practitioners have similar sentiments, even if they don’t outwardly express them. We just want to be decent people and avoid as many hassles inherent in samsara that we can. We want to have a pleasant abiding in the here and now. And we’d like a reasonable assurance that in our next lifetime we aren’t going to find ourselves in a Kafka novel reborn as a bug. So what relevance does the Arahantavagga have for folks like me?

“In one who
has gone the full distance,
is free from sorrow,
is fully released
in all respects,
has abandoned all bonds:
no fever is found.”

All right, I get it: Enlightenment is a pretty sweet deal. You have total release from all suffering because you have cut all the connections the mind creates to impermanent things. But it’s so far away for me it might as well be the moon. Hell, it might as well be a quasar on the edge of the known universe.

“The mindful keep active,
Don’t delight in settling back.
They renounce every home,
every home,
like swans taking off from a lake.”

This doesn’t help all that much either. It’s more descriptive, and the image called up by this simile is quite beautiful in a way; I can picture swans taking off from a lake, leaving the water behind. But what does this “renounce every home, every home,” mean? I admit that I’m stuck on that one.

“Not hoarding,
having comprehended food,
their pasture — emptiness
& freedom without sign:
their trail,
like that of birds through space,
can’t be traced.

Effluents ended,
independent of nutriment,
their pasture — emptiness
& freedom without sign:
their trail,
like that of birds through space,
can’t be traced.”

These verses have more meaning for me. I understand that the goal is to move through life without leaving a trail behind you, like a bird flying through the air. A snake leaves a tell-tale sign in the sand of its passing; deer leave deep impressions in the earth that allow a skillful hunter to locate and kill them. These footprints, the trails left behind represent kamma; everything we do, think or say creates kamma and the goal is to stop creating kamma, to be like a bird flying through the air that leaves no trace behind. It is kamma that holds us in the cycle or rebirth and death; eliminate kamma and we are free.

“He whose senses are steadied
like stallions
well-trained by the charioteer,
his conceit abandoned,
free of effluent,
even devas adore him.

Like the earth, he doesn’t react —
like Indra’s pillar,
like a lake free of mud.
For him
— Such —
There’s no traveling on.

Calm is his mind,
calm his speech
& his deed:
one who’s released through right knowing,

These verses more clearly recall for me the literary mechanism that was employed in the Dhammapada, and the frustration I feel at times when faced with what I perceive to be impossible goals fades. For example, it’s worth revealing what the notes to the above verses say about Indra’s pillar: “Indra's pillar = a post set up at the gate of a city… there was an ancient custom of worshipping this post with flowers and offerings, although those who wanted to show their disrespect for this custom would urinate and defecate on the post. In either case, the post did not react.”

I may not be an Arahant, I may not be enlightened, but I can be more like an Arahant, I can at least strive for that. Because everyday I react to thins, to people, and events. Everyday I let some little thing send me into a frenzy of emotion. I’m not about to let people shit on me, but I can strive to be more like Indra’s pillar. And every day I have opportunities to practice that.

“The man
faithless / beyond conviction
ungrateful / knowing the Unmade
a burglar / who has severed connections
who’s destroyed
his chances / conditions
who eats vomit: / has disgorged expectations:
the ultimate person.”

This verse is pretty freaking graphic. I mean, eating vomit? But again, there is a literary mechanism going on here. On the left side of the slashes is a negative state or quality or action, while on the right side of the slash represent positive alternative. “The negative meanings are so extremely negative that they were probably intended to shock their listeners,” read the notes. Indeed, eating vomit is pretty shocking. But then knowing that, you read the left side of the slashes as a verse unto itself, and the right side similarly. Hence, the left side reads as:

“Faithless, ungrateful, a burglar who’s destroyed his chances, who eats vomit.”

And the right sides reads as:

“Beyond conviction, knowing the Unmade, who has severed connections, has disgorged expectations.”

Reading it like that, it becomes clear to me what the vomit sequence is getting at, and that is the Arahant has purged him or herself of all the toxic conditions of samsara, while the unskilled eats what the Arahant has purged through his or her ignorance. The Arahant knows that these kammic connections are toxic, but the unskilled doesn’t know that: despite it being like vomit, the unskilled – the ignorant – think it’s good, the essence of delusion.

“In village or wilds,
valley, plateau:
that place is delightful
where arahants dwell.

Delightful wilds
where the crowds don’t delight,
those free from passion
for they’re not searching
for sensual pleasures.”

These final verses now tie together how I can apply the lesson here. I begin to see that it doesn’t matter whether I live in a big city (which I do), or in the desert or in a rain forest or in a secluded valley or a high plateau or even a cave near a mountain top. Running away from the world to find seclusion to work on my squirrel mind isn’t going to help on its own. This is also made clear in the Bhaddekaratta Sutta (MN 131) when the Buddha instructs that “living alone” means being in the present moment.

There is also the Theranama Sutta (SN 21.10), which deals with a monk who lived in the forest alone, eschewing contact with everyone, including other monks. The Buddha instructs that “living alone” does not always literally mean physically separating oneself from the rest of the world. Rather, it can simply mean refining the mind to the point where one is fully present in the here and now, unconcerned with the past, unconcerned with the future, knowing that how goes the present moment, there goes the future. Achieving that focus of mind does not require isolation.

So maybe I’m not destined to be an Arahant. But clearly, there are some things I can learn from making a few meager attempts to emulate some of their characteristics.

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