This is the Teaching of the Buddhas
In conclusion of the preceding posts on this topic, both the gradual instruction and the Noble Eightfold Path are oriented around ethics. Buddhism produces saints, by which I mean the highest exemplars of virtue. But where does awakening fit in? Are saints and arahants (awakened beings) the same? One would expect a saint to be a font of purely wholesome karma, a force of benefit incapable of any harm, without greed, hate or delusion, motivated purely by selfless kindness and clear wisdom. However, an arahant is said to produce no karma, to be beyond motivations, beyond good and evil, to be free of the cycle of birth and death. What gives?
The limit of the ethical perspective is that sainthood is not a complete resolution of the woes of the world. Even when pure of intention, we suffer, we suffer from sickness, from old age and from death, we still have lingering conceit and cling to results of our noble intentions, and so we suffer again. Ethics is directed at trying to fix samsara, to ease the pain of an existence that with growing wisdom reveals itself increasingly as a sham calling for transcendence. It falls short of complete release from the drama of life … and yet, such release is possible, as illustrated in the Buddha’s awakening. What is remarkable is that the pursuit of ethical foundations, particularly in purifying the mind ever more sparklingly, seems to take us almost, but not quite, to liberation from samsara. In his essay “The Road to Nirvana Is Paved with Skillful Intentions,” Thanissaro Bhikkhu writes:
“As we work at developing our intentions to even higher levels of skill, we find that the most consummate intentions are those that center the mind securely in a clear awareness of the present. As we use them to become more and more familiar with the present, we come to see that all present intentions, no matter how skillful, are inherently burdensome. The only way out of this burden is to allow the unraveling of the intentions that provide the weave for our present experience. This provides an opening to the dimension of unlimited freedom that lies beyond them. That’s how skillful intentions pave the road all the way to the edge of nirvana. And from there, the path — “like that of birds through space” — can’t be traced.”
There seems to be a last-minute change of course that is required to reach nirvana.
This is where the Mahayana school raises a well-known complaint. A saint (in my terms) can bring enormous benefit to suffering beings life after life, whereas an arahant might bring enormous benefit in this life but then does not return. So, why squander such perfection of virtue on personal awakening? Mahayanists recommend to us the bodhisattva path, the development of the arahant path to a point just short of awakening, so that the world, still caught in delusion, can benefit from our continued presence. The arahant path, Mahayanists often state, is a selfish path in which personal awakening is favored over compassion for others. I don’t know about the reader, but this account makes my head swim. First, it is both clever and metaphysical enough to be dubious – is this really what happens? – though I will be darned if I know where the logical mistake might be. Second, the arahant has already taken the self out of selfish – how can this possibly be a selfish choice? – so there must be a logical mistake somewhere.
The origins of the incongruity of two paths can perhaps be observed in a less inscrutable context if we look at the practice of refraining from all evil or accomplishing good on the one hand, and the practice of purification of the mind on the other. Although the two naturally reinforce one another, the former is fully engaged consequentially in the world while the latter benefits from withdrawal from the world. For instance, if we spend our days sitting on the cushion developing mettā (kindness) through meditative techniques, we might have little time to actually manifest kindness in a worldly way. In fact development of mind commonly becomes a concern of its own, independent of ethical concerns. This is probably why the Buddha insisted that monastics have daily contact with the laity through accepting alms, even when this satisfied no practical need. Nonetheless, the phenomenon of the hermit monk, disappearing into the forest, living in a cave, spending his hours alone in deep meditation, aspiring to full awakening, is one of Buddhism’s highest ideals. These lone pure minds could well be the ones that bring the most benefit to the world – Twentieth-century Thailand’s Ajahn Mun comes to mind – because they provide the greatest inspiration for the rest of us and thereby leave a thriving sainthood in their wake.