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by Praful More

From Self (ego) to Arahant (enlightenment)

In the war of ego, the loser always wins

The month of June already has arrived, and the middle stage of our challenge for this year has now begun. As I observe the current chaotic conditions in society, including the unusual weather of recent times, political corruption, economic depression, and the frequent occurrence of tragic incidents and accidents, I can see that now is the time for each of us to move forward towards unity and universal well-being.

It is in times of COVID-19, I am reminded of the phrase from a famous passage “Three Carts and the Burning House” which goes something like this,

“Yet living beings drowned in the midst of all this, delight and amuse themselves, unaware, unknowing, without alarm or fear. They feel no sense of loathing and make no attempt to escape. In this burning house, which is the threefold world, they race about to east and west, and though they encounter great pain, they are not distressed by it.”

In other words, this passage teaches that upon looking at people, we see they are unhappy and lost in melancholy. They shut their minds in the dark and are burned by the fire of the three poisons of greed, anger, and stupidity. They cannot escape their many desires, and in their suffering, they are shackled tightly by their own ego, with which they seek treasure and profit. For this reason, amidst their suffering, they may experience some pleasure, but afterward, they will experience the suffering of the three evil paths of hell, hunger, and animality. Even though they are born in the worlds of rapture or humanity, their hearts are truly corrupt. Consequently, they will undergo distress, trouble, and suffering, from having to part from those they love and having to meet those whom they hate. Yet in spite of these sufferings, they surrender themselves, fearless, indulging in transient pleasures. They do not try to escape this suffering, even though they are inside the burning house of the threefold world—the world of desire, the world of form, and the world of formlessness. They do not worry about facing great difficulty, but simply amuse themselves by scampering from east to west.

Through this passage, it is certain that many people in society today, who live with various difficulties and sufferings in their lives, first try to relieve themselves of them. Without realizing it, however, they eventually become accustomed to their surroundings and stop making such attempts. Therefore, in order to have a happy life, we must try to prevent ourselves from falling into corrupt habits and laziness. There is only one way to rid ourselves of these negative characteristics. The solution is to polish our own faith. We must motivate ourselves to practice. “Polishing one’s faith,” means to uphold faith, based on the principle of “having no doubts is to have faith”. While deluded, one is considered a common mortal, but once enlightened, one is understood to be a Buddha. For example, even a dark mirror will shine like a jewel when it is polished. Likewise, a mind that is presently clouded by illusions originating from the fundamental darkness of life is like a tarnished mirror. Yet, once it is polished, it will become a clear mirror, reflecting the essential truth of the Law. Awaken deep faith and polish your mirror night and day without neglect. But how can you polish your ego and the answer lies within you through four stages of enlightenment which are as described as follows:

The first stage is that of a stream-enterer, literally meaning “one who enters the stream,” with the stream being the noble eightfold path suggested by Budhha. When you become a stream-enterer, you can never again believe that you’re really a separate self that lives inside your head and looks through your eyes. Your experience forever eliminates this illusion. When you look within, you can’t find a self anywhere. In everyday life, however, you may still feel like a separate somebody and may still get caught up by greed, anger, ignorance, and various other negative feelings and patterns. Fortunately, the stage of stream-enterer also brings unshakable confidence and dedication to the Buddhist spiritual path, so you’re motivated to keep deepening and refining your realization.

The second stage is that of the once-returner, literally meaning “one who once comes”. The once-returner will return to the human world only one more time and will attain Nirvana in that life. After you become a stream-enterer, your practice includes reminding yourself of your new realization of “no-self,” as well as paying attention to the ways that you’re still attached and your resistance to life as it unfolds. After a period of time (generally years of devoted practice) in which your concentration gets even stronger and your mind becomes even more tranquil, you have another direct insight into no-self. (Remember, knowing this truth as a concept or memory is one thing, but experiencing it directly, beyond the conceptual mind, is something else entirely). This insight (essentially the same as the first but even stronger and clearer) brings a significant reduction in attachment and aversion and the suffering that accompanies these states of mind. For example, occasional irritation and preference replace hatred and greed, which no longer have any hold over the once-returner.

The third stage is that of the Never-returner, literally meaning “one who does not (an-) come”. The Never-returner has abandoned the five lower fetters that bind the mind to the cycle of rebirth. A Never-returner is thus partially enlightened, and on the way to perfect and complete Enlightenment. After the experience that signals entry to this stage, all of the worst hindrances, such as hatred, greed, jealousy, and ignorance, completely drop away, but a hint of a self-sense (a “me”) still remains — and with it, the slightest trace of restlessness and dissatisfaction sticks around as well. The experience itself is rarely accompanied by any emotion or excitement, just a clearer recognition of what has already been seen twice before. These people appear to be extremely content, peaceful, and without desire, but the subtlest preference for positive rather than negative experiences remains.

The fourth stage is that of Arahant, a fully enlightened human being who has abandoned all fetters, and who upon decease will not be reborn in any world, having wholly abandoned worldly desires. At this stage, the path bears ultimate fruit in nirvana — any residual trace of a separate self falls away for good. The experience, frequently accompanied by unimaginable bliss, has been compared to falling into the depths of a cloud and disappearing. At this point, the circumstances of life no longer have the slightest hold over you; positive or negative experiences no longer stir even the slightest craving or dissatisfaction. As Buddha said, all that needed to be done has been done. There is nothing further to realize. The path is complete, and no further rebirths are necessary.

I would like to conclude by praying from the bottom of my heart that every human being must conquer the passionate sense of egoism which is regarded as the root of the world’s unhappiness. For one thing, it makes the individual blind to the reality of other persons. When the notion of self disappears, the notion of ‘mine’ also disappears and one becomes free from the idea of ‘I’ and ‘mine’, and there follows a gentler, profound sympathy with all sentient existence. The Arahant does not judge meaning, for meaning without ego is the control of the delusion of the ego which judges by desiring one thing over another. Meaning without ego means that meaning without suffering/unhappiness/pain is possible and that is the most wondrous idea of the meaning of all.