Q: Reader David asks, “What gave confirmation that this monk is indeed an Arahant?”
A: By nature this is a deep matter that is not accessible to everyone. Even knowing the criteria, anyone who is not himself an Arahant can easily make a mistake. Therefore the best confirmation is from another Arahant. But of course, that may lead to a regression, ‘How do you know that person is an Arahant?’ and so on.
Arahant is not positive, it is a negative condition. That is, it is not the presence of something, but its absence. When a person has a disease, when the disease is absent, then they are cured, healthy, normal. Similarly, we have a disease of consciousness, and when the symptoms of that disease are gone, then that individual is healthy, an Arahant. The trouble is, everyone has this disease, and has had it for many lifetimes. So the ‘normal’ condition has become to be diseased. Healthy people are very rare, and are almost always considered atypical.
The principal symptom of the disease is ‘I’-making and ‘mine’-making, or acquisition and subjection. This is described in the Mūla-pariyāya Sutta:
“Here, monks, the uninstructed puthujjana, unseeing of the noble ones, ignorant of the noble Teaching, unseeing of the good men, ignorant of the good men’s Teaching, perceives earth (solidity) as earth. Perceiving earth as earth, he conceives earth, he conceives in earth, he conceives from earth, he conceives ‘earth is for me’, he delights in earth. Why is that? Because he has not comprehended it, I tell you.”
This process is going on more or less unconsciously and automatically in everyone. It has to be seen as it is, understood and stopped. Then there is clinging:
“Bhikkhus, there are these four kinds of clinging. What four? Clinging to sensual pleasures, clinging to views, clinging to rules and observances, and clinging to a doctrine of self.” — Cula-sihanada Sutta (MN 11)
There are many other symptoms of the disease: lust, craving, ignorance of the Four Noble Truths, and so on. They all have to be rooted out and utterly destroyed. Then at a certain point, something very subtle happens:
“Furthermore, there is the disciple of that Teacher who is a worthy one, his mental fermentations ended, who has reached fulfillment, done the task, laid down the burden, attained the true goal, totally destroyed the fetter of becoming, and who is released through right gnosis. He teaches the Dhamma admirable in its beginning, admirable in its middle, admirable in its end. He proclaims the holy life both in its particulars and in its essence, entirely perfect, surpassingly pure.” — Itivuttaka 78
It would take an entire book written in very technical language to describe this change, this gnosis. The Greek word gnosis comes from Sanskrit jñāna or Pāli ñāna, and it means ‘knowledge of spiritual mysteries’. Not ordinary knowledge, but a direct experience. It is a fundamental shift in awareness that happens in less than a second; but it changes the individual permanently. The Arahant is described as ditthadhammanibbānappatto: “one attained to extinction here-and-now.” — Nalakalāpī Sutta (SN 12.67)
“The Arahant knows that ‘this is dukkha, that dukkha should be thoroughly understood (pariññeya), that dukkha has been thoroughly understood’; he knows that ‘this is the arising of dukkha, that the arising of dukkha should be laid aside (pahātabbha), that the arising of dukkha has been laid aside’; he knows that ‘this is the ceasing of dukkha, that the ceasing of dukkha should be realized (saccikatabbha), that the ceasing of dukkha has been realized’; he knows that ‘this is the path leading to the ceasing of dukkha, that the path leading to the ceasing of dukkha should be fully developed (bhavatabbe), that the path leading to the ceasing of dukkha has been fully developed.’ The Four Noble Truths have been seen and known by him in all these twelve ways, for until they are known in all these twelve ways, ñāṇadassana na suvisuddhaṃ: knowledge-and-seeing is not fully purified.” — Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta (SN 56.11) [This is A’s own translation — Ed.]
So the principal qualification of the Arahant is that he has overcome dukkha. There are several other ways to look at this question: first of all, subjectively and objectively. Objectively, an Arahant effortlessly follows the Precepts, the Vinaya given by the Buddha. He is capable of describing the Dhamma from one end to the other, and answering any question on Dhamma correctly, in his own words and without reference to the scriptures. In other words, he has internalized the Dhamma completely and can regenerate it from his own knowledge and experience at any time. Anyone who follows his indications and example successfully also becomes an Arahant.
Subjectively, the Arahant does not consider himself a ‘person’, has no feeling of ‘I’ or ‘mine’, no ‘being’ or ‘experience’ or other symptoms of nescience. He has transcended location, space-time and even consciousness. He does not experience dukkha, habitual self-generated mental suffering such as fear, loathing, hate, anger, desire, attachment, anxiety, and so forth. He has complete access to the jhānas, and that is all the happiness he needs.
We could go on and on about this. As I said, it would make a good subject for a book. However, only someone with extensive background in the Suttas and experience in meditation could understand it.
And that is the principal difficulty in answering this question. Who has asked, and why are they asking? Are they doubtful, testing us? If the questioner is already involved with a form of Buddhism, he will likely reject anything we have to say out of loyalty to his teacher and organization. That is always the problem with teaching: everyone who inquires has some motivation. Their inquiry is not pure; if they were, they could inquire into the Suttas on their own and realize Arahantship for themselves.