The Arahant: Paradox of Teaching

Q: “Those who know don’t teach,” and the corollary: “Those who teach don’t know.” This comes from Lao Tzu or Chuang Tzu; what do you think?

A: It’s true, and this is the essential paradox of teaching. When you know, when you come to realization, you can clearly see that Nibbāna is impossible to express in words or any other way. So how to teach it? It cannot be taught; it can only be learned and experienced for oneself. Therefore if a person wants to teach or be taught enlightenment, it means they are already a failure because it cannot be taught. So if I am realized and I know this, then why would I agree to be a teacher and accept students?

Q: You accepted me as a student…

A: Not a student! An assistant, an apprentice monk. You are not like a student; you had already determined that you would attain enlightenment, no matter what. You were taking responsibility for your own enlightenment, going directly to the Suttas for instruction and trying it out in your own meditation. You approached us because you wanted to sit with Arahants, not because you wanted to be taught.

You would have attained Nibbāna anyway sooner or later by your own efforts. You were already a stream entrant, the kind of person who succeeds, who attains; not someone who wants a teacher. The ‘student’ wants the ‘teacher’ to take some responsibility for his enlightenment. The whole thing is unrealistic, impossible, against the Buddha’s instructions. In the Mahāparinibbāna Sutta (DN 16), the Buddha says:

“Therefore, Ānanda, thus should you train yourselves: ‘We shall abide by the Dhamma, live uprightly in the Dhamma, walk in the way of the Dhamma.’

“He possesses unwavering faith in the Dhamma thus: ‘Well-propounded by the Blessed One is the Dhamma, evident, timeless, inviting investigation, leading to emancipation, to be comprehended by the wise, each for himself.’

“Therefore, Ānanda, be islands unto yourselves, refuges unto yourselves, seeking no external refuge; with the Dhamma as your island, the Dhamma as your refuge, seeking no other refuge.

“Those bhikkhus of mine, Ānanda, who now or after I am gone, abide as an island unto themselves, as a refuge unto themselves, seeking no other refuge; having the Dhamma as their island and refuge, seeking no other refuge: it is they who will become the highest, if they have the desire to learn.

“It may be, Ānanda, that to some among you the thought will come: ‘Ended is the word of the Master; we have a Master no longer.’ But it should not, Ānanda, be so considered. For that which I have proclaimed and made known as the Dhamma and the Discipline, that shall be your Master when I am gone.

And the Blessed One addressed the bhikkhus, saying: “Behold now, bhikkhus, I exhort you: All compounded things are subject to vanish. Strive with earnestness!” This was the last word of the Tathāgata.

In other words, realizing the Buddha’s teaching is a do-it-yourself project. The Dhamma and Vinaya, as taught by the Buddha in the Theravāda Suttas, is the authority. In the advanced stages especially, there is no need for an external teacher. Others may help us in various ways, but ultimately we are all responsible for our own enlightenment. It cannot be any other way. No one can give you Nibbāna; it has to be attained by one’s own understanding and work.

So the concept of a teacher of enlightenment, a guru who brings us to Nibbāna, is illusory. We monks are to be Dhamma friends, brothers, helping one other but not responsible for one another. The people who pretend to teach the Dhamma are only teaching words about the Dhamma; they can encourage, perhaps, but they cannot really help very much. Maybe they have established some little temple or school, and people are coming, but it is more like a church; it’s not really the original teaching of the Buddha.

“Indeed, Ānanda, it is impossible that a monk who delights in company, enjoys company, is committed to delighting in company; who delights in a group, enjoys a group, rejoices in a group, will enter and remain in the awareness-release that is temporary and pleasing, or in the awareness-release that is not-temporary and beyond provocation. But it is possible that a monk who lives alone, withdrawn from the group, can expect to enter and remain in the awareness-release that is temporary and pleasing, or in the awareness-release that is not-temporary and beyond provocation.” — Maha-suññata Sutta (MN 122)

So being in a group is only going to distract you from actually learning, practicing and attaining. And from what we have seen, they are teaching many things that are derivative, abstracted, different from, or even opposed to what the Buddha taught. By wanting to teach they are already in illusion, so what can you expect?

The best advice I can give to people like that is to study the Suttas, practice the Suttas, and if you must teach, teach the Suttas and help people to understand them. To the so-called ‘students’, I say: empty your cup, get a good foundation of wisdom from the Suttas, and then go somewhere alone and practice like anything. Don’t compare yourself to anyone else, and don’t let anyone else evaluate your practice. Your enlightenment is your responsibility alone.

“Then, dwelling alone, secluded, heedful, ardent, and resolute, he in no long time reached and remained in the supreme goal of the holy life for which clansmen rightly go forth from home into homelessness, knowing and realizing it for himself in the here and now. He knew: ‘Birth is ended, the holy life fulfilled, the task done. There is nothing further for the sake of this world.’ And thus he became another one of the Arahants.” — Sankhitta Sutta (AN 8.63)


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Dev Jacobsen

Musician, author and yogi, developer of Palingenics.

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