Hardcore Buddhism: Arhats without Remainder

I just got back from teaching some Buddhist courses in Sacramento, so my mind is involved in some Buddhist logic right now.

So this post is only for the Buddhists. 😉

I taught a class recently and debated (Hinayana) Arhats with a student. For the record, Arhats are defined as those who have achieved Nirvana. Nirvana is defined as having ceased all mental affliction obstacles permanently.

This is great news if you’re a Buddhist, because mental afflictions (bad thoughts like anger, jealousy, desperately wanting something for yourself) are, according to the Buddha, the cause of all of our pain. We think bad thoughts towards or about others and this forces us to see people who want (and do) hurt us.

So do Arhats experience suffering? Well, by definition they have eliminated the causes for pain. But unfortunately, according to Buddhism, they have been collecting those causes previously for infinite time. So there’s still a lot of bad seeds there waiting to go off.

Buddhism calls that “Nirvana with remainder.” What that means is that although Arhats are not collecting any new bad mental seeds, they still have plenty left over from before that. In particular, if an Arhat was born with a body of flesh and blood, that flesh and blood destructible body was born of seeds that were still impure. So the result must be impure: a body that will get old (hopefully make it that far) and die. So even if someone reaches Nirvana in this life they will necessary still have some bad results to experience, because causes have results.

There are lots of stories here; the King of Kalingka is one (he’s an arhat but gets all of his extremities chopped off) and another is the story of Angulimala (after becoming an arhat he’s beaten to death by the family of former victims).

But the sutras say that once an Arhat with remainder passes into Nirvana, they won’t experience pain anymore. So what does that look like? Well, they take rebirth into a formless realm.

So the question is, do Arhats see suffering? Well, it depends. Are they Arhats with or without remainder? Arhats with remainder definitely see suffering, because they still have the bad seeds to see suffering (and their fingers chopped off or themselves being beaten). But what about Arhats without remainder?

Consider Hinayana Arhats without remainder,
They can’t see suffering,
Because they exist in a formless realm.

True or false? Run the tests. Do Arhats without remainder exist in the formless realm? Yes, they no longer have the seeds to experience a suffering body. So they born somewhere without one.

If they exist in the formless realm, must it be the case that they cannot see suffering? Yes, they do not have the seeds to suffer themselves nor do they have any one else to see suffer (that’s why it’s called the formless realm; no forms to see).

So what’s that like? Well, not so great. It takes a lot of good seeds to see a Buddha paradise, and they don’t have those seeds either. So they don’t see pain, but they don’t see paradise either. Instead, what the scriptures say is that eventually some goodness they have done in the past ripens in their mind and they meet a Buddha, who convinces them to go back and help others. This Bodhisattva motivation then creates the seeds for them to finally reach full Buddhahood and get to a Buddha paradise.

So the question is, when they have a seed to ripen in their minds to “see” a Buddha, how do they do that in the formless realm?

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