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Why Don’t More People Attain Enlightenment?

August 11, 2013

Q: The Theravāda tradition seems very clear, and the meditation methods are powerful. My personal experience over the last year is that one can make very quick advancement. So why don’t more people who practice according to the Theravāda tradition attain enlightenment?

The Arahant: It’s because while they may say they are following the Theravāda, and maybe they even think they are following it; but actually they are not following it. Instead they are following their own idea, or some derivative teaching, or some religious misconception of the Buddha’s teaching.

Most people who identify as ‘Buddhists’ are religious. They are devotees of the Buddha. They make offerings, but they don’t meditate. They try to be good people in a religious moralistic way, but they don’t follow the Precepts strictly. They may be sentimentally attached to the Buddha because of family background or culture, but they are not deep students of the Suttas. In fact they may never read them at all. So of course they are going to be stuck at the lower end of the Eightfold Noble Path.

Then there are those who follow some derivative teaching, based on the Commentaries or Visuddhimagga. Most of these are abstractions, systems, unnecessarily simplified or even artificially complexified versions of the Buddha’s teaching. All of them emphasize one side or view of the Buddha’s original teaching at the expense of others. Such people are fond of philosophical argument and reasoning. They like to show off their intelligence, but they are not very good meditators because they have little mettā, loving-kindness or compassion.

Then there are the individualists who develop their own understanding—most of you Westerners fall into this category—and cannot take instruction from anyone who actually knows. I call them the ‘lone cowboys’. [laughs] What usually happens here is that they project their previous understanding of spiritual life, drawn from Christianity, Hinduism and whatnot, on the Buddha, and misinterpret his teaching in that light. Both these and the system-followers tend to get stuck in the middle of the path.

Finally there are a very few rare people who approach the Theravāda Suttas with an open mind, without preconceptions, ask for help from qualified teachers, and finally when they understand properly, go off and practice until they really attain something—like you, for example.

Q: Well thank you; but I wonder what we can do to help the others.

The Arahant: It’s a difficult situation, because their cup is full. How can we help them unless they are at least willing to hear?

To be successful in attaining enlightenment, first of all one must have integrity. He must be past all attraction to reductionist systems and codependent teaching relationships. He must be willing to study the Suttas until he really understands them. This alone can take years.

Further, he must have accumulated an extensive stock of subha-kamma [good karma — Ed.] to carry him through the journey to the other side. All the other qualifications are of no use without this. One must first be a good person in the ordinary sense of the term. Charity, especially to monks, and religious offerings of any kind are very valuable; gifts and public welfare activities all are very helpful. Dhamma-dāṇa—assisting the spread of the Buddha’s teaching—is the absolute best kind of charitable activity.

Good association is extremely important. The Buddha calls this having ‘admirable friends.’ Of course, the best kind of admirable friend is an Arahant—someone who is already enlightened. That will speed your progress on the path tremendously.

Q: I can attest to that!

The Arahant: And the trick here is to be able to recognize an Arahant when you meet him. We have already discussed this in a previous talk. It requires deep understanding of the Suttas, some degree of realization or attainment, and of course, the subha-kamma to make it possible.

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