Review, and What Is an Arhat?

Following the Lam-rim Stages in Progressive Order

We’ve been discussing the lam-rim, a scheme for organizing the basic sutra teachings. It presents three scopes of motivation that act as pathway minds that will lead to better rebirth, liberation from uncontrollably recurring rebirth, and to enlightenment. Enlightenment is the ability to help lead everybody in overcoming their uncontrollably recurring rebirths. These three scopes are progressive, but not in the manner of rungs of a ladder, but like the three stories of a building. Each story rests on the support of the stories beneath.

The lam-rim is built on the assumption of rebirth, which refers to individual mental continuums that have no beginning or end. Many of us in the West follow a Dharma-Lite version of the lam-rim, where we’re looking to improve this lifetime. While Dharma-Lite itself won’t bring us to enlightenment, it’s an important initial step. Eventually, we’ll be ready to develop ourselves through the three scopes and work for enlightenment. This doesn’t mean that only following Dharma-Lite is useless, because it is definitely useful. But, it’s going to be far more powerful in terms of an actual Buddhist method if we follow it as a stepping-stone to the higher stages.

We also saw that the lam-rim is something we need to go over and over and over again. As we gradually learn more of the Dharma teachings, we’ll need to go back and connect each point to all the various other points of the lam-rim, because they all network and reinforce each other. In this way, we’ll gain more depth in our understanding and development. In addition, if we incorporate the motivating emotions of love and compassion from the advanced scope at each of the graduated stages as a supplement to the motivational emotion that’s specified in the teachings of that scope, then our whole practice will fit within the sphere of Mahayana practice.

I wouldn’t quite call this “great compassion,” though. Compassion in general is the wish for others to be free of suffering and the causes of suffering. That’s sufficient here. Great compassion is where we wish for everyone to be free of the deepest type of suffering, the all-pervasively affecting suffering from having recurring aggregates. It’s great in the sense that it is extended equally to absolutely every limited being with the same intensity as that of a loving mother for her only child. This might be a bit too much to include in our development of the lam-rim here.

Developing the Initial Level Motivation

We’ve already looked at how to become a person of the initial scope. It’s not simply a matter of studying the contents of the teachings or even memorizing and learning all of the lists involved. It actually means to transform ourselves completely into someone like this; we can understand this from the way it’s described in Shantideva’s Engaging in Bodhisattva Behavior, where he mentions quite strongly that once we’ve developed a bodhichitta aim, then day and night, even if we’re intoxicated, our positive force grows more and more.

This doesn’t refer to the first moment we start to develop bodhichitta, but to the point when we have what is called “unlabored” bodhichitta, that is, when we don’t have to work ourselves up to generating this state of mind, but it comes automatically. Of course at the beginning we need to go through the necessary stages of building up bodhichitta, with the 7-part cause and effect meditation or by equalizing and exchanging self for others, and this requires us to put a lot of work in. With unlabored bodhichitta, it’s not necessary because it’s there all the time and we don’t need to go through any stages to build it up.

Similarly by extension, we can say that we’ve really become a person of the initial scope aiming for better rebirths when this aim is unlabored. We don’t have to go through all the steps in the meditations of precious rebirth, death, impermanence, lower realms, safe direction and karma; we just have this in an unlabored manner all the time, even when it’s not conscious.

It is no small accomplishment to have these motivations fully integrated. It doesn’t exclude taking care of our affairs this lifetime, but that won’t be our major focus. To reach the initial scope, we need to be totally convinced without any doubt about rebirth. There are future rebirths and they are affected by karma, so we better do something about it! Of course, we need to be sure that we can do something about it.

This doesn’t mean we can’t work further on the path before we’ve reached this full level of the initial scope. We’ll reach a certain level in our development of this initial scope and still have to build up through meditation and so on, but then we can go further even before we have total conviction in rebirth. We might not be 100% convinced, but our indecisive wavering will lean more in that direction. We give it the benefit of the doubt and go on from there.

If we’re at this stage where it’s not totally integrated and we’re going on to the next further step, it means we still have a lot of work to do on the initial scope. That’s why we have to go back through the various stages over and over again.

Giving Up Attachment to Always Having a Precious Human Rebirth

The intermediate scope is even more profound and difficult than the initial scope. Here, we’re aiming to overcome uncontrollably recurring rebirth altogether. If we’re sincerely someone of the initial scope, then it’s easy and natural to be attached to precious human rebirths, because that’s what we’re always praying for, “May I continue to have a precious human rebirth; may I continue to be with my gurus and Dharma companions and have all the wonderful circumstances,” and so on. It’s quite tough to overcome this attachment and understand what it means to have renunciation, the determination to be free.

Often when we think of having good health, a young beautiful body and so on in our next life, our wish for such rebirth becomes mixed with attachment. But does the intermediate scope mean that we don’t want any of that anymore? Well, on the intermediate level, we want to become liberated beings, arhats. What in the world does that mean? Does it mean we’re never going to see our friends again? It’s difficult to even have a concept of what it would be like to be a liberated being.

Therefore, it’s difficult to go beyond the wish for continuing to have better rebirths, precious human rebirths where we have friends, wealth, good circumstances, and so on. Especially as we get older, the allure of being young again, falling in love again, and these sorts of pleasures come up. We’d be able to see better, hear better, have more energy, be more attractive, and so the wish for a precious human rebirth can become mixed with the wish to be young again. This intermediate step is really difficult. Bodhichitta is even more difficult, because can you imagine sincerely wanting to liberate every insect?

What Is It Like to Be an Arhat?

It’s nice to have a clear idea of what we’re getting ourselves into if we become an arhat. There are many different assertions as to what an arhat is, but as we’re following a Mahayana path, we do not accept any of the Hinayana assertions that after we become an arhat and die, our mental continuum ends. This is not our concept of an arhat.

Two Types of Arhats According to When They Develop Bodhichitta

There are two types of arhats or liberated beings. There’s an arhat who was aiming to become an arhat, and after liberation develops bodhichitta and continues on the bodhisattva path. Then, there are the “bodhisattva arhats with definite lineage,” which means they developed bodhichitta and were aiming to become a Buddha way before becoming an arhat; they achieved arhatship on the way to Buddhahood. The first type of arhat we can call “Hinayana-type arhats.” After they die, their mental continuums continue in a pure realm. Those bodhisattva arhats with definite lineage, on the other hand, can continue either in a pure realm or they can manifest in our ordinary planes of existence. Unlike our “impure” samsaric realms, pure realms are places devoid of suffering. They are not, however, like a paradise, as explained in other religions. They are places where the circumstances are most conducive for further Dharma study and meditation practice.

Both kinds of liberated beings have overcome samsaric existence and uncontrollably recurring rebirth, but that doesn’t imply that they can necessarily control their rebirths. It’s not the best choice of words in that “control” refers to the word “power.” Basically, they will never again be reborn under the power of disturbing emotions and karma.

Arhats in Pure Realms

When one is a liberated being in a pure realm, one will no longer have what are called “obtainer aggregates,” the aggregates that have been obtained through the power of disturbing emotions and karma through the mechanism of the 12 links of dependent arising. Arhats there still have a body and mind, but these are not obtained from karmic disturbing emotions.

The body of an arhat is made of subtle elements. Here, elements from the Buddhist point of view are earth, water, fire and wind, and in Western terms they are solid, liquid, gas and energy. In a pure realm, these subtle elements are visible to the eyes of other arhats, but not to ordinary humans. Another name for this body of subtle elements is “mental body,” but it’s not just like a dream or something like that. It’s more similar to the types of body that beings in ethereal “form realms” have. They have no sickness, old age or death, and life can go on there forever. They can stay there in a state called “the extreme of complacency,” where they continue to meditate on voidness or other topics from the four noble truths, or they can develop bodhichitta and continue in a pure realm studying and practicing Mahayana. Or, they can manifest in our ordinary realms.

For those of us following the lam-rim, the graded stages of the Mahayana path, we don’t want to just hang out in a pure land. Of course in tantra there are practices for the transference of consciousness to a pure land, and as a bodhisattva there, one would have no distractions. It’s not just hanging out and having a good time, but 24 hours a day are spent practicing and studying. We can do this as an arhat or a bodhisattva arhat, or we could manifest in the world to try and help others. Perhaps it’s a question of personal disposition or temperament.

The Body of Arhats in Our Ordinary World

When the subtle elements of the body of an arhat manifest in the ordinary world, what happens is that they are supported on the gross elements of the sperm and egg of the parents, similar to when a Buddha manifests in the world. This is not some sort of “soul” or material subtle body coming and entering into the gross elements, nor is it a separate thing using, owning or possessing this grosser body. The gross elements of the body are subject to birth, sickness, old age and death, but not the subtle elements of the body of an arhat or Buddha that are supported on them. They are liberated from that.

Tainted and Untainted Aggregates

According to the Gelug Prasangika definition, the tainted aggregates are those that produce an appearance of truly established existence, while untainted aggregates are those that don’t produce such an appearance. When an arhat is totally absorbed on voidness and the mind is not producing an appearance of truly established existence, at that time the aggregates of the arhat are untainted. In the subsequent attainment periods, when not in total absorption on voidness, then the mind does produce an appearance of truly established existence. At that time, the aggregates of an arhat are tainted.

So in general, the aggregates of an arhat are sometimes tainted and sometimes untainted. A Buddha on the other hand only has untainted aggregates, because they are always totally absorbed on voidness. There is therefore a difference between the subtle elements of the body of a Buddha and those of an arhat. Still, when in this world, both are supported on the basis of the gross elements of the body of the parents, the sperm and egg.

We’re aiming to become a liberated being, and there’s a lot of information here so it’s fine if we just try and work out what on earth it all means. As a liberated being, we want to continue on the bodhisattva path to help and benefit others. Therefore we continue to manifest in the world. It’s not like there’ll be some list of possible parents, and we have the power to choose where we’re going to be reborn. But because of many factors dependently arising, there’ll be a connection between our arhat’s subtle elements and the gross elements of the sperm and egg of a human couple.

Arhats Do Not Experience Suffering

Gross elements are of course subject to all the laws of impermanence and so forth, and so they’ll develop faults or sickness. They’re going to wear out and will end having the capacity to be a basis for my mind as a liberated being. Although the gross elements are subject to the laws of physics, they’re not subject to the laws of karma. What happens with them is not under the power of disturbing emotions and karma. The important point is that our subtle body is not going to be subject to sickness, old age and death.

In addition, as an arhat we won’t experience anything that happens with the grosser elements in terms of the three types of suffering. There’ll be no suffering of unhappiness, that of ordinary happiness, or the all-pervasive suffering. We’ll experience everything with either happiness or equanimity, neither of which will be mixed with grasping for truly established existence and attachment. As an arhat, we could be absorbed in some of the higher planes of mental stability where there is only equanimity. As a Buddha however, we would only have happiness unmixed with any of the disturbing emotions. It’s described in tantra as being blissful awareness.

We’ve spent some time looking at this now, but if we’re going to give up samsara, then what? If we have no idea of what happens next or what we’re aiming for, then it’ll be very difficult to say, “Wow, I want to get rid of samsaric rebirth!”

The Subtle Body of an Arhat Is Not the Same as the Form Body of a Buddha

One further point of clarification is that the subtle body of an arhat is not the same as the subtle bodies of a Buddha, the physical bodies of a Buddha. We shouldn’t confuse the two. The subtle bodies of a Buddha are called Nirmanakaya and Sambhogakaya, and are far subtler than the subtle so-called “mental body” of an arhat. But the manner in which they’re supported on the gross elements of a mother and father is the same.

Compassion and Prayers, Not Karma

What happens to us in samsaric existence, before we’re a liberated being, is the result of an enormous amount of factors, including various karmic factors on our mental continuum, and the karmic factors on other beings’ mental continuums. For example, we are driving our car and someone runs in front of it, and we hit them. This is happening as a result of my karma and their karma, not just my karma. However, what happens to us when we’re bodhisattva arhats or Buddhas, in terms of those we meet and try to help, is the result of our compassion and prayers to be able to benefit everyone. On the side of others, it is from their karma. But it’s definitely not the result of our own karma, as the main influence is our wish to benefit others. That’s why we do these Mahayana practices of visualizing an innumerable number of beings around us in order to try and establish that connection with them all.

When we, as a bodhisattva arhat or a Buddha, interact or meet with someone, we’re not going to have any disturbing emotions toward that person. There’ll be no desire, hostility or anything like that. The other person, because of their karma and other factors, might have attachment and hostility toward us. While the dynamics of the interaction might be quite different on the outside from the inside, we’ll have complete compassion and equanimity toward everyone.


It’s easy to become attached to the idea of precious human rebirths, especially when we think we might once again be young, intelligent and beautiful! In the intermediate scope, we’re actually aiming for something higher than this – we want to be liberated from uncontrollably recurring rebirth. However, for most of us, it’s almost impossible to imagine what this would actually be like. When we come to a proper understanding of what it means, it becomes something that we ourselves can aim for.