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Since historical times, religion has played a crucial role in the life of human beings. It has offered answers to questions that people do not comprehend and presented moral ideas that the society can live by. Most religions present ideals of the highest good that human beings can achieve. These ideals are meant to be objectives that the believers aspire to achieve. One major religion that has a philosophy of the highest good, which its followers can achieve, is Buddhism. This highest good is a state of spiritual awakening in the believer, and it is referred to as arahantship. This state of awakening is the highest good that a human being can achieve, and all Buddhists are urged to aspire to achieve it. Appleton asserts that arahantship is the “mainstream goal of Theravada Buddhism” (47). This paper will set out to define this highest good and reveal why Buddhists regard it so highly. I will then discuss why I do not agree with this as an ideal for ordinary human beings.
The Highest Good in Buddhism
Buddhism is an Oriental religion that seeks to provide spiritual development and awakening in the followers of its philosophy. The religion is based on the teaching of Buddha who offers insights into life and provides the means for moving from the natural position of discontent to one of contentment and enlightenment. Hongladarom documents that Shakyamuni Buddha attained Enlightenment under the Bodhi tree (54). Here, he discovered a way through which an ordinary person could attain perfection. The Buddha contends that the ideal of perfection is something that any ordinary human being can attain in the lifetime.
The highest good that humans can attain is referred to as arahantship and it literally means “one who has vanquished all defilements” (Hongladarom 54). Arahants are the individuals who have achieved this highest good, often after having practiced Buddhism for many years. Appleton documents that Buddhists who aspire to become arahants can achieve it through the teachings of Buddha (35). Without attaining the highest good, human beings remain trapped in the continuous cycle of birth, death, and rebirth. It is only by achieving the ideal of perfection that a person is able to break this cycle and achieve Nirvana.
An important aspect of arahantship is that it is achievable by any individual irrespective of his socio-economic background. Hongladarom observes that the ability to attain the highest good (arahantship) is open to everyone regardless of his/her social standing (55). Gender does not play a role in the attainment of the greatest good for both men and women can become arahants (Appleton 47). The most important requirement in attaining the highest good is a personal effort. A Buddhist does not require to be well connected or come from a good family in order to become an arahant. Instead, he/she only needs to dedicate his/her time and efforts to practicing Buddhism in order to achieve this state.
Why Arahantship Is the Highest Good
It is the highest good that human beings can achieve since it frees the person from all the things that may lead to suffering. To achieve this status, the individual must clear his/her mind of “adventitious thoughts”, which prevent him/her from realizing perfection. Hongladarom reveals that this does not mean that the person should stop thinking altogether (58). What it means is that a person should not fall into the trap of substantiating thoughts or believing that their content is real, objective and of consequence. The arahant recognizes that “earth is earth” and avoids the temptation to form any conceptions concerning the earth. In the event that he/she forms thoughts about the earth, he/she will be conscious of the fact that the thoughts are not substantial or true. This applies not only for the earth, but also for everything in the world.
Buddha recognized that the concepts of one’s own self were the most serious adventitious thoughts developed by people. These conceptual formations are regarded as the root causes of suffering. Therefore, to attain the highest good a person needs to avoid adventitious thoughts about himself/herself. In Buddhism, the concept of self is a fiction that exists in the mental space of the human being (Adams 276).
The person must seek to avoid the ego, which is the root cause of all sufferings. The ego causes sufferings since it sets the self, which is constructed out of subjective, unreal and unsubstantiated thoughts, as the most important entity. The events in the real world do not necessarily work out to fulfill the desires of this ego (Adams 278). Suffering therefore comes about when a person is frustrated or suffers from dissatisfactions due to the initial desires of the self. Buddhists admit that it would be impossible to live in the world without acknowledging the “self”. However, there is a difference in how the reality of the self is understood and approached by the arahant.
After attaining the greatest good, a human being is still expected to continue being productive to the society. Buddha exhorts the arahant to continue working hard even after attaining liberation in order to benefit the greatest number of people (Hongladarom 61). Therefore, the individual who has achieved the highest good and is free from all the burdens that keep human beings discontent can continue taking part in activities that benefit other human beings. People who have attained the highest good are able to free themselves from the impurities of thoughts such as anger and delusion. Their actions are therefore pure, which makes them better suited for all kinds of work than the individuals who have not attained arahant.
Why I Do not Agree with This as an Ideal
The Buddhist concept of arahantship is not an ideal that I agree with. To begin with, I do not agree that a human being can free himself from suffering. Buddhism teaches that by achieving the highest good, the person is able to overcome suffering. Hongladarom confirms that the arahant is able to overcome the bond of suffering by avoiding the distortions of conceptual thoughts and seeing things as they are exactly (56). However, I believe that suffering is a condition of human life and it cannot be overcome. The best that human beings can do is to develop an attitude that helps him/her to bear suffering gracefully.
Another ideal I disagree with is the elimination of the concept of self. To achieve the highest good, Buddha teaches that humans have to eliminate conceptions of the self. This is based on the Buddhist understanding that conceptions of the self are the greatest source of human sufferings. As such, eliminating these conceptions is key to reducing suffering. I do not believe that a human being can completely do away with the concept of self. Every individual has to affirm the self in order to exist. The self creates the values and qualities that a person upholds and lives by. As such, the Buddhist idea that the person can completely do away with all thoughts of self and continue existing seem unachievable to me.
I do not agree with the conclusion that people who have attained arahant are best suited for all kinds of works due to their “liberation of mind”. While certain mental fermentations such as greed, anger, and delusion are negative and make people act evil, mental fermentations such as ambition, love, and commitment are positive. These positive mental fermentations provide a drive and a motivation for people to work hard and serve their communities. A person who is working under the influence of these values can be expected to do better than the arahant who is working with an “empty mind”.
This paper set out to discuss the highest good that human beings can achieve in Buddhism. It began by revealing that this good is referred to as arahantship. Attaining the ideal form is the most important, indeed the only task that a Buddhist must seek to accomplish. The paper has expounded on the state of arahantship and demonstrated why it is considered the greatest good. The individual who has achieved this state is free from sufferings and negative dispositions such as greed, anger, and delusion since he has no concept of self. However, I do not agree with this as an ideal since suffering is a part of the human existence and one cannot eliminate the concept of self.
Adams, George. “Personalist Spirituality and Buddhist Anātman: Reflections on Contrasting Subjectivities, or Why I am Not (Quite) (Yet) A Buddhist.” Journal of Ecumenical Studies 47.2 (2012): 275-281. Web.
Appleton, Naomi. “In the Footsteps of the Buddha? Women and the Bodhisatta Path in Theravāda Buddhism.” Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion 27.1 (2011): 33-51. Print.
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Hongladarom, Soraj. “The Overman and the Arahant: Models of Human Perfection in Nietzsche and Buddhism.” Asian Philosophy 21.1 (2011): 53-69. Web.