The Radiance Models
Related to the physical models are the radiance models, which involve imagining that awakened beings will have a remarkable presence, radiating love, charisma, wisdom, peace, or even perceptible light. A friend of mine used to joke about this by saying that people practicing Western vipassana at the Insight Meditation Society thought that an arahant would be someone like Dipa Ma (a talented practitioner of vipassana and shamatha who was known for her kindness, strong concentration abilities, and psychic powers, and who died an anagami by her own admission), but with light shining out of their ass. This is a bit of a humorous exaggeration, but it makes the point that these ideals are so ingrained in us from many traditions that it is hard not to imagine that enlightened beings must have something remarkable about them that you could feel or see.
Everyone knows that all saints have light coming out of their heads, as did Jesus. You have only to look at medieval paintings of saints and saviors depicted with a nimbus or halo to confirm this. The stories of the Buddha are full of descriptions of his marvelous presence. In fact, his very first interaction with a human after his awakening went something like this: the newly-awakened Buddha had gotten up after exploring the depths of his realization and abilities. He decided to go try to find his five companions who had been with him during his period of intense asceticism, and surveying the world with his psychic powers found they were at Benares.
He took off walking down the road between Bodh Gaya and Gaya, and the first person the Buddha talked to after his awakening who wasn’t a god or a giant talking snake was the monk Upaka. I quote the Buddha as he tells the tale, as rendered in Bhikkhu Ñanamoli and Bhikkhu Bodhi’s English translation of The Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha, sutta 26, as it is so priceless, containing such a wealth of information about the origin of these models and ideals.
[Upaka said], “[f]riend, your faculties are clear, the color of your skin is pure and bright. Under whom have you gone forth, friend? Who is your teacher? Whose Dhamma do you profess?”
I [the Buddha] replied to the Ajivaka Upaka in the stanzas:
“I am one who has transcended all, a knower of all,
Unsullied among all things, renouncing all,
By craving’s ceasing freed. Having known this all
For myself, to whom should I point as teacher?
I have no teacher, and one like me
Exists nowhere in all the world
With all its gods, because I have
No person for my counterpart.
I am the Accomplished One in the world
I am the Teacher Supreme.
I alone am a Fully Enlightened One
Whose fires are quenched and extinguished.
I go now to the city of Kasi
To set in motion the Wheel of Dhamma.
In a world that has become blind
I go to beat the drum of the Deathless.”
[Upaka replied], “by your claims, friend, you ought to be the Universal Victor.”
“The victors are those like me
Who have won to destruction of taints.
I have vanquished all evil states,
Therefore, Upaka, I am a victor.”
The passage is remarkable in that it sets out so many criteria and specifics about what awakening means to the Buddha and to Buddhism in such a short space. Further, what is interesting is the number of times the word “I” appears. In fact, “Buddha” means something like “awakened one”, or “I am awake”. Thus, we see that the Buddha had no trouble talking about what he had done and who he was, nor did he have trouble thinking the thought “I”. While it is entirely possible that these are not the actual words (or translated words) of the Buddha, it still tells us much about how the early Theravada tradition viewed the Buddha and what he had done.
We note his remarkable presence and skin, and so have the first of the Buddhist radiance models and physical models. We note that he says he is superior to the gods, which is sort of a God model in and of itself, except one better. He describes being free of all the taints and evil states, which is a complex mix of emotional and psychological models. He also mentions the drum of the deathless, and here we have hints of an immortality model or an extinction model, and while formally Buddhism would reject both of these associations, aspects of both show up often in the texts anyway. There is also a transcendence model, as he says he is unsullied by all things, and a specific knowledge model, as the Buddha says he is a knower of all. In short, he says he has accomplished something remarkable, and asserts that he is going to go tell others how to do the same thing he did, or is he?
In case anyone is wondering, I am a huge fan of the Buddha. I apologize if my parsing his purported and translated words through a hyper-analytic and reductionist postmodern filter comes across as disrespectful or in some other negative way. Might the Buddha’s choice of words, metaphors, and similes have worked perfectly in that context, inspiring practitioners to excellent practice without undue confusion? This is entirely possible. However, today, as his words have come down to us translated into this cultural context over 2,500 years later, the results are often delusional chaos.
I put textual selection and commentary here merely to demonstrate that we have lots of places in the Buddhist texts from which we can draw various conscious or subconscious models of awakening, not all of which are helpful. Still, the Buddha inspires the heck out of me, and you gotta appreciate his purported moxie! I recognize that systems of thought and practice that may not be helpful in our current cultural context might have been very skillful and appropriate in another cultural or temporal context, and bringing the East to the West has shown this in abundance.
The question of how the Buddha’s realization relates to what he was trying to teach others is a complex one. There are numerous passages where he says he is quite different from and superior to all other awakened beings, and draws a clear line between himself and other arahants as well. Thus, we must look carefully at what his claims about himself have to do with others, and I devote the whole next chapter to this complex issue. Suffice it to say, the problem comes when the ideals the Buddha discusses as applying to himself (however mythologized and posthumously augmented by creative authors) are applied, without careful investigation, to awakened beings of theoretically inferior degree. I will leave off discussing the question of the Tibetans who purport to produce full Tantric Buddhas (with their own set of criteria for what that means) in one lifetime, as that is beyond my pay grade.
Back to the issues of whether enlightened beings have a special presence. I have seen examples of both, though I suspect that in some cases their presence was largely that way before they started doing spiritual practice. Many people who have asked me questions about practice over the years have reluctantly but seriously asked me if there was something remarkable about my presence or how I was able to keep my realizations hidden at work. I am both sorry and happy to report that I have no problems in this regard at work and as far as I can tell have nothing whatsoever that is unusual about my presence that wasn’t there long before I got into all of this, other than the confidence and passion with which I speak on the dharma, which I almost never do at work. Wearing specially tailored light-blocking undergarments keeps the rest in check! Seriously, the physical models and radiance can be another trap that people fall into, both in their own practice and when evaluating the possible level of realization of others.