MCTB The Action Models

The Action Models tend to involve certain actions that enlightened beings cannot commit or certain actions they must commit. Both types of models are completely ridiculous, and so we come now to the first of the models that simply has no basis in reality. The traditional Theravada models contain numerous statements about what enlightened beings cannot do or will do that are simply wrong. My favorite examples of this insanity include statements that arahats cannot break the precepts (including killing, lying, stealing, having sex, doing drugs or drinking), cannot have erections, cannot have jobs, cannot be married, and cannot say they are arahats. They also state that unordained arahats must/will join the Theravada monastic order within seven days of their realization or they will die. Needless to say, all are simply absurd lies, lies that have unfortunately often been perpetuated by arahats.

There is also another more subtle and seductive view, and this is that enlightened beings somehow will act in a way that is better or higher, though it isn’t defined what those actions might be or what actions they might avoid. I consider this view very dangerous. While I wish to promote the shift in perception that I call awakening and other names, I don’t want to make out that somehow this will save anyone from stupid actions or make them somehow always know how to do the right thing or avoid screwing up. Such views are a setup for massive badness and huge shadow sides, as anyone who has spent enough time in a spiritual community knows all too well. As Zen says, “The bigger the front, the bigger the back.”

The list of highly enlightened individuals who have bitten the proverbial dust by putting themselves up on high, screwing up and then being exposed as actually being human is remarkably long, and the list of spiritual aspirants who have failed to draw the proper conclusions about reality from the failures of the enlightened is even longer. There are many schools of thought on this issue, and I will give them formal names here, though in reality they don’t think of themselves this way.

The Halfway Up the Mountain School essentially believes, “Those who screwed up and caused a scandal were only part-way up the mountain, only partially enlightened, as anyone who was really enlightened couldn’t possibly have done those terrible things.” While clearly some were only partially enlightened, or perhaps not enlightened at all in the technical sense, a number of those who screwed up clearly knew ultimate reality inside and out, and so this model misses many important points.

There is the Crazy Wisdom School that believes, “Enlightened beings transcend ordinary reality and with it ordinary morality, so that they are the natural manifestation of a Wisdom that seems crazy to us foolish mortals but is really a higher teaching in disguise!” While not entirely absurd, as there are many cultural aspects and societal rules that can seem a bit childish, artificial, unnecessary, unhelpful or naive in the face of realization, the Crazy Wisdom School provides too easy an excuse for plenty of behavior that has been and is just plain bad, irresponsible, stupid and needlessly destructive.

Then there is my school, for which I don’t have a catchy name, and it promotes the view that, “Enlightened beings are human, and unfortunately humans, enlightened or otherwise, all screw up sometimes. There is nothing special or profound about this.” In short, my school categorically rejects the specific lists and dogmas of the traditional Action Models in all forms, from the preposterous lists of the Theravada to the subtle sense that enlightened beings somehow are guaranteed to act perpetually in “enlightened” ways, whatever those are.

That said, the ability to see things as they are does allow for the possibility of more moderated responses to situations and emotions, as stated earlier. That is a very different sort of a concept from coming up with a list of things that an enlightened being never would or could do, and it certainly doesn’t mean they will necessarily act the way we think they will. Further, while this is not an exhaustive list, the behavior of any being is always affected by the following:

  1. The standard laws of the natural world
  2. The limits of their level of realization
  3. The ingrained habits of the realized individual, including their personality quirks and “stuff”
  4. The residue of the shadow sides of the techniques and traditions they used to attain their understanding (don’t underestimate these!)
  5. The fact that mindfulness waxes and wanes (at least in arahats and below, and in all realistic definitions of buddhas)
  6. The fact that confusion and stupidity can still occur exactly as before
  7. The limits of the relative knowledge and experiences of the realized individual
  8. The psychological and physiological issues that apply to the brain and body of the realized individual
  9. Their cultural upbringing and the relative mores created by it.

You will notice that this is quite a realistic and long list. Thus, the dogmas of the standard action models, while containing a few grains of truth, are simply wildly inaccurate, and generally represent some of the worst of the models of enlightenment.

A closely related issue is the tensions between the “technically enlightened” models and the limited possible action models. There are schools of thought that say, “One enlightened action and one is a Buddha, one deluded action and one is an ordinary human being.” These have their value from a certain behavioral point of view, and can serve as a valuable reminder to all that conventional morality tends to be an extremely good idea most of the time. I, for one, think that everyone, regardless of purported realizations or a lack thereof, should be held to a high and fairly traditional moral standard, though in some human, just, and forgiving way. However, teachings based on some arbitrary ideal called “enlightened action” can begin to diminish the importance of direct realization of the truth of things and reinforce the mythical garbage of the limited possible action models of realization.

There are people who are “technically” unenlightened (meaning that they have never completed even one progress of insight or attained to any direct understanding of emptiness or non-duality) who nonetheless live lives that would be considered unremittingly saintly by even the very highest standards. I have been fortunate enough to have met a few of these people and continue to stand in awe of them. Just so, there are those who are “technically” very highly enlightened, perhaps even arahats or buddhas, who nonetheless can appear exceedingly ordinary, seem to be of distinctly questionable moral virtue, or even sometimes be downright debauched and outrageous. I have met a good number of these also.

While the failure of the limited or enlightened action models and limited emotional models is a huge disappointment from one point of view, it also means that there is hope for the rest of us. Our lives are it, our emotions are it, our habits are it, our limitations are it, our neuroses are it, our issues are it, and our shadow sides are it. How can we attain understanding if we do not see clearly into reality as it is? How can we see clearly into reality as it is if we spend most of our time thinking that it isn’t good enough to even examine clearly?

MCTB The Power Models