MCTB The Radiance Models
Related to the Physical Models are the Radiance Models, which tend to involve imagining that enlightened beings will have some kind of remarkable presence, usually involving radiating love, charisma, wisdom, peace or even physical light. A friend of mine used to joke about this by saying that people in Western Vipassana at the Insight Meditation Society thought that an arahat would be someone like Dipa Ma (a talented practitioner of vipassana and samatha who died an anagami by her own admission) but with light shining out of their ass. This is a bit of an 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 to medieval paintings to confirm this. The stories of the Buddha are full of his marvelous presence. In fact, his very first interaction with a human after his awakening went something like this. The Buddha had gotten up after exploring the depths of his realization and abilities. He decided to find his five companions who had been with him during his period of grave 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 that wasn’t a god or a giant snake was the monk Upaka. I quote the Buddha as he tells the tale, as rendered in Bhikkhu Ñanamoli and Bhikkhu Bodhi’s The Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha, Sutta 26, as it is so priceless and such a wealth of information about the origin of these models and ideals:
Upaka said: ‘Friend, 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 a large number of 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”.
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 adds 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 also 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 exactly the same thing he did, or is he?
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 enlightened beings, and draws a clear line between himself and arahats. Thus, we have to 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 to say, the problem comes in when the ideals the Buddha discusses as applying to himself, however mythologized we think they are, are applied without careful investigation to enlightened beings of theoretically inferior degree. Then there is the slippery question of the Tibetans who purport to produce full Buddhas in one lifetime…
Back to the issues of whether or not enlightened beings have a special presence. I have seen examples of both, though I suspect that in most 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 hesitantly 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. In short, the physical models and radiance are just nice propaganda and another trap that people fall into, both in their own practice and when evaluating the possible level of realization of others.