Possibility of awakening

What makes awakening possible?

Before tackling this question, it may be worth noting that the question presupposes that awakening is possible and that something makes it so. This presupposition has not gone unchallenged. The issue is explored in some detail in a book by Roger Jackson; the body of the book is the translation of a text by Dharmakīrti, but Jackson’s introduction explores the issue in a non-polemic way.1 Some Buddhists who work in the field of psychotherapy have accepted the therapeutic axiom that the therapeutic process is never finished and that at the very most a person can reduce the root causes of suffering but not eliminate them entirely as is supposed to happen in attaining nirvana. It may be worthwhile to explore the presupposition on which this question rests, but for the time being I propose to set that inquiry aside and to look at ways to approach the questions itself.

Some epistemological considerations

Since we have been discussing epistemology and it is fresh in our minds, let us begin with that. There is a formula that occurs in various forms in the Pali canon of the Theravāda tradition. In the Saṃyutta-nikāya, for example, the following description is given of a disciple who has followed the Buddhist path to its natural end:

Seeing thus, the well-instructed disciple of the noble ones grows disenchanted with the body, disenchanted with feeling, disenchanted with perception, disenchanted with fabrications, disenchanted with consciousness. Disenchanted, he becomes dispassionate. Through dispassion, he is fully released. With full release, there is the knowledge, “Fully released.” He discerns that “Birth is ended, the holy life fulfilled, the task done. There is nothing further for this world.”2

Standard accounts of the Buddha in the Pali canon record him as saying about his awakening something very similar to the passage just cited:

With release, there was the knowledge, “Released.” I discerned that “Birth is ended, the holy life fulfilled, the task done. There is nothing further for this world.”

What these two passages are claiming is that one can know that there will be no further rebirths, because one knows that the potential for further rebirths has been permanently destroyed. It is not just that one is having a “nirvana moment,” but rather one can be certain that the conditions that are necessary for future birth no longer exist. This is a remarkable claim. It invites the question: how can one be sure that the conditions necessary for rebirth have been completely eradicated and are not simply lying dormant somewhere?

There is a narrative in the Pali canon that shows that it is possible to be mistaken about whether all the afflictive conditions that lead to further rebirth have been fully eradicated. This is the story of the monk Channa.3 In this narrative Channa is portrayed as a monk who has a serious and very painful illness. He has sought help from all the physicians in his vicinity, and none of them has been able to cure his illness. The medical consensus is that his condition is a terminal illness. Knowing that he will die of this disease eventually but will have to suffer great discomfort before he dies, he makes the decision to end his own life. Before doing so, he consults with Sāriputta, who asks him about his mental condition. Specifically, Sāriputta seeks to learn whether Channa is planning to commit suicide so that he can attain a more comfortable birth elsewhere. Channa responds in the formula that is frequently used by arhants. He says that he has no desire at all for future rebirth. This is taken by Sāriputta as a sign that Channa knows that he is an arhant who knows that “Birth is ended, the holy life fulfilled, the task done. There is nothing further for this world.” In verses that he wrote upon his nirvana, Sāriputta wrote:

I have served my teacher; I have followed the Buddha’s teachings. My heavy burden has been put down. That which leads to continued existence has been rooted out. I do not long for death. I do not long for life. I shall lay down this body attentively and mindfully. I do not long for death. I do not long for life. I just await my time, as a servant awaits his wages.

On determining that Channa knows that he has rooted out all the afflictive conditions necessary for future rebirth, Sāriputta remains silent. He neither gives permission to Channa to end his life, nor does he forbid it. Taking Sāriputta’s silence as approval of his decision, Channa uses his razor to cut his own jugular vein. At this point the story takes a very dramatic turn. As his life force rapidly diminishes, Channa feels a moment of panic at the knowledge that he is dying. He also realizes that this panic is an indication that he is not an arhant as he had first believed. He still craves life! Knowing that he has only moments to live, Channa gathers his full resources and concentrates his mind fully. In precisely the moment his life ends, he loses all fear of death and craving for life. When the Buddha is later asked what happened to Channa after he departed this life, the Buddha declares that Channa became at arhant in the very last moment of his life and so was not again reborn.

The story of Channa is used to illustrate that it is never too late to practice and to attain nirvana! As long as there is life there is opportunity to become fully indifferent to it and to reach the state of not caring whether one lives or dies. But the story also raises a very sobering fact: it is always possible to be mistaken about whether one has really fully eradicated all the conditions for further unhappiness. The mere fact that one does not now feel fear about dying is no guarantee that such fear will never arise again. What this suggests is that while knowledge that one has reached the goal of Buddhist practice is stated as an ideal—indeed, it is part of the definition of an arhant that he or she knows that the goal of being an arhant has been reached—, it is in practice difficult, perhaps even impossible, to realize that ideal.

The metaphysics of awakening


  1. Roger R. Jackson, Is Enlightenment Possible? Dharmakīrti and Rgyal Tshab Rje on Knowledge, Rebirth, No-Self and Liberation, Textual Studies and Translations in Indo-Tibetan Buddhism, vol. (Ithaca, NY: Snow Lion Publications, 1993). ↩︎
  2. This translation appears on http://www.accesstoinsight.org/ptf/buddha.html ↩︎
  3. This episode has been discussed by Martin G. Wiltshire, “The “Suicide” Problem in the Pali Canon,” Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies 6, no. 2 (1983): 124–140. A response to Wiltshire is found in an article by Damien Keown, “Buddhism and Suicide: The Case of Channa,” Journal of Buddhist Ethics 3, (1996): 8–31. ↩︎

Works cited

  • Jackson, Roger R. Is Enlightenment Possible? Dharmakīrti and Rgyal Tshab Rje on Knowledge, Rebirth, No-Self and Liberation. Textual Studies and Translations in Indo-Tibetan Buddhism, Ithaca, NY: Snow Lion Publications, 1993.
  • Keown, Damien. “Buddhism and Suicide: The Case of Channa.” Journal of Buddhist Ethics 3, (1996): 8–31
  • Wiltshire, Martin G. “The ‘Suicide’ Problem in the Pali Canon.” Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies 6, no. 2 (1983): 124–140.

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