I recently learned about Anuruddha, a cousin and one of the five head disciples of the Buddha. Anuruddha grew up in luxury like the Buddha and followed the Awakened One into the homeless monastic life, as did many of his relatives and countrymen. Far from being perceived as dropping out, there was status in Sakyan country in becoming a monk like that very famous Sakyan. But Anuruddha wasn’t making an empty gesture in becoming a monk. He went for it the way a modern young man might train to become a test pilot, then an astronaut. Extraordinary at meditation (an inner space program), he acquired “divine vision” and was foremost in this extraordinary power. He could see to the end of the universe and beyond, to other universes. He could see into others’ minds, literally see their level of attainment.
Even though Anuruddha had this extraordinary ability, however, he struggled to achieve arahatship, that state of being free the “defilements” — a Victorian-sounding name for all those ordinary states of heart and mind like anger and attachment that keep us locked in the cage of ego. This is the first thing that is interesting about the story of Anuruddha: It makes it clear that liberation has more to do with dropping attachment than with attaining a special, well, vision, which is the way we often think of it in this achievement-obsessed, driven world. At least I did for a long time. I approached spiritual life as if it was a kind of extreme sport, as if it was like summitting Everest without oxygen or sailing around the world solo in an open row boat. Freedom was for the few.
It turns out that attaining inner freedom does take effort, but not the kind we tend to fantasize about. Anuruddha turned for help to Sariputta, trusted senior disciple of the Buddha. Sariputta told the brilliant Anuruddha to go off and work on “the eight thoughts of a great man.” He worked heart and soul and achieved the first seven. In brief they are: to want little, to be contended, to be happy in seclusion, to be energetic, to be mindful, to be composed, to be wise.
But he couldn’t master the eighth thought until Buddha himself flew to him and helped him. The eighth thought is “The dhamma is for one who is free of impediments….” Especially, in Anuruddha’s case, the impediment of being attached to the proliferation of his own brilliant thoughts. Throw in his anxiety about not being liberated and add his pride about his gift of divine vision and other gifts and he was clearly, deeply stuck.
With the help of the Buddha, he came at last to see a truth that is right here and right now, all the time. Whatever we think we are and whatever we think the truth is, it is always other. As Madame de Salzmann says: “Truth cannot be thought.”
(Liberated, Anuruddha went to be a trusted and well-oved disciple the Buddha, even attending him at his death).