The Buddha often described his teaching as “a gradual training, a gradual practice, bringing gradual progress.” Accordingly, the classical paradigm of the path proceeds from ethical behavior to concentration to wisdom, and from there to liberation. Yet we also find in the texts cases that don’t conform to this model, accounts of people who attain realization in the midst of distress and emotional turmoil. Such cases shed a revealing spotlight on the nature of spiritual realization. They suggest that, running alongside the standard paradigm, there is another track that includes an element of sheer unpredictability.
Perhaps the best-known example is the story of Kisagotami, the grief-stricken mother who asked the Buddha to cure her dead son. The Buddha assured her he would do so if she could bring him a few mustard seeds from a home in which nobody had ever died. When every family she called upon told her they had lost a loved one, Kisagotami realized she was not alone in her grief and returned to the Buddha a much wiser woman. She quickly reached the first stage of awakening and soon thereafter completed her practice by attaining arahantship.
Another woman of the Buddha’s time who experienced even more tragic losses than Kisagotami was Patacara, the sole daughter of a wealthy family of Savatthi. Defying her parents’ wishes, Patacara eloped with one of the household servants, a disgraceful deed in class-conscious India. The couple settled deep in the countryside where Patacara soon gave birth to a son. A few years later she had a second son. Troubled at heart, she decided to return to her parents’ home, along with her husband and sons, to beg forgiveness. During the journey, her husband was bitten by a snake and fell down dead. Then the infant son was pounced upon by a hawk and carried off, and the other son was swept away by a swollen river. When Patacara reached Savatthi, deep in distress, still worse news was in store for her. She learned that the night before, during a violent rainstorm, her family home had collapsed, killing both her parents and her brother. In the distance she could see the smoke rising from the funeral pyre where all three were being cremated.
The loss of her loved ones—all within a couple of days—was too much for Patacara, and her mind snapped. She threw off her clothes and entered Savatthi naked, weeping and babbling. People taunted and threw sticks at her, calling her a mad woman. But Patacara’s steps led her to Jetavana Monastery, where the Buddha was giving a discourse. The Buddha ordered, “Regain your sanity, woman,” and at once she calmed down. He then explained that it wasn’t only in this life that she had shed tears over the loss of sons, but in this beginningless round of rebirths she had shed more tears than the waters in the ocean. By the end of the discourse, Patacara had attained the fruit of stream-entry. She joined the Order of Bhikkhunis, practiced vigorously, and before long achieved arahantship. The Buddha appointed her the foremost of nuns who were masters of monastic discipline.
A nun named Siha attained arahantship on the threshold of despair. In her verses in the Therigatha, Siha says that in her seven years as a nun she had been so tormented by sensual lust that she had not known even a moment of peace. Finally she decided she had reached her limit. She took a rope and entered the woods. She made a noose, tied the rope to the branch of a tree, and slipped the noose around her neck. Just then her mind was liberated from all defilements and she returned to the monastery as an arahant.
The ascetic Bahiya Daruciriya did not suffer from personal loss, but his story is also marked by a sudden awakening amid inner agitation. Bahiya had been living as a hermit at Supparaka, along the west coast of India, far from the eastern provinces where the Buddha dwelled. Bahiya must have had a profound spiritual experience, for he believed that he was either an arahant or on the path to arahantship. Yet one day a benevolent deity shattered his confidence, telling him that he had attained nothing of real value. The deity urged him to go to Savatthi to see the Buddha. Bahiya set off immediately, traveling the whole distance by foot, pausing only to rest each night. He met the Buddha on his almsround in the city and earnestly requested a teaching. The Buddha refused twice, on the ground that the almsround was not a suitable venue for instruction. But Bahiya insisted, “Who knows how long I have to live?” Finally the Buddha consented. He gave Bahiya a teaching so pithy that as soon as he heard it, his mind was instantly released. While seeking the robes and bowl needed to become a monk, Bahiya was killed by a wild cow. But, though he didn’t receive formal ordination, the Buddha still pronounced him the foremost of monks who attained rapid realization.
Other examples of sudden transformation and rapid attainment can be found in the suttas and commentaries. One was the serial killer Angulimala, whom the Buddha transformed into a gentle and compassionate monk. Another was Khema, the proud consort of King Bimbisara, who quickly attained arahantship when the Buddha revealed to her the transience of beauty. And still another was the minister Santati, whose favorite dancing girl died while dancing before his eyes. Coming to the Buddha distraught and stricken with grief, he attained arahantship on hearing a brief discourse.
The possibility of a sudden breakthrough in the midst of confusion and distress raises intriguing questions about the psychology of awakening. We can be sure that these disciples had established a basis for their realizations by their deeds in previous lives. But their practice in past lives was like a collection of fuel. We still need to explain what set off the process of combustion, what ignited their attainment in this present life. One pivotal factor must have been the role of the Buddha, who could see deeply into the hearts of his listeners and teach the Dhamma in the precise way needed to arouse their latent potential.
But, I believe, something else was involved, which I would describe as the involuntary stripping away of all accustomed points of reference, the sudden loss of everything one relies on to give meaning to one’s ordinary life. For Kisagotami it was the death of her beloved son; for Patacara, the loss of all her family members; for Siha, the prospect of suicide; for Bahiya, the shock of realizing that his attainment was a delusion; for Angulimala, the pointless compulsion to go on killing; for Khema, the sudden insight that her beauty was bound to fade; for Santati, the startling encounter with the face of death. In each case the triggering event was different, but in all these cases a void opened up that had never been seen before.
Losing all points of reference means becoming utterly exposed and vulnerable. It means catching a glimpse of the insecurity that perpetually lies beneath our feet. And, I would say, it is this exposure, this vulnerability, this loss of a standpoint that propels the ultimate jump from “this shore,” the realm of impermanence, suffering and death, to the “far shore,” the birthless and deathless, the realm of transcendent freedom.
Such stories should not be regarded merely as wondrous tales of the past, relating events possible when the Buddha was alive but at present beyond our reach. We can read them, instead, as lessons with deep personal relevance. They signify that in the midst of our own distress, confusion or just plain banality, our prospects for spiritual growth and even awakening are never dim. If ordinary people in the past, suffering from grief, confusion, pride and despair, could complete the training and attain realization, there is always hope for us. No matter how slow our progress may appear, no matter how formidable the barriers we might meet, if we repose trust in the path and walk on diligently, we can be confident that we’re moving ever closer toward the goal.
Sources: Therigatha, Therigatha Commentary, Dhammapada Commentary, the Udana, the Angulimala Sutta (Majjhima Nikaya 86).