Ariyapariyesanā Sutta: The Noble Quest

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A little shift from our accustomed fare as we shall now explore the flavor of the Majjhima Nikāya, most notably Discourse MN 26—Ariyapariyesanā Sutta, or the Noble Quest. Considered by scholars to be one of the earliest, if not “The” earliest sketch on the Buddha’s biographical background. One will soon notice that the usual foundation of the Four Noble Truths is conspicuously absent. Yet, this does not imply that they are lacking as the main thrust of this sutta is the critical difference between the Noble and Ignoble quest for Right Liberation:

The account then illustrates the Buddha’s own noble search and his later teaching career in the terms introduced by the lesson: the search for the “unborn, agingless, illnessless, deathless, sorrowless, undefiled, unexcelled rest from the yoke: Unbinding.” In particular, all the events mentioned in the account revolve around the issue of the Deathless: the discovery of the Deathless, the teaching of the Deathless, and the Buddha’s success in helping others to attain the Deathless. (Thanissaro Bhikkhu)

As always, the Deathless Dharma takes precedence in the face of all dukkha as it points the way to liberation (nibbāna). The perpetual discordance between the puthujjana and the Noble Ariyans is the crux of this discourse:

As the title of the discourse suggests, the Buddha explains his search for religious fulfillment as the “noble quest.” The discourse presents the “noble quest” in contrast to the “ignoble quest.” According to the Buddha, the ordinary, unenlightened person is troubled by the vicissitudes of life—the profound existential problems of sickness, old age, and death—for reasons that run much deeper than most people realize. But the unenlightened person seeks happiness in the things “liable to birth,” “liable to sickness,” and so on, and therefore develops an infatuation with these things. Such behavior is bound to lead to suffering rather than genuine happiness, according to the Buddha.

At the core of the ignoble quest is a corrupt mind, a morass of psychological factors, such as egoful attachments and self-indulgent sensualism, that spoils a person’s existence and makes it nearly impossible for such a person to overcome the suffering that derives from sickness, old age, and death. Because sickness, old age, and death are unavoidable facts of any human life, these problems prevent the unenlightened person from achieving anything except the most superficial kinds of happiness in life.

The “noble quest,” on the other hand, is a way to a sublime happiness, in spite of sickness, old age, and death. The noble quest focuses on the abandonment of selfish attachments and self-indulgent sensualism. In early Buddhism, addiction to sensual pleasure is considered to be among the most
insidious causes of selfishness and other moral impurities. For this reason, the development of a mind free from the unwholesome effects of unrestrained sensualism is one of the central aims of the training taught by the Buddha. The destruction of selfish and hedonistic attitudes requires the development of restraint, especially the control of sensory experiences that involve sensual pleasure. (John J. Holder, Early Buddhist Discourses, pgs. 1,2)

We shall discover that one needs to also transcend advanced states of meditative practices, like the four-jhānas, spheres of infinite consciousness (viññāṇānañcāyatanta); and particularly in this discourse, the sphere of apparent nothingness, ākiñcaññāyatana, in order to reach nibbāna. What is needed above all else is the cessation of those adventitious defilements that mar the course of spiritual maturation. For Siddhattha Gotama, the Dhamma that leads to ultimate liberation from samsara is a way of aversion, dispassion, cessation, calmness, and a higher Buddha-gnosis that awakens Mind for eventual recollective-re-union with the Unborn. Yea, it is a reunion with one’s Primordial Prospectus. This is a primal-course in mind-training, one that provides the foundation for the Noble Ariyans—those resilient few who dare break the cycle of ignominious rebirths into the sensate realms of Mara, the evil one. As such, this is primarily a spiritual-quest, i.e., for the spirit alone (Solus Spiritus); it’s how spirit reacts and succumbs to, or dispassionately resists and overcomes sensual allures that keep it embroiled in soiled material realms.

 “Thus you should train yourselves: ‘We will listen when discourses that are words of the Tathagata — deep, deep in their meaning, transcendent, connected with emptiness — are being recited. We will lend ear, will set our hearts on knowing them, will regard these teachings as worth grasping & mastering.’ That’s how you should train yourselves.”

— SN 20.7

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