Is it still possible to become an arahant when listening to a discourse, like in the time of the Buddha?
This question came up in the Online 10-day Retreat Nov 3, 2020, guided by Delson Armstrong. Day 5 was part of a daily 30-minute discussion on the suttas, the Dhamma talk and reflections.
Slightly edited to improve readability
It’s one of a few examples of where, having heard the talk, that for such beings, by not grasping, the Taints were destroyed, the defilements were destroyed, and thus they were then arahants.
It’s interesting, there are a few other suttas, like the Bāhiya sutta [Udāna 1.10], which is very similar to another one in the Majjhima Nikaya, where it’s very similar in content as well, and style. Upon listening to the Buddha’s talk, and really contemplating what he says, they become arahants right there and then.
There’s even, and it’s very interesting, Sariputta who has two different accounts of how he sees through wisdom. There is, as we know traditionally, the Majjhima Nikāya, which is the Anupada sutta, One by One as they Occurred [MN 111] and when you read that, you see that it just goes through each of the jhanas and then the mind is liberated at the end, having seen with wisdom. But there is another sutta in Majjhima Nikāya, in which the Buddha is talking to Sariputta’s nephew, I believe, MN 74 To Dighanaka/Dighanakha Sutta. In that, Sariputta is fanning the Buddha, and upon listening to Buddha talk about the level of Feeling, and contemplating on that, Sariputtas Taints are destroyed and he attains arahantship.
That means that there is a potential, if the mind is serene enough, if the mind is collected enough, if the mind is already mindful enough to be able to listen to it, and in that process apply what the Buddha is saying, upon listening to it.
For example, in the case of Sariputta, having understood the phenomena of Feeling, and understanding how on letting go of the phenomenon of Feeling, and by not grasping, he understood how it was impermanent, how it was impersonal. He let go of any attachment to it, and then was able, through seeing the links of the Dependent Origination in the next moment, to just let go of all the Taints. In that wisdom, the Taints were destroyed.
In the case of even Bahiya, I would say that that was what happened upon listening to it, with deep insight, with deep reverence and deep Mindfulness. Upon listening to it and seeing when he says about the self, in not being before or after the seeing, and there’s just pure seeing or pure experiencing, he was able to see and not involve his mind in the links of Dependent Origination, as they arose.
Whether it’s through the jhana practice – meaning, whether it’s through samadhi, Collectedness, that then you go through the four jhanas and then the higher states, and then enter Cessation and upon that, see with a clear mind and understand with wisdom – or upon listening with deep reverence and allowing your mind to be free of any hindrances, essentially your mind is collected while you’re listening.
We have some interesting comments; they’re talking about that it’s possible that these people were meditating while listening. In some sense they could have been, because they were listening so deeply, that their mind was quite serene and tranquil.
And another individual says that Mindfulness, Collectiveness, and the Four Right Efforts is meditation. Yes, in having that application of Mindfulness – seeing the body, seeing the mind, seeing the sensations – and understanding it as the Buddha is relaying the information, using the Right Efforts, whenever the mind might be distracted, and coming back to that Collectedness in that meditative state while listening; they were able to see the links of Dependent Origination as they arose, without having to go through the entire process of getting into Cessation and coming out of it. It is quite possible, but for that you need very good Collectedness, very good and very sharp Mindfulness. And good Kamma.