Goal and path: what is the relationship?

The Buddha said that the noble eightfold path is to be developed for the destruction (parikkhayāya) and abandonment (pahānāya) of the longing for a holy life (brahmacariyesanā) (S.5.55) and he defined the holy life as the noble eightfold path (S.5.26) Thus the longing for a holy life leads to the eightfold path; and the eightfold path ends the longing for a holy life. The path brings itself to an end.

It is like the man who visited Venerable Ananda in Ghosita’s monastery (S.5.272). Venerable Ananda told him that the goal of the holy life is to abandon desire; and to abandon desire, one must desire to do so. Having achieved the goal, the desire ceases. The desire for arahantship ceases at arahantship (arahatte patte yo tajjo chando so paṭippassaddho). To illustrate this, he asked his visitor if he had earlier had the desire to visit the monastery. Of course, the man said yes. Then, when arrived, did the desire subside? Again the man said yes.

Similarly, the Buddha compared his teachings to a raft for crossing a stream from a danger to safety. Having crossed, it would be absurd to then carry the raft around on one’s head. The Buddha said his teachings likewise were for crossing over, not for grasping. He concluded: “When you see that religious teachings are similar to a raft, you should abandon even the teachings, how much more so things contrary to the teachings” (dhammāpi vo pahātabbā pageva adhammā) (M.1.135). However, it would seem equally absurd to abandon the raft before one had crossed over.

Similarly, Venerable Puṇṇa said that the stages of the spiritual path were like a relay of chariots. The only purpose of each stage is to reach the next stage.

  • Purifying virtue is to purify the mind
  • which is to purify one’s views
  • which is to overcome uncertainty
  • which is to attain knowledge and vision of what is the path and what is not
  • which is to attain knowledge and vision of the practice
  • which is to attain knowledge and vision
  • which is to attain final Nibbana without clinging.

Each of the intermediate stages is eventually abandoned. But each stage must be attained before its abandonment. As Venerable Puṇṇa explained: if final Nibbana could be attained without the intermediate stages, then an ordinary person would attain Nibbana, because he is without these stages (M.1.149-150).

The three similes illustrate different aspects of liberation:

  • the simile of the raft shows that the Buddha’s teachings are eventually abandoned;
  • the simile of the relay chariots shows that one’s attainments on the path are eventually abandoned;
  • the simile of walking to a park shows that one’s spiritual efforts are eventually abandoned.

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