HAN SHAN WEEPS at the passing of those he knew and loved. Ryokan sheds a tear at the fate of a wayward teenager. These are tears of compassion, not those of anger, rage, or betrayal. For in the face of life’s travails, such beings are essentially unflappable—though their hearts may still break on seeing other people’s suffering, their weeping is without attachment.

Such, at any rate, is the emotional life of arhats, the Noble Ones of Buddhism, who have extinguished all passions. Theirs is an otherworldly equanimity; the Pali canon, the classic texts of Theravadin Buddhism, describes arhats as being so at peace that they easily “endure heat, cold, hunger, thirst, the touch of mosquitoes, gadflies, wind and creeping things, abusive language, and bodily feelings that are painful, sharp, severe, wretched, miserable, deadly.”


Arhat Bhadra, China, fourteenth century, gilt bronze
Arhat Bhadra, China, fourteenth century, gilt bronze

These tranquil Buddhist saints are a worthy model, inspiring for the ordinary-meditator. But in some ways they are troublesome. Their serene visages represent an ideal type, the peace at the end of the path—but one that can seem remote and unreachable from the gritty realities of practitioners’ lives.

I can recollect countless times when, a few weeks or days or hours after returning to life from a retreat in a mellow mood (I like to imagine it as somewhat arhat-like), I suddenly found myself swept up by some foul and peevish state. By a traffic jam. By bounced checks. By mosquitoes, gadflies, abusive language—the ten thousand hassles of life. It would never happen to an arhat. But some recent findings about the neurophysiology of emotion have given me more empathy for myself in these moments.

A part of the brain, a structure called the amygdala, has been found to be the seat of strong emotional memories—all the traumas, hurts, fears, angers and the like that we have endured are stored there. Indeed, bitter or poignant memories are stored there with a special strength: the same hormones that arouse the body to fight or flee also signal the amygdala to encode these memories all the more indelibly.

It had long been thought that the amygdala was alerted to the emotional nature of events by signals from the thinking brain, which mulled them over first. But now neuroscientists have discovered that the amygdala has a direct express route from the area that decodes sensory signals from the eye and ear into the language of the brain. This route bypasses the thinking brain entirely and can trigger an emotional reaction without our having time to think about it.

Future Buddha (Maitreya Bodhisattva), Chuguji Temple, Nara Japan, c. 650 C.E., wood
Future Buddha (Maitreya Bodhisattva), Chuguji Temple, Nara Japan, c. 650 C.E., wood

An extensive network of circuitry spreads from the amygdala throughout the brain, allowing it to rouse us to react with anger or fear in a split second. This means that the amygdala acts as a nervous, edgy sentinel, scanning all that happens to us to see if it matches some threat from the past. If so (and the “match” can be fairly imprecise), it sends out an alarm, catching us up in an emotional “hijack” literally before the thinking mind has had time to figure out what is going on.

That hijack has an arc, rising to a peak of emotional intensity and reactivity, then gradually subsiding. The question is: When the hijack comes, how long does it take us to recover? A mark of progress on the path, I propose, is quicker recovery times from our emotional hijacks.

Arhats, of course, never have these reactions in the first place, though the details of their emotional dynamic depends on the level and type of arhat (and there are as many kinds of arhats as there are schools of Buddhism). Some say an arhat may have the fleeting tendency toward an afflictive feeling, but never the full emotion; as one source puts it, “Arhats may slip, but they never fall.” Other schools hold that arhats have eradicated the least sign of disturbing emotions, having “conquered the foe”— kilesas, or negative tendencies—”which cloud and disturb the mind.” Instead, their range of feeling is transcendental: compassion, loving kindness, equanimity. When they cry, their tears are motivated by these lofty feelings, not attachment.

Consider some of the distinguishing emotional traits of the arhat (from a list compiled by Swedish scholar Rune Johanssen, working from Pali sources that describe the lives of women and men who became arhats at or near the time of the Buddha):

Arhats have no anxiety no resentments or anger, no fears of any sort, nor lust or greed for sensory pleasures. They feel not the least bit of aversion to conditions such as loss, disgrace, pain, suffering, or blame. They lack desire for anything beyond the most essential and necessary items. They have not an iota of consumerist yearning.

At the same time, the arhat displays a quick and active perceptiveness and keen alertness, and takes calm delight in any and all experiences (no matter how mundane or seemingly boring). Arhats are the opposite of the klutz: their every activity is marked by composure and skillfulness. Beyond that, arhats embody transcendental qualities: equanimity in all circumstances, impartiality toward others, compassion, and loving-kindness.

The trouble with arhats for modern meditators is that they seem virtuous beyond belief. Perhaps understandably. The arhat is the Buddhist prototype of the saint, a prototype notable in modern systems of thought for its absence. The radical transformation of being that the arhat represents overreaches the loftiest goals and dimmest dreams of our philosophies and psychotherapies; from the modern perspective the arhat is too good to be true.

For us ordinary meditators, the gap between the seamy realities of our emotions and the gleaming standards of the arhat can seem insurmountable. It is as though they had dropped by from some neighboring galaxy, perhaps Alpha Centuri.

To compare oneself to an arhat is to invite demoralization. Instead, let me propose a more manageable template for assaying the emotional progress of meditators. Rather than using these all-time Olympic champions as a yardstick, a more modest set of measures may help.

In classical Buddhist psychology “mental factors”—the properties of mind that combine to flavor and define our mental states from moment to moment—determine what is in the eye of the beholder. As a Zen saying has it, “To her lover a beautiful woman is a delight, to a monk, a distraction, and to a wolf a meal.”

This psychological system distinguishes between mental qualities that are “pure” and healthy and those that are unwholesome or “afflictive.” The basic rule of thumb for this list is whether a quality of mind helps or hinders meditation.


Buddha Subduing Mara, Sukhothai style, Northern Thailand, fourteenth or fifteenth century, bronze with green patina
Buddha Subduing Mara, Sukhothai style, Northern Thailand, fourteenth or fifteenth century, bronze with green patina

The main unhealthy quality is delusion, aperceptual cloudiness; this most basic ignorance is seen as the root of suffering. Other perceptual qualities of the unhealthy mind include perplexity, which fills one with doubts, and shamelessness, which leads to ignoring one’s own standards. A third is narcissistic self- centeredness. The rest of the unhealthy qualities are emotional: agitation and worry, greed, avarice, envy, aversion, contraction, and torpor. The list, of course, is not unique to Buddhism: anyone who studied the Baltimore Catechism in his or her childhood will recognize some of the Deadly Sins of Catholicism.

The main healthy quality is insight, the clear perception of things as they are. A second is mindfulness, sustaining that clarity. These two alone suppress all the negative ones. One cluster—modesty, discretion, rectitude—supports the ethical life. Another group—buoyancy, pliancy, adaptability, and proficiency— gives arhats a natural looseness, ease, and skillfulness at what they do. The rest—non-attachment, non- aversion, impartiality, and composure— reflect the physical and mental tranquility that is the hallmark of the arhat’s emotional life, such as it is. In the mind of the arhat, no unhealthy qualities arise.

As for the rest of us, these qualities of mind offer a checklist against which our mood swings can be measured. To the degree that our state of mind gradually tends toward the properties on the healthy list— or that we recover more quickly from negative states—practice is heading in the right direction: toward a lightness of being.