The lineage of the Noble Ones

Picture by Jeremy Bishop at Unsplash

Arya (Sanskrit ārya; Pāli: ariya) adjective m & neuter

  1. (adjective) belonging to the Ariya people
  2. (adjective & masculine) noble, sublime, fine; belonging to the noble ones (used especially of the Buddha’s teaching and followers, almost = ‘Buddhist’); a noble one (one who is not puthujjana)

Puthujjana (Sanskrit: pṛthagjana; Pāli: puthujjana) masculine

  1. a common world-ling; uneducated person
  2. a low man, an unenlightened, vulgar man, the mob, low people

According to the Buddha, no one is born noble.

Rich, poor, miserable, prosperous; healthy, ill, able, disabled; man, woman, human, animal; westerner, easterner, northerner, southerner; with privilege, without privilege; straight, queer; black, white; leftist, right wing; conservative, progressive; capitalist, marxist, anarchist, fascist; pro-life, pro-choice; pro-vaccination, anti-vaxxer…

All of us are born ignorant, uneducated, low, and vulgar. 

We’re all part of the mob. And if we continue to lack spiritual training, we will remain in the ignorant mob.

This is a beautiful fact. It means nobility isn’t based on any of the aforementioned conditions

You were born rich? That doesn’t make you noble. You were born black, brown or white? That also doesn’t make you noble.

Even if you adopt an ideological, political or philosophical view, in the Buddha’s eyes that still doesn’t make you a noble person.

According to him, before spiritual practice we’re all puthujjanas or ignoble.

All of us make ignorant decisions with harmful consequences. All of us wrongly assume how things are, misinterpreting and misunderstanding reality over and over. 

All of us suffer like animals chained to illusory narratives, dragged by the unmerciful inertia of our anxiety, anger, impatience, arrogance, despair, lust and fear. 

We’re all slaves to the whims of our deluded minds.

The Buddha says we have been this way since time immemorial. But he also said we can become noble, that we can stop being puthujjanas and become aryas or noble ones. 

The path to nobility

If we practice diligently and if we tame our body, speech, and mind, we become non-deluded wise beings. We are unaffected by adverse conditions, unmoved by favorable conditions, focused on wholesome actions and avoiding harmful actions.

Nobility begins when ordinary virtues like honesty and humbleness are nurtured. Then, if we continue maturing our training, we achieve a saner lifestyle. 

This sets the stage for further development that comes through higher spiritual training. If one has the fortune to find a teacher and receive Dharma teachings, one can nurture nobility to the point of realizing the Noble Truths the Buddha discovered when he was still an ordinary being, right before his enlightenment.

The Noble Truths are:

  1. There is suffering
  2. The cause of suffering is craving
  3. Suffering ceases when craving ceases
  4. There is a path that leads to the cessation of suffering

These Truths are noble because of several reasons. First of all, they are Truths seen by aryas, thus they are called the Truths of the Noble Ones. Second, when puthujjanas understand them and put them to practice, they pave the way towards the lineage of the Noble Ones. And finally, when the Truths are penetrated and verified in experience, they ennoble those who penetrate them.

From that moment on, nobility can’t be reversed. The verification of the Truths removes the practitioner from the low caste of worldlings, and is placed in the lineage of the Noble Ones.

Bhikkhu Bodhi writes:

“In the discourses, the Buddha classifies human beings into two broad categories. On one side there are the puthujjanas, the worldlings, those belonging to the multitude, whose eyes are still covered with the dust of defilements and delusion. On the other side, there are the ariyans, the noble ones, the spiritual elite, who obtain this status not from birth, social station or ecclesiastical authority but from their inward nobility of character.”

The Nobility of the Truths, Bhikkhu Bodhi

Throughout the discourses, the Buddha talks about over and over the differences between puthujjanas and aryas. Sometimes he says puthujjanas suffer deeply when experiencing physical discomfort, as opposed to aryas who do not suffer. Other times, he says aryas understand how things are, they understand things arise dependently, and that things are impermanent, whereas puthujjanas do not see nor understand these things.

This is why untrained beings suffer.

The teaching of the Buddha aims to make one an arya, a Noble One.

No one is born special

The son of the Buddha, Rahula, wasn’t born noble. Not even the Buddha himself was born noble. He was born in a palace, in a very wealthy family, and was a prince alright. But those facts didn’t make him a noble person.

What made him an arya was his spiritual training, practice and realization of the Noble Truths. It is an undeniable fact that everyone can verify. If you meet a noble man like those described in the teachings of the Buddha, it is evident his behavior is unusually wholesome, extraordinary and sublime. If you meet an ignoble man, his behavior leaves much to be desired.

In other words, you become a good writer by practicing the craft of writing. What proves you’re a good writer is the quality of your writing. You become an excellent athlete by training with discipline every day. What proves you’re an excellent athlete is your athletic performance. You become an expert speaker of a foreign language by studying and practicing for a long time. What proves your expertise is your ability to speak fluently and write effortlessly in a foreign language.

In the same way, you become a Noble One by studying and practicing the spiritual trainings diligently. What proves your nobility is your noble behavior. There is no other way around this. Nobility relies on the accumulation of merit and wisdom. Period. There is no institution that grants or denies nobility. There is no authority that certifies or rejects nobility.

The 1st phase of nobility

The first phase is based on the desire to stop being a puthujjana and to aspire to become an arya. It all comes down to knowing it is possible to become and excellent person. You discover this possibility when you meet Noble Ones, when you read texts written by Noble Ones and when you yourself understand that you too can become a Noble One.

You ask yourself: What is stopping me from being an arya? 

Perhaps you say things like: “No, I’m not talented enough to become a Noble One. I can’t focus on that right now, I need to find a way to get my next meal, to make money to pay the rent, to make a living to feed my kids.”

Indeed the conditions to get teachings and have the freedoms and advantages to practice them, need to be present. You can’t practice if you’re hungry. The Buddha was going to die before his enlightenment because he had not eaten properly. You need energy, a place to practice and the time to study and practice.

This may also include taking care of your mental health, seeking medical treatment and going to therapy or psychoanalysis.

Once you have your life in order, you can give it a shot.

This is when you begin developing common virtues such as honesty and humbleness. 

The second phase of nobility

When you nurture the qualities and trainings of the aryas, your life changes for the better. Less bad things happen to you. You engage less in conflict and painful feelings. Suffering isn’t gone, it just happens less. You’re still very much an ordinary person but nobility is beginning to rise.

If you have a teacher, you can receive specific teachings and instructions to further develop your virtues, maturity and noble character. 

The main motivations revolve around suffering less, being wholesome and feeling well. Since you do want to feel better every single day, you commit to the trainings and eventually (and probably unconsciously) you set the stage for the next phase: the activation of nobility within you.

The third phase of nobility

The third phase happens when you become the noble qualities. This is the result of realizing the Truths of the ariyas. Even if you only glimpse these Truths and then lose sight of them, you have verified their nature, you have verified that what the Buddha said is true.

You realize what suffering is, its cause, and that when you give up this cause, suffering ceases. You discover there is a way to give up the cause of suffering. It becomes crystal clear.

You say things like: Oh, so this is what’s going on. I now know what I need to do to suffer less and be less harmful.

At this point, it is impossible to stop your purification of body, speech and mind from ignoble habits. Doing so feels unnatural to you, so purification continues. The culmination of this purification is Buddhahood.

Bhikkhu Bodhi says:

“The eye of Dhamma has been opened, the vision of truth stands revealed, and though the decisive victory has not yet been won, the path to the final goal lies at our feet and the supreme security from bondage hovers on the horizon. One who has comprehended the truths has changed lineage, crossed over from the domain of the worldlings to the domain of the noble ones. Such a disciple is incapable of regression to the ranks of the worldling, incapable of losing the vision of truth that has flashed before his inner eye. Progress toward the final goal, the complete eradication of ignorance and craving, may be slow or rapid; it may occur easily or result from an uphill battle. But however long it may take, with whatever degree of facility one may advance, one thing is certain: such a disciple who has seen with immaculate clarity the Four Noble Truths can never slide backward, can never lose the status of a noble one…”

The Nobility of the Truths, Bhikkhu Bodhi

Now you know this is possible. If you wish to change lineage, aim for nobility.