Scratching the Itch

This is an excerpt from chap­ter 6 of ‘Bud­dhad­ham­ma,’ on awak­ened beings.

Anoth­er impor­tant descrip­tive term for an arahant’s mind, which cov­ers many of the char­ac­ter­is­tics already men­tioned, is āro­gya, trans­lat­ed as ‘with­out sick­ness’ or ‘free­dom from ill­ness.’ It can also be ren­dered as ‘health’ or ‘healthy.’ Āro­gya is an epi­thet for Nibbāna.1 Being with­out ill­ness or being healthy refers here to the absence of men­tal ill­ness or to a healthy mind, as men­tioned in the Buddha’s teach­ings to an aged lay­man:

You should prac­tise and train your­self thus: although the body is dis­eased, the mind will not be dis­eased.2

The Bud­dha said that there are two kinds of ill­ness: phys­i­cal and men­tal:

Beings who can assert to be with­out ill­ness of the mind are dif­fi­cult to find in the world, with the excep­tion of one who is free from the taints.3

These words of the Bud­dha illus­trate that an ara­hant is a per­son with per­fect men­tal health. The descrip­tion of an ara­hant as being free of ill­ness or in good health reveals the val­ue of real­iz­ing Nib­bā­na.

One may won­der: if ara­hants do not seek the plea­sures cher­ished by ordi­nary peo­ple, how can they be hap­py, and what worth does Nib­bā­na have?

An absence of ill­ness is a con­di­tion of hap­pi­ness that is com­plete in itself. It is far bet­ter than the hap­pi­ness result­ing from a tem­po­rary alle­vi­a­tion of pain, not to men­tion the dis­com­fort of sick­ness and chron­ic ail­ments.

Terrace of the Leper King

Obtain­ing med­i­cine or treat­ment to allay symp­toms of ill­ness offers momen­tary hap­pi­ness. The more severe the symp­toms, the greater the hap­pi­ness when the symp­toms sub­side. From one per­spec­tive, a healthy per­son is denied this kind of plea­sure. But no-one in their right mind would desire a sick person’s hap­pi­ness, of wait­ing to savour the end of pain and dis­com­fort.

In the case of an ill­ness, hap­pi­ness is expe­ri­enced through the repeat­ed or occa­sion­al alle­vi­a­tion of dis­com­fort and agi­ta­tion. Such occa­sion­al hap­pi­ness can be com­pared to the plea­sures sought by ordi­nary peo­ple. The hap­pi­ness of being with­out ill­ness, which is nor­mal­ly not rec­og­nized as hap­pi­ness, is sim­ply inter­nal ease and relief. This can be com­pared to the state of an ara­hant or to the hap­pi­ness of Nib­bā­na.

The Bud­dha applied the anal­o­gy of a lep­er with erupt­ing sores. Due to irri­ta­tion and itch­ing, the lep­er scratch­es the lesions and heats his flesh over coals. The more he scratch­es and sears his body, the more itchy and inflamed do the sores become. The hap­pi­ness and pleas­ant sen­sa­tion he receives relies upon hav­ing a wound that can be scratched. The lep­er will remain in this state until a skilled doc­tor pre­pares a med­i­cine that cures him of the lep­rosy. Cured of lep­rosy, he becomes a per­son in good health (aro­ga), hap­py (sukhī), free (serī), with self-mas­tery (sayaṁ­vasī), and able to go where he pleas­es (yena-kāmaṅga­ma). Both the scratch­ing of the sores and the grilling by the fire, which used to pro­vide him with plea­sure and relief, are no longer con­sid­ered by him as a form of hap­pi­ness. He now regards such behav­iour as painful and mis­er­able.

This anal­o­gy can be applied to ordi­nary beings, who seek plea­sure from the five ‘strands’ of sen­su­al­i­ty. Although they expe­ri­ence plea­sure through obtain­ing things and grat­i­fy­ing desire, they are inflamed by desire, expe­ri­enc­ing increased tur­moil and agi­ta­tion. When life is con­duct­ed in this man­ner, plea­sure and delight only revolve around the arousal of crav­ing, lead­ing to greater pas­sion. Grat­i­fi­ca­tion is sought to tem­porar­i­ly quell the agi­ta­tion. With the real­iza­tion of Nib­bā­na, no ‘fuel’ remains to pro­voke crav­ing, and hap­pi­ness is expe­ri­enced with­out alle­vi­at­ing an inflammation.4

Fire

An unen­light­ened per­son is com­pared to some­one who derives plea­sure from scratch­ing an itch. The greater the itch the more one scratch­es, and the more one scratch­es the greater the itch. And the greater the itch the greater the plea­sure from scratch­ing. An ordi­nary per­son thus likes to increase the degree of plea­sure by seek­ing ways to increase the stim­u­la­tion and excite­ment, and so increase the itch; as a result more plea­sure is expe­ri­enced from increased scratch­ing. A real­ized being is like some­one who is cured from an itch-induc­ing ill­ness, whose nor­mal phys­i­cal state is healthy; hap­pi­ness exists due to the absence of an itch and of a need to scratch. An ordi­nary per­son, how­ev­er, may crit­i­cize such a per­son as lack­ing the plea­sure derived from scratch­ing an itch.

Sim­i­lar­ly, an unen­light­ened person’s search for hap­pi­ness is like build­ing up and fan­ning a fire, and then receiv­ing amuse­ment and cool­ness by extin­guish­ing it. The brighter and hot­ter the fire, the more effort need­ed for extin­guish­ing, caus­ing more spec­tac­u­lar crack­ling and flash­ing. An ordi­nary per­son con­ducts his life in this way, despite greater risks of dan­ger for him­self and oth­ers. Those who are lib­er­at­ed resem­ble per­sons who have extin­guished the fire. They live in ease, cool­ness, and safe­ty, with no need to be burnt, and with no need to be on guard against dan­gers from heat. They are not engaged in the thrill or anx­i­ety of extin­guish­ing a fire that they pre­vi­ous­ly ignit­ed.

***

1 M. I. 509; Dh. verse 204; Sn. 146.

2 S. III. 1.

3 A. II. 143–4.

4 See M. I. 506–509.

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