Rāhula was the biological son of the Buddha. Or, more accurately, he was the biological son of Prince Siddhattha before Siddhattha became the Buddha. When Rāhula was six, Siddhattha became the Buddha, and when Rāhula was seven, he became a Buddhist monk to join his father. The great Sāriputta, the Buddha’s chief disciple, was assigned to be Rāhula’s teacher.
One morning, when Rāhula was eighteen, the Buddha and his group of monks, including Rāhula, set out to the city for alms. Rāhula walked closely behind the Buddha. This day, naughty thoughts started arising in Rāhula’s mind. The canonical text did not say what he was thinking, but ancient commentaries offered two possibilities. One possibility was he began to speculate what his life would have been if Daddy had continued on his original career trajectory to become the prophesied great king (“universal monarch”) instead of becoming a monk. Another possibility was it occurred to Rāhula how handsome Daddy was, and he started feeling good about his own physically attractiveness. Remember that they both came from the Shakyan race, which was known to be populated by exceptionally good-looking people (which later led to genocide being committed on the entire race, but that is another story), and even by Shakyan standards, Prince Siddhattha was known to be very attractive, so it is likely that Rāhula inherited his father’s stunning good looks and was feeling very good about it this morning. I think, most likely, he was thinking about both things at once, fantasizing about how he could have been a future king, and an exceptionally handsome one to boot.
You know what a nightmare it is to be a teenager and have parents who appear to know what you’re thinking? Rāhula had it worse, he had a parent who could actually, literally read minds. The Buddha read Rāhula’s thoughts, and he suddenly stopped walking and turned to Rāhula and said,
“Rāhula, any kind of material form whatever, whether past, future, or present, internal or external, gross or subtle, inferior or superior, far or near, all material form should be seen as it actually is with proper wisdom thus: ‘This is not mine, this I am not, this is not my self.”
“Just material form?” Rāhula asked. “Not just material form, also feeling, perception, volitional formation and consciousness,” the Buddha replied.
Rāhula felt embarrassed to be singled out for admonishment right in front of all the other monks. He thought to himself, “Who would go into the town for alms today when personally admonished by the Blessed One?” So he turned back and sat in mindfulness meditation under a tree. When his teacher Sāriputta saw him, he reminded him, “Rāhula, develop mindfulness of breathing. When mindfulness of breathing is developed and cultivated, it is of great fruit and great benefit.”
The meditation didn’t go so well. By evening, Rāhula must have felt defeated and dejected. He went to the Buddha and asked what appeared to be a surprisingly basic question, “Venerable sir, how is mindfulness of breathing developed and cultivated, so that it is of great fruit and great benefit?” By this time, Rāhula had been a monk and Sāriputta’s student for more than a decade, surely he was familiar with mindfulness of breathing by now. Hence, his question was surprising to me. It probably reflected the degree of frustration he had with himself. The Buddha’s answer was a set of teachings on the practices to work on beyond mindfulness of breath.
Practice 1: Develop attention with high resolution and clarity
First, the Buddha prescribed to Rāhula a practice to increase both the resolution and clarity of attention. It is traditionally called the Four Great Elements meditation. The practice is to attend to four qualities in which the mind experiences phenomena, each represented by an “element” as understood in ancient times (earth, water, fire, air). In this scheme, earth represents solidity, water represents fluidity, fire represents temperature and energy, and air represents motion, expansion and contraction. The four elements also represent different aspects of the experience of the body, with earth representing the physical parts including hair, nails, internal organs, contents of stomach, and feces, water representing all bodily fluids including blood, sweat, tears and urine, fire representing energetic processes such as the feeling of warmth after consuming food and drinks, and air representing spaces within the body such as the air in the belly and the air between bone joints. In teasing out and attending to all these tiny aspects of experience, the mind develops a quality of attention with high clarity and high resolution. For Rāhula, the Buddha prescribed one additional element for meditation: space itself.
Practice 2: Not self
The Buddha told Rāhula that while attending to the elements, each “should be seen as it actually is with proper wisdom thus: ‘This is not mine, this I am not, this is not my self.’” In other words, train the mind to see things are they really are, that I do not have ownership of any phenomenon, I am not identical to any phenomenon, and no phenomenon is a self.
Practice 3: Equanimity and humility
Beyond attending to the experiential quality represented by each element, the Buddha asked Rāhula to be like the earth. When people throw dirty things such as excrement, urine, spittle, pus, and blood on the earth, and the earth is not repelled, humiliated, or disgusted. In the same way, the Buddha asked Rāhula to “develop meditation that is like the earth; for when you develop meditation that is like the earth, arisen agreeable and disagreeable contacts will not invade your mind and remain.” The Buddha repeated similar instructions for the other three elements (ie, water, fire and air all do not get repelled by dirty stuff people throw at/into it).
Practice 4: Be “not established anywhere”
The Buddha repeated the same above instructions for space, but he added a very important phrase, “not established anywhere”. He said, “Just as space is not established anywhere, so too, Rāhula, develop meditation that is like space.”
Practice 5: The Four Sublime States
Next the Buddha told Rāhula to cultivate what is known as the Four Sublime States (brahmavihāras): loving-kindness (metta), compassion (karuna), altruistic joy (mudita) and equanimity (upekkha). The reason for these practices is to uplift the heart with goodness.
Practice 6: Not beautiful
Buddha told Rāhula to practice asubha. Asubha literally means “not beautiful”, but is commonly translated as “foulness”. The practice is to learn to see the body as not beautiful, and thereby slowly become disenchanted with lust.
Practice 7: Impermanence
The Buddha said, “Rāhula, develop meditation on the perception of impermanence; for when you develop meditation on the perception of impermanence, the conceit ‘I am’ will be abandoned.
Practice 8: Mindfulness of breathing
Yes, back to basic. The Buddha talked to Rāhula again in some detail about the very basic practice of mindfulness of breathing. Never forget the basic.
And that was the training package prescribed to Rāhula. It was a complete training package that was sufficient to get Rāhula, and anybody else for that matter, all the way to full Enlightenment and freedom from all suffering.
The Final Push to Full Enlightenment
When Rāhula was twenty, having practiced the above package for about two years, the Buddha judged that Rāhula was ready for full Enlightenment. “The states that ripen in deliverance have ripened in Rāhula,” he thought. All Rāhula needed was a final push.
After the morning meal one day, the Buddha went to Rāhula and said, “take your sitting cloth with you, let’s pass the day at Blind Men’s Grove”. And so they went. It was said that many thousands of gods followed behind. The Enlightenment of Rāhula was a big event, and they wanted to be there to witness it. Enlightenment is apparently a spectator sport for the gods.
When they settled on their seats, the Buddha initiated a short but very profound conversation.
“Rāhula, what do you think? Is the eye permanent or impermanent?” — “Impermanent, venerable sir.” — “Is what is impermanent suffering or happiness?” — “Suffering, venerable sir.” — “Is what is impermanent, suffering, and subject to change fit to be regarded thus: ‘This is mine, this I am, this is my self’?” — “No, venerable sir.”
The Buddha repeated the same questions for sense object, contact and all five aggregates (physical form, sensation, perception, volitional formation, consciousness) relating to sight. “Rāhula, what do you think? Are forms… Is eye-consciousness … Is eye-contact… Is anything comprised within the feeling, perception, formations, and consciousness that arise with eye-contact as condition permanent or impermanent? … suffering or happiness? … fit to be regarded thus: ‘This is mine, this I am, this is my self’? …” To each question, Rāhula answered as above.
The Buddha repeated the same questions for all the other sense bases: ear, nose, tongue, body and mind, and Rāhula gave the same answers.
Finally, the Buddha said, “Seeing thus, Rāhula, a well-taught noble disciple becomes disenchanted with the eye, forms, eye-consciousness, and all those other things above. Being disenchanted, lust fades away. Through lust fading away, his mind is liberated. When it is liberated there comes the knowledge: ‘It is liberated.’ He understands: ‘Birth is destroyed, the holy life has been lived, what had to be done has been done, there is no more coming to any state of being.’”
Hearing that, Rāhula gained full Enlightenment.
References: Majjhima Nikaya 62 and 147. The translation used is: The Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha: A Translation of the Majjhima Nikaya (The Teachings of the Buddha). Wisdom Publications. Except that I used “lust fades away” as a translation for virāga (literally: absence of lust) instead of “dispassionate” used by Bhikkhu Bodhi.