Sometimes in the Dhamma it’s the most obvious things which are the hardest to pin down with precision. Familiarity breeds, if not contempt, at least a slight disdain. To pump up interest, interpreters often dress up familiar ideas in a variety of more or less well fitting garments. But this often just exacerbates the problem, creating the illusion of understanding while the idea becomes so vacuous as to lose the original meaning.
Take akālika for example. This simple word, literally ‘non-time-ish’, is found commonly in the suttas, most prominently in the standard formula for the recollection of the Dhamma: ‘The Dhamma is well expounded by the Blessed One, apparent in this life, akālika, inviting inspection, relevant, to be experienced individually by the wise.’
The vagueness of the word and its context invites varied interpretation. One important meaning is that the third noble truth, Nibbana, is the ending of birth, ageing and death, and thus the ending of time. Another suggestion is that the Dhamma is ‘timeless’ – it’s always true, always real, always there to be realized. Others contrast akālika with tāvakālika, which means ‘temporary’, as in goods that are hired out ‘just for a time’. So akālika would mean ‘not just for a time’; the Dhamma is realized once and for all, we cannot fall away. Bhikkhu Bodhi has pointed out an adverbial usage which suggests the meaning ‘attained immediately’. There’s no gap between the path and the fruit. If I want to reach home safely I must follow the path, however long or short, all the way to my front door.
All the above are perfectly fine, although perhaps a bit abstract. I’d like something with a bit more ‘oomph’. Let’s look at a few more suggestions. The commentaries employ akālika to buttress their theory of the ‘mind-moment’. According to the commentarial system, the path in the ‘ultimate’ sense is just one ‘mind-moment’, flashing by immediately before realizing the fruit. This rather odd idea was developed a long time after the Buddha, but perhaps the sense of ‘attained immediately’ was one of the starting points for this idea. In any case, it is a bit insensitive of the commentaries to bully vague, innocuous little akālika into such a strict technical meaning. The commentaries often resort to this kind of measure to claim support in the suttas for their new doctrines.
Another interpretation has been presented which pushes akālika into the extreme position of meaning ‘having nothing to do with time’. This theory opines that the Buddha’s teachng on dependent origination is purely a structural principle, and has nothing to do with the unfolding of a succession of dhammas in time. But a purview of the teachings on conditionality shows that this cerainly incorrect. Sometime the suttas do indeed speak of a kind of structural conditionality, where phenomena suport each other like the roof-beams support the peak, or like two sheaves of straw leaning up against each other. But in many other places the phenomena, like birth, ageing, and death, clearly evolve over time, and so the suttas use similes like the river flowing down to the sea, or a seed growing into a plant. The term ‘in the future’ occurs often in such contexts. The Buddha’s teaching on conditionality is rich and subtle, and may not be so easily reduced to such a simplistic formula.
So there are many theories, some good, some not so good, swirling around simple little akālika like a morning mist shrouding a mountain. It’s kind of pretty in a nebulous sort of way, but I for one would prefer to see some bright warm daylight dispelling the clouds and highlighting the beauty of the mountain itself. The formula for the recollection of the Dhamma is all about how the Dhamma is relevant, here & now. Can we find a more pragmatic meaning for akālika?
In the standard formula, akālika follows straight after sandiṭṭhika. And often elsewhere, too, the two terms are found together in close conjunction. In Pali this kind of construction often simply intensifies a term by pairing it with a synonym. So it seems not at all unlikely that akālika is simply a synonym for sandiṭṭhika. If so, this is very useful, for the meaning of sandiṭṭhika can be easily determined. It is normally contrasted with samparāyika, where sandiṭṭhika means ‘apparent in this life’ and samparāyika means ‘pertaining to future lives’. Thus the Buddha is criticized, with typical worldly logic, of neglecting what is ‘apparent in this life’ – the joys of the senses – for the sake of what is ‘pertaining to future lives’ – the joys of heaven. The Buddha retorts that it is Dhamma which is ‘apparent in this life’, for one can taste the fruits here & now and need never be reborn, but sensual pleasures are ‘pertaining to future lives’, since one addicted to sensuality will inevitably be reborn according to their kamma
So akālika, I would suggest, is essentially a pragmatic injunction, an encouragement and a guarantee that one who strives properly will realize the fruits here in this very life itself. So perhaps we might render it ‘without delay’. There’s another passage that bears me out. The Buddha addresses the brahman Sela in verse.
‘The holy life is well expounded
Apparent in this life, without delay
Where the going forth is not in vain
For one who is diligent in training.’
Here the ‘holy life’, far from being an ‘optional extra’, is virtually a synonym for the Dhamma itself. And one of the marvellous qualities of this holy life which is the Dhamma is its abundant fruitfulness, the joy and peace of letting go which we can all experience right now.
Akālika lies close in meaning to the term ‘ānantarika’, usually translated literally as ‘immediate’. So we can give a nice meaning to the obscure ‘ānantarika samādhi’ of the Ratana Sutta, which due to its vagueness has been ridden as a hobby-horse by various interpreters. It probably means just the right samadhi of the eightfold path. Those on the path, at minimum those on the way to realizing stream-entry, having fulfilled all the path factors to a requisite degree must realize the fruit in this very life. This is the samadhi praised by the ‘best of Buddhas’, which ‘cleanses’ defilements, and which ‘has no equal’.
These days it’s common in all traditions of Buddhism to think of practice in terms of the gradual building up of spiritual perfections (pāramī) over many lives, taking a laid back aim at enlightenment sometime conveniently distant. Here I must emphatically depart from the traditions, for the suttas nowhere even countenance such a thought. The very term ‘spiritual perfections’ never occurs with this meaning in the suttas. A key lynchpin of the many-lives theory of practice is the idea that a solemn vow taken in this life retains the power to direct the course of practice over countless lives. But again, the suttas do not support this. Even our Buddha-to-be as recently as the era of Kassapa Buddha was so reluctant to visit the Buddha that he had to be dragged by the hair! The terms for ‘vow’ or ‘resolution’ which carry this meaning in the later literature such as the Jātakas, etc., are, in the suttas, usually terms for defilements – the ‘misapprehension of ethics and vows’, or the ‘mental resolution’ that is a strong clinging to self. Holding on to these ideas is precisely the ‘craving for rebirth’ that we are supposed to overcome.
The Buddha said that, just as a tiny bit of dung still stinks, so too even a tiny bit of rebirth still stinks. If we get reborn, it is because we misapprehend the way of practice, are still clinging to self, and have not trained ourselves diligently in the holy life. And so the Buddha made it a central tenet of his teaching that we should quit making excuses and knuckle down to some serious bliss – without delay!