The Path of the Buddha

Presented to the Buddha Center on Saturday, October 18, 2014

In his paper, “Arahants, Bodhisattvas and Buddhas,” Bhikkhu Bodhi discusses the paths of the arhant and the bodhisattva in relation to the Buddha and the idea of Buddhahood. Bodhi is perhaps the greatest living Pali-English translator. One time Theravadin translator/scholar, he is now residing in Chinese Mahayana monasteries and has even been seen at teachings given by the Dalai Lama of Tibet. In this talk I intend to explore these paths in the context of the Pali Canon for, contrary to popular misconception, it is not true that the path of the bodhisattva does not appear in the Pali texts, or that the path of the arhant is not relevant to the path of the bodhisattva. If one examines the Canon as a whole, one will see that these two paths are intricately interconnected, as one might expect in a dependently arising world. Once again we discover through close analysis that Hinayana and Mahayana are not mutually exclusive, but that the essential axioms that underlie both are implicit in the original Pali sources.

ArhatThe Pali word ‘arahant’ is derived from Sanskrit arhat, “able.” The word is used all through the Pali Canon to describe one who has achieved the goal of the path taught by Gotama, the Buddha. This goal posits the attainment of nirvana and the state of the Deathless, both in relation to the established karmic potentialities (samskaras) and in relation to the arising of future potentialities through the extinction of desirous attachment. Like the Buddha, the Tathagata, he who has stood erect and gone this way, the arhant is not reborn. The moment the karmic potentiality is “cut off” in him, he is liberated. This is an essential change of state from which there is no returning. The arhant is perfected and wise. He exists in a state of perfect clarity of mind. He has no intentionality or bias. Or, to put it a different way, his intentionality is perfectly spontaneous, without attachment, like that of the Tibetan mahasiddha. He is utterly freed from all conditioning, all illusions, and all delusions.

When the Buddha awoke in northeast India about 447 BCE he despaired of being able to teach the dharma, the truth, to men, weighted down as they are by the dirt of attachment. A deva, Brahma Sahampati, inspired him to teach in order to save those who could be saved, the few whose coating of dust was least. The Buddha knew his realization was unique in this age, and yet rediscovered repeatedly in all ages as the ultimate realization of the nature of reality and emancipation itself. Therefore, his life represents the advent of a new Buddha eon, characterized by the spread of dharma civilization surrounded by the darkness of self-perpetuating suffering. The Buddhadharma is an ontological bubble.

dark matter

Men pestered him with religious questions about the nature of the gods and the world, etc., but the Buddha declined to speculate and taught the direct method of emancipation, the method of detachment from desire that leads to arhantship. He knew that this liberates the power of truth that in turn leads to wisdom, but he intimated all the time that this teaching was a mere fraction of the totality of his wisdom and spiritual knowledge. In fact, the dharma is so vast it can barely be discerned in the age of men who live barely 100 or 120 years, compared to the lifespan and intelligence of the devas.

So great was the charisma of the Buddha that many men and women too, those who were karmically able, became arhants either immediately or shortly after hearing the Buddha speak, followed by a brief period of meditation not shorter than five or seven days. The Buddha taught that three things are necessary to become an arhant – understanding, discipline, and meditation, and that these things are also the way.  He also taught many individualized methods adapted to the peculiar needs of each person, based on their karmic context at any given time. Understanding is, however, the essential first step, and he who perfects his understanding through the juxtaposition of faith and “questioning” (or investigation) becomes a “stream winner” who will attain perfect emancipation within seven rebirths at most, depending on his or her karma. Karmic potentialities can also be destroyed by meditation, so that the advent of emancipation can be accelerated through practice.

The Buddha was an arhant, but an arhant is not a Buddha. The essential difference between an arhant and a Buddha is that an arhant follows the path taught by a Buddha, but a Buddha is the (re)discoverer of that path. The powers of an arhant pertain to impermanence, craving, suffering, seclusion, renunciation, mindfulness, striving, and spiritual power, whereas those of a Buddha are far more numinous and abstract: possibilities and impossibilities, results of actions (i.e., karma), ways leading everywhere, the elements of the world, inclinations and dispositions of beings, emancipation and attainment, recalling past lives, the divine eye (karmic destinations), and the destruction of the taints (emancipation). The powers of a Buddha are more “cosmic”, ontically and karmically inclined, whereas those of an arhant are more psychological, ethical, and ascetic. The epithet “knower of the world” is one of a group of nine epithets used with reference to both arahats and the Buddha that is unique to the Buddha. One might say that the arhant is the master of dispassion, whereas the Buddha is the master of wisdom and power.Buddha

In particular, the Buddha did not learn it from anybody else. Thus, he is self-ordained, although it is clear from the story of Sumedha, below, that a bodhisattva can arise in the time of a Buddha and even be recognized by him.

After the enlightenment, en route to Benares, near the Gaya River, before the Buddha had revealed himself to men, the ascetic Upaka came upon Gotama in the road. Upaka was an ascetic of the Ajivika sect, a popular spiritual philosophy of the time. The Ajivikas believed that the soul must pass through a predetermined series of states before it can achieve final liberation. Nothing can be done to change this necessity. In particular, established karmic potentials cannot be destroyed except by fruition. Thus, they were considered fatalists who denied the law of karma itself. However, they also believed that asceticism can ameliorate future unarisen effects. Upaka noticed the face of the Buddha, which was bright, clear, and serene – the Pali texts identify this as a by-product of meditation – and he asks the Buddha who his teacher is. The Buddha replies that he is self-ordained. This was, therefore, the first speech of the Buddha after his enlightenment. Upaka, however, was doubtful. Scratching his head, he muttered “Perhaps,” and continued on his way, clearly unimpressed.

BodhisattvaThe Buddha is also referred to in the Pali texts as a bodhisatta, Sanskrit bodhisattva, he who has the “essence” (bodhi) “of wisdom” (sattva), prior to becoming a Buddha. The Buddha Dipankara, who lived thousands of ages ago, when he encounters Sumedha, predicted Gotama’s future Buddhahood. According to the Chronicle of Buddhas (Buddhavamsa), Sumedha was a wealthy Brahman 100,004 ages ago, an age (kappa, kalpa) being a huge but definite period of time (perhaps about 16 billion years, according to one reckoning).

Sumedha lived in the city of Amaravati, and was a rich agriculturalist. He was also a Brahman who recited and knew the Vedas perfectly and understood the science of mantra. Having an intimation of the truth of dukha, suffering, he formulated the intention to seek nirvana by developing detachment. Sumedha reasons from the existence and impermanence of samsara that there must be a way leading to the transcendence of samsara, and he resolves to experience it.

There is, there must be that Way; it is impossible for it not to be. I shall seek that Way for the utter release from becoming.

Thus, having formulated the intention, Sumedha created the seed of realization that, in accordance with the law of karma, must culminate in enlightenment, for nothing can pass from the law of karma except through its fruition. Of course, the historical existence of Sumedha 1.6 quadrillion years ago is not the point of the story.

Sumedha abandoned his wealth and went to the mountain called Dhammaka in the Himalayas, initially building a leaf hut for himself. After a while, he makes bark clothing and dwells under a tree, living on fallen fruits. This description clearly associates the Buddha with the yakshi tree spirit cult of ancient India, often associated with goddesses or other female deities. This association reappears when the Buddha abandons asceticism because a local girl, believing him to be a tree god who has benefitted her, offers him a dish of rice gruel.

Dipankara and Sumedha

Hearing that a Buddha had arisen in the world, Sumedha travels with the throngs to where Dipankara is in order to generate merit for himself, chanting “Buddha, buddha.”  When he encounters Dipankara he falls down before him and lays his matted hair in the mud of the path, so that Dipankara is able to proceed without soiling his feet. Sumedha then mentally formulates his earnest wish to become a Buddha, in the first formal formulation of the bodhisattva vow in the canonical Pali literature.

While I was lying in the earth it was thus in my mind: If I so wished I could burn up my defilements today. What is the use while I remain unknown of realizing dhamma here? Having reached omniscience, I will cause the world together with the devas to cross over. By this act of merit of mine towards the supreme among men I will reach omniscience, I will cause many people to cross over. Cutting through the stream of samsara, shattering the three becomings, embarking in the ship of Dhamma, I will cause the world with its devas to cross over.

Sumedha’s reference to being able to burn up his defilements, besides being a clear reference to the doctrine that karma potentials can be destroyed, alludes to the Buddhist view of merit based on acts of propitious karma. In the Buddhist view, the merit of moral acts accrues to the doer based on three principles: the quality of the intention, the quality of the action, and the quality of the object of the action. Thus, a good act directed towards an evil object – say, an act of benevolence directed towards a thief – generates less “merit” – propitious karmic potential – than a good act directed towards a good object – e.g., a gift to a great man. So Sumedha realized then and there that the combination of the personal merit that he has acquired due to his practice to this point, combined with the extraordinary merit of an actual Buddha, would be sufficient to destroy all his defilements and propel him into Buddhahood itself. Nonetheless, even with this exceptional opportunity, it took Sumedha 100,004 ages to realize his intention.

Dipankhara, seeing him, declares,

Do you see this very severe ascetic, a matted hair ascetic? Innumerable eons from now he will be a Buddha in the world. … he will be named Gotama.

The translator, I.B. Horner, adds,

His aspiration for Buddhahood was made therefore with the welfare of the world in view, beside which his own realization of Dhamma and his own crossing over faded into insignificance. Both had been accomplished without any instruction from a teacher.

Not quite two quadrillion years later, Sumedha’s act of merit culminates in the enlightenment of Gotama under the Bodhi tree.

integration hairball

The self-realization of the bodhisattva and the self-realization of an arhant are definitely distinct, according to canonical sources, from the very first expression of the Buddha speech (Buddhavacana) and remains a pervasive theme in all of the canonical sources right up until the parinirvana, as Bhikhu Bodhi acknowledges in his paper, “Arahants, Bodhisattvas, and Buddhas” (2010).[1] Yet there is no less doubt that the Buddha taught the short path of the arhant to his immediate disciples, whereby an individual may, through the hearing of dharma, cut off all attachment to rebirth, by interrupting the closed circuit of paticcasamuppada, which means “arising in dependence upon conditions.” Despite a variety of rather tortured translations, we have two existing English words that capture the actual sense perfectly: “coproduction” and “codetermination.” The essential meaning is that causes and effects are inextricably interconnected. The Buddha compared it to a hairball of incredibly intricately interconnected fibres, and told Ananda it is his most perplexing idea, which leads to the realization of emptiness (shunyata) itself. He then applied this insight to the appearances  of birth, old age, suffering, and death, and showed the linkage of the causes and conditions as they develop out of ignorance, karmic potentialities, innate intelligence, mind/matter, the six sensory fields, contact, feeling, craving, grasping, and becoming. The Buddha then realized that the karmic “arrow of time” has two directions, forward and reverse, and that all karmic constructs are inherently unstable and impermanent, and therefore liable to be converted into their opposite.

The Pali texts divide the pratityasamutpada into different numbers of links (nidanas), 12 being the most common, but the division into ten links highlights two points in the sequence that have special significance, being the beginning/end point and the midpoint respectively.

If we look at this linkage or chain, one can see that the will has little effect on karmic potentials, innate intelligence, mind, matter, the senses, feeling-contact, becoming, birth, aging, and death – these are all “objective” processes that occur automatically or are “unconscious,” as we say. You can’t really “get at” any of them. However, between feeling-contact and grasping is desirous attachment, the primary attachment being the ego, atta or “self,” which “reflects” as it were the deep nescience of the unconscious, the primary “not-knowing” that is the radical ontological ignorance that is at the root of karma and reality itself. Each of these is accessible to the mind, the one through the cultivation of “dispassion,” also referred to as detachment, non-attachment, disinterest, non-grasping, etc., and the other – the deeper, more primary root of desire itself – through the cultivation of wisdom, knowledge, knowing, which also appears as the first principle of the path. The path of detachment is the path of the arhant. The path of the Buddha, which is the path of the bodhisattva, is the path of wisdom.

Some time after the “passing on” or parinirvana of the Buddha, the issues of the wisdom of arhants became a sticking point in the sangha when a figure by the name of Mahadeva set forth his Five Points on the fallibility and imperfection of arhants. The majority accepted the view that the wisdom of the arhants was imperfect, causing the split in the sangha that ultimately led to the division of the Hinayana and the Mahayana. The followers of the first took the pursuit of the goal of the arhant as taught by the Buddha to be the only legitimate approach. The followers of the Mahayana, on the other hand, took the pursuit of the goal of the bodhisattva, as followed by the Buddha, to be the higher path. The only Hinayana sect to survive today is the Theravada.

Although some scholars doubt the historicity of Mahadeva, who may simply be a literary device, the Five Points of Mahadeva clearly exist. They address a question that must have been on the minds of some since the First Buddhist Council of Mahakassapa.


The path of the bodhisatta described in the Pali tradition is essentially identical with the Mahayana conception. The path of the bodhisattva begins with the resolution to achieve Buddhahood for the benefit of all beings, and proceeds through six perfections – giving, morality, patience, energy, meditation, wisdom. This is not so different from the Noble Path, which consists of higher virtue (= giving, morality, patience), higher wisdom (= wisdom), and higher mind (= energy, meditation). The Buddha actually says that the practice of these three things subsumes the entire Vinaya.[1] There is no suggestion in the Pali texts that Gotama was the last in the series – there is no Buddhist “seal of the prophets.” Such an idea is incomprehensible in the light of Buddhist ontology. The Pali texts, therefore, refer to the next Buddha Metteyya, or Maitreya. There will be an indefinite number of Buddhas in the future as there were in the past. Therefore, there must be a path leading to Buddhahood and there must be those following this path, the bodhisattvas. Therefore, one cannot say that the path of arhantship is the only valid or efficacious path.

It appears that the Buddha taught the path of the arhant because in this age of degeneration the path of the bodhisattva is too hard. This is hinted at immediately following Gotama’s enlightenment. However, there is no escaping karma. Therefore, the bodhisattva seed is karmically efficacious whenever or wherever it is planted, provided it is watered by the power of truth.

The Mahayana path of the bodhisattva differs from the Pali description in one particular, however. The Mahayana vow of a bodhisattva states that the bodhisattva vows to postpone enlightenment until all other beings are enlightened and samsara itself is rooted out. However, elsewhere I have argued that this view is essentially anti-ontological and impossible. In the Pali account Sumedha vows to achieve Buddhahood for the sake of all beings, and does so, thus passing out of samsaric existence. He neither destroys nor redeems the world, but the “dharma bubble” continues to expand until its energy, the power of truth, is exhausted and ignorance and suffering again reign together alone.


1. “no detailed regulations had yet been formulated at the time of the Buddha’s death. What we call the Patimokkha, a set of more than two hundred rules governing monastic life, was in the earliest period a very simple formulation.” Hajime Nakamura (2005), Gotama Buddha: A Biography Based on the Most Reliable Texts, trans. Gaynor Sekimori (Tokyo: Kosei), p. 289, n. 93.

Clarification Concerning the Eons

According to the Chronicle of Buddhas (Buddhavamsa), Sumedha lived under Dipankara, the first Buddha in the lineage of Buddhas that led up to the appearance of Gotama the Buddha. This was “a hundred thousand eons and four incalculables ago” (II A[1]). The latter refers to an asankheya-kappa (‘incalculable eon’), which is equivalent to an asankhya-kappa = twenty antah-kappas, also known as a small kappa. The asankya-kappa is also referred to as a medium kappa. The classical definition of a small kappa is the time it takes for the longevity of human beings to increase from ten to 80,000 or 84,000 years, and back again. This is discussed in the Cakkaavatti-Sihanada Sutta (DN 26), based on 80,000 years, and the Nidanakatha, a later work, based on 84,000 years and a rate of one year per century, which one also finds in the Lotus Sutra (circa 100 CE). The question also arises as to whether the reference to 100,000 eons refers to a small, medium, or great kappa. According to the PED, unless stated otherwise, a great kappa is assumed. Assuming 84,000 years and a rate of one year per century, a small kappa may be calculated as (84,000 – 10 x 2) x 100 =  16,798,000 years. Therefore, a medium kappa is 335,960,000 years and a great kappa (mahakappa), equivalent to four medium kappas, 1,343,840,000 years. One hundred thousand great kappas plus four medium kappas is therefore equal to (100,000 x 1,343,840,000) + (4 x 335,960,000) = 134,384,000,000,000 + 1,343,840,000 = 134,385,343,840,000 years. In Canada, the U.S., and modern British usage, a one followed by fifteen zeros is called a “quadrillion,” so the referenced number is 0.1344 quadrillion years approximately (or 134.3853 trillion years). The reference in the talk to 1.6 quadrillion years appears to be an error. I have also suggested in my talk on the Cakkavatti-Sihanada Sutta that the original calculation of small kappa may have been much smaller, about 314,695 years, which would produce a total of 2.5 trillion years. Either way, the interval implied is many times longer than the age of the known universe (about 14 billion years). Therefore, a theory of multiple universes is clearly implied. These numbers are subject to verification.

NOTE: It appears that the number in the text was based on a simplified calculation of 16 million years x 100,000 = 1.6 trillion years, multiplied by 100 in error = 1.6 quadrillion.


  1. “These two perspectives then define what the Buddha accomplished through his enlightenment. When we take the historical-realistic perspective, the Buddha became an arahant. However, though being an arahant, he was what we might call ‘an arahant with differences’; he was, moreover not simply an arahant with a few incidental differences, but an arahant whose differences eventually elevated him to a distinct level, the Bhagavā, a world teacher, one who towered above all the other arahants. These differences opened the door, so to speak, to the ‘cosmic-metaphysical perspective’ on the Buddha as a way to understand what accounted for these differences. Once this door was opened up, the Buddha was viewed as the one who brought to consummation the long bodhisattva career extending over countless eons, in which he sacrificed himself in various ways, many times, for the good of others: this is the cosmic aspect of that perspective. Again, he was viewed as the one who arrived at ultimate truth, the Tathāgata who has come from Suchness (tathā + āgata) and gone to Suchness (tathā + gata), and yet who abides nowhere: this is the metaphysical aspect of that perspective. This cosmic-metaphysical perspective then became characteristic of the Mahāyāna.” Note that the bodhisattva ideal is not an innovation of the Mahayana; it emerged within the Hinayana itself, as the difference between the Buddha and the arhants and the fallibility of the latter became clearer over time. Moreover, sectarians who take the alternative view to its logical conclusion and who aver that there is no difference between the Buddha and an arhant end up affirming the path of the bodhisattva surreptitiously, as it were, for, if there is no difference, the Buddha becomes unnecessary, just one of many teachers – one can follow the path of the arhant directly, as it were, without depending on the Buddha, just as Siddattha Gotama himself did, which is exactly what the path of the bodhisattva is all about ultimately. Thus, the difference becomes merely a matter of semantics. “The formula for the arahant reads thus: ‘Here a monk is an arahant, one whose taints are destroyed, who has lived the spiritual life, done what had to be done, laid down the burden, reached his own goal, utterly destroyed the fetters of existence, one completely liberated through final knowledge.’ Now all these epithets are true for the Buddha as well, but the Buddha is not described in this way; for these terms emphasize the attainment of one’s own liberation, and the Buddha is extolled, not primarily as the one who has attained his own liberation, but as the one who opens the doors of liberation for others. That is, even in the archaic suttas of the Nikāyas, an ‘other-regarding’ significance is already being subtly ascribed to the Buddha’s status that is not ascribed to the arahant.”


Bodhi, Bhikhu (2010). “Arahants, Bhikhus and Buddhas.”