The Arhant and the Buddha

“Every Buddha (awakened one) was an Arahant. Every Arahant was buddha (awakened).” T.W. Rhys Davids, Dialogues of the Buddha, Part III, p. 6

BodhisattaWhatever contestations may be proclaimed concerning the existence or non-existence of the bodhisatta concept in the Sutta Pitaka as anything other than a term for an “unenlightened Buddha,” no one can contest the coexistence of two interconnected concepts as the Arhant and the Buddha, fundamental in the Pali Canon. Yet even Rhys Davids asserts the duality in the unity of the Arhant and the Buddha. Logic attests, and the sutta confirms, that the Buddha is the precursor and indeed the precondition of the Arhant, Arhant though he be. A Buddha is therefore a First Arhant in an Age of Darkness, and the sutta asserts that there can never be another till the Buddha and all his words and doings have passed from human memory.  Only One can be first. Therefore, no equation is possible – one is unique and in that sense incongruous.

That one is a moment in an historical lineage, all manifesting a primordial Buddhahood, only serves to accent the difference between Buddhas and Arhants. The Buddhas reignite and thus pass on a lineage, each in its own unique historical circumstance, whereas the Arhants pass on that light which has been handed down to them and realized in and for themselves. The Buddha is solitary and contrary. He goes into the forest alone and though he studies and practices with others, in the end he is self-initiated and the discovery of the dharma his original yet primordial answer, a rare member in a rare line, but Arhants arise in numbers. The paradox of the singularity and multiplicity of the Buddhas highlights the absurdity of a single Buddha, which suffers from the problem, familiar to Christian theologians, of a “single saviour of all.” The horizontal requires differentiation. Yet the differentiation of Buddhas and the differentiation of Arhants are not the same. That which differentiates is the Power of Truth. For the Buddha, dharma realization arises from Enlightenment. For the Arhant, Enlightenment arises from dharma realization.  Rhys Davids’s incongruous ‘bees’ attest to an endless knot at the heart of the uncontestable unity of the Arhant and the Buddha.

The Buddha comes first. He suffers, aspires, achieves awakening and becomes an Arhant. He then teaches others who in turn become Arhants themselves and also teach others. For both Buddhas and arhants, at death the cycle of involuntary rebirth ends, but the path that leads to Buddhahood takes millions of lives compared to a maximum of seven for the arhant. The lineages of the Buddhas appear and disappear throughout the multiverse, spreading like bubbles or seeds from generation to generation because of the original and originating activity of the Buddha and his Arhant successors and their less than Arhant successors in a process of diminishing returns. Dharma proliferates due to the Power of Truth, but the Path of the Arhant suffers gradual decline. If there is degeneration, then it follows that the Arhant is degenerated compared to the Buddha who preceded him.

The powers of the Arhant point to the Arhant’s emphasis on desirous attachment, compared to the primary emphasis of the Buddha on ignorance, for it is clear from the Pali Canon that the cultivation of Wisdom is the essential salvific principle. If there is a difference, then they cannot be the same, though both might be awakened, inherent in the primogeniture of the Buddha. Arhant and Buddha are not equal, even though arhants might even be “buddhas” (with a lowercase b, note), two realizations that both lead to emancipation. But Buddhahood and Arhantship are inherently non-isomorphic.

ArhantThe Buddha taught the Path of the Arhant that leads to Arhantship, but is Arhantship Buddhahood? We have already seen that this cannot be. Therefore, the Buddha teaches a Path that is not the Path that he himself trod, a path which he identifies implicitly when he refers to himself as an “unenlightened bodhisatta” – a paradox in itself, since “bodhisatta’ means “wise one,” compared to Arhant, which merely means “venerable,” referring to the ascetics with which the Buddha had associated prior to his Enlightenment experience (and subsequently clearly rejected).

The Pali Canon makes it clear that the lives of human beings at the degenerate time of the Buddha were brutish and short. At first, the Buddha hesitated to teach at all, and considered becoming a paccekabuddha, but the divine realization that some might have such a light coating of dust that they might be able to apply the dharma, inspired him to teach those few who could hear the truth. In fact, the Buddha became quite popular, acquiring the friendship of royalty and the admiration and loyalty of many, to the benefit of himself and his order of Arhants. Yet not four generations passed before the sangha was riven by schism about one hundred years after the Buddha’s passing on. Even the first council was convened out of fear of schism, and always over the same issue – the rules of the order. Arhants cannot be in schism, therefore could it be that the Arhants were fallible?  With this assertion, attributed to Mahadeva, some Hinayana schools agreed and some disagreed.[1] Some of those who agreed postulated that the path of the bodhisatta that leads to Buddhahood might be a better path than the path of the arhant that the Buddha condescended to teach only to the few and only near the nadir of human degeneracy, and, logically, that can only lead to further degeneracy as the few wash their hands of existence. These became the Mahayana. The sutta says that the Buddha refers to a primordial dharma that is as vast as space compared with what he actually revealed. Yet he also said that his fist is open. Perhaps he did teach it, implicit in the remnant of teaching that has come down to us, preserved in fragments in a land and amongst a people not his own, and amplified by subsequent study and realization.


1. The Hinayana schools that rejected the absolute infallibility of arhants included the Sarvastivada and Kasyapiya, both derived from the conservative Sthavira, the same school from which the Theravada claims descent, and the Mahasamghika, Ekavyavaharika, Lokottaravada, Bahusrutiya, Prajnaptivada, and the Caitika, from which the Mahayana ultimately derived.