of the supramundane path
An arhat (P. arahant; T. dgra bcom pa དགྲ་བཅོམ་པ་; C. aluohan/yinggong 阿羅漢/應供) is one who has overcome all afflictions (kleshas) and is no longer bound by craving (tanha). Thus, they are freed from cyclic existence (samsara) and not longer subject to rebirth. They have attained liberation (nirvana).
The arhat is also described as one who has extinguished all the contaminants (āsrava).
An arhat is distinguished from a fully-awakened buddha (samyaksambuddha) as follows: an arhat has achieved liberation through listening to and relying on the teachings of a fully-awakened buddha, whereas a fully-awakened buddha has achieved liberation through his or her own striving, without the aid of a more realized being.
The term "arhat" is sometimes used as an epithet of Gautama Buddha, but it is more commonly applied to his disciples who have reached the level of arhatship.
Difference between an arhat and a fully-awakened buddha
Distinctions within the Pali tradition
In the Pali tradition:
- a fully awakened buddha (samyaksambuddha) is one who has achieved liberation (nirvana) through their individual striving, without the immediate aid of a more realized being
- an arhat is one who has achieved liberation as a result of listening to the teachings of a buddha, and relying on these teachings
Rupert Gethin states:
- Both Gautama and those who come to realization by following his teachings—the arhats—may be referred to as ‘buddhas’ since both, by the rooting out of greed, hatred, and delusion, have come to understand suffering and the path to its cessation. And yet, as the tradition acknowledges, some difference between Gautama and the arhats must remain. Gautama, the Buddha, has found the path by his individual striving without the immediate help of an already awakened being and then gone on to show others the way. His followers on the other hand may have come to precisely the same understanding and realization as Gautama but they have done so with the assistance of his unequalled abilities as teacher.
- We have then here two kinds of buddha: ‘the perfectly, fully awakened one’ (samyaksambuddha) like Gautama, and the arhat or ‘one who has awakened as a disciple’ (sravakabuddha).
In this context the rarely-used term sravakabuddha has the same meaning as "arhat."
Distinctions within the Sanskrit tradition
In this tradition, it is said that the arhat has only overcome one of the "two types of obscuration" which prevent one from full awakening. The arhats have overcome the "emotional obscurations," but they have not overcome the "cognitive obscurations."
Thus, according to this tradition, only the fully-awakened buddhas have overcome the two obscurations and thus attained perfect and complete enlightenment (anuttara-samyak-sambodhi).
Understanding of the path of the arhat vs. the path of the bodhisattva
- To bring out the difference, I want to take two stock formulas that occur many times in the texts, one for the Buddha and one for the arahants. I already quoted the opening of the Buddha formula; now let me take it in full: "The Blessed One is an arahant, a perfectly enlightened one, possessed of true knowledge and conduct, an exalted one, a knower of the world, unsurpassed trainer of persons to be tamed, teacher of devas and humans, enlightened, the Blessed One."
- There are nine epithets here. Of these nine, four are also used for arahant disciples: arahant, possessed of true knowledge and conduct, an exalted one, enlightened; five are used exclusively for the Buddha: perfectly enlightened one, knower of the world, unsurpassed trainer of persons to be tamed, teacher of devas and humans, the Blessed One. Note that of these five, two (unsurpassed trainer of persons to be tamed, teacher of devas and humans) explicitly refer to the Buddha's significance for others, while, as I understand it, this aspect is also implied by the word "Bhagavā." Even the epithets signifying knowledge are intended to show that he is a reliable authority; that is, by reason of his wisdom or knowledge, he is someone whom others can trust as a source of guidance. So when the Buddha is designated a sammā sambuddha, "a perfectly enlightened one," this highlights not only the fullness of his enlightenment, but his authority and reliability as a spiritual teacher.
- 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.
- While the content of the Buddha's enlightenment, according to the Nikāya suttas, does not qualitatively differ from that of other arahants, it plays a different role in what we might call the grand cosmic scheme of salvation. The Buddha's enlightenment has an essentially "other-directed" component built into it from the start. By virtue of attaining enlightenment, the Buddha serves as the great teacher who "opens the doors to the Deathless." AN I, xiii,1 says he is the one person who arises in the world for the welfare of the world, out of compassion for the world, for the good of devas and human beings. MN 19 compares him to a kind man who leads a herd of deer (signifying sentient beings) from a place of danger to a place of safety; MN 34 compares him to a wise cowherd who leads his cows (i.e., the noble disciples) safely across the river. According to MN 35, the Buddha is honored by other arahants because he is one who, having attained enlightenment himself, teaches the Dhamma for the sake of enlightenment; having attained peace, he teaches for the sake of peace; having attained nirvāṇa, he teaches for the sake of nirvāṇa (MN I 235). He is perfect in all respects, and the most important of his perfections is his ability to teach the Dharma in ways that are best suited to the capacities of those who come to him for guidance. His teaching is always exactly suited to the capacities of those who seek his help, and when they follow his instructions, they receive favorable results, whether it be merely the gain of faith or the attainment of liberation.
- Other arahants can certainly teach, and many do teach groups of disciples. Nevertheless, as teachers they do not compare with the Buddha. This is so in at least two respects: First, the Dhamma they teach others is one that comes from the Buddha, and thus ultimately the Buddha is the source of their wisdom; and second, their skills in teaching never match in all respects the skills of the Buddha, who is the only one who knows the path in its entirety. The Buddha can function so effectively as a teacher because his attainment of enlightenment — the knowledge of the four noble truths, which brings the destruction of the defilements — brings along the acquisition of several other types of knowledge that are considered special assets of a Buddha. Chief among these, according to the oldest sources, are the ten Tathāgata powers (see MN I 70-71), which include the knowledge of the diverse inclinations of beings (sattānaṃ nānādhimuttikataṃ yathābhūtaṃ ñāṇaṃ) and the knowledge of the degree of maturity of the faculties of other beings (parasattānaṃ parapuggalānaṃ indriyaparopariyattaṃ yathābhūtaṃ ñāṇaṃ). Such types of knowledge enable the Buddha to understand the mental proclivities and capacities of any person who comes to him for guidance, and to teach that person in the particular way that will prove most beneficial, taking full account of his or her character and personal circumstances. He is thus "the unsurpassed trainer of persons to be tamed." Whereas arahant disciples are limited in their communicative skills, the Buddha can communicate effectively with beings in many other realms of existence, as well as with people from many different walks of life. This skill singles him out as "the teacher of devas and humans."
- Bhikkhu Bodhi (2013), Arahants, Bodhisattvas, and Buddhas, Access to Insight
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Mahayana Buddhists see Gautama Buddha himself as the ideal towards which one should aim in one's spiritual aspirations. A hierarchy of general attainments is envisioned with the attainments of arhats and pratyekabuddhas being clearly separate from and below those of samyaksambuddha or tathāgatas such as Gautama Buddha.
In contrast to the goal of becoming a fully enlightened buddha, the path of a śrāvaka in being motivated by seeking personal liberation from saṃsāra is often portrayed as selfish and undesirable. There are even some Mahāyāna texts that regard the aspiration to arhatship and personal liberation as an outside path. Instead of aspiring for arhatship, Mahayanins are urged to instead take up the path of the bodhisattva and to not fall back to the level of arhats and śrāvakas. Therefore, it is taught that an arhat must go on to become a bodhisattva eventually. If they fail to do so in the lifetime in which they reach the attainment, they will fall into a deep samādhi of emptiness, thence to be roused and taught the bodhisattva path, presumably when ready. According to the Lotus Sutra, any true arhat will eventually accept the Mahāyāna path.
Mahāyāna teachings often consider the śrāvaka path to be motivated by fear of saṃsāra, which renders them incapable of aspiring to buddhahood, and that they therefore lack the courage and wisdom of a bodhisattva. Novice bodhisattvas are compared to śrāvakas and arhats at times. In the Aṣṭasāhasrikā Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra, there is an account of sixty novice bodhisattvas who attain arhatship despite themselves and their efforts at the bodhisattva path because they lacked the abilities of prajnaparamita and skillful means to progress as bodhisattvas toward complete enlightenment (Skt. Anuttarā Samyaksaṃbodhi). This is because they are still viewed as having innate attachment and fear of saṃsāra. The Aṣṭasāhasrikā Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra compares these people to a giant bird without wings that cannot help but plummet to the earth from the top of Sumeru.
Mahayan Buddhism has viewed the śrāvaka path culminating in arhatship as a lesser accomplishment than complete enlightenment, but still accords due respect to arhats for their respective achievements. Therefore, buddha-realms are depicted as populated by both śrāvakas and bodhisattvas. Far from being completely disregarded, the accomplishments of arhats are viewed as impressive, essentially because they have transcended the mundane world. Chinese Buddhism and other East Asian traditions have historically accepted this perspective, and specific groups of arhats are venerated as well, such as the Sixteen Arhats, the Eighteen Arhats, and the Five Hundred Arhats. The first famous portraits of these arhats were painted by the Chinese monk Guanxiu (Chinese: 貫休; pinyin: Guànxiū) in 891 CE. He donated these portraits to Shengyin Temple in Qiantang (modern Hangzhou), where they are preserved with great care and ceremonious respect.
In some respects, the path to arhatship and the path to complete enlightenment are seen as having common grounds. However, a distinctive difference is seen in the Mahāyāna doctrine pushing emotional and cognitive non-attachment to their logical consequences. Of this, Paul Williams writes that in Mahāyāna Buddhism, "Nirvāṇa must be sought without being sought (for oneself), and practice must be done without being practiced. The discursive mode of thinking cannot serve the basic purpose of attainment without attainment."
The Mahayana discerned a hierarchy of attainments, with samyaksambuddhas at the top, mahāsattvas below that, pratyekabuddhas below that and arhats further below. "But what was it that distinguished the bodhisattva from the sravaka, and ultimately the buddha from the arhat? The difference lay, more than anywhere else, in the altruistic orientation of the bodhisattva."
The Sanskrit word arhat (Pāḷi arahant) is a present participle coming from the verbal root √arh "to deserve", cf. arha "meriting, deserving"; arhaṇa "having a claim, being entitled"; arhita (past participle) "honoured, worshipped". The word is used in the Ṛgveda with this sense of "deserving".
The term arhat is often rendered in English as arahat. The term arhat was transliterated into some East Asian languages phonetically, for example, the Chinese āluóhàn (Ch. 阿羅漢), often shortened to simply luóhàn (Ch. 羅漢). This may appear in English as luohan or lohan. In Japanese the pronunciation of the same Chinese characters is rakan (Ja. 羅漢) or arakan (Ja. 阿羅漢).
The Tibetan term for arhat was translated by meaning from Sanskrit. This translation, dgra bcom pa, means "one who has destroyed the foes of afflictions". Thus the Tibetan translators also understood the meaning of arhat to be ari-hanta.
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