Bodhisattva and Arhat

Dear Bro and Sis,

I would like to ask a question on a topic I have studied, does the path of Arhatship and Bodhisattva leads to the same point? I believe so, and would like to listen to your comments.


Loong Ching

Bodhisattva and Arhat

Dear Loong Ching,

I strongly believe both paths lead to the same result.

As has often been mentioned, the Buddha taught in many expedient ways of which arhatship and the path of the bodhisattva are parts. All these different ways are employed by the Buddha with the same aim of leading sentient beings towards liberation from the endless cycle of birth and rebirth.

Some of my reasons in brief are:
- Notwithstanding disputes over the exact meaning of the word, the Buddha has on many occasions been referred to a ‘arahant’ in the Pali scriptures after his Awakening. Therefore, it not only is a title for the Buddha but it also represents the highest level of attainment for his disciples as it is a state of liberation from all fetters that bind one to the cycle of rebirth. Even without looking up the Pali scriptures, one can easily see from the standard Theravadin chant of homage 'namo tassa bhagavato arahato samma sambuddhassa' that arhatship is the ultimate goal as it is one of the three epithets along with ‘the exalted one’ and ‘the fully enlightened one’. This will put to rest the claim that arhatship is an inferior path to the path of a bodhisattva,
- the earliest mention of the bodhisattva idea is in the Jataka tales of Early Buddhism, in which 'bodhisatta' is used to refer to the previous lives of the Buddha before his Awakening. And in Buddhavamsa in which the Buddha is asked what he perfected to attain Awakening, there is mention of the ten perfections. Therefore, the bodhisattva ideal is not an innovation of the Mahayana, although it has been given more emphasis by the Mahayanists,
- that the Buddha decided to teach the Dharma after his initial hesitation after his Awakening out of compassion for all sentient beings and that he had always exhorted his disciples to do the same will refute the assertion that arhatship is an inferior path because of the lack of compassion for fellow sentient beings. The greatest gift being the gift of the Dharma, can we say that the many Theravadin practioners now who work tirelessly to spread the Dharma are less compassionate than others?

It was Master Sheng Yan who said that any true arhat will not abide in Nirvana for long as they will ultimately come back to samsara out of compassion for all sentient beings, although in the same article he discussed how a arhat is the similar to a bodhisattva of the seventh bhumi according to the Avatamsaka classification.

I think the distinction is a needless one because it stems from our attachment to words and ideas. The Diamond Sutra best sums it up when the Buddha told Subhuti: “if a Bodhisattva has a mark of self, a mark of others, a mark of living beings, or a mark of a life, he is not a Bodhisattva.”

pspitze's picture


I found this article to be quite helpful in clarifying the comparisons between bodhisattvas and arhats. It also has good references to additional reading.



gone nowhere

The arhat is the extinguished one. The parable says that he's like a fire having gone out. Where did it go? Southwards, Northwards, Eastwards, Westwards? The Buddha confirmed: it went nowhere, just disappeared.
The Bodhisattva -on the other hand- definitely is somewhere.
Presiding over a Buddha land like Amidabha; going through an endless cycle of rebirths in order to help mankind; going to hell to rescue fallen beings like Ksitigarbha Buddha.
The Bodhisattva delays his ultimate nibbana indefinitely, much as space is indefinitely parceled out in Zeno's paradoxes.

Denis Wallez's picture

the arhat is the extinguished one?

The arhat is not naïvely the extinguished ones, in Mahayana. The 'extinction', that sufferers on the path are promised, can very much be seen as a teaching device, and the attainment of nirvana is only attainment of a resting place… before taking on the rest of the journey, which one can see as "manisfesting" the qualities of a buddha. In Mahayana, the six perfections are very much linked to Buddhahood, and being a buddha is not limited to extinction. Compassion and virtue are important parts of Buddhism, and make it valuable when compared to 'nihilism' or 'relativism'.

The Lamrim Chenmo mentions that a buddha would come pick up the arhat, to put him/her on the bodhisattva path. Since arhats are self-less, they're not selfish… and since they're not selfish and since they have let go of the illusion of a intrinsic existence (i.e. the illusion that they can cease their 'own' suffering separately, while others still suffer), arhats will naturally manifest the qualities of a buddha.

The belief that arhats would just cease existing is misguided, because it relies on a belief in the 'self'. The 'cessation' of nirvana is the cessation of ignorance, lust and aversion; it is not the cessation of life… and while one could 'see' that life ceases at some point, it is a deluded view (positing an arbitrary cutoff point in the continuous flow of causality). Nirvana is boundless, timeless, etc. If there's no self, who's dying? The arhat doesn't die! If he doesn't die and sees the wholesome value of the paramitas, he's naturally a bodhisattva: endlessly manifesting the perfections…