Therevada Ajahn Amaro Arhat Bodhisattva Lion's Roar Buddhadharma Buddhism

Between Arhat and Bodhisattva

Ajahn Amaro examines the arguments for and against the arhat and bodhisattva ideals that define and too often divide the Buddhist traditions. He suggests a way out of the polarizing debate.

By Ajahn Amaro

Photo by Masao Yamamoto.

Ajahn Amaro examines the arguments for and against the arhat and bodhisattva ideals that define and too often divide the Buddhist traditions. He suggests a way out of the polarizing debate.

A student of Buddhism asked, “Which do you think is the best path: that of the arahant [arhat] or that of the bodhisattva?”

“That kind of question is asked by people who understand absolutely nothing about Buddhism!” Ajahn Sumedho replied.

Don’t be an arahant, don’t be a bodhisattva, don’t be anything at all—if you are anything at all you will suffer.” —Ajahn Chah

One of the more significant elephants in the living room of Buddhism in the West is the disparity between the stated goals of the Northern and Southern schools. In the Northern tradition, the goal is often formulated as the cultivation of the bodhisattva path over many lifetimes for the benefit of all beings, culminating in buddhahood. Its scriptures and liturgies are thickly populated with the bodhisattva principle, and for those who practice in this tradition it is normal to take bodhisattva vows. In the Southern tradition, the spiritual ideal that is extolled instead is the realization of arahantship—the realization of nibbana and the ending of rebirth, in this very life. The bodhisattva principle is hardly ever spoken of, apart from its mention in the Jataka Tales, stories of the past lives of Gotama Buddha.

The main reason for delving into this disparity is that people do make comparisons of the arahant and bodhisattva ideal and ask which path to follow. The aim here is not to argue a particular position and defend it, but rather to shed a little more light on the goals of Buddhist practice and to recount some of what the scriptures and traditions have said about this landscape over the centuries.

Views from the North, Views from the South

Nowadays these two traditions often have occasion to meet. A wide spectrum of Buddhist teachings is available, and many people have been inspired by masters of different lineages. We read a book that encourages us to be free from greed, hatred, and delusion, to escape from the endless cycles of rebirth, and we feel, “Yes, that’s it!” Then we read about those compassionate ones whose chief concern is to stay in the world to relieve the suffering of others, and again the heart leaps—“That’s wonderful!”

So do these two paths conflict, or are they compatible? Do they lead to different goals, or maybe the same goal? Are they actually the same track known by different names?

Over time, both traditions have developed critiques of each other and then passed these on as received knowledge. When all we have to go by is the established outlook, these critiques seem to be reasonable judgments. Some of the points of view from the South argue, “The Mahayana schools are not real Buddhism; they wrote their own scriptures and have wandered from the Buddha’s true path, namely realizing nibbana and ending rebirth.” Voices from the North, on the other hand, say, “The Theravadans are the small vehicle; they only follow the Buddha’s most preliminary instructions. The Buddha gave far superior teachings, those of the Great and Supreme Vehicles, and it is those we hold in highest esteem.”

This said, both kinds of practitioners also wrestle with such doubts as, “Am I holding an obstructive view if I look down on arahats?” Or, “Am I adhering to an inferior ideal if I dismiss the bodhisattva vows?”

In addition to such personal dilemmas, the plot thickens when we look at the scriptures themselves. On examination we find some curious and significant anomalies in both the teachings of the Northern and Southern schools. When studying with a spiritual teacher, it is the most natural thing in the world to want to emulate that person and the path that he or she has followed. However, in the Pali Canon, the subject of the Buddha’s bodhisattva training never comes up. At no time does anyone even ask about it. No one enquires, “What made you choose to become a Buddha?” or “Could an ordinary person like me undertake that path too?” or “Should I aim for buddhahood or for the more accessible goal of arahantship?”

Nothing. Not a syllable. It’s like a biography of Winston Churchill that fails to mention a couple of stints he had as prime minister.

How come the issue never gets mentioned?

In the Northern tradition, there is an equally mysterious anomaly. Immediately following his enlightenment, the Buddha’s inclination was not to teach. He saw that worldly attachment was so great and the subtlety of his realization was so refined that others simply would not understand.

If compassion for other beings was his prime motivation in developing the spiritual perfections for so many lifetimes—for “four incalculable periods and 100,000 eons,” according to the scriptures—why should he feel that there was no point in even trying? Very mysterious.

One would imagine that such incongruities would lead people to investigate their own beliefs more closely, and to ponder whether the standard views of their own and other traditions were reliable. Unfortunately, it’s more often the case that such anomalous elements are ignored or dismissed, and one’s preferred version of reality re-established.

The Trouble with Tribalism

If we look into the roots of the conflict and ponder possible resolutions, we first encounter a question: What exactly is the problem?

When reading texts extolling the virtues of the arahant and the bodhisattva, both appear to be noble aspirations. How wonderful that we can develop such purity and wisdom! Clearly it is not the ideals themselves that are the root of any conflict; rather, the root of the problem is people—more specifically, the issue of tribalism. It’s the great “mine” field: through a misguided faithfulness to our origins—this is my team, my lineage—we co-opt the intellect to defend our group, often bending the facts and the philosophy for the sake of winning the argument.

Whether it’s football teams, family feuds, or Buddhist lineages, the dynamics are identical: first, we seize on some features of the opposition to criticize; then we enter the labyrinth of position-taking; finally, we miss the reality of what it was we were contesting in the first place. Even though the intent of an exchange might be very noble, the emotional tone permeating it can be deeply instinctual and aggressive, as well as territorial. We might observe the appropriate etiquette and protocols, but nevertheless be taken over by the reptile brain.

The real issue, then, is often not philosophy; it’s hurt feelings. What probably began as an amicable spiritual discussion somehow evolved into a bitter rivalry a few centuries later. Critical comments were bandied back and forth and they degenerated into derogatory insults, until the various factions were stabbing each other with verbal daggers, and each opposing group became stereotyped: Anyone who aspires to arahantship is a selfish nihilist; all those who take the bodhisattva vows are obviously heretical eternalists.

Many spiritual traditions tell the tale of the blind men and the elephant. Isn’t it revealing that we rarely think of ourselves as one of the blind? We prefer to see ourselves as watching the sorry squabbling of the sightless. It’s humbling, though, to see how easily we’re pulled into this kind of deluded certainty and position-taking based on our attachment to views and opinions. We’re so sure: “This is not an opinion, it’s a fact!

Even if the “fact” is 100 percent provable, if we use it as a weapon it becomes, as Ajahn Chah said, “Right in fact, but wrong in dhamma.” Sometimes it is devout faithfulness, rather than negativity, that generates such dualisms. Once, when Ajahn Chah was visiting England, a woman long connected to the Thai Forest tradition came to see him. She was very concerned:

“I respect your wisdom immensely but I feel uncomfortable studying and taking refuges and precepts with you; I feel I’m being unfaithful to my teacher, Ajahn Maha-Boowa.”

Ajahn Chah replied, “I don’t see the problem. Ajahn Maha-Boowa and I are both disciples of the Buddha.”

It is possible to explore these various teachings and traditions in this spirit of nonpartisan openness and, hopefully, appreciate the landscape of the way of the Buddha with eyes that are “right in dhamma.” Through this kind of investigation, perhaps we can find ways to resolve these ancient conflicts.

The Middle Way

If the difficulties that have arisen over the centuries can be attributed to contentious position-taking, one way to resolve them should be through the practice of non-contention. The Buddha once said that his entire teaching could be summarized as, “Nothing whatsoever should be clung to.” Such a spirit of non-contention and non-clinging approaches the core principle of the middle way. The skillful refusal to pick one particular viewpoint and cling to it reflects right view; it also expresses the effort that is essential to arrive at resolution. The question then arises: how exactly do we find this mysterious middle—the place of non-abiding, the place of non-contention?

“The middle way” can mean a lot of different things. It can even be used by politicians to describe their war plans. In this investigation, the term denotes the fundamental principle that the Buddha realized at his enlightenment. It refers to the insight of awakening that transcends the later categories of Theravada, Mahayana, and Vajrayana.

“The middle way” is an everyday expression. This renders the principle highly accessible; however, it also belies its profundity. In the Buddha’s first discourse, he equated the middle way with the noble eightfold path, thus defining it as a quality that embodies the entire spiritual training.

In this original sense, it was an all-encompassing teaching. Predictably, in later years and in certain regions, it came to be emblematic of one particular school—that based on the Madhayamaka philosophy of Acharya Nagarjuna. That school was distinguished from other groups such as the Chittamatrans, Vaibashikas, and Sautrantikas. Thus, although it began as a universal principle, the meaning of “middle way” shrank somewhat, within this sphere, to become another tribal insignia.

Although the term is not being used here in this narrower sense, it is nevertheless interesting to explore what Nagarjuna’s insight was fuelled by. For it is in this central principle of the middle way—and particularly in the analysis of the feelings of existence and of “self”—that we find the means to harmonize conflicting views.

In a seminal exchange between the Buddha and Maha-Kaccana, the Buddha says:

“All exists,” Kaccayana, this is one extreme, “All does not exist,” this is the other extreme. Without veering towards either of these extremes the Tathagata teaches the dhamma by the middle way.

Samyutta Nikaya 12.15

There is a very close connection between this discourse, found in the Pali Canon, and the words of Nagarjuna in his Treatise on the Root of the Middle Way. This latter text is considered a cornerstone of the Mahayana movement, and it has informed the approach of the Northern school for the past 1,800 years. Ironically, it makes no mention of such characteristic Northern elements as bodhisattvas and bodhichitta. Indeed, scholars such as Kalupahana and Warder have pointed out that there’s actually nothing particularly “Mahayana” in what it says.

Nagarjuna mentions the dialogue between Buddha and Maha-Kaccana; further, he writes:

“Existence” is the grasping at permanence; “non-existence” is the view of annihilation. Therefore, the wise do not dwell in existence or non-existence.

Mulamadyamakakarika 14.10

Both teachings point out how to recognize the feeling of self, how to see through it, and, ultimately, how to break free from the tyrant. They both indicate that clinging to the sense of self is what primarily obstructs knowing the middle way.

These teachings point to the fact that, yes, there is the feeling of selfhood, but they also make it clear that the feeling of “I” arises due to causes. These causes are habits rooted in ignorance and fired by craving. There might be the feeling of “I,” yet, like all feelings, it is transparent and empty of substance—merely a pattern of consciousness that arises and ceases.

This teaching is usually taken to be a philosophical description; however, it is most significant as a meditation tool. It helps us to see that questions such as “Do I exist?” or “Do I not exist?” are irrelevant. Instead the perspective shifts to one of cultivating and maintaining a mindful awareness of the feeling of “I” arising and ceasing. This is the essence of vipassana, or insight meditation.

The dissolution of the conceit “I am” was described by the Buddha as “nibbana here and now,” and it cuts to the root of all contentions.

The Four Noble Truths: Universality and Transparency

It is said that the Buddha’s first discourse, the Setting in Motion of the Wheel of Truth, encompasses all teachings—just as the footprint of all creatures that walk are encompassed by an elephant’s footprint. This is said not only by followers of the Southern school but also by Mahayana and Vajrayana masters such as His Holiness the Dalai Lama. It is here that the Buddha first articulated the middle way and the four noble truths.

There are two insights crucial to understanding these truths: first, they are relative, not absolute; second, they are not just personal but also universal. This first insight indicates that the statement “There is dukkha” describes a relative experience. It is not intended as a proclamation meaning “Dukkha is absolutely real.” This is one reason why the Buddha called these truths “noble” rather than “ultimate.”

The second insight refers to the fact that it’s not just me who is experiencing dukkha; there is a shattering of the delusion that my experience of dukkha could be more significant than yours. All beings are in the same boat.

It seems that in some regions, the understanding of these two principles shrank. Dukkha became regarded as an absolute reality, and thus a narrower diameter for the footprint emerged. It also appears, according to some historians, that because of this shrinking footprint the impulse for renewal arose, initiating what became known as the Mahayana movement.

The Pali scriptures repeatedly state that the best thing we can do for ourselves and all beings is to be totally enlightened. If that intention is grasped in the wrong way, however, the breadth of its scope can be lost. Our own suffering can drift into seeming more significant than that of others, simply because it’s what we have the power to resolve.

The Mahayana teachings arose to say, “My suffering is felt here, yet it can’t be more important than anyone else’s. All beings have similar experiences.” Of course, this understanding has always been present within the Southern teachings as well; however, it seems that it was obscured by various factors.

We have been looking at this question from a large-scale social view, but all movements are composed of individual human beings. These patterns of development are readily to be found on the personal plane too. During his early years in Thailand, Ajahn Sumedho once declared to Ajahn Chah, “I’m totally committed to the practice. I’m determined to fully realize nibbana in this lifetime; I’m deeply weary of the human condition and determined not to be born again.” Given the classic Theravadan vernacular, that’s a worthy attitude; you’d expect the teacher to respond, “Sadhu! Good for you, Sumedho!”

Ajahn Chah, however, replied, “What about us, Sumedho? Don’t you care about those who’ll be left behind?” In one stroke he had teased his disciple by suggesting that Ajahn Sumedho was the more spiritually advanced and then alluded to the value of a “caring for all beings” approach. He had lovingly chided his disciple for his narrowness.

Ajahn Chah detected there was a nihilistic view rather than dhammic detachment behind Ajahn Sumedho’s comment. And as long as that kind of negativity was active, it guaranteed painful results. Ajahn Chah reflected that attitude back to him by tilting the view in the other direction, highlighting the self-centered negativity.

In considering this encouragement toward a more expansive attitude, it is highly significant that the four bodhisattva vows are actually an explicit extension of the four noble truths. In the Chinese version of the Brahmajala, or Brahma Net Sutra, it addresses this quite directly. Venerable Master Hui Seng, a contemporary elder of the Northern tradition, explains the connection in his commentary to the sutra:

[R]elying on the Four Noble Truths, he brings forth the Four Great Vows of a Bodhisattva. The Four Noble Truths are:

Extinction, and
The Way.

The first Noble Truth is Suffering, and since all living beings are suffering, he brings forth the first Vast Vow, which is,

Living beings are numberless;
I vow to save them all.

The second Vast Vow is based upon the second Noble Truth, Accumulation. Accumulation means accumulation of afflictions. The second Vast Vow is,

Afflictions are endless;
I vow to cut them off.

The third Noble Truth is that of Extinction, and based upon this, the Bodhisattva brings forth the third Vast Vow,

The Buddha Way is unsurpassed;
I vow to accomplish it.

And the fourth Noble Truth is The Way, and based on that truth he brings forth the fourth Vast Vow, which is,

Dharma-doors are numberless;
I vow to study them all.

So, above he seeks the Buddha Way, and below he transforms living beings. This is a reciprocal function of compassion and wisdom.

The Buddha Speaks the Brahma Net Sutra, by Master Hui Seng

This expression of the four noble truths spells out their non-personal, expansive quality. In the same epoch, a parallel teaching arose that also spelled out the strictly relative nature of the four noble truths: the Heart Sutra.

Probably the most well-known teaching in the Northern Canon, the Heart Sutra has been recited for centuries from India to Manchuria, from Kyoto to Latvia, and nowadays throughout the world. It is the natural counterpart to the bodhisattva vows, and indeed, they are often recited together. The Heart Sutra states: “There is no suffering, no origin, no cessation, and no way.” The sutra thus takes the four noble truths and points out their empty aspect: ultimately, there is no dukkha. We think we’re suffering, but in ultimate reality there isn’t any dukkha.

The Heart Sutra reminds us that the four noble truths are essentially transparent; they are relative, not absolute truths. Sometimes people faithfully proclaim, “Everything is suffering,” as if dukkha were an ultimate truth, but that’s not what the Buddha taught, as is evidenced in the scriptures of both the Southern and Northern schools. “Suffering” is a conditional, relative truth; it is “noble” because it leads to liberation.

Self-View, the Reliable Troublemaker

It is the sense of self that ultimately drives the tribalistic politics that exist today. Ironically, even though the reformers aimed at dispelling the self-centeredness they saw, the problem nevertheless persisted. These divisive politics are like dubious family heirlooms—hard to discard, being so much a part of our collective histories.

The conflict essentially arises as a result of conceiving the arahant and the bodhisattva in terms of self-view. When there is no clinging to any view, the picture radically changes. The Buddha said, “Held by two kinds of views, some hold back and some overreach; only those with vision see.” The former means some people are life-affirmers, delighting in the things of the world. When teachings refer to letting go and cessation, their minds recoil and hold back. By “some overreach,” he means nihilists who rejoice in the idea of non-being, asserting that when the body dies, this self is annihilated. They feel this will be true peace. “Those with vision” see what has come to be as having come to be. They cultivate dispassion toward that and are at ease with its cessation.

As long as self-view has not been penetrated, the mind will miss the middle way. The “ending of rebirth” ideal will tend to get co-opted by the nihilist view, whereas the “endlessly returning for the sake of all beings” ideal will tend to become permeated with the eternalist view.

When the sense of self is seen through, the middle way is realized. Whether we talk in terms of emptiness of the arahant of the Pali Canon, or in terms of the absolute zero of the Heart Sutra or the infinite view of the four vows, these are merely modes of speech. They all derive from the same source, the truth of the way things are. They are simply expedient formulations that guide the heart to attunement with the reality of its own nature. That attunement is the middle way.

The View from the Center

There are many teachings that illuminate this perspective; for example:

As long as space remains,
As long as sentient beings remain,
Until then, may I too remain
And dispel the miseries of the world.
—Shantideva, Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life

To the average Theravadan, this verse by Shantideva might seem antithetical to the path. It appears to run completely counter to that principle to get out of the burning house as soon as one can. However, the practice of the middle way involves taking up compassion teachings along with their partner, the emptiness teachings. These two elements are like the wings of a bird—they can’t function properly without each other.

If we reflect closely on this verse, another layer of meaning opens up: as long as space and identity are held to have substantial reality, the mind has not realized enlightenment. True insight involves recognizing that space, time, and being are imputed qualities that have no absolute existence.

Thus the Southern idea of “me going” and “others left behind” must be missing the mark. Similarly, the Northern view of “this individual being will persist through infinite time for the sake of other beings” has also fallen into wrong view. The practice of the middle way dissolves the illusion that “I” can “go” and “others” can “stay,” or vice versa. It radically reconfigures the concepts of time, space, and being.

So the aspiration can validly be as it is in the verse; but if space no longer remains, if no beings remain, if their nature is recognized as conditioned and therefore empty, what does that say about the “I” who would be “staying”?

The irony is that upon knowing that time, space, and beings have no substantial reality, the “I” is “gone” too—gone to suchness, come to suchness: Tathagata.

Sri Ramana Maharshi once remarked, “A good man says, ‘Let me be the last man to get liberation, so that I may help all others to be liberated before I am.’ Wonderful! Imagine a dreamer saying, ‘May all these dream people wake up before I do.’ The dreamer is no more absurd than this amiable philosopher.” His analysis astutely sums up the issue: only when the heart is free of all self-view can it attune itself to reality; a precise balance is needed.

In The Vajra Prajna Paramita Sutra, we find passages that voice a similar understanding:

Subhuti, what do you think? You should not maintain that the Tathagata has this thought: “I shall take living beings across.” Subhuti, do not have that thought. And why? There are actually no living beings taken across by the Tathagata. If there were living beings taken across by the Tathagata, then the Tathagata would have the existence of a self, of others, of living beings, and of a life. Subhuti, the existence of a self spoken of by the Tathagata is no existence of a self, but common people take it as the existence of a self.

We save all beings by realizing there are no beings. The perfection of wisdom is to see this fact: ultimately, the truth is not self and not other; there is no arahant, no bodhisattva, no birth, no death. Though the heart might incline to compassion, it’s only when we cultivate this wisdom element as well that there is going to be true spiritual fulfillment.

Experience shows that in order to realize a fulfillment that maximally benefits all, we need to know our traits and learn how to balance them out. If we’re a wisdom type—intent on realizing nibbana to get out as quickly as possible—then it’s necessary to develop compassion. We need to lean toward people and things. Or, if we’re an altruistic type, feeling, “I’ve got to stay around until everyone else has been saved,” then we need to incline toward the emptiness of things.

In the equipoise of the middle way, the infinite and the void are sustained. They complement each other; they balance each other out.

“Does She Really Exist?”

The scene: a Buddhist conference in Berlin. Among the many panels and presentations, some teachers have come to give workshops as well. One such elder is an eminent Tibetan lama; he has been giving instruction on The Praise to the Twenty-One Taras. It is now time for questions and answers.

A young man with furrowed brow requests to speak. He asks in broken English, “Rinpoche, for many years now I have been your student. I am committed to the practice but I have the doubt. I am very willing to do the pujas, the visualizations, the prostrations, but it is very hard to have the whole heart in it, because I have this doubt: Tara, is she really there? Sometime you talk like she is a real person, but sometimes you say she is the wisdom of Buddha Amoghasiddhi, or just a skillful means.

If I could know for sure, I would redouble my efforts. So, Rinpoche, Tara, does she really exist or does she not?!”

For a few moments the lama ponders, then raises his eyes to meet those of his inquirer. A smile spreads across his face.

He responds, “She knows that she is not real.”

Not a Thought but Balance

From this place of realization, we can see that there is a reader here and a page out there, but we can also recognize that this is all just patterns of consciousness. It has no substantial reality.

The more we learn to hold this play of forms gently—not clinging to any view—the more there is an attunement. We begin to get the feel. We are not dismissing the faith we have in our favored path, but we are not condemning those who have made other choices. We reflect on the benefits that have come from the practices and principles we know, but we question them and are ready to see them differently, if wisdom indicates a shift of attitude.

We commit ourselves to our chosen spiritual practices with 100 percent sincerity, but at the same time know that all of these conventional forms—Northern and Southern—are utterly without substance. As Ajahn Chah would sometimes say to the whole assembly at his monastery, “There are no monks or nuns here, there are no lay women, no men; these are mere suppositions, conventional forms—that’s all. Wahng! It’s empty!”

The middle way is appreciated as a finely felt sense. It has nothing to do with being mild or halfway along the arc of a pendulum. Rather, it’s the still point that is the center of movement, the axis that the pendulum pivots from. In our heart of hearts we know what it is to be perfectly balanced. There is a deep, intuitive familiarity with this, and this is what we need to sustain and trust. This is the way that the root of concord can be found and embodied.

All this said, the rational mind can still struggle for more precision, “Yes, but what exactly is it?!”

When a piece of music moves us we say, “It’s perfect!” But even in the saying, we’ve almost lost the feeling. Louis Armstrong, when asked, “What’s jazz?” responded, “Man, if you have to ask, you’ll never know.”

The middle way is that wordless quality of balance, of pure and vibrant harmony.


Ajahn Amaro

Ajahn Amaro

Ajahn Amaro is the abbot of Amaravati Buddhist monastery in southeast England. he was ordained as a bhikkhu by Ajahn Chah in 1979 and was the founding co-abbot of Abhayagiri Buddhist monastery in redwood Valley, California, where he served until 2010.