[Buddha-l] Re: Nirvana si, bodhi no!

Dan Lusthaus dlusthau at mailer.fsu.edu
Wed May 18 13:32:32 MDT 2005


Nice group of passages you collected on the near-sameness of Buddha and
arhats in the Pali texts. That issue is at the vortex of several complicated
themes in the early Buddhist literature. Let me just suggest a few of these.

First, we need to keep in mind that one of the most intense controversies of
the early sangha (post-Buddha perhaps), is the status of arhats. Apparently
lots of folks, including Bhikkhus, Bhikkhunis and layfolk, were displeased
with the behavior and attitudes of the flesh-and-blood arhats of their day,
and looked for a variety of ways of limiting their importance and authority.
This was possibly the most schismatic issue in the early centuries of
Buddhism. The Theras (lit. "Old fashioned guys") strove to maintain their
authority and prominence by (1) elevating [or maintaining] the high status
of arhats, the Buddha-representatives of the day, (2) maintaining control
and authority over the vinaya-rules (purportedly in continuance of the
Buddha's dictates), and (3) kissing up to officialdom (e.g., the story of
Asoka and the Third Council). Regardless, others broke off, or offered
arguments for delimiting the authority and wisdom of arhats. We might
compare that with our own contemporary wrestling with how to think about
fascist Zen masters, sexually abusive Buddha-center Masters and alcoholic
Rimpoches (in Asia there are other types of scandalous behaviors commonly
associated with monks).

When we add to that the fact that the Pali canon was not locked in place six
months after Buddha's parinibbana (as the story of the First Council
claims), but under continuous construction for many centuries (and probably
only finalized in the form we have it today around the time of Buddhaghosa,
i.e., fifth c CE), and it was precisely these Theras who were in control of
recension, then we shouldn't be surprised that the status of arhats would be
an evolving issue, resulting in a number of conflicting strands embedded in
the literature.

One strand is the one you identified, namely Buddhas and arhats are
identical in terms of awakening (getting rid of the aasavas), but Buddha is
special because he is the one who discovered the path (this, of course, gets
compromised once the idea of the five or seven [or more] Buddhas of the past
enter the picture, and Sakyamuni himself needs to have met the prior Buddha
in a previous life in order to receive a blessing and prediction of his
future Buddha-hood -- some of this gets incorporated into the Theravadin

Another strand is closer to the ideas Richard is promoting, namely adding
some distance between Buddha and arhats, so that Buddha himself shouldn't be
confused with the various miscreants parading around as arhats, which people
themselves could encounter in person. This led to numerous developments
(besides the schisms), including the question: What do we do now to
guarantee that Buddhism works, since there is no Buddha around, and the
arhats are not living up to the ideals? The Questions of King Milinda
wrestles with that; the Lotus Sutra offered another answer; tathagatagarbha
was another answer; Netti pakarana was another. And so on.

(to be continued)

Dan Lusthaus

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