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

Dan Lusthaus dlusthau at mailer.fsu.edu
Wed May 18 13:32:38 MDT 2005


The Buddha/arhat distinction was not the only one in play from early on. An
even more interesting one -- one which had very promising potential but
atrophied -- is that between Buddha and Pratyeka-buddhas. These are, by
definition, Buddhas who were never Buddhists and had never heard of
Buddhism. Arhats were -- as one of the passages Bruce cited stated -- 
dependent on Buddha and his teaching for their magga and subsequent
awakening. Pratyeka-buddhas, like Siddhattha Gotama, figured everything out
by themselves. So awakening does not belong to Buddhism, does not even have
Buddhism and Buddhist practice as a prerequisite. It is simply a matter of
figuring out causes and conditions (pratyaya) by oneself (eka). Had
Buddhists developed this notion, a recognition of the legitimacy of
non-Buddhist insight could have mitigated the hard line between Buddhists
and non-Buddhists (tirthikas).

The shortcoming of a Pratyeka-buddha, some of the early texts declare, is
that by not following the well-cut and pedagogically rich path paved by the
Buddha, their awakening (they are Buddhas, Awakened Ones, of a sort after
all), their achievement arose through sporadic and eclectic means, and they
will have forgotten how they got there, making them ineffective as teachers.
One who achieves awakening within the Buddhist folds has the pedagogical
richness of the tradition to draw on when teaching others. So Buddha's
uniqueness is that he was a pratyeka-buddha who was ALSO an effective
teacher. He is differentiated from them by his pedagogical prowess.

As we can see, the early Buddhists had some difficulty coping with the
Pratyeka-buddha concept as well as the status of arhats. Neeldess to say,
later Buddhas retained the term "pratyeka-buddha" in a formulaic fashion
without really trying to identify any such actual person anywhere (there are
a few stories about purportedly actual pratyeka-buddhas, but very few, and
they play minor didactic roles in mainstream Buddhism at best -- most
Buddhists probably have never heard of them, and give the idea of
Pratyeka-buddhas very little attention aside from its necessary appearance
in the standard litanies and lists in which it conventionally occurs).

The pedagogical prowess issue was also applied to the Buddha/arhat
distinction. One conventional way of viewing the relation between Buddha and
his immediate disciples (Sariputta, Moggalana, et al.) is that Buddha was
the whole package while each of the disciples excelled at some facet of
Buddha's excellence, one exemplary in meditation, another in discursive
teaching, another in visions, and so on. Put all the awakened disciples
together and you get a whole Buddha.

The other side of this was employed as an explanation ( = excuse) for why
the world wasn't teeming with impeccable arhats in the generations after the
Buddha. In the Pali suttas, Buddha is a very effective, but not miraculously
effective teacher. There are numerous stories of encounters in which the
Buddha failed to convince someone of the validity of his teachings
(including his first encounter after his own awakening!). Note also that the
majority of stories relating how arhats became so occur during conversations
(language, talking, discursive moments) with the Buddha, not during bouts of
meditation. Eventually the "excuse" was cosmologized, so that the Buddha's
time, or the Buddha himself, was so auspicious and special, that
enlightenment was dropping from the sky in torrents, while we in these later
periods, increasingly distant from Buddha and his time, have to struggle so
much more with far poorer results. That feeds into mappo theories, etc.

In short, Buddhists had many motivations for making Buddha more and more
"special" and unique (even while filling the pluriverses with infinite
Buddha lands -- eventually displacing Sakyamuni as a docetic manifestation
of his ubergeist [Lotus Sutra], or even replacing him completely with
another Buddha, Amita, whose birthday is now celebrated in Taiwan and
elsewhere in late December).

As the song goes: Ar-hat is a very, very fine hat.

Dan Lusthaus

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