Ancient Popularity of Pacceka Buddhas

A while ago I read this book Buddhist Saints in India: A Study in Buddhist Values and Orientations. There are quite a few things wrong with that book, but there are also some interesting nuggets. One of those interesting nuggets is in the section on Pacceka Buddhas, where it says,

The widespread character of the cult of the pratyekabuddha in later times is clearly seen in the reports of the Chinese pilgrims. For example, when Fa-hsien visited India in the early fifth century, he found many stupas and other places sacred to pratyekabuddhas. Hsiian-tsang, as noted, visiting India during the seventh century, similarly reports on his visits to many pratyekabuddha stupas. These reports confirm the existence of a cult of pratyekabuddha stupas important enough to mainstream Buddhism to be on the itinerary of foreign devotees.

Prior to reading that book, I never knew that anything like that had ever happened. So, that got me wondering about what happened to the popularity of Pacceka Buddhas? I know that arguments are now made that Pacceka Buddhas are a later invention, but they obviously were a popular part of Buddhism for at least 200 years (counting the time between both of the Chinese pilgrims’ trips to India), and possibly longer. What changed?


There are a few references to Pacceka Buddhas in the suttas, such as MN 116, and DN 16.

In western Buddhism the belief that enlightenment is possible for lay adherents has supplanted the Pacceka Buddha:

“many Western Buddhists do not necessarily attend a center for meditation and dharma instruction on a regular basis. Many follow the increasing trend of “privatized religion,” which means they follow a spiritual practice independent of any formal allegiance to an institution and do a good portion of their practice at home.”—Internet

“A third widespread pattern of Buddhist reform has involved the promotion of movements that give the laity a much stronger role than it traditionally had. In the Theravada world, lay-oriented meditation movements focusing on vipassana (Pali: “insight”) techniques of meditation have been successful and in some cases have found followers far beyond the borders of the Theravada community. In East Asia an anticlerical, lay-oriented trend, which appeared before the beginning of the modern period, has culminated in the formation and rapid expansion of new, thoroughly laicized Buddhist movements, particularly in Japan.”—Encyclopedia Brittanica

The PB was associated with ordinary people:

“According to the Paramatthajotika, a Pacceka Buddha was not necessarily born into a high social
caste, that is, either the Khattiya (Skt. Ksatriya) or Brahmana (Brahmin); he could be born into the Vessa (Skt. Vaisya) caste but never into the lowest caste, Sudda (Skt. Sudra). By contrast, the Omniscient Buddhas and their chief disciples were born only into the first two mentioned castes.”—" The Iconography and Symbolism of the Pacceka Buddhas in the Art of Pagan," Samerchai Poolsuwan.

The description in MN 116 and murals in Myanmar focus on the numerous quantity of Pacceka Buddhas.

Pacceka Buddhas around Buddha footprint (left), universe symbol (right), (also seen at Sanchi):

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An excellent question! I look forward to hearing from more knowledgeable members about this specifically, but a general trend I can point out is that local gods and saints everywhere have received less and less devotion as travel, trade, globalization, etc increased over the millennia—starting (of course) with Buddhism itself: one of the first “universal” religions. This trend, from the local to more abstract religion, is one of the big arcs of human history so far.


Looks like this is a bit too obscure, haha.

The section on arahants has some interesting stuff, too:

In Fa-hsien’s account, after realization the arhants are typically associated with meditation and the Buddhism of the forest, living in remote and secluded places, such as deep forests, caves, and mountains. Thus, on Vulture Peak Mountain, where the Buddha meditated, there is a stone cave facing south where Ananda practiced meditation. Moreover, “each of the arhants likewise has a cave (in this neighborhood) celebrated as the place where he practiced meditation. . . . Altogether there are several hundred of these”. In another place, the pilgrim finds “very many other stone cells used by all the Rahats [arhants] for the purpose of meditation”. Similarly, King Asoka’s brother, who became an arhant, finds “his chief delight in silent meditation”. As at the Vulture Peak Mountain, so at other hills and mountains, arhants live in caves meditating.


The building of stupas to departed arhants is, of course, typical. It is interesting that the Mahayanist Hsuan-tsang finds it important to report that outside Mahayana monasteries there are stupas to great arhants. The stupas of the arhants are objects of cult; even monkeys and other animals come to venerate them and make offerings. In addition, after their passing, the arhants are associated with certain holy places, sometimes marked by stupas; Hsiian-tsang mentions a number of these, such as the place where Ajnata Kaundinya and his four companions sat down to meditate, a forest hermitage of Upagupta containing a cave in which many renunciants are reported to have meditated and attained realization, and a certain forest locale where Sariputra and the others of the Buddha’s twelve hundred fifty great disciples practiced meditation. The stupas to the arhants generally mark places associated with one or another important moment in their lives.

It’s interesting to me that even after the development of the Mahayana, at that time arahants were still revered by all. That’s quite a different situation than what developed later.

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I think somehow the Mahayana bashing of paccekabuddhas apread into Theravada tradition although the bashing of arhats did not. Because I’ve seen a sutta where Buddha says aomething like “novody has achieved an awakenkng like mine but paccekabuddhas and the realization of an arhat is less than theirs” yet modern Theravada (as accessible in the West at least) tends to view paccekabuddhas as less than arhats or as basically fake buddhas who only achieved aomething lower like maybe onec returner or non returnership, which echos the Mahayana claims in Lotus Sutra that pratyekabuddhas and arhats go to a fake nirvana not the real one, which is why I say I think the diminishment of paccekabuddhas is Mahayana infiltration into Theravada.

Interesting. Do you have a citation? I’ve never heard this view.


My reference would be some years old post on dhammawheel if I could find it. I should have said Modern Internet Theravada in the West.

Perhaps they meant in terms of ability to teach? It is reasonable to think that an arahant could be a better teacher than a paccekabuddha, as the arahant has access to a Buddha’s Dispensation whereas a Paccekabuddha (by definition) doesn’t have a canon to draw from. Is that perhaps what that post was referring to?

But yeah, in general 1) Theravada doesn’t put arahants above paccekabuddhas and 2) “a post a few years ago on Dhammawheel” isn’t a representative sample of anything :joy: Welcome to this corner of “Modern Internet Theravada in the West”, John! :slightly_smiling_face: Nice to have you


One interesting thing about the depiction of pacceka buddhas in some of the slightly later Buddhist texts is how they tend to congregate together. One of the defining characteristics of a pacceka buddha is that they don’t teach. So all these pacceka buddhas hanging out together never taught each other anything? By the way, when I say “slightly later Buddhist texts” I’m thinking of the colorful, narrative literature, like the avadanas. I know those are not considered EBT, and there’s probably a commentary somewhere that reconciles this inconsistency, but I just found it interesting.

I also think it’s interesting to consider how dependent our understanding of Buddhism is on the whims of history. I’m using Buddhism in the broadest sense of the word here, including what might be considered Buddhist culture and not only what’s in the suttas. This is basically what the EBT movement is all about, but the EBT movement is a reaction to the form of Buddhism encountered in the…what, late 19th to 20th century? Who knows, if things had turned out slightly different, we might all be circumambulating pacceka buddha stupas as part of our daily practice!

The figure of the pratyekabuddha may have been popular in part as a way to commemorate local saints, in a way that was compatible with Buddhism as a new religious institution.

If there was a local saint who was non-Buddhist, but widely respected, it seems reasonable that Buddhist converts would want to consider that person to have been enlightened. They would then have an accepted reason to build a stupa to honor the relics of that person.


Just a quick point of logic. This rests on Buddhism having more teaching material. Now suppose we have two buddhas, the buddha of Buddhism, and a paccekabuddha. Suppose the Buddha has been teaching for a few months now. But the paccekabuddha has been teaching for 10 years already. (I heard there are texts in which they are reported as living in small groups and having students, perhaps from Ray’s faulty book so I don’t know if that’s actually in the texts or not… but anyway…).

So, by the same logic, at that point in time, one could say:
‘It is reasonable to think that the paccekabuddha could be a better teacher than the Buddha, as the paccekabuddha has had time to develop a more extensive body of teaching material, whereas the Buddha doesn’t have a canon to draw from.’

As I mentioned above, I think Ray claims the sources say they did teach. Which I know does contradict the stereotype. But maybe meant they ‘didn’t teach much’? Does anyone know if that claim of them teaching has any basis? I did enjoy Ray’s book but was frustrated when I learned his scholarship was so poor. Not knowing all the details, I found I had to let go of everything I’d read in the book, since I didn’t know what was reliable and what was not. Would be cool if someone could write an updated version or a replacement for it, properly, as it covered some interesting topics!

Now if they are portrayed as teaching, that makes me wonder, perhaps it wasn’t merely the abstract category that it became, a mythical figure that had no manifestation in real life and was only a term used to label a rival (so far as I know that’s the only time it’s ever used to refer to an actual person in later tradition). Rather, perhaps it was originally referencing other samana traditions? Ones which also lead people to enlightenment?

Of course it seems perfectly natural that there would have been such other sramana groups and people becoming enlightened. One such support for that is that the Buddha called himself an arahant, to signify that he was enlightened. And that was not a new term. So that means society’s view was that he was one of various people who became enlightened. This is also reflected in the first conversation the Buddha had after his enlightenment, when he told the guy he was an arahant, and he was like 'Oh, yeah? Cool - who’s your teacher?"

He wasn’t like ‘What does that mean?’ Or, ‘Oh my god that’s incredible, I thought they didn’t exist anymore/at all!’

No, he was just like ‘hmm, yeah.’ And then when the Buddha said he had no teacher, he was like ‘Hmm yeah ok dude. Gotta go.’

To me this implies that arahants were known of, and, that there was a history to it, that the path to arahantship was being taught. And I think the Jain texts would support us on that also, right?

But then we have the sectarian view that it’s impossible to become enlightened through any of the brahmana/sramana traditions. That Buddhism is the only way. Even the only way to attain stream entry, isn’t it said? Maybe this sectarian doctrine (I wonder when that developed?) caused the problem since then how could they even acknowledge the other arahants and other successful sramana traditions?

Could it be that the paccekabuddha concept came in to fill this void?
And if so, could it be that they became portrayed as ‘silent’ because that way, conveniently, these Buddhists were ‘unable’ to discuss their teachings in the Buddhist texts. Since if they were to discuss them, they’d be in big trouble! A doctrine of another school, that results in enlightenment? Ohhhhhh! That presents a huge problem, since the doctrine would surely have differences, and perhaps even outright contradictions. But if you acknowledge their enlightenment, then you have a huge problem. It’s far easier to dismiss a rival religion’s doctrine if you simultaneously deny that they have any proper results! But if you acknowledge that they do have proper results (enlightenment), then this would be a way to avoid doctrinal conflict - just pretend they don’t even teach! That they just stay silent!

So that leaves you with a world that has:
Buddhists (right, and can become enlightened)

  • Brahmanists (all wrong, and cannot become enlightened)
  • Non-Buddhist Samanas (all wrong, and cannot become enlightened)
  • Paccekabuddhas and their crew (right, and can become enlightened, but, conveniently, we cannot discuss any of their doctrines because they’re silent)

One part that really frustrated me, and almost made me stop reading the book, was when he built a huge part of his argument based on something a scholar who visited Thailand in the 70’s said. That scholar spoke to a monk in Thailand and was told, “Yeah, no one is trying to get enlightened anymore. We don’t really think that’s possible. So we just study and chant.” Based on that, Ray made sweeping generalizations about Theravada as a whole (meditation practice is dead), and then used that to partially justify his theory that Mahayana developed as a forest tradition to counteract the degradation of the Dhamma in Theravada. One of the many flawed aspects of that argument is that Wat Pah Nanachat was founded in 1975. So by the time Ray wrote his book (mid-90’s, I believe), the Thai forest tradition was going strong. I guess neither he nor the scholar whose work he cited bothered to do any research about Theravada forest traditions. That’s why the only parts of his book I’ve quoted are the translations of the Chinese pilgrims’ memoirs.

Those sources might be Mahayana texts. I’m too lazy to read through that section of his book to see what texts he quotes.

Yeah, there were all kinds of people running around during the Buddha’s time claiming to be enlightened. The word arahant is not unique to Buddhism, but I think it might still only be used regularly in Buddhism. The entry on Wikipedia says arahant, or a word related to it, appears in the Rig Veda.

I know I’m (one of?) the lone Mahayanikas on this forum, but the Lotus Sutra does not state this. I am not trying to be polemical here, just informative.

The orthodox Mahayana view is that arhats, pratyekabuddhas, and bodhisattva-mahasattva all have the same degree of attainment, which is the extinction of the outflows and the end of involuntary birth-and-death.

The difference between these aryas and Buddhas is the attainment of sarva-jnana.

The Lotus Sutra states that there is one path. In the Sinitic tradition, there’s generally been two different accepted exegeses of this: the first is where the Lotus Sutra is taken literally and arhats and pratyekabuddhas will eventually attain omniscience; the second is to regard the Lotus Sutra as a lotus pod, with petals of upaya layered atop one another, such that the text itself is a symbolic representation of its own teachings, a nested set of metaphors referencing each other. This is the Yogacara exegesis, which holds to the view that “one path” refers to the training, not the attainments, as all disciples of the Buddha Way practice in the same modality up until the extinction of birth and death. For arhats and pratyekabuddhas, that is where their path ends. For bodhisattvas, they produce a special Mano-Maya-kaya, perpetuated by the karmic residue of the asravas, in order to complete the perfections and cultivate enough karmic merit to one day turn the wheel of dharma in a world where the teachings have been lost.

tldr: if nirvana is referring to the end of birth and death, the Lotus Sutra does not deny that arhats and pratyekabuddhas have attained this; where it may differ from Theravadin exegesis is the possible view that practitioners of the Two Vehicles may eventually attain omniscience, but this is only if one reads the Lotus literally (which I believe is a mistaken perspective, given the entirety of the text is literary devices and metaphors).

The Yogacara exegesis of “one path” is simply that, up to the point of extinguishing the asravas, the soteriological path for any of the vehicles is largely the same. This accords with the description of the paths in the Astasahasrika Prajnaparamita Sutra. And I believe that it doesn’t conflict with Theravadin exegesis either.


While I don’t consider myself a Mahayana practitioner any longer, I believe the Mahayana bodhisattva path is a valid one (just not the only one, and not the one I’ve chosen).

Hi dayunbao

Note that Wat Pah Nanachat was a monastery established to train westerners, not the foundation of the Thai Forest Tradition. I think this Wikipedia article has a few issues, but it does give the general history.

When speaking of the fully-developed conception of the paccekabuddha as it’s found in the Pali tradition, I think it’s a modern misunderstanding to say that a paccekabuddha doesn’t (or can’t or won’t) teach. What the texts actually say is that a “paccekabuddha isn’t a teacher.”

And how does “isn’t a teacher” differ from “doesn’t teach”? The difference lies in the fact that the word used for “teacher” here is not one of those that can be used of just any old teacher, like, say, guru or ācariya. Rather, the word is satthā - a term with a much narrower range of referents, being limited to a teacher who is the initial founder of a dispensation (sāsanā). And so to say that “a paccekabuddha isn’t a teacher” is merely an alternative way of saying: “a paccekabuddha isn’t a sammāsambuddha.”

If we then wish to state what it is that a paccekabuddha doesn’t do, rather than saying that he doesn’t teach, what we should say is: “A paccekabuddha does not re-establish a Buddha dispensation in the world.” This is a far cry from the common assertion that paccekabuddhas don’t (or can’t or won’t) teach anything to anybody.


Yes, I know. I wasn’t clear enough in my last post, sorry. My point was that if a Westerner had any chance of learning about the Thai forest tradition, it probably would have been from/about Wat Pah Nanachat. I mean, that monastery was founded in the 70’s. So even if the cited scholar didn’t know about it back then (that was long before the internet), the author in question surely could have learned about Nanachat. By the 90’s Amaravati in England had already been open for at least 6 years, too. Then there’s the meditation focused traditions from Myanmar that I’m pretty sure were already gaining traction in the West at that time… So there’s really no excuse for the author to believe Theravada had lost the practice of meditation. But the author’s background is the Tibetan Tradition, I think. I guess he just didn’t care enough to check.

Thank you for the clarification. Of course, Wat Pah Nanachat is only a small part of the Thai Forest Tradition, or even the Ajahn Chah branch. To get a realistic idea of the depth and breadth of practice and beliefs in Thailand would be extremely difficult without consulting Thai sources.

If their students become enlightened, what are they known as? Arahants? Or paccekabuddhas? Technically shouldn’t they only be buddhas if they were the ‘first’, not having learned the path from anyone else? So how do they deal with this detail - they were taught a valid and successful path to enlightenment, but not by a satthā.

Also, since they are indeed teaching, who is to judge that they haven’t established a ‘dispensation’? Is there some critical number of disciples one needs to reach before it’s considered a ‘dispensation’? Or rather, is it simply that the only qualifying factor for it to be classed as a ‘dispensation’ that produces enlightened being, is for it to be Buddhism itself? That seems to be the standard sectarian view of Buddhist doctrine, right?

In fact doesn’t the standard doctrine even negate the entire paccekabuddha idea? If there are no arahants (and is it even no stream enterers?) outside of Buddhism - that’s the standard doctrine isn’t it?


I don’t know exactly what Ray said that you’re disagreeing with. But it would make no sense to argue that because there’s no meditation now, that’s why the Mahayana was created millennia ago. Similarly, saying there is meditation now in Theravada, is not a counterargument to why the Mahayana was created.

I think it’s worth remembering that it seems by the 1800s anyway, there was little meditation in Thai Buddhism, and it was seen as impossible to become enlightened. The vipassana methods popular today were only created starting around 1900, and wasn’t it Ajahn Mun and his crew who were the first to make the revolutionary step in Thai Buddhism by saying that actually it is possible to become an arahant? Though I wonder what the older Burmese jhāna traditions said, whether they believed it possible to become arahants, or whether they were caught up in other belief systems.

In Sri Lanka also, meditation had died out. It was reintroduced by the new Burmese movement. And even … was it around 2,000 years ago… didn’t the Sri Lankans decide that study was more important than practice? This seems to have coloured the Theravada tradition, no?

But yes Ray does seem to fall for many wrong ideas. Like the idea that Mahayana arose as a stupa cult, centring around the stupas. So far as I know that was a Japanese idea and was long ago disproven.

My understanding was that in Mahayana doctrine, arahants are seen as specifically inferior, ignorant, and selfish, hence their path being seen as ‘vile’, ‘deficient’, ‘despicable’ (hīna). And that although they may be free from rebirth, they are basically frozen for eternity in their ignorant state - something to be avoided at all costs!

But by the Lotus Sutra’s doctrine, that even these unfortunate ignorant people will eventually somehow join the Mahayana, and only then will finally be able to become properly enlightened.

Also isn’t it the Lotus Sutra that says that the Buddha was lying. He taught the arahants that vile path because they were so deficient as people, that they would not be able to bare the ‘genuine’ teaching. So he lied to them instead and gave them these despicable teachings leading to this despicable goal, a fake goal, because that’s all their inferior nature was capable of. So a fake and temporary resting point they they could hang in until they were finally able to become worthy of joining the Mahayana, realise it was all a (‘skilful’) lie, and then take the ‘true’ teachings.

The Mahayana sutras also teach that even an ignorant child or a person with no learning or practice at all, who merely joins the Mahayana today, is now automatically superior to even an arahant. That is how inferior the Hīnayāna is - their very best are worse than ‘our’ very worst. I don’t think it’s easy to be more radically sectarian than that!

By the way I’m also a Mahayana practitioner so you’re not alone. I just have an aversion to cognitive dissonance, so regardless of what I practice, I tend to not take on views which are disprovable, such as the authenticity of the Mahayana sutras. Or irrational radical sectarianism based on the irrational political writings of old men.