Modern Pudgalavada?

Hello there! :slight_smile:

I was thinking about Pudgalavada. In short wikipedia says:

The Pudgalavādins asserted that while there is no ātman, there exists a pudgala (person) or sattva (being) which is neither a conditioned dharma nor an unconditioned dharma.[1] This doctrine of the person was their method of accounting for karma, rebirth, and nirvana. For the Pudgalavādins, the pudgala was what underwent rebirth through successive lives in samsara and what experiences nirvana. They defended this view through philosophical argument as well as scriptural citation. According to Thiện Châu and Richard Gombrich, they used the Bharaharasutta as a major reference for their view. This text states that the person (pudgala) is the bearer of the five aggregates, and that the taking up of them is craving and suffering:

Bhārā have pañcakkhandhā, bhārahāro ca puggalo; Bhārādānaṁ dukhaṁ loke, bhāranikkhepanaṁ sukhaṁ. [4]
The five aggregates are truly burdens, and the burden-carrier is the person. Taking up the burden is suffering in the world, Laying the burden down is blissful.[5][6]

It is worth to add one more part from wikipedia:

According to Dan Lusthaus, “no Buddhist school has been more vilified by its Buddhist peers or misunderstood by modern scholars”.[27] Lusthaus argues that, far from promoting the view of a self (atmavada), the Vātsīputrīya position which can be seen in their surviving texts is that the pudgala is “a prajñapti (only a nominal existent) that is neither identical to nor different from the skandhas.”[3] Furthermore:

The Vātsīputrīya argument is that the pudgala is a necessary prajñapti since any theory of karma, or any theory that posits that individuals can make spiritual progress for themselves or can assist other individuals to do likewise, is incoherent without it. Karma means that an action done at one time has subsequent consequences for the same individual at a later time, or even a later life. If the positive and negative consequences of an action don’t accrue to the self-same individual, then it would make no sense to speak of things like progress (who is progressing?), and Buddhist practice itself becomes incoherent. If there are no persons, then there is no one who suffers, no one who performs and reaps the consequences of his or her own karma, no Buddha, no Buddhists, and no Buddhism. Obviously, those are not acceptable consequences for a Buddhist.[22]

Lusthaus notes that for the Vātsīputrīyas, their theory is simply an attempt to explain what other Buddhist traditions leave unsaid and assumed, mainly what it is that undergoes rebirth, has moral responsibility and attains enlightenment. According to Lusthaus, for the Vātsīputrīyas, “while other Buddhists might leave the word “pudgala” unsaid, the narratives presupposed in their doctrines require it.”[28]

What got me thinking is that, when I listen to a lot of Theravada/EBT Ajahns, pretty much everyone speaks like there are beings who experiences fruit of their kamma in future lives. It is absolutely everywhere. I don’t have anything against Pudgalavada, since they are clearly stating that Pudgala is no-self.

Isn’t it the case that most of buddhist world are in fact Pudgalavadins in spirit?

Also, isn’t the suttas full of examples that there are sentient beings, persons who experience fruit of their kamma etc? What if Pudgalavadins were right all along? What if abdhidhammic momentariness-atomic tradition are the actual extreme (which Theravada is officialy part of)?

Of course on ultimate level there are no beings, but on conventional level we all assume there are, and everyone speaks and acts like they do exist. So aren’t most of us actually Pudgalavadins, who just don’t want to admit that? :slight_smile:

I’ll just add that I’m only asking questions for discussion, not presenting any view that I wish to defend. :slight_smile:


The critical point from a Theravada perspective is whether the puggala is a convention (paññatti) or an “absolute truth”. This is the first question of the Kathāvatthu:

Puggalo upalabbhati saccikaṭṭhaparamatthenāti?

Is the “person” found in the ultimate sense?

But according to what you quote above the Puggalavadins themselves say the puggala is a convention. It’s been a while since I read the relevant texts, so help me out: what is this based on?


I think the link between kamma and its fruit is captured in the EBTs by the idea of the stream of consciousness. A stream of consciousness is a continuity that does not overlap with other streams of consciousness, and as such, in a sense, there are separate individuals.

The problem with puggala may be that some words are more prone than others to be understood as indicating an “inherent essence”. Puggala, “person”, is perhaps too closely tied to the idea of an attā/ātman, whether literally as used in Vedic texts (this would have to be researched) or culturally as understood in contemporary Indian society. The idea of the stream of consciousness, viññāṇāsota, on the other hand, may not have any such connotations. As such, it is more likely to be interpreted in the right way according to the anattā teaching. In fact, the picture of a stream is quite apt. It suggests continuous change (always new water molecules), but an overall sense of continuity through the fact that the overall shape of the stream/river only changes slowly with the seasons.


Here’s a couple readily available sources for digging into the topic of the Pudgalavāda.

Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy’s article on the Pudgalavāda

Thich Thien Chau’s Literature of the Personalists of Early Buddhism

The latter summarizes what exists of their texts and the positions found in them. Chau analyzes the concept of pudgala, which is actually a bit strange because it means very different things in different traditions (it’s matter to Jains, not a person). That section starts on p.130.


Insofar as the dispute hinges on the nature of prajñaptis (Pali: paññattis) there’s a lucid and helpful discussion in chapters 7 and 9 of Leonard Priestley’s book, Pudgalavāda Buddhism: the reality of the indeterminate self.


The Pudgalavādins asserted that while there is no ātman, there exists a pudgala (person) or sattva (being) which is neither a conditioned dharma nor an unconditioned dharma.

Isn’t it the case that most of buddhist world are in fact Pudgalavadins in spirit?

All wrong views are dependent on sakkayaditthi, and since it is so, their proponents are attavadins. This is the case with The Pudgalavādins, and of course it is the case that most of buddhist world are in fact attavadins, including these good Buddhist who classifies doctrine of responsibility for one’s own action as pudggalavada.

Now, “there is no ātman” sounds like ucchedaditthi – annihilationist-view. Dhamma right view goes beyond such view and its opposition sassataditthi,; “all things are not-self”, or “world is empty of self” aren’t on the same level as direct negotiation of self, people are selfish and surely they see something over which they are selfish. In other words self in form of attavadupadana, is present in puthujjana experience:

“This world, Kaccāna, is for the most part shackled by engagement, clinging, and adherence. But this one [with right view] does not become engaged and cling through that engagement and clinging, mental standpoint, adherence, underlying tendency; he does not take a stand about ‘my self.’ He has no perplexity or doubt that what arises is only suffering arising, what ceases is only suffering ceasing. His knowledge about this is independent of others. It is in this way, Kaccāna, that there is right view.

SN 12:15

Nanavira Thera:

For this reason I consider that any ‘appreciation of Buddhism by nuclear physicists’ on the grounds of similarity of views about aniccatà to be a misconception. It is worth noting that Oppenheimer’s dictum, which threatens to become celebrated, is based on a misunderstanding. The impossibility of making a definite assertion about an electron has nothing to do with the impossibility of making a definite assertion about ‘self’. The electron, in quantum theory, is defined in terms of probabilities, and a definite assertion about what is essentially indefinite (or rather, about an ‘indefiniteness’) cannot be made. But attā is not an indefiniteness; it is a deception, and a deception (a mirage, for example) can be as definite as you please—the only thing is, that it is not what one takes it for. To make any assertion, positive or negative, about attà is to accept the false coin at its face value. If you will re-read the Vacchagotta Sutta (Avyàkata Samy . 8: iv,395-7), you will see that the Buddha refrains both from asserting and from denying the existence of attā for this very reason. (In this connection, your implication that the Buddha asserted that there is no self requires modification. What the Buddha said was ‘sabbe dhammà anattā—no thing is self—, which is not quite the same. ‘Sabbe dhammà anattā’ means ‘if you look for a self you will not find one’, which means ‘self is a mirage, a deception’. It does not mean that the mirage, as such, does not exist.) L 37

Now, with that clarification we can come back to dialectic on puggala, there is absolutely no mystery about the term, the easiest way to understand the meaning of the word is to look at AN IX : 9

The sutta recognises 9 puggalas 8 ariyas + puthujjana. And since arahat is the puggala without ignorance, it means that “puggala” may or may not be associated with ignorance, therefore the best way of translating the term is an individual. “Person” should be reserved for sakkaya, which is entirely dependent on ignorance. Of course since language is a convention it is more or less arbitrary how we determine the meaning of certain terms, but since the worldly convention already recognises the case of an individual with multiple personalities and as far as I remember etymology of the world “person” is connected with the term “mask”, perhaps it better fits to represent ignorance then the term “individual”.

Seeing this way, sutta The Burden possess no difficulties, burden, bhārahāra is synonymous with sakkaya and pañc’upādānakkhandha and so always depends on ignorance while the carrier of the burden, an individual “this venerable one of such a a name and clan”, not necessarily since such puggala practicing the Dhamma, may freed himself from ignorance by laying down of the burden (of personality, sakkaya).

In practical terms there was an individual Sariputta, who carried the burden of personality sakkaya, but after hearing the Dhamma from Venerable Assaji:

The Perfect One has told the cause
Of causally arisen things;
And what brings their cessation, too:
Such is the doctrine preached by the Great Monk.

by the inside that: “All that is subject to arising is subject to cessation”; self-identification with impermanent aggregates was abandoned.

Further by practicing the Dhamma, Ven Sariputta became an individual without personality. The point is that puthujjana is not able to distinguish clearly between what is individual and what is personal so in latter schools we can see attempts to abolish the reality of things (in absolute sense) while the Suttas clearly recognise that there are things - such as puggala- but emphasis is put on impermanence. The point is that notion of selfhood is associated with permanence, Buddha by emphasizing impermanence of things says to puthujjana -and every puthujjana is an attavadin-, that he is a victim of wrong self-identification.

Nanavira Thera:

It is quite possible that the notion of paramattha sacca, ‘truth in the highest, or ultimate, or absolute, sense’ was in existence before the time of the Milindapa¤ha; but its use there (Pt. II, Ch. 1) is so clear and unambiguous that that book is the obvious point of departure for any discussion about it. The passage quotes the two lines (5 & 6) containing the simile of the chariot. They are used to justify the following argument. The word ‘chariot’ is the conventional name given to an assemblage of parts; but if each part is examined individually it cannot be said of any one of them that it is the chariot, nor do we find any chariot in the parts collectively, nor do we find any chariot outside the parts. Therefore, ‘in the highest sense’, there exists no chariot. Similarly, an ‘individual’ (the word puggala is used) is merely a conventional name given to an assemblage of parts (parts of the body, as well as khandhà), and, ‘in the highest sense’, there exists no individual. That is all.

  1. Let us first consider the validity of the argument. If a chariot is taken to pieces, and a man is then shown the pieces one by one, each time with the question ‘Is this a chariot?’, it is obvious that he will always say no. And if these pieces are gathered together in a heap, and he is shown the heap, then also he will say that there is no chariot. If, finally, he is asked whether apart from these pieces he sees any chariot, he will still say no. But suppose now that he is shown these pieces assembled together in such a way that the assemblage can be used for conveying a man from place to place; when he is asked he will undoubtedly assert that there is a chariot, that the chariot exists.

According to the argument, the man was speaking in the conventional sense when he asserted the existence of the chariot, and in the highest sense when he denied it. But, clearly enough, the man (who has had no training in such subtleties) is using ordinary conventional language throughout; and the reason for the difference between his two statements is to be found in the fact that on one occasion he was shown a chariot and on the others he was not. If a chariot is taken to pieces (even in imagination) it ceases to be a chariot; for a chariot is, pre-cisely, a vehicle, and a heap of components is not a vehicle—it is a heap of components. (If the man is shown the heap of components and asked ‘Is this a heap of components?’, he will say yes.) In other words, a chariot is most certainly an assemblage of parts, but it is an assemblage of parts in a particular functional arrangement, and to alter this arrangement is to destroy the chariot. It is no great wonder that a chariot cannot be found if we have taken the precaution of destroying it before starting to look for it. If a man sees a chariot in working order and says ‘In the highest sense there is no chariot; for it is a mere assemblage of parts’, all he is saying is ‘It is possible to take this chariot to pieces and to gather them in a heap; and when this is done there will no longer be a chariot’. The argument, then, does not show the non-existence of the chariot; at best it merely asserts that an existing chariot can be destroyed. And when it is applied to an individual (i.e. a set of pañcakkhandhà) it is even less valid; for not only does it not show the non-existence of the individual, but since the functional arrangement of the pañcakkhandhà cannot be altered, even in imagination, it asserts an impossibility, that an existing individual can be destroyed. As applied to an individual (or a creature) the argument runs into contradiction; and to say of an individual ‘In the highest sense there is no individual; for it is a mere asemblage of khandhà’ is to be unintelligible.

  1. What, now, is the reason for this argument? Why has this notion of ‘truth in the highest sense’ been invented? We find the clue in the Visuddhimagga. This work (Ch. XVIII) quotes the last four lines (5, 6, 7, & 8) and then repeats in essence the argument of the Milinda-pañha, using the word satta as well as puggala. It goes on, however, to make clear what was only implicit in the Milindapañha, namely that the purpose of the argument is to remove the conceit ‘(I) am’ (asmimàna): if it is seen that ‘in the highest sense’, paramatthato, no creature exists, there will be no ground for conceiving that I exist. This allows us to understand why the argument was felt to be necessary. The assutavā puthujjana identifies himself with the individual or the creature, which he proceeds to regard as ‘self’. He learns, however, that the Buddha has said that ‘actually and in truth neither self nor what belongs to self are to be found’ (see the second Sutta passage in §4). Since he cannot conceive of the individual except in terms of ‘self’, he finds that in order to abolish ‘self’ he must abolish the individual; and he does it by this device. But the device, as we have seen, abolishes nothing. It is noteworthy that the passage in the Milindapañha makes no mention at all of ‘self’: the identification of ‘self’ with the individual is so much taken for granted that once it is established that ‘in the highest sense there is no individual’ no further discussion is thought to be necessary . Not the least of the dangers of the facile and fallacious notion ‘truth in the highest sense’ is its power to lull the unreflecting mind into a false sense of security . The unwary thinker comes to believe that he understands what, in fact, he does not understand, and thereby effectively blocks his own progress.

From Paramattha Sacca
Paramattha sacca - Ñāṇavīra Thera Dhamma Page

Regarding ethical responsibly for one’s own actions; there is no any contradiction with doctrine of anatta, contrary, it is precisely while the ignorance is present and things are seen as “this is mine, this I am, this is my self” any action performed by such an individual (puggala carrying the burden of sakkaya) has ethical value, it is only with the arahat, we can talk about cessation of ethics:

“Ignorance is comprised within these states. But with the remainderless fading away and cessation of ignorance that body does not exist conditioned by which that pleasure and pain arise internally; that speech does not exist conditioned by which that pleasure and pain arise internally; that mind does not exist conditioned by which that pleasure and pain arise internally.81 That field does not exist, that site does not exist, that base does not exist, that foundation does not exist conditioned by which that pleasure and pain arise internally.”

SN 12: 25

It is so because the person, sakkaya is precisely this: a chain of deeds and results of deeds. And so long notion “I am” is present in experience, so long this chain will remain unbroken:

but as long as there is the attitude ‘I am’ there is organization of the five faculties of eye, ear, nose, tongue, and body.

SN 22:47

Or as Ven Nanavira says: So long as there are the thoughts ‘I was born’, ‘I shall die’, there is birth and death: so long as the five khandhà are sa-upādànā, ‘somebody’ becomes manifest and breaks up.

Or in other words while the Tathagata is not to be found even here and now,

["The reason why the Tathāgata is not to be found (even here and now) is that he is rūpa-, vedanā-, saññā-, sankhāra-, and viññāna-sankhāya vimutto (ibid. 1 <S.iv,378-9>), i.e. free from reckoning as matter, feeling, perception, determinations, or consciousness.]

This is precisely not the case with the puthujjana, who, in this sense, actually and in truth is to be found." (Nanavira) and his state is that of being (bhava) which as we know from dependent arising depends on upādāna.

Regarding such notion as a “stream of consciousness”, while it isn’t as misleading as the term “Absolute Truth”, there is really no need to introduce it, since according to Suttas the very fact of dependence of consciousness on namarupa - and such dependence is only present while an ignorance is present - supports continuity of samsara:

Thus far, Ananda, may one be born or age or die or fall or arise, thus far is there a way of designation, thus far is there a way of language, thus far is there a way of description, thus far is there a sphere of understanding, thus far the round proceeds as manifestation in a situation,—so far, that is to say, as there is name-&-matter together with consciousness

. DN 15

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This is one of the problems of Buddhist thought that I have had some trouble with. Not a lot of trouble, mind you, because I don’t expect human thought of any kind to make perfect sense. People express themselves, and it usually isn’t the absolute truth or put the best way possible. And the nature of the categories and conceptualizations that we create leads to internal errors and contradictions. It’s just par for the course to me, and I can appreciate the diversity of human thought without judging it right or wrong. Well, I do draw the line at depersonalization and amorality, but otherwise humans are humans. They say stuff, and some of it interesting and inspiring.

To me, there’s an underlying contradiction that exists in the received doctrines from the Sthavira branch of Buddhism, and it’s similar to the trouble we face when we read a Prajnaparamita Sutra. There’s a intentional denial of the practical reality we deal with every day. There’s a conceptual argument that there is no self, etc. on the one hand, and then a spiritual argument that we should want to liberate ourselves (maybe even others) on the other hand, even though ourselves are not ourselves. When it comes down to nitty gritty, the argument is reduced to this: “If you look for something that’s your self, you won’t find anything that is.” This is like a ideological mantra to me, telling us what we are supposed to get as an answer before we begin, and insisting that it isn’t the elephant in the room. And what is the elephant? It’s the “you” that’s looking for a self, of course. It’s very obvious and simple. If we point that out, then a bait and switch takes place: Ah, but that self is not a real self. “It’s not?” Well, no, a real self would be permanent and unchanging. “Oh! I see. Okay, then.”

Now, this isn’t entirely fair to the cultural context of the time, but it is how it sounds today. People understand more or else intuitively today that their selves are temporary and do change. At the time, this was apparently not a particularly popular idea in ancient India, the Buddhists being the main proponent of it. They had to call it a “conventional self” to avoid misunderstandings. Today, it’s basically what people consider their selves by default, I think.

So, this ideological argument that we are given based on these ancient arguments in India sounds like double talk or ideological rationalization. Just because a self isn’t permanent, etc doesn’t make it not a self. Or a person. Or a human being. Or a life. Or a mammal. Etc. Whatever synonym we’d like to use today, it all refers to ourselves, and there really shouldn’t be a problem with that. Unless someone has a deep seated belief in an eternal soul, then I suppose it may be apropos. And that was probably the issue at the time.

So, I personally think that the Pudgalavadins were at least being honest about this issue and refused to avoid it the way the Sthaviras did. The trouble with the polemics that we find in texts criticizing them is the basic problem of adversarial debate: Each contestant naturally depicts their opponent making the weakest argument possible and purposely misconstruing what they say while not mentioning the weaknesses of their own arguments hoping they’ll go overlooked. The result only reaches the truth by accident in my experience. Which is why I just refuse to engage in it. It’s just kind of pointless. And a little traumatizing, to be honest. I just don’t get how emotionless my fellow men (and they are by and large men) can be. But anyway. Just my two cents.


There is a sense of self that arises because of a mating pair coming together to create an elemental body which is endowed with the capacity for mindfulness.

The sense of self arises because 1) the feeling of being alive 2) forming a mental image/view/abstraction because of cognising that one is alive or aware that they are aware.

The middle way encourages a person to see how X-arises. ‘X’ here is defined as the sense of self. The middle way encourages one to investigate into the causal relationships as to what led up to how this X-thing (notion of a self) arises.

Personality now becomes more of a natural expression due to having experienced life and garnering wisdom. Seeing from the middle leads one to comprehend the suchness of things as they are as compared to how one believes things to be, and blows away the habit of unhelpful mental abstraction. In the same way the word ‘hand’ isn’t :raised_hand: is the same way the ‘I’ isn’t the entirety of ones mind-body and how the words ‘mind’ (although born of the abstracting faculty and is a fruit OF) isn’t the mind in itself and neither is the term body. The idea of observing the breath isn’t the action of it, is it?

The 5 aggregates are the operating system by which one makes sense of the world. The ‘one that knows’ arises at the intersection of these factors coming together and is the charioteer which directs the body.

The dharmachakra looks similar to a sailing ships wheel. Interestingly enough, what seems like a dharma wheel but is likely a ships wheel, is inscribed on £20 notes in the UK.

You will find that which is given a name, I.e. ‘dhammapalla or bob’ doesn’t miraculously fade away upon realisation. I am the process that has been named that and I still carry wisdom & habits as well as fancies with me which impress upon your senses which may lead you to let out the exclamation, “Woah, that dhammapalla, he surely is a groove-y guy!”.

In short answer: the notion of a Pudgalavada or person is what modern Law orientates around. Instead of thinking of ‘some sect that believes in a person on the basis of blind faith’ - I find it sensible to consider that the arriving at the idea of personhood was born of some persons realisation. The Noble Ones never encouraged blind faith belief but instead encourage you to investigate for yourself in alignment with the principle of ehipassoko.

The dharma tapestry is vast and diverse. It expands into daily life and there are many amongst us who, indeed, you may not think are initiated in dhamma, but are - they hold the fabric of modern society together and are the reason there is peace. Neither affirming nor denying a sense of personality or self but simply seeing how X has come to be and dwelling there. Here lays freedom from the thicket of views.

I would have thought just this ‘paṭiccasamuppādo’ sound alone gives the boot to any sort ‘doer’, ‘experiencer’ theories. Individual or cosmic.

Detailed analysis talks about arising of sankhara(paccayam paticceva). Whence a doer?

Detailed analysis talks about arising of vedana(paccayam paticceva). Whence an experiencer?

This might be a case of philosophy overtaking patipatti and pativeda. I think there are Suttas that say teachings on Dependent Origination, emptiness and so forth are extremely deep and profound.

Take a mendicant who hears this: ‘They say that the mendicant named so-and-so has realized the undefiled freedom of heart and freedom by wisdom in this very life. And they live having realized it with their own insight due to the ending of defilements.They think: ‘Well, that venerable can realize the undefiled freedom of heart and freedom by wisdom in this very life. … Why can’t I?’ After some time, relying on conceit, they give up conceit


I’m having trouble understanding what you mean Venerable? Are you saying the problem with this ancient and extinct sect of Buddhism was not that their understanding was wrong but rather they were unskillful with words? That they should have avoided talking about persons or used some other word as a referent to that basis upon which we label “persons”? :pray:

Whether their understanding was wrong or not is hard to discern. The Wikipedia article on Pudgalavāda contains the following contradictory statements:

They held that, at death when the aggregates are destroyed, the person would then also be destroyed, thus not be reborn.


The Pudgalavādins also seem to have held that the liberated person exists even after paranirvana in a state of supreme bliss, or as Thiện Châu notes, they saw nirvana as “a transcendental domain” and an “existence in the beyond”

On the former understanding, the pudgala would seem to be a sort of emergent phenomenon, derived from the five aggregates. In this view, the pudgala depends on the five aggregates in the same way that a fire depends on its fuel. Here, again, from the same Wikipedia article:

The five aggregates are the fuel and the pudgala the fire. The fire exists as long as there is fuel, but it is not the same as the fuel and has properties that the fuel does not. They are co-existent and the fuel (aggregates) are the support for the fire (pudgala), and thus are not the same nor wholly different.

On the latter understanding, however, we seem to have a wholesale eternalist doctrine.

So which one is correct? I suspect they might both be correct. A large school like the Pudgalavādins are likely to have had lots of internal debates and disagreements. I think we should expect both orthodox and heterodox ideas.

This brings me back to my statement that the very word pudgala may have been problematic. My point is that even if the Pudgalavādin doctrine may have been slippery and difficult to pin down, the word pudgala is clear enough. DOP gives “an individual soul” as a meaning of puggala, citing among other texts the Milindapañha. According to SED, pudgala was used to refer to “the soul, personal entity”, referencing the Lalitavistara, which is of Sarvāstivādin origin. From this it seems possible - although admittedly not certain - that the word pudgala may have had eternalist implications even before the Pudgalavādins started to use the term. I am suggesting this may have been a significant part of the problem.


Well said and thank you for that. I feel I understand you much better now. As for whether the word had an explicit eternalist definition; perhaps but is there any specific evidence for this in Pali? It is my impression that since time unknowable we generally implicitly assume an eternalist understanding of nearly every referent of every word. It is a very well worn nearly baked in pernicious habit that I recognize in myself at least.


Venerable Ajahn Brahmali,

Suttas seem to mention puggala, for example, in the context of 8 noble individuals. Doesn’t it “prove” that puggala “exists”?

Aṭṭhime bhikkhave, puggalā āhuneyyā pāhuneyyā dakkhiṇeyyā añjalikaraṇīyā anuttaraṃ puññakkhettaṃ lokassa. Katamehi aṭṭha:
Monks, there are these eight individuals who are worthy of gifts, worthy of hospitality, worthy of offerings, worthy of reverential salutation, the unsurpassed field of merit for the world. Which eight?
Pathama Atthapuggala Sutta: Eight Individuals (a)

Thank you.

In the suttas puggala just means person in a conventional sense, without any eternalist connotations. As I have mentioned, however, already in the Milindapañha it seems puggala is used more in the Puggalavādin sense. (Warning: I am going by DOP, without having looked up the specific reference.) Still, I do not claim to have any proof that puggala was used with eternalist implications before the Puggalavādin doctrine emerged or before other schools started criticising them, but it seems at least possible that this may have been the case. Or it could also be, I suppose, that puggala got its eternalist side because of the Puggalavādin ideas. In the end I do not know. A careful study would be required to untangle this.

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We Buddhists from the past and up to present day has faced some difficulty to reconcile the anatta doctrine and how karma and rebirth works without any sense of self. While other religious teachings will easily explain that it is the soul/self/conciousness which performs action and migrates from one life to another, Buddhists have to take great pains to explain the process of rebirth without a migrating self because not everyone can understand the concept of dependent origination (paticcasamuppada).

So Buddhist schools develop more specific terms and explanations on how the process of karma and rebirth which does not involve the migrating self. Beside from Pudgalavada, we can list some of them here:

  1. Sarvastivada (Vaibhasika) school with the doctrine of “all exists” (sarvam asti: all phenomena exist in the past, present and future) explains that when actions (karma) are performed, a phenomenon (dharma) called prapti (possession) will be formed, which exists forever until it gives consequences in the future. This prapti is a force that keeps karma from wrongly giving its fruit to the different doer. With this concept, there is no need for the self to be the doer and recipient of karmic consequences.

  2. Mahasanghika school has the concept of root consciousness (mulavijnana), the basis of consciousness on which karma and rebirth happens based on the interpretation of the term “luminous mind” (pabhassara citta) in the Pabhassara Sutta (AN 1.49–50)

  3. Sautrantika school which rejects the concept of “all exists” (and prapti) from Sarvastivada Vaibhasika above states that when an action (karma) in form of intention (cetana) is performed, it immediately disappears, but it leaves a trace/impression (vasana) in the stream of consciousness (cittasamtana) and experiences development/evolution (viparinama) over time until it finally gives its results. This concept is also called karmabija (seed of karma).

  4. Theravada school explains the process of karma and rebirth with the concept of bhavanga (I don’t have to explain it here because it is a popular Buddhist explanation which you can find in Abhidhamma by googling it).

  5. Mahayana Yogacara (Vijnanavada) school explains the process of rebirth and karma with the concept of alayavijnana, i.e the eighth consciousness (the other 7 consciousnesses are the five sense consciousnesses and mind consciousness [manovijnana] and the mind [mano] itself) in which all the seeds of good kamma and bad (karmabija) and all potential stain and purity of mind are stored. (You can also google it for more information).

All these schools claim that their explanation is in line with the Buddha teaching of anatta, all these terms are not self according to the respective school, including the Pudgalavadins. And the Pudgalavada school was very popular in their time and was the largest Buddhist school with the largest number of followers among all other Buddhist schools in India according to Xuanzang’s travel record [cmiiw] (perhaps because their concept was more easily accepted by lay people who were not engaged in sophisticated doctrines like Abhidhamma/Abhidharma and so on).

So, all these schools explanation are right in their own. They are just trying to make sense the anatta doctrine to their fellow Buddhists and non-Buddhists, including nowadays Theravadin Ajahns who explain it with their own terms and understanding.


I would be fascinated to hear @Jayarava 's thoughts on this, having read an article on his blog recently that seemed to deal with this issue.