Multiple types of arahant: a later development? Is the Pavāranā Sutta corrupted?

I recently made a post on dhammawheel, but I thought I’d post here as well. I’ll just copy/past my question:

Hi, everyone,

I just wanted to draw attention to a 2013 article by Tse-Fu Kuan, The Pavāraṇā Sutta and “liberation in both ways” as against “liberation by wisdom” (Link: … by_wisdom_). It’s a very good article, so I’m a bit surprised I haven’t seen more discussion of it.

Basically, he analyzes the Pavāranā Sutta, which talks about “500 Arhats” being present, although the Arhats have different attainments. This Sutta is often used to argue that there are multiple types of Arhats, the most common of which become enlightened purely by insight and without the Three/6 Knowledges, formless attainments, etc. Tse-Fu points out that there are various parallels in the Agamas, with mostly minor discrepancies (e.g., some say there was 1 non-Arhat present). Importantly, however, the Ekottarika Agama version of the text (EA 32.5) has no mention of the list of different types of Arhats, but just says that the 500 people present were at least stream-winners. He concludes that the references to multiple types of Arhat are interpolations.

He also scavenges the Pali Suttas and Agamas for various references to Arhats between divided between those “liberated both ways” and ones “liberated by wisdom.” He says all these references have a shaky textual foundation — that is, if it’s mentioned in the Pali, it’s missing in some Agama collection, or if it’s in an Agama collection, it’s missing in the Pali (the only example of the latter is SN 55.24, about the drinker Sarakaani). He also says the EA has no references to Arhats “liberated both ways” at all. He comes to a conclusion the the notion of “multiple degrees of arhatship” is a later development, one that resulted when the definition of “Arhat” was expanded to include more people.

Anyway, I do encourage people to read the article and not just my summary. I’m curious what other people think of his argument.


This is dealt with in the Susima sutta and other sutras (SN12.70) Liberated by wisdom doesn’t mean a one fold path was practiced and somehow they became arahanths. What they didn’t have (in comparison to those released in both ways) is that they didn’t have immaterial attainments, being an extra development of samadhi which was not essential to attain Nibbana. They had the samadhi of the Rupa jhana though.

“Sāriputta, I do not blame you for any bodily or verbal activities. Your wisdom, is deep, has a wide spread out, is with mirth, comes at the right moment, is sharp and is with penetration. The eldest son of the Universal Monarch rolls the wheel rolled by the father righteously. In the same manner, you righteously continue rolling the wheel of the Teaching set rolling by me.”

Thank you for bringing this Pavarana sutta to my awareness. Apart from the types of arahanths, it contains a lovely praise by the Buddha to Ven Sariputta arguably one of the foremost disicples in the dispensation.

With metta


Thanks for the article, hopefully I will get a chance to read it.

It doesn’t seem unlikely that such divisions would be later, although that being said, they are fairly widespread in the Pali. Nevertheless, a lack of correspondence with the Chinese is always a red flag.

The Pavarana Sutta at SN 8.7 has a number of parallels listed on SC. It is indeed noteworthy that the Sanskrit parallel at SF 73 lacks the prose section on the different kinds of arahants.

Just to support Mat here, there is no suggestion in the EBTs that any arahants lacked jhanas. On the contrary, the path consists of eight factors, the jhanas are one of those factors, and all those on the path have practised them, at least to some degree.


Arguing about the retrogradability or non-retrogradability of persons of X attainment is an ancient Buddhist tradition!

Something that just occurred to me: in the Mahāparinirvāṇa vaipulya of Ven Dharmakṣema, one can find this passage:

And then the King spoke in responce: “the Mahāguru truly has Arhat-fruits, [the Mahāguru is] like the Buddha without difference [in this respect].”

The context is a passage talking about when great claims are make about respected bhikṣavaḥ by lay people. In this passage a King decides that a monk is an Arhat, but the monk disagrees. There is no fault to the monk if he is proclaimed by others as an arhat, the sūtra decides, but if he joins their mistake, it is said that then there is wrongdoing.

For added context, Kosho Yamamoto translates as:

Then the king said: “O great teacher! You truly have attained arhatship and do not differ from the Buddha.”

Obviously the layers of chronologically stratified material in the Parinirvāṇa Vaipulya are very wild, but I would not be surprised if this passage was one of the older ones.


Thanks, Bhante, about the heads up on SF 73 lacking the prose. I don’t recall that being mentioned in the article, I don’t think? Of course it could just be that SF is an abbreviation…I don’t know much about that collection. Is abbreviation common in SF in general?

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SF isn’t a collection, it’s just a random assortment of whatever Sanskrit sutras have been found, edited, digitized, and come to us.

As to whether the text is truncated, i would say that it appears so. The start is:

sugata pratibhātu te vāgīśa bhagavān avocat
"(Sugata) speaks as you are inspired," said the Buddha.

I’m not sure how the word sugata fits into the sentence. It is a vocative for addressing the Buddha, but he is the one speaking. In any case, the sutra clearly lacks an introduction, so either the original text was abbreviated, or the manuscript is fragmentary. So it is quite possible that a passage on the arahants has been lost.


Hi there

Regarding this from the original article:

"In the Theravāda version and the four, presumably, (Mūla-)Sarvāstivāda versions of our sūtra, all (or all but one) of the five hundred monks in this Pravāranā ceremony are said to be arhats or fully liberated beings free from all taints (漏, āsrava), but no such claim is found in EĀ 32.5, where the Buddha says: “Among this assembly here, the most inferior in the lowest seat have/has attained the fruit of stream-entry, and will definitely ascend to the state of non-regression”

it seems to me, this could be referring to the one person, who was not arahant and would not necessarily mean the others (500?) were not arahant. If read in that way, there would seem to be no clash with the other texts on that point.

Regarding this from the original article:

“That the stream-enterers here are characterized as going on to attain the state of non-regression, implies that non-regression is some-thing additional and that stream-enterers per se, are liable to regression.”

I basically agree with this. In my studies there are at least three levels of stream-entry matching the gradual eradication of the first three fetters (identity view, doubt, practicing rituals) and only when one eradicates the third fetter (which incorporates a clear understanding of cause and effect) would one be ‘attained to view’ and incapable of falling into lower states of birth, because one sees the actions (of thought, word and deed) that would put one there, as causing too much suffering (to oneself and or others). I guess it could be compared to someone in a stream, but still being able to touch the ground and get back out, not yet captured by the current.

“A stream-enterer is subject to regression; arhatship is not subject to regression”

So, I would qualify/clarify this by ‘a stream entrer not yet attained to view…’ And would suggest this belief or position, arose from not knowing clearly the different stages of Stream Entry.

I suggest that the non-Pali versions of the discourse, which do not want to acknowledge different types of Arahants is consistent with not acknowledging different types of Stream Enterer and is due to poor understanding of the Path.

I think I’ll leave it at that for comment on the article.

best wishes

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Arguably? Is there any ambiguity regarding that?

A “poor understanding of the path”? Or simply different doctrines regarding the path, and thus a different conclusion?

The article states the following:

That the stream-enterers here are characterized as going on to attain the state of non-regression implies that non-regression is something additional and that stream-enterers per se are liable to regression. To what, then, does “the state of non-regression” refer? The answer can be found in the Bu zhiyi lun 部執異論 (T 2033), a Sarvāstivāda text by Vasumitra on the process of schisms and the doctrines of the various schools. In its presentation of the tenets held by the Mahāsāmghika school and its three offshoots, 18 one tenet is stated thus: “A stream-enterer is subject to 19 regression; arhatship is not subject to regression”. 20 This tenet conforms well to the above passage in EĀ 32.5,

which suggests that the stream-enterers are liable to regress, and the “state of non-regression” refers most probably to arhatship. This is a significant indication that EĀ 32.5 may belong to the Mahāsāmghikas.

It’s a shame we don’t have a whole Mahāsāmghikas suttapiṭaka. But perhaps their’s differed on this idea!

We are arguing about it now, aren’t we? :slight_smile:

There were two foremost disciples, Ven Sariputta and Ven Moggallana, so it is hard to point out one! But Ven Ananda had better recollection, and other disciples were better at other things, so all this is dependant on which quality you have in mind.

with metta

We are arguing about whether it is arguable, not whether he was one of the foremost disicples in the dispensation. :joy:

Is there any such latter argument?

That is not the (nonexistent?) argument! Being one of the two foremost disciples certainly qualifies them both as being “one of the foremost disicples in the dispensation”.

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Thank you for your thoughts, @Brother_Joe.

I suppose that could be, but I have my doubts. Some of the Agama versions do say “500 Arhats, plus one-non-Arhat,” and go on to talk about the grades of Arhat. I still find it odd that the EA version doesn’t mention the number of Arhats, or describe the grades of Arhat either here or anywhere else. I also find it more historically plausible that there was a group of 500 of mixed attainments than 500 Arhats + one non-Arhat. The latter scenario strikes me as a bit contrived.

This seems like a sound analysis.

Are you saying that the “lesser” Arhats may be those who are “on the path to becoming Arhats” but don’t quite have the “fruit” yet? What exactly would characterize such a person? It seems like it would be quite hard to identify such a person.

Oh, yes, of course. I agree. For me, any numbering of people with certain attainments is contrived and is sectarian propaganda.

I just was pointing out another possible way of reading the text, such that the texts might not conflict (so much?). :slight_smile:

LOL. I guess it would depend on what you mean by ‘lesser’. For me, an Arahant has the same quality of enlightenment as the Buddha (who is an Arahant also). The only difference I see between Arahants, regarding mental attainments, is whether they have developed the Formless (arūpa) attainments, or not. All would have Sammā-samādhi (the Four Rūpa Jhāna). Regarding knowledge, they would differ, e.g. some could speak some languages, while others could not.

best wishes


Hi Senryu

Since I believe it is part of Right View to understand the Path and it is the same Right View shared by all noble people, that is, the Right View of the Buddha, then both statements: ‘poor understanding of the path’ and ‘different doctrines regarding the path’ mean the same thing to me.

best wishes

So then, if there are two different sets of doctrines, how to identify which one has the ‘poor understanding’? Sounds like a similar idea to people being attached to their abhidhamma and against the abhidhamma of another school on the basis that their’s must be right because it’s their’s! Do you know what I mean?

If we are basing our ideas on early texts, and we have two sets, with differing views, it’s perhaps difficult to know which one the Buddha had, so which one is right according to him.

Or is there some inherent fault wihtin their own texts, that you see in their doctrines?

Ah, I see. My guess is that the original story had a large number of people (not necessarily exactly 500, since that’s used as a symbolic number in the Suttas for a large number) of varying attainments. It was up to later traditions to formally classify such people.

Honestly, I’m just plain confused by what distinguishes the “wisdom liberated” Arhat from those "liberated both ways."AN 9.43-45 say that even the “wisdom liberated” Arhats have the formless states. It’s just that the liberated both-ways Arhat “remains touching with his body in whatever way there is an opening there,” which the wisdom-liberated does not. An 9.43 talks specifically about those with the “bodily witness,” and as far as I can tell it’s worded the same as the “both ways” liberated, just that he only “sees with discernment” after the cessation of perception and feeling (as opposed to after each Jhana).

In other words, I don’t think the EBTs speak with a unified voice about the meditative requirements for Arhatship.

Much metta :pray:

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Just a little comment on the article. Tse proposes that EA 32.5 mentions a Stream Winner who will ascend to the state of non-regression. The passage in question reads -

得須陀洹道,必當上及不退 轉法

Citing Nakamura, he opines that 須陀洹道 means fruit of stream entry. We get the same definition in DDB.

Perhaps this is a peculiarity of the Chinese translators, but I would have thought that the word 道 translates marga/magga, rather than fruit.

In EA 42.6, contemplation of the 8 types is discussed, but instead the aṭṭha puggala encountered in Pali, there simply the listing only of the 4 noble ones, ie 須陀洹道 and the remaining 3, all with the 道 predicating the 4.

Certainly in the SA, it refers to the Stream Winner, but the position seems less clear in the EA.


To add to the irregular usage of the concept in the EA, we have EA 28.7 with a typology of different types of Stream Winners -

彼云何名為似黃藍花沙門? 或有一人,斷三結使,成須陀洹不退轉法, 必至涅槃,極遲經七死七生;或復家家、一種, …。

And what is the yellow-blue (saffron?) flower ascetic? There is the case of the person, having eliminated the 3 Fetters, accomplishes Stream Entry, not-regressing, certainly destined for Nirvana in 7 lives at most. Or there is the case of the family-to-family, the one-seeder… (my translation)

I wonder if the translator of EA 32.5 stumbled on the donor language’s cassa (assuming it was present in the text, like its presence in MN 70) and rendered it literally as an optative of the future?


Hello again

I agree, especially regarding the AN. I am not aware of mixed messages on this topic in the others of the first four Nikayas.

For me the AN was originally an index at the end of the three nikayas DN, MN and SN, (just like you have a kind of index at the end of sections, mentioning the suttas’ names in brief) but later it started to be filled in as a fourth Nikaya. Thus later confusion about Arahants’ attainments could have entered.

best wishes

Hi Senryu

Yes, I think I understand what you mean. For me this is basically the question, ‘how can we know what is (the Buddha’s, or any Noble One’s) Right View?’ or maybe ‘is it possible to know what Right View is, as the Buddha intended?’

The second question, to me, would be for one who has not yet developed faith, which is part of the Fruit of Stream Entry (SE), i.e. they still have the fetter of doubt (that is, immobilising doubt, not scientific doubt). Once one has the faith that it may be possible (scientific doubt), then one would ask ‘how to do it?’ and I believe this is answered by the four ‘limbs’ of SE:

  1. Association with people of integrity is a factor for stream-entry.
  2. Listening to the true Dhamma is a factor for stream-entry.
  3. Appropriate attention is a factor for stream-entry.
  4. Practice in accordance with the Dhamma is a factor for stream-entry.

— SN 55.5

If we just stuck with our favourite theory, without testing it in experience, then I think there would be no way to decide. Thus number four.

best wishes

Roderick Bucknell wrote a very interesting article, not sure if he ever published it, about the various elucidations of the path. He had a very interesting idea about sīla samādhi paññā, countering the usual analysis of the 8fold path, and saying rather they relate to the 10fold path, having sīla as:

  • sammā-vācā
  • sammā-kammanta
  • sammā-ājīva

Samādhi as:

  • sammā-vāyāma
  • sammā-sati
  • sammā-samādhi

Then coming to the 2 fruits of the path, paññā as:

  • sammā-ñāṇa

And vimutti as:

  • sammā-vimutti

His analysis seems to me better than the traditional one (which divides the 8fold path into those 3). I’m not sure if the traditional one even came from the Buddha - seems it came from a nun, and perhaps rarely mentioned in the EBTs apparently (can anyone confirm?)… perhaps a later adaption?

Yes I think that those things are very helpful indeed! However I also believe that stream entry can happen spontaneously even in the absense of those factors. And also can happen in response to an encounter with an ariya, such as the advaita satsang even! Which I believe was very similar to what the Buddha also did, basically talking people to awakening. This is also done in the Tibetan tradition, with what are called ‘pointing out instructions’, or ‘introduction to the nature of mind’ - a very important aspect of Tibetan Buddhism. (Of course they do not call it stream entry, since, according to their doctrine, you must avoid stream entry at all costs, since once you get it you will only live a maximum of 7 lifetimes, and thus your bodhisattva quest is prematurely terminated! Such is the doctrinal knot they have tied themselves in!)

I also think that doubt of some form can come back to a stream enterer, especially if a lot of time passes after their initial awakening with no more glimpses being had. A person can slip totally back into delusion, and even loose interest in the path or gain bitterness at not having any more awakening experiences, especially if they have a bad teacher (sorry I should rather say a teacher of insufficient standard) or no teacher at all. Then they can take on doubts or re-take doubts about the path and about enlightenment. I believe.

Yes. But we also must consider a counterargument - @sujato has pointed out the apparent unreliability of the EA, so, we also cannot assume that its differences are down to the Mahāsāṃghika view. It may just be badly corrupted.