Pratyekabuddhas in the agamas and nikayas?

Another topic was getting into the division between arhats, pratyekabuddhas, and buddhas, etc. I thought it would be interesting to see if searches for common terms for “pratyekabuddha” in the Chinese agamas would yield any interesting results.

I found very few mentions in the Samyukta Agama and Dirgha Agama (6 and 5 instances, respectively). I’m seeing some more mentions of them in the Madhyama Agama and the Ekottarika Agama (26 and 103 instances, respectively). These are purely counts of segments featuring these common terms, so one sutra may have multiple instances counted…

If I’m not missing any search terms (辟支, 獨覺, 緣覺, 支佛, 貝支迦), I would have to tentatively conclude that there is almost nothing about pratyekabuddhas in the SA. To give some idea about the difference between the SA and the EA in this regard:

  • SA pratyekabuddha-to-arhat ratio: 6/228 (2.5%)
  • EA pratyekabuddha-to-arhat ratio: 103/252 (41%)

And just for fun:

  • SA bodhisattva-to-arhat ratio: 1/228 (0.4%)
  • EA bodhisattva-to-arhat ratio: 60/252 (24%)

Within the SA there are 3 sutras with this term, but apparently only one sutra (SA 1233) in which the pratyekabuddha has any meaningful role as a concept, rather than just being an item being enumerated. Looking at the Pali parallel for this sutra (SN 3.20), though, there is no mention of a pratyekabuddha…

Does anyone know if there are similar “pratyekabuddha” discrepancies between the Pali nikayas, such as between the SN and the AN collections?


There is a paper about Pacceka Buddhas from comparative study of Isigili Sutta (MN 116/EA 38.7) by Analayo here:

“Paccekabuddhas in the Isigili-sutta and its Ekottarika-āgama Parallel”, Canadian Journal of Buddhist Studies, 2010, vol. 6 pp. 5–36.

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Thanks for that. This seems to be mostly what I’m seeing as well in the SA and DA, at least:

Gombrich 1979: 80 notes that “when the paccekabuddha is mentioned in Pali literature, it is usually only as the category between the sammāsambuddha and the sāvaka; the figure has hardly any life outside this context”.

They seem to appear more frequently in the EA. For example, for the sutra featured in this article, the Pali version is in the MN, but the Chinese version is in the EA.

SN 3.20 do mention a Pacceka Buddha, but he do not have a meaningful role, except as a receiver of financier gift in a past life:

But yes, references to Pacceka Buddhas in Pali Nikayas is just mentioned without meaningful role. For example in AN it is mentioned as worthy of gift besides a Tathagata and his Savaka Sangha, no mention of how they differ from a Sammasambuddha and his disciples. The more information can only be found in Pali commentaries.

For Chinese Agamas, perhaps @cdpatton, who is also translating Chinese Agamas into English, can give you the better information from the Chinese collections :grin:

At that time, all the Pratyekabuddhas would, admist the sky, burn their bodies to reach parinibbāna.

Ven Analayo has it translated as “in space” instead of “in the air” because it can mean either.

Is this talking about there once being cremations at the top of the mountain or is it talking about something like this:

Then Ven. Dabba Mallaputta, rising from his seat, bowed down to the Blessed One and, circling him on the right, rose up into the air and sat cross-legged in the sky, in space. Entering & emerging from the fire property, he was totally unbound. Now, when Dabba Mallaputta rose up into the air and, sitting cross-legged in the sky, in space, entered & emerged from the fire property and was totally unbound, his body burned and was consumed so that neither ashes nor soot could be discerned. Just as when ghee or oil is burned and consumed, neither ashes nor soot can be discerned, in the same way, when Dabba Mallaputta rose up into the air and, sitting cross-legged in the sky, in space, entered & emerged from the fire property and was totally unbound, his body burned and was consumed so that neither ashes nor soot could be discerned.

(Ud 8.9)

There is another supernatural episode I remember where a monk uses a “wind samādhi” instead of a fire one to destroy his body and spread his relics instead of also burning his śarīradhātus.

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Luckily for us, the Chinese for pratyeka-buddha is fairly universal ( 辟支佛). It’s true that pratyeka-buddhas appear more often in EA, which to be fair has quite a bit of stories and myth in it compared to the other Agamas. There’s a 166 mentions in EA (60 in two particular texts). DA has 2, MA has 16, and SA has 5.

Personally, I think pratyeka-buddhas came along in later literature about the past as a way to assert that attaining Nirvana is a natural process that isn’t exclusive to special teachings (Buddhas and their disciples). They got formalized as part of the three vehicles theory, but they’ve never had any great role. They get a tiny section in the Yogacarabhumi, for instance, compared to bodhisattvas and sravakas. So, yes, EA contains quite a bit of this type of literature, so it makes sense that they get mentioned more there.


There are also references to Pacceka/Pratyeka Buddhas in Jains literatures. In early Jain texts, name of four Pratyeka Buddhas (which also shared in Buddhism) is referred as saha-sambuddha (“self enlightened”), same as Mahavira himself; only in later Jain texts, they are reffered as Pratyeka Buddha by mentioning 3 types of enlightenment beings (svayam-buddha, pratyeka-buddha, buddha-bodhita).

In Buddhism, besides lack of specification of Pacceka Buddhas in early Buddhist texts, the definition of Pacceka Buddha given in the Puggalapannati (Pp 2.9) shows that in the beginning period of Abhidhamma, Pacceka Buddha is still regarded as an “self enlightened” as Samma Sambuddha, but only differ in their omniscience and power (not in their way of being enlightened or bodhi).

In his paper, The Pratyeka-Buddha in Buddhism and Jainism, K.R Norman showed that the concept of Pacceka/Pratyeka Buddha was adopted by Buddhism and Jainism from another Sramana sect in their early stage of development.

So, I think Pacceka/Pratyeka Buddhas is a designation to other ancient ascetics outside the Buddhist (and Jains) teaching, whose their realization of enlightenment is acknowledged as the same as the Buddhist (or Jains) ascetics.


Thanks for pointing out this article. I wonder about the automatic conclusion that variation between the Buddhist and Jain versions of a story means they are branches from an ur-text. The same sort of thing happens among Buddhist canons for concepts that are apparently newer rather than older. Still, though, it’s interesting to see that these ideas like three vehicles and pratyeka-buddhas spanned religious groups. I suppose the myth-making community, not being that interested in doctrinal points, wasn’t particularly sectarian.

Also: The section in that article discussing the possibility that the term was at one time pratyaya-buddha rather than pratyeka-buddha is a good example of how the old Chinese translations give us a window into the Indic texts that bypasses all the changes and natural errors that have come down to us. It’s rarely decisive, but they definitely provide supporting evidence sometimes when they translate the Indic terms into meanings rather than sounds.


AFAIK, Jains didn’t further elaborate the 3 type of enlightenment beings into spesific 3 vehicles, unlike Buddhist. Furthermore, there are 15 types of liberated soul (asamsarin jiva) in later Jain literature, which including 3 types above. I think the 3 vehicles in Buddhism are much later development of the doctrine.

The vehicle framework is sometimes said to come from early Mahayana Buddhism. The Saddharma Pundarika Sutra uses the concept of three vehicles in a parable about three carts, but the sutra itself only promotes the One Vehicle. It strikes me that when considering its stance, the three vehicles were likely established at least somewhat prior.

The Ekottarika Agama uses the term path 道 rather than vehicle 乘 for the most part, but uses vehicle occasionally, which may indicate some Mahayana influence (the extant EA is known to have some of this). For example, in fascicle 45, we see:


Looking into this further, in the entire agama division of the canon 阿含部, which would also include the smaller misc. translations in that category, I’m not seeing any other references to a buddha vehicle 佛乘, pratyeka- or otherwise. Only the EA seems to have those terms, and just a few instances.

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It’s also found in Abhidharma texts. The Ekottarika has a large amount of material that’s clearly late additions compared to the Sarvastivada Agamas. I think whichever school it belonged to, they were quite openminded about adding new material to their canon.

EA is also a little fishy as a translation, too. There are a few mysteries that scholars have noticed. One is that early references to it, even the preface that’s attached to it, say it started out with 41 fascicles and then had more added to it. The uddanas don’t match the sutras in many chapters or they are missing. It adds up to the possibility that it may have material from more than one Indian Ekottarika Agama, or maybe material that doesn’t belong at all, the way SA had avadanas inserted into it. I don’t think anyone has found a way to resolve those problems yet.

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That’s interesting, and I hadn’t considered the abhidharma side of the matter. Some of that was eventually tied up a bit with the early history of Mahayana, at least in the common era, especially in the Northwest.

Out of curiosity, I looked for mention of vehicle 乘 in the Jnanaprasthana (T 1544), the oldest Sarvastivada abhidharma (ca. 100 BCE), and I’m not seeing any three vehicles framework. However, the later Mahavibhasa (T 1545) mentions two vehicles and three vehicles quite commonly. The Mahavibhasa is ca. 150 CE, so probably a bit after when the first Mahayana sutras we know of were popularly circulating (ca. 1st century CE).

For the Samyukta Agama, one of the nice things about the missing material is that we know it was basically just a filing error. Much less messy than materials being truly mixed in from other sources.