Relative ranking of the four types of persons

In AN 4.95 we see:

The person who practices to benefit neither themselves nor others is like this, I say.
tathūpamāhaṁ, bhikkhave, imaṁ puggalaṁ vadāmi yvāyaṁ puggalo nevattahitāya paṭipanno no parahitāya.
The person who practices to benefit others, but not themselves, is better than that.
Tatra, bhikkhave, yvāyaṁ puggalo parahitāya paṭipanno no attahitāya, ayaṁ imesaṁ dvinnaṁ puggalānaṁ abhikkantataro ca paṇītataro ca.
The person who practices to benefit themselves, but not others, is better than both of those.
Tatra, bhikkhave, yvāyaṁ puggalo attahitāya paṭipanno no parahitāya, ayaṁ imesaṁ tiṇṇaṁ puggalānaṁ abhikkantataro ca paṇītataro ca.
But the person who practices to benefit both themselves and others is the foremost, best, chief, highest, and finest of the four.
Tatra, bhikkhave, yvāyaṁ puggalo attahitāya ceva paṭipanno parahitāya ca, ayaṁ imesaṁ catunnaṁ puggalānaṁ aggo ca seṭṭho ca pāmokkho ca uttamo ca pavaro ca.

AN 4.95

It seems that those who practice to benefit just themselves are unambiguously declared as superior to those who practice to benefit just others here. I confess this is problematic to my limited mind :joy:

My question is how to understand this and also - for those who can translate - does the parallel give the same unambiguous declaration of superiority?




EA 2.9

@cdpatton maybe you can have a look? Thank you!


Maybe, ultimately the arguments in favor are along the lines of MN 8

If you’re sinking in the mud yourself, Cunda, it is quite impossible for you to pull out someone else who is sinking in the mud.



Or like a parent who is instructed to put on their own oxygen mask first before securing their child’s mask in the case of a drop in cabin pressure. :joy: That’s a good possibility, thanks @trusolo! :pray:


This is one of those areas of Buddhism where it seems to me that either there are layers of texts separated in time or there are flat contradictions in the suttas that make the system incoherent, how, for example, can the above be reconciled with;

Experts say that, too, is a knot,
Taṁ vāpi ganthaṁ kusalā vadanti,
relying on which people see others as lesser.
Yaṁ nissito passati hīnamaññaṁ;
That’s why a mendicant ought not rely
Tasmā hi diṭṭhaṁ va sutaṁ mutaṁ vā,
on what’s seen, heard, or thought, or on precepts and vows.
Sīlabbataṁ bhikkhu na nissayeyya.

Nor would they form a view about the world
Diṭṭhimpi lokasmiṁ na kappayeyya,
through a notion or through precepts and vows.
Ñāṇena vā sīlavatena vāpi;
They would never represent themselves as “equal”,
Samoti attānamanūpaneyya,
nor conceive themselves “worse” or “better”.
Hīno na maññetha visesi vāpi.

I find one to be revelatory and inspiring, while the other seems shrill and doctrinaire, and I just don’t see how the one is harmonized with the other without imagining a transition from independent sages living in the wilderness to classrooms full of naughty young monks needing simple rules of conduct and hierarchy to organize them.

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More details in: AN 4.96, AN 4.97, AN 4.99, AN 5.18.
Related: Dhp 166. (With commentarial story: The Dhammapada: Verses and Stories)

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And how does a person practice to benefit others, but not themselves?
Kathañca, bhikkhave, puggalo parahitāya paṭipanno hoti, no attahitāya?
It’s when a person kills living creatures, steals, commits sexual misconduct, lies, and uses alcoholic drinks that cause negligence. But they encourage others to not do these things.
AN 4.99

Well, when you put it like that! :joy:

Not exactly what some might have in mind by, “a person practicing to benefit others” :joy: :pray:

Also adjacent/worth mentioning: MN 24, MN 29, MN 30. (Nibbana as the heartwood; development of sila for the sake of Nibbana.)

Thank you for these additional sutta references, but I’m not sure why you think they are adjacent to this thread? :pray:

Nibbana as the goal of the holy life, purity in terms of virtue for the sake of the realization of Nibbana, wisdom as foremost, in these senses practicing for the benefit of oneself is “better” (than not – and only practicing for the benefit of others).

The zenith is practicing for the benefit of all sentient beings (which includes oneself) with equanimity and not favoring any individual over another.

But the person who practices to benefit both themselves and others is the foremost, best, chief, highest, and finest of the four.
AN 4.95

I’m not sure it is even possible to realize liberation with a selfish motivation only to benefit oneself; being bound up with a selfish motivation seems incongruent with liberation.


Yes, agreed, #4 is indeed the best. :pray:
I was pointing towards #2 vs. #3.

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Another one, on topic: AN 7.68

Two people reflect on the meaning of the teachings they have remembered: one understands the meaning and the teaching and practices accordingly, one understands the meaning and the teaching but does not practice accordingly. The person who understands the meaning and the teaching but does not practice accordingly is reprehensible in that respect. The person who understands the meaning and the teaching and practices accordingly is praiseworthy in that respect.

Two people understand the meaning and the teaching and practice accordingly: one practices to benefit themselves but not others, and one practices to benefit both themselves and others. The person who practices to benefit themselves but not others is reprehensible in that respect. The person who practices to benefit both themselves and others is praiseworthy in that respect.

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The point in the explanation, as I read it, is that they are encouraging others in the Dhamma but not upholding it themselves. Practicing for oneself and not others, then, would be upholding principles of Dhamma but not encouraging others to do so. In this case, it uses the formula for wholesome/unwholesome conduct. But it seems as though the message can be taken as more broadly referring to any Dhamma practice.

Notice the dichotomy then:
“Practicing to benefit oneself” = applying the principles of Dhamma, such as precepts; we could add meditation and generosity to that list.
“Practicing to benefit others” = teaching and encouraging others in these principles.

If someone practices generosity, upholds precepts, and develops meditation, at least one being is purified directly, and their outward conduct by body and speech will become more pure. This should generally have a good impression on others; it may inspire and encourage others indirectly. “Worst case scenario” and at least somebody grows in Dhamma.

Another person doesn’t do these things, but they encourage others to try them. Maybe people will listen, maybe they will not. They may see the person as a hypocrite and thus reject the values being encouraged on account of the person involved. If people do listen, they will not have a qualified and experienced practitioner as their guide; just words without the experience to back it up and inform it with more heart. “Worst case scenario” many people get discouraged in the Dhamma because of hypocrisy and lack of real world examples, and not even the person encouraging is liberated.

If someone does both, it means they still practice for ‘personal’ liberation in the sense of applying Dhamma to their life. And they practice to benefit others by teaching those principles.

Adding on that the idea of a ‘being’ or ‘person’ attaining liberation can be reified into a sense of self, and if someone were to attain liberation, presumably it would be a matter of simply seeing the nature of things, not because a “person” want to be “out” of “somewhere” to “get” liberation, scare quotes in the sense of a solid entity escaping to some place .

Personally, I think I would be much much more inspired to practice if I encountered an arahant who didn’t teach but lived a solitary, pure life, than if I were to meet somebody who didn’t practice well but taught tons of people. But that’s just my own impression.


Thank you @Vaddha. Thank you for the perspective and I agree. I think it practically very hard to benefit others without practicing the teachings; which will naturally benefit oneself.

The other suttas @Nicholas shared make clear that I had a different understanding of what it might mean to practice to benefit others, but not oneself. My conception was this referred to a person who practiced the teachings, but while gentle with others was unskillfully harsh with oneself. This is not the picture of the person these additional suttas relate.

There is a teaching in Mahayana traditions that in order to develop gentleness with others one should develop gentleness with oneself. I thought the second person was someone who neglected this advice.


@yeshe.tenley You may be interested in this sutta as well, which came to mind: SN 47.19:

Thinking ‘I’ll look after myself,’ you should cultivate mindfulness meditation. Thinking ‘I’ll look after others,’ you should cultivate mindfulness meditation. Looking after yourself, you look after others; and looking after others, you look after yourself.

And how do you look after others by looking after yourself? By development, cultivation, and practice of meditation. And how do you look after yourself by looking after others? By acceptance, harmlessness, love, and sympathy.

Andrew Olendzki writes this about it:

The story is telling us that ultimately we are responsible for our own balance, and would be foolish to direct our attention to others while neglecting our own inner focus. And yet others are directly affected by how well we do this. Insight meditation is not a selfish undertaking, because the quality of our interaction with all those around us depends on the degree of our own self-understanding and self-control.

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This sounds indeed problematic, especially to one (like me) who has grown up in a Christian society and has been told all their life that thinking of one’s own benefit is problematic, or even a big sin! I have thought about this quite a bit.

But if you look into the examples of the four persons described in the other suttas of that same chapter in the AN fours, you will see that the benefit usually consists in
a) for oneself: learning the Dhamma
b) for others: teaching the Dhamma

a) for oneself: keeping precepts
b) for others: encouraging to keep precepts


So how do you want to properly teach the Dhamma in a way that it is a true benefit to others if you haven’t first understood it yourself? Or how do you want to encourage others to keep precepts if you yourself break them all the time? The doctor who advises their patient to stop smoking, but who is a big smoker themselves comes to mind … they won’t be very successful.

The best option in any case is benefiting both others and yourself. If you make sure your actions follow this line you won’t go wrong.

I haven’t read all the other replies, so I am sorry if this is a repetition.


One possible way to look at it: Nobody can really change the world on a grand scale. Our limitations and non-kammic actions are dictated by the way things are. Therefore, we are more responsible for our kammic actions which represent things that are really in our hands to change.

A good kammic act will be positive for you (and possibly others) in every case, while just an altruistic, non-kammic deed can quickly be lost and at worst have contrary effects.

In philosophy, there is the idea of “heterogony”: That most changes come about by unintended consequences, and that it is not possible to intentionally change things on a grand scale, because this almost always backfires.

Maybe the Buddha thought along similar lines.

Precepts is a bit low bar, but indeed, this would be included, for the person not practising right thoughts/ attitude towards oneself.

I think you had this in mind when you first started on this theme in from other topics. You wanted to compare if it’s better to lie in order to get a child out of a burning house (and there’s no other way to get the child out), vs to keep the precepts no matter what and don’t lie.

I have the impression that you think it’s a selfish motivation to keep the precepts in that situation. And you think those who lie to benefit the child is better. Whereas exactly these sutta says the opposite.

Of course, realistically I do not condone killing children that way, one should just carry the child and force him out of the house due to compassion. But this breaks the analogy.

This is one of the most famous ethical problems of Western philosophy. Immanuel Kant, too, was of the oppinion that a lie would not even be justified in the above case.

He is not completely delusional. His arguments make sense, but it takes some work and reading to understand them. And I think that the Dhamma would argue along very similar lines. Of course this is an extreme case.

Generally, the ultimate way to never having a child burnt in a fire again is the cessation of dependent originationand/or Samsara. Is this the ultimate goal of Dhamma? The responsibility of such things being able to happen in the first place is with dependent origination, personified as Yama, the demon of impermanence.

It would be the utmost goal to have Yama hear the Dhamma. With the loss of his ignorance, Samsara would cease. Apparently the Buddha didn’t think this was possible. But exactly this, Yama reading the Dhamma, seems to be the freemason’s goal “translated” into Buddhist terms.

Buddha’s statement regarding the four types of people can be better understood as follows:

Type 1: A person who neither takes the words of Buddha seriously nor encourages others to follow them. (A complete unbeliever)

Type 2: A person who does not take the words of Buddha seriously but teaches Dhamma or engages in related activities for livelihood. (Example: working in a monastery or translating texts without faith, or simply preaching for the sake of livelihood)

Type 3: A person who takes the words of Buddha seriously but does not make an effort to help others understand them. (Example: some solitary hermits)

Type 4: A person who takes the words of Buddha seriously and actively works to help others understand them. (Example: Our wise Bhantes)

“takes the words of Buddha seriously” can be replaced with Charity etc. all good practices.

now compare Type 2 and Type 3 .

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