Tírthika Arahants?

Thought experiment: do you think there were (or may have been) Pudgalaváda arahants? Do you think Pudgalaváda Buddhism preserved the Dhamma well enough to produce attainment in practitioners despite their tírthika (“heretic”) doctrine of the Pudgala? What about schools less-universally considered tírthika, like the Sarvástiváda?

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I would expect there to be arahants in many non-Buddhist schools. The term arahant was already used before the Buddha and I can’t see that he considered himself different from them when he first got enlightened and declared that he was an arahant to the chap he met along the road towards Sarnath. I would expect there to have been many and perhaps now even some arahants among the Hindus, perhaps even among the Sufis too (interestingly they might have the Buddha to thank for that as it seems quite possible that Sufism derives in part from Buddhism).

I think the importance of ‘correct’ intellectual doctrine is overemphasised. Not to say that it is unimportant. But that enlightenment is much more about direct experience than holding specific views in ones cognitive mind as received from texts or teachers.

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There were many other words like Kamma and rebirth was in usage in his time. However, Buddha gave a different interpretation or meaning to those words.

Are you implying that the Buddha redefined the term ‘arahant’? If so, can you give any details and evidence?

In Jainism the term was used in much the way that Buddhists use bhagavā. It was a very exalted term that was applied to Mahāvīra and other ford-makers, but not to any old Jain saint (for which the term was kevalin).

On the other hand, its use by Pasenadi in the Sattajaṭilasutta (Ud6.2; Sn3.11) might be taken as suggesting that it was a term in general use for denoting saints or holy men, but without any particular sectarian definition attached to it.


I read Ud6.2 and it seems like Pasenadi was assuming that they were arahants without knowing if they were or not, and thus was corrected. Presumably exactly the same can happen in Buddhism, such as modern-day Theravadins assuming that their teachers are arahants but sometimes mistakenly; or especially in Tibetan Buddhism the same happening (though they use the term Buddha instead). I see nothing in that sutta which implies any difference in the definition, however.

I scanned over SN3.11 and could not see anything to suggest it there either, though I welcome you to quote here any section from there if you believe it does.

My understanding of the use of the term in Jainism was that it means one who has ‘destroyed their foes’, which I believe is the same meaning in Early Buddhism. I also assumed that this commonality of meaning was why the Buddha supposedly used this term even to a stranger to refer to himself, before he had done any explaining to potentially redefine the word to his audience (though I am unaware of any such redefining throughout his life also).

To quote from the wikipedia entry for ‘Arihant (Jainism)’:

Arihant are also called kevalins (omniscient beings) as they possess Kevala Jnana (pure infinite knowledge).[2][3] An arihant is also called a Jina “conqueror”. At the end of their life, arihants destroy all four gathiya karmas and attain moksha (liberation) and become siddha (liberated soul).


According to Jains, every soul has the potential to become arihant. A soul which destroys all kashayas or inner enemies like anger, ego, deception, and greed - responsible for the perpetuation of ignorance - becomes an Arihant.


Those Arihants who re-establish Jain faith are called Tirthankaras. Tirthankaras revitalize the sangha, the fourfold order consisting of male saints (sādhus), female saints (sādhvis), male householders (śrāvaka) and female householders (Śrāvika).

The first Tirthankara of the current time cycle was R̥ṣabhadēva, and the twenty-fourth and last Tirthankara was Mahavira

Did you not read the sutta to the end? The King knew very well that they were not ascetics of any sort. They were his own spies.

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I believe one could start with tirthika views and then once full-awakening is attained, those views would vanish in favor of dukkha, annica, anatta.

(edit: found out that the pudgalavadins do accept anatta, that they have their own interpretation, so need to read more about them to provide better answer)

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Oh right, sorry I missed that paragraph. Well in that case doesn’t this tell us even less about the term? If he knew they were his imposters, then his bowing down to them as true ascetics would have been entirely false! So if he was willing to do that falsely in front of the Buddha, presumably also the terms he used to describe them were also used falsely, no? If we are to believe the story, then he seems to have just been keeping up the pretence, perhaps to not blow their cover.

Alternatively the paragraph towards the end about them being imposters could have been a later addition - it does seem a little odd in context.

Either way I do not see this as giving any evidence that the term arahant had any difference in meaning. If you do, then I will happily listen to an explanation.

I personally do not think that all enlightened people automatically end up cognitively expressing the same view as Early Buddhism. I know many religions may think that their doctrine is the only correct one, but I find that idea absurd. And I think the Buddha’s teachings on not clinging to views adds some backing to that.

Madhyamaka views are very refined views, and very useful as tool for awakening. But the Buddha didn’t come up with them. They took hundreds of years to develop after he died. Tibetan’s may find the Buddha’s presentation of his views quite inferior in comparison. And yet we know the Buddha and many of his disciples were enlightened.

I think that while having good views certainly helps a practice-oriented system, there may be many such good options, even including some Hindu views of the self (Ramana Maharishi seemed to do quite well for example!)

Perhaps views are more to do with what is useful for the audience at that moment, and also shaped by the conditioning and teaching abilities of the teacher, even if he is an arahant. I am quite sure that arahants are not free from limitations in that regard - they emerge from their cultural fabric, and also differ in their abilities in social skills, linguistic ability, charisma and so on.

I didn’t cite the sutta to show that the term arahant had a different meaning. I cited it to show that it may have been…


I doubt if even the “despite” is necessary. People are not a template stamped out by the doctrine of their schools. Hardly a single “Theravadin” that I know would agree with all the “Theravadin” views defended in the Kathavatthu, and in fact very few even know that such a text exists, much less what it actually says.

Puggalavada is, according to the adherents of the school, not a contradiction with not-self: it is the correct explanation of not-self. Taking just the word or the idea and understanding it from the perspective of the opponents is not a very useful or kind way of understanding a religious philosophy.

Let us start by assuming that they were neither fools nor heretics, but Buddhist pracitioners who were grappling to understand and explain some of the difficult aspects of the Buddha’s teaching. Given that they were, by all accounts, the largest of the early schools in ancient India, their views should be taken seriously.

While their special doctrine of the puggala defines the school, of course it was only part of their overall teaching. If we look at the other positions that they hold, we can see that they are recognizable among the spectrum of views found in ancient India. With the Theravadins, for example, they recognized only one unconditioned element. Against them, but with most other schools (and the suttas) they accepted an in-between state.

There’s a nice summary of their views in The Literature of the Pudgalavādins by Thich Thien Chau, which you can download from The Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies. The same author also wrote a book translating the 4 extant Pudgalavada texts, if you’re interested.

Now, as is well known, the teaching on not-self is, in its historical context, a direct refutation of the Brahmanical theory of the atman. Sure, its application is broader than that, but that is the central orientation at that time.

So what then is the atman theory? Well, at its heart it is an idea about continuity. About what makes us us, despite all the changes that happen; and what keeps being us when we die. It’s about having a sense of unity and integrity. That underlying unity, it is posited, is supplied by the existence of a metaphysical entity known as the atman.

Now, the Buddha comes along and says there’s no such thing. Fine. But where does that leave the initial problem? Well, I would say that the sense of unity that we feel, and which is a genuine aspect of human experience, does not arise from an underlying metaphysical entity, but from relations, from networks and systems. The unity is a higher-order phenomenon, emerging as a generalization or convention that helps us in a pragmatic way to deal with the complexities of life.

But the Puggalavadins had another solution to this. Pointing to a couple of suttas on the topic, they argued that we can distinguish between the metaphysical atman postulated by the Brahmins and something they called the puggala. Fully agreeing that the puggala was not-self, they nevertheless maintained that it was real and served as the principle of unity and continuity (santāna)

What exactly the puggala was, and why the distinction between it and the atman is meaningful, not merely verbal, are difficult problems, which I don’t have an answer for. For the record, I don’t agree with their explanation.

But more important than getting the notion technically correct is to understand their motives: what were they getting at? What’s the point, apart from the admittedly delicious thrill of annoying the Abhidhammikas?

What I suspect is the point is that they were dismayed by the increasingly reductive approach employed by the Abhidhammikas. They saw humanity as being reduced to a bunch of meaningless atoms. They wanted to press for an approach that is more, as we would say today, “humanist”. To refocus attention from the endless splitting and recombining of elements to the apprehension of the whole person as a conscious agent engaged in a spiritual struggle.


Oh, and by the way, the title is misleading: the Puggalavadins were a school of Buddhism, not a non-Buddhist sect, which is what Tirthika means.


[quote=“sujato, post:14, topic:5531, full:true”]
Oh, and by the way, the title is misleading: the Puggalavadins were a school of Buddhism, not a non-Buddhist sect, which is what Tirthika means.
[/quote]My apologies, I did not mean to use the word wrongly, I am beholden to Thick Thien Chau’s [claim (page 7)](file:///Users/keevinandrew/Downloads/8616-8424-1-PB.pdf) that the Pudgalavāda were considered “tīrthika” by non-Pudgalavāda schools, so if I caught, much like a cold, a bad case of wrong definition I must blame this individual.

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[quote=“sujato, post:13, topic:5531”]
Puggalavada is, according to the adherents of the school, not a contradiction with not-self: it is the correct explanation of not-self.
[/quote]As is the same with tathāgatagarbha in Mahāyāna. My labelling of them as “heretics” was based on the notion that it was well-established that the Pudgalavāda was considered a heretical divergence in Buddhism, from a historical viewpoint, not because I was trying to take a dig at a them, per se, my apologies if my casual throwing around of the word tīrthika, which to me is a harmless exotic dictionary curiosity, made my post sound too harsh and judgemental.

Oh, well, they were probably criticized as such, but this is odium theologicum. By any objective standard, they were Buddhists.

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[quote=“sujato, post:17, topic:5531”]
By any objective standard, they were Buddhists.
[/quote]Oh, I agree, I was trying to moreso stress that my bad definition originated therein. That is the translation choice that the author of that paper gives, which, it seems, is misleading (I learned the term from the paper).

Out of curiosity, if you have time, what would be the proper term that one would use? If “tīrthika” means “non-Buddhist” rather than “heretic”, what would one call a splitter of the saṅgha? or a holder of “particularly wrong” wrong views?

I am sure that such terms had to exist at one point in Buddhist history, although whether or not the EBTs would have words for “other sect” is an altogether seperate question (likely with a difference answer, one assumes).

They might be just called a pāpabhikkhu “bad monk”, for example, but I can’t recall a specific technical term. See AN 4.243.

A splitter of the Sangha, in Vinaya terms, cannot be a tirthika, because they must be a proper monastic. This is, incidentally, a major feature of some of the narratives dealing with schism, and one that is frequently misunderstood. In the time of Ashoka, a number of non-Buddhists fraudulently entered the Sangha, but were not proper monks. So they can’t cause a schism. This is explicitly stated somewhere, but I can’t find the reference right now.

Technically, a titthika/titthiya (the latter is the usual Pali form) is the founder of a religious sect, and their followers are titthiyasāvakas. This distinction may have faded in later times, though.


The word that Theravādins normally used (at least when they were being polite) for Buddhists of other schools was paravādin, a fairly neutral-sounding term, meaning something like “one of another doctrine (or interpretation or persuasion)”. This is contrasted in the Kathāvatthu-atthakathā with sakavādin, “one of our own doctrine/interpretation/persuasion”.

When they weren’t being polite (and particularly when speaking of those Buddhists who cite Mahāyāna sūtras as buddhavacana) they’d use the disparaging vitaṇḍavādin or vetaṇḍin, meaning something like “sophist” or “captious disputer”.

By the way, you might be interested to read a lengthy discussion on the Pudgalavāda that took place on the Buddha-L listserv at the end of 2006, featuring Lance Cousins, Richard Hayes, Stephen Hodge and Dan Lusthaus. Particularly interesting (for me at least) was the exchange regarding Mark Siderits’s article, Wholes, Parts and Supervenience: might persons and other wholes have an ontological status more exalted than that of mere conceptual fiction?, published as chapter 4 of his Personal Identity and Buddhist Philosophy (Ashgate 2003).

You’ll find it in the Buddha_L archives in the files containing posts for November and December 2006. The relevant threads are entitled “Pudgalavada” and “Are we sick of dogma yet?”


From one of Richard Hayes’s posts:

Siderits suggests that just as reductionism is a middle path between eliminativism and realism, one can find another middle position between reductionism and realism. This middle position he calls non-reductive mereological supervenience (NMS). This view of the self is non-reductive in that it regards self as a subject that bears predicates that cannot be borne by any of the aggregates. It is mereological in that the self is seen as a whole that has parts, namely, the 5 aggregates (or, more accurately, all the dharmas that can be classified into aggregates on th basis of shared features). But the self has a supervenient relationship with the dharmas. (The basic idea of supervenient relationship between A and B is that it holds just in case every change in A is an effect of some change in B. So the concept of self is supervenient upon dharmas because no change in the concept of self occurs without some change in the underlying dharmas.) The self on this account is an idea (prajnapti) but not an idea to which there does not correspond a single uneliminable and irreducible reality. Because it is a supervenient reality, it is not regarded as simple, unconditioned and eternal; it differs, therefore, from the aatman of Brahmanical thought. Siderits argues that at least one version of pudgalavaada can best be described as a example of non-reductionist mereological supervenience theory.

I think that we are now living in a time when it is seen by many people as just wrong-headed to say that self or ego is nothing but a poetic way of talking about more complex realities. Self is just too important a construct in depth psychology and in moral theory to wave it aside. It is not simply because of some beginningless delusional habit that we think and talk of selves. So our tendency is to be non-reductive about self. But we also tend not to see the self as eternal, unconditioned and unchanging. Indeed, most of it see self as what analytical philosophers call supervenient. By seeing the self as a supervenient reality we can speak seriously, and without embarrassment or shame, about such things as self-cultivation, self-improvement, self-awareness and self-understanding, and we can do so without buying into what most of us would see as a metaphysical absurdity, namely, an eternal soul or something of the like.