Why did Buddha emphasize ideal of 'arhant' and not that of 'Bodhisattva' in early buddhism?

Well, the Bodhisattva ideal has not been alien to Theravadins, too. For example, later Theravada does have concepts of the perfections, pāramī, which are equivalent to the Mahayana one, Pāramitā.

A Treatise on the Paramis: From the Commentary to the Cariyapitaka (accesstoinsight.org)


This discussion has taken a more textual direction than it might, so I’m moving it to the Discussion category.

Tho I’m not sure I’ve grasped the reason why the Buddha emphasised the ideal of arahant over that of bodhisattva. Can looking at any of the suttas more closely give us a sense?


Actually, even though there is a concept of a bodhisatta who purifies paramis over multiple lifetimes in the Theravada canon, this isn’t found in the early strata of Pali texts, where bodhisatta means, “a being seeking awakening”, in such contexts as “in the days before my Awakening, when I was only a Bodhisatta”. e.g. in MN 4, Bhayabherava Sutta. Many of the Theravada meditation monks and nuns (including from Asia) I know don’t truly (in their hearts) accept the Jataka collection as canonical. For example, the post-canonical Anagatavamsa (Chronicle of the Future) warns us that in the future, there will only be vinaya and Jatakas! I.e. just rules and stories and no practice of the 37 bodhipakkhiya dhammas or meditation leading to awakening.

The Buddha was himself an arahant and he taught other people to become like him as arahants. Which would make sense, given that there is only one type of nibbana. I’m not sure that it is even possible to be a bodhisatta (i.e. a seeker of awakening) now we have Buddhism, as presumably, awakening has already been found (why would you seek for something that is found already?), we just need to receive the teaching as savakas/savikas. But there are different understandings in the schools.


That’s a good point that most of the materials referring to a bodhisattva path in Theravada are from a much later period than most of the EBT’s. Sometimes almost a thousand years after the earliest EBT’s, and long after Mahayana sutras had been circulating.

The (relatively late) Theravada 10 parami system is probably derived at least in concept from the Mahayana 10 paramitas (as in the Mahayana Dasabhumika Sutra). Those were in turn expanding upon the earlier and more standard 6 paramitas, and mapping them in sequence to the 10 bodhisattva bhumis as found in the Mahavastu.

Jataka as a genre seems to be quite early, and is included in the nine or twelves angas of texts recognized by all monastic sects. Theravada expanded their Jataka collection to include some 550 jatakas. But the most canonical number of jatakas recognized by other Buddhist sects was only 34. So for most Buddhist traditions, the Jatakas were a relatively small collection of well-known early myths about the Buddha’s past lives. The Mahasamghikas of Andhra criticized the Theravadins for adding to the Jatakas.

For the difference between buddhas and arhats, I find looking at the parallel structures in Buddhism and Jainism to be helpful. In Jainism, a tirthankara establishes the Dharma and a fourfold community of male and female ascetics, and male and female laypeople. In Buddhism, a buddha establishes the Dharma and a fourfold community of male and female mendicants, and male and female laypeople.

In the structure of the Buddhist community, there is no dedicated “place” for bodhisattvas, but interestingly a bodhisattva could be male or female, monastic or laity, or even a member of another religion, as when the Brahmin ascetic Sumedha received his prediction of enlightenment from Dipamkara Buddha. More of an informal role. Likewise, the “vows” for bodhisattvas are more like positive aspirations.


Ayya, could you clarify what you mean here slightly, both by “does not appear” and “early strata”?

By “does not appear” do you mean only that it does not appear explicitly by the terms used later, or that, in your understanding, there is not even something which roughly corresponds with it?

By “early strata” do you mean something like, “it only appears in explicitly later texts, like the Questions of King Milinda”, or, “It appears mixed in earlier texts, in ways that sophisticated textual analysis lead us to believe were later insertions”

Thank you :pray:


I meant only what has already been stated by the esteemed G.P. Malalasekera in the Dictionary of Pali Proper Names.


The name given to a being who aspires to Bodhi or Awakening. Originally only in connection with the last life of a Buddha, especially after having left home, in such contexts as “in the days before my Awakening, when I was only a Bodhisatta”. MN.i.17 MN.i.114 MN.i.163 DN.ii.13 MN.iii.119

Does not appear means, there is no concept of a bodhisatta who purifies paramis over multiple lifetimes (in a fairly straightforward, unsophisticated way, it’s just not there at all in the EBTs…paramis are not a suttanta concept).


Thank you Ayya.

This led me to do a bit of reflection and research and I see, in addition to what you have pointed out (that none of the past lives of the buddha are called “Bodhisattva” nor said to have been spent purifying paramis in the suttas) that I was inwardly conflating a few of the past life stories recounted in the suttas. Specifically, I think I had been confusing the Buddha’s past life as Jotipala (which appears in the four main Nikayas) with his past life as Sumedha (which appears only in the KN Buddhavamsa, which currently doesn’t have an English translation on Suttacentral). So I now think even the idea of a prediction of future Buddha-hood, stripped of the title “bodhisattva” and the idea of purifying paramis over eons, is not present in the four main nikayas but “most canonically” only in the KN.

I hope that makes it clearer why I said what I said earlier in the thread.

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I didn’t come out and say it, but my opinion is that, historically speaking, the concept of bodhisattva practice didn’t exist yet. Therefore, it wasn’t possible to advocate a practice that hadn’t occurred to anyone.

I also think early avadāna literature like the Jatakas initially were meant to serve as morality tales, searching for a universal and ideal ethic. If that ethic were universal and perfect, then it would have be something related to the Buddha. The genre evolved towards telling stories about the Buddha-becoming-a-Buddha-before-he-was-a-Buddha. The story-as-argument became it’s own genre of scripture, which we see in the Dīgha Nikaya (for example, DN 23), but it’s also to be found in the Lotus Sutra and Mahayana Nirvana Sutra.

In addition to that trend towards storytelling, Buddhists liked to create histories that demonstrate dependent origination at work. I think this is the original motivation behind the lineage of Buddhas. Those lineage stories grew to a list of a 1,000 buddhas in the Bhadrakalpika sutra, which is another text that bridges the gap between early Buddhism and later Mahayana Buddhism. The Abhiniṣkramaṇa and Mahāvastu have similar mind-blowing descriptions of buddha lineages going back into unfathomable ages past.

So, early on, I don’t think these literary developments were intended to go where they did when later generations formulated the idea that a person today could be a bodhisattva. But once that idea occurred to someone, it was obviously very convincing as an expression of the idealism that had already developed.

It seems that this turned into a movement of people in the Greco-Indian world who wanted to exemplify a perfect almost otherworldly morality around the turn of the millennium (0 AD). We see it in Christianity and other religions besides Buddhism. In the bigger scheme of things, it seems to be an expression of humanity attempting to evolve beyond barbarism and egoism. It was a kind of revolution of spirituality in which traditional religions were challenged with rewritten myths and scriptures that tried to demolition their basic assumptions and myths that were considered limiting.

Of course, all of this is just my basic impression from reading these different genres of Buddhist texts and my sense of which came first. It’s alot of educated guessing.