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Ask a Dharma Librarian: What is the difference between an arhat and a Buddha?


While I am not formally a librarian of any sort, over the last few years I've compiled a fairly substantial cache of information (general interest and academic literature both) about every aspect of the many various Buddhist traditions, and a decent amount of information about related topics such as other South and East Asian philosophical and religious traditions and histories. 

I'd like to take whatever questions you, the reader, may have about these topics. They can be broad questions (How does karma work? or According to tradition, what is it like being a Buddha?) or more specific ones (Who is Shinran?).

What I can offer is an attempt to connect you with useful resources to explore your question (and in some cases I may actually be able to provide those resources). I may also attempt to summarize answers I find therein - we'll see.

If you're interested, please send questions to dharmalibrarian [at] gmail [dot] com. I'll see what I'm able to respond to based on the volume. Look for my response in two weeks.

Last week's question, from Jon: 

What is the difference between an arhat and a Buddha?

Great question! The short answer is, it depends on who you ask.

"Buddhology" is often used as a synonym for Buddhist Studies, and that is an accepted usage. But it has a second meaning, which is: the study of what Buddhahood is. What does being a Buddha entail?

With the second sense in mind, let's get Buddhological up in here.

I've found over the years that this topic doesn't really come up all that much at dharma talks. I have my theories about why that is, but I'll spare you them. However, I will say that one of the many things I found refreshing about Daniel Ingram's Mastering the Core Teachings of the Buddha is his rare willingness to grapple with this matter. And I think his discussion is thoughtful and thorough. 

Turning directly to your question, in the early Buddhist tradition and down to the modern Theravada, it seems to be left somewhat unclear exactly how the realization of an arhat differs from that of a Buddha. In terms of process, the significant difference is that a Buddha accomplishes full enlightenment in a world system without the teachings of a previous Buddha. In terms of outcome, the picture is less clear. As I understand it, the Buddha does tend to be exalted in the Theravada tradition for having accomplished something of a higher order than the average arhat, but I haven't been able to find anything that speaks to this directly, unfortunately. When it comes to nirvana-without-remainder (after an enlightened being's death) in the Theravada tradition, I don't think there is any difference between an arhat and a Buddha.

In the mahayana, however, a Buddha is said to abide in apratisthita nirvana, "nonabiding" or "unrestricted" or "not-fixed" nirvana, which is said to be a much more profound level of realization than that of an arhat. Paul Williams, in his book Mahayana Buddhism: The Doctrinal Foundations (2nd ed), which I recommended last time, has a discussion of how this idea developed and what it entails (on pgs 55-62) which you should find helpful.

Another great resource is Rong-zorn-pa's Discourses on Buddhology: A Study of Various Conceptions of Buddhahood in Indian Sources with Special Reference to the Controversy Surrounding the Existence of Gnosis (jnana: ye shes) as Presented by the Eleventh-Century Tibetan Scholar Rong-zorn Chos-kyi-bzang-po, by Orna Almogi. This is one of those monographs from the International Institute for Buddhist Studies, and as such it is scholarly and kind of dry and abstruse, but the preface has a great summary of the previously available studies on the issue, and chapter 2, "Buddhology in Its Historical and Philosophical Context: An Overview," is very helpful. 

The publisher does the world's worst job marketing the books in that series, I guess because they have no interest in the general readership, but you can buy them directly from the publisher here.

But the book that might be of greatest interest is On Being Buddha by Paul J. Griffiths. Griffths does a systematic analysis of the doctrine of Buddhahood which is really interesting and the only one of its kind I've ever seen. And you can buy the paperback on Amazon for a song! Highly recommended.

I hope this was helpful!

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FYI, I updated the post to reflect Brad's point.

thank you!

Thanks so much for answering this. I'll get that book, "on being Buddha."


Thank you for the article, and the book recommendation of ON BEING BUDDHA by Paul J. Griffiths; it's now on my Amazon wishlist. I've appreciated Daniel Ingrams explanation of arhatship within the context of enlightenment models. It's saved me a lot of headache otherwise figuring out what people from different traditions mean when talking about the end goal. 

"I have my theories about why that is, but I'll spare you them."

Maybe fit for another article?



Thanks, that's true, that's one distinction I missed - in the Theravada (as in the mahayana) there are differences in the process for arhats & buddhas. Still not sure about the differences in outcome - I don't think it is significant, particularly with regard to nirvana-without-remainder (ie after death).

RE: Theravada Arahant vs Buddha

I believe I've heard that, according to the Theravada school, a Buddha is someone who achieves complete enlightenment on his (and I believe tradition holds, unfortunately, that it could not have been a "her") own without the assistance of a teacher to show him the way. An arahant, on the other hand, gets enlightened due to the teachings of a Buddha.

But I'm sure the picture is even more complicated than that, with other qualifications.


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