Arhat or Arahant

Venerated Enlightened Beings

Lohan (arhat) by Japanese painter Shiba Kōkan, 1747-1818. Public Domain

In early Buddhism, an arhat (Sanskrit) or arahant (Pali) -- "worthy one" or "perfected one" -- was the highest ideal of a disciple of the Buddha. He or she was a person who had completed the path to enlightenment and achieved nirvana. In Chinese, the word for arhat is lohan or luohan.

Arhats are described in the Dhammapada:

"There is no more worldly existence for the wise one who, like the earth, resents nothing, who is firm as a high pillar and as pure as a deep pool free from mud. Calm is his thought, calm his speech, and calm his deed, who, truly knowing, is wholly freed, perfectly tranquil and wise." [Verses 95 and 96; Acharya Buddharakkhita translation.]

In early scriptures the Buddha is sometimes also called an arhat. Both an arhat and a buddha were considered to be perfectly enlightened and purified of all defilements. One difference between an arhat and a buddha was that a buddha realized enlightenment on his own, while an arhat was guided to enlightenment by a teacher.

In the Sutta-pitaka, both the Buddha and arhats are described as being perfectly enlightened and free from fetters, and both achieve nirvana. But only the Buddha is the master of all masters, the world teacher, the one who opened the door for all others.

As time went on, some early schools of Buddhism proposed that an arhat (but not a buddha) might retain some imperfections and impurities. Disagreement over the qualities of an arhat may have been the cause of early sectarian divisions.

The Arahant in Theravada Buddhism

Today's Theravada Buddhism still defines the Pali word arahant as a perfectly enlightened and purified being.

What, then, is the difference between an arahant and a buddha?

Theravada teaches there is one Buddha in each age or aeon, and this is the person who discovers the dharma and teaches it to the world. Other beings of that age or aeon who realize enlightenment are arahants. The Buddha of the current age is, of course, Gautama Buddha, or the historical Buddha.

The Arhat in Mahayana Buddhism

Mahayana Buddhists may use the word arhat to refer to any enlightened being, or they may consider an arhat to be someone who is very far along the Path but who has not yet realized buddhahood. Mahayana Buddhist sometimes use the word shravaka -- "one who hears and proclaims" -- as a synonym for arhat. Both words describe a very advanced practitioner worthy of respect.

Legends about sixteen, eighteen, or some other number of particular arhats can be found in Chinese and Tibetan Buddhism. It is said these were chosen by the Buddha from among his disciples to remain in the world and protect the dharma until the coming of Maitreya Buddha. These arhats are venerated in much the same way Christian saints are venerated.

Arhats and Bodhisattvas

Although the arhat or arahant remains the ideal of practice in Theravada, in Mahayana Buddhism the ideal of practice is the bodhisattva -- the enlightened being who vows to bring all other beings to enlightenment.

Read More: What Is a Bodhisattva?

Although bodhisattvas are associated with Mahayana, the term originated in early Buddhism and can be found in Theravada scripture as well. For example, we read in the Jataka Tales that before realizing buddhahood, the one who would become the Buddha lived many lives as a bodhisattva, giving of himself for the sake of others.

As I understand it, the distinction between Theravada and Mahayana is not that Theravada is less concerned with the enlightenment of others. Rather, it has to do with a different understanding of the nature of enlightenment and the nature of the self; in Mahayana, individual enlightenment is a contradiction in terms. See, for example, "Awakening of Faith in the Mahayana."