Can a Layperson Attain Nibbāna?

| August 3, 2013 | 33 Comments

Monk_BuddhistA recent discussion on the SBA Forum started by Arijit Mitra dealt with the question of how far a householder or layperson could proceed along the Buddhist path.

This is a question that deserves extended treatment. While we could begin with discussions of modern-day theory and practice, my preference is to begin with the original texts, at least insofar as we can get a handle on them. Although they may eventually lead us astray, at least it’s worthwhile to have them under our belts. A good place to begin is with a quote from the eminent Buddhist scholar Richard Gombrich’s Theravāda Buddhism (2nd Ed.), provided by mufi in the discussion:

Did the Buddha think it possible for a lay person to attain Enlightenment? Probably not. He measured spiritual progress in four stages. In the first, called “stream entry”, one was guaranteed that one would have at most seven more lives and would never be reborn in a station lower than human. (At first, most people who accepted his view of kamma were held to have attained this.) At the second stage, the “once-returner” faced only one more life on earth. The “non-returners” would not be reborn in this world but in a high heaven, from which their attainment of nibbāna was guaranteed. Enlightenment was the fourth and final stage.

When asked about the spiritual attainments of his followers, the Buddha said that many hundreds of lay followers, both male and female, had become “non-returners.” They had given up sexual activity. He did not explicitly say that no lay follower attained nirvana in this life, but that is the implication. Elsewhere there is a short list of names of lay disciples, all male, who are said to have reached nibbāna, but it is a mere list and so placed that it could well be a late addition to the Canon. The tradition that the Buddha’s father attained Enlightenment as a layman is post-canonical. A post-canonical Pali text says that lay life is not livable for an Enlightened person, so if a layman becomes Enlightened he (or she) will either enter the Sangha or die within the day. On the other hand, there are plenty of canonical cases of laymen and laywomen who are said to have made spiritual progress. (pp. 75-6)

Gombrich’s conclusion, then, is that the Buddha probably didn’t think laypeople could attain nibbāna; at best they could attain the stage of anāgāmi or “non-returner”.

Indeed, Majjhima Nikāya 68 and 73 include mention of lay followers having reached various stages along the path, however the suttas do not include any mention of them having attained nibbāna. Only bhikkhus and bhikkhunis were said to have got that far. However the Buddha never said explicitly that there were no such accomplished lay followers, nor did he say that it would be impossible for lay followers to achieve nibbāna. There are at least plausible reasons why the Buddha might not have raised the issue of lay followers and nibbāna in these contexts: in MN 68, the Buddha is in a somewhat contentious argument with his bhikkhus about making an apparently extravagant claim (an issue I discussed in a blog post); and in MN 73, the discussion comes in the form of questions from Vacchagotta the wanderer, who may simply not have expected laypeople to have been capable of attaining nibbāna.

On the other hand, Saṃyutta Nikāya 55.37 suggests that laypeople may become “accomplished in wisdom” leading to “the complete destruction of suffering”, although admittedly this passage does not establish that any have done so, nor that they could explicitly have done so while remaining laypeople. The strongest evidence that the Buddha allowed for lay arahants is the list that appears in Aṇguttara Nikāya 6.119-139: these are “householders” and “lay followers” each of whom is said to have “become a seer of the deathless, one who lives having realized the deathless.” These are phrases only used of arahants: those who have achieved nibbāna.

Gombrich minimizes this passage, above, by saying that “it is a mere list and so placed that it could well be a late addition to the Canon”. It’s true that this is “a mere list”, and it appears quite late in the Book of the Sixes, but it does not appear right at the end of that book, and at any rate without some independent evidence that it is a later addition, that sort of move is not sufficient to convince. On that criterion, very many passages indeed “could well be late additions”.

One good place to look for answers to this question would be to look at Sanskrit and Chinese Āgamas, in particular the Saṃyukta Āgama, parallel to the Pāli Saṃyutta Nikāya. If the list did not appear in the Āgamas, that would be some evidence that it were a later addition. Bhikkhu Anālayo is undertaking such a translation from the Chinese, however I have no idea about the status of this section.

It’s well to keep in mind, though, that often suttas appear in different Āgamas than they do Nikāyas, so a full search for the relevant section would include other, related canonical texts as well.

As a general question however, is it likely that a post-Canonical monastic editor would interpolate a list of lay arahants? I can’t see why. Indeed, it’s more likely that such editors might work to suppress such lists. This of course proves nothing, it simply points up the thin nature of Gombrich’s claim.

It is more convincing to note that the list of lay arahants is isolated in the Canon. Any single passage making an unusual claim, or any small selection thereof, should be looked at with greater scrutiny than passages that appear over and over again in the Canon. Isolated passages have a greater chance to be interpolations or mistakes of one kind or another. So let us look elsewhere for evidence.

Perhaps Lay Arahantship is Possible?

Here is one of the most famous pericopes from Gotama’s early life as a bodhisatta:

Before my Awakening, when I was still an unawakened Bodhisatta, the thought occurred to me: ‘Household life is confining, a dusty path. Life gone forth is the open air. It isn’t easy, living in a home, to practice the holy life totally perfect, totally pure, a polished shell. What if I, having shaved off my hair & beard and putting on the ochre robe, were to go forth from the household life into homelessness?’ (MN 36.12)

Note that in this passage Gotama does not claim that living a “totally perfect, totally pure” life was literally impossible as a householder, only that it wasn’t easy. He could have made the stronger claim, and simply said that the living of a perfect life as a householder was impossible, yet he did not. The fact that he did not do so provides some evidence that he may have thought a householder could attain nibbāna.

Further, while “going forth from the home life into homelessness” does appear as part of the Gradual Training (C.f., MN 27.12), it does not appear as part of the Eightfold Path itself. There all we find is that one should develop ethical and meditative skills to the end of achieving wisdom and insight into the Four Noble Truths. There is nothing explicitly monastic about the Eightfold Path.

Gombrich cites a post-Canonical passage that claims “lay life is not livable for an Enlightened person”. This comes in the Milindapañha, in a question asked by King Milinda of the Buddhist monk Nāgasena:

Venerable Nāgasena, your people say: “Whosoever has attained, as a layman, to Arahatship, one of two conditions are possible to him, and no other — either that very day he enters the Order, or he dies away, for beyond that day he cannot last.” 264-265 (IV.7.7-8).

Although this passage does support the notion that laypeople can become arahants, the translator, TW Rhys Davids, notes that King Milinda’s claim does not appear to come from any canonical source. Further, Nāgasena’s discussion that follows provides questionable reasoning in its support. Basically he suggests that a householder is too weak to support arahantship without becoming ordained, just as “a tiny blade of grass when a heavy rock is placed upon it will, through its weakness, break off and give way …” There is no argument provided as to why ordination would provide strength that the mere achievement of nibbāna could not.

It’s worth noting that the canonical passage cited above at SN 55.37 claims that certain of these householders and laypeople “live” having realized nibbāna. This at least suggests that they were able to persist in that state for longer than a single day, and indeed that they might have been alive when the text was first composed.

Arahantship is Very, Very Difficult

Nevertheless to my knowledge the Buddha never suggested that a householder or lay follower aim at nibbāna without first entering the saṇgha. More normal advice to householders is the extensive material one finds in suttas such as To Sigālaka: Advice to Lay People (Dīgha Nikāya 31). This amounts to solid, pedestrian advice such as preserving the five precepts, taking care of family, business, making good friends, and being generous to those in need, particularly ascetics. This was supposed to provide for rebirth into a better life, which after all was the goal of most householders in the Buddha’s day.

For those householders who saw themselves as going further, the Buddha had a very stern warning: they don’t realize what the path really entails. For example, in the Potaliya Sutta (MN 54) the Buddha confronts an older Brahmin gentleman who left the household life.

After having performed one’s ritual duties, successfully raised a family, and conducted business during a lifetime, it was not unusual in Brahminic and Hindu society to renounce the ordinary life of a householder and become a hermit. One reads in the Manusmṛti:

When a householder sees his (skin) wrinkled, and (his hair) white, and the sons of his sons, then he may resort to the forest. (VI.2).

While the dating of the Manusmṛti is unclear (Wiki places it between 1500 BCE and 500 CE), the Potaliya Sutta shows the same sort of behavior.

Potaliya considered himself a renunciant, yet the Buddha called him a householder, probably because of Potaliya’s appearance, “wearing full dress with parasol and sandals”, which suggested a person still attached to sensual pleasures. There was also Potaliya’s decision to remain standing in the Buddha’s presence, which suggested arrogance.

Potaliya did not take kindly to being termed a householder.

“Master Gotama, I have given all my wealth, grain, silver, and gold to my children as their inheritance. I do not advise or blame them about such matters but merely live on food and clothing. That is how I have given up all my works and cut off all my affairs.”

“Householder, the cutting off of affairs as you describe it is one thing, but in the Noble One’s Discipline the cutting off of affairs is different.” (MN 54.3).

The sutta deals with the differences that the Buddha saw between Potaliya’s partial renunciation and the true renunciation the Buddha saw as necessary for nibbāna. On the surface level there are differences of ethics and outward behavior: one is to behave, for example, without spite, anger, or arrogance. But the deeper difference involves the sensual pleasures. The Buddha provided a number of similes illustrating the dangers of sensual pleasure, showing that they “they provide much suffering and much despair, while the danger in them is great.” As Justin Whitaker notes in his treatment of this sutta, the Buddha stresses the importance of meditation. Only meditation on the dangers of sensual pleasures can release the “five cords” (MN 67.18, MN 75.11) that bind householders to dukkha.

Elsewhere we read that “memories and intentions based on the household life are abandoned” through mindfulness of the body. (MN 119.4ff) Similarly, the four foundations of mindfulness are used “to subdue [the noble disciple’s] habits based on the household life, to subdue his memories and intentions based on the household life, to subdue his distress, fatigue, and fever based on the household life, and in order that he may attain the true way and realise Nibbāna.” (MN 125.23)

In particular, one has to be willing to renounce sensual pleasures, including sexual desire. That this is a crucial step in the Buddha’s Path to nibbāna should be clear enough from the monastic rules, however it is also stated with crystal clarity in the Alagaddūpama Sutta (MN 22), where the wayward monk Ariṭṭha claimed that engaging in sexual activity was no obstruction to the attainment of nibbāna. As the Buddha said in response,

Bhikkhus, that one can engage in sensual pleasures without sensual desires, without perceptions of sensual desire, without thoughts of sensual desire — that is impossible. (MN 22.9).

This sort of claim, I think, is at the heart of the Buddha’s apparent disdain for the householder Potaliya’s claim to be a renunciant. Potaliya had not even come close to leaving behind sensual pleasures.

As we have already noted, there is no dispute that the Buddha claimed certain householders had attained the status of anāgāmi or non-returner. This is a stage in which sensual desire (kāma-rāga) has been eliminated, however not so the higher level desires of rūpa- and arūpa-raga, related to the pleasures attained in jhāna. Whether or not one can take seriously such hair-splitting of desire-elimination along stages in the path is another thing, but it at least shows that the Buddha did allow that laypeople were capable of getting beyond the desire for worldly pleasures.

It seems householders’ biggest hurdle would have been “arrogance” (māna), at least on the standard understanding of the four stages of enlightenment. Perhaps it was arrogance at not being willing to join the saṇgha? At thinking they could go it alone? Interestingly, the traditional understanding of enlightenment allows for so-called “paccekabuddhas” or “lone Buddhas” (c.f. MN 116) who achieve nibbāna without being taught, and so presumably without joining a saṇgha.

More Difficulties

There are a handful of passages in the canonical suttas that suggest householders might not be capable of achieving nibbāna at all. In MN 137.10ff, we read that the “household life” itself is opposed to renunciation; it does not lead to nibbāna. Renunciation “surmounts” the life of the householder. (E.g., 137.16).

Along the lines of the above pericope on the polished shell, the brahmin student Subha favorably compares the monastic life with that of the householder:

[T]he householder has a great deal of activity, great functions, great engagements, and great undertakings: he does not constantly and invariably speak the truth, practice asceticism, observe celibacy, engage in study, or engage in generosity. But one gone forth has a small amount of activity, small functions, small engagements, and small undertakings: he constantly and invariably speaks the truth, practices asceticism, observes celibacy, engages in study, and engages in generosity. (MN 99.20)

We may smile at the naïve assumption that monastics “invariably speak the truth” and so on, but the main thrust of Subha’s point remains: the life of the monastic is significantly less problematic than that of the householder, who in family and business life is often called upon to do things that are not conducive to renunciation or happiness.

The Buddha states bluntly to the wanderer Vacchagotta that “there is no householder who, without abandoning the fetter of householdership, on the dissolution of the body has made an end of suffering.” (MN 71.11) While one reading of this passage may lead to the conclusion that the Buddha really didn’t think householders could reach nibbāna, I think in context this is better understood as saying that for a householder to reach nibbāna, they would need to renounce the life of the householder. That is, they would need to cease clinging to the household life, and be willing to live more or less the life of a monastic.

The Secular Dilemma

The question as to whether the Buddha thought laypeople or householders could attain nibbāna, I’m afraid, comes down in part to an issue of semantics: what do we consider a “layperson” or “householder”? If by those terms we mean someone living the householder life, with its “activities, functions, undertakings”, its engagements in sensual pleasures and so on, then the answer to that question appears to be “no”. But then, it would also be unlikely for such a person to reach the stage of anāgāmi, since doing so would also require relinquishing attachment to sensual pleasures.

Can one relinquish attachment to sensual pleasures while still indulging in fine meals, good music, dancing, or even sexual activity? Certainly as regards the latter the Buddha’s response to Ariṭṭha was clear. To what extent that same warning ramifies to all such pleasures remains a live question today. Much contemporary discussion revolves around to what extent one can be a good Buddhist while still doing at least what to all intents and purposes appears to be indulging in sense pleasures. This is not a topic I will deal with in this post, but it deserves contemplation.

If by “layperson” or “householder” we simply mean someone not ordained as a Buddhist monastic, then the answer to that question is almost certainly “yes”, since the tradition itself points to the existence of paccekabuddhas who were not themselves ordained by any saṇgha. That said, I understand that the tradition only allows for the existence of such arahants when there is no Buddhist saṇgha in which to be ordained. If this is the case, it appears to be an example of monastic special pleading, since if the paccekabuddha path is possible at one time it should be possible at all times.

The question more relevant to lay — or secular! — followers today involves issues at the border between the life of an ordinary householder and that of the (theoretical) paccekabuddha living alone in rags on a mountaintop somewhere. Can one, as it were, reach nibbāna through the diligent practice of meditation, living a frugal, ethical life, but while buying one’s own food, wearing one’s own clothes, surrounded by one’s own family and friends, sleeping in one’s own bed, and so on?

I’ve already outlined several issues with nibbāna itself, which I will not revisit here. Assuming there is such a state as the complete and (relatively) permanent cessation of dukkha described in the Third Noble Truth, is it something we can reasonably achieve without taking on robes? I don’t have a final answer to that question, but I think we can certainly do worse than by following the Buddha’s suggestions in the suttas that such a path is at the least very difficult.

I find Gombrich’s suggestion that the Buddha probably didn’t accept lay arahants unconvincing, though I think this is a matter of degree rather than kind. My claim would rather be that the Buddha probably did think there were lay arahants, since he never claimed such a thing was impossible, and claimed the existence of paccekabuddhas. And then there’s the list of lay arahants in SN 55.37 that seems to seal the case, unless someone can come up with an independent reason for finding the passage to have been a later addition.

But this hardly matters. The larger issue has to do with difficulty. Getting oneself to a place without clinging, without greed, hatred, or ill will, without egotism or arrogance, without delusion or ignorance about impermanence, dukkha, or not-self, seems a tall enough order for any person in a lifetime. And it’s even more so if we add that the householder (like myself for instance) has spouse, family, friends, and possessions to which we may wish to become less attached in certain healthy ways, but which we do not want to renounce completely. Thus the dilemma of modern, secularized practice.

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Doug Smith

About the Author ()

Doug is Study Director of the Secular Buddhist Association. He has a PhD in Philosophy, with a minor in Buddhist philosophy and Sanskrit. In 2013 he completed the year-long Integrated Study and Practice Program with the BCBS and NYIMC. A long time scientific skeptic, he pursues a naturalized approach to practice. He is also interested in scholarship about the Tipiṭaka, and the theoretical and historical origins of the dhamma. Some of his writing can be found at

Comments (33)

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  1. David Chou David Chou says:

    Ah, just as I suspected! As you’ll recall from that forum thread, I’d compared the attainment of Awakening/Enlightenment/Liberation to more pedestrian goals like being a doctor or engineer, which relatively commonplace accomplishments require much prolonged training, formal and on-the-job. If that’s the case for ordinary tasks, how much more so must it be for Arahantship and Nibbana??

    I’d also related in the forums that I’d not even started meditation yet because I don’t like to just dabble in things, and sense that once I commit to a spiritual journey there would be revolutionary life changes that must be made. I was hoping a secular Buddhism may develop something, somehow, less drastic, in need of less commitment, but aside from being “spiritually talented” (as in the case, evidently, of the paccekabuddhas you cite), it does seem that the Noble Eightfold Path is as precisely straightforward as it claims to be: all encompassing and exclusive.

    So what of Friend Arjit’s fears, then?

    I think Secular Buddhism still has a lot to offer the modern world, and it seems all the more important now, in the light of your scholarship here, that the secular community of Buddhists develop their own particular sangha free of the supernatural while still keeping true to fundamental Dhamma. But it’s clear that there is no middle way to The Middle Way, and that moderation itself be moderate! Until such a time when genetic engineering can give us talent without luck, perfection without practice, and selflessness without dedication, there will inevitably be householders and monastics in any field, especially the spiritual ones.

    Of course, as secularists we can always just say that the Buddha was wrong! After all, he’s human, he’s fallible, he was almost certainly wrong about supernatural phenomena like reincarnation…and, even, he could be a composite character, or entirely mythical to begin the end of the day, all we have are “signposts” and it’s up to us to “be the authors of our own salvation.”

    Or maybe we should just be aiming for a Secular Taoism instead: in classical Chinese art, of “The Vinegar Tasters” of Confucius, Buddha, and Lao-Tzu, only the latter is depicted as smiling! 🙂

  2. Gatasaro Bhikku Gatasaro Bhikku says:

    I think secular Buddhism should be saying householders should not be concerned with Nibbana, but how to raise their children to be mindful. Teaching laypeople how to become enlightened would be harder than teaching a 25 handicap golfer how to shape his tee shots. Monks are supposed to have the goal of becoming enlightened, but few practice that hard. It’s very, very difficult, even for monks. One can live a peaceful life with a lot less stress and anxiety by developing a solid meditation at a level low enough to be effective, but not so time-consuming as to be a burden. Nibbana, if it is actually possible, is a goal too far to set. Way too far, since a single mindful breath a day is hard enough.

    I think the Buddha was saying that, just in not so many words.

    • David Chou David Chou says:

      Interesting…your advice is suitable for all, secularist or traditionalist — Buddhist or non-Buddhist, really. Very modern in its universal application!

    • Doug Smith Doug Smith says:

      Hi Gatasaro and thanks. I think your suggestion has a lot of merit. And as we know, the very notion of a “goal” is itself something of a hindrance. Nevertheless often times one does hear talk of nibbāna in secular or at any rate lay Buddhist contexts, so I think it deserves some contemplation.

      • David Chou David Chou says:

        I think what’s going to happen is that Secular Buddhism will eschew nibbana just as it does all other doctrine not subject to scientific investigation. But as scientific instruments and methodologies become ever more advanced, with the brain itself thoroughly mapped out, there will be a return to the doctrine of nibbana and an investigation of this state where clinging and craving are purported to tracelessly cease.

        Until then, Secular Buddhism will be promulgated as an approach to success in life the same way Christian “Prosperity Gospels” use old truths to service modern goals. Because, let’s face it, that’s what we householders want, really: pleasure, whether physical or intellectual.

  3. Gatasaro Bhikku Gatasaro Bhikku says:

    Yes, pleasure. Basic human nature. There is nothing inherently wrong with pleasure-seeking, or even enjoyment of pleasure. When it becomes a pursuit, the problems begin. That’s why I wouldn’t spend a minute of the rest of my life contemplating nibbana. I have enough trouble trying not to enjoy ice cream. I’m diabetic. Ice cream is bad for me. Esp chocolate ice cream! I love chocolate ice cream. The chances I’ll never have another bowl? Not good. Will I ever stop loving ice cream? Doubt it. Will I ever not crave something? So why do I spend hours every day in mindful meditation? Because when I’m aware of my cravings and attachment, I can stop them from causing me a lot of suffering. Only a little.

    • David Chou David Chou says:

      The problem is that human nature evolved not to be kind or perceive the truth or anything else but survive — and for millions of years that’s meant cling, cling, cling, so the pursuit you speak of is inevitable. But because this same nature will also always seek out the new, whether of kind or degree, we inevitably hit a hedonic plateau where we are grossly dissatisfied for all our troubles.

      Thus I imagine Buddhism as a corrective for the bugs that’s evolved in the development of the software that is human nature.

      BTW, the only chocolate ice cream worthy of the name is Häagen-Dazs’ “Belgian Chocolate” and “Mayan Chocolate.” Worth dying for!!!! 🙂

      • Gatasaro Bhikku Gatasaro Bhikku says:

        “The problem is that human nature evolved not to be kind or perceive the truth or anything else but survive — and for millions of years that’s meant cling, cling, cling, so the pursuit you speak of is inevitable.”

        Just a day or so ago I read a report of a study that shows that cooperation was just as important to survival as selfishness. Those who were only in it for themselves went extinct. This negates what you are thinking, doesn’t it?

        But that’s not the problem for you and me. When we only see one side, we limit our thinking. We settle for an answer, in this case, half an answer. Which brings up another question. Which is more important, questions or answers?

        What does this have to do with Nibbana? Easy. Nibbana and enlightenment are answers. They imply an end. This doesn’t understand the most important question–What next?

        I’m thinking this morning about presidential news conferences. They never really end. They stop. They don’t end because there is always someone shouting “One more question!” Life doesn’t end with an answer. It ends with one more question. Perhaps it is “So what? Is that IT?” But more likely the question is What next?

        I know you want answers, David. But there is always another question to ask.


        • David Chou David Chou says:

          Yes, cooperation has long been recognized as necessary to survival for social animals — but notice again that the key is survival, the underlying value is survival, the ultimate goal is survival. Not compassion, not the truth, not anything else but survival. Everything else is “tolerated,” so to speak, only insofar as it helps perpetuate the individual and the species. Life is very economical like that.

          Yet human consciousness is such that we naturally wonder if there’s anything more to life than mere survival, however congenial and civilized. And so someone like the Buddha determines to find out the what and wherefore of it all.

          Having achieved, it is claimed, all there is to really accomplish as a human being, his best advice was to avoid speculation and practice the Noble Eightfold Path — putting aside questions to investigate for oneself the answers he’d found.

          I’ve come to Buddhism because of my questions, because I sense that intellectual analysis will only lead me to so many answers. Yet “the ultimate answer,” to put it crudely, can only arrive by total dedication if even that. And thus my dilemma, and it’s the dilemma raised in the forum thread to which this essay is a consideration of: what can the laity expect?

          You and Doug Smith have confirmed my worst suspicions. Time will tell what happens next…and next…and next….

          • Gatasaro Bhikku Gatasaro Bhikku says:

            Goals usually end in disappointment. Rather than a goal of enlightenment, why not set a target of being mindful as often as possible? Goals are often unreachable, but targets can be hit over and over. One who sets a goal to be “the best in the world” is foolish. The best in the world hits his or her target more often than anyone else.

            Recently a meme became a cliche, but it’s still a very good thought: “Perfection is the enemy of the good.” The Thais have a saying, “por dee.” Good enough. For me, that’s plenty good. I try to stay mindful of it.

          • David Chou David Chou says:

            Yes, Krishnamurti first helped me see the egotism behind perfectionism.

            I see Buddhism as a practiceable method, a way that’s actually practical.

            In the here and now, my goal is mindfulness. But knowing that there is “more,” my ego naturally arises and wishes to posses this more, this beyond, this Nibbana.

            It’s tough, both having and not having goals!

            And now I’m reminded of Erich Fromm’s distinction between having and being — to have or to be….

  4. mufi says:

    Nice job, Doug.

    To be fair, I did mention in that thread that the Gombrich book that’s quoted above was “aimed at a popular audience, rather than [at] fellow scholars”, so I wouldn’t expect a thorough argument, so much as a conclusion based on previous academic work. Were I looking for a serious argument in support of the “late addition” hypothesis, I’d ask to see something in the way of philological evidence (e.g. if the sutta were written in a Pali style that’s known to be characteristic of a later period), and Theravāda Buddhism never gets that deep into the weeds.

    At least on Gombrich’s account, the common aspiration of the Theravādin Buddhist householder has traditionally been to earn merit (puñña). Given that householders lacked access to scriptures until the late 19th Century (and then only the well-educated), whatever they knew of the Buddha’s soteriology was whatever the monastics chose to share with them.

    That said, I’m guessing that arahant (or even non-returner or once-returner) was generally not on the menu of realistic goals presented to the laity. And, from a Secular perspective, it seems that’s all just as well, given the implausible metaphysics invoked by these concepts.

    • David Chou David Chou says:

      Implausible metaphysics aside, it seems that a mental state where cravings and clingings tracelessly cease may be somehow possible (almost certainly must be, once we perfect genetic engineering). So whatever the other notions associated with Arahanthood, the state of Nibbana may be still achievable, even if necessarily by the proverbial few.

      • mufi says:

        Who knows? Maybe, without cravings and clingings, humanity would simply go extinct.

        In any case, I for one do not aim to completely eradicate my desires – only to curb or channel them in a way that seems more skillful, that leads to more desirable long-term results.

        • David Chou David Chou says:

          It’s certainly possible that humanity would go extinct without cravings and desires — or evolve to a higher species altogether. Once the human brain is thoroughly mapped out (assuming everything is physical) and compared with other species’ brains, we should be able to determine just how truly valuable such instincts remain.

          In the here and now, yes, that’s why I’d surmised elsewhere on this page that Secular Buddhism will go the way of the Christian Prosperity Gospel — people want success in life, and not metaphysical truths as such, because our brains evolved to survive.

          On the other hand, I think there will always be the spiritually talented among us, whose brains, through a quirk of biodiversity (because life is always spinning out various forms just for the hell of it, as if to see what works), give them a leg up on wisdom and compassion, leading the rest of us along, reminding us that this current state of pleasure-seeking is not the end-state for our species.

    • Doug Smith Doug Smith says:

      Hi mufi,

      I hope it didn’t come across that you were agreeing 100% with Gombrich’s point; I simply wanted to tip the hat, as it were, to you for finding it. I’m not sure to what extent he was aiming at a popular audience. His book on Theravāda Buddhism is considered a scholarly work, indeed it’s one of the classic studies on the subject. While What the Buddha Thought is supposed to be relatively introductory (though still of scholarly merit!), the Theravāda book really isn’t.

      But at any rate that doesn’t matter so much for the points here. What does matter is that we can only deal with the arguments with which we are presented. Gombrich’s points there, I think, were probably relatively off-the-cuff. In my estimation of his work, having read a certain amount of it by now, he does tend to make speculative and even provocative claims from time to time, interspersed with more well-grounded ones. I think that’s well within the purview of a scholar at his level, and hinted at with his more cheeky “Probably not”, which to me indicates that he knows his argument is far from air tight.

      Re. the earning of merit for householders, that is absolutely clear. As I say above, most householders in the Buddha’s time simply wanted to gain a better rebirth. They didn’t have the time, or frankly the interest, to get into the difficulties of attaining advanced stages along the path; all they wanted to do (and this intersects with my claims about secularism) is to successfully raise a family, execute their business dealings, gain fame and respect, live a good life, and be reborn better. That’s not to say the higher goals were unknown to them, though: as we see from the passage in the Manusmṛti, it was generally appropriate within Brahminic society for the elderly to become renunciants if they wished, and many ordinary people became sramanas even at younger ages, even though that was frowned upon by the family-oriented Brahminic dharma.

      • mufi says:

        Understood, Doug, and your argument above was well taken.

        Just as a footnote on my “aimed at a popular audience” comment, I quickly scanned Gombrich’s preface to the 2nd Edition, and what he actually wrote was: “My book is intended for a wide audience, not primarily for the tiny band of academic specialists. Only the latter would be interested in polemics.”

        With that intention in mind, of course Theravāda Buddhism is a “scholarly work” in the broad sense that it was authored by an expert in the subject. But it is nonetheless scoped in a way that covers a broad territory – e.g. two-and-half thousand years and several countries (albeit, mostly India & Sri Lanka) – in only 210 pages.

      • mufi says:

        PS: On a more personal/existential note, there’s a part of me (possibly a defensive householder part) that still really wants to challenge the notion that the Buddha’s path of renunciation is “higher” (as opposed to just different) than that of a traditional householder’s path of merit-seeking. But the fact is that my own path thus far fits neither traditional model particularly well, even though it borrows elements from both.

  5. Mark Knickelbine says:

    Doug, I think you do a good job of illustrating the many contradictions and conflicting voices in the suttas, another example of how nailing down doctrine on the basis of the Pali canon is a tough way to nurture one’s own practice. I would note that the householder/renunciant split, by its definition, priveleges the monastic position and even if Gotama did not teach the near impossibiity of householder fruition the pressure to adopt this posture to protect and grow the monastic institution would perhaps have been irresistable. Yet another point the Pali texts will not resolve; fortunately, we can accept the teaching that we are not to adopt beliefs based on scripture alone.

    I do have to question your assertion that “If the list did not appear in the Āgamas, that would be some evidence that it were a later addition.” This is not necessarily the case. All it would demonstrate is that some traditions of scriptural preservation had the list and others did not. It is easy to assume that the Agamas are somehow part of the same line of development as the Pali Texts, but it is an unproven assumption; the existance of the Gandharan texts, as well as the evidence in SN that there were a number of lines of textual preservation, shows, I think, that the legends of one lineage of transmission of the original texts cannot be correct.

    • Doug Smith Doug Smith says:

      Hi Mark, and thanks for your comments.

      Re. your first point, agreed that we are not required to adopt any teaching (or indeed any claim at all!) based on written evidence alone. We always have to compare it to experience and evidence. But that said, I think that looking at the suttas does reveal a great deal of nuance and depth to the Buddha’s view on the matter which we can take home with us today. In particular, we can see the difficulties more clearly, and the pitfalls. Doing do does not require us to agree with everything he says, of course.

      Re. your second point, the assertion you cite (that the list’s not appearing in the Āgamas would be some evidence for its being a later interpolation) is already hedged: I say it would provide “some” evidence. I do not claim it would establish its having been a later interpolation. Clearly the list could also have been elided from the Āgamas by some redactor at their end! But I think this is the sort of evidence Gombrich might want to help establish his (apparently intuitive) claim that the passage “could well be a late addition”.

      Re. the claim that the Pāli, Chinese, and Sanskrit versions of the suttas stem from a common source, generally speaking this is an unproblematic claim, following Occam’s Razor. As I understand it, all traditions make this claim, and the texts are similar enough (even identical) in their content as to be reasonably construed to stem from such a source.

      • Mark Knickelbine says:

        As you point out, the Gandharan/Chinese/Pali texts we have do have enough similarity to suggest that they stem from common sources. However, the few Agamas I’ve read in comparison to their Pali equivalents do have significant enough differences to suggest that their lines of transmission must have diverged at some point. It is also my sense that many of the samyuttas in SN document the evolutionary process that took place in the early oral transmission of teaching texts; my guess is that one of the reasons these collections were created was to put boundaries around this process so variations might not continue to proliferate. Finally, the common source texts would have had probably two centuries to be composed after the likely dates for Gotama, which would account for the doctrinal variation you document. If we stipluate that it is possible for the “lists” and other material to have been “late additions,” we have to accept that the intentional emendation of texts did in fact occur (as I think even a cursory examination of the texts themselves reveals — Occam’s Razor, in this instance, cutting against the notion that the Pali texts are a consistent and reliable record of one man’s teachings).

        • Doug Smith Doug Smith says:

          Sure, there are differences between the texts, some of which are sectarian, much of which appears simply to be due to error, repurposing, shuffling, etc. Scholars are in the process of doing thorough comparisons, to discover which parts might be original and which may be, as you say, “intentional emendations”. (By which I take you to mean sectarian additions and confabulations rather than, e.g., deciding that a given text be split up into two suttas, or two texts combined into one, or moved from the Saṃyutta to the Majjhima, etc.)

          Anālayo and Sujato among others have lengthy and interesting information in this regard. (For example, see Sujato’s What the Buddha Really Taught). I dealt with a bit of this sort of material when I discussed the stories of the Buddha’s birth, which on this sort of evidence are pretty clearly later additions.

          But at any rate there is a pretty substantial core of texts, passages, pericopes, etc. which exist in all sources, and which we can use to get a decent handle on what original source texts may have contained.

  6. Ron Stillman Ron Stillman says:

    Doug, are you familiar with the lay follower Sarakani the Sakiyan who was declared a stream enterer by the Buddha.

    “Now on that occasion Sarakani the Sakiyan had died, and the Buddha had declared him to be a stream enterer, no longer bound to the nether world. Thereupon a number of Sakiyans deplored this, saying: ‘It is wonderful indeed, sir! Now who won’t be a stream-enterer when the Buddha has declared Sarakani to be a stream enterer? Sarakani the Sakiyan was too weak for the training; he drank intoxicating drink!

    [When this was reported to the Buddha, he said:] ‘If one speaking rightly were to say of anyone: He was a lay follower who had gone for refuge over a long time to the Buddha, Dhamma, and Sangha, it is of Sarakani the Sakiyan that one could rightly say this. So how could he go to the nether world?” [SN. 55:24, pp. 1811.]

    • Doug Smith Doug Smith says:

      Hi Ron, and thanks for the reference. Yes, Mark brought it up several months ago in a different context. It may represent a relatively early stage in the saṇgha, to which Gombrich makes reference when he says, above: “At first, most people who accepted [the Buddha’s] view of kamma were held to have attained [stream entry].” That is, it looks as though the Buddha’s criteria were pretty relaxed in that sutta. It certainly also represents once again the degree to which the Buddha’s claimed “divine eye” was better described as a form of confabulation.

      But at any rate, stream entry is more towards the shallow end of the pool than nibbāna; what exactly constitutes stream entry is an interesting subject in its own right, how easy it is to achieve, and so on.

  7. Qianxi Qianxi says:

    A problem with the list of names in AN 6.119-139 is that according to MN 143, SN 55.26, Anathapindika died as a stream enterer and was reborn in the Tusita heaven. Isidatta, Purana died as once returners and were reborn in the Tusita heaven AN 6.44.

    There is no parallel to AN 6.119-139 listed on, but only someone familiar with the entire Chinese agama canon (there cant be many of those in the world) would be able to provide a definitive answer on whether or not the list of Arahant laymen was transmitted to China.

    I have, however found a parallel to the Aṅguttara Nikāya explanation of why Purana and Isidatta were both reborn in Tusita heaven. This at least suggests that the idea that they died as once returners (and not arahants) goes back to the pre sectarian stage. You could harmonise this account and your arahant list by saying that they attained arahantship in their next lives, I don’t know if that’s convincing or not.

    AN 6.44 Venerable sir, my father Purana led the holy life, abstaining from low sexual intercourse, after he died The Blessed One declared he is born in the world of happiness and is a once returner. My father’s brother Isidatta led a happy lay life contented with his wife and children, after he died The Blessed One declared he is born in the world of happiness and is a once returner. Venerable sir, ânanda, knowing in what manner does The Blessed One declare the one who led the holy life and the one who lived the lay life gone to the same destiny after death?

    Parallel SA 990: 我父富蘭那先修梵行。離欲清淨。不著香花。遠諸凡鄙。叔父梨師達多不修梵行。然其知足。二俱命終。而今世尊俱記二人同生一趣。同一受生。同於後世得斯陀含。生兜率天。一來世間。究竟苦邊。云何。阿難。修梵行.不修梵行。同生一趣.同一受生.同其後世。

    This is not a sutta for which Analayo has yet published an English translation (as far as I know). I am unfamiliar with the nuances of Buddhist terms and provide a translation of the Chinese only because it will be slightly better than a google translation.

    SA 990: My father Purana led the holy life: abstaining from desire, pure, unadorned by perfume or flowers, far from everything that is base and low. My uncle Isidatta did not lead the holy life, but he was content. They have both died, and now the Blessed One says that they will both be reborn in the same realm and in the same form [both reborn as devas? I’m unfamiliar with buddhist mythology]. In their next lives they will both attain the fruit of Once Return and be born in Tusita heaven. They will be reborn [only] once and put an end to suffering. Tell me Ananda, how can one who lives the holy life and one who does not both be reborn in the same realm, in the same form and have the same destiny in their next lives?

    • Doug Smith Doug Smith says:

      Excellent Quianxi, thank you very much! And thank you for the translation from the Chinese! Even if it isn’t quite complete it at least helps a great deal. While I don’t think this quite settles the point yet, it does at least provide more support for Gombrich’s supposition that something may be wrong with AN 6.119-139.

      It may be, as you suggest, that the accounts would be harmonized by the redactor (even the Buddha himself) claiming that these ‘householders’ had reached arahantship already in their next lives. If so, of course, that would hardly establish that householders — at least those particular householders — could have achieved arahantship as householders, since they had not done so.

      But of course there are other names in that list that, again so far as I know, do not have such problems associated with them. So perhaps certain householders became arahants in this life and (so the Buddha or some later redactor thought) other ones did so in the next life.

      It’s also possible, as Gombrich surmises, that the list is a later addition. It could also be that the list is not late, but that certain names were added to that list later. Once we get a full translation of the Āgamas I think we can do a search, or if someone has contact with Anālayo and can ask him, that would also be good.

      Even without the list, of course, there is still circumstantial evidence that the Buddha didn’t believe it impossible for householders to achieve nibbāna: viz., the pericope on the polished shell, and the existence of paccekabuddhas. (But in the latter case we do have a real question as to how properly to define a ‘householder’).

      Thanks again! 🙂

  8. Nick Nick says:

    SN 55.37 actually does not implicitly suggest that laypeople may become “accomplished in wisdom” leading to “the complete destruction of suffering”. It only state laypeople can posses such wisdom. Laypeople possess the wisdom requires to reach the goal but may not have reached the goal. This is similar to possessing a motor car than can drive from New York to Los Angeles. The driver may start driving from New York but has only reached Denver.

  9. Michael Finley Michael Finley says:

    I think the question of what Gotama thought about this can be answered — if it is answerable at all — as a matter of historical context. It seems likely that as the sangha became more institutionalized, the tendancy would be to accord special status to monks, including privildged access to insight. At the same time, as Buddhism gathered a lay following, a need was recognized to provide the kind of support religions typically offer followers who do little more than “go to church on Sunday,” which would re-enforce the special status of monks & nuns.

    But of course Gotama may have thought from the beginning that nibbana is so hard to achieve that only a monk or monk-like renuncient could hope to suceed.

    In any event, for secular Buddhists, the question shouldn’t be whether a lay person can acheive nibbana — the question itself assumes a nonsecular distinction between monks and laity. But it is useful, I think, to ask how hard it is to “let go.” The answers in the Canon are no doubt also influenced by historical context, but I think it’s possible that they may be less affected by institutional need,and more by practice, than the original question. Perhaps more important, for us moderns the question is more tractable (whether we look to the suttas or not) if it avoids the monk/layperson distinction.

  10. steve mareno says:

    In my mind, arahants, Bodhisattvas, robes, altars, vows, temples, all the many, many Buddhist scriptures, “formal” practice, etc are not only not required, I think they prevent us from waking up (a term I much prefer to enlightenment, nirvana, etc). These things are part of a religion, not a spiritual path. Dogen is interesting to read, but his experiences were his experiences, and not objective truth. I also do not believe in any 4 stages of enlightenment. I believe in nothing. Beliefs are delusions, and always stand in the way of our original wisdom and truths. Expectations are what lead us to disappointment and suffering. If we set out w/ any intentions of gaining anything we are far off the path and will receive what we deserve. To live moment to moment is liberation, and as others have said, the true teaching is not that which is written down. Buddha had no reliance on scriptures at the time of his enlightenment, at least that’s the story we are told. It makes sense, as awakening is before thought, not after.

    Jesus went into the desert for a long time to commune by himself about the mysteries of life (according to legend), and the Buddha sat by himself under a tree for 6 days or 6 years to attain enlightenment, depending on which version of the story you wish to believe. From my personal experience of two decades as a lay Zen practitioner, I have experienced waking up at times, and the practice of meditation and mindfulness directly led to that, not dogma, a teacher, or a book. Enlightenment does not last because nothing lasts, all is change and impermanent, we maintain it as best we can and go in and out of it. An enlightenment that lasted would be a delusion.

  11. Nick Nick says:

    Similar to Steve Mareno, my impression is Stephen Batchelor does not even believe in full-enlightenment (namely, the destruction of craving) therefore why are secular Buddhists even discussing this topic?

  12. jscottanderson says:

    Understanding without words,
    Seeing without forms,
    To whom is this denied?

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