The Place of Discipleship in Buddhism

· Articles & Essays · ,

by Bhikkhu Bodhi

As a religious founder the Buddha did not claim to be a divinely inspired prophet, a personal savior, or a deity incarnate in flesh. Within the framework of his Teaching, the Dhamma, his special role is that of a teacher, the Supreme Teacher who reveals the unique path to final deliverance. In the earliest form of the Teaching, as represented by the Pali Canon, no essential difference divides the goal attained by the Buddha himself from that realized by his disciples. For both the goal is the same, Nibbana, the perfect liberation of the mind from all constricting bonds and the consequent release from samsara, the round of repeated birth and death.

The differences between the Buddha and his disciples concern, first, the temporal sequence of their attainment and, second, the personal qualities which they acquire through their realization of the goal. In terms of temporal sequence, the Buddha is the discoverer of the path to Nibbana, while his disciples are those who tread the path under his guidance and thereby gain the fruit:

The Tathagata, monks, is the originator of the path unarisen before, the producer of the path unproduced before, the declarer of the path undeclared before. He is the knower of the path, the finder of the path, the one skilled in the path. And his disciples now dwell following that path and become possessed of it afterwards. This, monks, is the distinction, the disparity, the difference between the Tathagata, the Arahant, the Fully Enlightened One, and a monk liberated by wisdom.


In Terms Of Personal Qualities, the Buddha, as the founder of the sasana, the teaching or “Dispensation,” possesses a vast array of skills and modes of knowledge that are not fully shared by his disciples. These cognitive faculties include not only certain thaumaturgical powers but also the unimpeded knowledge of the constitution of the world with its many planes of existence and a thorough understanding of the diverse mental proclivities of sentient beings. Such faculties are necessary to enable the Buddha to fulfill his essential mission of establishing the Dispensation in the world at large and of guiding countless beings to liberation from suffering.

Since the Buddha’s aim when he first “set in motion the Wheel of the Dhamma” was to lead sentient beings to Nibbana, the very structure of his Teaching presupposes a relationship of discipleship between himself and those who hearken to his message. The Buddha is the fully enlightened teacher (sattha), his Teaching (sasana) is an injunction to undergo a particular course of training; and those who conform to the demands of discipleship do so by following his injunction (sasanakara) and complying with his advice (ovadapatikara). Even at the close of his ministry, as he lay on his deathbed between the twin sala trees at Kusinara, he declared that it was not by external acts of homage that the Tathagata, the Perfect One, was properly worshipped, but by the consistent and dedi- cated practice of the Dhamma.

The course of discipleship under the Buddha begins with an act of faith (saddha). Faith, for Buddhism, is not an unquestioning assent to propositions beyond the range of possible verification but a readiness to accept on trust the claim that the Buddha makes about himself: that he is the Fully Enlightened One, who has awakened to the deepest, most crucial truths about the nature of sentient existence and who can show the path to the supreme goal. The placing of faith in the Buddha’s Enlightenment is manifested by the process of “going for refuge” to the Three Jewels of Buddhism (tiratana): to the Buddha as one’s mentor and spiritual guide; to his Teaching, the Dhamma, as the most perfect expression of existential truth and the flawless path to liberation; and to the Ariya Sangha, the community of noble ones, as the corporate embodiment of wisdom and spiritual purity. Faith necessarily leads to action, to the undertaking of the training, which in concrete terms means the implementation in one’s life of the guidelines the Buddha has laid down for his followers. These guidelines vary widely in dependence on the situation and aptitude of the disciple. Certain sets of guidelines are more appropriate for lay followers, others more appropriate for monastics, and it is the disciple’s task to make the right choice among them. But all such guidelines, originating from different starting points, eventually converge upon a single path, universal and unique, leading infallibly to the final goal. This is the Noble Eightfold Path, the way to the cessation of suffering, with its three divisions of virtue (sila: right speech, right action, right livelihood), concentration (samadhi: right effort, right mindfulness, right concentration), and wisdom (panna: right view, right intention).

Those who accept the Buddha as teacher and attempt to follow his path are his savaka (Skt. sravaka), his disciples. The category of discipleship cuts across the conventional distinction between the monastic order and the lay community and thus embraces the traditional “four assemblies” of Buddhist followers: bhikkhus and bhikkhunis (monks and nuns) and upasakas and upasikas (laymen and laywomen). Although later texts of the Mahayana tradition speak of the savakas as if they formed a distinct class of disciples—a class contrasted unfavorably with the bodhisattvas—the early Buddhist scriptures do not know any such distinction but use the word savaka broadly to refer to all those who accept the Buddha as their master. The word is derived from the causative verb saveti, “to inform, to declare,” and thus means those who declare the Buddha to be their master (or perhaps those to whom the Dhamma has been declared). In the early texts savaka is used not only as a designation for the Buddha’s disciples but also for the followers of other spiritual systems in relation to their own mentors.

Within the wide circle of the Buddha’s followers a critical distinction is drawn between two types of disciples, the ordinary disciples and the noble disciples. The differences that divide them do not pertain to outward form and mode of life but to inward spiritual stature. Such differences will become clearer if we discuss them in the light of the world view that underlies both the Buddhist tradition as a whole and the biographical profiles that constitute the substance of the present volume.


The Compilers Of The Buddhist scriptures accept as axiomatic a worldview that differs significantly from the picture of the universe bequeathed to us by modern science. This worldview is characterized by three basic and interrelated premises. The first is that the sentient universe is a multitiered edifice, with three primary realms divided into a number of subsidiary planes. The grossest tier is the sense-desire realm (kamadhatu), which consists of eleven planes: the hells, the animal kingdom, the sphere of ghosts, the human realm, the sphere of titans, and the six sensuous heavens; of these, only the human realm and the animal kingdom are normally accessible to our natural sense faculties. Above the sense-desire realm is the fine-material realm, or the realm of subtle form (rapadhatu), an ascending series of some sixteen exalted planes which are the ontological counterparts of the jhanas, the meditative absorptions; is the immaterial realm (arupadhatu), four planes of extremely attenuated nature corresponding to the four immaterial meditative absorptions (aruppajhana): here matter has disappeared completely and the denizens are of a purely mental construction.

What has raised them from the status of a worldling to the plane of spiritual nobility is a radical transformation that has occurred at the very base of the mind.

The second axiom concerns rebirth. Buddhism holds that all unenlightened beings, those who have not eradicated ignorance and craving are bound to be reborn within the three realms. The course of transmigration is without discoverable beginning. It is propelled from within by ignorance and craving, which drive the stream of consciousness from death to new birth in a repeatedly self-sustaining process. This uninterrupted succession of births and deaths is called samsara, “the wandering on,” the round of repeated existence.

The third axiom is the principle that determines the sphere of rebirth. This is what the Buddha calls kamma, action, specifically volitional action. According to the Buddha, all our morally determinate volitional actions are subject to an inescapable law of retribution. Our deeds leave behind, in the ongoing stream of consciousness, a potential to produce results (vipaka), to bring forth fruits (phala), which appear when the accumulated kamma meets with external conditions congenial to its germination. Kamma determines not only the specific plane into which one is reborn but also our inherent capacities and propensities and the basic direction of our lives. The mode by which kamma operates is an ethical one: unwholesome kamma—deeds motivated by greed, aversion, and delusion—brings a bad rebirth and engenders pain and suffering; wholesome kamma—deeds inspired by generosity, kindness, and wisdom—leads to a good rebirth and to happiness and well-being.


Since All Experience Within the round of rebirth is impermanent and unsatisfactory, the ultimate aim for early Buddhism is to break free from this self-generating cycle and thereby win the unconditioned state, Nibbana, where there is no more birth, aging, and death. This is the goal the Buddha himself attained as the culmination of his own noble quest, and it is also the goal he constantly set before his disciples. The distinction between the two types of disciples pertains to their relationship to this goal. The class of ordinary disciples, which is by far the more numerous of the two, consists of those who are still technically classed as worldlings or commoners (puthujjana). Such disciples may have sincerely gone for refuge to the Three Jewels and may be fully devoted to the practice of the Dhamma, but despite their earnestness they have not yet reached the plane where liberation is irrevocably assured. They have not yet seen the Dhamma for themselves, nor eliminated the mental fetters, nor entered irreversibly upon the path to final emancipation. Their present mode of practice is preparatory in character: it is intended to bring their spiritual faculties to maturity so that, in due course, they may enter upon the supramundane path. Until that experience dawns, however, they wander on through the round of rebirths, uncertain of their future destination, still liable to moral lapses and even to rebirth in the lower realms.

Photo by Telmo

Photo by Telmo

In contrast to this class stands the class of noble disciples, the ariyasavaka. These disciples have surmounted the plane of the worldlings, have arrived at the stage of irreversibility, and are assured of reaching the final goal in a maximum of seven more births. What has raised them from the status of a worldling to the plane of spiritual nobility is a radical transformation that has occurred at the very base of the mind. This transformation may be viewed from two complementary perspectives, one cognitive, the other psychological. The suttas refer to the cognitive aspect as the gaining of the vision of the Dhamma (dhammacakkhu-patilabha) and the breakthrough to the Dhamma (dham- mabhisamaya). Such an event, altering one’s destiny for all time, generally takes place after the disciple has fulfilled the preliminary requisites of the training and has been engaged in the practice of insight meditation (vipassana-bhavana). As deepening insights into the true nature of phenomena bring to maturity the faculty of wisdom (panna), at a certain point, when all conditions are ripe, the mists of ignorance momentarily disperse, affording the disciple an immediate glimpse of the unconditioned element, the Deathless, which is the precondition and final term of the whole process of liberation.

When this vision dawns the disciple becomes a true heir to the Buddha’s message. The texts describe such a disciple as “one who has seen the Dhamma, reached the Dhamma, understood the Dhamma, fathomed the Dhamma, who has overcome all doubt and perplexity, and become self- sufficient in the Master’s Teaching.” Even though the vision may still be clouded and imperfect, the disciple has won access to the ultimate truth and it is only a matter of time until, by diligent practice, he or she brings this vision to its culmination in enlightenment (sambodhi), the complete experiential understanding of the Four Noble Truths.


The Other Aspect Of The transformation which the disciple undergoes pertains to the constitution of the psyche. It consists in the permanent elimination of certain unwholesome mental dispositions called defilements (kilesa). For purposes of exposition, the defilements are usually classified into a set of ten fetters (samyojana), called thus because they hold beings in bondage to the round of rebirths. From the suttas it appears that in exceptional cases a disciple with a high degree of wisdom from previous lives can cut off all ten fetters at a single stroke, thereby advancing in one leap from the stage of a worldling to that of an arahant, a fully liberated one. The more typical process of attainment, however, is a calibrated one whereby the fetters are cut off sequentially, in discrete clusters, on four different occasions of awakening. This results in a fourfold gradation among the noble disciples, with each major stage subdivided in turn into two phases: a phase of the path (magga), when the disciple is practicing for the elimination of the particular cluster of fetters; and a phase of the fruit (phala), when the break- through is complete and the fetters have been destroyed. This subdivision explains the classical formula of the Ariya Sangha as made up of four pairs and eight types of noble persons.

The first stage of awakening is called stream-entry (sotapatti), because it is with this attainment that the disciple can properly be said to have entered “the stream of the Dhamma” (dhammasota), i.e., the Noble Eightfold Path that leads irreversibly to Nibbana. Stream-entry is won with the first arising of the vision of the Dhamma and is marked by the eradication of the coarsest three fetters: personality view (sakayaditthi), the view of a substantial self within the empirical person; doubt in the Buddha and his Teaching; and wrong grasp of rules and vows (silabbataparamasa), the belief that mere external observances (including religious rituals and penitential forms of asceticism) can lead to salvation. With the cutting off of these three fetters the stream- enterer is freed from the prospect of rebirth in the plane of misery (apayabhumi), the three lower realms of the hells, the animal kingdom, and the sphere of spirits or “hungry ghosts.” Such a one is certain to attain final liberation in at most seven more lifetimes passed either in the human world or in the heavens.

The next major stage of awakening is that of the once-returner (sakadagami), who will be reborn only one more time in the human realm or in the sense-sphere heavens and there reach the ultimate goal. The path of once-returning does not eradicate any fetters beyond most already eliminated by the path of stream-entry. It does, however, attenuate the three root defilements—greed, hatred, and delusion—so that they arise only sporadically and then only in a mild degree.

The third path, that of the non-returner (anagami), cuts off two deep roots of emotional turbulence within the psyche: the defilements of sensual lust and ill will, the fourth and fifth fetters, which are removed in all their manifold guises, even the subtlest. Because these two fetters are the principal ties that keep living beings bound to the sense-desire realm, the non-returner, as the name implies, never returns to this realm. Rather, such a one is spontaneously reborn in one of the exalted form-realm heavens called the Pure Abodes (studdhavasa), accessible only to non-returners, and there attains final Nibbana without ever coming back to this world.

The fourth and final stage of noble discipleship is that of arahantship (arahatta), which is attained by the elimination of the five subtle fetters that remain unabandoned even in the non-returner: desire for existence in the form realm and formless realm, conceit, restlessness, and ignorance. As ignorance is the most deeply grounded of all the defilements, when the path of arahantship arises fully fathoming the Four Noble Truths, ignorance collapses, bringing all the other residual defilements along with it. The mind then enters upon “the taintless liberation of mind, liberation by wisdom, attained by the destruction of the taints”—the state that the Buddha calls the unsurpassed consummation of the holy life.


The Arahant Is The Fully accomplished disciple of early Buddhism, the perfect model for the entire Buddhist community. Even the Buddha himself, with respect to his liberation, is described as an arahant, and he declared the arahants to be his equals in regard to the destruction of defilements. For the arahant there is no further task to be achieved and no falling away from what has been achieved. He or she has completed the development of the noble path, has fully understood the true nature of existence, and has eradicated all the mind’s bonds and fetters. For the duration of life the arahant hides in unruffled peace in the experiential realization of Nibbana, with a mind stainless and secure. Then, with the breakup of the body at the end of the life span, he or she reaches the end of the entire process of re-becoming. For the arahant death is not the passageway to a new rebirth, as it is for all others, but the doorway to the unconditioned state itself, the Nibbana-element without residue of conditioned existence (anupadisesa-nibbanadhatu). This is the true cessation of suffering to which the Buddha’s Teaching points, the final termination of the beginningless round of birth and death.


Bhikkhu Bodhi is a Theravadin monk, author, translator, and commentator on the Dharma. Born in Brooklyn and ordained in Sri Lanka, he currently teaches at two monasteries in New Jersey and New York, while serving as president of the Buddhist Publication Society.

From Great Disciples of the Buddha. By Nyanaponika Thera and Hellmuth Hecker. Edited with an introduction by Bhikkhu Bodhi. © 2003 by Buddhist Publication Society. Reprinted by permission of Wisdom Publications.


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