The Paccekabuddha (Solitary Buddha) – Ria Kloppenborg

The Wheel Publication No. 305–7
First Published: 1983
Copyright © BPS, 1983.
BPS Online Edition © 2006
For free distribution. This work may be republished, reformatted, reprinted, and redistributed in any medium. However, any such republication and redistribution is to be made available to the public on a free and unrestricted basis and translations and other derivative works are to be clearly marked as such.


The Paccekabuddha is an important figure in the Buddhist tradition who exemplifies the ascetic and introspective tendencies of the Buddhist and pre-Buddhist Indian heritage. Most of the textual references—canonical as well as commentarial—concerned with the Paccekabuddha relate the popular stories which describe the individual Paccekabodhisatta’s search for enlightenment, rather than elaborate on the doctrinal aspects of the phenomenon of the solitary enlightened one.
Therefore a systematic study of the place of the Paccekabuddha in Buddhist thought is stimulated less by the texts than by an attempt to uncover and convey the special reality of the individual’s choice for his own way towards liberation.
For me, this study has again emphasised the importance of the ancient ascetic, individualistic and world-rejecting tradition.
I wish to express my deep gratitude to the Venerable Nyanaponika Mahāthera for his critical remarks and his friendly, unobtrusive guidance. I am indebted to Mrs. Helen Wilder’s efforts to select the passages from my original book as published by E. J. Brill, Leiden, in 1974, for this version in the Wheel Series, and to the publishers for their kind permission to revise and reprint the original work.

Ria Kloppenborg Utrecht, June 1982



The Paccekabuddha has received little detailed attention in the study of Buddhism. The most elaborate contributions are to be found in dictionaries and encyclopaedias. There an attempt has been made to establish his position among other enlightened individuals, as can be found in the systematic approaches of the Abhidhamma and commentarial texts, end to enumerate his basic characteristics. In this respect a short reference may be made to the articles in the Pali Text Society’s Dictionary where he is described as “one enlightened by himself, i.e., one who has attained to the supreme and perfect insight, but dies without proclaiming the truth to the world.” In Childers1 he is thus described: “one who has attained, like a Buddha, by his unaided powers the knowledge necessary to Nirvāna, but does not preach it to men … is not omniscient … in all respects inferior to a Sammāsambuddho”; and Edgerton: “a Buddha for himself alone, who has won enlightenment but lives in solitude and does not reveal his knowledge to the world” (Buddhist Hybrid Sanskrit Dictionary).

To find an adequate English equivalent for the term Paccekabuddha (Sanskrit: Pratyekabuddha) is almost impossible, for, as is the case with many technical terms used in Buddhist texts, the word has various connotations and bears different shades of meaning. It has the meaning of: “one who is enlightened by himself, or for himself,” and also as “an enlightened one who is on his own.”

The term encompasses the basic characteristics of the type of person set forth in the explanations given in the canonical and commentarial literature, such as the fact of his solitary way towards enlightenment and his solitary way of life. One may be justified in saying that the rendering “an enlightened one who is on his own” accentuates the most typical characteristic. This fact is stressed over and over again in the literature, in narrative as well as in more systematic passages, especially when he is compared with a Sammāsambuddha and an arahat. For “one who is enlightened by himself” can refer to a Paccekabuddha as well as to a Sammāsambuddha.
The Paccekabuddha is rarely dealt with in the secondary literature. Most studies mention him as a possible type of enlightened personality recognised in the Canon, but go no further into the matter. The reason for this seems to lie in his lack of a sense of mission. As Eliot observes in his Hinduism and Buddhism2: “Their knowledge is confined to what is necessary for their own salvation and perfection. They are mentioned in the Nikāyas as worthy of all respect, but are not prominent in either the earlier or later works, which is only natural, seeing that by their very definition they are self-centred and of little importance for mankind. The idea of a [Paccekabuddha] … is interesting, inasmuch as it implies that even when the four truths are not preached they still exist and can be discovered by anyone who makes the necessary mental and moral effort.”
The present study aims at filling in this gap with a detailed study of the concept of the Paccekabuddha. This study has been limited to the Theravāda tradition and is mainly based upon the works incorporated in the Pāli Canon and the main commentaries.
The Vinayapiṭaka gives no direct information on the subject, as its function is to provide rules of conduct for the monastic community. But since it also illuminates aspects of the organisation of the ascetic’s life and of ascetic communities, it can also shed some light on the way of life of the Paccekabuddha as this has been described in other scriptures.

1 R. C. Childers, A Dictionary of the Pali Language, London, 1876.
2 Sir C. Eliot, Hinduism and Buddhism, 3 Volumes, London, 1922, I 344–5.


The Suttapiṭaka, especially the Khuddaka-nikāya with its varied collection of works, contains many references to the concept of the Paccekabuddha. Among these, the forty-one verses of the Khaggavisāṇasutta of the Suttanipāta are of major importance, as they are regarded as belonging to the most ancient ascetic tradition and the later development of a systematic classification of the different enlightened persons. The term Paccekabuddha itself is not used in the verses, perhaps because at the time the verses were composed, the concept of the Paccekabuddha in its technical sense had not yet been developed within the Buddhist system of thought. But the idea of a solitary ascetic seems clearly to be implied. The same observation can be made about other texts regarded as part of the older layer of Buddhist literature. In the works of the Abhidhamma-piṭaka the Paccekabuddha is only mentioned in the systematic lists of persons who attain enlightenment, and no detailed information can be found.

Commencing in the 3rd century B.C. commentarial literature was written in Sri Lanka in Sinhalese. The commentaries continued to increase until at least the second century A.D., drawing new material from the Sinhalese Buddhist social and religious life. Buddhaghosa based his own systematised commentarial work on these older texts. Most of the information about the Paccekabuddha has been handed down to us by this scholar who drew upon the living tradition of the previous centuries.
The concept of the Paccekabuddha underwent further developments in the Mahāyāna schools of Buddhism, but these lie beyond the scope of the present work.
The adaptation of the concept of the Paccekabuddha in Buddhism seems to have been inspired by the Indian tradition of asceticism and individualism, and the popular reverence and esteem for ascetics, wandering religious men, munis and sages.

Since the earliest times, ascetics who leave society to evade the hindrances of worldly ties and to search for insight into reality and salvation have been mentioned as one of the most typical characteristics of Indian religions. The Rg-Veda mentions a class of holy men distinct from the brahmins, the munis who are said to possess supernatural powers, especially the ability to fly through the air and to read other people’s thoughts. This asceticism seems to have developed among different groups or individuals along a similar line, and shows similar characteristics of practise and circumstances: a solitary life outside the community, residence in forests or on the outskirts of towns and villages, dressing in clothes of bark or of rags, living on begged food or plants, shaving the hair, etc. Some of these ascetics lived in isolation, others in groups; still others wandered in groups or alone, begging for alms, preaching their doctrines to those who wished to listen. The fact that there are only a few references to these ascetics in Vedic literature does not imply that they were rare. They formed a religious group distinct from the orthodox sacrificial priests and developed their own culture and style of living. Many of the impulses for new developments in thought came from these groups.

The motives for abandoning society in the search for final release were based on the belief that life formed an endless chain of existence from which deliverance was necessary. The sense of freedom from worldly cares and ties has been one of the main themes in the religious literature of India, Hindu and Buddhist.

The acquisition of supernatural powers is often mentioned as another motive for asceticism. Throughout the entire literature it is stated that one of the main aims of the Indian ascetic is the acquisition of powers to control the course of nature. These powers, gained through ascetic practises, offered the opportunity to rise above the brahmanical sacrificial priest, not only on the level of spiritual development, but also on the material plane. Consequently, the ascetics were honoured, respected and even feared by the people. The ascetics who achieved their goals were more powerful than any other persons in the universe; even the gods were subordinate to them.

The tradition of asceticism and the idea that release could only be attained by the individual, seems to have reached its culmination in the time of the Buddha. During that period numerous groups of ascetics appeared, living alone or following a leader, dwelling in forests or wandering as mendicants. The idea prevailed that escape from rebirth and salvation could only be obtained by renunciation of the ordinary societal ties in favour of a special way of life. In this period the ancient tradition of munis and śramaṇas found new continuity and a suitable soil for new developments in Buddhism and Jainism, which were both ascetic in making renunciation of life in the world essential for release and in continuing the tradition of the individual attainment of enlightenment.

Although the Buddha rejected austere asceticism and the practise of ritual in the way these were followed by the śramaṇas (ascetics; Pali: samaṇas) of his time, and favoured a less rigid separation from society for his monks, his teaching exemplified the main traits of the Indian ascetic contemplative tradition: a stress on renunciation, entrance upon religious life, and solitary meditation as important aids to the attainment of insight. Most of the monks chose to live within the communal structure of the Order, and to combine their meditative practise with such tasks as preaching, teaching, study, discussion, and social activities. But there were some monks who preferred to follow the older ideal of the solitary recluse, remaining bound to the community only by means of the fortnightly uposatha-celebration3, at which the rules of the Order were recited. In the early Buddhist community the thera Mahākassapa was especially esteemed for this type of austerity. Those who followed the Buddha’s Path in this personal way continued the ancient tradition of asceticism and were respected and honoured by the people on the same level as were the munis, śramaṇas end other ascetics. Later, in Sri Lanka, the monks who lived in the forests became a separate group, the Vanavāsi-nikāya.

3 The bimonthly uposatha days (on the first and the fifteenth day of the lunar month) are used to preach the Dhamma and for the recitation of the Pātimokkha, the rules of the order, and the confession ceremony preceding the recitation. When one speaks of Paccekabuddhas celebrating this day, one should keep in mind that the ceremony as described in the Vinaya is, of course, not meant for Paccekabuddhas who do not possess any knowledge of the Pātimokkha laid down only during periods in which the Dhamma is preached. One should rather connect the “celebration of uposatha by Paccekabuddhas” with the general custom of ascetics and religious communities in India, who, from Vedic times onwards, used to hold some sort of uposatha-celebration.

The concept of the Paccekabuddha presented the opportunity to include pre-Buddhist recluses and seers in Buddhism and in doing so it continued these pre-Buddhist traditions. In this respect it becomes clear why Paccekabuddhas are referred to in the scriptures with all other terms that could be used to denote ascetics: muni, isi, samaṇa, tāpasa, jaṭila, terms which emphasise different aspects of asceticism.

In order to find a legitimate place within Buddhist teaching, these ascetics had to fit in with the system of thought. They were given their place as a way of recognising that the Dhamma, the eternal and highest truth, is always accessible and can be attained by those of great virtue and spiritual maturity even when the formulated Dhamma of a Buddha is not available. For the Dhamma, as the formulated teaching, is subject to the law of origination, growth, and decay. It appears in history, revealed by a Buddha, and for a period is studied, practised, and taught by human beings. But these periods during which the Dhamma is known alternates with other periods during which it has disappeared, remaining only on the level of absolute truth. This does not mean, however, that the truth cannot be attained during this time. It only means that the truth must be personally discovered without the guidance of an articulated doctrine and map of the path, an achievement calling for a very highly developed faculty of wisdom.

Those who discover the Dhamma by themselves are of two types: the Sammāsambuddha, who, after realising the Dhamma, teaches it in its fullness and re-establishes the dispensation in the world; and the Paccekabuddha, who does not reveal it or preach it to the great mass of people. To proclaim the Dhamma anew requires special qualities—omniscience and supreme compassion—and even then the decision to reveal the abstruse, ultimate truth is difficult to make. The figure of the Paccekabuddha provided the means to accommodate the notion of one who discovers the truth for himself without possessing all the powers of a supreme Buddha, and thus chooses not to try to teach the truth at large. This same figure also serves to confirm the validity of the achievements of ascetics and sages of pre-Buddhist times.

With the emergence of ideas which finally took shape in the Mahāyāna schools, the ideals of the Pratyekabuddha and of the arahat came to stand for what was called ”the Hīnayāna.” In contrast to the individualistic outlook of the earlier schools, the Mahāyānists, challenged by what seemed to them self-centredness, felt that it was impossible for any enlightened being not to teach to others the truth he had discovered. The change of view caused a different attitude towards the arahat and the Pratyekabuddha. They were now considered egoists, and contrasted unfavourably with the Bodhisattva, whose dedication was praised. Another change which took place concerned the conception of time. The phenomenal world was no longer regarded as proceeding in time, but as operating idealistically. Therefore Buddhas were no longer conceived as following one another in time, as historical persons, but as manifesting themselves in this world spontaneously. The concept of Buddhahood was no longer directly connected with an historical figure, but considered as the ultimate goal for all, the germ of Buddhahood being present in every person. This outlook made the concept of Pratyekabuddha a mere possibility of the older schools. and deprived it of its historical reality within the tradition of Indian religiosity.

However as it was impossible to negate the concept, attempts were made to make it fit in with the new ideas. A discussion started as to whether there was any difference between the goals of the śrāvaka and the Pratyekabuddha on the one hand, and of the Bodhisattva on the other. Their Ways were different, but did this also result in different goals, in a different Enlightenment and Nirvāṇa?

This question resulted in the diverse opinions of the Mahāyānist philosophers regarding the three vehicles and the one vehicle, their distinctions and similarities.
Although it is not the intention of this paper to treat the concept of the Pratyekabuddha as it occurs in the Mahāyāna schools, a few fundamental differences between the Mahāyāna and Theravāda conceptions should be mentioned.
The idea that the three yānas lead to their own specific Bodhi and Nirvāṇa, as is found in the Saṃdhinirmocanasūtra and the Mahāyānasūtrālamkāra, and the idea that śrāvaka and Pratyekabuddha (dviyāna) on the one hand and Bodhisattva (ekayāna) on the other attain distinctive goals, as it can be found in the Laṅkāvatārasūtra and most of the Mādhyamika and Yogācāra works, were both refuted by other Mahāyānists. They postulated that there can be only one vehicle (ekayāna) since there is only one insight. This view has been expressed in the Saddharmapuṇdarīka thus: “The venerable Mahākāsyapa asked: ’If, O Lord, there are no three vehicles, for what reason has one at the present period formed the conception of disciples, Pratyekabuddhas and Buddhas?’ Being thus addressed, the Lord said to the venerable Mahākāsyapa: ’A potter makes many vessels out of the same clay. Some of them hold sugar, others ghee, others curd and milk, and others again impure waste matter. There is no difference in the clay, but only in the substances which are put in the resulting pots. Just so, O Kāsyapa, there is just this one single Buddha-vehicle, and a second or third vehicle does not exist.’ Being thus addressed the venerable Mahākāsyapa said to the Lord: ’But if, O Lord, those beings who have found their way out of the threefold world, have different dispositions, will their nirvana be one, two or three?’ The Lord said: ’Nirvana results from understanding the sameness of all dharmas. Hence there is but one nirvana, not two or three”’ (132 f.).

In this connection no separate existence is allotted to the śrāvaka—and Pratyekabuddha—vehicles. To attain Bodhi and Nirvāṇa one has to follow the ekayāna, the only way of the Bodhisattva. However, in many Mahāyāna works distinctions are made between the śrāvaka, Pratyekabuddha, and the Bodhisattva. The most important of these is the fact that śrāvakas and Pratyekabuddhas are said to be capable of purifying only the hindrance of the defilements (klesāvaraṇa) and not the hindrance of the knowable, the intellectual faults (jñeyāvaraṇa), while Bodhisattvas are said to purify both hindrances. The wisdom and knowledge of a Pratyekabuddha is very small compared to the wisdom of a Buddha: “If the ten points of space were filled with Pratyekabuddhas, free from faults, gifted with acute faculties and standing, in the last stage of their existences, as numerous as reeds and bamboos in the woods; and if combined for an endless number of myriads of koṭis of Aeons, they were to investigate a part only of my superior laws, they would never find out its real meaning” (Saddharmapuṇḍarika 32, vs. II, 12–13).

Some Mahāyāna works differentiate between the śrāvaka and the Pratyekabuddha by asserting that the former attains insight through meditation on the four noble truths, the latter through meditation on dependent origination (pratityasamutpāda). This idea gave rise to the use of the term Pratyayabuddha, “one who has become enlightened by (understanding) the causes,” for “by a thorough insight into causes and conditions (hetupratyaya) they hope to win final nirvana for themselves” (Saddharmapuṇḍarika III 80, 9). In Chinese and Tibetan translations this aspect has been given much attention, because in Tibetan the Pratyekabuddha is often referred to as “one who meditates on pratitya” (rten-’brel-bsgom), “who understands only the causes” (rkyen-gcig-rtogs), Reverence paid to Pratyekabuddhas remained, also in Mahāyāna surroundings, a means of acquiring merit; it has even been recommended by rulers in their edicts.


The Paccekabuddha

The Apadāna of the Khuddakanikāya belongs to the later works of the Pali Tipiṭaka and consists of a collection of stories in verse in which the instructive life-histories (apadāna) of saints and arahats have been related. The second section deals with the Paccekabuddha apadāna. In it the Khaggavisāṇasutta of the Suttanipāta has been inserted. Here the beginning and the concluding verses are given in translation.

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