Question: How is the enlightenment of Arhats different from Buddhas’? What about that of Bodhisattvas and Pratyekabuddhas?
Answer: The enlightenment of Arhats can be called self-liberation – from the cycle of birth and death. Self-liberation here does not mean they attained liberation all by themselves, as they did learn the Dharma from a Buddha directly or indirectly to practise his teachings accordingly. Self-liberation here means having liberated oneself from rebirth. This contrasts with Buddhas, who were able to liberate themselves in the lifetime they attained Buddhahood without guidance from anyone. In this sense, Buddhas are the truly ‘self-liberated.’ However, they should have learnt the Dharma from other Buddhas in previous lives too.
The enlightenment of Buddhas is called full liberation. This also implies that Arhats have yet to be fully liberated, as they have yet to realise perfect or complete compassion and wisdom like the Buddhas did. Compassion and wisdom here is shorthand, representative of all virtues that can be fully cultivated. What Arhats have realised is enough compassion and wisdom to liberate at least themselves, while Buddhas have realised immeasurable compassion and wisdom, to be willing and able to guide all beings towards both self-liberation (of Arhathood) and full liberation (of Buddhahood).
It is not such that one has to choose either self or full liberation only, as the Buddha taught that all become Buddhas, including Arhats, if they give rise to Bodhicitta, the aspiration to guide all to Buddhahood, and practise the Bodhisattva path accordingly. Bodhisattvas who have perfected their practice become Buddhas. Bodhisattvas in training can be those who had already attained self-liberation, or those yet to, as there are many stages of Bodhisattvahood. The swiftest path to give rise to strong Bodhicitta, and to clear all these stages without backsliding is through training in Amituofo’s [Amitabha Buddha] Pure Land.
In the sutras, we can see clear differences in skilful impact of Arhats’ and Buddhas’ guidance of others towards enlightenment. As all Arhats and Bodhisattvas arise from Buddhas’ guidance, all Buddhas are naturally interested in nurturing future-Buddhas, by inspiring as many as possible to aspire for Buddhahood. The paths to both self and full liberation will after all be lost without Buddhas! What about Pratyekabuddhas? They are those who lacked karmic affinity in their present lives to encounter any Buddha, his teachings or others interested what they realised, whom nevertheless attained the self-liberation of Pratyekabuddhahood by observing nature and their minds. They should have encountered the Dharma in their past lives though. As defined above, Buddhas are also somewhat but ultimate Bodhisattvas, Arhats and Pratyekabuddhas!
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