A brief guide to ‘Arhats’ in Theravada Buddhism

“The true ideal of Theravada Buddhism is the Arhat, the being who… realised Nirvana”

– Merv Fowler.

To put it simply: an arhat is an enlightened being who has discharged the burden of karma. Peter Harvey explains that an arhat is someone who has distinguished the three poisons, which are “attachment, hatred, delusion”.

In the period before the existence of Buddhism, the term ‘arhat’ was reserved to describe certain Hindu gods, royals and priests. The Buddha himself, Siddartha Gautama, used this term to describe something completely different.

The meaning of this term is “the worthy one” who deserves respect. An arhat is someone who is “fully endowed with all factors of the path” (P. Harvey), and thus has reached the end of the Noble Eightfold Path and has come to fully comprehend the true nature of existence.

Gautama is widely considered to be the most well-known arhat.

Since they have achieved inner peace, they are no longer mentally or actively selfish, and since they have broken free from the circle of Samsara, they are completely exempt from rebirth. Yet despite them being no longer able to experience pain and suffering, this by no means says that they are apathetic and devoid of emotion. In contrast, they are full of compassion and mercy.

Harvey states that an arhat is a being who has perfected these seven traits:

  1. Mindfulness
  2. Study of the Dharma (S)/Dhamma (P)
  3. Vigour
  4. Joyfulness
  5. Concentration
  6. Evenness of the mind

Whereas Skilton, on the other hand, says that the definition of an arhat is someone who has broken free of the 10 Fetters, which are:

  1. The belief in the self
  2. Reservations
  3. Engagements to rituals
  4. Sexual desire
  5. Bad wills
  6. Desire to live in the world
  7. Desire to live in the formless world
  8. Conceit
  9. Restlessness
  10. Ignorance

As the individual progresses through these steps, it gradually becomes harder to regress.

Who gets to be an arhat and how long the progress is to become fully enlightened:

Only monks can achieve the arhat status because of their devotion to the process. However, the laity can work towards being reborn as a monk by leading a good and ethical life through focusing on the Dhamma. Even for monks, it takes many lifetimes to achieve the perfect state of enlightenment.

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