For various reasons I have recently been reading a lot about pratyekabuddhas (Pāli paccekabuddhas), or ‘solitary buddhas’ as the usual translation would have it, since they are said to achieve awakening by themselves and do not found a ‘dispensation’ (śāsana) or teach disciples. Some important articles aside (especially Norman’s 1983 article on the subject), there are – as far as I know – only two book-length studies of the concept in the English language to date, those by Kloppenborg (1974) and Wiltshire (1990). Reading these two books side by side, as I have done this past week, has made me realise how little we know about this intriguing category.
Kloppenborg’s study is pretty meticulous, presenting all the major references to paccekabuddhas in Pāli sources and putting forward a general picture of the paccekabuddha‘s path and attributes. She helpfully points out that paccekabuddhas can in fact teach, and do in fact tend to congregate, usually in the Himalayas. She also provides a translation of the commentary to the famous Rhinoceros Horn sutta of the Sutta-nipāta, with its delightful tales of paccekabuddhas. However, her study has been criticised for being rather narrow. She takes no account of the concept of paccekabuddhas outside Pāli texts, either in other forms of Buddhism or more widely, nor does she provide a history of the development of the concept within Pāli sources. That said, the book is a thoroughly useful contribution, and I wish I had read it sooner.
Wiltshire’s study, which began as his PhD thesis, is at the other end of the spectrum. It claims to provide a new understanding of the ascetic milieu that produced the Buddha and other śramaṇas. The pratyekabuddhas, he claims, were ‘proto-śramaṇas’, and formed an ascetic tradition that later developed sectarian offshoots in the form of Buddhism and Jainism. This thesis, he suggests, is the best way of accounting for the similarities between Buddhism and Jainism, and the presence of pratyekabuddhas (both as concept and certain named individuals) in both traditions. There are, as many reviewers have pointed out (see, for example, Collins 1992, Norman 1992), some serious problems with Wiltshire’s hypothesis, and his grasp of the sources (and the languages of their composition) leaves much to be desired. As a result the book is rather disappointing, although it does serve to draw together a number of interesting sources.
What both Kloppenborg and Wiltshire miss is the fact that the term pratyekabuddha is actually not present in the earliest texts, even those that later take on an association with pratyekabuddhas or are presented as authored by them. A case in point is the Rhinoceros Horn sutta, which on a basic level is just about the benefits of ‘wandering lonely as a rhinoceros horn’. The commentary, which re-presents the verses as spoken by a variety of pratyekabuddhas, is clearly later and rather forced in some of its explanations of verses. Thus Kloppenborg’s attempts to “correct” previous translations of the verses in the light of commentarial explanations feels a little off the mark. Similarly, while the famous story of four kings that renounce is found in early texts of both Jain and Buddhist affiliation, it is only in later commentaries that these kings are said to be pratyekabuddhas. And Wiltshire is surely overstepping his evidence when he states that the shared mythology surrounding a renouncing king of Videha means that the pratyekabuddha tradition began in that region. Reading history from narratives is usually less helpful than situating narratives in history.
In his 1979 review of Kloppenborg’s book, Gombrich suggested that pratyekabuddhas may have been invented to fill a conceptual gap between samyaksambuddha and śrāvaka. I have always viewed them rather as filling a narrative gap – they fulfil the role of accomplished ascetic in a time without Buddhism, for example in stories of the Buddha’s past lives. That the term is most likely a pre-existing category taken up by Buddhist and Jain authors – as convincingly argued, for example, by Norman (1983) – is somewhat less interesting to me than the role the category plays once it has been incorporated into the narrative imaginations of the two religious traditions.
Collins, Steven. 1992. ‘Problems with Pacceka-Buddhas’ (Review of Wiltshire 1990). Religion 22/3: 271-8.
Gombrich, Richard F. 1979. Review of Kloppenborg 1974. Orientalische Literaturzeitung 74/1: 78-80.
Kloppenborg, Ria. 1974. The Paccekabuddha: A Buddhist Ascetic. Leiden: Brill.
Norman, K. R. 1983. ‘The Pratyeka-Buddha in Buddhism and Jainism’, in Philip Denwood and Alexander Piatigorsky (eds) Buddhist Studies: Ancient and Modern: 92-106. London and Dublin: Curzon.
Norman, K. R. 1992. Review of Wiltshire 1990. Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies 55/1: 144-5.
Wiltshire, Martin G. 1990. Ascetic Figures before and in Early Buddhism: The Emergence of Gautama as the Buddha. Berlin and New York: Mouton de Gruyter.