Following my post last week, Giuliano Giustarini (Visiting Professor at Mahidol University) was kind enough to email me and to point out that my statement ‘the term pratyekabuddha is actually not present in the earliest texts’ is rather misleading. The Pāli paccekabuddha is found several times in the main Nikāyas, perhaps most notably in the Isigili Sutta (Majjhima Nikāya 116), which lists a number of such figures as having been resident on Mount Isigili. (For a study of this sutta and its Chinese parallels see Anālayo, ‘Paccekabuddhas in the Isigili-sutta and its Ekottarika-āgama Parallel’, Canadian Journal of Buddhist Studies 6 (2010): 5-36.)
The point I was trying to make was that while both Kloppenborg and Wiltshire treat their main sources (the Rhinoceros Horn Sutta and the story of the four kings respectively) as if they are pratyekabuddha stories plain and simple, in fact in neither case is the term or even concept found in the earliest layer. Indeed the four kings are primarily kings that renounce, not figures that attain bodhi – in the Uttarādhyayana they are referred to in a long list of renouncing royals, and in the Kumbhakāra-jātaka it is their renunciation that inspires the emulation of the Bodhisatta. Similarly, the injunction to wander lonely as a rhinoceros horn does not require an association with the pratyekabuddhas to make sense, and indeed its message is somewhat at odds with the many stories of pratyekabuddhas heading off to Mount Gandhamādana to congregate with other pratyekabuddhas.
As Giuliano rightly pointed out to me, the association between these texts and pratyekabuddhas looks to be old, since it crosses sectarian boundaries (both within and outside Buddhism). However, it would seem to me that neither the term nor the concept was clearly understood in the early period, and that these texts and motifs were preserved initially for their inherent lessons about renunciation rather than for their association with an obscure category of awakened being.
As it happens it was stories of renouncing royals that led me to read more about pratyekabuddhas in the first place, as I am undertaking some research into the lineage of Videhan monarchs who renounce their kingdoms, a lineage that is present across Hindu, Jain and Buddhist narratives. My little diversion into the world of pratyekabuddhas has been a fascinating one, and I hope that future scholarship will shed more light on these intriguing characters.