Q. According to Buddhism is it better to be a Bodhisattva or an Arahant? I’ve heard quite a few conflicting things about this so would be good to get some clarity.
Tom: According to the Pali Suttas, the earliest records of Buddha’s teachings, true enlightenment/liberation is to be an Arahant, a Boddhisattva being anyone who desires liberation. By this definition, a Bodhisattva is unenlightened and still stuck in suffering/samsara, and an Arahant is an enlightened sage.
In later Buddhist schools/thought, a Bodhisattva became someone who foregoes enlightenment in order to help all sentient beings attain liberation. The idea here is that an Arahant, whilst liberated, is somehow ‘cold’ and ‘self-centred’ (I don’t agree with this by the way), placing their enlightenment above others, and so the ‘compassionate’ Bodhisattva rejects full liberation in place of compassion towards others. The problem with this, as has been oft pointed out, is that only a ‘liberated being’ can lead another to full liberation, and that with Nirvana, duality and the sense of ‘another’ outside of yourself, ceases (please excuse my dualistic language – see these quotes from Diamond sutra if you are unsure what I am talking about here when I say ‘dualistic language’)
Later still, a Bodhisattva was defined loosely as a compassionate enlightened being who helps all others attain liberation. By this definition, a Bodhisattva is a desirable outcome!
So take your pick!
There is more complexity and nuance in this topic if you want to delve into it, but the above is a broad outline. Hope that helps 🙏