illustration (attribution, if any possible, is at the end of the article)
Nirvāṇa is unconditioned. The Eightfold Path helps you tear veils off your eyes, but it cannot guarantee you won't put new veils up! Possessing a raft is not the same as crossing the river; opening a door is not the same as walking through the threshold… If you open the door, but then close it again, you're still stuck and need to re-open the door… The path helps you remove obstacles, it doesn't prevent you from raising new ones, thus there is no guarantee: nirvāṇa is unconditioned, not even conditioned by a particular path (no matter how helpful the path is to remove obstacles).
Paccekabuddhas, or "solitary buddhas", basically understand suffering and realise impermanence and selflessness "by themselves" (without being guided by the Dharma) and, having let go of ignorance and of clinging, they attain nibbāna. The Theravāda tradition accepts their existence but 'downgrades' them for one reason: they cannot teach the Dharma to others.
The reason for which they cannot teach is relatively simple: they might have understood what was needed to stop clinging in their own particular circumstances… However, because they did not take a systematic approach, and because nobody else would have the exact same circumstances, they cannot help others.
Teaching others requires having followed the path of a bodhisattva: a bodhisattva chooses to be reborn —in spite of the cessation of clinging— in order to go through different circumstances of suffering and study them systematically to find various 'solutions'… Having met an infinite variety of 'circumstances', a bodhisattva can then become a 'full' buddha and teach to people regardless of their circumstances (since he experienced them all first-hand)!
A "second best" path is to become an arahant, who would only know their personal circumstances but could at least act as "senior monks" and repeat the teachings from a buddha…
According to the Theravāda tradition, paccekabuddhas rank lower than arahants, because not only do they only know their own circumstances but also they cannot even transmit teachings second-hand.
This order is obviously in line with the traditionalist perspective of Theravāda, thus valuing the arahants within their 'tradition' higher than the buddhas out of their tradition… so the need for a pinch of salt should be quite obvious.
The fact remains that even the most traditionalist school of Buddhism considers that nibbāna may be realised without hearing the Dharma!
The key point is: whatever the path, there is no guarantee! Learning is dependent on conditions; you can learn from someone or you can learn by experience, you can be systematic or simply enjoy the benefits of 'lucky' circumstances…
What matters is: did you cease suffering? Are you, at least, on the way towards less —or no— suffering?
Any certainty in a path being necessarily or automatically superior to another is merely a form of clinging to an 'arbitrary' certainty ('arbitrary' since it is accepted without considering how the current specific context differs from previous / other contexts… and how the difference in context might require a change in the appropriate course of action). Clinging is the main cause of suffering…
Theravāda says that the raft has to be left behind after crossing the river… There is no point in carrying the raft forever on one's back.
Drop any clinging now. Stop creating new certainties every time a certainty is weakened (or destroyed). Accept there is no 'general' rule, thus learn to pay attention to what's here and now. If a response is needed, pick one as a function of the context and circumstances, not as a function of (prejudiced) certainties or (predetermined) "lines in the sand."
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