Labels are illusions like all conditioned phenomena, but I have an attachment to taxonomy and being able to describe myself accurately. I'm working on that, but in the meantime, I thought this would be a good question for the stack.

How best can people describe themselves in the hierarchy/ecology of believers if they aren't living the monastic life of the Bhikkhu/Bhikkhuṇī (monk/nun), but still consider themselves as living a life driven by the dhamma?

I personally identify as Theravada/Pali canon/early Bhuddism, but an answer specifying Mahayana/Vajrayana titles is also welcome!

Ideally I'd like Pali words and their best English equivalents, but obviously including Sanskrit versions too would be polite (^_^)

BONUS POINTS: My gender is non-binary (genderqueer/agender) and thus I really need a title that can apply to me without need to specify gender. If I ever become a monastic I will really have my work cut out for me and/or a need to compromise, but for any non-monastics with non-binary gender, which titles are functional for us?

  • Welcome and Bienvenue to the site. You may like to read that this site has a few non-standard policies, which are summarised and indexed here. – ChrisW Jan 19 '18 at 23:15
  • Thanks Chris. Seems like my question and answer are safe but please let me know if I can do better :) – jerclarke Jan 19 '18 at 23:22
  • What is meant by "non-binary gender", physical or just mental confused? – Samana Johann Jan 20 '18 at 0:30
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    Samana here is the relevant Wikipedia article: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Genderqueer So that you know, "mental confused" as a description of transgender people is not acceptable and considered very rude. The question I believe you are trying to ask is whether I am intersex (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Intersex) or not, to which my answer is that it isn't relevant because my gender identity is what is important, not my genitalia. – jerclarke Jan 20 '18 at 1:57
  • People are welcome to discuss gender in one of the chat rooms or elsewhere. – ChrisW Jan 20 '18 at 2:24

you might get a few answers but here is my thought:

Śrāvaka (Sanskrit) or Sāvaka (Pali) means "hearer" or, more generally, or"disciple", or "one who sits near", "one who lend ears"

Gender neutral and describes all level of achievements.

  • Thanks! I wrote my own answer up with more detail, but yours is exactly right and the same conclusion I came to. Gonna keep editing mine hopefully and add more details :) – jerclarke Jan 19 '18 at 22:46
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    Come to think of it, savaka were also used for followers of other great 8 religions at Buddha's time too. It doesn't give clear answer as what one listens to. I'm a savaka but a savaka to whom? Chris' answer might be a more direct hit. Good luck. – user5056 Jan 20 '18 at 2:25
  • I’d be a Buddha savaka presumably, just like I follow the Dhamma and that’s the right word, even though really I should specify “Buddha Dhamma” in some cases. – jerclarke Jan 20 '18 at 13:43

There's Saddhānusārī translated "faith follower".

And Dhammānusārī translated "follower of the law".

According to SN 25.1 these appear to be on the road to stream entry.

  • Thanks these are interesting new answers! I’ll add them to my big answer as further options. – jerclarke Jan 20 '18 at 14:04

So to answer my own question, with Theravada emphasis, there are two main categories that apply to non-monastics:

TODO: Add "uninstructed worldling" as an option for fun. Research "Bhauddhaya"

Upāsaka (masculine) or Upāsikā (feminine)

  • Translates to "attendant" and means "devout follower". (Wikipedia link)
  • Specifically refers to people who are not part of a monastic order.

Śrāvaka (Sanskrit) / Sāvaka (Pali) : Masculine or Śrāvikā (Sanskrit) / Sāvikā (Pali) : Feminine

  • Translates to "hearer" and means "disciple" (Wikipedia link)
  • Transcends monastic-lay divisions and can refer to anyone from the following "four assemblies":
    • bhikkhus ("monks")
    • bhikkuṇīs ("nuns")
    • upāsakas and upāsikā (laypersons)
  • Does not describe Mahāyāna Buddhists: As noted in the "Mahāyāna view" section of the Savaka wikipedia article, the word "śrāvakas" has a very precise connotation when used in the Mahāyāna context, which implies that "śrāvaka" means someone "set on their own liberation, and cultivating detachment in order to attain liberation". I.e. Theravada Buddhists seeking nibbana, in contrast to Mahāyāna Buddhists following the Bodhisattva path to "liberation of all beings".


  • Translates to "faith follower"
  • Mentioned in Cakkhu Sutta: The Eye (Pali)

    Monks, the eye is inconstant, changeable, alterable. The ear... The nose... The tongue... The body... The mind is inconstant, changeable, alterable.

    "One who has conviction & belief that these phenomena are this way is called a faith-follower: one who has entered the orderliness of rightness, entered the plane of people of integrity, transcended the plane of the run-of-the-mill. He is incapable of doing any deed by which he might be reborn in hell, in the animal womb, or in the realm of hungry shades. He is incapable of passing away until he has realized the fruit of stream-entry."

  • Based on this, it seems to imply a very high minimum level of attainment to qualify, as you would have to be very precisely a sotapanna-magga (on the path to stream entry) with a guarantee of becomming sotapanna-phala (accomplishing stream entry) within your current lifetime.
  • Strikes me as a title that few would ever want to apply to themselves, and essentially equivalent to sotapanna-magga, though I am not clear yet on whether sotapanna-magga explicitly means you will accomplish stream entry in the current life or not.

Conclusion: Savaka describes all Theravada Buddhists

So it seems, the best, most generic term that applies to any non-Mahāyāna Buddhist, regardless of gender or role is Savaka, a disciple of Buddha with unspecified gender but also unspecified role as monastic or lay person.

If you have male or female gender, you would be both a Savaka and a Upāsaka or Upāsikā.

If you are part of a monastic order then you are also a Bhikkhu or Bhikkuṇī

If you can lay claim to any spiritual attainments then you can also use a variety of words to describe these achievements. These include Saddhānusārī, and of course the Four stages of enlightenment, for example the most accessible stage, Sotapanna.

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    That means if calling your self Savaka is seen as claiming an attainment broadly, as for SEAsian communities. They bow daily to the Savaka-Sangha. – Samana Johann Jan 20 '18 at 0:41
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    Also, sravaka explicitly identifies the person as non-mahayana follower. I believe that's what you want, so we are fine here. – Andrei Volkov Jan 21 '18 at 0:16
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    There's a text (I don't know how many others) where "the Hearer family" is distinguished from "the Mahayana family" -- I'm not sure why -- I think the three distinguishing "marks" stated there are "afraid of samsara" and "yearning for nibbana" and "little interest in benefiting sentient beings". – ChrisW Jan 22 '18 at 2:14
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    Okay, yeah, thanks @ChrisW, I read this in the Savaka wikipedia article ("Mahāyāna view" section). So it seems that it's the same word, which is pretty generic, but for Mahāyāna followers, it's a kind of "slur" against Theravada followers, associated with the doctrinal disagreements, rather than with it's original meaning. – jerclarke Jan 22 '18 at 20:26
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    In my added pali link, you can found "sāvakānaṃ bhikkhūnaṃ" and "sāvikānaṃ bhikkhunīnaṃ". – Bonn Feb 6 '18 at 2:52

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