It is often believed that Bodhisattvas are an invention of Mahayana Buddhism or that one would have to be a Mahayana follower to be a Bodhisattva. The Bodhisattva ideal is regarded as the highest in both Mahayana and Theravada and both forms of Buddhism contain Bodhisattvas and non-Bodhisattvas.
In Theravada Buddhism, the term “bodhisatta” refers to an individual who aspires to become a Buddha in the future. It represents the path of a being who is dedicated to attaining enlightenment for the benefit of all sentient beings. The bodhisatta path involves cultivating virtues, perfections, and wisdom over countless lifetimes and eons of time.
In Mahayana, only bodhisattvas become buddhas. But to be bodhisattvas, they must have bodhicitta (‘awakened mind’) —the compassionate intention to delay their buddhahood until all other beings are saved from suffering. Obviously this intention does not prevail or there would be no buddhas.
Being a Bodhisattva is not as easy as putting on a robe. Here are the thoughts of two scholars on Bodhisattvas.
“The Mahayana mainly deals with the Bodhisattvayana or the vehicle of the Bodhisattva. But it does not ignore the other two [vehicles]: Sravaka-yana and Pratyekabuddha-yana.
—BODHISATTVA IDEAL IN THERAVADA AND MAHAYANA
By Ven. Dr. Walpola Rahula
“A sravaka is a disciple of a Buddha. A disciple may be a monk or a nun, a layman or a laywoman. Bent on his liberation, a Sravaka follows and practises the teaching of the Buddha and finally attains Nirvana. He also serves others, but his capacity to do so is limited.
A Pratyekabuddha (Individual Buddha) is a person who realizes Nirvana alone by himself at a time when there is no Samyaksambuddha in the world. He also renders service to others, but in a limited way. He is not capable of revealing the Truth to others as a Samvaksambuddha, a Fully Enlightened Buddha, does.
A Bodhisattva is a person (monk or layman) who is in a position to attain Nirvana as a Sravaka or as a Pratyekabuddha, but out of great compassion (mahakaruna) for the world, he renounces it and goes on suffering in samsara for the sake of others, perfects himself during an incalculable period of time and finally realizes Nirvana and becomes a Samyaksambuddha, a Fully Enlightened Buddha. He discovers the Truth and declares it to the world. His capacity for service to others is unlimited.”
—here, Ven. Dr. Walpola Rahula seems to be
referencing Asanga from his Yogacarabumisastra
in order to show Mahayana has the same divisions as Theravada
“From this we can see that anyone who aspires to become a Buddha is a Bodhisattva (a Mahayanist) though he may live in a country or in a community popularly and traditionally regarded as Theravada or Hinayana.
“Similarly, a person who aspires to attain Nirvana as a disciple is a Sravakayanika (or Hinayanist) though he may belong to a country or a community considered as Mahayana.
“Thus it is to believe that there are no Bodhisattvas in Theravada countries or that all are Bodhisattvas in Mahayana countries. It is not conceivable that Sravakas and Bodhisattvas are concentrated in separate geographical areas.
“These three states of the Sravaka, the Pratyekabuddha and the Buddha are mentioned in the Nidhikanda-sutta of the Khuddakapatha, the first book of the Khuddaka-nikaya, one of the five Collections of the Theravada Tipitaka. It says that by practising virtues such as charity, morality, self-restraint, etc., one may attain, among other things, “the perfection of the disciple” (savakaparami), “Enlightenment of the Pratyekabuddha” (paccekabodhi) and “the Buddha- domain” (buddhabhumi).[Samyutta-nikaya III (PTS), p. 66] They are not called yanas (vehicles).
“The Theravada, although it holds the Bodhisattva ideal as the highest and the noblest, does not provide a separate literature devoted to the subject. The teachings about the Bodhisattva ideal and the Bodhisattva career are to be found scattered in their due places in Pali literature.”
Full PDF available here:
BODHISATTVA IDEAL IN THERAVADA AND MAHAYANA
By Ven. Dr. Walpola Rahula
Extract from”Voice of Buddhism” magazine, Vol.8 No.2 Jun 1971, KDN No.5236, Published by Buddhist Missionary Society, Jalan Berhala, Kuala Lumpur.
Jeffrey Samuels identifies Nagajuna (1st C), Asanga (4th C), and Chandrakirti (7th C) as Mahayana writers who claimed Bodhisattvayana as exclusively Mahayana but he critiques their reasoning. Then he outlines its role in Theravada in a different way than above.
“This more expanded use of the term “bodhisattva” is explicitly expressed in the Khuddakapāṭha. In the eighth chapter of this canonical text (the Nidhikaṇḍasutta), the goal of buddhahood is presented as a goal that should be pursued by certain exceptional beings.
“This sutta illustrates that the goal of buddhahood and the path to the goal (i.e., bodhisattva-yana) are no longer simply associated with specific Buddhas of the past and future; rather, buddhahood is one of three possible goals that may be pursued by “wise and educated” people.
“Though the idea that anyone may become a Buddha through following the bodhisattva-yana is only present in seed form in some of the early Pali texts, it appears to have been taken seriously by Theravada Buddhists. This is illustrated in the lives of numerous Theravada kings, monks, and textual copyists who have taken the bodhisattva vow and are following the bodhisattva-yana to the eventual attainment of buddhahood. The relationship between kings and bodhisattvas has its source in the bodhisattva career of Gotama as depicted not only in his life as Prince Siddhartha (Pali: Siddhattha), but also in his penultimate earthly life when he was King Vessantara.
“By the eighth century C.E., the amalgamation between the institution of kingship and bodhisattvas was even stronger. At this time, we find evidence of certain Theravāda kings in Sri Lanka, Burma, and Thailand who openly declared themselves to be bodhisattvas.
“While many early Pāli uses of the term “bodhisattva” refer to Gotama prior to his attainment of buddhahood, in other canonical texts (such as the Buddhavaṃsa) the term designates a being who, out of compassion for other beings, vows to become a fully and completely enlightened Buddha (sammāsambuddha), performs various acts of merit, renounces the enlightenment of arahants, receives a prophecy of his future buddhahood, and fulfills or completes the ten bodhisattva perfections. In addition, the bodhisattva ideal was developed in terms of its application. Not only does the word “bodhisattva” pertain to Gotama and all previous Buddhas before their enlightenment, it also applies to any being who wishes to pursue the path to perfect buddhahood. This new development resulted in a more general adherence to the ideal by numerous Theravāda kings, monks, textual scholars, and even lay people.
“The state of buddhahood is highly praised in both traditions. In Mahāyāna Buddhism, this praise for and focus on the ideal of buddhahood has resulted in a vast amount of literature centred on the bodhisattva ideal. In the Theravāda tradition, on the other hand, the high regard for buddhahood has never led to a universal application of the goal, nor has it resulted in a vast amount of literature in which the bodhisattva concept is delineated. As K. R. Norman posits: “The Buddhavaṃsa is therefore a developed Bodhisattva doctrine, but it was not developed further, even in the Abhidharma.””
The Bodhisattvas ideal is common to Theravada and Mahayana but its actual practice is rare everywhere.