It is a disappointing essay.
In the final analysis, I have to confess my inability to provide a perfectly cogent solution to this problem. In view of the fact that in later times so many Buddhists, in Theravāda lands as well as in the Mahāyāna world, have been inspired by the bodhisattva ideal, it is perplexing that no teachings about a bodhisattva path or bodhisattva practices are included in the discourses regarded as coming down from the most archaic period of Buddhist literary history.
After the death of the Buddha, Buddhists (before the arising of the Mahayana) became focused on the person of the Buddha in a way that the Buddha himself at most discouraged and at least did not indulge in. From this we get a life story - a hagiography - of the Buddha not found in the suttas and interesting artifact of that is the name Siddhattha that is not found in the suttas, and we also get “life stories” of the other Buddhas.
Two things were also happening at this time. The first was a valorization of the idea of the Buddha, and a diminishment of the idea of the arahant. This happened in all schools to one degree or other, and many of the ideas around the valorization of the Buddha are catalogued in the Kathavatthu. The notions range from the Buddha being so pure that his poop smelled like sandalwood to the docetic notion of the Buddha being an emanation of a previously awakened being. It is this split from the radical position found in the suttas of the natures of the Buddha and the arahant that gave the idea of a bodhisatta path a place to germinate.
It would not be unexpected that some early Buddhists would, after the death of the Buddha, look at the Buddha as being the template of practice once there was a divide between the idea of the Buddha and that of the arahant. From the life story of the Buddha, which includes the story of his meeting with the Buddha Dipankara (probably further back in time than the earth is old), came a template for a path to do what the Buddha did, since all Buddhas supposedly follow the same pattern, teaching the same Dhamma. Again, this is something that is seemingly pan-Buddhist. Within the Theravada where this path gets drawn out is in the commentarial literature.
Within the Buddhist community as a whole, where this idea of a bodhisatta path gets drawn out is among those find the idea of becoming a Buddha more appealing than becoming an arahant. Though the history on this is sketchy, I would suspect that happened most within the pre-Mahayana schools of Buddhism that held a more highly valorized Buddha notion. Within these schools were smaller groups who focused upon the idea of becoming a Buddha, not unlike within mainstream American Christian denominations there are small groups of Charismatics focusing within the broader context of their denominations on their particular style of practice and experience.
It is from these “Charismatics” monks living side by side with their more traditional brothers within the various ordination lineages that the Mahayana arose. And the Mahayana was not a singular thing, but loose grouping of those who held to the idea of the bodhisattva idea as being prime. Mahayana, seemingly, in its earliest guise was not an oppositional movement. It was not in opposition to the Mainstream schools that did not put their focus on the path of the bodhisatta. And in looking at the very early Mahayana/bodhisattva sutras there was no oppositional use of the term hinayana to describe that who did not practice the developing bodhisattva path.
To the contrary, the path of the arhat was seen as a legitimate path to be taught and the bodhisattva path was for the very few who could follow the great way, Mahayana, and we see that bodhisattva path looked a lot like the path that developed out of the Buddha hagiographies.
Obviously, however, something changes, which was likely that the followers of the Mainstream schools did not accept and likely criticized the newly emerging ideas of an alternate path of practice and of certain philosophical ideas that found a home with within the emerging Mahayana movements.
And the Mahayanists struck back. Here in chapter 2 of the Lotus Sutra is an expression of the dissatisfaction, put into the Buddha’s mouth, by the Mahayana monks with those who would not listen to the Mahayana teachings. These non-believers are called arrogant and “twigs and leaves,” which is an idiom for trash.
Then Śāriputra again addressed the Buddha: “O Bhagavat! Please explain it [emptiness]! I entreat you to explain it, because in this assembly there are innumerable hundreds of thousands of myriads of koṭis of incalculable sentient beings, sharp in faculties and possessed of wisdom, who have previously encountered the buddhas. When they hear the teaching of the Buddha they will trust, believe, and accept it.”
. . .
Then the Buddha again tried to dissuade Śāriputra, saying: “If I explain it, the devas, humans, and asuras in all the worlds will be astounded, and arrogant monks will certainly go to their downfall.” At that time the Bhagavat again spoke in verse:
Enough, enough! Speak no more!
The Dharma that I have attained
Is excellent and incomprehensible.
Though the arrogant hear it,
They will never accept it.
. . .
Therefore listen carefully and pay close attention! I will now illuminate and explain it.”
When he said this, five thousand monks, nuns, laymen, and laywomen in the assembly immediately got up from their seats, bowed to the Buddha, and left. What was the reason for this? Because the roots of error among this group had been deeply planted and they were arrogant, thinking they had attained what they had not attained and had realized what they had not realized. Because of such defects they did not stay. And the Bhagavat remained silent and did not stop them.
Then the Buddha addressed Śāriputra: “My assembly here is free of useless twigs and leaves; only the pure essence remains.
“O Śāriputra! Let the arrogant ones go! Listen carefully and I will explain it to you.”
Then Śāriputra replied: “Indeed, O Bhagavat, I greatly desire to hear it.”
Then the Buddha addressed Śāriputra: “Only very rarely do the Buddha
Tathāgatas teach such a True Dharma as this, as rarely as the uḍumbara flower blooms.
“O Śāriputra! Trust and accept what the Buddha teaches! My words are never false.
“O Śāriputra! The real intention of all the buddhas in adapting their explanations to what is appropriate is difficult to understand. Why is this? Because I have expounded the teachings with innumerable skillful means and various kinds of explanations and illustrations. Yet this Dharma is beyond reason and discernment. Only the buddhas can understand it. Why is this? Because the Buddha Bhagavats appear in this world for one great purpose alone. O Śāriputra! Now I will explain why I said that the Buddha Bhagavats appear in this world for only one great purpose.
It is probably with this text, the Lotus Sutra, that the word hinayana first gets used. It is a very strongly negative word. In Sanskrit and Pali, hina
, however, comes from the root ha
: to abandon, to forsake, to avoid, to leave behind which gives us hina
: inferior, low, poor, miserable, vile, base, abject, contemptible, despicable, rejected, thrown away, scorned. In idiomatic English hinayana would be the "piss-poor vehicle" or the "garbage vehicle." In and of itself, the word hinayana is an ugly derogatory, divisive, derisive epithet. It is a put down term, which is then coupled with a nasty us-versus-them polemic.
The term Mahayana gets coupled with the term hinayana, moving away from its original meaning. In other words, the Mahayana becomes an oppositional movement, developing their ideas in opposition to what they see as, to understate it, lesser. The bodhisattva becomes more and more valorized, more and more “compassionate” and more and more unrealistic in terms of what we find in the earliest texts.
It is not that the bodhisattva notion in the Mahayana cannot be inspiring, and certainly in as much as the practice leads to insight into anicca, dukkha, anatta and paticcasamuppada, it is of value, but I see no value in trying to, as Ven Bodhi states, “integrate of the vehicles.” There is no reason why, as Theravadins, we cannot extend respect to the Mahayanists, finding value in their teachings and insights, but the Theravada is not a vehicle. It is a magga, a path of practice, that is, in itself, complete.