The Bodhisattva Ideal in Theravada Buddhism

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The Bodhisattva Ideal in Theravada Buddhism

Postby Just Dave » Sun Oct 18, 2009 9:45 pm

Hello friends.

Several weeks ago I came upon an internet link which featured the blurb "the Bodhisattva ideal in Theravada" but unfortunatley the link did not work.

I was wondering if any one could say a little something about this.

My initial feelings on seeing the blurb were to the effect of "if a being is enlightened, he or she will be naturally motivated by great compassion for their fellow beings, and probably were motivated by great compassion prior to realising their enlightenment. They are not likely to say screw you guys, I'm going home - entering into a nirvana that is devoid of any thought for the non-enlightened in samsara, leaving them to simply get on with it.

I am not as well-versed in the Suttas as I should be. It is something I am working on.

What do they say, if anything, about compassion in regards to being a pre-requisite for enlightenment; about vows to remain and not enter Nirvana until the "lower realms are emptied" and so forth?

Thank you.
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Re: The Bodhisattva Ideal in Theravada Buddhism

Postby David N. Snyder » Sun Oct 18, 2009 10:14 pm

In Theravada, bodhisattva is bodhisatta in Pali and refers to a being on the way to buddha-hood. The Buddha of our time, Gotama (or Shakyamuni as he is sometimes called in Mahayana) was perfecting the paramitas over countless lifetimes, literally tens of thousands of lifetimes.

Karuna (compassion) is one of the ten paramitas in Theravada Buddhism. The Buddha was perfecting dana (generosity) and compassion in his most recent lives before being born the final time.

Becoming a Buddha or a fully enlightened arahant is no easy task and so there are countless lifetimes to perfect the paramitas and to help others. In my opinion, waiting until all beings are liberated is sort of apocalyptic thinking, such as the thinking that one day the world will end, not just the physical world, but the spiritual too, that all beings will be liberated and there won't be any more beings at all anymore. Physically it would mean that all animals, insects, reptiles, birds, fish, and sea mammals would be dead and re-born as humans who would all enter nirvana at once? In the last days, there would only be humans and no other animals of any kind? In my opinion, I just don't see that happening.

There will always be some sort of living beings in this world system or another. But we can be compassionate and do what we can to assist others. Since enlightenment is most likely a long way off, we can show compassion in any way we can along the long journey, as a Theravadin or a Mahayanist.
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Re: The Bodhisattva Ideal in Theravada Buddhism

Postby Just Dave » Sun Oct 18, 2009 10:30 pm

Thanks for that, David.

Your post has helped.

In my six years practicing Buddhism (within a Mahayana school) I was never led to the understanding, via any teacher or community, that there was a "bodhisatta" in the Pali canon.

So is the main difference between Theravada thought and Mahayana thought that the Bodhisatta, in the former, is a being working towards Buddhahood, and in the latter, a being working towards a Buddhahood that will work towards liberating all?

I am intrigued by what you say about the unlikelyhood about a total liberation of beings. I have never looked at the notion from that angle.

It follows then that the Buddha in the Suttas will not have mentioned the neccesity of any vows regarding achieving enlightenment for the benefit of all beings?
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Re: The Bodhisattva Ideal in Theravada Buddhism

Postby David N. Snyder » Sun Oct 18, 2009 10:43 pm

Just Dave wrote:It follows then that the Buddha in the Suttas will not have mentioned the neccesity of any vows regarding achieving enlightenment for the benefit of all beings?


No mention of vows in the Pali Canon, that I am aware of.

No vows taken by all Theravada Buddhists, but in the past some of the disciples of the Buddha did voluntarily make a vow or resolve to be for example, his attendant (Ananda) and other such resolves to be around during the time of a samma-sam-buddha (teaching Buddha, such as Gotama).

We practice and develop paramitas for the benefit of all beings, but don't go with a notion of "entering nirvana" with all beings.
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Re: The Bodhisattva Ideal in Theravada Buddhism

Postby Just Dave » Sun Oct 18, 2009 10:55 pm

TheDhamma wrote:We practice and develop paramitas for the benefit of all beings, but don't go with a notion of "entering nirvana" with all beings.


Thank you for clarifying this.

Another question that may just be covering the same ground:

In Theravada a bodhisatta is a being who has worked towards enlightenment over many lifetimes.

In Mahayana, however, a Bodhisattva is often described as a being who is enlightened and exists over many lifetimes, in various forms, benefitting sentient beings.

Is there any mention of such a being in the Pali canon?
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Re: The Bodhisattva Ideal in Theravada Buddhism

Postby retrofuturist » Sun Oct 18, 2009 10:59 pm

Greetings Dave,

Just Dave wrote:Is there any mention of such a being in the Pali canon?


If you mean, is there any mention of him being born a Buddha/arahant, then certainly not in the Pali Canon. However some of the hagiography that has come to exist about his birth does seem to blur a few lines.

I've also heard some theories put forward that he was born a sekha (a non-arahant ariyan one) but I've never found those particularly convincing.

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Re: The Bodhisattva Ideal in Theravada Buddhism

Postby Just Dave » Sun Oct 18, 2009 11:09 pm

Thanks Retro, both for the clarification and a new word: 'hagiography' (I had to look it up :tongue: )
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Re: The Bodhisattva Ideal in Theravada Buddhism

Postby BlackBird » Sun Oct 18, 2009 11:15 pm

Hi all

I think this article might be some help here:

'Arahants, Buddhas and Bodhisattvas - Bhikkhu Bodhi
http://www.buddhanet.net/budsas/ebud/ebdha335.htm

Here's a snip:

Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi wrote:In the Nikāyas themselves, he is depicted not merely as the first of the arahants, but as one member of a class of beings – the Tathāgatas – who possess unique characteristics that set them apart from all other beings including their arahant disciples. The Nikāyas, moreover, regard the Tathāgatas as supreme in the entire order of sentient beings: "To whatever extent, monks, there are beings, whether footless or with two feet, four feet, or many feet, whether having form or formless, whether percipient or nonpercipient, or neither percipient nor nonpercipient, the Tathāgata, the Arahant, the Perfectly Enlightened One is declared the best among them" (AN 4:34).

Now since the Buddha is distinguished from his liberated disciples in the ways sketched above, it seems almost self-evident that in his past lives he must have followed a preparatory course sufficient to issue in such an exalted state, namely, the course of a bodhisattva. This conclusion is, in fact, a point of common agreement among the Buddhist schools, both those derived from Early Buddhism and those belonging to the Mahāyāna, and seems to me beyond dispute. According to all Buddhist traditions, to attain the supreme enlightenment of a Buddha requires the forming of a deliberate resolution and the fulfillment of the spiritual perfections, the pāramis or pāramitās; and it is a bodhisattva who consummates the practice of these perfections.


Metta
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Re: The Bodhisattva Ideal in Theravada Buddhism

Postby Just Dave » Sun Oct 18, 2009 11:24 pm

Cheers Black bird.

This article does help.

*Bookmarked*
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Re: The Bodhisattva Ideal in Theravada Buddhism

Postby Individual » Mon Oct 19, 2009 6:55 am

Just Dave wrote:Hello friends.

Several weeks ago I came upon an internet link which featured the blurb "the Bodhisattva ideal in Theravada" but unfortunatley the link did not work.

I was wondering if any one could say a little something about this.

My initial feelings on seeing the blurb were to the effect of "if a being is enlightened, he or she will be naturally motivated by great compassion for their fellow beings, and probably were motivated by great compassion prior to realising their enlightenment. They are not likely to say screw you guys, I'm going home - entering into a nirvana that is devoid of any thought for the non-enlightened in samsara, leaving them to simply get on with it.

I am not as well-versed in the Suttas as I should be. It is something I am working on.

What do they say, if anything, about compassion in regards to being a pre-requisite for enlightenment; about vows to remain and not enter Nirvana until the "lower realms are emptied" and so forth?

Thank you.

The difference between Bodhisattva and Arahant in Theravada and Mahayana is mostly semantics, not one of ideals. If you described an Arahant's traits to a Mahayana Buddhist, he could just as easily be called a Bodhisattva, and vice-versa.
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Re: The Bodhisattva Ideal in Theravada Buddhism

Postby Paññāsikhara » Mon Oct 19, 2009 7:08 am

Individual wrote:The difference between Bodhisattva and Arahant in Theravada and Mahayana is mostly semantics, not one of ideals. If you described an Arahant's traits to a Mahayana Buddhist, he could just as easily be called a Bodhisattva, and vice-versa.


Not at all. Although there are a variety of different perspectives amongst Mahayana schools (eg. Madhyamaka, Yogacara, Tathagatagarbha, hybrids of these three, Tantra), the vast majority consider that although there are common or shared qualities that both possess, in addition bodhisattvas have certain un-shared qualities that arhats do not have.

Of course, whether or not the general idea of what a bodhisattva or an arhat is in these Mahayana schools corresponds to what they are considered in the Theravada to be, is perhaps another matter. But I am responding here to the statement that "If you described ... to a Mahayana Buddhist", so that is largely irrelevant.
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Re: The Bodhisattva Ideal in Theravada Buddhism

Postby Paññāsikhara » Mon Oct 19, 2009 7:15 am

Just Dave wrote:Hello friends.

Several weeks ago I came upon an internet link which featured the blurb "the Bodhisattva ideal in Theravada" but unfortunatley the link did not work.

I was wondering if any one could say a little something about this.

My initial feelings on seeing the blurb were to the effect of "if a being is enlightened, he or she will be naturally motivated by great compassion for their fellow beings, and probably were motivated by great compassion prior to realising their enlightenment. They are not likely to say screw you guys, I'm going home - entering into a nirvana that is devoid of any thought for the non-enlightened in samsara, leaving them to simply get on with it.

I am not as well-versed in the Suttas as I should be. It is something I am working on.

What do they say, if anything, about compassion in regards to being a pre-requisite for enlightenment; about vows to remain and not enter Nirvana until the "lower realms are emptied" and so forth?

Thank you.



Hmm, in a Theravada Forum that could quite easily double as a Bhikkhu Bodhi Fan Club, I'm surprised that nobody has posted this link yet:
http://www.what-buddha-taught.net/Books ... aramis.htm

A Treatise on the Paramis

From the Commentary to the Cariyapitaka
Acariya Dhammapala


Translated from the Pali by
Bhikkhu Bodhi
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Re: The Bodhisattva Ideal in Theravada Buddhism

Postby mikenz66 » Mon Oct 19, 2009 7:25 am

Paññāsikhara wrote:Of course, whether or not the general idea of what a bodhisattva or an arhat is in these Mahayana schools corresponds to what they are considered in the Theravada to be, is perhaps another matter. But I am responding here to the statement that "If you described ... to a Mahayana Buddhist", so that is largely irrelevant.

Yes, well, that's Individuals point, isn't it? The Mahayana have an Arahat definition that is a radical downgrade of the Theravada Arahant.

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Re: The Bodhisattva Ideal in Theravada Buddhism

Postby Paññāsikhara » Mon Oct 19, 2009 7:41 am

mikenz66 wrote:
Paññāsikhara wrote:Of course, whether or not the general idea of what a bodhisattva or an arhat is in these Mahayana schools corresponds to what they are considered in the Theravada to be, is perhaps another matter. But I am responding here to the statement that "If you described ... to a Mahayana Buddhist", so that is largely irrelevant.

Yes, well, that's Individuals point, isn't it? The Mahayana have an Arahat definition that is a radical downgrade of the Theravada Arahant.

Mike


Is it? Is that his point?

He says:
"The difference between Bodhisattva and Arahant in Theravada and Mahayana is mostly semantics, not one of ideals. If you described an Arahant's traits to a Mahayana Buddhist, he could just as easily be called a Bodhisattva, and vice-versa."

For a start, there is a fair amount of ambiguity in this statement.

For instance, "The difference between Bodhisattva and Arahant in Theravada and Mahayana" -- does that mean "The difference between a Bodhisatta in Theravada and a Bodhisattva in Mahayana, and the difference between an Arahant in Theravada and an Arhat in Mahayana"? Or, does it mean "The difference between a Bodhisatta in Theravada and an Arhat in Mahayana"? Or, something else?

And, likewise for the last statement, "If you described an Arahant's traits to a Mahayana Buddhist, he could just as easily be called a Bodhisattva" -- does this mean "Describe an Arahant's traits (according to the Theravada or Mahayana Buddhist?) to a Mahayana Buddhist, he could just as easily be called a Bodhisattva (by whom?, the Theravadin or the Mahayanist?)"

But, the statement "and vice versa" shows it goes both ways. Do we end up with all possible combinations?
Whatever the case, I seriously doubt that it is merely a matter of "semantics" at all.
There is overlap, and often conflation, but it is much more complex than that.

Moreover, it is not the case that all the Mahayana groups "downgrade" the Arhat.
For the first several hundreds years of the Mahayana tradition, often the basic definition remained pretty much the same.
Here is a simple definition from Nagarjuna:

Sūtra: All were arhats.
Śāstra: What does arhat mean?
1. Ara means enemy (ari) and hat means to kill (han). He who has destroyed all these enemies that are called the afflictions (kleśa) is called an arhat.
2. Furthermore, the arhats who have destroyed all the impurities (kṣīṇāsrava) deserve (arhanti) veneration (pūja) by the gods and men of all the universes (loka).
3. Finally, a designates negation and rahat designates birth. He who will never again be reborn in future generations is called arhat.


Theravadins are usually more familiar with the "deserving veneration", but the others are generally just as valid.
If you see any "degradation" here, please let me know, I would interested to see where.
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Re: The Bodhisattva Ideal in Theravada Buddhism

Postby BlackBird » Mon Oct 19, 2009 8:19 am

Paññāsikhara wrote:Theravada Forum that could quite easily double as a Bhikkhu Bodhi Fan Club


Image
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Re: The Bodhisattva Ideal in Theravada Buddhism

Postby mikenz66 » Mon Oct 19, 2009 8:26 am

Hmm, OK, I'll let Individual explain himself in future.
Paññāsikhara wrote:If you see any "degradation" here, please let me know, I would interested to see where.

The "degradation" I was thinking of was the idea that an Arahant is missing something and has more work to do, which the Theravada clearly would not accept.

Since I am no expert on Mahayana I'll leave it to you an other to explain which groups think what...

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Re: The Bodhisattva Ideal in Theravada Buddhism

Postby Paññāsikhara » Mon Oct 19, 2009 8:48 am

mikenz66 wrote:Hmm, OK, I'll let Individual explain himself in future.
Paññāsikhara wrote:If you see any "degradation" here, please let me know, I would interested to see where.

The "degradation" I was thinking of was the idea that an Arahant is missing something and has more work to do, which the Theravada clearly would not accept.

Since I am no expert on Mahayana I'll leave it to you an other to explain which groups think what...

Metta
Mike


And again, a lot of Mahayana sutras will state that an arhat has "done what was to be done" (kṛta-kṛtya).

Example:
"...all of whom were arhats, who had exhausted the influxes, who were like trained elephant kings (nāgarāja), who had done what was to be done, who had abandoned the heavy burden, who had reached their own benefit, who had eliminated the bonds of existence, who were well released in mind by right gnosis, whose minds had attained freedom ..."

Could somebody please point out the denigration in this passage? The sutra does not at any other point indicate that they are "missing something" or "have more work to do". They are done. Finished. Completed.
Now, other sutras may indicate that they are "missing something", and "have more work to do".

But, this is not a universal Mahayana position by any means.
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Re: The Bodhisattva Ideal in Theravada Buddhism

Postby mikenz66 » Mon Oct 19, 2009 8:55 am

Hi Paññāsikhara,
Paññāsikhara wrote:Could somebody please point out the denigration in this passage? The sutra does not at any other point indicate that they are "missing something" or "have more work to do". They are done. Finished. Completed.
Now, other sutras may indicate that they are "missing something", and "have more work to do".

Yes, I guess that's what I was getting confused about. Some seem to put a lot of weight on those...
Thanks for the clarification (as always :))
Paññāsikhara wrote:But, this is not a universal Mahayana position by any means.

Metta and Welcome... :anjali:
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Re: The Bodhisattva Ideal in Theravada Buddhism

Postby mikenz66 » Mon Oct 19, 2009 9:12 am

OK, I have a question...
Paññāsikhara wrote:
Now, other sutras may indicate that they are "missing something", and "have more work to do".

But, this is not a universal Mahayana position by any means.

So would those schools consider the Bodhisattva approach a more skilful means to the same end?

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Re: The Bodhisattva Ideal in Theravada Buddhism

Postby Paññāsikhara » Mon Oct 19, 2009 9:40 am

mikenz66 wrote:OK, I have a question...
Paññāsikhara wrote:
Now, other sutras may indicate that they are "missing something", and "have more work to do".

But, this is not a universal Mahayana position by any means.

So would those schools consider the Bodhisattva approach a more skilful means to the same end?

Mike


They consider it a means to an end which is the same in some regards, and different in other regards.
The same part is complete elimination of all mental defilements, realization of nirvana.
The different part includes various attributes such as the buddha's "unshared dhammas", eg. the four types of intrepidity, etc.

The conditions for the latter must be well developed before attainment of the former, as the latter take an incredible amount of time to develop.
If one realizes nirvana before these latter qualities are fully developed, then they become an arhat, but perhaps one who has some qualities which although not at the same level as the buddhas, but are still possibly stronger than some (but not all) other arhats. eg. depth in the first five abhinnas.
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