Bodhisattva Ideal in Mahayana Buddhism

While the Mahayana tradition acknowledges the validity of the arhant path, it holds as its own ideal figure the bodhisattva. The word bodhisattva means "enlightened essence", or "enlightened being". Bodhisattvas are characterized by a number of features that distinguish them from arhants. Probably the most important characteristic of the Bodhisattva path is the increased emphasis that it places on "compassion" (karuna). As seen from the Mahayana point of view, the arhant ideal is worthy enough (as far as it goes), but since it places an emphasis on the spiritual achievement of one's self, it does not embrace directly enough the suffering of others and the importance of Buddhism as a vehicle that was intended by the Buddha to liberate all sentient beings from suffering. Note the following important characteristics of the Bodhisattva path:

Lingering in Samsara to Help Other Sentient Beings.

The greatest of Bodhisattvas are fully attained beings -- that is, they have reached a state where they could extinguish their own individual existence in Nirvana -- but they have vowed to remain in the midst of Samsara to help other beings reach enlightenment. It is typical of the Bodhisattva path that one makes a vow not to achieve one's own final liberation from samsara until a specified number of sentient beings have been brought to liberation. These vows sometimes use astronomical numbers to specify the number of beings to be saved, and this symbolizes the intent of Bodhisattvas to develop their spiritual abilities to very high levels so that they might be used in service of others. This is an especially important characteristic of Celestial Bodhisattvas, such as Manjushri or Avalokiteshvara (Guan-Yin), whose spiritual powers are so great that they are, in effect, gods. As such, they have many devotees, both among the laity and in monastic communities. It is important to recognize, however, that normal people can also be understood as Bodhisattvas, since their own quest for enlightenment is very closely commingled with works of compassion for others. Within Mahayana compassion for the suffering of others tends to be a higher priority than liberation for one's self. Or, more properly put, focus on compassion is understood to be one of the most powerful vehicles to facilitate liberation, both for others and for one's self. Since, after all, being concerned with the welfare of others diminishes selfishness, Mahayanists understand the cultivation of compassion to be one of the best ways towards the elimination of ego, desire, and suffering for one's self.

Skill in Means (upaya).

A prominent virtue of Bodhisattvas is their ability to use appropriate methods to reach as many suffering beings as possible. That is, since not everyone will be saved according to one standard program, the Bodhisattva has the skill to employ just the right means in getting someone to make steps towards understanding the Dharma, regardless of who that person might be. This focus on upaya also characterizes Mahayana's diversity of practice. Since only a certain number of people are suited to take advantage of the strictest forms of monastic practice that are outlined in the vinaya, various other forms of religious practice have been established within Mahayana so as to provide methods of spiritual development that correspond to the varieties of people who exist within any given population.

Among the sorts of practices that have arisen within Mahayana are devotional practices directed at Celestial Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, such as Guan Yin. Such devotional practices include chanting the name of deities, directing prayers to them, revering their images in the form of icons (e.g., paintings and statues), and participating in public ceremonies in which people bow in reverence. There have also developed a variety of practices from contacts with the cultures that embraced Buddhism from missionary contacts. For example, Tibetan Buddhism includes various visualization techniques that derive from older forms of Himalayan shamanism. Zen Buddhism can be understood as the combination of Buddhist thinking from India and the traditions of Taoism in China.

The emergence of these various forms of practices have been labelled, by the opponents of Mahayana, as deviations from the original Buddhism that pander to local culture, and are thus understood (again, by the opponents) to be a watering down, even a perversion, of what the Buddha originally intended. However, Mahayanists have their answers to these accusations. Perhaps most important are that most of these practices were present alongside monastic practice in early Indian Buddhism, and that Buddhism as preached by its founder is expansive enough to accommodate a wide range of practices, such as the reverence for celestial beings.

Experts among Non-monks.

Bodhisattvas are not limited to those who have followed the arhant path. Though Mahayana Buddhism also depends heavily on monk experts to maintain and transmit the tradition, it also acknowledges that non-monks can attain levels of understanding that surpass that of the acknowledged experts. Certain sutras (such as the Vimalakirti Nirdesa Sutra) even show lay experts putting monks and other acknowledged experts to shame by means of their superior comprehension of Buddhist truths.

One of the most celebrated stories of this tendency with Mahayana comes from the Ch'an/Zen tradition, and it is recorded in the Platform Sutra of the Sixth Patriarch. In this story, a Chinese peasant named Hui-neng comes to sudden realization when hearing a public recitation of a Buddhist teaching. Completely unschooled in Buddhist thought or practice, the illiterate Hui-neng went to a major monastery in order to pursue his practice. He quickly displayed his understanding and awareness to the master of the monastery (the 5th Patriarch), who then decided that Hui-neng was the person best suited to succeed him as the master of the monastery and of Ch'an generally. The "better trained" monks within the monastery resented this, sought the life of Hui-neng, so that one of their members could receive the transmission of authority from the master. After a period years, during which Hui-neng ran for his life from the other monks who pursued him relentlessly, Hui-neng was able to convince them that he was the proper successor, and he became the 6th Patriarch of the Ch'an tradition. This story, and others, emphasize that the most profound truths of Buddhism can be realized through channels other than strict vinaya practice. Masters of various Mahayana schools are recorded as recommending to their students activities outside of vinaya practice in order to accellorate their spiritual advancement.

More about the Bodhisattva:
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