The role of the bodhisattva in Mahayana Buddhism – a critical examination
The Mahayana1 appears to have emerged in the first Century C.E. as a group of heterogeneous doctrines distinct from but with roots in Theravada tradition. The traditional Mahayana account of its own development is an example of `delayed revelation’, Buddha delivered Mahayana teachings to an intimate circle while their public dissemination withheld until a suitable time. Nevertheless, Mahayana claims its doctrines are implicit in the Buddha’s teachings, but it is not until the first century that these are clearly distinguished from Theravada. Mahayana represents a ‘new orientation to traditional Buddhist teachings and an upsurge of novel interpretations.’2 It is therefore the culmination of earlier developments not a sudden original impulse divorced from Theravada. Guenther interprets this in terms of attitudinal rather than philosophical differences as a socially-oriented attitude (Mahayana) and an individualistically-oriented one (Hinayana).3
The tension between the Schools is increased by the distinction between the ideal of the arhat where individual values have preference and the bodhisattva where social values are paramount. The hypothesis put forward here is that Mahayana criticism of the arhat is unfounded while, perhaps more controversially, the practical difference is of less significance than is usually assumed. The bodhisattva doctrine is not original to Mahayana, Theravada considers the bodhisattva a noble ideal, the Sarvastivardins in particular emphasised the role. Traces of the bodhisattva doctrine are found in the Pali Canon,4 indeed some contemporary schools still study the texts and although Theravada considers Mahayana a corruption of original Buddhism and Mahayana regards Theravada as an incomplete or superficial doctrine Mahayana has never rejected Theravada. Mahayana teaches emulation of the bodhisattva and in doing so has elevated the status of the ideal above the arhat. Mahayana or Bodhisattvayana (bodhisattva ‘career’) is identified by a radical perspective on the Abhidharma and its adoption of the bodhisattva ideal.5 The development of this emphasis appears to have coincided with the spread of some Mahayana Schools.6
‘The essential nature of all bodhisattvas is a great compassionate heart (Maha-karuna-citta). All sentient beings constitute the object of his compassion.’7 Mahayana appeals to the heart while striving for Perfect Wisdom (prajnaparamita), it’s intention is wider than the intellectual ideal of ‘self’-extinction. Great compassion (Maha-Karuna) and great wisdom (Maha-prajna) is the dual motivation for the ideal, to achieve enlightenment for all beings and to attain Buddhahood in order to efficiently accomplish the first aspiration. One with this motivation has entered the Mahayana path. In contrast to a Pratyeka-Buddha who seeks nirvana for himself, the bodhisattva vows to attain nirvana for all but will not enter paranirvana himself until all others have attained nirvana. A bodhisattva is one whose being, sattva, is perfect wisdom, bodhi. Historically the word refers to one who had dedicated his life to the welfare of mankind, delaying entry into paranirvana, the reward of his own enlightenment. In Mahayana the term has dual meaning; a being who is a stage short of Buddhahood, or one who is a stage below that of the Dhyani Buddhas yet short of incarnation as a manushi, or human Buddha. These meanings are concatenated in the doctrine of dual manifestation of spirit descending into matter and matter ascending into spirit, a perplexing doctrine that elucidates the apparent duality of Asian thought.8 The two main philosophical schools of Indian Mahayana, the Madhamyika and the later Yogacara, each associated with particular groups of sutras, hold in common the bodhisattva-ideal which rests upon the interdependence of samsara and nirvana. In Madhamyika,9 nirvana is a dharma undifferentiated from conditioned dharmas (samsara). Samsara is a mode of nirvana; nirvana with substrate. All exists in nirvana so when samsara is transcended, samsara and nirvana are not separate realities but one and the same; `the field of emptiness viewed from a perspective of either spiritual ignorance or true knowledge.’10 The Yogacara school hold that nirvana is the transfiguration of samsara not its dissolution, `there is no difference between samsara and nirvana.’11
The duality is apparent not actual. Underlying Buddhist philosophy is the concept of shunyata, emptiness or void. This is not simply nothingness as the antithesis of fullness for this leads to a dualistic and false view of the Absolute which is by definition above and beyond all duality. It transcends description even in terms of existence or non-existence, qualities of being and non-being with substantive existence in the intellect if not in phenomenal appearance. The Perfection of Wisdom of the Prajnaparamita,12 a key Mahayana text, is the realisation of emptiness by a bodhicitta; one who wishes to achieve full enlightenment in order to benefit all sentient beings. The bodhisattva realisation is the emptiness, shunyata, of conditioned and unconditioned dharmas, so these cannot be differentiated. This is the Mahayana goal. The conclusion is a bodhisattva need not escape samsara to attain nirvana since nirvana is already present albeit unrecognised. Realisation of the non-duality of samsara and nirvana leads the bodhisattva to cognize that if emptiness is the nature of all things then all beings have a nature that is not different from Buddha-nature. The task of the bodhisattva is to assist all beings to attain that which is already present, to realise their own Buddha-nature.13 Advanced bodhisattvas on attaining nirvana re-enter samsara to aid others, in a state of nirvana ‘without standstill’ (apratisthita) by sending out a physical ‘mind-made’ body with which he perceives the phenomenal world of those he seeks to assist.14
The bodhisattva-ideal seems to be founded on irrefutable logic. If all life is one it is noble and compassionate to work for all rather than striving for oneself. Karma is ruthlessly efficient, cold and empirical. It operates in the phenomenal world of samsara but is impotent in the realms beyond. Theravada polemicists, however, would point out that while in samsara, consciousness may not be lifted from the illusory karma-laden world by invoking faith in a being able to lift the adherent; this can be achieved only by persistent self-effort. The Theravadin treads the path with faith in the One who has shown the Way. The bodhisattva-ideal is a subterfuge that erodes the concept of self-effort in favour of unearned release. Gombrich notes that nirvana in the Theravada is the summum bonum but since it is a sort of extinction the practice of virtues is precluded15 yet early bodhisattva Schools stressed the practice of virtues, the six Paramitas16 that involve self-application and hard work so, as Harvey points out, the stereotype of the Mahayana as being more open to aspirations does not seem straightforwardly applicable to its early form.17 It therefore seems doubtful that the doctrine of the bodhisattva developed entirely as a result of dissatisfaction with the arduous practice of virtue. The logical extension and ultimate development of the ideal is represented by Pure Land Buddhism in which almost all personal effort is abolished so that faith alone is all that is required to achieve release.18 Perhaps this subversion is part of the widespread appeal of the Mahayana path.
Mahayana is distinguished by its hierarchical priesthood, an emphasis upon rituals and elaborate doctrine of divine emanations, its Tantricism, dhyani buddhas, bodhisattvas and extensive pantheon, a belief in a primordial Buddha, an insistence on Yoga and its transcendental teachings concerning the Trikaya. Although all Buddhists pay a sort of worship to the Buddha, the doctrine of Right Knowledge through self-development is always kept firmly in sight. The rituals imply that only merit and grace, prasada, or an equal amount of good karma (in the Vajradhava Sutra) can neutralise the same amount of bad karma.
Bodhisattva is a religious, not an ontological status; simply one who has taken a vow to become a Buddha and it is not peculiar to Mahayana to grade Buddhas. The arhat ideal gives way to the bodhisattva with greater emphasis on compassion and faith. The compassion of the Therevadin has as its aim enlightenment and ultimately the attainment of nirvana for himself which appears to be qualitatively different to the altruistic bodhisattva who is concerned primarily with the enlightenment and attainment of nirvana for all sentient beings. The bodhisattva, apparently superior to the arhat because his compassion is at the disposal of all,19 practices compassion and self-restraint so that those who regard the arhat as the summum bonum do not consider it the solum bonum,20 the same argument is equally applicable to the status of the bodhisattva. Gombrich considers the tension between the two ideals of self-restraint and compassion as fundamental to the distinction between Theravada and Mahayana. The arhat compared unfavourably so the Mahayana innovation was elaboration of the bodhisattva as an ideal valid for all. The way is prescriptive and considered superior to the eight-fold way. The aim is not nirvana but Buddhahood first.
How far Mahayana is a concession to intellectual curiosity and a popular desire for a short cut to the goal is an open question. The Pali canon leaves many problems unanswered while its psychological insight is little more than a catalogue of mental functions. Although the ideal of the Pali canon, the arhat, was held to be insufficient it may be unfair to consider arhatship as a less noble ideal. Mahayana texts in finding fault with the Theravada ideal of the arhat as self-centred fails to account for the paradox that selfishness and arhatship are mutually exclusive. To describe as egoistic an ideal that aspires to transcend the limitations of temporal individuality by eliminating the phenomenal ego is a nonsense. The single aim of the Hinayana became a dual aspiration founded upon Mahaprajna, great wisdom and Mahakaruna, great compassion. The concern of Mahayana is the provision of skilful means, upaya to make nirvana accessible to all.
Theravada doctrine and practice is a moral philosophy for the few, celibate and monastic while Mahayana represents a more universal and paradoxically, more esoteric. ideal with an emphasis on release by faith in and transference of merit from a personified transcendental bodhisattva, rather than individual striving through meditation. `When a self-centred monasticism developed…it was at once corrected by the development of the bodhisattva ideal.’21 The arduous work of self-perfection is softened by the emotive warmth of bodhisattva doctrines that appeal to the essentially lazy human mind. Nirvana may be realised with less effort through the grace, prasad of the bodhisattva. This is perhaps one of the reasons that strengthened its appeal and combines with delayed revelation as an expedient permitted the growth of a tradition and hastened the spread of Mahayana.
Conze, Edward (1951), Buddhism, Oxford: Bruno Cassirer.
Conze, Edward (trans.) (1973), The Short Prajnaparamita Texts, London: Luzac & Company Ltd.
Geunther, Herbert (1971), Buddhist Philosophy In Theory and Practice, Middlesex: Pelican.
Gombrich, Richard F. (1971), Precept and Practice, Oxford: Clarendon Press.
Gyatso, Geshe Kelsang (1989), Heart of Wisdom A commentary to the Heart Sutra, London: Tharpa Publications.
Harvey, Peter (1990), Introduction to Buddhism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Suzuki, D.T. (1963), A Treatise on the Transcendentality of the Bodhicitta in Outlines of Mahayana Buddhism, Schocken Books.
Watts, Alan (1957), The Way of Zen, Middlesex: Penguin.
Woodward, F. L., (1948), The Minor Anthologies of the Pali Canon, London: Geoffrey Cumberlege, Oxford University Press.
1Mahayana is an umbrella term covering the broad spectrum of Mahayana Schools and their doctrines and practices.
2Harvey (1990). Introduction to Buddhism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, p.90.
3Geunther (1971), Buddhist Philosophy In Theory and Practice. Middlesex: Pelican, p.22.
4For example, Udana: Verses of Uplift, viii, 48, in Woodward, F. L., (1948), The Minor Anthologies of the Pali Canon, London: Geoffrey Cumberlege, Oxford University Press.
5Harvey, op. cit., p.89.
6One notable exception being the Zen School of Buddhism, a development of Chinese Ch’an Buddhism prevalent in Japan.
7D.T. Suzuki (1963), A Treatise on the Transcendentality of the Bodhicitta in Outlines of Mahayana Buddhism, Schocken Press, p.192.
8Perplexing perhaps only to the Occidental mind unfamiliar with Gnostic, Hebrew and similar philosophy.
9 Also known as the Sunyata-vada founded by Nagarjuna.
10Harvey, op. cit.p.103.
11Lankavatara Sutra 61, Mahayana-samgraha (of Asanga).
12Prajnaparamita: Lit.: `wisdom which has gone beyond’ or transcendental wisdom. See Edward Conze (trans.) (1973), The Short Prajnaparamita Texts, London: Luzac & Company Ltd. Geshe Kelsang Gyatso translates it also the Perfection of Wisdom, literally `wisdom gone to the other side.’ Gyatso, Heart of Wisdom A commentary to the Heart Sutra, London: Tharpa Publications.
13There is a Christian analogy to this: `The Kingdom of Heaven is within you’; King James Bible (NRV) Luke 17:21.
14Lankavatara Sutra, 136, Mahayana-samgraha (of Asanga).
15Richard F.Gombrich (1971), Precept and Practice, Oxford:Clarendon Press, p.15.
16Dana, giving; Sila, morality; Kshanti, patience; Virya, energy; Dhyana, meditation and Prajna, perfect wisdom.
17Harvey, op. cit. p.93.
19The vow of the bodhisattva implies the willingness to undertake unwholesome rebirths in order to aid animals, ghosts, demons and those in the hells.
20Gombrich op. cit. p.321.
21Conze (1951), Buddhism, Oxford: Bruno Cassirer.