Mahayana and the Boddhisattva Ideal

If we are uncertain about the origin of the Mahayana, what can we say about its teaching? The answer to that question is a lot more clear. The fundamental teaching of Mahayana Buddhism is what is called the Boddhisattva Ideal.

What is a Boddhisattva?

A Boddhisattva is a Buddha-to-be, somebody who isn’t a Buddha yet but plans to be one in a future life. A Boddhisattva in the Mahayana tradition doesn’t attempt to go straight to Nirvana but he turns to this world and attempts to help others along the path to salvation. This means that Boddhisattvas can include lay men as well as monks and nuns, because all of us can be understood as being part of the path to Buddhahood.

Boddhisattvas that come back like this to this world to help others cultivate two important virtues. One is wisdom, that great virtue that was discussed in the early accounts of the Buddhist path that leads you to Nirvana. In addition to that, Boddhisattvas explicitly develop the virtue of compassion. The word is Karuna, a crucial Mahayana word.

So, Boddhisattvas cultivate two virtues. Wisdom, a contemplative and quiet virtue, that has to do with understanding the nature of the self and the nature of the world. And compassion, a virtue that has to do with actively seeking the welfare of others. The Mahayana always has this double aspect: contemplation and action. You have to understand the self and bring that understanding into the world to make it available for other people.

The Circular Path of the Boddhisattva

The Boddhisattva path can be talked of as a two-way street. You can think of it also as a circle. Samsara is at the beginning of the circle, Nirvana somewhere along the way, and then the circle brings you back into Samsara. A Boddhisattva is constantly coming back to this world to help others.

The Boddhisattva ideal is contrasted to the ideal of earlier Buddhism. In the earlier community the ideal was a person who sought Nirvana in his life for himself, he follows the one-way traffic to Nirvana and doesn’t come back into Samsara.

Some people say that Boddhisattvas renounce Nirvana in order to lead all other beings to Nirvana. If you follow this, a Boddhisattva doesn’t become a Buddha until everybody is ready to become a Buddha with him or her. The truth is that this is not strictly accurate. Boddhisattvas can’t become Buddhas, they simply aspire to become a Buddha for the sake of all other beings. When they can become a Buddha in a way that serves the needs of other people, then that Boddhisattva will become a Buddha.

The Mahayana world is full of Buddhas as well as Boddhisattvas, people who had pursued the Boddhisattva path and brought it to perfection.

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