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Mahayana Buddhism and the Bodhisattva Ideal

By Frank Simons

The Mahayana, or “Great Vehicle,” emerged as a reform movement in the Indian Buddhist community around the beginning of the Common Era. It spread to China, Tibet, Japan, Korea, and Vietnam. Mahayana texts refer to themselves as a “Great Vehicle” in contrast to the Hinayana or “Lesser Vehicle” that preceded them. Indian legends trace the origin of the Mahayana to a “Second Turning of the Wheel of the Dharma” on Vulture Peak during the life of the Buddha, delivered to a special assembly of bodhisattvas, from which other practitioners were excluded. It was concealed for several centuries until the world was ready to receive it. The sutras were then brought forth and promulgated across India.

Video Presentation
Buddhism. Part 10, “Mahayana Buddhism and the Bodhisattva Ideal”
Thu, Feb 18, 5:30pm
The Meditation Center
Callejón Blanco 4
Free, donations accepted

The “bodhisattva ideal” is one of the Mahayana tradition’s most important innovations. A bodhisattva is a Buddha-to-be or future Buddha who does not attempt to go straight to nirvana but returns to this world to help others along the path. This role includes lay people as well as monks and nuns. The bodhisattva cultivates two important virtues: the wisdom that leads to nirvana, and the compassion that serves the interests of other sentient beings. The bodhisattva path can be represented as a two-way street or as a circle leading toward nirvana, then returning to the world of samsara. It is contrasted to the arhant ideal, in which one attempts to achieve nirvana for oneself by leaving the world of samsara behind. A bodhisattva aspires to Buddhahood for the sake of all other beings.

Bodhisattvas are often human beings like us, people engaged in the world. Vimalakirti was a wise layperson who pretended he was ill in order to teach a lesson to Buddha’s monastic disciples. Queen Shrimala taught an important lesson about the Buddha nature. Samantabhadra was a bodhisattva who had a vision of the universe vastly more complex and complete than anything we find in earlier literature of this tradition. Such worldly figures had a radical effect on the spread of Buddhism, which was no longer seen as a philosophy based on monasticism but having direct appeal to lay people.

The most important conceptual expression of the bodhisattva path is the “mind of awakening,” or bodhicitta. This is a combination of wisdom and compassion expressed in the form of an aspiration: “May I achieve Buddhahood for the sake of all other beings!” It can also be viewed as the true nature of one’s own mind. The path can be divided into six perfections (paramitas): generosity, moral conduct, patience, courage, mental concentration, and wisdom.

How different do you think the Mahayana is? Are there important continuities tying the Mahayana to earlier traditions? Would it be helpful to think of Jesus as a great bodhisattva?

The course of 24 lectures is presented by Professor Malcolm David Eckel, professor of Religion and Director of the Core Curriculum at Boston University, who holds graduate degrees from Oxford and Harvard. An expert on Buddhism, comparative religion, and Asian faiths, Eckel has written insightful books on Buddhist philosophy, including Buddhism: Origins, Beliefs, Practices, Holy Texts, and Sacred Places.


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