Theravada Origins of the Bodhisattva Ideal

After reading an article on the topic I wanted to solicit opinions here. I am curious to what extent is the Bodhisattva ideal a reaction to Theravadin spiritual ideals or is the Bodhisattva ideal firmly rooted in the Theravada as well? From readings it seems the idea if not the practice of the Bodhisattva as conceived by Mahayanists already existed.

Gregory Hamilton Schmidt's picture

Contextual, Practical

It seems to me that within the context of Early Buddhism, it makes sense that the focus would be on the attainment of the Arahant.

By comprehending the Buddha's teachings, disciples were able to attain Arahantship during their life, during the Buddha's life and serve as an example to others and to attain followers.

If the goal of Buddhahood were championed and with it the Bodhisatta path, there would be no (or at least precious few) disciples reaching the goal, providing little support for the efficacy of the Path and to support converts.

Furthermore, if there were those who attained full buddhahood, it certainly could've been grounds for even more schisms and divisions within the early followers as some felt a greater affinity for one Buddha or another.

Imagine the first 60 Arahants going forth as 60 Buddhas. There would have been from the two month mark forward for up to 60 different flavors of Buddhism rather than the casual cohesion we had under one Buddha that lead to the division into 18 schools after a couple hundred years after his death.

Finally, the advocacy of the path of the Arahant in the Theravada also seems a practical one. The Buddha was self-realized, but the disciples had the benefit of his teaching and no need to self-realize for the benefit of others.

At the same time, I believe we can read back into the Pali canon many indications of the possibility of the development of three vehicles, starting with the simile of the lotuses growing below the water, at the surface and well above in the Ariyapariyesana Sutta.

Likewise, it makes sense that following the Parinibbana and with the absence of a buddha in the world, there would be a tendency to seek to fill that void by elevating the Bodhisattva path.

Justin Williams's picture

You said: "more schisms and

You said:
"more schisms and divisions within the early followers as some felt a greater affinity for one Buddha or another.

Imagine the first 60 Arahants going forth as 60 Buddhas."

There is a common doctrine which would not allow for that - there can be only one Buddha per world-system. And another one cannot arise in even that world system until Buddhism has vanished. So, only one at a time.

There Can Only Be One Buddha At A Time

I agreed with Mr Justin William saying that "there can be only one Buddha per world-system".

I referred to Ven. Minggun book that to become a Buddha will take four asankheyyas plus 1 hundread thousand aeons. This is equivalent to (4x10^140 + 1x10^ x 1.334x10^9) current human years. This is terribly immeasurable time scale in modern day.

Referring to Mr Chan Khoon San book on Buddhism Course, the Buddha appeared one after another.

Tan Boon Ann

Career of Bodhisatta

The whole career of the Sakyamuni Buddha before enlightenment is the concept of bodhisattva ideal in "Theravada" concept. All the stories potrayed in Jataka are examples of the practices of bodhisatta. Of cause the meanings of bodhisattva have change tremendously from only refer to the Buddha before enlightenment until it refer to any Mahayana adherent today.To understand more you can read ' Endo, Toshichi. Buddha in Theravada Buddhism. Sri Lanka: Buddhist Cultural Centre,1997.'

Buddha's past lives

There are countless stories that depict Gautama Buddha's past lives (Jataka tales). There Buddha is called THE BODHISATTVA. Just as emptiness may find doctrinal ancestors in the Hinayana parable of the raft (after crossing over, what use would be to carry the raft over one's shoulder?), so does the Bodhisattva ideal.
The Mahayana flight towards absolutes (="all sentient beings") finds echoes in Hinayana similes of grains of sand on a river bank.
Buddha nature in certain Mahayana schools is extended beyond sentient beings to objects such as rocks.
The Bodhisattva is even a Christian Saint.
Was godly Indian prince Iodasaph (Josaphat) just a(nother) mythological transfiguration of Gautama Buddha in the capacity of a Christian Saint? The story (Barlaam and Josaphat) was widely translated and available in the Middle and Modern age in vernacular (from Yiddish to Italian, French, German and Icelandic) as well as Latin and Greek (since the VIII/X century in originally Georgian or Greek sources).
In 1571, the Doge of Venice presented a St. Josaphat's relic to the King of Portugal. In 1583, Pope Sixtus V authorized a Barlaam&Josaphat Saint day. Still in 1874, a church at Palermo (Italy) bore the inscription divo Josaphat. Not a small accomplishment for imaginary characters. Although an obvious Christianization of equally self-evident preexisting Buddhist sources had taken place, only from the 1850s would western scholars gradually awake to the glaring similarities.