The importance of the Bodhisattva concept as the ultimate goal of practice distinguished Mahayana traditions from other Buddhist traditions.1 The Bodhisattva concept is laden with many assumptions and implications and uses terminology not explicitly expressed in the earliest Buddhist texts. The common term ‘bodhisattva mahasattva,’ often shortened to ‘bodhisattva,’ refers to a being whose goal is to bring all other beings to enlightenment.
Early Buddhism, some of which has survived time and is alive and thriving in many parts of Southeast Asia and Sri Lanka, emphasizes the humanity of the Buddha and the ultimate goal of individual liberation. The non-Mayahana goal is to become an Arhat. On the way to becoming an Arhat, some might begin as as a Sravaka. Nirvana, in this conception is a negative goal. It is not defined by what it is but by what it is not. It is an extinguishing of the notion of the self of self. All false views that comprise the self are discarded. This is a personal goal.
The Bodhisattva, in contrast, is concerned with the well-being of all life and is willing to postpone full emancipation from samsara to bring benefit to all beings. By practicing the Six Paramitas (sometimes rendered as Ten), a Bodhisattva lives for all others. The term Bodhisattva was used in early Buddhist writings, particularly the Jataka Tales, to describe the Buddha in his past lives. The implication of the term on early Buddhist writings was that the status of Bodhisattva is a lesser achievement than of Buddha-hood.
The Daśabhūmika section of the Flower Ornament Scripture provides details about the development into Buddhahood by enumerating and describing ten stages2:
- Great Joy: Holiness is attained for the first time. Emptiness is realized.
- Stainlessness: Morality is perfected.
- Luminosity: Patience is perfected.
- Radiance: Energy is perfected.
- Inconquerability: Concentration is perfected.
- Directly-Facing: Wisdom is perfected.
- Far-Advanced: Skillful means are perfected.
- Immovable: Vows are perfected.
- Unerring Intellect: Powers are perfected.
- Cloud of Dharma: Complete equanimity is achieved.
1Williams, 1989, 21.
2Cleary, 1993, 695-811.