A Bodhisattva Ideal in Five Nikāyas: A Fresh Perspective

Ha Thi Kim Chi


  1. I.                    INTRODUCTION

In the academic study of Buddhism, the terms “Mahāyāna” and “Hīnayāna” are often set in contradiction to each other, and the two vehicles are described as having different aspirations, teachings, and practices. However, the distinctions made between the Mahāyāna and the Hīnayāna force the schools into neat, isolated, and independent categories that often undermine the complexities that exist concerning their beliefs, ideologies and practices.

While some of the categories used to differentiate the Mahāyāna and the Hīnayāna are helpful in the study and interpretation of Buddhism, these distinctions must continually be reviewed. I attempts to review one such distinction: the commonly held theoretical model that postulates that the goal of Mahāyāna practitioners is to become Buddhas by following the path of the bodhisattva (Bodhisattva), whereas the goal of Hīnayāna practitioners is to become arahants by following the path of the Hearer or the Buddha’s disciples (Śrāvakayāna). In demonstrating the oversimplifications inherent in this model, this article will investigate the presence and scope of the bodhisattva ideal in Theravaada Buddhist theory and practice.

By raising issues surrounding the Mahāyāna-Hīnayāna opposition, however, I am not suggesting that distinctions cannot be made between the two vehicles, nor am I proposing to do away with the terms “Mahāyāna” and “Hīnayāna.” Rather, in exploring the oversimplifications inherent in the Mahāyāna-Hīnayāna dichotomy, it is my intention to replace the theoretical model that identifies: 1) Mahāyāna Buddhism with the Bodhisattva and, 2) Hīnayāna Buddhism with the Śrāvakayāna with a model that is more representative of the two vehicles. In doing so, the implied purpose of this article, as is John Holt’s study of the place and relevance of Avalokitesvara in Sri Lanka, is to “raise questions among students of Buddhism regarding the very utility of the terms Mahāyāna and Theravaada as designating wholly distinctive religiously historical constructs” [1]

[1] John C. Holt, Buddha in the Crown: Avalokitesvara in the Buddhist Traditions of Sri Lanka, New York: Oxford University Press, 2001, pp. viii-ix.

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