An Introduction to Buddhist Ethics: Foundations, Values, and Issues

By Peter Harvey | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 3
Mahāyāna emphases and adaptations

May the pain of every living creature be completely cleared away Bodhi-caryāvatāra III.7


THE PATH OF THE BODHISATTVA

The Mahāyāna is focused on the Bodhisattva (Skt; Pali Bodhisatta), or Being-for-Enlightenment: one on the path to perfect Buddhahood, whose task is to help beings compassionately while maturing his or her own wisdom. In early Buddhism and still in the Theravāda school, a Bodhisattva was seen as a rare heroic figure who, by a longer, more compassion-orientated route than that leading to Arahatship, sought to become eventually a full and perfect Buddha. Such a Buddha is one who brings benefit to countless beings by immense insight which rediscovers liberating truth when it had been lost after being taught by another Buddha many thousands of years previously. In the Mahāyāna, though, many are urged to take the long path of the Bodhisattva, which is spelt out in considerable detail. The Noble Eightfold Path of 'disciples' (Skt śrāvakas) of a perfect Buddha, directed at Arahatship, was still respected, but was seen to be in need of supplementing by the Bodhisattva-path to perfect Buddhahood, now exalted into the state of a heavenly saviourbeing. While wisdom was a key part of the Eightfold Path, and itself encompassed compassion (see pp. 37–8), the Mahāyāna developed a more philosophically sophisticated account of it, and made compassion an equal complementary virtue which was the motivation of the whole path. Mahāyāna texts sometimes criticize śrāvakas as concerned only with their own liberation: rather an unfair caricature of the discipline of the Noble Eightfold Path, which contains many other-regarding virtues. Nevertheless, even the Theravāda acknowledges that aiming at the deliverance of all beings is more perfectly virtuous than working for one's own deliverance (Vism. 13). It simply feels, though, that while the Buddha's teachings remain in the world, only a few need to take this path, for the benefit of future generations. The Mahāyāna emphasizes, though, that in the vast universe, there is always a need for more Buddhas.

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