questions on bodhisattva vow

Stella Sandahl ssandahl at SYMPATICO.CA
Thu Dec 18 03:48:45 UTC 2008

Dear Allen,
I forwarded your questions to a student of mine who also is a student  
of Buddhism. Here's what he came up with:

"Nirvana is not a place one enters into; Buddha repeatedly makes it  
clear that it is experienced in the "here and now" by anyone who  
overcomes his/her afflictions and has insight into the nature of  
reality. Nor is there such a thing as "forever"; again past, present  
and future are not valid concepts in Buddha's vision - they are  
misconceptions based on our misapprehension of an ego moving through  
space and time, something which Buddha specifically denied as valid.

The "bodhisattva vow" is not indigenous to the "original  
Buddhism" (i.e. what Buddha actually taught) but was introduced about  
500 years later in the "Great Vehicle" (Mahayana) which gradually  
evolved through the different schools which went in different  
directions after Buddha died. One of the criticisms that Mahayana  
levelled against the Theravadin (pejoratively called the Lesser Way  
or Hinayana by the Mahayanists; Theravadin is the way of the elders,  
i.e. those who followed the Pali canon and did not accept the  
Mahayana sutras as legitimate, since they were composed so late and  
were not traceable to the Buddha) is that they lacked compassion, a  
patently absurd charge. However, the charge stuck and because  
Mahayana surpassed Hinayana in followers, the politics of the  
majority ruled and Mahayanists considered themselves and were  
considered more "compassionate" than Hinayanists or Theravadins.

They also evolved the concept of the Bodhisattva (who is simply  
someone on the road to enlightenment) who does not enter Nirvana  
until everyone enters before him/her to highlight his/her ultimate  
sacrifice and compassion (this comes from the school of Amitabha  
Buddha, the Buddha of unmeasured splendour). However, if there is no  
"ego" or "I" and no places to enter, this can only be viewed as a  
metaphor or a "skilful means" - a way of describing reality which may  
be understandable to a layman to incite faith and commitment, but not  
a valid representation of reality.

Nobody is permanently disqualified from Nirvana - everyone is capable  
of waking up to their true nature.

Although Buddhism does not discuss it, since sentient beings are a  
misconception, - dividing a whole up into parts which really don't  
exist, -  then theoretically the whole can be divided up into an  
infinite number of parts, depending on one's (delusory) viewpoint."

This seems to be a very Buddhist answer.

On 17-Dec-08, at 9:24 PM, Tenzin Bob Thurman wrote:

> Hi Allen,
> These questions are raised and debated interminably – supporting  
> the doctrine that all teachings and theories about the relative  
> reality are interpretable in nature. They say there are three ways  
> of a bodhisattbva becoming a buddha, like a cowherd, like a  
> ferryman, and like a king. The cowherd gets all the herd into the  
> pasture then enters himself, the ferryman and passengers reach the  
> shore at the same time, and the king firstr assums the royal  
> position and power, and then lifts his kingdom into exaltation. The  
> aspirational vow you mention expresses the sentiment of the former  
> type, but the actual method is to fist become buddha and then help  
> others become enlightened.
> Another way to think about it is that upon attaining buddhahood,  
> one;s awafreness expands into all three times, an so the future  
> moments of other beings' attainment of nirvana and buddhahood  
> become present to the bodhisattva in buddha-transition and so she  
> has no sense of abandoning them for her own nirvana.
> Bob
> Allen W Thrasher wrote:
>> The bodhisattva takes a vow not to enter into Nirvana until all  
>> other sentient beings have done so before him.
>> 1.  Does this mean never?
>> 2.  If so, is it because some beings are permanently disqualified  
>> from nirvana?
>> 3.  Or is it that they are literally infinite in number, and so  
>> though each will eventually enter it, there will always be more?   
>> (I'm not sure this makes sense logically, but I'm asking what's  
>> said.)
>> 4.  Or do new sentient beings somehow get started, replacing the  
>> ones that have entered into nirvana?  (I can't remember any  
>> S.Asian source that says new sentient beings come into existence,  
>> except (according to B. L. Atreya somewhere, the YogavAsiSTHa).
>> 5.  Are these or similar questions ever raised at all?
>> Allen
>> Allen W. Thrasher, Ph.D.
>> Senior Reference Librarian
>> Team Coordinator
>> South Asia Team, Asian Division
>> Library of Congress, Jefferson Building 150
>> 101 Independence Ave., S.E.
>> Washington, DC 20540-4810
>> tel. 202-707-3732; fax 202-707-1724; athr at
>> The opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of the  
>> Library of Congress.

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