questions on bodhisattva vow

Dan Lusthaus vasubandhu at EARTHLINK.NET
Thu Dec 18 08:40:08 UTC 2008


Are you requesting a doctrinal/apologetic answer to your questions (you've
already received a number of those), or a survey-of-the-literature type
answer? These are not necessarily the same.

First, there have been several discussions over the last couple of decades
between Buddhist scholars (mostly on e-lists like buddha-l and h-buddhism,
very little in actual print) over the soundness of the assertion that:

The bodhisattva takes a vow not to enter into Nirvana until all other
sentient beings have done so before him.

More specifically, the question is raised about the provenance of that vow.
While ubiquitous in secondary (esp. Western) literature on Buddhism, it is
far less in evidence in Buddhist texts themselves, and where passages
possibly suggesting it appear, there are differences of opinion on what
those passages actually mean or entail. The bodhisattva vows (of which this
is typically one of four vows) appears relatively late, and is not in
evidence in the earlier Mahayana literature. Some speculate it may have been
a Chinese innovation (maybe 5th-6th c), though that is mere speculation and
one can argue otherwise (without, as far as I know, a smoking gun to settle
the matter).

Some have gone as far as suggesting that the whole idea of delaying one's
own nirvana until all other sentient beings have already attained it (what
Bob Thurman called the cowherd model) is largely a Western scholarly
invention. That's is not entirely the case. The notion that bodhisattvas,
unlike Hinayana Arhats, delay parinirvana for the sake of others, is present
in Mahayana literature (though delay is the not the same as awaiting
everyone else. It seems to be alluded to in the Vimalakirti Sutra (though
how those passages are interpreted difers), and it is clearly discussed in
Asanga's Yogacarabhumi. The Tattvaartha chapter, for instance, explains that
Hinayanists (not to be confused with Theravada) loathe life and so, out of
fear, rush to seek nirvana. The well-trained bodhisattva has overcome such
fears, and so delays his parinirvana in order to stay around to assist other
sentient beings. Asanga does not, however, say that this delay is
interminable or that a bodhisattva remains until every last sentient being
has been liberated -- that would, for him, be the future Buddha Maitreya's
job, who is awaiting that advent in the Tu.sita heaven and will be reborn as
a human Buddha when the time is ripe. Asanga only suggests that the
bodhisattva delays his nirvana in order to help others, and even suggests
that the amount of time of the delay may vary with the degree of the
bodhisattva's accomplishments. He, in other words, completely avoids the
dilemmas you raise. Janice Willis translated this chapter (On Knowing
Reality, Columbia U Press), so you can check out his arguments (this text is
also available in Sanskrit, Chinese and Tibetan).

In standard models, like the ten stages (bhuumis) of a bodhisattva,
enlightenment occurs during the 8th bhumi. That leaves two subsequent bhumis
in which to hone one's upayic skills at helping others. Some will also posit
kind of phase, post-10th-bhumi but pre-Buddhahood, in which some
bodhisattvas can linger (in deva realms, etc.) in order to help others.

The more Buddhistic problem -- and one not dealt with explicitly in any
detail in Buddhist texts -- is the assumption that once one has entered
parinirvana one no longer can be an effective agent working for the benefit
of others. Since Buddha explicitly has attained parinirvana, is he still
around in some form, available to assist others? The Lotus Sutra, one of the
earlier Mahayana works, proposes an entirely new theory of Buddha, in which
"Buddha" is no longer to be identified exclusively with "Sakyamuni, but is a
cosmic Buddha of which "Sakyamuni was only a docetic instance. That idea
influenced Mahayanic Buddhology in numerous direct and indirect ways (for
instance, Amitabha Buddha eclipsing "Sakyamuni in importance). So, if
post-nirvana status still allows beneficial interactions with sentient
beings, this whole problematic would seem to be a red herring, based on a
misconception of the nature of nirvana. This gets complicated with
buddhological notions such as the stages of becoming a once-returner, a
nonreturner, etc., which is one reason why Maitreya has put off being born,
since he might then not be able to be "born" when the time comes (once born
in the life in which he will become a Buddha, he will be a non-returner,
etc.), Of course, this can be recast in terms of the Lotus track,
sidestepping the problem. The danger then is that, contrary to the Buddhist
dictum to avoid the extremes of eternalism and annhilationalism, the
Lotus-type Buddha dances dangerously close to eternalism (while a Buddha
that ceases to be once entering nirvana would be a case of
annihilationalism -- and even in the Pali texts Buddha refuses to say
whether a Tathagata exists or doesn't exist after death).

To address your questions more directly:

1.  Does this mean never?

Why be such a pessimist?

2.  If so, is it because some beings are permanently disqualified from

There are debates over the so-called icchantikas, incorrigible beings
possibly constitutionally incapable (not "disqualified") from full
awakening, lacking the requisite seeds of qualities. In my reading of those
debates, however, it seems that the idea that an icchantika would be some
continuous being eternally barred from nirvana is only stated by opponents
of the idea, in order to straw man accuse others of holding that position.
An icchantika is incorrigable is the present life, and that habit may
continue for awhile, but everyone can eventually wisen up.

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.)

This cosmological sort of question has no definitive doctrine; there are
lots of versions of Buddhist cosmology (let's call them cosmologies).
Whether we are dealing with a fixed numbered set of sentient beings that
recycle through different types of existences, or whether beings are added
and subtracted from that set, is not usually discussed. Like Hindus, many
Buddhist cosmologies posit world ages in which the entire pluriverse comes
into being and goes out of being, in cycles. Is it the same cast of
characters each time? That would be contrary to the notion of liberation, so
this remains an open question. Actually, aside from when in certain moods,
Buddhists do not seem interested in these sorts of speculations.

5.  Are these or similar questions ever raised at all?

See above.

Dan Lusthaus

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