Bodhisatta Path and Early Buddhism

In Buddhism all of the early schools accepted 3 paths (from Sarvāstivāda through to Mahāsāṃghika). The path of the Arahant, the path of a solitary Buddha and a path of the Bodhisatta. Theravāda is also part of that tradition. Now within Theravāda it is said that one can only become a Bodhisatta if they make the sincere vow in front of a living Buddha. My question is then, since we can’t know if someone has made that vow or not (since we can’t remember past lives) on what basis can we say that Mahāyāna practitioners aren’t authentically following that path? Someone might argue that the Buddha never taught a Bodhisatta Path at all, but then how do you account for its widespread acceptance across all early traditions? Can a Bodhisatta Path be found in Early Buddhism, based on the EBT texts?

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This has been discussed in the past:


This will teach me to use the search function better :slight_smile:


It is not the case, as I remeber. It is only Niyatavivarana (definite proclamation) and there are more longer times of Mental-aspiration and Verbal-aspiration before definite proclamation.

Because they misrepresent the Buddha’s Dhamma.

If someone doesn’t misrepresent the Dhamma and still aspires to become a future buddha, then the case is different. Isn’t it?

If the Bodhisattva ideal is later, does that mean it’s wrong? That people can’t practice the NEFP and become awakened by it? Can awakening only be found in one school of thought, including EBT based views?

It’s difficult to tell when exactly the early past-life bodhisattva stories began to be written, but I think must have been during the pre-sectarian period and inherited by the schools that arose. If it was a much later development, I would think it would have been controversial to add later when canons were closing, but bodhisattva theory doesn’t appear to have caused much ruckus. So, I tend to think it’s older than EBT scholars assume. It may not have been taught by the Buddha himself, but then where’s the controversy that inventing major new ideas would have instigated? It’s today that it’s causing controversy, not in ancient times. Ancient Buddhists argued more about the nature of the person or whether the past and future exist or not.

It’s very much the same problem as we have with Abhidharma texts. How early were they? They have striking similarities, but also a great deal of variety and obvious strata of development. Myself, I think there was a creative period when Abhidharma texts were being composed outside of the canon. There was a continual development, then at some point different schools decided to canonize a selection of texts to set their doctrines into stone and settle controversies. Some of the canonical Abhidharma texts seem quite early, hinting at a pre-sectarian origin.

But we’re reaching back into the mists of time before there was writing, so it’s speculation at the end of the day without much objective evidence.

I think we would need to delve into Vinaya literature to find that, which I’ve finally begun to do. And, wow, I wish I had sooner, to be honest.

The basic concept of a bodhisattva “career” with set milestones like receiving a prediction from a buddha became part of texts like the Mahavastu, which is a very late version of a collection of Vinaya stories maintained by several early schools of Buddhism. At the end of the Chinese parallel to the Mahavastu, the 佛本行集經, the translator gives us the titles of parallel collections maintained by the major early Buddhist schools like the Mahisasakas and Sarvastivadins. That it existed in these major schools suggests that there was an early text that each developed on their own in different ways. It may have been small and focused on the Buddha originally and grew into the big compendiums that exist today.

We’re most familiar with the Mahavastu because late Sanskrit manuscripts were discovered and translated. But this collection of stories that the Mahavastu represents was apparently created to curate various stories about the Buddha and his disciples that had existed in the early Vinaya. Some schools kept some or all these core stories in the Vinaya Skandhaka, or they were moved into their Sutra Pitakas, but avadanas kept being added throughout their Vinayas over time.

All sorts of avadanas were scattered throughout the Vinayas of different early schools by the time they were translated to Chinese. The Vinayas of some schools became bloated with them, and so perhaps they moved them to collections like the Mahavastu and Lokaprajnapti as housekeeping. Otherwise, the actual Vinaya rules were obscured by frequently storytelling interruptions. The Mulasarvastivadins were the exception, which is why their Vinaya is enormous compared to the others.

It’s easy to dismiss all of it as a late development, but I think the Skandhaka stories were the earliest. The best example outside of the Theravada Vinaya that has been translated to English is the Skandhaka of the Dharmaguptakas, a large part of which can be found at this blog. It contains material that’s found in the Dirgha Agama and also in the Mahavastu collections.


SN 12.22 = SA 348 may be relevant to Bodhisatta path. The two versions indicate in common the Buddha encourages bhikkhus to follow his teaching for the good of all, not just for themselves (p. 159):

Pages 158-9 from The Fundamental Teachings of Early Buddhism Choong Mun-keat 2000.pdf (135.7 KB)

@moderators, perhaps we don’t need a third thread on this topic.


Right. Generally, an interesting topic, I find, with which I have been and are also currently again confronted with due to having friends and supporters from the Tibetan tradition.

Just checked the Encyclopedia of Buddhism (ed. G. P. Malasekera) entry for “Bodhisatta.” It says that the concepts of Cakkavattī (“universal monarch” or “world ruler”), Bodhisatta and Buddha “was in vogue in India even before the appearance of Gautama Buddha.”

Right, this is one of eight factors (according to the Buddhavaṃsa). As per the same encyclopedia entry: "[T]he essential difference between the two developments was that while in early Buddhism the bodhisatta vow was meant only for those rare beings who are specially gifted, the later theory was that everyone could and should aim at Supreme Enlightenment. "

That the Bodhisatta-path proper is something for the exceptional individual is also implied by the eight conditions themselves, some of which are quite lofty (e.g., having the capability to attain arahantship in that life, going forth and being able to attain the eight attainments and five higher knowledges). I think we cannot rule out that we may encounter genuine Bodhisattas even nowadays (i.e., those who fulfilled the eight necessary factors in some previous existence), but since Bodhisattas work ceaselessly throughout the eons to perfect themselves in generosity, morality, renunciation etc. in order to reach their lofty goal of perfect self-enlightenment (sammā-sambodhi), it doesn’t seem to match with the behavior of many Mahāyānists nowadays.

However, even in the Theravāda, we can find some descriptions on phases prior to fulfilling the eight conditions, and I think we cannot rule out either that at least some Mahāyānists (and Theravādins, actually) are on that preliminary path to finally fulfil them, which latter factor would make them Bodhisatta’s proper (see, e.g., Mingun Sayadaw’s The Great Chronicle of Buddhas for a handy review). Be that as it may, since only those eight conditions enumerated in the Buddhavaṃsa can rightly be attributed to the Buddha (not any teaching that describes phases prior to that), I would say that this is the reason for why Mahāyāna practitioners aren’t following an authentic path.

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This discussion can be continued on either of the existing threads, indicated in this post above.