Bodhisattas and the EBTs

Recently I’ve been reading ‘The Genesis of the Bodhisattva Ideal’ by Bhikkhu Anālayo and it has really opened my eyes as to how ideas about our teacher have evolved over the centuries and how seemingly small interpolations become very significant and bring about dramatic changes in the Buddhist thought world.

The whole book is an interesting read and a rather convincing one. It and other discussions on the matter have allowed me to let go of whole bodhisatta practicing for millions of lifetimes to be our saviour idea, and I have to say this has taken a tremendous amount of weight off my shoulders. When I first starting getting into Buddhism I felt that the path to Buddhahood was the one for me, I felt that I couldn’t leave behind those I love and I felt compelled to help them. These are still very real concerns that I have, but as I learn and study and especially practice more, I realize that the future really is uncertain, and the best way to help people is to practice and teach them from experience. There’s no telling if, in the vast reaches of samsara, I would ever encounter them again, or even be assured of the path to Buddhahood. I might’ve just missed my once-in-a-googolplex-lifetime opportunity to meet a Buddha’s Dhamma. So reading this and learning the perspective of early Buddhism on it has taken away some sense of guilt for following the ‘Hinayana’ or whatever.

One part in particular had me just reflect, “Why didn’t I notice this before?” The argument goes like this: if the bodhisatta in a very recent past life was the disciple of the Buddha Kassapa, and practiced up to the point where he could’ve reached Stream-Entry if he wanted to, how can the newly awakened Gautama Buddha really claim to be self-awakened with no teacher, when all traditions agree he had a vision of his past lives before full awakening? He very clearly would’ve remembered everything he learned and would have awakened based on the previous Buddha’s teachings, not his own ‘rediscovery of an ancient path’. Was he implying he had no teacher in this lifetime? Was he using a play on words for emptiness? Or was the idea that he was a disciple of an ancient Buddha a later addition? There’s a large body of evidence that would suggest the latter, and I think most EBT scholars would agree, but I can’t claim that with certainty. Personally, I agree. As with most comparative historical studies of the EBTs, I think the light shed on the Dhamma-Vinaya presents a much more manageable, consistent, practical, and honestly more real idea of the Buddha and his teachings.

The question that popped in my mind as I pondered this though, was that if the Buddha in his previous lifetimes HADN’T met another Buddha, would that seem plausible? For a cycle of birth and death without discoverable beginning, would it make sense that he never encountered another awakened being? It brings to mind more questions, such as are there a finite or infinite number of beings? I assume it’s a futile question, and might even correspond to the metaphysical question of ‘is the world finite or infinite?’ that the Buddha wouldn’t answer. While I have always taken that to be a spatial reference, I have read elsewhere that the Buddhist idea of lokas relates to beings of a particular type, not the place they inhabit itself. So from this I guess to assume that there are finite beings is wrong, and to assume that there are infinite beings is wrong. Any sutta references to support or counter this would be nice.

So now we’re left with a few possibilities. Either the Buddha-to-be was a disciple of one or many Buddhas of the past, and subsequently is part of a lineage of Buddhas with no actual self-teaching, simply transmission through past life recollection; or he hadn’t encountered a past Buddha, and simply did discover it on his own, being ‘rightly self-awakened’. I think this makes more sense for me, and reminds of a comment by Steffen that Bhante Sujato quoted in his article ‘Ten Ideas About Time’, “I am glad that death exists, and when my time arrives, I will go, to make place for the young generation. They deserve their chance.”

Maybe no two Buddhas ever actually meet (at least while one is awakened and teaches the other). Maybe they share the same lineage and connection through awakening only, not through direct contact. Maybe to follow the path of the bodhisatta is robbing future beings who’ve never encountered a Buddha of re-putting the wheel of Dhamma in motion. Maybe it leads to getting lost in samsara. Or maybe it actually is the way to Buddhahood, and that’s how our very own Gautama did it. I do think that the aspiration for Buddhahood, as a vehicle to help the largest amount of beings possible, and not as a way to omniscience and cosmic rulership, is the most compassionate and honorable goal one can have. It entails an immense amount of future suffering one will have to go through for others, and for those embarking on that journey I wish them good fortune and happiness, whether they’re successful or not.

But as a person who puts their greatest amount of faith in peer-reviewed study, unbiased historical research, and a certain amount of doubt in traditional storytelling, I can say with confidence that one path the Buddha did teach is the Eightfold Path, and I think that all Buddhists, whatever their aspirations, should try to follow it to at least some degree. These have just been my own thoughts on the matter, and I’m wondering if anyone has any others?


I would like to call out an etymological issue related to the topic which should be kept in mind when discussing anything related to practical and philosophical implications of the idea of bodhisatta:

In a nutshell, in EBTs the term is most likely about referring to the Buddha before his awakening, as a seeker of awakening.

In later Mayahana scriptures however, people apparently got lost in translation and turned ‘seeker of awakening’ into ‘being of awakening’. And this may have opened a massive can of worms which ended up changing Northern Buddhism into something very different to Southern Buddhism …



I like to approach this question from a somewhat secular point of view.

The concepts of “finite” and “infinite” have been with humanity since antiquity; their occurrence in the Pali Canon testifies to this.

Thanks to mathematics and metamathematics, we now know that there exist various different infinities. In fact, a nonfinite amount of infinities exist.

With “exist” I mean “can be rigorously defined given a suitable choice of axioms.” One may ask to what extent these infinities are actual, real, independent of human existence. Philosophers of mathematics have debated this question.

All this points to the conclusion that saying “the number of beings is infinite” brings ambiguity with it.

Of course, this problem can be alleviated by specifying the type of infinity meant, eg “aleph-null.”

That’s where the epistemological problems kick in. How can a fallible human know if some entity, say the number of beings, is aleph-null, and not aleph-one or just stupendously large?

Personally, I cannot see a way out of these epistemological problems. That’s why my answer to the question “is the number of beings in the cosmos finite or infinite” would be “indeterminate”: I don’t see a fruitful way of addressing, or even rephrasing, the question.


Yes I’ve heard of this theory and it makes a lot of sense. However even in the Sutta Pitaka the term bodhisatta has been applied to the Buddha before his going forth and even in previous lifetimes. And there are suttas that actually probably brought this ideal into existence possibly more than just that mistranslation. An example is MN 123, where we see the idea of a destined buddhahood emerge through Siddhatta’s first words as a baby.

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Exactly. I don’t think it’s something a human mind could ever know, or any mind for that matter.

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This process happened long before Mahāyāna had anything to do with Buddhism. Much like any confusion that might have existed between pratyeka & pratyaya buddhas.


Pardon my lack of knowledge. What’s the difference?

It’s just two different etymologies, one related to being a “lone” Buddha, and one being related to someone who attains Buddhahood based on some sort of observation of causality and/or the 12 links.

There are a few threads on it: "Pratyaya" Buddha

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I just wanted to say how much I appreciated reading your thoughtful and reflective post. I went through a similar process many years ago: it was clear from the EBTs that the bodhisattva ideal is a later development.

In many ways, it’s not just a later development, it’s the canonical example of a development that is both clearly late and critically important. It’s not really a Mahayana/Theravada thing, as it is found in all traditions (in somewhat different forms).

So I had to wrestle with this; everyone says something else! Maybe they have access to truths not found in the suttas? Can all the traditions really get something so big, so wrong?

These are not easy questions from a spiritual point of view. Facts and history are one thing, but we feel a sense of connection and belonging to a wisdom tradition, and this transcends sheer factuality.

I have found a measure of peace with all this. But I am so happy to hear of the journeys of others, to see that the questions and issues raised can be brought into conversation in this way.


I highly recommend watching a talk Bhikkhu Bodhi gave in Houston in 2016 on this issue.

Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi: Bridging The Two Vehicles


I think the bodhisatta vow taken only before a living Buddha makes sense given the immense cosmic potential energy a samasammuddha possesses and to me that potentiality would validate and manifest the intention over multiple lifetimes in the individual.

I don’t see an issue with a bodhisatta training under other Buddhas either. Gotama taking his vow at the feet of Buddha Dīpankara and subsequently training under all the following Buddhas including Kassapa makes sense because he forgets his bodhisatta status with every death and is only ever reminded of it by a living Buddha.

In the commentaries it also says that all bodhisattas have a penultimate birth in the Tusita heaven and are reborn on Earth as a sakadāgāmi. People might think that someone whose already 50% enlightened couldn’t be rightly-self-awakened, but I don’t agree with that. Gotama would be completely unaware of his status until either he was told it by a Buddha or he became a Buddha on his own. His awakening was done on his own without a teacher and he had no accessible knowledge of the saddhamma.

I know the commentaries are often poo-pooed, but I am in full agreement with this issue.
Just my view.:grin:


I have a question regarding Vajrayāna. As I understand it one of the major differences between them and all the other Mahayana, besides the tantric practices, is that they believe that a person can enlighten in their present lifetime. So why do the monastics and often laymen still take the bodhisattva vow? It seems at odds.

That has puzzled me and I’ve never gotten a clear answer. Maybe one of you has a satisfying answer for me…:anjal:

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You’re making me blush… :flushed::blush:

I’ve thought the same thing. I guess it depends on your idea of ‘truth’. One could say everyone who’s not awakened has it wrong, and that’s a lot of people! But even arahants and buddhas can be wrong, the only thing they’re guaranteed to be right about is the Four Noble Truths! Awakening to that doesn’t mean they become historians or quantum physicists. So personally I don’t think it’s something that CAN be known. Even the Buddha said no one, not even him, can know everything simultaneously. Some things will never be known, but I think that’s what evidence and theories and studies are for, to get a more accurate picture, not an ultimately real one. A friend of mine who teaches physics to highschool students told me how he warns them, “Scienctific laws are a model of reality that we use to make our refrigerators run. It works. But you shouldn’t take it as ultimately ‘real’.” Well I think the same can be said of both traditional and historical accounts of the Dhamma. We shouldn’t take them as absolute truth, just as the fuel to get our faith, energy, mindfulness, samādhi, and understanding going!

I wanted to mention this yesterday too, but I felt it would need a whole other post. I started papañca’ing about where all this comparative study will get us in the future, and started thinking about a new ‘non-sectarian’ school of Buddhism that relied on the EBTs only, and realized that even that would become a sect. It’s inevitable. I’m not sure how BSWA works, do you guys consider yourselves Theravada or non-affiliated or something else? The question about a new school like that is, would it even be a good thing? Sure there’s some benefits of following the ‘the most accurate way’ and practicing ‘what the Buddha most likely taught’ as a whole community, but I feel that you’d be missing a certain amount of, well, tradition! Traditions have been what’s kept the Dhamma alive for so many years, it’s what gives a large number of people faith, it clears up uncertainties, and it can provide a wholesome identity that strengthens your practice. Of course it has downsides, such as extremism and fundamentalism, but so does this new era of Buddhism where we doubt even these traditions, and that is exactly that, doubt! For me personally doubt can be a strong hindrance and it can take many subtle forms. Studies can like these can cool that doubt but who knows what they’re doing under the rug. As a whole, the question of where these studies will lead is unknown, and so far it has helped me immensely, but I know after a certain point I’m going to have to put the books down and just get to work. Ultimately, experiencing the Four Noble Truths is more important than studying them. But still, I do have to thank you for all the work you’ve done. I’m currently reading Sects and Sectarianism :pray: very insightful so far.

And I’m happy that you provided your input and experience with this as well! Sadhu, sadhu :smile:


Ah I saw this on YouTube a while ago and wanted to watch it but forgot. Thanks for reminding me :slight_smile:

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Well this raises the question of “what does it really mean to drop the fetters?”. Is this saying that already at birth Siddattha knew the five aggregates weren’t self, yet it took him 35 years to explain that to others? He already let go of doubt of the Buddha, the Dhamma, and the Sangha, that he knew nothing about? He knew that rights and rituals and certain practices weren’t essentially purifying, yet he practiced extreme austerities for years? Something doesn’t add up. Also, if all traditions agree that he had knowledge of his past lives before the final knowledge of destruction of the taints, he would in fact have a teacher, past Buddhas! That recollection right there would be accessible knowledge of the sadhamma. Rather than him finding it on his own he would simply remember what he was told by his past teacher and finish the job. Kind of inconsistent but hey, no one said it can’t be.

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No idea but one possibility is that their idea of enlightenment would be 10th bhumi bodhisattva, and maybe next lifetime they’d become a sammāsambuddha in another world system or something.

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A 10th bhūmi practitioner is a fully enlightened Buddha in both systems (Tantra & Mahāyāna). Although some Tantric sects add up to 10 extra stages after the completion of Buddhahood.

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Right. But do the Mahayana consider it possible to attain all 10 stages in one lifetime?

That’s a good question!
But how would any sakadāgāmi know from birth that the lower three fetters had been abandoned in a previous rebirth?
The answer to me is that he couldn’t possibly know without engaging in mediation practice. Remember sakādāgāmis can be reborn outside of a Buddha’s sāsana or beyond the reach of an ongoing one. In that case they would either become a paccekabuddha or potentially a sammasambuddha if there isn’t a current sāsana.

Sotāpanna and sakādāgāmis must be born with the potential for the fetters in some regard and huge potential for their re-disappearance. How could a sotāpanna as a kid have supreme unwavering confidence in the dhamma? They pretty much couldn’t.

Let’s say “potentially” a sotāpanna could have been born in 12th century France and had lived that whole life as a Catholic. They would still be a sotāpanna, but in a “circumstantial stasis.” The right conditions must be in place for the fetters to instantaneous fall away and return to the prior attained status.

Sakādāgamis are guaranteed to awaken in their next and final birth as a human so the conditions for realization will certainly become present in that life, but are unlikely to be immediate. Sotāpannas don’t necessarily have that certainty unless it is their seventh rebirth in which case they are essentially a sakādāgami.

Most sammasambudddhas awaken in either one week, three weeks or three months after brief austerities practice. In the Pali commentaries it’s stated that Buddha Gotama took six years because of vipāka from insulting Buddha Kassapa twice as told in the Ghaṭikāra Sutta: MN #81.
Of course it is wise to always take the commentaries with a pinch of salt.

Don’t think these questions can be adequately answered where all potential doubts are quelled…

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Indeed they most likely never will be. But the search can still bring useful knowledge.

This is also mentioned in Anālayo’s book. But from my own understanding it’s a way of sweeping that whole bit under the rug. “Oh you know, he was just mean to a Buddha so he felt compelled to torture himself.” Kind of goes against my (and the Buddha’s) idea of kamma, in that present circumstances are conditioned both by past and present kamma. He definitely intended to perform those penances and to say he only did because of past bad kamma gives a feel of determinism and lack of will.

You raise some good points about sotāpannas and sakādāgamis though, and it’s something I’ve wondered about for a while and decided to put aside. If I reach a stage I’m not stopping there and waiting to pick it back up next lifetime, it’s all or nothing baby :dharmawheel:

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