Bridging the two vehicles by Bhikkhu Bodhi

A very nice succinct lecture on the evolution of Buddhism from EBTs to Mahayana.

Among many interesting points, a perspective that I found useful was the idea that Theravada represents the ‘historical/realistic’ view of the Buddha, focusing on his lifetime, path to enlightenment and teachings while the Early Mahayana focused on the entirety of the Buddhas countless lives that culminated with him becoming the Buddha, and as such had a more ‘cosmic/mythological’ view.

This is often a very polarising topic, and Ven Bhikkhu Bodhi demonstrates a skillful ‘middle way’ to navigate it.


:thinking: I wonder to what extent Bhikkhu Bodhi is constrained in his approach to the topic by the fact that his needs in terms of the four requisites are mostly met by patronage from followers of the Mayahana (e.g. he lives in a Pure Land Mahayana monastery called Chuang Yen).

Sorry, but that’s a rather unworthy take on it. :pray: Ven Bodhi has been taking a more syncretic approach for many years, and the causality is rather the other way around: it is because he saw more connections between the traditions that he was open to staying in Mahayana temples.

In addition, IMHO, the modern Taiwanese tradition influenced by Yin Shun is quite open and accepting of the idea of the EBTs and the history of Buddhism. I have visited him at his monastery and I am quite sure that they are delighted to have him there regardless of what he teaches. Obviously as a guest one would not be rude and attacking towards the Mahayana tradition, but there is no suggestion that there is any caveats on his support. His needs are few!


That is a very insightful perspective bhante. Thanks for correcting my understanding. :pray:

I do agree and appreciate that the modern Taiwanese tradition influenced by Yin Shun is quite open and accepting of the idea of the EBTs and the history of Buddhism.

At the same time, I wonder what causes them to not let go of the inessential aspects that become evident once the EBTs are appreciated. I mean by that the whole mythos of Pure Lands, etc.

Maybe it is the case they really believe all that is as “real” as the more frugal , practical and culturally agnostic model of early buddhism which EBTs points us to.



This topic interested me, as I have a friend who is ordained in the Tibetan tradition, and we have talked about this ‘once or twice’ :smile:

This lecture certainly helped with new ways of looking at things.


Here’s an mp3 if anyone prefers that format to YouTube.

Also, you may want to read his essay on the Bodhisattva ideal which is similarly even-handed.


@Gabriel_L: Who was it that spoke against attachment to views?

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Sure. But it is actually the opposite situation to the one of attachment to views.

To me it is a mater of applying law of parsimony to the subject of Buddhism.

The Mahayana’s bodhisattva thicket of views brings an rather unnecessary complication to the much simpler and straightforward framework of the four noble truths and associated principles to awakening (bodhipakkhiya-dhamma)

It is not about saying one is wrong or another is right. It is just that one is rather convoluted and to a huge extent inconsistent while the other one is just what it is: a clear framework for awakening to be enabled.

But surely I am rather biased for the fact it took me more than 15 years to “drop that boat” of rather demanding path of complexity and paradox involved in the typical formulations of northern Buddhism …

Mind nevertheless, that the point here is not to frame Theravadin orthodoxy as superior to Mahayana’s plurality.

Instead the point is to let go of both and focus on the consistent message of EBTs, found both in Pali texts and its Chinese counterparts wherever still available and sometimes expanded.

Hence the open question, what causes people to not let go of the inessential aspects that become evident once the EBTs are appreciated?

I mean by that the whole mythos of Pure Lands, belief in tulkus and guru yoga, the open and direct argument of bodhisattvas as being superior to sravakas, etc.



The fifth liberation is, notably, open to “the whole mythos”:

AN8.66:5.1: Going totally beyond the dimension of infinite space, aware that ‘consciousness is infinite’, they enter and remain in the dimension of infinite consciousness. This is the fifth liberation.

Therefore your question, rephrased, might be “why doesn’t everybody go for the sixth liberation?”

AN8.66:6.1: Going totally beyond the dimension of infinite consciousness, aware that ‘there is nothing at all’, they enter and remain in the dimension of nothingness. This is the sixth liberation.

When I used to climb in the mountains, I never aimed for the peak. I always aimed for the next footstep or ridge. Achievable goals are motivating. Few are those able to ascend Everest in this lifetime. For many the mythos beckons and suffices for now to endure daily suffering, to do a bit better, to be a bit kinder, to have more heart.


That’s a good and positive take on the puzzle. Thanks for that.

I created a new topic in which I hope we can discuss a hypothesis I have been formulating and thinking of for a while.

In short, under this hypothesis of mine, the deviation from simpler and more blunt awakening model of EBTs is explained by the eventual expiration of the first generation of stream winners. I estimate that took place any time between 250 and 50 BCE.


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Dear Ven @Khemarato.bhikkhu,
Thanks so much for the mp3 link (and also for the essay, which I had come across some time ago but had forgotten about). I often see/hear about youtube videos (which I very rarely watch) and so wish they were availabe as audio files. Youtube videos seem to be the most popular way of presenting everything but they’re not for me! I much prefer reading or listening to a talk.


This topic resonates with me, and I did take the time to listen again to Bhikkhu Bodhi’s talk this morning. I admire and respect him very much.

Yet, I still have the sense that the Buddhist world has largely lost sight of what the historical Buddha was teaching, and has lost appreciation and perspective as to how important these original teachings are. I feel that later developments in the ‘Buddhisms’ “papered over” the Dhamma, such that, but for Sutta Central and a notable few other resources, the Buddha’s Dhamma would be virtually inaccessible for most Buddhists.

I liken this dilution of the Dhamma to what might occur if the same modifications happened to Einstein’s science and theories about how the universe, time and space work. Perhaps in 100 years, Einstein’s theories will be coopted by others, and rewritten into a form that no longer resembles his original tested and recognized theories. In theory, if students studied a Einsteinian physics that was really not true to Einstein’s theories, would not that be a disservice both to the students and to Einstein? If students in the future understood E=MC2 to be E=MC3 (or worse, that Einstein never taught E=MC2?) , might that not be a source of problems? Might that distorted approach be a real disservice to those students trying to understand how the universe works?

My gripe is that sometimes bad science distorts or disguises the real science. I have a feeling that the Buddha was, in some ways, a scientist and a teacher. He tried to figure out how our minds and our human lives work, and what we can do to optimize these lives and free ourselves from human suffering and conflict. Just as Einstein worked at these problems of time, energy and space, the Buddha presented solutions to human suffering. I submit that much of what came along in the centuries after the Buddha’s passing, and the passing of his monks and nuns, served to distort his teachings, and deprives to this day the ability of many to understand what Buddhism really is and can be.


I’m influenced in my understanding of this by my readings of modern Christian theology. A good modern theologian doesn’t look at the Bible as a literal record of unerring facts, but as a record of people’s encounters with divinity, their struggles to find meaning and goodness in a harsh and meaningless world. They’re often confused and contradictory, but that is their story (and it’s a bit like ours).

I see the history of Buddhism in the same way, as a record of people’s struggle to understand the Dhamma in their time and place, reckoning with both the cultural history of understanding and their own peculiar personal and historical circumstances. Just dropping history is neither possible nor useful; we have to find meaningful ways to engage with it and understand it.

Which, now that I think about it, is why I, as someone raised Catholic, reach for a metaphor from Christianity to help shed light on the Buddhist tradition. It’s not better than the metaphors that someone raised Buddhist would use, but it’s mine. If someone has been raised in a Mahayana tradition, then that’s the kind of story that they need to draw upon.

As you step out of the light of what you know into the darkness of what you do not yet know, it’s reassuring to have a wise, friendly voice to guide you and tell you that it will be alright. And that, I think, is what Ven Bodhi is offering.


Thanks for that perspective once again bhante.

Indeed it is an interesting approach to making sense of the contrasts and differences in approach that have arisen through history as a record of their struggle to make sense of what they found themselves with.

In contrast, I come from quite a blank canvas or slate: Buddhism is the only spiritual path I ever studied and sought to develop. Hence I don’t feel so constrained to note and question openly how valid or necessary all this effort to accommodate under one single banner of Buddhism approaches sometimes so radically divergent.

I also feel it is a bit unfairly generous to make so many concessions and efforts to make the broader Mahayana poutpurri of views and mythos as validly Buddhist as the simpler and more concise message if EBTs with its self-contained and sufficient set of 37 principles to awakening. Specially when we realise that in many ways the model of awakening Mahayana is usually based on depends on diminishing the core model to awakening as a sravaka.

All that said, I totally agree and second your thoughts on how praiseworthy are Bhikkhu Bodhi’s efforts to leave behind a guide or bridge between these “two worlds”.


I think this is not entirely correct understanding on the historical movement of the early Mahayana.

Early Mahayana texts (such as Prajnaparamita sutras) are not entirely and mainly on “the entirety of the Buddhas countless lives that culminated with him becoming the Buddha” for the “a more ‘cosmic/mythological’ view”.

The two most famous of which are: the “Diamond sutra” and the “Heart sutra”.

The two vehicles have the opportunity to come out of their silo and dialogue with each other. However, I have not seen these happen much in USA. I was inspired by the Kalama Sutta to do my own investigation based on my experience and studies. Dharma must be integrated with one’s own living experience and cultivation of heart-mind.

"Don’t be an arahant, don’t be a bodhisattva, don’t be anything at all—if you are anything at all you will suffer.” —Ajahn Chah


Or perhaps in a 100 years, it’ll turn out Einstein was wrong and people come up with better theories? That’s how science actually works, generally speaking.

Now I’m going to say something heretical, but I’m going to say it anyway because I believe in reality and not ideology: It may be that the Buddha wasn’t perfect and that people were improving on his teachings and also creating a superhuman legend to back them up based on a person who was like Einstein or any other human luminary. A genius of his time who nevertheless left work for others to do after him.


In what sense do you mean by “not perfect”. I guess another way of saying it is, what do you see as being flawed in what he taught that needed improving upon through the centuries?

I can speak as one who does not let go of what would likely be characterized by others as allegedly inessential aspects. This is because, having studied it and the texts associated, I do not believe that the EBTs and the Ābhidhammika Śrāvaka traditions are the superior Buddhisms from either a practical practice perspective or as Buddhist philosophy, and I don’t practice them accordingly. I also do not believe that the EBTs are historical literature and instead see them as the mytho-history of a latter era, which seems obvious to me but many people disagree. Now, that is quite a contrarian stance for this forum, so I don’t bring this up often. It would cause chaos, like having an atheist muddying the waters of a Christian forum and constantly derailing their Christianity-specific threads with “But how do you even know God exists?” So I don’t do it, but when asked…


Get the pitchforks! We have a heretic!!! :trident::trident::trident:

I think this is certainly possible. Though I would word it differently, I would say the Buddha’s teachings in the EBTs are a direct pointer to the ultimate. But that does not mean it is a perfect pointer for everyone, at all times and in all places. After all, he was speaking to an audience in a specific culture and at a specific time. So it’s no wonder people sought to adapt his basic message in different ways and to make it more perfect for them, more perfect for their time and place.

Of course, it’s possible that one may go too far while doing this and err into one of the two extremes. But that’s part of the spiritual path. You fall down and you get back up. This happens as you try to understand what these ancient teachings mean to you, right here and now. And this is never going to be the exact same thing that it meant to people thousands of years ago. That’s just not possible. It’s a difficult and humbling thing. The more I study Dharma, the more I realize what I don’t know and what I can’t be sure of.

Like Ajahn Chah said, “not sure…”