The Bodhisattva Ideal in Theraveda Buddhism

in the Pali Canon, there is a section of the Tipitaka called the Dhammapada. this section of the Sutra contains many stories of the Buddhas past lives… from animals to humans to, in his last life, Bodhisattva.

the presence of the bodhisattva ideal in the Theraveda Buddhist Pali canon is primarily restricted to Gotama Buddha. the use of the term “bodhisattva” occurs in a number of the suttas (Skt: sutra) in the Majjhima, Anguttara, and Samyutta Nikaayas where the Buddha is purported to have said: “Monks, before my Awakening, and while I was yet merely the Bodhisatta [Skt: bodhisattva], not fully-awakened….” in addition to referring to the present life of Gotama, the term “bodhisattva” is also used in relation to the penultimate life of Gotama in Tusita heaven, as well as his conception and birth.

in the Pali canon, the term “bodhisattva” is also used in reference to other previous buddhas. For instance, in the Mahaapadaanasutta of the Digha Nikaaya, the notion of past buddhas (and hence past bodhisattvas) is elucidated. In the beginning of this sutta, the six buddhas who preceded Gotama are mentioned as well as their names, the eons when they became buddhas (i.e., when they attained enlightenment and taught), their caste, their clan, their life span, the trees where they attained enlightenment, the number of their disciples, their personal attendants, and their parents. (1) After briefly outlining the lives of these six buddhas, Gotama begins an in-depth recollection of the first buddha, Vipassii, from his life in Tusita Heaven until he dispersed his monks for the purpose of spreading the teachings. In this narration, the Buddha not only refers to Vipassii up to his enlightenment as a bodhisattva, (2) but also takes the life events of Vipassii as the example for all future bodhisattvas and buddhas, including (retroactively) Gotama himself. (3)

another section of the Sutta-pitaka where the term “bodhisattva” pertains to each of the six previous buddhas is the Samyutta Nikaaya. For instance, in the fourth section of the second book, we find the phrase “To Vipassi, brethren, Exalted One, Arahant, Buddha Supreme, before his enlightenment, while he was yet unenlightened and Bodhisatta, there came this thought….(4)” This same phrase, then, is used in conjunction with the other five previous buddhas in the following verses: Sikhi, Vessabhu, Kakusandha, Konaagamana, and Kassapa.

1. – Diigha Nikaaya 2:1-7

2. – For instance, we find: “Now Vipassii, brethren, when as a Bodhisatta, he ceased to belong to the hosts of the heaven of Delight, descended into his mother’s womb mindful and self-possessed” (Diigha Nikaaya 2:12).

3. – In many of the following paragraphs, for instance, we find the phrase “It is the rule, brethren, that….” (Ayam ettha dhammataa) used to refer to the paradigm set by Vipassii.

4. – Samyutta Nikaaya 2:4 ff.


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