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Venerable K. Sri Dhammananda Maha Thera
As a 'Compassionate Being', a Bodhisatta is destined to attain Buddhahood, and become a future Buddha, through the cultivation of his mind.
In order to gain Supreme Enlightenment, he practices transcendental virtues (Parami) to perfection. The virtues are generosity, morality, renunciation, wisdom, energy, patience, truthfulness, determination, loving-kindness, and even mindedness. He cultivates these Parami with compassion and wisdom, without being influenced by selfish motives or selfconceit. He works for the welfare and happiness of all beings, seeking to lessen the suffering of others throughout the series of his countless lives. In his journey to perfection, he is prepared to practice these virtues, sometimes even at the expense of his own life.
In the Pali scriptures, the designation 'Bodhisatta' is given to Prince Siddhartha before His Enlightenment and to His former lives. The Buddha Himself used this term when speaking of His life prior to Enlightenment. According to the Pali texts there is no mention of Buddha Bodhi being the only way to attain the final goal of Nibbanic bliss. It was very rare for a disciple during the Buddha's time to forgo the opportunity to attain sainthood and instead declare bodhisattahood as his aspiration. However, there are some records that some followers of the Buddha did aspire to become Bodhisattas to gain 'Buddhahood'.
In the Mahayana school of thought, the Bodhisatta cult however, plays an important role. The Mahayana ideal regards the Bodhisatta as a being who, having brought himself to the brink of Nibbana, voluntarily delays the acquisition of his prize so that he may return to the world to make it accessible to others. He deliberately chooses to postpone his release from Samsara in order to show the path for others to attain Nibbana.
Although Theravada Buddhists respect Bodhisattas, they do not regard them as being in the position to enlighten or save others before their own enlightenment. Bodhisattas are, therefore, not regarded as saviors. In order to gain their final salvation, all beings must follow the method prescribed by the Buddha and follow the example set by Him. They must also personally eradicate their mental defilements and develop all the great virtues.
Theravada Buddhists do not subscribe to the belief that everyone must strive to become a Buddha in order to gain Nibbana. However, the word 'Bodhi' is used to refer to the qualities of a Buddha, or Pacceka Buddha and Arahant in expressions such as Sammasmbodhi, Pacceka Bodhi and Savaka Bodhi. In addition, many of the Buddhas mentioned in the Mahayana school are not historical Buddhas and are therefore not given much attention by Theravada Buddhists. The notion that certain Buddha and Bodhisattas are waiting in Sukhawati (Pure Abode) for those who pray to them is a notion quite foreign to the fundamental Teachings of the Buddha. Certain Bodhisattas are said to voluntarily remain in Sukhawati, without gaining enlightenment themselves, until every living being is saved. Given the magnitude of the universe and the infinite number of beings who are enslaved by ignorance and selfish desire, this is clearly an impossible task, since there can be no end to the number of beings.
Must a Bodhisatta always be a Buddhist? We may find among Buddhists some self-sacrificing and ever loving Bodhisattas. Sometimes they may not even be aware of their lofty aspiration, but they instinctively work hard to serve others and cultivate their pristine qualities. Nevertheless, Bodhisattas are not only found among Buddhists, but possibly among the other religionists as well. The Jataka stories, which relate the previous birth stories of the Buddha, describe the families and forms of existence taken by the Bodhisatta. Sometimes He was born as an animal. It is hard to believe that He could have been born in a Buddhist family in each and every life. But no matter what form He was born as or family he was born into. He invariably strived hard to develop certain virtues. His aspiration to gain perfection from life to life until final birth when he emerged as a Buddha, is the quality which clearly distinguishes a Bodhisatta from other beings.
Source: Buddhist Study and Practice Group, http://www.sinc.sunysb.edu/Clubs/buddhism/
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