Maybe being a bodhisattva isn’t so silly after all….
In my previous post I suggested that if you want to be a bodhisattva you just might be crazy—or at least ill-informed and irrational. You probably are all of these, but that’s no reason to give up hope! While each of the quandaries I proposed is legitimate, none, it turns out, are fatal to the (surreal) sensibility of the task of trying to live and think as a bodhisattva.
The first problem I noted was that the historical Buddha did not teach the bodhisattva ideal. More accurately, it might be said he did not advise it. For the Pali Suttas clearly describe a universe in which numberless buddhas have come and gone, arising in succession, each rediscovering the lost “ancient path” to liberation and then proclaiming it. (See the Mahapadana Sutta, D.14, for the most detailed account of the early bodhisattva ideal found in the Nikayas.) So the prospect of becoming a bodhisattva and then a buddha was already acknowledged in the earliest texts, as was the possibility of becoming a paccekhabuddha or an arahant (what the later tradition calls a “disciple” or shravaka.)
Regarding rebirth and the length of time it takes to perfect the virtues required to issue in buddhahood: my feeling has long been that if there is no rebirth and you strive to help others, to be the best person you can be within the limitations of your genes and upbringing, you will certainly live a worthy life. The effects of such a life will ripple down through generations and affect the world positively in ways that cannot be foretold. And let’s face it: if there is no rebirth, the moment you die it will cease to matter that you did not experience an awakening of the sort the Buddha experienced. If, on the other hand, there is rebirth then the force of one’s goodness and resolve will (presumably) carry over to the next life so that your bodhisattva career can continue. The trick, of course, will be keeping with it in life after life, for there is never any guarantee as to what sort of rebirth you’ll have, or in what your circumstances. (Crustaceans, sharks, and maggots probably encounter difficulties fulfilling their bodhisattva vows!) The working of karma, as the Buddha noted, is something that cannot be conceived; every life is a roll of the dice for you do not know what you’ve done in the past; therein lies the challenge.
As previously mentioned, all of this will take a long time, and the old commentators proved adept at dreaming up fantastic metaphors to stagger the mind as to just how long the bodhisattva road goes on. Really, though, we shouldn’t be put off by any of this. How many of those previous lives (assuming rebirth happens) do you remember? Probably none. How much anxiety, guilt and general angst are you suffering now on account of what you did previously? Well, that’s a tricky question since the nature of your birth–species, genes, environment–were all determined by your previous lives (again, assuming there were any). So in all honesty there’s no way for you to answer that question. Nonetheless, most people do not feel weighed down by countless memories of the past, so whether rebirth is real or not roughly amounts to the same thing in the experience of the average person.
All this is to say that while descriptions of the bodhisattva career are not for the faint of heart, psychologically we can face down the prospects and take up the call. For a further primer on some of the historical and doctrinal issues involved, I strongly suggest reading Guy Armstrong’s excellent essay, “What is a Bodhisattva?” and Bhikkhu Bodhi’s “Arahants, Buddhas, and Bodhisattvas.”