There is a collection of stories in the Sutra Pitaka of the Pali scripture about twenty-four Buddhas who lived before Gautama Buddha. The collection entitled the Buddhavarmsa begins with Sariputra asking Gautama Buddha when it was that he first resolved to become the Buddha and what were the virtues of perfection he achieved to attain this goal. The Buddha then relates how eons ago he was a hermit named Sumedha. One day, he heard that there was a Buddha named Dipankara teaching in a nearby town. He went to that town and saw Dipankara Buddha approaching him at the head of a long procession of monks. Sumedha was moved to deep reverence for Dipankara. He realized that while he could follow this Buddha and become an arhat, he could benefit the world more by becoming a Buddha. In that moment, he made a vow to become a Buddha in a future life.
This story expressed an alternative to the path to Arhatship and Nirvana , namely what would become known as the Bodhisattva Path to Buddhahood. Indeed, the early schools of Buddhism that we introduced in the previous chapter all recognized this Bodhisattva Path, but taught that it is a heroic path for only the very few. It is best, they argued, to follow the shorter path leading to Nirvana than the more arduous path over eons of time leading to Buddhahood. However, some Buddhist monastics did eventually resolve to follow the Bodhisattva Path. ... By the first century B.C.E., the experience of this bodhisattva practice was expressed in a new literature. New sutras began to appear that claimed to be discourses of Gautama Buddha that presented the wisdom and the practice of the Bodhisattva Path. These sutras taught that the Bodhisattva Path is superior to that of original Buddhism because it leads to a greater attainment, namely, full Buddhahood. The qualities gained in the process of further growth beyond Arhatship could be used to benefit all living beings in ways not possible for an arhat. The Bodhisattva Path was therefore referred to as the Mahayana, meaning “Great Vehicle,” “Great Course,” or “Great Journey.” Followers of Mahayana also referred to the earlier forms of Buddhism as Hinayana, or “Lesser Vehicle,” as they do not lead all the way to full Buddhahood. ... While the different sutras contribute a variety of ideas to Mahayana, there are some characteristic ideas that have become associated with Mahayana. Here, we mention four .... (BIBE, 115-6)
The Buddha as a human being existing in time and space, like the Historical Buddha Sakyamuni.
A supramundane body that is not limited by time and space, and hence accessible through meditation and visions.
The inconceivable essence of reality without boundaries or limits. This is the ultimate source of Buddhahood itself.
arhat, is the person who can be of most help to people who are suffering and in need of liberation. To achieve this condition of Buddhahood, one needs to follow the Bodhisattva Path. This bodhisattva life begins with what is called the “arising of the thought of Awakening,” or bodhicitta. This bodhicitta is really the altruistic desire, or heartfelt aspiration, to attain Buddhahood so that one can help others gain freedom from suffering. (BIBE, 117)
A second characteristic of Mahayana teaching is the notion of a “higher wisdom” (prajnaparamita) realizing “emptiness” (sunyata). This notion has to do with the awakened experience of the Buddhas and bodhisattvas. For Mahayana, what one experiences with awakened consciousness is that all the “factors of existence” (dharmas), which we have seen were so carefully analyzed in the Abhidharma Pitaka, are “empty” (sunya) of existing independently, or “on their own.” ... This is another way of saying what the Buddha himself taught, namely, that all things arise dependently. To experience this dependently arisen nature of things — their “emptiness” of independence — is the core of wisdom experience according to Mahayana. It is this profound wisdom realizing emptiness that, coupled with a compassionate motivation to save all living beings, furthers one’s Great Journey to the goal of Buddhahood. (BIBE, 117)
IV. Buddha Realms
Finally, the fourth characteristic notion has to do with the nature of Buddhahood, the goal of the Bodhisattva Path. While the early Buddhist texts claim that the cosmos includes realms of hells, ghosts, gods, and Brahma beings, Mahayana expanded this vision of the cosmos by claiming that it also contains countless Buddhas residing in Buddha realms. In following the Bodhisattva Path, one can be reborn in one of these realms, where one can progress toward Buddhahood under the guidance and with the blessings of the Buddha of that realm. When one attains Buddhahood, one will also create a Buddha realm from where one will help others throughout the cosmos. In the meantime, one can receive guidance and blessings in this world, as well as visualize these “celestial” Buddhas and their realms and the advanced bodhisattvas that abide in them in ways that are spiritually transforming. These Buddhas and advanced bodhisattvas develop special skillful means (upaya) that they use to appear in the many world systems of the cosmos in order to help other beings become free from suffering and progress in the journey to Awakening and Buddhahood. (BIBE, 118)