ONE OF THE LARGER AND MORE SIGNIFICANT ELEPHANTS in the living room of Buddhism in the West is the uneasy and often unexpressed disparity between the classically stated goals of the Northern and Southern schools. These goals can be expressed in various ways. For the Northern Tradition the goal is most often formulated as the cultivation of the bodhisattva path for the benefit of all beings, developed over many lifetimes, and culminating in Buddhahood. For the Southern Tradition the goal is the realization of arahantship, ideally in this very life.
The main reason for delving into this thorny disparity is because questions akin to the one asked of Ajahn Sumedho, quoted above, come up so often. The aim of this essay, therefore, is to shed a little more light on the landscape of the goal of Buddhist practice, to recount some of what the scriptures and traditions have said over the centuries, and to outline some of the questions that have been asked. Hopefully this multi faceted aim will enable the intuitive wisdom of the reader to integrate these elements into a clearer quality of understanding of how these various focuses might fit together and balance with each other. It is explicitly not the intention of this essay to argue toward some particular position and then defend it.