For those who live, study and practice in the style of the Northern School (aka Mahayana/Vajrayana), it is totally normal and expected to take bodhisattva vows and precepts. The scriptures and liturgies of that lineage are thickly populated with the bodhisattva principle – both in the presence of bodhisattvas as great spiritual beings, as well as the bodhisattva ideal as the informing spirit of much of the teachings and the texts. For those who practice in the style of the Southern School the spiritual ideal that is extolled instead, but with equal regularity and vigor, is that of the arahant. The bodhisattva principle is hardly ever spoken of apart from the Jataka Tales – stories of the previous lives of Gotama Buddha. If the bodhisattva principle is discussed at all, it is usually only in reference to the emphasis of "the later, Mahayana Schools".
Nowadays, particularly in the West, both of these views and practices often have occasion to meet. A wide spectrum of Buddhist teachings are available and many people have practiced in several different traditions, or at least have been inspired by teachings from accomplished masters of widely different lineages. We read a book that encourages us to free our heart from greed, hatred and delusion, to see escape from the endless cycles of rebirth as the finest thing that can be achieved with our life, and the heart sings, “Yes, that"s it!” Then we read of the compassionate heart that is so vast and unselfish that its chief concern is to stay in the world to relieve the suffering of other beings — again the heart leaps, “That"s wonderful!”
So the questions arise: Are these two ways opposed or compatible? Are they parallel tracks, equally good but leading to different goals, or maybe the same goal? Are they actually the same track but simply called by different names?
Over the centuries, both Southern and Northern lineages have developed critiques of each other"s way of practice that have been passed on and adopted as received knowledge. When all we can base things on is the information that has come from books or the established outlook portrayed by particular lineages, these seem to be reasonable judgements. Some of the most common points of view from the South argue that, “The Mahayana Schools are not real Buddhism, they wrote their own scriptures and have wandered from the Buddha"s true way, that is – practicing the Eightfold Path to realize Nibbana and end rebirth.” While the other voices, from the North, argue that, “The Theravadans are the Small Vehicle, Hinayanists, they only practice according to the Buddha"s most preliminary teachings; they are narrow minded and selfishly concerned only for the peace of Nirvana for themselves. The Buddha gave far superior and refined teachings, those of the Great and Supreme Vehicles, and it is those that we hold in highest esteem – it is most noble and altruistic to vow to stay in the world as a bodhisattva, developing the paramitas until full Buddhahood is reached.”
Both kinds of practitioners often struggle over these apparent differences and wrestle with such issues as, “Am I conceiving a deeply obstructive wrong view if I believe the party line criticisms of arahats?” “Am I pointlessly tying my heart to an erroneous ideal if I dont take the bodhisattva vows?”
In addition to this type of issue, which is concerned more with personal dilemmas and one"s gut response to the perceived differences in ideals, the plot thickens when we look at the scriptures on a more scholarly level. On examination we find some curious and significant anomalies in both the teachings of the Northern and Southern schools.
Firstly, there is the roaring silence in respect to the concept of the bodhisattva path in the Pali Canon, other than (as noted above) its presence in the Jataka Tales. It seems impossible, in 45 years of teaching thousands of disciples, that the subject of his bodhisattva training never came up. If someone is studying with a spiritual teacher, such as the Buddha, it is the most natural thing in the world to want to emulate that person. However, there is no record of anyone even asking about it; this absence is almost comparable to writing an extensive biography of Winston Churchill then omitting to mention a couple of stints he had as Prime Minister.
In the entire Pali Canon, there is no instance where anyone asks the Buddha such questions as:
“What made you choose to become a Buddha?”
“Could an ordinary person like me undertake the effort to become a Buddha too?”
“How does one train as a bodhisattva?”
“Should I aim for Buddhahood or the more accessible goal of arahantship?”
Equally interestingly there is not a single place where the Buddha proffers any comment on this part of his own background and how it might apply to others. He never says:
“It is good to strive for Buddhahood.”
“I set this intention and pursued it but it"s not an appropriate undertaking for everyone.”
Nothing. Not a syllable. Even if the Buddha"s silence was based upon the reflection that, “Saying anything would only confuse people. Just let them practice the Dhamma, when they awaken to the Path they will see for themselves what the proper course is.” Still, someone must have been curious. Furthermore, it"s not as though, if these were just dumb questions, that they would not have been included in the Canon. There are plentiful accounts of brahmins being confuted or bhikkhus being disabused of their wrong views. On this subject there is an eerie silence – no directions or recommendations ever come from the Buddha on what would seem to be an axiomatic issue of spiritual training.
This eerie, rather than noble silence raises the question: How come the issue never gets mentioned?
Secondly, for the followers of the Northern Tradition, there is an equally mysterious anomaly. Immediately following his enlightenment, the Buddhas first inclination is not to try to teach other living beings. He saw the ubiquity and degree of attachment was so great, and felt the subtlety of his newly discovered insight was so refined and counter intuitive that, should he try to teach this, others would not understand. This would be “a trouble and a weariness” to him.
One would reckon that if compassion for the welfare of other beings was his prime motivation in developing the paramitas for so many lifetimes (over a span of “four incalculable periods and a hundred thousand aeons” according to one scripture), yet another surprise – particularly after so much preparation – is that he should feel that there was no point in even trying… How could this be? Very mysterious…
According the scriptures of both the Northern and Southern schools one of the high deities discerns this train of thought in the mind of the newly awakened Buddha and they are moved to appeal to him. They request that the Buddha make the effort to share his new and profound understanding, ”Out of compassion for the world and for the sake of those with only a little dust in their eyes.” The Buddha then casts his vision around the world and, seeing that the deity has spoken truly, agrees to ”beat the drum of Deathlessness“ for the sake of the few who might understand. Interestingly, even to this very day, this exchange is reenacted in monasteries and temples of both Northern and Southern Buddhists, when requesting Dharma teachings.
Given that such incongruities manifest within both traditions, one would imagine that these would lead people to investigate their own favored beliefs a little more closely, and to ponder whether the standard views of their own and other traditions were reliable. Unfortunately, this is not the usual result; the case is more often that such anomalous elements are ignored or dismissed and ones familiar and preferred version of reality re established.