An Elephant in the Living-Room

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An Elephant in the Living-Room

‘Don’t be an arahant; don’t be a bodhisattva; don’t be anything at all – if you are anything at all you will suffer’ [Ajahn Chah].

A student of Buddhism asked, ‘Which do you think is the best path: that of the arahant or that of the bodhisattva?’ Ajahn Sumedho replied, ‘That kind of question is asked by people who understand absolutely nothing about Buddhism!’

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 that questions akin to the one asked of Ajahn Sumedho, quoted above, come up so often….

For those who live, study and practise in the style of the Northern School (aka Mahāyāna/Vajrayāna), 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 and in the bodhisattva ideal as the informing spirit of much of the teachings and the texts.

For those who practise in the style of the Southern School, the spiritual ideal that is extolled with equal regularity and vigour is that of the arahant, and the bodhisattva principle is hardly ever spoken of outside the Jātaka stories of the previous lives of Gotama Buddha. If it is discussed at all, it is usually only with reference to the emphasis of the later Mahāyāna schools.

Nowadays these two views and practices often have occasion to meet, particularly in the West. A wide spectrum of Buddhist teachings is available and many people have practised in several different traditions or at least been inspired by teachings from accomplished masters of widely different lineages.

We read a book which encourages us to free our heart from greed, hatred and delusion, to see escape from the endless cycles of rebirth as the finest thing we can achieve in our life, and the heart sings, ‘Yes, that’s it!’ Then we read of the compassionate heart which is so vast and unselfish that its chief concern is to stay in the world to relieve the suffering of other beings, and again the heart leaps, ‘That’s wonderful!’

So questions arise: are these two ways opposed or compatible? Are they parallel tracks, equally good but leading to different goals, or is their goal maybe the same? Are they actually the same track but simply called by different names?

This reflection by Ajahn Amaro is from the article, “The View from the Centre.”