In the past I used to be a staunch Theravada Buddhist. Perhaps ‘staunch’ is not really a correct word here because I did not go to stay in a long retreat in a temple or anything like that. But I read quite a few books on Theravada Buddhism, including the Tipitaka and the Visuddhimagga, which were the standard scriptures, as well as works by Ven. Buddhadasa and Ven. P. Payutto. I thought of Mahayana Buddhism then as something that I would like to know more about, but I did not have the means to actually study and experience it. The names such as Nagarjuna, Asanga, Vasubandhu and others sounded really interesting and I thought I would like to study them closely. Only that at that time their teachings were almost ‘vacant’ to my mind because I did not have the appropriate background with which to understand them. I did not look down on Mahayana at all because if it is a Buddhism at all then it deserves respect.
However, after I started practicing Mahayana Buddhism when a number of Tibetan lamas came to Thailand and gave teachings, I began to appreciate and understand Mahayana Buddhism more fully. The key moment happened when I studied the Bodhicitta Prayer that was the beginning point of all Mahayana (and Vajrayana) practices. Somehow something dawned upon me and I realized that this was something really great. The key in the Bodhicitta Prayer is that we are making a vow to become enlightened as a Buddha so that we will be enabled to help all the sentient beings who are wandering about in the samsara. Somehow I saw that there was a very real connection between myself and all other sentient beings. We are not alone in the universe. We are what we are simply because of these other beings. So it is much more meaningful to practice for their sake rather than for our individual’s sake alone.
So this is the essence of the Mahayana path. Asanga said that all the sentient beings used to look after us and take care of us for eons, and all of them actually used to be our mothers. So it is logical to repay them so that they are liberated from the endless life cycles of birth, death and rebirth (and redeath) which comprise sufferings. Only a fully enlightened Buddha is able to help bring these beings who are our mothers out of this situation, so it is fitting that we make a vow and practice in earnest in order to achieve this result of becoming a Buddha in order to help them.
An ordinary follower of the Theravada path would tend to think that to become a Buddha is a hugely difficult task. After all, it is said in the Pali scripture that it would take at least 4 incalculable eons and one hundred thousand kalpas for one to actually become a Buddha. This is true, but in fact one who follows the Bodhisattva path is undeterred by this difficulty, or any other difficulty that will surely be present along the Path. This is to be expected; one might say “it comes with the territory.” In fact the many incalculable eons and kalpas are beside the point. The point is not how many eons the Bodhisattva has to wander in samsara; the point is how many sentient beings are there to be saved. If in order to save all these beings it is necessary to stay for four or more incalculable eons, then the Bodhisattva would gladly undertake it.
Furthermore, there are many helps along the way. The Bodhisattva is not working alone. All the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas will be there to help, because these beings all have made vows such that all beings will be enlighetened and achieve Buddhahood. Thus the final goal, instead of the Theravada conception of Nirvana, or the total extinguishing of all causes and conditions that would lead to further rebirths, is “non-abiding Nirvana,” or the state of Buddhahood itself.