Aspiring to Buddhahood is the noblest and most demanding task for all Buddhists. Instead of practicing only in order to get rid of one’s own defilements that cause us to suffer and to wander in the endless rounds of samsara, we are practicing so that we are enabled to help all the sentient beings in the whole cosmos. Thus not only we ourselves will be liberated, but all the sentient beings will be as well. Only a fully enlightened Buddha is able to help all the sentient beings like this.
A couple of questions naturally arise when one confronts this attitude. First question is: Why should one aim at helping others instead of oneself only? After all, it is we ourselves, each of us, who are suffering — the suffering that we feel is most intense if it is our own suffering. Others’ sufferings can at most be imagined. And frankly speaking they are their sufferings, so it should be their responsibilities to take care of their own sufferings.
This is all right as far as it goes. However, if there is a way in which we could help others get rid of their sufferings, then why shouldn’t we be doing something about it? This is the crux of the matter regarding Theravada (Hinayana) and Mahayana. What is the purpose of practicing the Dharma? For the Theravadin, one practices the Dharma in order that one’s own sufferings be eliminated and thus one attains the status of the ‘arahat,’ or those who have completely destroyed all their ‘enemies’ namely the defilements so that one does not have to be born again in samsara.
Nonetheless, when one realizes that other beings in samsara have been so kind to us, and that in fact our very beings are constituted by theirs, then one feels that one is obligated to repay them through the practice that would enable these beings to be helped across the ocean of samsara to the shore of Liberation. This is the typical Mahayana attitude.
In fact there is not much of a difference among the two traditions, much as people have seemed to emphasize it. One still needs to practice in order to eliminate all the defilements. In order to become a bodhisattva, one who aspires and undertakes the task of eventually becoming a Buddha for the sake of sentient beings, one has to root out all of one’s defilements so that none will ever sprout again. This is the path of the arahat. One follows the same teachings, practices the same way, and so on.
But it is the aspiration to Buddhahood that separates a Mahayana practitioner from the Theravada one. In fact there is a lot of discussion of the bodhisattva and his aspiration in the Theravada teachings; it is only that these teachings are not as emphasized as in Mahayana. So we have here the same teachings, only different emphases.
The teachings then are suited to people of different attitudes and characteristics. If you are so tired of all the wanderings and the seemingly endless cycle of births, deaths, rebirths and redeaths, then one undertakes the Arahat path. But if one sees the connection and indeed the sameness of oneself and all sentient beings, then one feels that it is not enough to become liberated all alone. One has to be able to take all the beings with himself or herself. This is the Bodhisattva path.
The above are the traditional teachings. If we look at them rather closely, though, we will see their intention. What does it mean to aspire to Buddhahood in today’s world? It means, I think, that one tries to see the essential connection and oneness of oneself and others. That there is a self — the individual me — who does the thinking and who somehow feels that there is a distinct entity that is referred to whenever the word ‘I’ or ‘me’ is used is indeed an illusion, much like an illusion one sees when one looks out on a hot, dry day on a deserted road and sees something that looks like water straight ahead but in fact there is no water. But when there is no ‘me,’ there is no ‘you’ or ‘he’ or ‘she’ or ‘they’ either. All beings are one and the same. Your feelings are my feelings too, and your pains and sufferings are also mine. This is because I have destroyed the wall between what has been thought to be myself and others. This wall is constituted since time immemorial by the fundamental ignorance that is avidya in Buddhist terminology. In reality there is no me nor you. It is all ’emptiness.’
So does one who aspires to become a Buddha in today’s world have to give up everything and live the life of a wandering ascetic? This is not quite necessary. Becoming an ascetic in itself is not enough. It means one has to find contemporary ways to get the message across to the contemporary world. Who knows? Perhaps we are now having many bodhisattvas living among us here and now, perhaps in your neighborhood, or perhaps they are someone you know very well. You only need to recognize them and appreciate the tremendous sacrifice that they are making for the sake of all beings in the world.