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Is the taking of a Bodhisattva vow a requirement(1) in Mahayana, or is it merely an option (or maybe at most a recommendation)?

And if it's not a requirement, then for someone who decides not to take it, what if anything is the difference, in terms of the overall aim(2), between the Mahayana approach and the Theravada approach?

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(1) By "requirement" I'm invoking the usual idiomatic use of that word -- i.e. pointing to an action and its consequences. For example, "if you want to build muscle, you are required to lift weights" or "if you want to avoid rebirth in a hell realm you are required to refrain from murdering your parents"

(2) Clearly there are differences in practice formats, but I'm thinking more of the end point. In that context, without the vow to continue as a Bodhisattva, Theravada and Mahayana seem like one and the same.

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As per my understanding, formal taking of Bodhisattva vow (with ceremony and all) is not a hard requirement, as long as one eventually internalizes the core message of the vow: that one must surrender the hope of ever attaining Nirvana and get very comfortable with the idea of staying in Samsara for a long, long time.

Here is a version of the vow we chanted, after every meditation session:

Sentient beings are numberless; we vow to save them.
Desires are inexhaustible; we vow to end them.
The Dharmas are boundless; we vow to master them.
The Buddha's Way is incomparable; we vow to attain it.

See those adjectives -- numberless, inexhaustible and so on? Reciting them again and again makes you question what you're really up to ;)

Of course this trick only works in conjunction with perfectly realizing the rest of six paramitas. Staying in Samsara is an act of murdering the ego, not of easing into worldly pleasures. Murdering the ego is the main prerequisite for Enlightenment, from Mahayana perspective.

  • So did you choose Mahayana because of the whole Bodhisattva thing, or in spite of it, or what? – tkp Jul 28 '14 at 18:08
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    It was the other way around, Mahayana chose me :) Seriously, the Hinayana approach has an internal inconsistency which makes it counterproductive for achieving Bodhi. Since Bodhi requires existential realization of Three Marks of Existence, and since one of those marks is Anatta, Bodhi requires dropping the illusion of ego. However, striving for Bodhi solely in order to personally escape from suffering of Samsara is an egoistic goal. Therefore, striving for Bodhi makes Bodhi impossible. It is only when we surrender the ego with its goals that Bodhi becomes possible. Hence Mahayana is the way. – Andrei Volkov Jul 28 '14 at 18:20
  • That's an interesting take on it. I was aware of the issue, but I'd always seen it explained as just one of those apparent contradictions that go away on reaching enlightenment. I hadn't seen it as a criterion for choosing. Overall, I'd really like to hear more about that -- about how people chose (or got chosen by :-) their tradition. Not sure if SE is the right place for that kind of thing though. – tkp Jul 28 '14 at 18:32
  • you're right making that an SE question may angry the moderators :) but you can keep coaxing it out in the comments. – Andrei Volkov Jul 28 '14 at 18:39
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Cultivating bodhicitta (both ultimate and relative) is absolutely indispensable on the Mahayana path; and one who has vowed to do so is called a bodhisattva. From my understanding, this vow can be made with as little or as much pomp and circumstance as befits one's mind - the key is to inspire confidence and commitment. Check out Shantideva's 'Way of the Bodhisattva' for a truly awesome and beautiful way to undertake this path. Also see Patrul Rinpoche's 'Words of My Perfect Teacher' and his discussion of the vow of bodicitta starting at p. 220. He says:

"True absolute bodhicitta is attained by the power of meditation and does not depend on rituals. To generate relative bodhicitta, however, as beginners we need some procedure to follow, a ritual through which we can take the vow in the presence of a spiritual teacher. We then need to constantly renew that vow, in the same way, over and over again, so that the bodhicitta we have aroused does not decline but becomes more and more powerful."

The "presence of a spiritual teacher" can be either physical or visualized, based on the various presentations I've encountered.

Based on commitment to bodhichitta, one trains in the precepts of aspiration and application. The final fruit is perfect Buddhahood expressed in perfect wisdom and effortless compassion toward all sentient beings - nothing at all limited or 'private' about it!

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One thing that is very particular in Buddhist, is its approach regarding what should one do. In Buddhism, we don't say: You must do A, B or C, instead we say: If you do A the consequences will be X.

Take the preceps for example, you should "refraing from killing", this is different from: You shall not kill. The difference may be subtle, but is there.

So, to answer your question I think you don't need to take any vows in order to practice the Dhamma, the bodhisattva vow is something that you do if you wish to become a Buddha (most likely a private Buddha) in a future life, if you seek liberation, if you wish to become an arahant, there is no need for such vows.

  • The normal everyday use of "requirement" is exactly the one you mean by "if you A the consequences will be X". In fact, I don't think there's really much of a difference between the two meanings you present. (Someone can always ask '"Must do" or else what?'). But I've added to the question to make that clearer. – tkp Jul 27 '14 at 22:04
  • Hi, the difference is subtle, but is there, it is less impositive, less "top down", it looks like a scientific statement "if you do A, then B will happen", that approach makes a lot of difference. Regarding the vow, there is nothing that says you should take them, they are more present in the Mahayana tradition, if you follow Mahayana, take the vows and make effort, you will be on your way to attain Buddhahood. Such vows are not so encouraged in Theravada tradition. – konrad01 Jul 27 '14 at 22:22
  • To clarify: a "private Buddha' refers to the fruit of a Pratyekabuddha's path, which is quite distinct from the bodhisattva's path to full and complete buddhahood for the sake of all sentient beings. – Alan W Aug 28 '15 at 21:39
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Some traditions, schools, teachers, could incite you to take bodhisattva vow(s) as sort of basic thing. But this is their particular teaching and not general Mahayana requirement. Because Mahayana suppose diversity of teaching for different types of personalities. Mahayana, I repeat, is not some unified school, but very very broad notion including any and all types of Buddha's teaching for any types of beings. Some personality may not have courage to have bodhicitta intent and of course she/he will not be pushed out from vehicle of maha-yana.

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