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Comparing Enlightened Beings in
Theravada & Mahayana Buddhism

This is a side page. Return to History & Timeline Page

History & Timeline Menu
Overview | Hinduism | Theravada | Mahayana | Vajrayana | Rifts
RELATED: Early Buddhism in Japan | Comparing Schools you are here | Guide to Buddhism in Japan

SUMMARY OF THIS PAGE
The Arhat & Bodhisattva are enlightened beings who will certainly achieve Buddhahood.
Theravada = Highest aspiration is to become Arhat; monastic life required to become Arhat.
Mahayana = Highest goal is to become Bodhisattva; even laity can become Bodhisattva.
Theravada reveres the Historical Buddha, while Mahayana reveres myriad Buddha & Bodhisattva.

Bodhisattva 菩薩
MAHAYANA BUDDHISM

Arhat 羅漢
THERAVADA BUDDHISM

The highest goal of Mahayana practitioners is to become a Bodhisattva (Sanskrit). The equivalent Japanese term is Bosatsu. Those who attain the enlightened Bosatsu stage will certainly achieve Buddhahood, but for a time they renounce this ultimate state, vowing to remain on earth in various guises (reincarnations) to help all living beings achieve salvation.

Sho Kannon Bodhisattva, by Jokei (Kamakura Era)
Bodhisattva 菩薩
Dated +1224,  Daiho-on-ji Temple, Kyoto

Whereas Theravada stresses the monastic life -- the monk's life -- as the sole path to salvation (Arhatship), the Mahayana school says anyone, including laity, can attain enlightenment by practicing the Bodhisattva values. The Mahayana tradition thus includes numerous Bodhisattva saviors. It also includes numerous Buddha, with the Historical Buddha considered just one among many other Buddha.

Finally, the Bodhisattva concept was vigorously promoted and politicized by Mahayana adherents to differentiate it from the Theravada concept of Arhat. The Arhat is also an enlightened being, but according to Mahayana believers, the Arhat possesses an inferior, selfishly attained enlightenment, one based on "benefitting self." In contrast, the Bodhisattva are motivated entirely by compassion, by the desire to "benefit others."

The highest goal of a Theravadin is to become an Arhat (Sanskrit), or perfected saint. The equivalent Japanese term is Rakan or Arakan. The first disciples of Shaka Nyorai (Historical Buddha) all achieved enlightenment, and became known as the Arhats. In many traditions, they were asked by Shaka to remain in the world to propagate Buddhist law (dharma). Like the Bodhisattva, the Arhat will certainly achieve Buddhahood.

Arhat anmed Ragora, Kofukuji Temple in Nara; Ragora is one of the Ten Great Disciples of the Historical Buddha.
Arhat 羅漢
Dated +734,  Kofukuji Temple, Nara

In Theravada traditions, only those who practice the meditative monastic life (i.e., the monks) can attain spiritual perfection. Enlightenment is not thought possible for those living the secular life.

Theravadins revere the Historical Buddha, but they do not pay homage to the numerous other Buddha and Bodhisattva worshiped by Mahayana followers.

Those who attain Arhatship have "slain" their greed, anger and delusions, and "destroyed" their karmic residue from previous lives. They have learned the teachings of Shaka Nyorai (Historical Buddha), earned the title of Mugaku (lit. = "nothing else to learn") and achieved the highest state attainable by Shaka's disciples.

The Arhat (and Bodhisattva as well) are no longer reborn into the world of suffering, no longer trapped in the cycle of samsara (the cycle of rebirth and redeath, the six states of existence).

 

THREE MAIN SCHOOLS OF BUDDHISM
Buddhism as practiced today is still divided into three main schools -- (1) Theravada, meaning School of the Elders, but pejoratively known as Hinayana or Lesser Vehicle; (2) Mahayana, meaning Greater Vehicle; and (3) Vajrayana, meaning Diamond Vehicle; also known as Tantric or Esoteric Buddhism. “Yana” is the Sanskrit term for vehicle. The bewildering number of sects are categorized into one of the three schools.

  • Theravada (Hinayana). Found mainly in Sri Lanka, Burma, Cambodia, Laos, and Thailand. Often known as the Southern Traditions of Buddhism.
     
  • Mahayana. Found mainly in China, Korea, Vietnam, and Japan. Often known as the Northern Traditions of Buddhism.
     
  • Vajrayana (Tantric or Esoteric Buddhism). Practiced mainly in Tibet, Nepal, and Mongolia, but in Japan has a strong hold with the Shingon 真言, Tendai 天台, and Shugendō 修験道 sects. In Japan, Esoteric Buddhism is known as Mikkyō (Mikkyo) 密教). Along with Mahayana Buddhism, the Vajrayana traditions are often referred to as the Northern Traditions of Buddhism.
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