A brief look at the cosmological side of Buddhas, Bodhisatvas and Enlightenment, as part of the ongoing look at Mahayana/Theravada Buddhism:
A ‘Buddha’ is an enlightened being – one who has gone beyond birth/ageing/death, who has realised the ‘unconditioned’ or Buddha Nature. There are three kinds of Buddha:
Anubuddha – an arahant, or enlightened being, who has heard and practised the teachings to completion.
Paccaekabuddha – an arahant who has come by their own means to enlightenment, but due to lack of parami (charismatic qualities) and lack of a training method, is not able to teach others to reach this enlightenment
Sammasambuddha – a ‘fully’ enlightened being, who has practised the parami for many lifetimes, so that when becoming enlightened they are able to teach multitudes of people.
These terms are not really fixed hard and fast however. The Arahants all had more or less ability to teach others. Paccaekabuddhas also had followings, albeit smaller than those of a full Buddha. And even Sammasambuddhas have variations – those enlightened through faith, wisdom or energy are of three levels – energy being the highest. Maitreyya Buddha, the next Buddha, is supposed to be of the third and best kind, and have 100 x as many followers as Sakyamuni, our Buddha, had.
The Parami (aka Paramitta) are:
Generosity, morality, renunciation, wisdom, energy, patience, truthfulness, resolution, compassion and equanimity
Note, in Mahayana there are only 6 Parami
Generosity, morality, patience, energy, concentration, wisdom
… and they are exemplified in the Jataka tales, especially those depicting the last 10 live of the Buddha where he supposedly dedicated one lifetime to each quality. Again, we don’t need to take this literally, but simply as stories exemplifying each quality.
The more you have these qualities, the more you will be able to influence and teach others. But it is not necessary to perfect each and all of them in order to become enlightened. This is quite important, as some people mistakenly believe that Enlightenment takes thousands of lifetimes of practise. There was never any such teaching, although Mahayana Buddhism tends to accuse Theravada of having just such a philosophy. The fact is that in the Suttas people attained to enlightenment very quickly, often after just hearing one or two short teachings.
It is also a fact that some people were not ‘ready’ to hear the teachings and so did not benefit from them.
Now, if you have the aspiration to become a Sammasambuddha, then you will have to dedicate many lifetimes to the process. You will be of great benefit to multitudes …. but it will take many eons before you can realise your aspiration, because in this eon there are supposed to be 5 Buddhas. We have had 4 already, and the slot for the next one is taken by Maitreyya! Future eons may have zero-5 Buddhas. Not many!
If you do decide to become a Sammasambuddha then the moment you take the vow you are known as a ‘Bodhisattva’. According to the mythology, you should really take the vow infront of a living Buddha. After that you will keep making the vow .. and if past lifetimes are real, then you may actually already have taken such a vow! You never know.
Taking this vow is known as the ‘Bodhisattva Vow’ and there is a fair summary of the varieties of these on Wikipedia.
Technically all Mahayana Buddhists have taken this vow – which is why it is called ‘Maha’ (greater) ‘Yana’ (path/vehicle). If you have not taken this vow you are ‘Hina’ (lesser) ‘Yana’ (path). If you want to get enlightened sooner rather than countless lifetimes down the road, you should not take the Bodhisattva Vows. The Vow also means, technically, that there are never any Mahayana Arahants (Enlightened people) since they have taken the vow to postpone their enlightenment in order to perfect the parami first.
But again, it is not necessary to get too dogmatic about this. Many Mahayana teachers view the vow more as an aspiration to help others than a real dedication to avoid enlightenment until such time as you are perfect in every quality and can become a Sammasambuddha. It is placing emphasis more on Compassion and helping others, than retreating to a forest for your own salvation. But of course, many Mahayana Buddhists do retreat to mountains and forests to pursue their own Enlightenment also.
This cosmology is more a general set of principles, than hard and fast rules to which all Buddhists adhere.
There is an extra layer to the Bodhisattva though. In Mahayana Buddhism, especially Tibetan style, there are certain Bodhisattva characters – such as Avalokiteshvara (Bodhisattva of compassion) or Manjushri (Bodhisattva of Wisdom). These can be understood as principles; angelic metaphors for certain qualities. Or they can be viewed as real existing beings in heavenly realms. While these Bodhisattvas hold a special place, it should be remembered that anyone who takes the Bodhisattva vow, is a Bodhisattva.
The remaining question is what exactly qualifies one as ‘Enlightened’.
The teachings say that one can attain to enlightenment as a temporary experience. Here is it called by various names such as cetovimutti (liberation of the heart) or khinasava (extinction of the Taints) … and other terms. However one who makes this attainment is not an Anubuddha, Pacceakabuddha or Sammasambuddha. One is not an arahant as the attainment is only temporary.
There is still work to be done, and the path is not complete.
When the path is complete, you attain to full enlightenment and become an Arahant – one whose work is finished, and who will not be returning to any kind of rebirth in Samsara (we’ll leave the question of whether an Arahant has a non-samsaric existence for another time). Once you are an Arahant there is no ‘returning’ to the world to help others. You are finished, done! Thus technically, there have never been any Mahayana arahants, since they will all have taken the Bodhisattva vow to postpone their enlightenment for the sake of others (no need to take this too literally however).
While one is an Arahant but still alive – this is called ‘Enlightenment with residue’. When an Arahant dies, they attain to ‘Pari-nibbana’ or ‘Enlightenment without residue’
[there are some technical disagreements on the exact meanings of these terms, but the above is the mainstream view]
So if you wish to become enlightened sooner rather than later, do not take the Bodhisattva Vow which is the Mahayana requirement. There is no reason to speculate how long it will take you to achieve your goal, but certainly do not buy into the mythology that it takes thousands of lifetimes – this is only true if you are a real Bodhisattva and are practising for perfecting your qualities rather than practising to become enlightened. A sincere person should make the resolution to keep pursuing Dhamma relentlessly until one becomes enlightened, however long it takes, and in whatever realm one finds oneself.
This cosmology is not to be taken too seriously – it is more a set of guidelines and principles than hard and fast rules. You don’t necessarily have to believe these things, or in past/future lives in order to see the value of spiritual work and meditation. So long as you are developing good qualities, and have the goal in enlightenment, you are heading in the right direction.