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part II Perfection of Wisdom and the Bodhisattva Path in Śāntideva Just as all the Buddhas of the past Have brought forth the awakened mind, And in the precepts of the Bodhisattvas Step-by-step abode and trained, Likewise for the benefit of beings, I will bring to birth the awakened mind, And in those precepts, step-by-step, I will abide and train. —Bodhicaryāvatāra 3:23–24 Although the figure of the bodhisattva is particularly identified with the rise of Mahāyāna Buddhism, the root concept goes back to the early stages of the tradition.1 The term was first used in a retrospective way to refer to the historical Buddha, Gautama, in his prior lives. Once one recognized that individual’s enlightenment and status as a Buddha, and likewise accepted the reality of an ongoing cycle of birth and rebirth from which his enlightenment had liberated him, an obvious conclusion followed . In the lives before his final birth, he had been a Buddha-to-be. The term “bodhisattva” begins with this reference. It points to an “enlightenment being” in the sense of a Buddha in the making. This usage was cemented in the Jataka tales that grew up in the first centuries after the Buddha. There are 547 in the traditional collection of these enormously popular stories of the Buddha’s exploits in earlier births as various kinds of animal and in various human conditions. Those seeking to find and follow the Buddha’s path to enlightenment naturally wondered about the background to the story, the parts of the Buddha’s 2 The Bodhisattva Path 60 P e r f e c t i o n o f W i s d o m a n d t h e B o d h i s at t va Pat h path that might be closer to their own condition. In early Jataka collections , the word “bodhisattva” appears at least once in each of the stories, so we might call them bodhisattva tales.2 These stories pointed back to an immensely distant and indeterminate time in the succession of lives that culminated in Gautama Buddha. After hundreds of rebirths and many heavenly intervals, he became the Buddha of this age. Part of the Buddha’s attainment is the capacity to recall all of his past lives, and so these stories are reported as told by him. They usually conclude with the Buddha revealing which one of the characters in the story is him and which represent prior lives of other significant figures known to the listeners from the biography of the Buddha.3 A large collection of these tales, some already illustrated in surviving carvings, was in place by the first century bce. The Jataka collection is a folkloric treasure house that includes many stories that can be paralleled in prior cultural backgrounds. The inclusion of such material makes good Buddhist sense, given the assumption that in his cycles of births, the bodhisattva would have passed through many different worldly settings. In these stories, the Buddha is victorious in battles, helps the weak, sees that good is rewarded and evil punished . Among the tales are a few with striking notes of self-sacrifice, as when the Buddha as prince Vessantāra gave away his wife and children or when as a wounded warhorse he insisted on leading the charge in a final battle and died as a result.4 There is a famous tale of a deity who went about in disguise to ask for alms from three animals. The Buddha, who in this case was a rabbit, volunteered to give his own body as food. And to save the beggar from the sin of killing an animal, the rabbit placed himself on the fire, only to have the fire miraculously turn to ice and the deity reveal himself.5 One that became especially prominent involved the Buddha as a young prince who encountered a starving tigress about to devour her four young cubs. The prince presents his body as flesh for the tigress and her family.6 As Robert Thurman says, the Jataka Buddha is the “first bodhisattva” in Buddhist literature, a being “consciously engaged in a moral, physical and spiritual evolution” toward boundless Buddhahood . The only reason this is not already a Mahāyāna teaching is that the Buddha “only tells what he did and what came of it; he never implies that all must also do the same.”7 Life sacrifice...


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