Dan74 wrote:I hope Pannasikhara weighs in, but it is certainly true that the notion of a Bodhisattva deliberately delaying enlightenment is not universally accepted in Mahayana.
Or rather, for the early Mahayana, they only delay "realization of the reality limit" (= nirvana) to the extent that they have not yet fulfilled the various qualities that are specific to Buddhas (and not other Arhats), such as the 4 intepidities, etc. But, once these are fulfilled, then they realize nirvana, become a Buddha, and turn the wheel of Dharma, etc.
As one can see, this is different from the notion of delaying until all beings are liberated.
Hence the saying, I'll quote Nagarjuna in his Bodhisambhara Sastra:
(CBETA, T32, no. 1660, p. 533, a23-24)
The Bodhisattva is of the nature of the defilements,
Not the nature of nirvana.
It is not by the burning up of the defilements,
The the seeds of bodhi are born.
Some would probably argue that this is some sort of "bodhi = klesa" argument.
But, in this context, it is not. It is just that the bodhisattva needs to remain in samsara until their other "requisites of awakening" (bodhisambhara) are fulfilled.
Rather the Bodhisattva from his/her infinite compassion, resolves to re-enter this realm but is not "stained" by it. "In the world, but not of the world" to borrow a Christian phrasing.
There are various positions on what exactly keeps them in samsaric rebirth. At first, at least, they still have defilements. Later, it becomes reliant on their training in sunyata, without realization of sunyata.
I think it is clear from many Mahayana scriptures that advanced Bodhisattvas (like Vimalakirti) have eliminated defilements and passed the arahat stage.
I wouldn't say "passed" the arhat stage. The Vimalakirti is a fairly early Mahayana text, in the same broad family as the Prajnaparamita, and (first) Surangama Samadhi Sutra, and also the Amitabha and Aksobhya texts. (We later see that Vimalakirti is a bodhisattva from Aksobhya's Pureland named Abhirati.) So, rather than "passed", it is maybe more accurate to just say that they are on a different track. In the Mahaprajnaparamita Upadesa, it explains that in terms of realization of nirvana, actually the Arhats are obviously ahead of the Bodhisattvas (any and all bodhisattvas), because the bodhisattvas have not realized nirvana / the reality limit. However, in usual Mahayana style, the great bodhisattvas have other qualities that may surpass those of the arhats.
PS The Bodhisattva Vows is just one of the differences. It's significant because of the strong orientation towards others, but to me perhaps a more visible day-to-day practice difference is in upaya - the various skillful means in letting go of defilements and realizing the nirvana, as well as a close contact with a teacher on this journey.
Because the early Mahayana argued that one has to stay in samsara for some time to arise various buddha-qualities, one requires a huge amount of merit. Hence, even whilst a householder, one can practice this path to a fair depth. It is very difficult to argue that of two bodhisattvas, one a celibate monk or nun in secluded meditation, and the other a layperson engaged in charity work, that either of them is possibly further advanced along the bodhisattva path. (Though it may be argued, very tentatively, that one would be able to achieve nirvana sooner. But, as shown above, this is a characteristic of Arhats and Buddhas, but not necessarily of bodhisattvas.)