We know that Mahayana tradition emerged as a consequence of some intellectual and philosophical divergences over some aspects of orthodox early Buddhism which is presently represented by Theravada tradition. As a result, Theravadins consider some concepts developed by Mahayana to be superficial and not in conformity to the original teaching of the Buddha. Mahayanists, for example, believe that attainment of Arahantship is not enough for liberation and even Arahants can attain Buddhahood. Thus greater emphasis is given to attainment of Buddhahood and all the living creatures are considered to be Bodhisatvas – beings destined to be Buddha. Indeed it is said that somebody who has offered one flower to an image of Buddha or built a cetiya from sands can attain Buddhahood in future. Such statements may seem to be superficial on the surface, but, I see great optimism in this.
In the Theravada tradition it is said that after attainment of enlightenment the Buddha was doubtful whether common people would be able to understand him. The dhamma discovered by him is so profound that it required certain intellectual prerequisites to understand. Otherwise, people would instantly misunderstand/misinterpret it. We see even in our times that there are many erudite scholars with penetrative knowledge, but, in interpreting certain theoretical aspects of Buddhism, deliberately or not, they utterly mislead their readers. However, in any case Mahayana emphasizes that one must never be hopeless. Mahyanists capitalize on the fact that transformation of intellectuality and morality is always possible among human beings in particular and living creatures in general. It is only a matter of some appropriate causes and conditions. Some people are overpowered by some illusion and ignorance at some time but will be awaken at some other time – when necessary conditions are fulfilled. There is a humanistic aspect to it as well. In the Saddharmapundarikasutra (SP), for example, the following utterances are seen
I also see the poor beings and sinners destitute of wisdom and merits. They are confined in the distress of samsara. Again and again they are plunged in suffering which is incessantly renewed. (SP 2.110)
Clung to suffering like the yak by its tail, all the time blinded by passions, they neither see the Buddha – the great being, neither the dharma that takes one across suffering. (SP 2.111)
Just like a blind person who would not see even if precious diamond is kept in front of him, distressful and ignorant people too cannot see the dhamma. And indeed the world is full of such people who are overtaken by objects that bind them into more and more suffering. When they attempt to free, not knowing the proper criteria, they plunge into more suffering. Therefore Mahayanists needed to find out a device for such people to give them some hopes for truth and liberation. The result was that they introduced some forms of practices which are seemingly unimportant and not encouraged by orthodox tradition, but, have great potentiality. Building cetiyas, paying homage to the relics of Buddhas, singing songs in praise of Buddha etc. were developed. It is said that
“The grownup men or little children who while being engaged in games or entertainments make Buddha images by nails or wood on walls – they will all become Buddhas. (SP 87)”
“There would never be a single being who having heard the dharma would not become a Buddha. This is the vow or determination of the Tathāgatas …(SP 100)”
These practices were not encouraged by the Buddha or early disciples. However, in order to answer the call of time, they had to be capitalized. In Mahayana tradition they gained canonical status. Although not found in early Buddhism, Theravada too developed almost the same ideals. Therefore the divergences that existed in the past were only canonical, but, in practice it is the same in Mahayana and Theravada. One may start one’s journey to enlightenment through these devotional practices. This is only the elementary stage. The ultimate aim of Buddhist path is to upgrade supreme moral and intellectual purity. Therefore one has to stick onto the practice of virtues sincerely – and, as it is said in the Mahayana literature – you will never fail, enlightenment is for you. Somebody who even heard the name of Buddha or some ideals taught by him will one day, in any life, intensify his understanding and become a Buddha. Thus there is great hope and inspiration to strive on in the path of virtue.
Original source: New Lotus