On the outset, the immeasurably long career of a Bodhisattva gives the impression that the ones who choose Mahayana walk a much more difficult path compared to those of the Sravakas who aim for Arhathood. But I have observed that it is usually the Arhats who walk a more difficult path compared to Mahayanists.
How can one even start to generalise the noble path and career of a Samyak Sambuddha along sectarian lines?
First of all, the statement assumes that only the Mahayana has a Bodhisattva Path leading to Samyak Sambuddhahood. Does one know that the some of the early Sravaka Schools already have this idea? Or for that matter even in the only surviving one from those days, today, the Theravada has it?
Secondly, how can one even generalise the aspirations of Arhatship and Buddhahood, one who hears and awakens to the teaching from a Teacher, who introduces and teaches the Path, where even the Buddha Himself points out this difference?
Thirdly, why is there an assumption that Sravakas only aim for Arhatship or for that matter Mahayanists for Bodhisattvahood?
If there are Bhikshus, Bhikshunis, Upasakas, Upasikas, those who seek to be Hearers, Pratyekabuddhas, or those who seek the Bodhisattva Way, he should not torment them or cause them to have doubts by saying to them, “You are all very far from the Path, and you will never obtain the wisdom of all modes.
Why not? Because you are careless and lax in the Way.” Further, he should not frivolously discuss the Dharma for the sake of argument.”
I have known some people who are in Mahayana based organisations but neither aspire for Buddhahood nor Arhatship but merely that they will get a good life come the next round, heck one fella told me all he wanted from reciting 'Namo Amitabha Buddha' was a gorgeous body and looks next life! And did you know, by the way, that in Myanmar, there are pagodas (stupas) with inscriptions from past royal sponsors who made aspirations for Samma Sambodhi?
But I have observed that it is usually the Arhats who walk a more difficult path compared to Mahayanists.
Really? You met an Arhat lately?
Mahayana usually attracts those who do not want to adopt celibacy, or those who are satisfied with ritual chanting, mantras and other rituals.
Another gross generalisation. On ritualism, are we talking on the usual run off the mill types or the serious practitioners?
If it was the former, then yes, I may agree but guess what? It's also present in popular religious Theravada. Haven't you noticed what goes in places like Thailand and Sri Lanka? Festive galas, paritta chanting sessions, animistic propitiations, Bodhi Tree pujas, cult of amulets, divinations and astrological calculations and the endless lists of what popular religion and people dictate vs what Buddha Dharma is?
By the way, there is no requirement on one who wants to be Buddhist to be a celibate, at least not for lay householders and consideration of a lifelong monastic life is a serious commitment for the truly even minded and serious practitioner who is fit and prepared. These days, even householders get the chance to participate in 'short term monastic retreats' ranging for a week to some months, giving the laity an insight into what it entails and preparatory experience for those seriously considering full monastic renunciation. So it's not the case of a blind plunge or imposition at all.
East Asian Mahayana (with exception of Japan) has a strong monastic background, so strong that for instance the Chinese Dharmaguptaka Bhikshunis are well known for 'lending' strength to other Buddhist Traditions where their Bhikshuni Order are either in want or stunted at Sramanerika level. In fact, in Chinese Mahayana circles, the female to male ratio of monastics is higher. Why? With various demographics and dynamics at work, who knows? The Chinese have coined an old adage that with one descendant taking the robes, several generations would be blessed, that's how highly regarded monastic life is.
Of course, when you look at the lives of a Zen monk, a Tibetan Lama or a Forest monk from Thailand, it is ostensibly the Thai monk that lives the most difficult life.
This is really a case of comparing oranges with apples.
Firstly, is there such a thing as Zen 'monk'? Since the Japanese have ditched the Vinaya for aeons now, do we still have monastics there, save from other Buddhist Traditions and a small isolated group from the original Chinese Dharmaguptaka transmission? And no, living in monastic and communal like settings and a shaved head does not make one a Bhikshu or Bhikshuni as far as the Vinaya is concerned.
Secondly, why the Thai Forest Monks? Are all Thai Bhikkhus from the Forest Tradition? Is one aware that Thai Bhikkhus who are from the Forest Tradition undertake the observance of the ascetic dhutanga or 'tudong' whereas the average Thai Bhikkhu does not? If I want to compare, I would compare the Thai Forest Tradition with say some of the Chinese Monastics who undertake the dhuta practices like those in the City of Ten Thousand Buddhas Monastery in Calif or those in Haicheng, Liaoning Province of China and those Tibetan monastics who observe yogic and dhuta practices. Oranges with oranges, apples with apples....
The average Thai monk does not 'live the most difficult life', they are surrounded by an army of maechis and laity to serve their daily needs, so much so that many of them are afflicted with lifestyle diseases like obesity, diabetes and high blood pressure and much comments have been made on their modern relevance to society. Try a read on Bhante Sravasti Dhammika's 'The Broken Buddha' on this issue.
A Thai Forest monk almost makes a Tibetan Lama look like a celebrity.
Apples and oranges....
So which vehicle do you think is really the most difficult path to traverse?
The only vehicle obstructing the Vehicle is my own....
When I read about the biography of the Mahasiddhas who lived in jungles, cremation grounds and had no support, official recognition etc, I think that they really led a very difficult life compared to regular monks of that time who had support from lay believers, and from fellow Sangha in a monastic setting. But in today's times, the tables seem to have turned. Pure Land, Zen, Tibetan Buddhism, etc - at least in the majority of cases - looks much less harsher path compared to Theravadin traditions.
Again, another naive assumption at work. You think that having lay support is a boon at all times? I would dare bet how some would fret to the Mahasiddhas that they didn't have to contend with Sangha politics, backbiting, constant fund raising, lazy disciples and loads of administrative work....
Ask any Theravadin what they think of the Tibetan ngondro practices, 100k or 111k of this or that, especially prostrations and you think for a moment that Pure Land practices are 'easy'? Try maintaining the 'singleminded mindfulness of the Buddha' even for a moment and at all times and let me know....
Hard and easy are terms for those with mind games, the sooner I get over these, the sooner I get started on the Path...