Arjan Dirkse wrote:Usually I'm not that bothered about the exact nature of what Buddhahood or Bodhisattvahood entails, but I couldn't get this out of my mind and I didn't find the answer for it on the web or any other resource available to me...so I thought someone here should know the official answer.
I thought that in Mahayana Buddhism, a Bodhisattva was a being that was awakened but postponed their own final step towards Buddhahood to stay in samsara and help other beings achieve Buddhahood. But if that is the case, then why is it that Shakyamuni Buddha did make that final step from Bodhisattva towards Buddhahood? I mean there are still sentient beings suffering, so how come he did not "stay behind" as a Bodhisattva being until all sentient beings are saved?
The Mahayana is a huge tradition, spanning centuries, and with a large number of different perspectives.
The notion that a bodhisattva is already awakened does appear in some traditions, but not all. Originally, whoever aspires to awakening (ie. arises bodhicitta) is a bodhisattva. But obviously, that doesn't make them awakened. The very term "bodhisattva" has a number of different interpretations, but actually seldom "awakened being". That would be "buddha-sattva". "Bodhi" is "awakening", not "awakened". So, "a being for awakening", or "one fixed on awakening", are other definitions. Likewise too, the idea that they will awaken all other beings is not always taken literally. Otherwise, it entails the logical fallacy that you point out.
Personally, I'm more inclined toward earlier Mahayana systems. Here, a bodhisattva is one who has aspiration to become a Buddha. They don't "postpone" awakening, per se. However, they don't prematurely realize nirvana before they have fulfilled the various qualities of a full awakened Buddha, either. Once those qualities are fulfilled, then they realize nirvana, and spend their last life teaching as a fully awakened one. In this explanation, I find the explanation via the three types of gnosis, ie. sarvajnata, margakarajnata, and sarvakarajnata, to be very helpful and internally consistent.
It's help to distinguish between rhetorical conventional expressions in teachings which require interpretation or exegesis, and those which are fully explicit and can be taken literally without much ado (whatever that really means in a hermeneutical context...)