I said above that each extreme attitude — "Nikāya purism" and "Mahāyāna elitism" — neglects facts that are discomforting to their respective points of view. "Mahāyāna elitism" neglects the fact that in his historical manifestation, so far as we can ascertain through the early records of his teachings, the Buddha did not teach the bodhisattva path, which emerges only in documents that start to appear at least a century after his passing. What the Buddha consistently taught, according to the early records, is the attainment of nirvāṇa by reaching arahantship. The problem besetting "Nikāya purism" is the figure of the Buddha himself; for in the Buddha we meet a person who, while an arahant, did not attain arahantship as the disciple of a Buddha but as a Buddha. In the Nikāyas themselves, he is depicted not merely as the first of the arahants, but as one member of a class of beings — the Tathāgatas — who possess unique characteristics that set them apart from all other beings including their arahant disciples. The Nikāyas, moreover, regard the Tathāgatas as supreme in the entire order of sentient beings: "To whatever extent, monks, there are beings, whether footless or with two feet, four feet, or many feet, whether having form or formless, whether percipient or nonpercipient, or neither percipient nor nonpercipient, the Tathāgata, the Arahant, the Perfectly Enlightened One is declared the best among them" (AN 4:34).
Now since the Buddha is distinguished from his liberated disciples in the ways sketched above, it seems almost self-evident that in his past lives he must have followed a preparatory course sufficient to issue in such an exalted state, namely, the course of a bodhisattva. This conclusion is, in fact, a point of agreement common to all Buddhist schools, both those derived from Early Buddhism and those belonging to the Mahāyāna; it also seems to me to be a conclusion required by reflection. According to all Buddhist traditions, to attain the supreme enlightenment of a Buddha requires the forming of a deliberate resolution and the fulfillment of the spiritual perfections, the pāramis or pāramitās; and it is a bodhisattva who consummates the practice of these perfections. However, the Nikāyas and Āgamas, the most ancient texts, are strangely silent about this very issue. In the Nikāyas, the Buddha does refer to himself as a bodhisatta in the period prior to his enlightenment: in his immediately preceding life, when he dwelled in the Tusita heaven, and during the period of his final life, as Gotama of the Sakyan clan, before his enlightenment. But he says nothing to suggest that he had been consciously following a deliberate course of conduct aimed at the attainment of Buddhahood. Moreover, soon after his enlightenment, when the Buddha considered whether or not to teach the Dhamma, he says that he first inclined to "dwell at ease" (appossukkatāya cittaṃ namati MN 26/ I 168; Vin I 5), that is, not to teach, which suggests that even after his enlightenment he might not have fulfilled the function of a sammā sambuddha, but could have become a paccekabuddha.
There are, however, other passages strewn across the Nikāyas that prevent us from drawing the definitive conclusion that the Buddha somehow stumbled upon Buddhahood merely by chance or that his hesitation implied a genuine possibility of choice. These passages suggest, to the contrary, that his attainment of Buddhahood was already prepared for in his previous births. Though they do not say that in his past lives he was deliberately following a bodhisattva path to attain Buddhahood, the Nikāyas do depict him as dwelling in the Tusita heaven in his immediately past existence (as I noted just above), destined to become a fully enlightened Buddha in his next life as Gotama of the Sakyan clan, and this implies that in his past lives he must have fulfilled the most demanding prerequisites to take on such an exalted role, to become the loftiest and most highly venerated being in all the world. When he descends into his mother's womb, a great measureless light appears in the world surpassing the light of the devas; and such a light appears again at his birth. When he is born, he is first received by deities, and streams of water pour forth from the sky to wash him and his mother. Immediately upon his birth, he takes seven steps and declares himself the best in the world (MN 123/ III 120-23). The gods sing songs of delight, declaring that the bodhisattva has arisen for the welfare and happiness of the human world (Sn 686). Such passages, of course, could be seen as later additions to the Nikāyas, indicative of a stage when the "Buddha legend" was already making inroads upon the most ancient texts. Nevertheless, given the law of cause and result as operating in the spiritual dimensions of the human domain, it seems virtually impossible that anyone could have attained the extraordinary stature of a Buddha without having made a deliberate effort over many lives to reach such a supreme attainment.
Despite such considerations, in the Nikāyas the Buddha is never seen teaching others to enter a bodhisattva path. Whenever he urges his monastic disciples to strive for any goal, it is to strive for arahantship, for liberation, for nirvāṇa. Whenever monastic disciples come to the Buddha, they ask for guidance in following the path to arahantship. The monks that the Buddha praises in the midst of the Sangha are those who have attained arahantship. Lay disciples often attain the three lower stages of liberation, from stream-entry to non-returning; those who lack the potential for world-transcending attainments aim at a heavenly rebirth or for a fortunate rebirth back into the human realm. No mention is ever made, however, of a lay disciple treading the bodhisattva path, much less of a dichotomy between monastic arahants and lay bodhisattvas.
We need not, however, simply take the Nikāyas at face value but can raise questions. Why is it that in the Nikāyas we never find any instance of a disciple coming to the Buddha to ask for guidance in following a bodhisattva path to Buddhahood? And why is the Buddha never seen exhorting his followers to take up the bodhisattva path? The questions themselves seem perfectly legitimate, and I've tried working out several explanations, though without complete success. One explanation is that there were instances when this happened, but they were filtered out by the compilers of the texts because such teachings were not consistent with the teachings aimed at arahantship. This hypothesis seems unlikely because, if discourses on the path to Buddhahood had the imprint of genuine teachings of the Buddha, it is improbable that the monks compiling the texts would have omitted them. Another explanation is that in the earliest phase of Buddhism, the pre-textual phase, the Buddha was simply the first arahant who taught the path to arahantship and did not differ significantly from those among his arahant disciples who possessed the three higher types of knowledge and the iddhis, the supernormal powers. According to this account, the Nikāyas are the product of several generations of monastic elaboration and thus already show traces of the apotheosis of the Buddha, his elevation to an exalted (but not yet superhuman) status. On this hypothesis, if we could take a time-machine back to the Buddha's own time, we would find that the Buddha differed from the other arahants mainly in the priority of his attainment and in certain skills he possessed as a teacher, but these differences would not be as great as even the old Nikāyas make them out to be. However, this position seems to strip away from the Buddha that which is most distinctive about him: his uncanny ability to reach deep into the hearts of those who came to him for guidance and teach them in the unique way suitable for their characters and situations. This ability betokens a depth of compassion, a spirit of selfless service, that harmonizes better with the later concept of the bodhisattva than with the canonical concept of the arahant as we see it portrayed, for example, in many of the poems of the Theragāthā or the muni poems of the Sutta-nipāta.
In the final analysis, I have to confess my inability to provide a perfectly cogent solution to this problem. In view of the fact that in later times so many Buddhists, in Theravāda lands as well as in the Mahāyāna world, have been inspired by the bodhisattva ideal, it is perplexing that no teachings about a bodhisattva path or bodhisattva practices are included in the discourses regarded as coming down from the most archaic period of Buddhist literary history. This remains a puzzle – for me personally, and also, I believe, a puzzle for Buddhist historiography. In any case, the texts that we inherit do not show as steep a difference between the Buddha's "other-regarding" functions and the so-called "self-enlightenment" of the arahants as later tradition makes them out to be. The Nikāyas show sufficient emphasis on altruistic activity aimed at sharing the Dhamma with others; admittedly, though, most of this emphasis comes from the Buddha himself in the form of injunctions to his disciples. Thus, several texts distinguish people into four types: those concerned only with self-good, those concerned only with others' good, those concerned with the good of neither, and those concerned with the good of both; these texts praise as best those who are devoted to the good of both. And what is meant by being devoted to the good of both is practicing the noble eightfold path and teaching others to practice it; observing the five precepts and encouraging others to observe them; working to eliminate greed, aversion, and delusion and encouraging others to eliminate them (AN 4:96-99). In other suttas the Buddha urges all those who know the four foundations of mindfulness to teach their relatives and friends about them; and the same is said about the four factors of stream-entry and the four noble truths (SN 47:48, 55:16-17, 56:26). In the beginning of his ministry, he exhorts his disciples to go forth and preach the Dharma "out of compassion for the world, for the good, welfare, and happiness of devas and human beings" (Vin I 21). Among the important qualities of an outstanding monk are abundant learning and skill in expounding the Dharma, two qualities that are directly relevant to the benefit of others. Also, we must remember that the Buddha established a monastic order bound by rules and regulations designed to make it function as a harmonious community, and these rules often demand the renouncing of self-interest for the sake of the larger whole. Regarding the lay followers, the Buddha praises those who practice for their own good, for the good of others, and for the good of the whole world. Many prominent lay followers converted their colleagues and neighbors to the Dharma and guided them in right practice.
Thus, we can see that while Early Buddhism emphasizes that each person is ultimately responsible for his or her own destiny, holding that no one can purify another or rescue another from the miseries of saṃsāra, it includes an altruistic dimension that distinguished it from most of the other religious systems that flourished alongside it in northern India. This altruistic dimension might be seen as the "seed" from which the bodhisattva doctrine developed. It might thus also be considered one of the elements in ancient Buddhism that contributed to the emergence of the Mahāyāna.