What is the Difference between a Buddha and a Bodhisattva?

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In terms of Mahayana Buddhist tradition and in Theravada Buddhist tradition.

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In classical Buddhism, a buddha is an ordinary human being who attains enlightenment and ends the cycle of rebirth – that is, they are not reborn again into a human body.
A bodhisattva is an ordinary human being who also attains enlightenment but then chooses to be reborn over and over, in order to help other humans attain enlightenment. A bodhisattva is said to end the cycle of rebirth *only if* all other beings also end the cycle of rebirth at the same time.
The concept of the bodhisattva plays a less significant role in Theravadin Buddhism than it does in the Mahayana tradition. The concept exists in Theravadin teaching, but most teachers don’t set it out as the goal for practice. In the Mahayana tradition, however, the bodhisattva is viewed as the highest form of practitioner.


In Sanskrit Buddhi=Wisdom—Buddha=one who has attained enlightenment—Bodhi=Perfect knowledge–Bodhi satva=one who aims and prepares to attain perfect knowledge.Pali Canons of Mahayaana Buddhism,by connotation also means the same thing–so Bodhi satva is one who aims and prepares to attain perfect knowledge and Buddha is one who is enlightened.


Both traditions acknowledge that a Bodhisattva is a person who has vowed to attain Buddhahood and cultivate great compassion to liberate all living beings. When a Bodhisattva is fully enlightened, he becomes a Buddha. The two traditions differ instead in the descriptions and definitions of a Bodhisattva and a Buddha.
In Mahayana, a Buddha has three bodies: a dharma body of suchness, a reward body that is only seen by great saint bodhisattvas, and a transformation body that is seen by unenlightened sentient beings and sages of two vehicles (arhats and pratekyebuddha). Sakyamuni Buddha as described in the Theravada canon was just a transformation body. He was already enlightened long time ago, and appeared just to liberate us.
In Mahayana, a Bodhisattva neither abides in Nirvana nor lives in this world. A great bodhisattva of 8th level (the level of motionless) already has eliminated all afflictions and thus is able to enter Nirvana just like arhats. Due to his great compassion and his vow to become a buddha, he continues to appear in these universe via transformation bodies to help living beings. He may appear as a typical living beings who also has desire, anger and ignorance. Maitreya bodhisattva, prophesized by Sakyamuni Buddha as the next Buddha in our earth, was viewed by other disciples (including arhats) as a monk who had neither eliminated afflictions nor attained deep concentration. But in Mahayana teaching, he is a 10th level (last level — the level of Dharma Cloud) bodhisattva, and the monk was just a transformation body.


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