Just watched this video about the Bhumis (the 10 grounds mentioned in the BNS, originally explained in the Buddhavatamsaka Sutra)
Okay, from the religious, historical, non-secular standpoint, the guys who wrote the Buddhavatamsaka Sutra believed:
1) There are literally 6 realms and literally an infinite number of universes with six realms each.
2) There could only be 1 Buddha per universe.
3) Buddhism periodically declines and dies out (Mappo)
4) Arahants really do disappear upon nirvanna– not some transcendent state that is true yet violates the law of the excluded middle (both exists and doesn’t exist)
5) As an alternative to becoming an arahant, one can seek to become a Buddha, become the teacher of a universe and lead people there to arahantship.
6) The Bodhisattva path solves the problem of Mappo (not having a Buddha in this world and others)
7) You become a Bodhisattva in steps. At the last step, you are a Buddha. As a Buddha, you can (and maybe will) also enter nirvana and that universe will be without a Buddha. Specifically, 10 steps or 10 Bhumis. At the 6th you already are nirvana-ready.
8) The difference between arahant and Buddha appears to be mainly in the teaching. This explains why the Mahayana sutras keep mentioning pratekyabuddhas — people who independently become Buddhas but don’t bother to teach.
9) The steps are in part copied from the pali versions (unenlightend, nearly enlightend, very nearly enlightend, arahant) and possibly inspired by the Jakata tales, since those were the steps the historical Buddha presumably took.
What are in these 10 steps?
It appears to be the regular program of ethics, medidation and gaining metaphysical insights. I’ll have to write more specifics in a different blog post.
What motivated these ideas and can they be naturalistically salvaged
The idea that there is only 1 Buddha per universe at a time– this is just arbitrary constraints. I think someone thought that up to defend their institution. If there are 2 Buddhas and they disagree with each other, there could be schism in the Sangha. One can salvage the idea that having no Buddhas in the world is worse than having some Buddhas. So if the world is short on Buddhas maybe we should work on becoming one ourself.
Nothing Lasts as Applied to Buddhism itself
That Buddhism occasionally dies out, seem naturalistically plausible, but I’m not sure what anyone can do to fix that. Except maybe teach and spread Buddhism.
The shift of focus from becoming an arahant to Buddha is about teaching. The Bodhisattva path is about missionary work. More than any other category of minor precept are the precepts related to learning and teaching the Dharma. There is nothing transcendent about this goal and value– its a purely normative statement that one should spread, and teach the Dharma.
Reframing and Multi-Level Marketing
So wasn’t pre-Mahayana Buddhism missionary? It was, but it wasn’t an explicit part of the eight fold path. The Mahayana reframed the problem as that someone in the world is suffering, not just one person is suffering. So until everyone is enlightened, we can feel good about achieving arahantship, even though that is what is being taught. The most efficient way to enlighten everyone is to teach people to be teacher of the path to nirvana
Secular Reframing of Nirvana
For secular belief, what is being taught is how to get people to the state of nirvana in this life– the goal is that time between nirvana and parinirvana. Everyone reaches parinirvanna and is blown out like a candle, but not everyone reaches nirvana. And that is a tragedy that we can fix.