I've noticed that religious institutions have a tendency to deify spiritual teachers and to present the development of high levels of spiritual capacity as something incredibly difficult and practically beyond the reach of mere humans. And plenty of examples can be found in all traditions where that very human tendency to deify and glorify in turn has led to imbalance in the relationships between spiritual teachers and learners.
One of the things I appreciate about teachers like Ken McLeod and Stephen and Martine Batchelor is that they constantly point out that becoming more awake and present is something that we can actually do. Here's an example from Then and Now, session 7, in which Ken demystifies the distinction between buddhas and bodhisattvas.
Apprentice buddhas (from TAN07: Then and Now (class) 00:36:35.00 - 00:39:35.00)
(download into iTunes)
Raquel: What’s the difference between buddhas and bodhisattvas?
Ken: Ah okay, that's a good point. Very loosely speaking bodhisattvas are apprentice buddhas. To make it a little more refined, in all traditions of Buddhism there’s a map of spiritual progress known as the five paths. There’s the path of accumulation, path of accommodation, path of seeing, path of practice and path of no practice. And in the path of accumulation, you’re developing generating the goodness and well being which lays the foundation for spiritual understanding. And there’s a long exposition way at the end of this book on the five paths, a sufficiently detailed one. The path of accommodation is where you begin to get some intimation of what experience is actually like--the emptiness and so forth and so there’s a process of accommodation to that. The path of seeing is where you actually wake up. But when you wake up you have a certain experience of being awake and present, but it’s not fully integrated in your life. So the path of practice is where you’re working at integrating all aspects of experience into this seeing that’s been uncovered, and the path of no practice is when that process is complete.
You become, officially, a bodhisattva when you enter the path of seeing. That is you understand the nature of experience directly, and then you go through all the stages of a bodhisattva until you get to the path of no practice, which is equivalent of buddhahood. So from this map, what the Buddha represents is the way of experiencing things in which you can experience all aspects of experience awake and present, which means you can experience everything that arises. Remember we talked about this, developing the ability to experience everything. The understanding and seeing of a bodhisattva and a buddha are the same; the degree in which it has permeated all experience is different. Okay so that’s why I say bodhisattvas are buddhas in training.