illustration (attribution, if any possible, is at the end of the article)
The bodhisattva ideal is of course 'ambitious'. After all, even if one trusts we all have buddha-nature, it seems pretty obvious that most beings are not close just yet to embodying the six perfections; if the Path was easy, we'd all be closer to Awakening than we are.
But then if one compares the bodhisattva path to arahantship or supreme buddhahood, then the bodhisattva path might also appear as a lot more 'graduated', a lot more 'progressive', than the Theravāda approach: not only the 'paths' prior to stream entry / 1st bhūmi are more detailed (there are clear instructions for lay people in Theravāda, but they mostly amount to supporting the saṅgha and accumulating merit, the Mahāyāna path is more gradual —less about "monastic in your next life" rather 'brutal' transition of death/rebirth).
At the end of the day, the goals of arahantship and of 6th bhūmi are the same (which, on the way, recognises that the naïve presentation of arhats as 'selfish' is a mis-representation: they drop the self and the afflictions, they couldn't be selfish even if that still made conventional sense to them) but a more progressive path may make the goal more reachable rather than less. The fact that some realisations are described in more details in Mahāyāna than in Theravāda doesn't mean the realisations were not also on the Auditor path.
By making the bhūmis (cf. gplus.wallez.name/DF1ZQf4fGqX) seemingly out of reach, the path can provide an aspiration to anyone, even the most advanced. This aligns with the realisation by the Buddha that even the highest realms are not free from suffering. The human life is considered as ideal (neither too overwhelming with pain, nor with pleasures) for Awakening. The 'ambition' is a direct warning against the risk of complacency faced by the most advanced practitioners: they may well have reached the higher abodes but the relief from dukkha is only temporary…
To provide inspiration to the most advanced, to support those who already accumulated merit and knowledge and have to find the enthusiasm for the last stretch to cross to the other shore, is quite compassionate.
The "bodhisattva path" is also a teaching device, and this is important to remember. Some of the presentations are made with specific pedagogical purposes.
For example, as with a lot of Mahāyāna texts, much of the bodhisattva path is described in hyperbolic terms, e.g. a single moral failure might cancel 'eons' of merits… but a real commitment to bodhicitta (even aspiring bodhicitta, even based on the first of three levels of compassion, cf. gplus.wallez.name/b78HsaBqyxw) might also cancel 'eons' of misdeeds! There are numberless beings to save, and numberless dharma gates, etc.
This is a pedagogical device: it forces the student to stop comparing oneself (thus perpetuating the idea of a 'self') to a scale of attainments, to mental fabrications and to criteria. It supports the student to minimise self-conceit. It supports the student to stop grasping at notions and to start focusing on embodying the teachings, to do one's best and always more (rather than resting one one's laurels, as there's always a risk when one reaches a predefined goal).
Another key example of pedagogical orientation is that the bhūmis seem unreachable only as long as one is focused on oneself!
Indeed, the perfection of generosity amounts to infinite generosity in some way, and this seems impossible for one person. But this is only a remainder of bodhicitta: as long as one treats sufferers 'locally' and focuses on symptoms, merit can be accumulated but it's impossible to help all beings!
The only way to help all beings is buddhahood for all beings, as it addresses the very causes of suffering! And "buddhahood for all beings" may start with a delusional version "I'll reach buddhahood individually, to then help all beings" but it necessarily shifts toward the understanding that this is not enough: one doesn't just aim to be a buddha surrounded by much suffering, one aims for all beings (including oneself) to be buddhas… So the bodhisattva paths very much relies on sharing the dharma with others long before becoming a buddha. In fact, the first bhūmi is associated with five freedoms, two of them being related to fears of sharing the Dharma (fear of public speech, fear of speaking to very learned people).
Once the 'emptiness' aspect of the perfection of (e.g.) generosity is realised, the (first) bhūmi is no longer unreachable, because it's no longer about one limited individual being infinitely generous. It becomes about numberless beings cultivating generosity. And infinite beings may then quite easily provide infinite generosity, with small contributions each. This still requires to convince all beings, a great task indeed, but again we don't need to convince all beings by oneself: like the buddha sent arhats to spread the dharma, we can convince a few people who will then convince a few more each, etc. If we harness causality and selflessness together, exponential results (or in hyperbolic Mahāyāna terminology: infinite results) can be achieved.
This rejoins with the rejection of asceticism by the Buddha: this is not about an extreme of sacrifice, but a Middle Way that functions!
So the 'impractical' view only arises from the ignorance associated to the separation between self and others, not only the ignorance "I'll reach buddhahood before the others" but also the ignorance "I'm on the first bhūmi before the others"… Once the emptiness associated to the giver, the receive, the gift is realised, the bodhisattva ideal remains ambitious but exponentially-growing results seem doable, infinite 'rewards' seem achievable: they require 'energy' (the perfection supporting all others), they require 'wisdom' (stopping to do it all on our own, but instead starting engaging with others, aiming for collective progress…), they require 'compassion' (the root of bodhicitta)… They require practice and embodiment of qualities (and not just talking about them)… This is ambitious, but not impossible. No one ever achieved anything without putting effort in!
The key message of the hyperbolic bhūmis is that "there's work to do!" This message is not just about the 7th bhūmi: of course, there's work to do once the six perfections have been cultivated, but there's also work to do right here, right now.
Photo: Chinese dancers perform the "Thousand-hand Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva", or "Guan Yin", the bodhisattva of Compassion (Olympic Village, Beijing, July 31st 2008).