In the Early Buddhist schools as well as modern Theravada Buddhism, a bodhisattva (bodhisatta) refers to anyone who has made a resolution to become a Buddha and has also received a confirmation or prediction from a living Buddha that this will be so.
In popular term, Bodhisattva often described simply as a “Buddhist saint” or those who entered the bodhisattva’s path. Actually, the elaborate concept refers to a sentient being or sattva that developes bodhi or enlightenment — thus possessing the boddisattva’s psyche; described as those who works to develop and exemplify the loving-kindness (metta), compassion (karuṇā), empathetic joy (mudita) and equanimity (upekkha). These four virtues are the four divine abodes, called Brahmavihara (illimitables).
Early Buddhism and the Nikāya schools
According to the Theravāda monk Bhikkhu Bodhi, the bodhisattva path is not taught in the earliest strata of Buddhist texts such as the Pali Nikayas (and their counterparts such as the Chinese Āgamas) which instead focus on the ideal of the Arahant.
The oldest known story about how Gautama Buddha becomes a bodhisattva is the story of his encounter with the previous Buddha, Dīpankara. During this encounter, a previous incarnation of Gautama, variously named Sumedha, Megha, or Sumati offers five blue lotuses and spreads out his hair or entire body for Dīpankara to walk on, resolving to one day become a Buddha. Dīpankara then confirms that they will attain Buddhahood. Early Buddhist authors saw this story as indicating that the making of a resolution (abhinīhāra) in the presence of a living Buddha and his prediction/confirmation of one’s future Buddhahood was necessary to become a bodhisattva. According to Drewes, “all known models of the path to Buddhahood developed from this basic understanding.”
The path is explained differently by the various Nikaya schools. In the Theravāda Buddhavaṃsa (1st-2nd century BCE), after receiving the prediction, Gautama took four asaṃkheyyas (“incalculable aeons”) and a hundred thousand, shorter kalpas (aeons) to reach Buddhahood.
The Sarvāstivāda school had similar models about how the Buddha Gautama became a bodhisattva. They held it took him three asaṃkhyeyas and ninety one kalpas (aeons) to become a Buddha after his resolution (praṇidhāna) in front of a past Buddha. During the first asaṃkhyeya he is said to have encountered and served 75,000 Buddhas, and 76,000 in the second, after which he received his first prediction (vyākaraṇa) of future Buddhahood from Dīpankara, meaning that he could no longer fall back from the path to Buddhahood. Thus, the presence of a living Buddha is also necessary for Sarvāstivāda. The Mahāvibhāṣā explains that its discussion of the bodhisattva path is partly meant “to stop those who are in fact not bodhisattvas from giving rise to the self-conceit that they are.”
The Mahāvastu of the Mahāsāṃghika-Lokottaravādins presents four stages of the bodhisattva path without giving specific time frames (though its said to take various asaṃkhyeya kalpas):
- Natural (prakṛti), one first plants the roots of merit in front of a Buddha to attain Buddhahood.
- Resolution (praṇidhāna), one makes their first resolution to attain Buddhahood in the presence of a Buddha.
- Continuing (anuloma), one continues to practice until one meets a Buddha who confirms one’s future Buddhahood.
- Irreversible (anivartana), at this stage, one cannot fall back.
Because of this, it was and remains a common practice in Theravada to attempt to establish the necessary conditions to meet the future Buddha Maitreya and thus receive a prediction from him. Medieval Theravada literature and inscriptions report the aspirations of monks, kings and ministers to meet Maitreya for this purpose. Modern figures such as Anagarika Dharmapala (1864–1933), and U Nu (1907–1995) both sought to receive a prediction from a Buddha in the future and believed meritorious actions done for the good of Buddhism would help in their endeavor to become bodhisattvas in the future.
Over time the term came to be applied to other figures besides Gautama Buddha in Theravada lands, possibly due to the influence of Mahayana. The Theravada Abhayagiri tradition of Sri Lanka practiced Mahayana Buddhism and was very influential until the 12th century. Kings of Sri Lanka were often described as bodhisattvas, starting at least as early as Sirisanghabodhi (r. 247–249), who was renowned for his compassion, took vows for the welfare of the citizens, and was regarded as a mahāsatta (Sanskrit mahāsattva), an epithet used almost exclusively in Mahayana Buddhism. Many other Sri Lankan kings from the 3rd until the 15th century were also described as bodhisattvas and their royal duties were sometimes clearly associated with the practice of the Ten Pāramitās. In some cases, they explicitly claimed to have received predictions of Buddhahood in past lives.
Theravadin bhikkhu and scholar Walpola Rahula stated that the bodhisattva ideal has traditionally been held to be higher than the state of a śrāvaka not only in Mahayana but also in Theravada Buddhism. He also quotes the 10th century king of Sri Lanka, Mahinda IV (956–972 CE), who had the words inscribed “none but the bodhisattvas will become kings of a prosperous Lanka,” among other examples.
But the fact is that both the Theravada and the Mahayana unanimously accept the Bodhisattva ideal as the highest…Although the Theravada holds that anybody can be a Bodhisattva, it does not stipulate or insist that all must be Bodhisattva which is considered not practical.— Walpola Rahula, Bodhisattva Ideal in Buddhism
Jeffrey Samuels echoes this perspective, noting that while in Mahayana Buddhism the bodhisattva path is held to be universal and for everyone, in Theravada it is “reserved for and appropriated by certain exceptional people.” Paul Williams writes that some modern Theravada meditation masters in Thailand are popularly regarded as bodhisattvas.
In Mahāyāna Buddhism
The Aṣṭasāhasrikā Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra, one of the earliest known Mahayana texts, contains a simple and brief definition for the term bodhisattva, which is also the earliest known Mahāyāna definition. This definition is given as the following: “Because he has bodhi as his aim, a bodhisattva-mahāsattva is so called.”[
The Aṣṭasāhasrikā, also divides the path into three stages. The first stage is that of bodhisattvas who “first set out in the vehicle” (prathamayānasaṃprasthita), then there is the “irreversible” (avinivartanīya) stage, and finally the third “bound by one more birth” (ekajātipratibaddha), as in, destined to become a Buddha in the next life. Drewes also notes that:
When Mahāyāna sūtras present stories of Buddhas and bodhisattvas’ first arising of the thought of attaining Buddhahood, they invariably depict it as taking place in the presence of a Buddha, suggesting that they shared with all known nikāya traditions the understanding that this is a necessary condition for entering the path. In addition, though this key fact is often obscured in scholarship, they apparently never encourage anyone to become a bodhisattva or present any ritual or other means of doing so. Like nikāya texts, they also regard the status of new or recent bodhisattvas as largely meaningless. The Aṣṭasāhasrikā, for instance, states that as many bodhisattvas as there grains of sand in the Ganges turn back from the pursuit of Buddhahood and that out of innumerable beings who give rise to bodhicitta and progress toward Buddhahood, only one or two will reach the point of becoming irreversible.
Some Mahayana sutras promoted another revolutionary doctrinal turn, claiming that the three vehicles of the Śrāvakayāna, Pratyekabuddhayāna and the Bodhisattvayāna were really just one vehicle (ekayana). This is most famously promoted in the Lotus Sūtra which claims that the very idea of three separate vehicles is just an upaya, a skillful device invented by the Buddha to get beings of various abilities on the path. But ultimately, it will be revealed to them that there is only one vehicle, the ekayana, which ends in Buddhahood.
- Vandana (obeisance, bowing down)
- Puja (worship of the Buddhas)
- Sarana-gamana (going for refuge)
- Papadesana (confession of bad deeds)
- Punyanumodana (rejoicing in merit of the good deeds of oneself and others)
- Adhyesana (prayer, entreaty) and yacana (supplication) – request to Buddhas and Bodhisattvas to continue preaching Dharma
- Atmabhavadi-parityagah (surrender)
Contemporary Mahāyāna Buddhism follows this model and encourages everyone to give rise to bodhicitta and ceremonially take bodhisattva vows. With these vows, one makes the promise to work for the complete enlightenment of all sentient beings by practicing the transcendent virtues or paramitas.
Related to the different views on the different types of yanas or vehicles is the question of a bodhisattva’s relationship to nirvāṇa. In the various Mahāyāna texts, two theories can be discerned. One view is the idea that a bodhisattva must postpone their awakening until full Buddhahood is attained (at which point one ceases to be reborn, which is the classical view of nirvāṇa). This view is promoted in some sutras like the Pañcavimsatisahasrika-prajñaparamita-sutra. The second theory is the idea that there are two kinds of nirvāṇa, the nirvāṇa of an arhat and a superior type of nirvāṇa called apratiṣṭhita (non-abiding) that allows a Buddha to remain engaged in the world. This doctrine developed in Yogacara. As noted by Paul Williams, the idea of apratiṣṭhita nirvāṇa may have taken some time to develop and is not obvious in some of the early Mahāyāna literature, therefore while earlier sutras may sometimes speak of “postponement”, later texts saw no need to postpone the “superior” apratiṣṭhita nirvāṇa.
In this Yogacara model, the bodhisattva definitely rejects and avoids the liberation of the śravaka and pratyekabuddha, described in Mahāyāna literature as either inferior or “Hina” (as in Asaṅga’s fourth century Yogācārabhūmi) or as ultimately false or illusory (as in the Lotus Sūtra). That a bodhisattva has the option to pursue such a lesser path, but instead chooses the long path towards Buddhahood is one of the five criteria for one to be considered a bodhisattva. The other four are: being human, being a man, making a vow to become a Buddha in the presence of a previous Buddha, and receiving a prophecy from that Buddha.
Over time, a more varied analysis of bodhisattva careers developed focused on one’s motivation. This can be seen in the Tibetan Buddhist teaching on three types of motivation for generating bodhicitta. According to Patrul Rinpoche’s 19th century Words of My Perfect Teacher (Kun bzang bla ma’i gzhal lung), a bodhisattva might be motivated in one of three ways. They are:
- King-like bodhicitta – To aspire to become a Buddha first in order to then help sentient beings.
- Boatman-like bodhicitta – To aspire to become a Buddha at the same time as other sentient beings.
- Shepherd-like bodhicitta – To aspire to become a Buddha only after all other sentient beings have done so.
These three are not types of people, but rather types of motivation. According to Patrul Rinpoche, the third quality of intention is most noble though the mode by which Buddhahood actually occurs is the first; that is, it is only possible to teach others the path to enlightenment once one has attained enlightenment oneself. The ritualized formulation of the bodhisattva vow also reflects this order (becoming a buddha so that one can then teach others to do the same). A bodhisattva vow ritual text attributed to Nāgārjuna, of the second-third century CE, states the vow as follows: “Just as the past tathāgata arhat samyaksambuddhas, when engaging in the behavior of a bodhisattva, generated the aspiration to unsurpassed complete enlightenment so that all beings be liberated, all beings be freed, all beings be relieved, all beings attain complete nirvana, all beings be placed in omniscient wisdom, in the same way, I whose name is so-and-so, from this time forward, generate the aspiration to unsurpassed complete enlightenment so that all beings be liberated, all beings be freed, all beings be relieved, all beings attain complete nirvana, all beings be placed in omniscient wisdom.”
The six perfections that constitute bodhisattva practice should not be confused with the actual acts of benefiting beings that the bodhisattva vows to accomplish once he or she is a buddha. The six perfections are a mental transformation and need not actually benefit anyone. This is seen in the story of Vessantara, an incarnation of Śākyamuni Buddha while he was still a bodhisattva, who commits the ultimate act of generosity by giving away his children to an evil man who mistreats them. Vessantara’s generous act causes indirect harm, however, the merit from the perfection of his generosity fructifies when he attains complete enlightenment as Śākyamuni Buddha.
Bodhisattva grounds or levels
Before a bodhisattva arrives at the first ground, he or she first must travel the first two of five paths:
- the path of accumulation
- the path of preparation
The ten grounds of the bodhisattva then can be grouped into the next three paths:
- bhūmi 1 the path of insight
- bhūmis 2–7 the path of meditation
- bhūmis 8–10 the path of no more learning
The chapter of ten grounds in the Avataṃsaka Sūtra refers to 52 stages. The 10 grounds are:
- Great Joy: It is said that being close to enlightenment and seeing the benefit for all sentient beings, one achieves great joy, hence the name. In this bhūmi the bodhisattvas practice all perfections (pāramitās), but especially emphasizing generosity (dāna).
- Stainless: In accomplishing the second bhūmi, the bodhisattva is free from the stains of immorality, therefore, this bhūmi is named “stainless”. The emphasized perfection is moral discipline (śīla).
- Luminous: The light of Dharma is said to radiate for others from the bodhisattva who accomplishes the third bhūmi. The emphasized perfection is patience (kṣānti).
- Radiant: This bhūmi it is said to be like a radiating light that fully burns that which opposes enlightenment. The emphasized perfection is vigor (vīrya).
- Very difficult to train: Bodhisattvas who attain this ground strive to help sentient beings attain maturity, and do not become emotionally involved when such beings respond negatively, both of which are difficult to do. The emphasized perfection is meditative concentration (dhyāna).
- Obviously Transcendent: By depending on the perfection of wisdom, [the bodhisattva] does not abide in either saṃsāra or nirvāṇa, so this state is “obviously transcendent”. The emphasized perfection is wisdom (prajñā).
- Gone afar: Particular emphasis is on the perfection of skillful means (upāya), to help others.
- Immovable: The emphasized virtue is aspiration. This “immovable” bhūmi is where one becomes able to choose his place of rebirth.
- Good Discriminating Wisdom: The emphasized virtue is the understanding of self and non-self.
- Cloud of Dharma: The emphasized virtue is the practice of primordial wisdom.
After the ten bhūmis, according to Mahāyāna Buddhism, one attains complete enlightenment and becomes a Buddha.
With the 52 stages, the Śūraṅgama Sūtra recognizes 57 stages. With the 10 grounds, various Vajrayāna schools recognize 3–10 additional grounds, mostly 6 more grounds with variant descriptions.
A bodhisattva above the 7th ground is called a mahāsattva. Some bodhisattvas such as Samantabhadra are also said to have already attained buddhahood.
Various traditions within Buddhism believe in specific bodhisattvas. Some bodhisattvas appear across traditions, but due to language barriers may be seen as separate entities. For example, Tibetan Buddhists believe in various forms of Chenrezig, who is Avalokiteśvara in Sanskrit, Guanyin in China, Gwan-eum in Korea, Quan Am in Vietnam, and Kannon in Japan. Followers of Tibetan Buddhism consider the Dalai Lamas and the Karmapas to be an emanation of Chenrezig, the Bodhisattva of Compassion.
The place of a bodhisattva’s earthly deeds, such as the achievement of enlightenment or the acts of Dharma, is known as a bodhimaṇḍa, and may be a site of pilgrimage. Many temples and monasteries are famous as bodhimaṇḍas. Perhaps the most famous bodhimaṇḍa of all is the Bodhi Tree under which Śākyamuṇi achieved buddhahood. In the tradition of Chinese Buddhism, there are four mountains that are regarded as bodhimaṇḍas for bodhisattvas, with each site having major monasteries and being popular for pilgrimages by both monastics and laypeople. These four bodhimandas are:
- Mount Putuo: Avalokiteśvara, Bodhisattva of Compassion (Chinese: 觀自在菩薩, 觀世音菩薩, 觀音菩薩; pinyin: Guānzìzài Púsà, Guānshìyīn Púsà, Guānyīn Púsà)
- Mount Emei: Samantabhadra, Bodhisattva of Practice (Chinese: 普賢菩薩 普贤菩萨; pinyin: Pǔxián Púsà)
- Mount Wutai: Mañjuśrī, Bodhisattva of Wisdom (Chinese: 文殊菩薩, 文殊师利菩薩, 曼殊室利菩薩, 妙吉祥菩薩; pinyin: Wénshū Púsà, Wénshūshīlì Púsà, Mànshūshìlì Púsà, Miàojíxiáng Púsà)
- Mount Jiuhua: Kṣitigarbha, Bodhisattva of the Great Vow (Chinese: 地藏菩薩 地藏菩萨; pinyin: Dìzàng Púsà)
Iconography and the popular mind
Gender variant representations of some bodhisattvas, most notably Avalokiteśvara, has prompted conversation regarding the nature of a bodhisattva’s appearance. Chan master Sheng Yen has stated that Mahāsattvas such as Avalokiteśvara (known as Guanyin in Chinese) are androgynous (Ch. 中性; pinyin: “zhōngxìng”), which accounts for their ability to manifest in masculine and feminine forms of various degrees.
While bodhisattvas tend to be depicted as conventionally beautiful, there are instances of their manifestation as wrathful and monstrous beings. A notable example is Guanyin’s manifestation as a preta named “Flaming Face” (面燃大士). This trope is commonly employed among the Wisdom Kings, among whom Mahāmāyūrī Vidyārājñī stands out with a feminine title and benevolent expression. In some depictions, her mount takes on a wrathful appearance. This variation is also found among images of Vajrapani.
- Bodhisattvas of the Earth
- Bodhisattva vows
- Buddhist holidays
- Karuna (compassion in Sanskrit)
- List of bodhisattvas
Adapted from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia