In daily life, when we talk about people with a compassionate heart, always ready to sacrifice and help those in need and difficulties, we often refer to them as people with the heart of a Bodhisattva. So who is a Bodhisattva, and what kind of person do we often mention when we talk about compassion?
As we know, Bodhisattvas are quite popular characters in Buddhist literature and art. In many stories, ordinary individuals or even animals are revealed to be great Bodhisattvas who take on various forms to help those who are suffering.
These selfless beings are seen as embodying the ideal of altruism and are celebrated for their ability to use skillful means to help others on the path to liberation. From Avalokiteshvara, the Bodhisattva of compassion, to Manjushri, the Bodhisattva of wisdom, each Bodhisattva has their own unique qualities and attributes, inspiring devotion and prayer in Buddhist communities around the world. So, according to the Buddhist perspective, What is a Bodhisattva like?
Meaning of Bodhisattva in Buddhism
In Buddhism, the term “Bodhisattva” carries a profound and multifaceted significance. A Sanskrit term, “Bodhisattva” comprises two distinct words: “Bodhi,” which signifies “enlightenment” or “awakening,” and “sattva,” which translates to “being” or “essence.” Hence, broadly speaking, a Bodhisattva is a being oriented towards awakening or enlightenment.
A Bodhisattva is emblematic of a core tenet of Buddhism, which is the fusion of wisdom and compassion. In its most basic understanding, a Bodhisattva is an individual who has vowed to attain Buddhahood or full enlightenment but deliberately refrains from doing so out of compassion for all sentient beings who continue to be mired in the cycle of birth, death, and rebirth, known as Samsara. They aspire to attain enlightenment not for personal liberation alone, but to aid all other beings to achieve liberation from suffering.
Different schools of Buddhism offer slightly different interpretations of the Bodhisattva ideal. In Theravada Buddhism, the term is often used to describe the previous lives of Shakyamuni Buddha before he reached full enlightenment. These stories, known as Jataka Tales, emphasize the practice of virtues or paramitas, such as generosity, morality, patience, and perseverance, that enabled the future Buddha to progress towards enlightenment.
In contrast, Mahayana Buddhism expounds the Bodhisattva ideal more extensively, envisioning it as the supreme path of practice for all Buddhists. Mahayana texts, such as the Lotus Sutra, emphasize that all beings possess the inherent potential to become a Bodhisattva. The Bodhisattva in the Mahayana tradition commits to the Bodhisattva vow, an aspiration to achieve Buddhahood for the sake of liberating all sentient beings from suffering and the causes of suffering. This doctrine is sometimes termed Bodhisattva-yana or the Bodhisattva Vehicle.
The concept of the Bodhisattva is also central to Tantric Buddhism, where the practitioner seeks to identify with the enlightened mind of a Bodhisattva or a Buddha through specific meditative and ritual practices.
The qualities of a Bodhisattva
A Bodhisattva in Buddhism embodies a number of esteemed qualities and virtues, often collectively referred to as paramitas or perfections. These qualities represent the moral and spiritual ideals of the Bodhisattva path, and they are central to the cultivation of the Bodhisattva’s spiritual development and his or her capacity to alleviate the suffering of sentient beings.
- Dana Paramita (Generosity): A Bodhisattva practices generosity in all its forms—material, spiritual, and emotional. This includes not only the giving of material goods but also the sharing of time, wisdom and compassion.
- Sila Paramita (Ethical Conduct): A Bodhisattva upholds a high standard of moral integrity, following the precepts of right action, right speech, and right livelihood. This is based on non-harming and the cultivation of virtues such as honesty, respect and humility.
- Kshanti Paramita (Patience): A Bodhisattva demonstrates immense patience, enduring hardships, and challenges without succumbing to anger or despair. They understand the impermanent nature of all phenomena and maintain a calm and peaceful mind in the face of adversity.
- Virya Paramita (Vigorous Effort): A Bodhisattva exemplifies perseverance and determination in their spiritual pursuits. They strive tirelessly in their practice and in their endeavor to relieve the suffering of others, not out of a sense of duty, but from genuine compassion.
- Dhyana Paramita (Meditation): A Bodhisattva cultivates mindfulness and concentration through meditation. Through meditation, they develop a deep insight into the nature of reality, contributing to the development of wisdom.
- Prajna Paramita (Wisdom): A Bodhisattva seeks the wisdom that perceives the underlying emptiness and interdependent nature of all phenomena, which is the cornerstone of Buddhist philosophy. This wisdom enables them to see beyond the illusions of the mundane world and realize the ultimate truth.
In the extended list of ten paramitas, the additional qualities include:
- Upaya Paramita (Skillful Means): A Bodhisattva employs skillful means or expedient methods to guide sentient beings towards liberation. These methods are tailored to the unique circumstances and capacities of each individual.
- Pranidhana Paramita (Vow): A Bodhisattva makes the profound vow to attain enlightenment for the benefit of all sentient beings. They express a selfless aspiration to be of service to others, even at the expense of their own comfort or convenience.
- Bala Paramita (Spiritual Power): A Bodhisattva cultivates spiritual powers, including abilities such as reading others’ minds, recalling past lives, and manifesting in multiple forms, all of which are utilized for the welfare of sentient beings.
- Jnana Paramita (Knowledge): A Bodhisattva acquires extensive knowledge, both mundane and supermundane. This includes knowledge of the dharma, the laws of karma, and the workings of the universe, as well as worldly knowledge beneficial for teaching and guiding sentient beings.
The qualities of a Bodhisattva as presented in the Buddhist tradition represent an aspirational ideal of spiritual and moral perfection. These qualities reflect the profound commitment of the Bodhisattva to attain full enlightenment not for their own liberation alone, but for the ultimate welfare and liberation of all sentient beings.
Bodhisattva ideal: The reason why Bodhisattvas postpone nirvana
The idea that Bodhisattvas consciously choose to postpone their own entry into Nirvana is a defining characteristic primarily found in Mahayana Buddhism. This concept embodies the profound altruism and compassion that are cornerstones of the Bodhisattva ideal. The underlying reasoning behind this decision is deeply intertwined with the fundamental philosophical and ethical tenets of Buddhism and merits careful exploration.
Nirvana, in the Buddhist context, denotes the complete cessation of suffering and the end of the cycle of birth, death, and rebirth. Attaining Nirvana signifies ultimate liberation, the highest goal in the Buddhist path. However, Bodhisattvas, driven by their profound compassion and commitment to the welfare of all sentient beings, elect to delay their own attainment of Nirvana until all other beings have achieved liberation.
This decision stems from the realization of the interconnectedness of all life, a fundamental concept in Buddhist philosophy. From this perspective, the suffering of one being is inextricably linked to the suffering of all others. Therefore, personal liberation, while desirable, is not deemed sufficient if others continue to endure the cycle of Samsara. The Bodhisattva’s ultimate aim is not merely individual enlightenment, but rather the universal liberation of all sentient beings.
This commitment to the collective liberation is encapsulated in the Bodhisattva vow, a pledge to attain Buddhahood for the benefit of all sentient beings. The Bodhisattva vow underscores the belief that true enlightenment inherently entails the recognition of the universal nature of suffering and the responsibility to alleviate it in all its forms. The Bodhisattva ideal thus represents a synthesis of profound wisdom and boundless compassion.
Furthermore, the postponement of Nirvana by Bodhisattvas embodies the Mahayana emphasis on the practice of upaya or skillful means. This concept refers to the adaptability and flexibility of the Bodhisattva in choosing the most appropriate methods to guide each sentient being towards enlightenment. By remaining within the cycle of Samsara, Bodhisattvas are better positioned to employ these skillful means and directly address the diverse needs and capacities of sentient beings.
How to become a Bodhisattva
In Mahayana Buddhism, the path to becoming a Bodhisattva involves developing compassion and wisdom, and making a formal commitment to work for the benefit of all beings. Here are some key practices and attitudes associated with the path of the Bodhisattva:
- Develop compassion: Bodhisattvas are motivated by a deep sense of compassion for all beings, and this compassion is seen as the foundation of their practice. Practices such as the cultivation of loving-kindness, altruism, and empathy can help develop this sense of compassion.
- Cultivate wisdom: In addition to compassion, Bodhisattvas also develop wisdom, or the ability to see the true nature of reality. Practices such as mindfulness, meditation, and the study of Buddhist teachings can help cultivate wisdom.
- Take the Bodhisattva vow: Taking the Bodhisattva vow is a formal commitment to work for the benefit of all beings, even if it means postponing one’s own attainment of enlightenment. This vow is often taken in the presence of a teacher or spiritual community.
- Engage in skillful means: Bodhisattvas are known for their ability to use skillful means (upaya in Pali), or creative and compassionate ways of helping others. This may involve practices such as generosity, ethical conduct, and the practice of the Six Perfections (generosity, ethics, patience, joyful effort, concentration, and wisdom).
- Dedicate merit: Bodhisattvas dedicate the merit of their actions to the benefit of all beings, rather than seeking personal gain or recognition.
While becoming a Bodhisattva is considered a lofty goal, the path of the Bodhisattva is seen as accessible to all beings who are willing to develop compassion, wisdom and a commitment to serving others.
According to the scriptures, in order to become a bodhisattva, a Buddhist must go through countless lifetimes of cultivation and make a great vow to save all sentient beings in this world.
This is easy for every Buddhist practitioner to say but very difficult to do. Accordingly, we can use many means to go into life, practice and help as many people as possible to return to the right path, enlightenment and lasting happiness. Sacrificing personal gain for the benefit of all sentient beings.
Major Bodhisattvas in Buddhism
In Mahayana school, numerous Bodhisattvas are revered, each embodying specific virtues and attributes. These Bodhisattvas serve as spiritual archetypes and provide a focal point for devotion and practice.
- Avalokiteshvara (Guanyin): Avalokiteshvara, known as Guanyin in China and Kannon in Japan, is the Bodhisattva of Compassion and arguably the most venerated Bodhisattva in East Asian Buddhism. The name Avalokiteshvara translates as “The Lord Who Looks Down” or “The One Who Hears the Cries of the World.” Avalokiteshvara is believed to embody the compassion of all Buddhas and is often depicted with multiple arms and heads, symbolizing his omnipresence and his ability to respond to the suffering of all beings simultaneously.
- Manjushri: Manjushri, the Bodhisattva of Wisdom, represents the embodiment of prajna, or transcendental wisdom, which perceives the emptiness and interdependent nature of all phenomena. Manjushri is often depicted wielding a flaming sword, which cuts through ignorance and delusion, and holding a lotus flower, which supports a book, the Prajnaparamita Sutra, symbolizing the wisdom of the Buddha’s teachings.
- Samantabhadra: Samantabhadra is known as the Bodhisattva of Practice or Action. He represents the perfect practice of all Buddhist teachings and is often associated with the Lotus Sutra. He is typically depicted riding a white elephant, symbolizing the power and steadfastness of his vows to assist all beings.
- Kshitigarbha (Jizo): Kshitigarbha, known as Jizo in Japan, is the Bodhisattva of Great Vows and is particularly revered for his pledge to save all beings in the hell realms. He is often portrayed as a monk carrying a staff with six rings, symbolizing his vow to save beings in all six realms of existence, and a wish-fulfilling jewel, symbolizing his ability to fulfill the spiritual needs of sentient beings.
- Maitreya: Maitreya is unique in being recognized as the future Buddha, who will be born in a future era to rejuvenate the teachings of the Dharma. Currently, Maitreya resides in the Tushita Heaven, awaiting the appropriate time for his final birth in the human realm. The name Maitreya means “loving-kindness” or “friendliness,” reflecting the qualities that this future Buddha embodies.
- Vajrapani: In Vajrayana or Tibetan Buddhism, Vajrapani, the Bodhisattva of Power, holds a significant position. He is often depicted holding a vajra or thunderbolt, symbolizing the power of compassion. Vajrapani is considered a protector of the Buddha’s teachings and is associated with the energy and strength needed on the spiritual path.
These major Bodhisattvas embody the virtues and principles central to the Buddhist path. Their symbolic representations offer practitioners a tangible focus for understanding and embodying these virtues. Although individual devotees may gravitate toward a particular Bodhisattva based on personal resonance, all Bodhisattvas serve as reminders of the compassionate and selfless path of the Bodhisattva ideal.
The difference between Buddha and Bodhisattva
In Buddhism, both Buddha and Bodhisattva are revered as enlightened beings, but there are some key differences between them:
- Attainment of enlightenment: The Buddha is someone who has attained complete and perfect enlightenment, which means that they have fully realized the true nature of reality and have ended the cycle of suffering and rebirth. A Bodhisattva, on the other hand, is someone who has attained a high level of spiritual realization but has chosen to postpone their own enlightenment in order to help others attain it.
- Status: The Buddha is seen as the ultimate goal of Buddhist practice, and his teachings are considered the most authoritative and complete. Bodhisattvas are seen as admirable beings who serve as inspiring examples of compassion and selflessness, but they are not considered equal to the Buddha in terms of spiritual attainment.
- Historical figure vs. archetypal figure: The Buddha is a historical figure who lived and taught in ancient India, and whose teachings have been transmitted through the Buddhist scriptures. Bodhisattvas, on the other hand, are archetypal figures who represent the ideal of compassion and selflessness in Buddhist practice. There are many different Bodhisattvas in Buddhist tradition, each with their own unique characteristics and qualities.
To encapsulate, while a Buddha represents a being who has reached the pinnacle of spiritual enlightenment and escaped the cycle of Samsara, a Bodhisattva, according to the Mahayana perspective, represents an enlightened being who voluntarily chooses to remain within the cycle of Samsara out of compassion for all sentient beings. This crucial distinction underlies the Bodhisattva’s embodiment of the fusion of profound wisdom and boundless compassion, a core principle of the Mahayana tradition.
This is something that every Buddhist practitioner can do. We can all become a Bodhisattva in our daily lives. Through various means, we can both practice and help all sentient beings return to the right path. Because of the suffering of all beings, Bodhisattvas willingly devote themselves to save and benefit others, wholeheartedly sacrificing personal gain for the sake of all beings.