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In Mahayana Buddhism, bodhisattva is the Sanskrit term for anyone who, motivated by great compassion, has generated bodhicitta, which is a spontaneous wish to attain buddhahood for the benefit of all sentient beings. A bodhisattva is one of the four sublime states a human can achieve in life (the others being an arhat, buddha or pratyekabuddha).
Usage of the term bodhisattva has evolved over time. In early Indian Buddhism, for example, the term bodhisattva was primarily used to refer specifically to Gautama Buddha in his former lives. The Jataka tales, which are the stories of the Buddha's lives, depict the various attempts of the bodhisattva to embrace qualities like self-sacrifice and morality.
Bodhisattvas are a popular subject in Buddhist art.
In Theravada Buddhism, the equivalent Pali term bodhisatta is used in the Pāli Canon to refer to Gautama Buddha in his previous lives and as a young man in his current life in the period during which he was working towards his own liberation. When, during his discourses, he recounts his experiences as a young aspirant, he regularly uses the phrase "When I was an unenlightened bodhisatta..." The term therefore connotes a being who is "bound for enlightenment", in other words, a person whose aim is to become fully enlightened. In the Pāli canon, the bodhisatta is also described as someone who is still subject to birth, illness, death, sorrow, defilement, and delusion. Some of the previous lives of the Buddha as a bodhisattva are featured in the Jataka tales.
In later Theravada literature, the term "bodhisatta" is used fairly frequently in the sense of someone on the path to liberation. The later tradition of commentary also recognizes the existence of two additional types of bodhisattas: the paccekabodhisatta, who will attain Paccekabuddhahood, and the savakabodhisatta, who will attain enlightenment as a disciple of a Buddha. According to the Theravāda teacher Bhikkhu Bodhi, the bodhisattva path was not taught by the Buddha.
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, who 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 kings of Sri Lanka from the 3rd century until the 15th century were also described as bodhisattvas and their royal duties were sometimes clearly associated with the practice of the Ten Pāramitās.
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 an inscription from the 10th Century king of Sri Lanka, Mahinda IV (956-972 AD), who had the words inscribed "none but the bodhisattvas will become kings of a prosperous Lanka," among other examples.
There is a wide-spread belief, particularly in the West, that the ideal of the Theravada, which they conveniently identify with Hinayana, is to become an Arahant while that of the Mahayana is to become a Bodhisattva and finally to attain the state of a Buddha. It must be categorically stated that this is incorrect. This idea was spread by some early Orientalists at a time when Buddhist studies were beginning in the West, and the others who followed them accepted it without taking the trouble to go into the problem by examining the texts and living traditions in Buddhist countries. But the fact is that both the Theravada and the Mahayana unanimously accept the Bodhisattva ideal as the highest.— Walpola Rahula, Bodhisattva Ideal in Buddhism
Paul Williams writes that some modern Theravada meditation masters in Thailand are popularly regarded as bodhisattvas.
Cholvijarn observes that prominent figures associated with the Self perspective in Thailand have often been famous outside scholarly circles as well, among the wider populace, as Buddhist meditation masters and sources of miracles and sacred amulets. Like perhaps some of the early Mahāyāna forest hermit monks, or the later Buddhist Tantrics, they have become people of power through their meditative achievements. They are widely revered, worshipped, and held to be arhats or (note!) bodhisattvas.
In Mahāyāna Buddhism
Mahāyāna Buddhism is based principally upon the path of a bodhisattva. According to Jan Nattier, the term Mahāyāna ("Great Vehicle") was originally even an honorary synonym for Bodhisattvayāna, or the "Bodhisattva Vehicle." The Aṣṭasāhasrikā Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra 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 enlightenment as his aim, a bodhisattva-mahāsattva is so called.
The earliest depiction of the Bodhisattva path in texts such as the Ugraparipṛcchā Sūtra describe it as an arduous, difficult monastic path suited only for the few which is nevertheless the most glorious path one can take. Three kinds of Bodhisattvas are mentioned in the early Mahayana texts, the forest, city, and monastery Bodhisattvas - with forest dwelling being promoted a superior, even necessary path in sutras such as the Samadhiraja Sutra and the Ugraparipṛcchā Sūtra. The early Rastrapalapariprccha sutra also promotes a solitary life of meditation in the forests, far away from the distractions of the householder life. The Rastrapala is also highly critical of monks living in monasteries and in cities who are seen as not practicing meditation and morality. The Ratnagunasamcayagatha also says the Bodhisattva should undertake ascetic practices (dhutanga), "wander freely without a home", practice the paramitas and train under a guru in order to perfect his meditation practice and realization of prajnaparamita. These texts seem to indicate the initial Bodhisattva ideal was associated with a strict forest asceticism.
Mahāyāna Buddhism encourages everyone to become bodhisattvas and to take the bodhisattva vows. With these vows, one makes the promise to work for the complete enlightenment of all sentient beings by practicing the six perfections. Indelibly entwined with the bodhisattva vow is merit transference (pariṇāmanā).
In Mahāyāna Buddhism life in this world is compared to people living in a house that is on fire. People take this world as reality pursuing worldly projects and pleasures without realizing that the house is on fire and will soon burn down (due to the inevitability of death). A bodhisattva is one who has a determination to free sentient beings from samsara and its cycle of death, rebirth and suffering. This type of mind is known as the mind of awakening (bodhicitta). Bodhisattvas take bodhisattva vows in order to progress on the spiritual path towards buddhahood.
There are a variety of different conceptions of the nature of a bodhisattva in Mahāyāna. According to some Mahāyāna sources a bodhisattva is someone on the path to full Buddhahood. Others speak of bodhisattvas renouncing Buddhahood. According to the Kun-bzang bla-ma'i zhal-lung, a bodhisattva can choose any of three paths to help sentient beings in the process of achieving buddhahood. They are:
- king-like bodhisattva - one who aspires to become buddha as soon as possible and then help sentient beings in full fledge;
- boatman-like bodhisattva - one who aspires to achieve buddhahood along with other sentient beings;
- shepherd-like bodhisattva - one who aspires to delay buddhahood until all other sentient beings achieve buddhahood. Bodhisattvas like Avalokiteśvara and Śāntideva are believed to fall in this category.
According to the doctrine of some Tibetan schools (like Theravāda but for different reasons), only the first of these is recognized. It is held that Buddhas remain in the world, able to help others, so there is no point in delay. Geshe Kelsang Gyatso notes:
In reality, the second two types of bodhicitta are wishes that are impossible to fulfill because it is only possible to lead others to enlightenment once we have attained enlightenment ourself. Therefore, only king-like bodhicitta is actual bodhicitta. Je Tsongkhapa says that although the other Bodhisattvas wish for that which is impossible, their attitude is sublime and unmistaken.
The Nyingma school, however, holds that the lowest level is the way of the king, who primarily seeks his own benefit but who recognizes that his benefit depends crucially on that of his kingdom and his subjects. The middle level is the path of the boatman, who ferries his passengers across the river and simultaneously, of course, ferries himself as well. The highest level is that of the shepherd, who makes sure that all his sheep arrive safely ahead of him and places their welfare above his own.
According to many traditions within Mahāyāna Buddhism, on the way to becoming a Buddha, a bodhisattva proceeds through ten, or sometimes fourteen, grounds or bhūmis. Below is the list of the ten bhūmis and their descriptions according to the Avataṃsaka Sūtra and The Jewel Ornament of Liberation, a treatise by Gampopa, an influential teacher of the Tibetan Kagyu school. (Other schools give slightly variant descriptions.)
Before a bodhisattva arrives at the first ground, he or she first must travel the first two of the 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 third bhūmi is named "luminous", because, for a bodhisattva who accomplishes this bhūmi, the light of Dharma is said to radiate for others from the bodhisattva. The emphasized perfection is patience (kṣānti).
- Radiant: This bhūmi is called "radiant", because 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 bhūmi 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, the "immovable" bhūmi, is the bhūmi at which one becomes able to choose his place of rebirth.
- Good Discriminating Wisdom: The emphasized virtue is power.
- 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.
Some sutras said a beginner would take 3–22 countless eons (mahāsaṃkhyeya kalpas) to become a buddha. Pure Land Buddhism suggests buddhists go to the pure lands to practice as bodhisattvas. Tiantai, Huayan, Zen and Vajrayāna schools say they teach ways to attain buddhahood within one karmic cycle.
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.
Kṣitigarbha is another popular bodhisattva in Japan and China. He is known for aiding those who are lost. His greatest compassionate vow is:
If I do not go to the hell to help the suffering beings there, who else will go? ... if the hells are not empty I will not become a Buddha. Only when all living beings have been saved, will I attain Bodhi.
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
- Mount Emei: Samantabhadra Bodhisattva
- Mount Wutai: Mañjuśrī Bodhisattva
- Mount Jiuhua: Kṣitigarbha Bodhisattva
Standing bodhisattva. Gandhāra, 2nd-3rd century.
Mural of bodhisattvas. China, Tang Dynasty.
Ākāśagarbha Bodhisattva. Japan, 9th century.
Avalokiteśvara Bodhisattva. India, 11th-12th century.
Mahāsthāmaprāpta Bodhisattva. China, 13th century.
Youthful Mañjuśrī Bodhisattva silver statue. Java, 9th century Indonesia.
Mañjuśrī Bodhisattva crossing the sea. Japan, 14th century.
Kṣitigarbha Bodhisattva. Japan, 15th century.
Samantabhadra Bodhisattva. Japan.
Maitreya Bodhisattva. Thiksey Monastery, Ladakh, India
- Bodhicharyavatara (A Guide to the Bodhisattva Way of Life)
- Bodhisattvas of the Earth
- Bodhisattva vows
- Buddhist holidays
- Karuna (compassion in Sanskrit)
- List of bodhisattvas
- Vegetarianism in Buddhism
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|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Bodhisattvas.|
- Bodhisattva, probably Avalokiteshvara (Guanyin), Northern Qi dynasty, c. 550--60, video, Smarthistory.
- The Thirty-Seven Practices of Bodhisattvas, all-in-one page with memory aids & collection of different versions.
- Audio recitation of 'The 37 Practices of Bodhisattvas' in MP3 format (Paul & Lee voices).
- What A Bodhisattva Does: Thirty-Seven Practices by Ngulchu Thogme with slide show format.
- Access to Insight Library: Bodhi's Wheel409
- Online exhibition analyzing a Korean Bodhisattva sculpture
- Buddhanet.net Ksitigarbha Bodhisattva
- Sacred visions : early paintings from central Tibet, fully digitized text from The Metropolitan Museum of Art libraries