A bodhisattva (P. bodhisatta; T. byang chub sems dpa' བྱང་ཆུབ་སེམས་དཔའ་; C. pusa; J. bosatsu; K. posal 菩薩) is someone who, motivated by great compassion, has generated bodhicitta, which is the aspiration to attain enlightenment (bodhi) for the benefit of all sentient beings.
In the early Buddhist texts, the Buddha used the term bodhisattva ("one who seeks enlightenment") to refer to his younger self in the period before he attained enlightenment, when he was known as Siddhartha Gautama. He also used this term to refer to his previous incarnations in past lives, when he was on the path to buddhahood.
Over time, the term came to be used more generally to refer to anyone who made the commitment to follow the path to buddhahood for the benefit of all sentient beings.
Erik Pema Kunsang states:
- [A bodhisattva is] someone who has developed bodhicitta, the aspiration to attain enlightenment (bodhi) in order to benefit all sentient beings.
Dzigar Kongtrul states:
- The word bodhisattva ... refers to a person who strives to attain enlightenment (bodhi) for the benefit of all living beings. Enlightenment is the state of mind of a buddha, one who has awakened to their ultimate potential. It is the most positive state of mind possible—a state of perfect, irreversible happiness and perfect, irreversible freedom from suffering. It is the ultimate state of peaceful heart, from which love flows continually and without impediment. A bodhisattva’s motivation is not just to achieve this state for oneself, in order to dwell on an island of individual bliss, but to use the powerful qualities of enlightenment for the maximum benefit of all beings.
- This noble aspiration is the supreme expression of tsewa. It fills the bodhisattva’s life with profound happiness and meaning. This is why bodhisattvas are said to “go from joy to joy,” despite being fully aware of and connected to the tremendous suffering in this world.
Gyurme Dorje states:
- [A bodhisattva is] a spiritual trainee dedicated to the cultivation of an enlightened attitude (cittotpāda) or the altruistic enlightened mind, who is on the path to full enlightenment, gradually traversing the five bodhisattva paths (pañcamārga) and ten bodhisattva levels (daśabhūmi). The Sanskrit term bodhisattva, which is defined as "awakening hero" or "spiritual warrior of enlightenment," denotes a courageous individual whose entire being is dedicated towards a single goal, i.e. to bring about the welfare of all sentient beings. An essential element of this commitment to work for others is the determination purposely to remain within cyclic existence (samsara) instead of simply seeking freedom from suffering for oneself.
- Philosophically, the bodhisattva is said to have fully realised the two aspects of selflessness, with respect to dissonant mental states and the nature of all phenomena.
The bodhisattva path begins with the aspiration of bodhicitta, the wish to attain enlightenment for the benefit of all sentient beings.
Following this, the path is described in a number of ways:
All of the above terms are different expressions of the bodhisattva path.
The two accumulations
The two accumulations are:
- accumulation of merit (puṇya-saṃbhāra), which corresponds to the first five of the six paramitas
- accumulation of wisdom (jñāna-saṃbhāra) - which corresponds to the sixth paramita, the "perfection of wisdom" (prajnaparamita)
The six paramitas
The six paramitas are:
- 1. dāna-pāramitā - to cultivate the attitude of giving
- 2. śīla-pāramitā - skillful conduct, refraining from harm
- 3. kṣānti-pāramitā - forbearance, the ability not to be perturbed by anything
- 4. vīrya-pāramitā - joyous effort, to find joy in what is virtuous, positive or wholesome
- 5. dhyāna-pāramitā - meditative stability, not to be distracted
- 6. prajñā-pāramitā - discrimating wisdom, the perfect discrimination of phenomena
The paths and bhumis
The Sanskrit Mahayana tradition identifies three vehicles that can be followed as the path to enlightenment: the vehicle of listeners, the pratyekabuddha vehicle, and the bodhisattva vehicle. These three vehicles are said to be suitable for beings of different capacity. The first two vehicles, called the lower vehicles, are suitable for beings of lesser capacity, and the bodhisattva vehicle is for those of the highest capacity.
Each of the three vehicles can be presented in terms of the five paths. When the bodhisattva vehicle is described in the terms of the five paths, this presentation enumerates a set of ten bodhisattva grounds (ten bhumis) that are attained in the later stages of the paths.
The five paths of the bodhisattva vehicle are described as follows:
- The path of accumulation (saṃbhāra-mārga)
- The path of preparation or application (prayoga-mārga)
- At this stage, the bodhisattva develops an inferential/conceptual understanding of emptiness (sunyata); the bodhisattva prepares for the direct perception of emptiness.
- The path of seeing (darśana-mārga)
- The path of meditation (bhāvanā-mārga)
- On the path of meditation, the bodhisattva stabilizes the direct experience of emptiness that was first realized on the path of seeing. Through meditation practice, the bodhisattva becomes more and more familiar with the experience of emptiness, and in the process purifies more and more subtle obscurations. In the process, the bodhisattva traverses the 2nd to 10th bodhisattva grounds (bhumis).
- The path of no more learning (aśaikṣā-mārga)
The arya bodhisattva
Two categories of bodhisattva are identified in traditional texts.
- the title bodhisattva or "ordinary bodhisattva" can refer to anyone who has entered the path of the bodhisattva that begins with the aspiration of bodhicitta
- the title arya bodhisattva refers to a bodhisattva who has had a direct realization of emptiness and thus has reached the path of seeing (darśana-mārga) entered the first bodhisattva ground (pramuditā-bhūmi)
The term arya bodhisattva is translated as "noble bodhisattva," "sublime bodhisattva," etc. The epithet mahasattva is also used to refer to arya bodhisattvas.
From the moment the arya bodhisattva directly and non-conceptually realizes emptiness, they are said to follow the "transcendent path" of the aryas. This path is described in terms of the ten bodhisattva grounds (ten bhumis) and the transcendent path of the ten paramitas. At this level, the arya bodhisattva focuses on purifying the most subtle obscurations through the practice of meditation.
- Those practicing the Bodhisattva Vehicle take the bodhisattva ethical restraints with the wish to attain full awakening to benefit all sentient beings. The bodhisattva precepts focus on subduing self-centeredness, the main obstacle to generating bodhicitta and engaging in the bodhisattvas’ practice. Different versions of the bodhisattva ethical restraints are found in Tibetan, Chinese, and Japanese Buddhism.
- Unlike the prātimokṣa precepts that focus on physical and verbal actions, bodhisattva and tantric precepts emphasize ethical conduct on the mental level. Here motivation is foremost. This means that if our motivation is pure, we can transform all actions into the Dharma. However, this does not give us license to rationalize selfish and nonvirtuous actions by saying “My motivation was compassion."
- Most bodhisattva aspirants take the bodhisattva precepts before they are full-fledged bodhisattvas with uncontrived bodhicitta. The bodhisattva precepts at this point are a similitude, not actual bodhisattva precepts, but they help us develop bodhicitta and practice the bodhisattva conduct.
- In the Tibetan tradition, the bodhisattva ethical restraints consist of eighteen root and forty-six auxiliary precepts. These were taught by the Buddha at different times and initially were scattered throughout the Sanskrit sūtras. Asaṅga, Śāntideva, and Candragomin collated them, and the present set was formed by combining their lists.
- Two renditions of the bodhisattva ethical code exist in Chinese Buddhism. The Brahmajāla Sūtra contains ten root and forty-eight auxiliary precepts, and the Yogācārabhūmi Śāstra has four root and forty-one auxiliary precepts. There is much overlap between the lists in these two scriptures, as well as with the bodhisattva precepts of Tibetan Buddhism.
- In the Chinese and Tibetan traditions, both monastics and lay followers take the bodhisattva ethical restraints with the intention to keep them until full awakening. All transgressions, no matter how serious, can be purified through confession and repentance.
The term bodhisatta was used by the Buddha in the Pāli canon to refer to himself both in his previous lives and as a young man in his current life, prior to his enlightenment, 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 later Theravāda 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.
Development of the bodhisattva ideal in the Pali tradition
Bhikkhu Bodhi states:
- In its earliest phase, as represented by the four main collections of the Sutta Piṭaka, the Buddha’s teaching focused on the attainment of nibbāna by the practice of the Noble Eightfold Path. In these collections the Buddha teaches his doctrine as a direct path to deliverance, and perhaps no feature of the presentation is so striking as the urgency he enjoins on his disciples in bringing their spiritual work to completion by reaching the final goal. Just as a man who discovers his turban to be in flames would immediately seek to extinguish it, so should the earnest disciple strive to extinguish the flames of craving in order to reach the state of security, the consummate peace of nibbāna.
- The oldest suttas, however, already mention three types of individuals who attain the consummate state: a sammāsambuddha or perfectly enlightened Buddha, who realizes the goal without the aid of a teacher and teaches the Dhamma to others, founding a “dispensation;” a paccekabuddha or solitary enlightened one, who achieves realization unaided but does not teach; and a disciple arahat, who realizes the goal through the instruction of a supreme Buddha and then teaches others according to his inclination and capacity. With the passage of time, quite possibly due to a decline in practice and an increasing rarity of higher attainments, these three types came to be viewed as three alternative ideals towards which a disciple could aspire in the hope of some distant future attainment. All were identical in their realization of nibbāna, but each was seen to stand for a distinct aspect of the enlightened personality and to presuppose a distinct yāna, a “vehicle” or spiritual career, leading to its actualization.
- For the Theravāda, one of the more conservative of the ancient schools, the emphasis was always placed on the ideal prescribed in the Nikāyas, the attainment of arahatship by following the instructions of the historical Buddha; the other ideals remained in the background, acknowledged but not especially attended to. Other early schools, such as the Sarvāstivāda and the Mahāsāṅghika, while upholding the primacy of the disciple’s course and the arahat ideal, also gave consideration to the other ideals as possible goals for individuals inclined to pursue them. Thus they came to admit a doctrine of three yānas or vehicles to deliverance, all valid but steeply graded in difficulty and accessibility.
- Within all the early schools, thinkers and poets alike attempted to fill in the background history to the three enlightened persons, composing stories of their past lives in which they prepared the foundations for their future achievements. Since it was the figure of the Buddha, as the founder of the Dispensation, who commanded the greatest awe and veneration, gradually a literature began to emerge depicting the evolution of the bodhisattva or “Buddha-to-be” along the arduous path of his development. In this way the figure of the bodhisattva, the aspirant to Buddhahood, came to claim an increasingly prominent place in the popular Buddhist religious life. The culmination of these innovations was the appearance, in about the first century B.C., of the Mahāyāna, the self-styled “Great Vehicle,” which proclaimed that of the three vehicles to enlightenment the bodhisattva-vehicle was alone ultimate; the other two were only expedients devised by the Buddha to lead his less competent disciples to perfect Buddhahood, from the highest perspective, the only valid spiritual ideal.
- Through its conservative bent and relative insulation from the other schools, the Theravāda managed to resist the metamorphic changes taking place elsewhere in the Buddhist world, preserving the teachings as compiled at the early councils without radical alterations of their doctrinal framework. Nevertheless, in this school as well from a period even preceding the rise of the Mahāyāna, the figure of the bodhisattva began to make inroads into both its literature and spiritual atmosphere. Two elements in the early teaching seem to have provided the germs for this development. One was the fact that the Buddha had used the word “bodhisattva” to refer to himself in the period preceding his enlightenment, pushing its scope as far back as his existence in the Tusita heaven before his final descent to earth. The second was the recognition of the multiplicity of Buddhas, which showed the Sakyan Gotama to be, not a unique figure in the cosmic genealogy, but only the most recent member of a series of Buddhas each of whom attains enlightenment, founds a dispensation, and liberates a multitude of beings from the bondage of saṃsāric suffering. The Dīgha Nikāya mentions by name the six most recent predecessors of the Buddha Gotama (DN 1.4), and predicts as well the advent of Metteyya, the Buddha of the future, who will rekindle the lamp of the true Dhamma after it is extinguished in the dark ages that lie ahead (DN 26.25).
- These two features in conjunction implied the existence of “germinal Buddhas” or bodhisattvas toiling to perfect themselves through countless lives in order to reach the summit of supreme enlightenment. The trials and triumphs of the being who became our own Buddha were recorded in the Jātaka tales, which relate the bodhisattva’s conduct in his previous births. Just when and how the bodhisattva entered upon this course is told in the Buddhavaṃsa, a late addition to the Sutta Piṭaka, in a story that has become the paradigm for all subsequent developments of the bodhisattva ideal. According to this story, incalculable aeons ago in the far distant past, our bodhisattva (as the ascetic Sumedha) made an aspiration (abhinīhāra) at the feet of the Buddha Dīpaṅkara, the twenty-fourth Buddha of antiquity, in which he renounced the right to enter nibbāna then open to him, in order that he might become a Buddha in the future and provide salvation for the host of gods and humans. He then received a prediction from the Buddha confirming his future success, went off into solitude, and reflected on the qualities that had to be perfected to fulfil his goal. These, the ten pāramīs, became the standard constituents of the bodhisattva’s practice, the requisites of enlightenment (bodhisambhāra) of our present treatise.
- But though the existence of a bodhisattva career was thus acknowledged by the Theravāda, the dominant attitude prevailed among the exponents of the school that this path was reserved only for the very rare and exceptional individual. Since it was not recommended in the oldest authorized records of the Buddha’s teaching, those who professed to follow the Buddha were advised to comply with the instructions contained in these documents and aim at the attainment of nibbāna by the practice of the Noble Eightfold Path. Thus the bulk of the literature in the Pāli school was devoted to explaining the details of this path and its doctrinal ramifications, while the practice of the pāramīs was treated only in broad and general terms. As time passed, however, perhaps partly through the influence of the Mahāyāna, the bodhisattva ideal must have come to acquire an increasing appeal for the minds of the Buddhist populace, and the need became felt for a work that would explain, in a practical style, the factors and phases of the pāramitā path without deviating from the conservative doctrinal perspective of the Theravāda. Works expounding the bodhisattva career abounded in the Mahāyāna schools, since this was their main concern, but a comparable work was lacking in Theravāda circles. To meet this need, apparently, Ācariya Dhammapāla composed his Treatise on the Pāramīs, which is found in at least two places in the Pāli exegetical literature, in a complete version in the Cariyāpiṭaka Aṭṭhakathā, and in an abridged version in the ṭīkā or subcommentary to the Brahmajāla Sutta.
- The work introduces itself as a treatise composed “for clansmen following the suttas who are zealously engaged in the practice of the vehicle to the great enlightenment, in order to improve their skillfulness in accumulating the requisites of enlightenment.” Followers of the suttas (suttantikas) are specified probably because those who aspired to follow the bodhisattva course had to work selectively from various suttas to determine the practices appropriate for their aim, as the text itself illustrates in filling out its material. The mention of the “vehicle to the great enlightenment” (mahābodhiyāna, or possibly “great vehicle to enlightenment”) does not signify the historical Mahāyāna, but rather the greatness of the bodhisattva career in the loftiness of its goal and in its capacity to provide for the emancipation of a great number of beings.
- The “requisites of enlightenment” are the pāramīs themselves, the main topic of the treatise. The word “pāramī” is derived from parama, “supreme,” and thus suggests the eminence of the qualities that must be fulfilled by a bodhisattva in the long course of his spiritual development.
The bodhisatta path
In the Pali tradition, the path of the bodhisatta is described in terms of the ten paramis. These are the perfections of:
- Dāna pāramī : generosity, giving of oneself
- Sila pāramī : virtue, morality, proper conduct
- Nekkhamma pāramī : renunciation
- Paññā pāramī : transcendental wisdom, insight
- Viriya (also spelled vīriya) pāramī : energy, diligence, vigour, effort
- Khanti pāramī : patience, tolerance, forbearance, acceptance, endurance
- Sacca pāramī : truthfulness, honesty
- Adhiṭṭhāna (adhitthana) pāramī : determination, resolution
- Mettā pāramī : loving-kindness
- Upekkhā (also spelled upekhā) pāramī : equanimity, serenity
The bodhisatta in Theravada communities
- Although Theravāda soteriological theory includes a path for the bodhisatta (S. bodhisattva), the bodhisattva is a much rarer sanctified figure here than in the Mahāyāna; the more common ideal being in Theravāda is instead the arhat. The difference between the Buddha and the arhat is also less pronounced in the Theravāda than in the Mahāyāna schools; in the Theravāda, the Buddha and the arhat achieve the same type of nirvana, the chief difference between them being that the Buddha finds the path to nirvāṇa independently, while the arhat achieves his or her enlightenment by following the path set forth by the Buddha.
Theravadin scholar Walpola Rahula has stated that the bodhisattva ideal has traditionally been held to be higher than the state of a śrāvaka not only in Mahāyāna, but also in Theravāda Buddhism. He quotes, for example, an inscription from the 10th Century king of Sri Lanka, Mahinda IV (956-972 CE) which states "none but the bodhisattvas will become kings of a prosperous Lanka."
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
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 (Skt. mahāsattva), an epithet commonly used for Mahāyāna bodhisattvas. 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 paramis.
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- Dzigar Kongtrul 2020, Chapter 4.
- From the Glossary to Tibetan Elemental Divination Paintings; see Bodhisattva
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