What is a bodhisattva?

The word bodhisattva means as “A being set upon enlightenment,” “One whose essence is perfect knowledge,” or “A being whose essence is enlightenment.”

“Bodhisattva” is a compound word formed from bodhi (spiritual awakening, enlightenment) and sattva (a being, essence, spirit). There is a possibility that the Pali word “satta” was actually a back-formation from the Sanskrit word sakta, meaning “committed to, fixed or intent upon, directed towards.” The Pali term “bodhisatta” would, from a Sanskrit point of view, have been ambiguous, and it’s possible that it was retranslated into Sanskrit wrongly as “enlightenment being” when it should have been re-translated as “one committed to enlightenment.”

The word, however, has several shades of meaning, and we will explore these below.

Three meanings of the word “bodhisattva”

There are three principle meanings of the term bodhisattva:

  1. In early Buddhism, the word bodhisattva (or bodhisatta) referred to the historical Buddha, Gautama, before he attained enlightenment. This meaning covered his previous lives as well as his last life, up until the moment he became enlightened. In the early scriptures of the Theravada and other schools, he would refer to his life before enlightenment by saying thinks like, “Before my Awakening, when I was still an unawakened Bodhisatva, the thought occurred to me…”There is also a whole class of stories about the Buddha’s previous lives called the Jatakas (birth tales) and in those he’s referred to as “the Bodhisattva.”The only other beings referred to as “bodhisattva” are mythic Buddhas of the past and future. For example Maitreya, the next Buddha in our timeline, is currently a Bodhisattva. And previous Buddhas mentioned in the scriptures, like Vipassi, are referred to as being bodhisattvas before they became enlightened.
  2. In the later schools of Mahayana Buddhism, the term bodhisattva refers to a human being committed to the attainment of enlightenment for the sake of others. Becoming a bodhisattva is the goal of Mahayana Buddhism.There are scriptures about how to train as a Bodhisattva, such the Bodhisattvacaryāvatāra, or Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life, also known as the Bodhicaryāvatāra, composed in the 8th century in India by Shantideva (Śāntideva). This text, which has heavily influenced the practice and teaching of the Dalai Lama, outlines how one develops the Six Perfections of giving, morality, patience, energy, meditation, and wisdom.Anyone who is set upon enlightenment, not just for themselves alone, but for the sake of all sentient beings, can be described as a bodhisattva, although the term is usually reserved for those of advanced spiritual attainment. It’s uncommon, in my experience, for anyone to refer to themselves as a bodhisattva.
  3. The word bodhisattva may also refer in Mahayana Buddhism to archetypal bodhisattvas: mythical beings such as Avalokiteshvara and Manjushri. These are mythic, non-historical figures. They are objects of reverence and subjects for meditation. Meditation practices involving them can include the recitation of verses praising their qualities, the visualization of their forms, and the chanting of their mantras.

We’ll look at these three different understandings of the term bodhisattva below.

1. The Bodhisattva in early Buddhism

This relief from Borobodur illustrates a Jataka tale in which the bodhisatta (the Buddha in a previous life) is a great turtle who first saves a group of shipwrecked sailors by taking them on his back, then offers his body to them as food to relieve their hunger. By Photo Dharma from Penang, Malaysia – 141 Jataka, Level 1, West Wall, CC BY 2.0

The Pali equivalent to bodhisattva is bodhisatta (satta having the same meaning as Sanskrit sattva — or sakta), and this is a word that appears in the Pali canon to refer to:

a) The historical Buddha, Shakyamuni, before his enlightenment, and,

b) The current life or future lives of the Buddha-to-come, Maitreya (Pali Metteyya).

The word bodhisattva therefore originally meant something like “a being who is well on the way to becoming a Buddha.”

The previous lives of the bodhisatta Sakyamuni are told in the Pali Jataka (“birth”) Tales, a collection of folk tales that later became the basis for Aesop’s fables, and that illustrate the Buddha-to-be’s development of good qualities such as patience, generosity, and compassion. These stories often include elements that might seem bizarre, such as the incident portrayed above, where the Buddha-to-be, in a previous life as a turtle, not only rescues some sailors whose boat had sunk, but gives them his body to eat in order to prevent them starving to death.

2. The bodhisattva as the goal and ideal of Mahayana Buddhism

One of the greatest works of Buddhist literature is the 8th century “Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life” (Bodhicaryavatara) by Shantideva. The Bodhicaryavatara contains ten chapters detailing the practice of the Perfections (paramitas) by which one becomes a bodhisattva. It is through the cultivation of bodhicitta (the mind or heart of awakening) that one becomes a bodhisattva.

 

Mahayana Buddhists do not aspire to enlightenment purely to free themselves from suffering; they do so out of compassion in order to liberate other sentient beings.

The Mahayana (“Great Vehicle”) seems to have arisen at least in part because of a perception that Buddhist practitioners in certain schools (which they pejoratively dubbed the “Hinayana,” or “Lesser Vehicle”) had too narrow a conception of the Buddhist path, seeing it purely in terms of liberating oneself from suffering without regard to the wellbeing of others.

This self-centered orientation was in conflict with the Buddha’s original emphasis that his disciples “go forth for the welfare of the many” and with his own untiring concern with the wellbeing of others. Mahayanists therefore looked back to the Buddha’s own life for inspiration. Prior to his own enlightenment, the Buddha-to-be, or Bodhisattva, was said to have spent countless lifetimes cultivating the perfection of compassion and generosity. The Jataka tales mentioned above contain a vast body of folklore in which the Bodhisattva, whether in human or animal form makes great sacrifices in order to help others.

Inspired by both the actual and the mythic stories of the Buddha, Mahayanists reinstated compassion at the heart of Buddhist practice. rather that aiming at Arhatship — the individual liberation of the Hinayana — Mahayanists aimed to attain enlightenment for the sake of all beings.

To Mahayanists, wisdom and compassion were considered to be inseparable. To truly see the nature of reality is to see that the whole conception of separate entities is a delusion. Paradoxically, therefore, a “bodhi-being” has to see that there are no beings to save in order to want to save them, and therefore to become a “bodhi-being”!

The Bodhisattva path is said to take many lifetimes.

3. The Bodhisattva as a devotional object

The archetypal (mythical) Bodhisattva, White Tara.

 

Mahayana Buddhism, a later historical development, vastly increased the range of objects of devotion by introducing new Buddhas and Bodhisattvas.

The historical Buddha had always been an object of great devotion to his followers. He himself had encouraged the veneration of the tombs of previous “Solitary Buddhas” or pratyekabuddhas. The Buddha-to-be, Metteyya (Sanskrit: Maitreya), was also an object of veneration and prayer. There was never, therefore, any sense of there being only a single (or no) focus for devotion in Buddhism. But the Mahayana broadened the range of devotional figures, by introducing “new” Buddhas and Bodhisattvas. How did this happen?

First, it may well have been the case that existing pre-Buddhist or simply non-Buddhist figures were incorporated into the Buddhist tradition and promoted, as it were, to enlightened status. This seems to be the case with Vajrapani, who began life as a Yaksha who acted as the Buddha’s protector. Some scholars have also speculated that Manjushri began as a celestial musician, or gandharva. It also seems that Tara began life as Durga, a Brahminical deity.

Second, it’s likely that some Buddhist deities first appeared as spontaneous manifestations in meditation practices. It’s fairly common for meditators to have meaningful and stable images appear as a result of the mind attaining unusually concentrated states of mind. These images are known as nimittas. A meditator who slips into a particularly refined state of mind may see, for example, a still pool or water or a jewel hanging against an infinite black background.

It’s conceivable that a meditator, upon having a particularly strong experience of compassion, say, experienced a vision of a beautiful and loving goddess caught in the act of stepping from a lotus in order to help sentient beings. And so, Tara would be “born.” In certain states of meditation the border between the unconscious and conscious minds can be crossed more easily, and the mind can begin to see things in a more symbolic way — as in dreaming but with a greater degree of mindfulness than is found in normal daily life.

Bodhisattvas may then be irruptions into waking consciousness of symbolic representations of meditation experiences. It is not unknown for Buddhas and bodhisattvas who appear in this way to even give teachings. Some Mahayana sutras may have started in this way.

Meditators who had such visionary experiences may have encouraged others to meditate upon the images that had spontaneously arisen, and so the tradition of sadhana, or the visualization of Buddhist deities, may have arisen.

26 Comments. Leave new

  • Please help me find the web site where I learned the following mantras (I cannot be sure of the spelling but I am sure of how they sounded phonetically):

    1) Om burh vah svah
    Tat savitur varenyam
    Bhargo devasya dimahi
    Dihyo yonah
    Prachodayat.

    2) Om shri manah, Lakshmiyai namah.

    I hope you can help me find out more about these. They have really helped me. Thank you. Wendy

    Reply
  • Hi Wendy,

    The first is the “gayatri mantra” which is one of the best-known Hindu mantras. It was incorporated into the theme music of Battlestar Galactica’s second season!

    oṃ bh?r bhuvah svah
    tāt savit?r várenyam
    bhārgo devāsya dhīmahi
    dhīyo yōnah prachodāyāt

    There’s a decent article about it on Wikipedia.

    The second mantra is “Om Sri Maha Lakshmyai Namah”.

    This should be enough information for you to search online.

    But you shouldn’t be asking me about this. I’m a Buddhist! :)

    Reply
  • Sounds like the Gayatri mantra to me–check Sai Baba sites, i.e., Sri Sathya Sai Baba

    Reply
  • My computer does not access the audio part re: translations
    Is there another site where the pronunciation is available.
    eg. The green tara mantra:
    swaha ????
    soha, swaha ???????

    Reply
  • Hi Cora,

    What’s the precise nature of the problem? I’m guessing it’s that you don’t have RealPlayer — I really ought to convert the mantras to MP3 format to make them more accessible. I’ll try to do that as soon as possible.

    Also, the pronunciation is now more fully explained in the article.

    All the best,
    Bodhipaksa

    Reply
  • terramie asher
    January 20, 2008 7:11 pm

    I am a bit confused. I have not been able to meditate in two years. I was able to meditate well for a number of years prior to this block (?). What I think I am looking for is a mantra to use that would help me. I did not use them before, just breathing and was able to meditate for long periods of time. A mantra may be helpful with concentration and focus and blocking distractions.
    I think that the root of the problem is that i have noticed in the last two years difficulty concentrating and focusing on anything.

    Is there a particular mantra that might help one with concentration and focus.

    Reply
  • Hi Terramie,

    That brings up an interesting point. Classically, something like the Manjushri mantra would be said to be good for helping focus and concentration, but there can be many things that stand in the way of our focusing. For example the mind can be unsteady because of a lack of energy (in which case a good mantra might be that of Vajrapani), or because of problems will ill will or self-hatred (in which case Tara, or Avalokitesvara might be good). In short, you may need to do a bit more exploring to find out in more detail what the cause of your problem is.

    On this that raises a flag with me is you talking about “blocking distractions.” Generally that’s not a very helpful way to think about meditation, in which we may often acknowledge distractions and then patiently return to the object of concentration, or we may even have to work on accepting and exploring our distractions. It may be that it would be helpful for you to work with a teacher. If there’s nothing available locally you could always consider our online courses.

    All the best,
    Bodhipaksa

    Reply
  • When the body is not functioning properly, a ‘block’ may develop. That is what happened to me recently. Try giving your body a detox or flush. Look for cleaning the Liver.
    I’m sorry, I guess I shouldn’t be answering.
    Cat

    Reply
  • what is the hindus equivalent to a bodhisattva¿?

    Reply
  • Hi Funghi,

    I don’t think there is a Hindu equivalent of a bodhisattva, but you’d be best asking a Hindu. Even then it might depend on which of the senses of the word bodhisattva you mean.

    All the best,
    Bodhipaksa

    Reply
  • Bhakta Ananda Haridas
    March 4, 2010 6:49 am

    Hare Krsna! Om narayana namah! please accept my humble obediances, All glories to Maha-vishnu and his munificent expansion as the lord buddha, All glories to guru & gauranga.

    This is a just a quick message to let members of this community know that the conduct of this site, and infact the content (especially the deifinition of the bodhisattva) is very nicely presented and not confusing, as alot of western (and eastern ) websites present the teachings and principles of the lord buddha in a less than “easy to digest” format.

    I offer my humble obediances to the lord buddha, who was the first incarnation of visnu in kali yuga/iron or last age. without buddha my life would be lost, i bow down again and again and again.

    jaya bodhipaksa jaya! leading the way towards truth.

    Reply
  • Mr Bodhi.

    I like your sentence, “Paradoxically, therefore, a “bodhi-being” has to see that there are no beings to save in order to want to save them, and therefore to become a “bodhi-being”!”

    Why does someone need to help others? The sentient beings are never exist, neither himself. So why does someone want to become a Bodhisattva or sammasambuddha?

    thank you.

    Reply
    • One of the needs we have is to help others. When we help others we feel enriched. So in helping others we are helping ourselves.

      Reply
  • thank you, helping others is really important. But helping others is also impermanent. After parinibbana, Buddha never mentions that an Arhat still able to helps other. Because sentient beings are exist in samsara then nibbana is beyond samsara and also beyond our ability to explain. (Samsara and beyond it only exist in mind). An Arhat won’t be born again so how could an Arhat help others? if helping others are really important than Buddha would said that. Ven Sariputta also said there is no feeling when someone realizes nibbana (AN 9.34). So how can it be an Arhat still have metta and karuna to others? Buddha never mentions parinibbana is identic with metta and karuna. thank you

    Reply
    • Hi Rayno.

      Since you’ve based your line of argument on a misconception, all I have to do is to provide one example of the Buddha urging arhats to act compassionately. The first example that came to mind if from the Mahavagga, where not long after the Buddha’s Awakening, we are told:

      At that time there were sixty-one Arahats in the world. And the Blessed One said to the Bhikkhus: ‘I am delivered, O Bhikkhus, from all fetters, human and divine. You, O Bhikkhus, are also delivered from all fetters, human and divine. Go ye now, O Bhikkhus, and wander, for the gain of the many, for the welfare of the many, out of compassion for the world, for the good, for the gain, and for the welfare of gods and men.’

      This single example is enough to invalidate your line of reasoning. This is fine, though. We all have to go through repeated re-evaluations of what we understand Enlightenment to be, and I’m sure I have many more re-evaluations ahead of me.

      Reply
  • thank you…
    Sorry I have made mistake in my sentence before:
    “After parinibbana, Buddha never mentions that an Arhat still able to helps other”. I meant after an Arhat’s parinibbana, an Arhat can not help others, your quotation above only stated the alive Arhats.

    Please give me the quotation from the suttas about Buddha said about nibbana is still need for metta and karuna even wisdom. then please give me the explanation from this quotation and its comparison to your quotation:

    “Then the Venerable Sáriputta addressed the monks, ‘It is extinction, friends, that is pleasant; it is extinction, friends, that is pleasant.’
    When this was said, the Venerable Udáyi said to the Venerable Sáriputta, ‘But what, friend Sáriputta, is pleasant herein, since herein there is no feeling?’
    ‘Just this, friends, is pleasant herein, that herein there is no feeling.'” (Anguttara IX,34)

    metta is a feeling right?

    so what is the need of metta when someone is enlightened, the feeling is also disappeared.. Or maybe metta and karuna and wisdom are only part of the raft to cross the river then the raft must be abandoned when someone has already reached the island.

    Reply
    • Sorry, I misread your comment and missed that you were talking about after Parinibbana, rather than after Nibbana. I probably shouldn’t try to reply to comments late at night!

      The Buddha was quite clear that nothing could be said about the status of a being after Parinibbana. It’s not possible to say even whether a being who has entered Parinibbana exists, does not exists, both exists and doesn’t exists, or neither exists nor non-exists. It’s simply something that the unenlightened mind cannot grasp, and we apparently shouldn’t even try to think about such matters. The proper sphere for inquiry in this life is how suffering arises and what we need to do to remove suffering. Still, one wonders :)

      It’s clear that after enlightenment, the Buddha and other Arhats experienced compassion and acted on the basis of compassion. He also encouraged us to develop metta and compassion here and now. So that seems to be enough to be getting on with.

      As for feelings, metta is not in fact a feeling (vedana). Vedanas are a simple sense of whether a particular sense impression is pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral. The word “feeling” in the quote above is used in this specialized sense, and it does not mean “emotion.”

      It’s clear that the Buddha experienced emotion (although not emotions based on greed, hatred, and delusion). It’s also clear he experienced vedana. Here’s why (Itivuttaka 38):

      “Bhikkhus, there are these two Nibbana-elements. What are the two? The Nibbana-element with residue left and the Nibbana-element with no residue left.

      “What, bhikkhus, is the Nibbana-element with residue left? Here a bhikkhu is an arahant, one whose taints are destroyed, the holy life fulfilled, who has done what had to be done, laid down the burden, attained the goal, destroyed the fetters of being, completely released through final knowledge. However, his five sense faculties remain unimpaired, by which he still experiences what is agreeable and disagreeable and feels pleasure and pain. It is the extinction of attachment, hate, and delusion in him that is called the Nibbana-element with residue left.

      “Now what, bhikkhus, is the Nibbana-element with no residue left? Here a bhikkhu is an arahant… completely released through final knowledge. For him, here in this very life, all that is experienced, not being delighted in, will be extinguished. That, bhikkhus, is called the Nibbana-element with no residue left.

      Not until Parinibbana does an enlightened one cease to experience vedana. But what that means isn’t entirely clear. In trying to understand what it’s like to be Enlightened and to have gone through Parinibbana, we’re in a similar situation to a dog looking at a television program. The dog can see that there’s something going on, but he doesn’t have the mental equipment to understand the drama or comedy that’s playing in front of him.

      Until we’re Awakened we’re really just guessing about what the experience of an Awakened One — before Parinibbana — is like. But that doesn’t mean all guesses are equally valid. When the Buddha says something like “The Tathagata enjoys seclusion, delights in seclusion,” we can assume that emotions such as delight are a part of his experience. When he talks about Arhats going out into the world out of compassion, we can safely assume that Arhats are motivated by compassion. But after Parinibbana — who knows!

      Reply
  • thank you very much Mr. Bodhi. I learn a lot from you.

    When I have a question, I will post it again.

    be happy

    Rayno

    Reply
  • Looking a sutra for everyday life!
    Thanks
    Marko

    Reply
  • When you give your raft to an islander,
    While standing in the river,
    It starts to Rain,
    Then tears of Joy,
    The River!

    Reply
  • Hi, Bodhipaksa

    I am a Chinese Buddhist who have been studying Mahayana Sutras. Yes, Mahayana Buddhism tends to look down on Hinayana Buddhism because they consider Arhats are selfish. Among the Mahayana Sutras, the Buddha even suggested practitioners to stay away from Arhats and scolded Arhats were rotted seeds.

    Since you mentioned that “It’s conceivable that a meditator, upon having a particularly strong experience of compassion, say, experienced a vision of a beautiful and loving goddess caught in the act of stepping from a lotus in order to help sentient beings. And so, Tara would be “born.” In certain states of meditation the border between the unconscious and conscious minds can be crossed more easily, and the mind can begin to see things in a more symbolic way — as in dreaming but with a greater degree of mindfulness than is found in normal daily life.

    Bodhisattvas may then be irruptions into waking consciousness of symbolic representations of meditation experiences. It is not unknown for Buddhas and bodhisattvas who appear in this way to even give teachings. Some Mahayana sutras may have started in this way.

    Meditators who had such visionary experiences may have encouraged others to meditate upon the images that had spontaneously arisen, and so the tradition of sadhana, or the visualization of Buddhist deities, may have arisen.”

    I also understand that a lot of Mahayana Sutras were written by the learned Buddhists in the past and when they wrote the Sutras according to what they perceived during meditation or dreaming, how should we look at these Sutras?
    It is so true that ,”It’s simply something that the unenlightened mind cannot grasp, and we apparently shouldn’t even try to think about such matters. The proper sphere for inquiry in this life is how suffering arises and what we need to do to remove suffering. ” We are not even able to fathom the status of Arhat. We should stop the arguments between Mahayana and Hinayana Buddhism and put more time on studying Sutras from both.
    Next Page

    Reply
    • It’s possible that the Mahayana criticism of the Arhat was based on people historically claiming to be Arhats because they had intellectual understanding of the Dharma but no genuine insight or compassion. The Arhat in the early Buddhist tradition (I won’t call them “Hinayana” because that’s a deliberately insulting term) was certainly seen as embodying compassion as well as wisdom. There was nothing selfish about being an Arhat!

      I agree entirely that the arguments about which is “best” should stop. We need to look at what’s useful in all Buddhist traditions.

      Reply
  • Bodhipaksa, thank you for your response.

    When I state the term of Hinayana Buddhism, I have no intention or meaning of contempt. Please excuse my ignorance. I thought Hinayana means Theravada.
    Bodhipaksa, I would like to have your opinion on how to look at the Mahayana Sutras. (please refer to the last comment I posted.)

    Thanks,
    Vera

    Reply
    • Hi, Vera.

      The Mahayana came up with the term Hinayana (literally “inferior vehicle”) as a kind of political ploy to describe not just the Theravada but all the other early schools of Buddhism. So Theravada and “Hinayana” aren’t synonyms.

      I love a lot of the Mahayana Sutras and take inspiration from them. I think that they were composed by people with genuine spiritual insight at a time when the Theravada and other early schools had largely slipped into scholasticism. Some of the key terms of the Mahayana, like “shunyata” are found in the early scriptures, but you get a sense that the people passing those teachings along didn’t really understand them. The Mahayana seemed to have kept alive an understanding of what the Buddha meant by that term.

      They chose to present their explication of those teachings as scriptures rather than commentaries. There’s a sort of dishonesty implicit in that, unless you consider the possibility of the teachings having emerged in visionary states, in which case the “composers” of the Mahayana sutras might well have believed that they were passing on teachings that mystically came from the Buddha. There’s plenty of this is the Pali canon, by the way. There are many suttas where a disciple was pondering a question, and the Buddha appeared to them in a vision and gave them a teaching. I take this to mean that a deeper level of intuitive insight arose in them, but was presented in the Buddha’s voice. I think we’ve all had that experience: when we’re very familiar with a teacher’s mode of presentation, we can sometimes “hear” them answering a question that’s in our mind. It’s not a psychic transmission, but our own wisdom appearing in the teacher’s guise.

      I hope this helps!

      Reply
  • Bodhipaksa,

    Thank you so much for your insight.

    Vea

    Reply

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