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In the Buddhist context, bodhisattva (Sanskrit: बोधिसत्त्व, bodhisattva; Tibetan: jang chub; Pali: बोधिसत्त, bodhisatta; Thai: โพธิสัตว์, phothisat; simplified Chinese: 菩萨; traditional Chinese: 菩薩; pinyin: púsà) means "enlightened (bodhi) existence (sattva)" or 'enlightenment-being' in Sanskrit. Another translation is "Wisdom-Being." The various divisions of Buddhism understand the word bodhisattva in different ways, but especially in Mahayana Buddhism, it mainly refers to a being that compassionately refrains from entering nirvana in order to save others.
- 1 Bodhisattvas in Theravada Buddhism
- 2 Bodhisattvas in Mahayana Buddhism
- 3 Teaching story
- 4 Bodhisattva in popular culture
- 5 See also
- 6 Notes
- 7 References
- 8 External links
Bodhisattvas in Theravada Buddhism
The term Bodhisatta (Pali language) was used by the Buddha in the Pali 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 it is to become fully enlightened. Some of the previous lives of the Buddha as a bodhisattva are featured in the Jataka Tales.
While Maitreya (Pali: Metteya) is mentioned in the Pali Canon, he is not referred to as a bodhisattva, but simply the next fully-awakened Buddha to come into existence long after the current teachings of the Buddha are lost.
In later Theravada literature, the term bodhisatta is fairly frequent in the sense of someone on the path to liberation. The later commentarial tradition 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.
Bodhisattvas in Mahayana Buddhism
Mahayana Buddhism, on the other hand, regards the Bodhisattva as a person who already has a considerable degree of enlightenment and seeks to use their wisdom to help other human beings to become liberated themselves. In this understanding of the word the Bodhisattva is an already wise person who uses skillful means to lead others to see the benefits of virtue and the cultivation of wisdom.
The Mahayana 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. Indelibly entwined with the Bodhisattva Vow is parinamana (Sanskrit; which may be rendered in English as "merit transference").
In Mahayana Buddhism, a bodhisattva is, at least in a sense, one who aspires to become Buddha for the benefit of all sentient beings. In Mahayana Buddhism life in this world is compared to people living in a house that is on fire. They take this world as reality pursuing worldly projects and pleasures without realising that the house is on fire and will soon burn down (the inevitability of death). A Bodhisattva is the one who has determination to free sentient beings from samsara with the cycle of death, rebirth and suffering. This type of mind is known as bodhicitta; Sanskrit for mind of awakening. Bodhisattvas take bodhisattva vows in order to progress on the spiritual path towards buddhahood. According to some East Asian Mahayana sources a bodhisattva can choose either 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 and
- Shepherd-like Bodhisattva - one who aspires to delay buddhahood until all other sentient beings achieve buddhahood. Bodhisattvas like Avalokiteshvara, Shantideva among others are believed to fall in this category.
Tibetan doctrine (like Theravada, for different reasons) recognizes only the first of these, holding that Buddhas remain in the world for ever, in some sense, able to help others, so there is no point in delay. East Asian doctrinal traditions tend to emphasize the second and/or third, the idea of deliberately refraining from becoming a Buddha, perhaps for ever.
Mahayana Buddhist philosophy sometimes poses the concept of the bodhisattva in contrast to that of the Śrāvakabuddha (conventionally referred to as an arhat). An arhat is liberated from samsara (or the cycle of uncontrolled rebirth), but did not choose, in a previous life, to try and save each and every other living being before achieving Buddhahood before passing away into nirvana. (In Theravada terminology, Buddhas are also arahants.) Bodhisattvas, on the other hand vow not to become enlightened until all sentient beings have been saved. Ksitigarbha, for instance, has vowed not to become a Buddha until there is nobody left in hell.
According to many traditions within Mahayana Buddhism, on the way to becoming a Buddha, a bodhisattva proceeds through ten, or sometimes fourteen, stages or bhumi. Below is the list of ten bhumis and their descriptions from 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
- Bhumi 1 the path of insight
- Bhumi 2-7 the path of meditation
- Bhumi 8-10 the path of no more learning
The 10 Bodhisattva Grounds
- Great Joy
- In accomplishing the second bhumi, the bodhisattva is free from the stains of immorality, therefore, this bhumi is named 'Stainless'. The emphasized virtue is moral discipline (śila).
- The third bhumi is named 'Luminous', because, for a bodhisattva who accomplishes this bhumi, the light of Dharma is said to radiate from the bodhisattva for others. The emphasized virtue is patience (kṣanti).
- This bhumi is called 'Radiant', because it is said to be like a radiating light that fully burns that which opposes enlightenment. The emphasized virtue is vigor (virya).
- Very difficult to train
- Bodhisattvas who attain this bhumi 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 virtue is meditative concentration (dhyāna).
- Obviously Transcendent
- Gone afar
- Particular emphasis is on the perfection of skilful means, or upaya-kaushalya, to help others.
- The emphasized virtue is aspiration.
- This, the 'Immovable' bhumi, is the bhumi 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 bhumis, according to Mahayana Buddhism, one attains complete enlightenment and becomes a Buddha.
Some Mahayana traditions in East Asia recognize a much larger number of stages, more than fifty.
Various traditions within Buddhism believe in certain specific bodhisattvas. Some bodhisattvas appear across traditions, but due to language barriers may be seen as separate entities. For example, Tibetan Buddhists believe in Chenrezig, who is Avalokitesvara in India, Guanyin (other spellings: Kwan-yin, Kuan-yin) in China and Korea, Quan Am in Vietnam, and Kannon (formerly spelled and pronounced: Kwannon) in Japan. Jizo or Ti Tsang is another popular bodhisattva in Japan and China (Ksitigarbha in Sanskrit). Jizo is known for aiding those who are lost. His greatest compassionate Vow being: "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."
Two modern bodhisattvas for many are the 14th Dalai Lama and the Karmapa, both considered by many followers of Tibetan Buddhism to be an incarnation of that same bodhisattva Chenrezig, the Bodhisattva of Compassion.
The bodhisattva is a popular subject in Buddhist art.
The place of a bodhisattva's earthly deeds, such as the achievement of enlightenment or the acts of dharma, is known as a bodhimanda, and may be a site of pilgrimage. Many temples and monasteries are famous as bodhimandas; for instance, the island of Putuoshan, located off the coast of Ningbo, is venerated by Chinese Buddhists as the bodhimanda of Avalokitesvara. Perhaps the most famous bodhimanda of all is the bodhi tree under which Shakyamuni achieved buddhahood.
Pollock (2005): p.43) provides a teaching story that evocatively describes the "nature of a Bodhisattva" and mentions 'circumambulation' (Tibetan: skor ba):
The nature of the Bodhisattva is apparent from a teaching story in which three people are walking through a desert. Parched and thirsty, they spy a high wall ahead. They approach and circumnavigate it, but it has no entrance or doorway. One climbs upon the shoulders of the others, looks inside, yells Eureka and jumps inside. The second then climbs up and repeats the actions of the first. The third laboriously climbs the wall without assistance and sees a lush garden inside the wall. It has cooling water, trees, fruit, etc. But, instead of jumping into the garden, the third person jumps back out into the desert and seeks out desert wanderers to tell them about the garden and how to find it. The third person is the Bodhisattva.
Bodhisattva in popular culture
- Zhang Jigang organized and created the now world-famous Thousand Hand Bodhisattva dance, performed by the China Disabled People's Performing Art Troupe.
- Jack Kerouac mentions Bodhisattva in The Dharma Bums several times. In the book, Japhy Ryder (Gary Snyder) tells Ray Smith (Kerouac) that he (Ray) is a "Bodhisattva, a great wise being or great wise angel". Kerouac uses the term several times in the novel, to describe himself and fellow zen Buddhists. In Move Under Ground, where Kerouac is a character, bodhisattva Kilaya accompanies him on his trek to defeat Cthulhu.
- The hip-hop group The Beastie Boys has a song called "Bodhisattva Vow" on their album Ill Communication.
- Ian Astbury's former rock band Holy Barbarians released a song called Bodhisattva from their only album Cream.
See alsoA Chinese wooden Bodhisattva, Jin Dynasty (1115-1234 AD), Shanghai Museum.
- Zhang Jigang (Creator of Thousand Hand Bodhisattva Dance)
- Bodhisattva vows
- List of bodhisattvas
- Karuna ('compassion' in Sanskrit)
- Bodhicharyavatara (A Guide to the Bodhisattva Way of Life)
- Vegetarianism in Buddhism
- Buddhist Ceremonies
- ^ Coomaraswamy, Ananda (1975). Buddha and the Gospel of Buddhism. Boston: University Books, Inc., 225.
- ^ A simile from the Lotus Sutra
- ^ Pollock, Neal (2005). Practices Supporting Dzogchen: The Great Perfection of Tibetan Buddhism. Source:  (accessed: January 8, 2008)
- Gampopa; The Jewel Ornament of Liberation; Snow Lion Publications; ISBN 1-55939-092-1
- White, Kenneth R.; The Role of Bodhicitta in Buddhist Enlightenment: Including a Translation into English of Bodhicitta-sastra, Benkemmitsu-nikyoron, and Sammaya-kaijo; The Edwin Mellen Press, 2005; ISBN 0-7734-5985-5
- Lampert, K.; Traditions of Compassion: From Religious Duty to Social Activism. Palgrave-Macmillan; ISBN 1-4039-8527-8
- Buddhanet.net tstang text
External linksWikimedia Commons has media related to: Bodhisattvas
- The Bodhisattva Vows as practiced in Tibetan Buddhism
- The group of Eight Great Bodhisattvas at Candi Mendut
- Thousand-hand Bodhisattva Dance
- The Thirty-Seven (37) Practices of Bodhisattvas, all-in-one page with memory aids & collection of different versions/commentaries (PDF & MSWord)
- What A Bodhisattva Does: Thirty-Seven Practices by Ngulchu Thogme with slide show format, useful for auto-demo / stands.
- The 2 Bodhisattva vows
- Access to Insight Library: Bodhi's Wheel409
- An interesting historical perspective on the origins of Bodhisattva and Arahants
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