Seriously, what is a Bodhisattva? Part One

One Buddhist concept that has often frustrated me, especially in my early years was the bodhisattva. Mahayana Buddhism, that is Buddhism from Tibet to Japan (and now overseas), talks about bodhisattvas a lot, but it seems everyone have a different idea what a bodhisattva is. Bodhisattvas are revered in Mahayana Buddhism but people often struggle to explain what they are.

So, I decided to research this and hopefully provide a more comprehensive answer. This is still one man’s explanation, so take it with a grain of salt, but I did use the following sources:

  • Edward Conze – Buddhist Thought in India (ISBN 0472061291)
  • Robert E. Buswell Jr., Donald S. Lopez Jr. – Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism (ISBN: 0691157863)
  • Access to Insight – one of the best sources on Theravada Buddhism, and a great Buddhist resource in general.
  • Tagawa Shun’ei, translation by Charles Muller – Living Yogacara (ISBN: 0861715896)
  • Asvaghosha, translation by Yoshito S. Hakeda – The Awakening of Faith (ISBN: 0231030258)

And the following sutras (or collections of sutras) were used:

  • The Flower Ornament Scripture (Flower Garland Sutra) – translation by Thomas Cleary (ISBN: 9780877739401)
  • The Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha – Translated by Bhikkhu Ñāṇamoli and Bhikkhu Bodhi (ISBN: 086171072X)
  • The Sutra of the Golden Light – Translated by the Foundation for the Preservation of the Mahayana Tradition.
  • The Three Pure Land Sutras – translation by Hisao Ingaki and the Numata Center for Translation and Research (ISBN: 1886439184)
  • Sutra of the Medicina Buddha – translation by Minh Thanh and P.D. Leigh, and the Sutra Translation Committee of United States and Canada
  • The Sutra of Bodhisattva Ksitigarbha’s Fundamental Vows – translation by Upasaka Tao-tsi Shih, and the Sutra Translation Committee of United States and Canada
  • The Threefold Lotus Sutra – translation by Bunno Kato, Yoshiro Tamura and Kojiro Miyasaka (ISBN: 4333002087)

The Early Teachings

In simplest terms a bodhisattva in Sanskrit, or bodhisatta in Pāli, means a “seeker of enlightnment”.

In the earliest scriptures, the Buddha would talk to his disciples about his past lives as a bodhisattva, such as this sutra in the Pali Canon (MN26 – Ariyapariyesanā, “Noble Search”):

“Bhikkhus [monks], before my enlightenment, when I was still only an unenlightened Bodhisatta, I too, being myself subject to birth, sought what was also subject to birth; being myself subject to aging, sickness, death, sorrow, and defilement, I sought what was also subject to aging, sickness, death, sorrow and defilement….”

And in another sutra in the Pali Canon (MN123 – Acchariya-abbhūta Sutta, “Wonderful and Marvelous”):

Ananda: “I heard and learned this from the Blessed One’s own lips ‘For the whole of his life-span the Bodhisatta remained in the Tusita heaven.’….”

In this context, the term bodhisattva mainly referred to the past lives of the historical Buddha, Shakyamuni. In his past lives, when he dwelt in the Tusita heaven and then was born as a prince in India, he was on the cusp of Enlightenment, and only needed that final push. Further, early texts such as the Jatakas Tales, also imply that this Enlightenment was actually the culmination of many previous lifetimes of searching, effort, and noble deeds. Thus the path of the Bodhisatta who became the historical Buddha was thought to imply an extraordinary, lengthy journey across many lives culminating in final enlightenment.

Later Teachings

In later generations, the role of the Bodhisattva expanded beyond the historical Buddha, and appears more and more often in Buddhist literature. However, it is not the case though that Bodhisattvas are found in Mahayana Buddhism only though. For an excellent treatment of the subject, I highly recommend reading this article by Bhikkhu Bodhi.1 It was just that the path seemed too remote and arduous for most disciples, especially since the presence of a living Buddha allowed them to reach enlightenment much more quickly as Śrāvaka or “hearer-disciple”.

Anyway, in the classic Buddhist model, the historical Buddha was something like a “first among equals”, in that the quality of enlightenment experienced by Arhats (e.g. “noble ones”) was the same as the Buddha. However, Buddhas were distinguished from Arhats by additional qualities that made them almost suprahuman. A Buddha is one who, among other things, gains insight into the truth at a time when the Dharma is unknown (i.e. no Buddha to teach them), which requires extraordinary spiritual insights and qualities, not to mention their capacity to teach others in such a way that they become enlightened too, and can carry the Dharma onward for generations. This was the contrast between a Buddha and a Śrāvaka.

Over time, the Buddhist community began to explore more and more the notion of becoming a Buddha too (e.g. Buddhahood), and thus the role of the Bodhisattva became increasingly important. As a result, the status of a bodhisattva was elevated over arhats, such that arhats were considered noble, but somewhat inferior to Buddhas and Bodhisattvas.

How Do Arhats, Bodhisattvas and Buddhas relate?

There were a number of models to explain how the relationship. For example in the influential Yogacara school of Mahayana Buddhism (of which the Hossō school in Japan is one of the last remnants) taught that different beings had different inherent natures that would incline them toward the Buddhist path of an arhat, a bodhisattva (and thus a Buddha), indeterminate or even those whom enlightenment was impossible.

However, the most popular model in Mahayana Buddhism became the Ekayāna or “One-Vehicle” model. This was popularized by the Lotus Sutra which taught that all disciples would inevitably follow the same path, even if they appeared different at first. Each path (arhat, bodhisattva, etc) was actually part of the same natural progression. In the famous parable in Chapter Three where the father says to his children in the burning house:

“Such a variety of goat carts, deer carts, and bullock carts is now outside the gate to play with. All of you must come quickly out of this burning house, and I will give you whatever you want.”

and when they come outside:

Then the elder gives to each of his children equally a great cart, lofty and spacious, adorned with all the precious things…

This parable, the Buddha explains, is meant to show that although followers might seem to be following different trajectories, ultimately they all converge on the (Mahayana) Buddhist path and become bodhisattvas and then Buddhas.

Later, starting in the sixth chapter, the Buddha than predicts that his senior monks and nuns, all presumed to be arhats, will eventually become Buddhas. This again emphasizes that the arhat stage is not separate, but a kind of prepartory stage before the “real” Buddhist path begins. Again though, we see that an arhat possesses a noble, but somewhat inferior status to the bodhisattva, and that their enlightenment is somehow incomplete when compared to the enlightenment of a Buddha.

Nevertheless, the arhat is still revered and respected in Mahayana Buddhism. For example, in the Amitabha Sutra, the historical Buddha describes the Pure Land of Amitabha Buddha like so:

Moreover, Śāriputra, he [the Buddha Amitabha] has an innumerable and unlimited number of śrāvaka disciples, all of them arhats, whose number cannot be reckoned by any means. His assembly of bodhisattvas is similarly vast …. Śāriputra, those sentient beings who hear of that land should aspire to be born there. Why? Because they will be able to meet such sages of supreme virtue.

Anyhow, we have talked quite a bit about the history of the bodhisattva, but in part two we’ll discuss how the sutras describe and define a bodhisattva, and how they relate to the buddhas. In part three, we’ll talk about how this applies to contemporary Buddhism. Stay tuned!

1 Please repeat after me: Bodhisattvas are not found in Mahayana Buddhism only. Many elements of the bodhisattva that we do see in Mahayana Buddhism have their roots in the earlier Mahāsāṃghika school of early Buddhism, which Mahayana drew many ideas and inspirations from. However, the Mahayana also drew from other schools such as Sarvastivada and Dharmagupta among others.


Author: Doug

A fellow who dwells upon the Pale Blue Dot who spends his days obsessing over things like Buddhism, KPop music, foreign languages, BSD UNIX and science fiction.

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