Seriously, what is a Bodhisattva? Part Two

In part one, we talked about the evolution of the “bodhisattva” from the original meaning to the broader definition found in Mahayana Buddhism, that is Buddhism from Tibet through China to Korea and Japan. In this post, we’ll explore how Mahayana Buddhism defines a bodhisattva through the sutras and other crucial writings.

To summarize from part one: a bodhisattva is one who seeks achieve full Buddhahood, in order to liberate others from the aimless wandering of Samsara, and the endless frustrations it brings.

As the 10th century text, the Awakening of Faith in the Mahayana1 succinctly explains:

The Buddha-Tathāgatas, while in the stages of Bodhisattva-hood, exercised great compassion, practiced pāramitās, and accepted and transformed sentient beings. They took great vows, desiring to liberate all sentient beings through countless aeons until the end of future time, for they regarded all sentient beings as they regarded themselves. (pg. 67, trans. Yoshito Hakeda)

Let’s take a look at each one of these traits:

The Bodhi Mind

As stated above, the “bodhi mind” is what marks the turning point in one’s path as a Buddhist away from a self-centered practice toward liberation into aspiration to rescue all beings and become an enlightened Buddha. As the Sutra of the Ten Stages (chapter 26 of the Flower Garland Sutra) explains:

“Now then, in beings who have well-developed roots of goodness, who have done their tasks well, who have accumulated provisions for the Path, who have attended buddhas in the world, who have consolidated pure practices, who are in the care of spiritual friends, who have thoroughly purified their intentions, who have great determination, who are endowed with supreme zeal, and who actualize pity and compassion, the aspiration for enlightenment is aroused….for the salvation of all beings, for the purification of great mercy and compassion, for the attainment of knowledge of all in the ten directions, for the unobstructed purification of all buddha-lands, for awareness of past, present, and future in a single instant, and for expertise in turning the wheel of the great Teaching [the Dharma]. (pg. 703, Cleary)

Thus, the awakening of the Bodhi Mind isn’t something a person decides so much, as a kind of maturation of one’s progress along the path. In the Lotus Sutra starting in chapter five, the Buddha’s chief disciples including Shariputra and Maha-kashyapa have a change of heart and resolved to achieve full buddhahood. Thus they are examples of disciples who have crossed the threshold from being a noble disciple or arhat, to the Bodhisattva path.

Fulfillment of the Six Perfections

The six perfections, or pāramitās in Sanskrit, are six virtues that a bodhisattva must master to become a Buddha. For example in the first chapter of the Lotus Sutra, it states:

For the sake of the bodhisattvas he [the Buddha, Sun Moon Bright] responded by expounding the six paramitas, causing them to gain supreme perfect enlightenment and to acquire the wisdom that embraces all species.

The list, in summary is:

  • generosity
  • moral conduct
  • patience/forbearance
  • effort
  • contemplation
  • wisdom

Here, the idea is more than just being generous and living a clean life; it implies total commitment. Even when one is normally acting generous, typically there is a trace of selfish intent behind it, or one’s ego relishes in one’s own accomplishments in moral conduct. Therefore, while this kind of generosity or moral conduct is good, and encouraged for Buddhists, it is not the “complete”. One has not mastered these virtues. As Professor Conze explains:

When giving, for instance, one [who has perfected the virtue of generosity] gives without grasping at any ideas concerning the gift, its recipient, or the reward which may accrue to oneself. Likewise one is patient without any idea of patience, or of oneself as being patient, or of the one who gives an opportunity to be patient. (pg. 215, Buddhist Thought in India)

In the Sutra of the Ten Stages, which is chapter 26 of the Flower Garland Sutra, the stages that a bodhisattva accomplishes are called bhūmi (“grounds”) in Sanskrit. Professor Conze points out in Buddhist Thought in India how the first six stages are described in very elaborate terms similar to the six perfections, plus four more:

  1. Joy – Generosity
  2. Purity – Moral Conduct
  3. Refulgence – Patience/forbearance
  4. Blazing – Effort
  5. Difficult to Conquer – Contemplation
  6. Presence – Wisdom
  7. Far-Going – Skillful Means
  8. Immovable – Resolution
  9. Good Mind – Spiritual Powers
  10. Cloud of Teaching – Knowledge/Teaching of the Buddhas

In either case though, the perfection of even one virtue, let alone all of them, is implied to take eons. Along the way, the bodhisattva accumulates countless, overwhelming good merit while assisting and teaching the Dharma to others people, but the actual completion of one stage to the next (i.e. completing one virtue, moving onto the next) is described as VERY long: three asaṃkhyeya kalpas, or three massive eons. In a literal interpretation, this would take trillions of years of time.2

This is why later Buddhist sects, particularly the esoteric schools, tried to tackle this issue by finding a shorter path. Also, as the Awakening of Faith points out, the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas often try to help people along the way too:

…for the sake of weak-willed men, they [the Bodhisattvas] show how to attain perfect enlightenment quickly by skipping over the stages [of the Bodhisattva]. And sometimes, for the sake of indolent men, they say that men may attain enlightenment at the end of numberless aeons (pg. 87, trans Yoshito Hakeda)

Thus, how long or how short the Bodhisattva Path takes may depend on the individual, as well as on the grace of the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas.

Vows to Save All Beings

Probably the most widely-known feature of the bodhisattva is their determination to assist all beings. As the Golden Light Sutra epitomizes:

“Until I am capable of freeing them all
From countless oceans of suffering,
For ten million eons I shall strive
For the sake of even one sentient being.” (trans. FPMT)

Some of the most well-known Bodhisattvas in traditional Buddhism are paragons of this sentiment to help others. For example, Ksitigarbha Bodhisattva (a.k.a. “Jizō”), made the following vow in the Earth-store Bodhisattva Sutra:

The Brahman girl [Ksitigarbha] awoke as from a dream. She realized the situation and then made a great vow in front of the stupa and image of the ENLIGHTENMENT-FLOWER-SERENITY-SELF-SOVEREIGNTY-KING TATHAGATA: `May I, through all future kalpas [aeons], provide extensive expediencies for the deliverance and liberation of all sinful, suffering beings.`

Later, Shakyamuni Buddha entrusts Ksitigarbha Bodhisattva with the care and salvation of all sentient beings until the coming of the next Buddha: Maitreya.

Further, well-known Buddhas such as the Medicine Buddha and Amitabha Buddha, the Buddha of Infinite Light, made great vows to assist others during their stage as a Bodhisattva. In the Medicine Buddha Sutra is the following quote:

Manjushri, when the World-Honored Medicine Buddha was treading the Bodhisattva path, he solemnly made Twelve Great Vows to grant sentient beings whatever they desired.

These vows included not just material things like health and goods, but also confidence in the Dharma, strength to maintain the precepts, and encouragement to seek rebirth in Amitabha’s Pure Land.

Similarly, when Amitabha Buddha was a Bodhisattva, he made 48 vows before a Buddha named Lokesvararaja to create a refuge for all beings (i.e. the Pure Land), and to allow beings to be reborn there even if they merely uttered his name, as described in the Immeasurable Life Sutra:

I have made vows, unrivaled in all the world;
I will certainly reach the unsurpassed Way.
If these vows should not be fulfilled,
May I not attain perfect Enlightenment.

If I should not become a great benefactor
In lives to come for immeasurable kalpas
To save the poor and the afflicted everywhere,
May I not attain perfect Enlightenment. (trans. Inagaki)

Shakyamuni Buddha then explains to Ananda that Amitabha Buddha fulfilled his vows 10 eons (kalpas) ago, and thus the Pure Land was established as a refuge for all beings.

In Conclusion

As we can see from traditional Mahayana Buddhist literature, the story of Shakyamuni Buddha’s long quest for enlightenment became the archetypal story behind many other Buddhist figures. Whether Amitabha Buddha really did exist 10 kalpas ago or not is less important than the repeated themes found among all bodhisattvas, including Shakyamuni. These are the quest for enlightenment, the resolution to help others along the way, and the perfection of Buddhist virtues.

In part three, we’ll explore the implications of all this in contemporary Buddhism. Thanks for reading!

1 The Awakening of Faith is probably the best example of a pre-modern “text-book” on Mahayana Buddhism. While it reflects mid-to-late Mahayana Thought, and is likely of Chinese, not Indian origin, it does a great job synthesizing various concepts in Mahayana Buddhism into a more straightforward, succinct text. Sadly, the text is not well known in modern Buddhism, and few translations exist. Hakeda’s translation is the best, in my humble opinion.

2 The Known Universe is about 15 billion years if that gives you any idea of the scale. Granted, ancient Indians were not aware of modern astronomy, but clearly they wanted to convey a strong sense of scale in there undertaking of the Bodhisattva Path.


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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