The Buddha-Tathāgatas, while in the stages of Bodhisattva-hood, exercised great compassion, practiced pāramitās [perfections of virtue], 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.
—The Awakening of Faith in the Mahayana, trans. by Prof Yoshito Hakeda
The Bodhisattva or “seeker of Enlightenment” is the epitome of Mahayana Buddhism. Originally, the Bodhisattva only referred to the historical Shakyamuni Buddha in his past lives, however, by the time of Mahayana Buddhism, the role of the bodhisattva became more prominent, and was thought to be the only true path to Enlightenment and Buddhahood.
The Bodhisattva represents a natural progression in the Buddhist path from a mundane person, to a fully-awakened Buddha. Traditionally the progression, which could take many lifetimes, looked something like this:
|Mundane living beings||You, me, animals, etc.|
|Stream-enterer||One who gains confidence in the Dharma|
|Monk or Nun||One who is dedicated to the Dharma full-time|
|Arhat||“Noble One”, who has attained awakening|
|Bodhisattva||“Seeker of full Enlightenment”|
|Buddha||Fully awakened one, fully liberated (nirvana)|
In the course of the Buddhist path, as one attains greater insight into the nature of all things, and develops greater discipline and practice, one develops greater empathy and they turn outward to benefit others.
The three basic criteria for a Bodhisattva traditionally are:
- Aspiration for awakening (i.e. Buddhahood) no matter how long it takes.
- Deep-seated desire to liberate and save others even if it delays one’s own progress. This often takes the form of a series of vows.
- Commitment to perfecting oneself through the Six Perfections (Six Paramitas).
Again, to emphasize, the Bodhisattva path is thought to take a long time, even kalpas (eons), so it is a slow, gradual progress. However, once one has perfected the virtues, and fulfills one’s insight, one gains the insight necessary to achieve Enlightenment, reach the state of Nirvana (unbinding) and become a Buddha.