Bodhisattvas: The Buddhas-to-Be
In my last post, I talked about the different stages of awakening culminating in the realization of arahantship. Therefore, this post will be discussing the bodhisattva idea in Buddhism. Prior to his enlightenment, Shakyamuni Buddha often referred to himself as an “unawakened bodhisatta”. The Jataka Tales also recount stories of the previous lives of Shakyamuni Buddha as a bodhisattva. Therefore, the bodhisattva (Pali: bodhisatta) basically refers to a “Buddha-to-be”, as it literally means “perfect wisdom/enlightenment (bodhi) truth (sattva)”. There are currently some well known bodhisattvas like Maitreya (who will be the next Sammasam Buddha), and especially in Mahayana such as Guan Yin, Ksitigarbha, Manjusri, etc.
The Bodhisattva is primarily motivated by bodhicitta (literally ” awakening mind”) which is the wish to attain Buddhahood in order to benefit all sentient beings who are trapped in Samsara (cyclic existence). There are two types of bodhicitta. They are aspiring or relative bodhicitta in which the practitioner works to free all beings from bondage and suffering, and engaging or absolute bodhicitta in which the practitioner clearly sees that the bondage and suffering are illusory and never existed in the first place.
Therefore, in Mahayana, the bodhisattva is compassionately dedicated to assisting all sentient beings in achieving complete Buddhahood – the highest state of enlightenment. This means that the bodhisattva doesn’t practice only for their own enlightenment, but rather for the enlightenment of all. Out of compassion, the bodhisattva remains in this world of ignorance, illusions/delusions, sickness, and death while experiencing what everyone one else experiences until all sentient beings are liberated. In short, the bodhisattva has delayed their entrance to Nirvana (liberation) and thus remain in Samsara (the cycle of life and death) by taking the Bodhisattva Vow to achieve enlightenment as quickly as possible so that they can teach Dharma until all have awakened to enlightenment and can enter Nirvana. The Bodhisattva Vow is:
Ordinary-beings are innumerable, I vow to liberate them all
Defilements are endless, I vow to eliminate them all
Buddha’s teachings are unlimited, I vow to learn them all
The ways of enlightenment are supreme, I vow to achieve them all
Also, in Mahayana, the bodhisatta progresses through ten stages, or bhumis. Bhumi literally means “ground” or “foundation”, as each bhumi represents a level of attainment which also serves as the basis for the next one. Also, a bodhisattva can choose either of three paths to help sentient beings in the process of achieving Buddhahood. They are King-like Bodhisattva, or 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 and Shantideva (among others) are believed to fall under the latter category.
Kosho Uchiyama explains the Mahayana view in What is a Bodhisattva? as:
“A bodhisattva is an ordinary person who takes up a course in his or her life that moves in the direction of buddha. You’re a bodhisattva, I’m a bodhisattva; actually, anyone who directs their attention, their life, to practicing the way of life of a buddha is a bodhisattva. We read about Kannon Bosatsu (Avalokiteshvara Bodhisattva) or Monju Bosatsu (Manjushri Bodhisattva), and these are great bodhisattvas, but we, too, have to have confidence or faith that we are also bodhisattvas.”
Yet, Ven. Ajahn Chah once commented, “Do not be a bodhisattva, do not be an arahant, do not be anything at all. If you are a bodhisattva, you will suffer, if you are an arahant, you will suffer, if you are anything at all, you will suffer.” However, this has more to do with not getting caught up in self-identity and views.