A Bodhisattva (aka “bodhisatta”) is a person who is committed to attaining enlightenment (becoming a Buddha) in order to help all sentient beings.

The historical Buddha, Sakyamuni Buddha (aka Prince Siddhartha Gautama), was a Bodhisattva many times (classically told in the Jataka tales). He would often talk about when he “was an unenlightened bodhisatta” in his disclosures.

Where did the name come from?

The term originally came from India where “Bodhi” means “awakened” or “enlightened”, and “sattva” means “sentient being”.

Who can be a Bodhisattva?

Anyone (regardless of status, ordination, etc.) can follow the Bodhisattva path and work towards becoming a Bodhisattva, as long as they want to attain “bodhicitta”.  Bodhicitta literally means “enlightened mind” which means the mind strives towards awakening and compassion for all sentient beings. Nobody is ‘born’ a Bodhisattva, so all are able to follow this path if they are committed to it.

What is the Bodhisattva Path?

The main goal of the Bodhisattva path is to attain Buddhahood and liberate all sentient beings through the practice of the six perfections.  The six perfections are:  1) giving and charity, 2) upholding precepts, 3) patience, 4) diligence,  5) meditation, and 6) prajna-wisdom.

Mahayana Buddhism and Bodhisattvas

In Mahayana Buddhism, the “Bodhisattva path” is the ideal for all practitioners to follow.  By following the Bodhisattva path, they not only help others along the way, but also help themselves develop towards attaining enlightenment.

But a Bodhisattva is not just a Mahayana concept:

There is a wide-spread belief, particularly in the West, that the ideal of the Theravada, which they conveniently identify with Hinayana, is to become an Arahant while that of the Mahayana is to become a Bodhisattva and finally to attain the state of a Buddha. It must be categorically stated that this is incorrect. This idea was spread by some early Orientalists at a time when Buddhist studies were beginning in the West, and the others who followed them accepted it without taking the trouble to go into the problem by examining the texts and living traditions in Buddhist countries. But the fact is that both the Theravada and the Mahayana unanimously accept the Bodhisattva ideal as the highest.   ~ Walpola Rahula, Bodhisattva Ideal in Buddhism

Modern Bodhisattvas

Humanistic Buddhism (part of Mahayana) reinforces the Bodhisattva path for its followers to help other sentient beings in there here and now (our world).

As Ven. Master Hsing Yun said:  The term bodhisattva is commonly used today to denote people with the vow and intent to benefit the general public.  As the sutras say, “To become accomplished in Buddhist practice, one should first be of service to the public, like horses and steers.” This shows the determination and compassion that is necessary for a bodhisattva.  On the path to attaining Buddhahood, it is initially necessary to nurture these bodhisattva qualities by cherishing affinites with people.

The Four Universal Vows

The Four Universal Vows (also known as the Mahayana Vows) show what a Bodhisattva with a bodhicitta mind practice:

  1. Since the suffering of sentient beings is immense, a Bodhisattva vows to help liberate limitless sentient beings from their suffering.
  2. Since suffering is accumulated through unwholeseome karma, a Bodhisattva vows to help sentient beings sever the endless flow of afflictions.
  3. In order to guide sentient beings toward the path of cultivation, a Bodhisattva vows to learn the infinite Dharma.
  4. In order to help sentient beings realize the fruit of cultivation, a Bodhisattva vows to attain supreme Buddhahood.

Further Reading

The book “Infinite Compassion, Endless Wisdom – The Practice of the Bodhisattva Path” by Ven. Master Hising Yun is a great book to not only learn more about Bodhisattva, but how to follow the path yourself!