The Bodhisattva Concept
Bodhi Leaves No: 157
Copyright Kandy, Buddhist Publication Society, (2002)
BPS Online Edition © (2006)
Digital Transcription Source: Buddhist Publication Society
For free distribution. This work may be republished, reformatted, reprinted and redistributed in any medium. However, any such republication and redistribution is to be made available to the public on a free and unrestricted basis and translations and other derivative works are to be clearly marked as such.
THE BODHISATTVA CONCEPT
BODHISATTVA (Pali: Bodhisatta) is a being who aspires for Bodhi or Enlightenment. The concept of bodhisattva (meaning Buddha-to-be) is one of the most important concepts in Buddhism. Etymologically the term can be separated into two parts, <
In original Pali Buddhism, the term bodhisatta is used more or less exclusively to designate Gautama Buddha prior to his enlightenment.
The concept of bodhisattva, along with that of Buddha and of the < future son would be either a world-ruler (< 38).
The well-known Pali stanza < <Sammaasambodhi
The oldest Theravaada tradition, as contained, for example, in the Mahaapadaana Suttanta<
However, these enumerations by no means imply that they are exhaustive. In the Mahaapadaana Suttanta the Buddha starts the story of the six Buddhas merely by saying that ninety-one <
When prince Siddhaartha attained Enlightenment he did so as a human being and lived and passed away as such. As mentioned earlier, he himself admitted that he was a Buddha and not a <
In order to understand who a bodhisattva is, it would be useful to explain briefly who a Buddha is. The Buddha-concept in Theravaada Buddhism is not a personality cult; neither is the Buddha an object of glorified devotion. He is neither a theoretical metaphysician nor a materialist. He is not a religious teacher who demands unquestioned loyalty like a Messiah. He is a man who has perfected himself by realising his `self' to the highest degree possible for man. Only a man can become a Buddha.
There may be other supernatural beings inhabiting perhaps other planets in a given solar system. But they are not capable of becoming fully enlightened unless there are planets similar to our own where humans live. Even if such beings are leading happier lives in their non-human spheres, still they are subject to the laws of change and evolution (<
A Buddha is a human being who has realised that there is a happier state than this world of conditioned phenomena. After a persevering mental struggle, he realises this unconditioned state (<
Strictly speaking, the life of the Buddha commenced only fom the time of his enlightenment and his life before this event was that of the bodhisattva. The Buddha himself used the term in this sense and, it is more than probable that he occasionally referred to his previous existences in his discourses to the people in order to elucidate a particular doctrinal point. The Jaatakas found in the < Mahaagovinda Sutta (D. II, pp.220 ff.), the Mahaasudassana Sutta<
The division of Schools which began at the second Council with the separation of the Mahaasaa"nghikas also made its contribution to the development of the bodhisattva cult in later literature as it marked the remote beginnings of Mahaayaana Buddhism.
The earliest use of the term bodhisattva in literature seems to be when the Buddha refers to the days prior to his enlightenment, in such contexts as "in the days before my enlightenment" or "when as yet I was only a bodhisattva" (M. 1, pp. 114, 163; M.<
In the Buddhava.msa which belongs to the Khuddaka-nikaaya of the Pali Canon, are found the life-stories of twenty-five Buddhas of whom Gautama was the last. The names by which he was known during his " apprenticeship" as a bodhisattva under each of the twenty-four Buddhas, are also given. The chronicle describes the ten <
Since the Buddha's teaching is not fatalistic but a course of mental training implying constant change until the realisation of the unconditioned state of Nirvaa.na, everyone has the ability not merely to attain release but also to be authoritative teachers (i.e. perfect Buddhas) as well. People with lesser ability may rest content with mere arhantship or by becoming Pratyeka Buddhas.
Just as the Theravaadins in course of time began to lay greater stress on intellectual development than on religious practice and realisation, those who advocated the bodhisattva ideal, as a protest against the theoretical teaching of the Theravaadins, went to the other extreme of making it too practical by making the bodhisattva somewhat like a saviour as exemplified by Avalokitesvara. Everyone tries to be a Buddha to save others while passively believing in the saving grace of the bodhisattvas. The pendulum swung from one extreme to the other. Gautama Buddha's teaching of practical psychological ethics and that of the avoidance of extremes was falling into oblivion.
In this evolution of thought the altruistic motives which had become more or less mere intellectual concepts among the Theravaadins began to be greatly emphasised. As a result, individual responsibility, on which the Buddha has laid great stress, began to be overlooked.This tendency was developed to its extreme, specially in the Far East,the results of which are to be seen in the concept of Buddha Amitaabha and of the Bodhisattva Avalokite"svara as embodiments of compassion, an all-merciful divine father, whose sole aim is to deliver all living beings from suffering.
This development was the natural result of the intrinsic human nature which seeks for external proctection and consolation either in a male or a female divinity. It is an extension of the father-mother concept and can be found in any developed religious system. But Gautama Buddha firmly believed that Buddhas are only pathfinders and teachers who, out of compassion for all living beings, preach the doctrine of deliverance which has to be individually realised by the wise. As such, the idea of salvation, except through the teaching which every person has to follow individually, is foreign to him. This is why the Buddha's teaching is regarded as too demanding in practice.
It was shown earlier how, by the application of the doctrines of karma and rebirth, the life of the bodhisattva was extended backwards to an innumerable number of existences. The doctrine of karma implies that intellectual and moral greatness cannot be produced without great effort. The necessary training and discipline cannot be practised to perfection in a single life-time. However, this did not mean that enlightemnent could not be obtained in a given time. On the contrary, it was often asserted that such attainment is possible in this very life < attempt such achievement.
It is of interest to see how the concept of the bodhisattva has developed down the ages. The historical facts about the Buddha are not difficult to determine. He began his life as Siddhaartha, son of a local rajah in north India in the 6th century B.C. At first he quite enjoyed sensual pleasures but his attitude to such self-indulgence was quite different from that of the ordinary man. Even while enjoying pleasure, he intuitively felt that true and lasting happiness could never be found by giving into each and every sensual attraction. That would lead to moral and intellectual ruin, resulting in becoming subject to more and more suffering. He was sure of this.
He got married and begot a son and still he felt that that was not the ultimate fulfilment of human life. His inner urge could not stop at anything short of full and complete self-realisation, not only for his own private release, but also for the good of humanity as a whole. This made him think. First he took to a self-mortifying life, and when that failed, he, after a severe mental struggle, achieved perfection by becoming a Buddha and then a teacher.
During the rest of his career of forty-five years, he gave his findings to the rest of humanity by oral preaching (<
There is no reason to doubt these simple facts of history. But, in course of time, these facts became mixed up with much legend and the Buddha's teaching became more or less a devotional cult. Its rationalistic and practical nature began to go under-ground. The higher life (<
For the artist, literary as well as plastic, the Buddha became an object of study and devotion. He was analysed from every possible angle and various theories regarding his career were evolved as for instance, when the original triple classification (of the path of release) <
A bodhisattva's career should start with his making a resolution before a Buddha (<
Even for the <
There are eighteen inauspicious states into which a bodhisattva is not born. He is never born blind, deaf, insane, crippled, among savages, as a slave or as a heretic. He never changes his sex, is never guilty of the five heinous crimes which become immediately effective (<
According to J.<
The Buddha, before whom the <
Originally, there seem to have been only six <
The length of a bodhisattva's career varies: some practise the <
An important event in the bodhisattva's life that occurs when he spends his penultimate life in the Tusita heaven is coming to the conclusion that he should leave the Tusita heaven and be reborn as a man. As this moment arrives, there is much excitement (<
All the <
The conception of the bodhisattva is attended by various miracles. Both in Pali and Sanskrit sources an attempt is made to show that at the actual moment of conception there is no physical union of father and mother. With regard to the general life of a bodhisattva as given in the books, the following account from the Dictionary of Pali proper Names, G.P. Malalasekera< "On the day of his conception, the Bodhisattva's mother takes the vows of fasting and celibacy at the conclusion of a great festival, and when she has retired to rest she dreams that the Four Regent Gods take her with her bed, bathe her in the Anotatta lake, clad her in divine garments and place her in a golden palace surrounded by all kinds of luxury. As she lies there the Bodhisattva in the form of a white elephant enters her womb through her right side. The earth trembles and all the ten thousand world-systems are filled with radiance. Immediately the four Regent Gods assume guard over mother and child.
"Throughout the period of pregnancy, which lasts for ten months exactly, the mother remains free from ailment and sees the child in her womb sitting cross-legged. At the end of the ten months she gives birth to the child, standing in a grove, never indoors. Suddhaavaasa brahmas, free from all passion, first receive the child in a golden net and from them the Four Regent Gods take him on an antelope skin and present him to his mother.
"Though the bodhisattva is born free of the mucous otherwise present at birth, two showers of water one hot, the other cold, fall from the sky and bathe mother and child. The child then takes seven strides to the north, standing firmly on his feet, looks on all sides, and seeing no one anywhere to equal him, announces his supremacy over the whole world and the fact that this is his last birth. Seven days after birth his mother dies. She dies because she must bear no other being.
"The Bodhisattva's last birth is attended by miracles. Soothsayers, being summoned, see on the child's body the thirty-two-marks of a Great Man (<
" Having left the world, the Bodhisattva practises the austerities, the period of such practices varying. ........ On the day the Bodhisattva attains to Buddhahood, he receives a meal of milk-rice <
"Before the enlightenment the Bodhisattva has five great dreams (i) that the world is his couch with the Himaalayaa as his pillow, his left hand resting on the eastern sea, his right on the western and his feet on the southern; (ii) that a blade of <
" The next day the Bodhisattva sits cross-legged on his seat facing the east, determined not to rise till he has attained his goal. The gods of all the worlds assemble to do him honour, but Maara comes with his mighty hosts and the gods flee. All day, the fight continues between Maara and the Bodhisattva; the paaramii alone are present to lend their aid to the Bodhisattva, and when the moment comes, the goddess of the earth bears witness to his great sacrifices, while Maara and his armies retire discomfited at the hour of sunset, the gods then returning and singing a paean of victory.
"Meanwhile the bodhisattva spends the night in deep concentration; during the first watch he acquires knowlegde of past lives, during the second watch he develops the divine eye, while during the last watch he ponders over and comprehends the Paticcasamuppaada doctrine. Backwards and forwards his mind travels over the chain of causation and twelve times the earth trembles. With sunrise, omniscience dawns on him, and he becomes the Supremely Awakened Buddha, uttering his <
If the bodhisattva ideal of the Mahaayaana be regarded as a protest against the arhant ideal of the Hiinayaana, there is an important fact that needs clarification. This is the charge of selfishness brought against the arhant. In this connection there is much misunderstanding. The charge of selfishness has to be levelled not against the arhants but against those Theravaada monks who have portrayed arhantship as a selfish ideal by their own behaviour and writings and thereby made the higher religious life (<
The Buddha has clearly shown,both by example and precept, the value of working for the welfare of others. The spirit of his teaching is that one should enlighten oneself first and then try to help those that can be helped as clearly expressed in the well-known words of the Buddha when he addressed the first sixty arhants to devote themselves to the service of others (Vin. 1, pp. 19-20). He also discouraged mere philosophy and speculation if it had no practical value.
But, quite in contrast to this noble example of the Teacher, his later followers, instead of following by practice the religious life he discovered and promulgated, began to make mere academic study thereof as an end in itself. They became speculators and philosophers, with very little practice. The Hiinayaana monk became more or less a fossilised antique living in a world of his own.
The protest of the Mahaayaanist was against this fossilisation and resultant indolenee, and not against the arhant ideal as such. The Buddha and the genuine arhants who, after achieving their release helped mankind, have to be absolved of this charge of selfishness. Yet, on the other hand, when the bodhisattva ideal was advocated, the pendulum swung to the other extreme of mere bodhisattva worship. The extreme intellectualism of the Hiinayaana was replaced by the extreme emotionalism of developed Mahaayaana. The true spirit of the Buddha's teaching lies in between, in a harmonious combination of intellect and emotion, of head and heart, of theory and practice. That would be the perfection of character as understood in Buddhism.
The Pali Canon shows little interest either in philosophical speculation or in the personality of the bodhisattvas who are simply treated as " larval forms" of the Buddha. Gautama himself would not have denied the possibility of becoming a Buddha to anyone who is intellectually and morally mature. The significant fact is that it became quite incredible that a superior being such as a Buddha should be suddenly produced in a human family. He was not to be explained as an incarnation. Hence it was quite logical and edifying to treat him as a product of a long evolution of virtue, extending over several existences of good deeds and noble aspirations, culminating in a being superior to both gods and men.
Such a being remains in the Tusita heaven in his penultimate existence biding the appropriate time to be born among men. In this manner the Pali Canon, quite logically, recognises the bodhisattva as a rare type of man appearing at a certain stage in time and space. It leaves the matter at that. But later works like the <
According to the Hiinayaana view, the bodhisattva's penultimate life is spent in the Tusita heaven where he enjoys the power and splendour of any Indian deity. But, as it did not admit more than one Buddha at a time, there was evidently also only one bodhisattva at a time in Tusita. In Mahaayaana, however, the multiplication of not only celestial Buddhas but also of celestial bodhisattvas became such a popular theme that as time went on their numbers became endless.
The bodhisattva ideal, with its more practical attitude to life, emphasises the value of family life. Renunciation of household life never meant running away from life. Nirvaa.na was to be sought not outside <
It is the removal of mental illusion, resulting in a psychological revolution, which makes one free from the trammels of ordinary birth, disease and death. This cannot be achieved by running away from life. The problem has to be solved by facing and overcoming it, by changing the inner self, the mind where lies the cause of the problem. It is a change of attitude and outlook, resulting from the removal of ignorance. Such a person lives in the world, but is not of the world.
If a person can become enlightened after leading a family life, as prince Siddhaartha himself did, he would certainly be a more useful man than a sanctimonious ascetic living in the jungle. And it is this kind of pure social life that the bodhisattva ideal recommends. The ancient emphasis on inward life is given a new application. The godly and efficient layman so envisaged is exemplified in the figure of Vimalakiirti, described in the, < This wealthy householder who was residing at Vai"saalii, lived "only for the sake of the necessary means of saving creatures; abundantly rich, ever careful of the poor, pure in self-discipline, obedient to all precepts, removing all anger by the practice of patience, removing all sloth by the practice of diligence, removing all distractions of mind by intent meditation, removing all ignorance by fullness of wisdom; though he was but a simple layman, yet observing the pure monastic discipline; though living at home, yet never desirous of anything; though possessing a wife and children, always exercising pure virtues; though surrounded by his family, holding aloof from worldly pleasures; though using the jewelled ornaments of the world, yet adorned with spiritual splendour; though eating and drinking, yet enjoying the flavour of the rapture of meditation; though frequenting the gambling house, yet leading the gamblers into the right path; though coming in contact with heresy, yet never letting his true faith be impaired; though having a profound knowledge of worldly learning, yet ever finding pleasure in the things of the spirit as taught by the Buddha; though profiting by all professions, yet far above being absorbed by them; benefitting all beings, going wheresoever he pleases; ever teaching the young and ignorant, when entering the hall of learning; manifesting to all the error of passion when in the hours of debauchery; persuading all to seek the higher things when at the shop of the wine-dealer; preaching the law when among wealthy people; teaching the ks2atriyas patience; removing arrogance when among Brahmans; teaching justice to the great ministers; teaching loyalty and filial piety to the princes; teaching honesty to the
ladies of the court; persuading the masses to cherish virtue."
The bodhisattva concept had its influence in the evolution of kingship in Sri Lanka too. For some time between the fourth and the eleventh centuries A.C., the kings of Sri Lanka began to be regarded not as ordinary human beings but as bodhisattvas. The Jetavanaaraama slab-inscription of Mahinda IV and the Priitidaanaka-ma.n.napa inscription of Nissa.nka Malla are instances where the rulers refer to themselves as bodhisattvas. The Raajataranganii (p.470 and the Nikaayasa.mgrahava, ed. Kumaara.natunga, p.24) also bear evidence to this. Paraakramabaahu II says that he would become a Buddha (Mahaava.msa, ch. 86, stz.7).
Charles Eliot mentions that in China there is a system of admission into the Order consisting of three stages: admission (<
The worship of bodhisattvas needed iconographical representation and this need has been more than fulfilled by the creation of an abundance of bodhisattva images, specially in those countries that accepted Mahaayaana. Buddhist art became the richer through these artistic creations. In the subsequent phases of the bodhisattva-cult these deified personages were given many forms in order to symbolise their multifarious functions. Sometimes they were given many heads and many arms which practice has sometimes led to the creation of such figures as exemplified by the thousand-armed Avalokite"svara from Japan.
— §§§ —
The Buddhist Publication Society
The BPS is an approved charity dedicated to making known the Teaching of the Buddha, which has a vital message for all people.
Founded in 1958, the BPS has published a wide variety of books and booklets covering a great range of topics. Its publications include accurate annotated translations of the Buddha’s discourses, standard reference works, as well as original contemporary expositions of Buddhist thought and practice. These works present Buddhism as it truly is—a dynamic force which has influenced receptive minds for the past 2500 years and is still as relevant today as it was when it first arose.
For more information about the BPS and our publications, please visit our website, or contact:
The Administrative Secretary
Buddhist Publication Society
P.O. Box 61
54 Sangharaja Mawatha
Kandy • Sri Lanka
Web site: http://www.bps.lk
Tel: 0094 81 223 7283 • Fax: 0094 81 222 3679
— §§§ —