(a version of this article originally appeared on Patheos)
The first time I heard someone refer to himself as a Bodhisattva I thought it was weird.
Okay, I still think it’s weird. But I thought of it as inappropriate or wrong. I thought it was like a Christian referring to themselves as a Saint, or a pagan referring to themselves as a Goddess. When I thought of Bodhisattvas I thought of figures like Manjushri and Kuan Yin, cosmic sort of beings. Examples for us to follow, unrealistic ideals for us to emulate.
Some people think that a Bodhisattva is a like a god or an angel. You can go to a Tibetan style Buddhist temple and see strange images. You can see these strange figures. Some of them are sitting on giant flowers, many of them are odd colors or have many arms. You can see people bow to these images and give offerings to them too.
But there are layers to the meaning for this important term in the Buddhist tradition.
We can dig into these layers and really get a better understanding of what it means to be a Bodhisattva.
Bodhisattva is usually translated as “Enlightenment Being” or “One Who Is Committed To Enlightenment.”
There are really three meanings to the term Bodhisattva.
In early Buddhism it was the word used by the Buddha to refer to himself when he told stories about his previous lives, before he attained Enlightenment. The Buddha told these kinds of stories usually to explain a specific point or give a lesson. These stories are told in Jataka Tales, like folk tales or fables. They illustrate the Buddha developing good qualities over time.
In Mahayana Buddhism a Bodhisattva is a human being who is committed to attaining Enlightenment in order to help others do the same. Becoming a Bodhisattva is considered the goal and the highest ideal. We don’t strive on the path only to save ourselves from suffering. We strive on the path to save everyone.
It’s said that Mahayana Buddhism came into being partly because of a view that some Buddhists in some some schools of Buddhism had a narrow vision of the Buddhist path, that they saw it purely in terms of saving themselves from suffering.
In Mahayana Buddhism wisdom and compassion are equally important. To see true reality is to see through separation. To see through separation is to dwell in great compassion.
In practicing Mahayana Buddhism we are encouraged to become Bodhisattvas and take on bodhisattva vows. With these vows, we make the promise to work toward the Enlightenment of all beings by working to cultivate the six perfections: generosity, virtue, patience, diligence, concentration, and wisdom.
In this sense anyone who has taken the Bodhisattva vows could be referred to as a Bodhisattva. We aren’t Bodhisattvas because we’re perfect. We’re Bodhisattvas because we’re trying.
But Bodhisattva has another layer in both Mahayana and Vajrayana Buddhism. It can be used to refer to archetypal Bodhisattvas, mythical or semi-mythical beings such as Manjushri and Tara. These can be objects of devotion and also ideals to live up to. This is the other meaning of the term and could lead to confusion. That’s where the cosmic beings come from.
There’s some discussion about whether these beings are actually watching over us or exist only as complicated metaphors. I’ll leave that aside here and simply say this: even these cosmic beings are still there as ideals for us to try to live up to.
Again, we aren’t Bodhisattvas because we’re as wise as Manjushri or as compassionate as Avalokitesvara. We’re Bodhisattvas because we’re trying our best.
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