A Bodhisattva (菩薩) is one who aspires to enlightenment, or Buddhahood. Bodhi means enlightenment, and sattva, a living being. In Hinayana Buddhism, the term is used almost exclusively to indicate Shakyamuni Buddha in his previous lifetimes. The Jātaka, or “birth stories” (which recount his past existences), often refer to him as “the bodhisattva.” After the rise of Mahayana, bodhisattva came to mean anyone who aspires to enlightenment and carries out altruistic practice. Mahayana practitioners used it to refer to themselves, thus expressing the conviction that they would one day attain Buddhahood. In contrast with the Hinayana ideal embodied by the voice-hearers and cause-awakened ones who direct their efforts solely toward personal salvation, Mahayana sets forth the ideal of the bodhisattva who seeks enlightenment both for self and others, even postponing one’s entry into nirvana in order to lead others to that goal. The predominant characteristic of a bodhisattva is therefore compassion.   

According to Mahayana tradition, upon embarking on their practice of the six pāramitās, bodhisattvas make four universal vows: (1) to save innumerable living beings, (2) to eradicate countless earthly desires, (3) to master immeasurable Buddhist teachings, and (4) to attain the supreme enlightenment. The six pāramitās are (1) almsgiving, (2) keeping the precepts, (3) forbearance, (4) assiduousness, (5) meditation, and (6) the obtaining of wisdom. Some sutras divide bodhisattva practice into fifty-two stages, ranging from initial resolution to the attainment of enlightenment. Bodhisattva practice was generally thought to require successive lifetimes spanning many kalpas to complete. From the standpoint of the Lotus Sutra, which recognizes that one can attain Buddhahood in one’s present form, the bodhisattva practice can be completed in a single lifetime. In Japan, the title bodhisattva was occasionally given to eminent priests by the imperial court, or by their followers as an epithet of respect. It also was applied to deities. When Buddhism was introduced to Japan, deities of the Japanese pantheon were regarded as afflicted with an assortment of flaws, delusions, and vices. Later, their status was raised when they were identified with bodhisattvas due to the syncretism of Buddhism and Shintoism. Great Bodhisattva Hachiman is an example of this.

In terms of the concept of the Ten Worlds, the world of bodhisattvas constitutes the ninth of the Ten Worlds, describing a state characterized by compassion in which one seeks enlightenment both for oneself and others. In this state, one finds satisfaction in devoting oneself to relieving the suffering of others and leading them to happiness, even if it costs one one’s life. 

Terry Van: Bodhisattva 2nd Class

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