Bodhisattva Path

views updated


BODHISATTVA PATH . A bodhisattva (Pali, bodhisatta ) is a person who, according to Buddhism, is on the path to attaining the status of an enlightened being. More specifically the term is commonly used for one on the path to becoming a fully enlightened buddha. The "path of the bodhisattva " is usually known in Sanskrit as the bodhisattvamārga (bodhisattva -path), the bodhisattvayāna (bodhisattva-vehicle), or the bodhisattvacaryā (bodhisattva -conduct). It is the path followed by such a person from the time he or she first attains bodhisattva status until reaching the "fruit of the path," commonly full buddhahood.

There is no significant difficulty with the meaning of bodhi. This derives from the Indo-Aryan root budh-, from which the word buddha also derives, literally "awakening," or "enlightenment." The real problem is with sattva. This commonly means in Sanskrit a "[sentient] being," an "essence," or sometimes "courage." Thus a bodhisattva would be an "enlightenment being," "one who has enlightenment as essence," or occasionally perhaps an "enlightenment hero." And that is how the term is regularly glossed in Buddhist Sanskrit sources. But it is not clear how it relates to one that has not yet attained the goal of enlightenment. K. R. Norman (19901996, p. 87) suggests that bodhisattva may have been "back-formed" as part of sanskritization of Middle Indo-Aryan (such as Pali) expressions. Thus the Middle Indo-Aryan bodhisatta has been sanskritized as bodhisattva. There are other possible alternatives, however, and these alternatives fit better with explanations given for the etymology of bodhisatta in Pali commentaries. The Sanskrit of bodhisatta could equally be bodhisakta (directed toward enlightenment), or it could be bodhiśakta (capable of enlightenment). Clearly these etymologies make better sense.

Buddhism divided fairly early into a number of monastic ordination traditions, identified by different Vinayas, monastic codes. Thus one can speak of, for example, Theravāda, Sarvāstivāda, Mahāsaghika, or Dharmaguptaka traditions. In looking at texts deemed authoritative for each of these monastic traditions, one finds discussions of the bodhisattva path and the gradual evolution of a common or preferred "school" position. The details of those, however, may not be identical.

As Buddhism developed, it came to refer to three types of enlightenment. There is the enlightenment of those who heard and followed the teaching of the Buddha (i.e., "hearers," śrāvaka s), attaining nirvāa, becoming an arhat (Pali, arahant ), and thus putting an end to all types of suffering. One has also the enlightenment of a shadowy group of "solitary buddhas" called pratyekabuddha s (Pali, paccekabuddha s). Finally, there is the supreme, full enlightenment of a buddha. How the enlightenment of a buddha differs was a point of dispute, but no one denied that in certain important respects it was different. Since bodhi means "enlightenment" and three types of enlightenment have been identified, the term bodhisattva was therefore also recognized as having application to persons on each of these three "vehicles."

Although bodhisattva is commonly used colloquially for a person on just the third of these paths, to full buddhahood, where texts want to make this point explicit the word bodhisattva is linked with mahāsattva. A Buddha-to-be is a bodhisattva mahāsattva. One significance of this is that if Norman's use of the Pali etymologies is correct, the mahā (great) in mahāsattva might entail "one directed toward the great" or "one capable of the great." If so then "the great" must be buddhahood. It is not clear how early this bodhisattva mahāsattva usage occurred, although it is found in fairly early Mahāyāna scriptures. It allows the hypothesis that mahā in Mahāyāna should also be taken as referring to "the great," that is, buddhahood (compare mahābodhiyāna in Dham-mapāla's c. sixth-century Caryāpiaka commentary). Thus Mahāyāna would be in origin etymologically the "Vehicle [which leads to] the Great," that is, buddhahood.

The path of the bodhisattva in this sense is central to Mahāyāna theory and practice. For Mahāyāna, all who can should have buddhahood as their goals, as did the Buddha himself. Because no Buddhist tradition would hold that to be enlightened as an arhat or as a pratyekabuddha is as distinguished as becoming a buddha, the Mahāyāna can be contrasted with a yāna that is by definition inferior, a Hīnayāna. To translate hīna as "small" or "lesser" would be to miss the point. Those who disagree that it is necessary or even possible that all now should aim to become buddhas follow regular, mainstream Buddhism as śrāvaka s aiming for enlightenment (to become arhat s), without a Mahāyāna understanding of what it should all be about. They consider themselves simply to be following the teaching of the Buddha, the way to enlightenment, the end of all suffering. Following some other contemporary scholars, this article refers to the non-Mahāyāna position as "Mainstream Buddhism."

Little is known about how specifically Mahāyāna doctrinal schools developed and were transmitted in India. It would be better to think (at least at this stage) in terms of various discussions in a number of different Mahāyāna texts, some of which gradually came to influence each other. Thus one should not expect to find a single bodhisattva path, even in Mahāyāna. To the extent to which texts know of each other there may be mutual influences, positive or negative. How far and in what way that was the case in India is still a subject of research. Outside India, in Tibet, for example, as synthesizing schools of Buddhism developed, attempting to make sense of all this Buddhist and particularly Mahāyāna material, sources were harmonized and molded to create the bodhisattva path of that school, eventually more or less accepted by all school members.

This article will first describe how the bodhisattva and his or her path is seen in Mainstream Buddhism and will focus on material preserved in Pali associated with the Theravāda tradition. By far the most important sources are in the Khuddaka Nikāya section of the canon. These are the Buddhavasa (Chronicle of buddhas) by Buddhadatta, Caryāpiaka (Basket of conduct) by Dhammapāla, and Nidānakathā (Story of the origins) attributed to Buddhaghosa, with their associated commentaries (fifth and sixth centuries ce).

These discussions of the career of a bodhisattva are placed firmly within a descriptive account of the actual career as a bodhisattva of Gautama (Pali, Gotama) Buddha, "our" Śākyamuni. The Buddhavasa recounts that Gautama constructed a miraculous jewel-walk in the sky. This is because, so the commentary relates, there were those who grumbled that he was still a young chap and therefore could not be anything that special. Gautama points out that actually it takes an enormous amount of time to become a buddha. It was four "incalculable" aeons plus a hundred thousand aeons ago that, as the accomplished Brahmin ascetic Sumedha, Gautama-in-a-previous-life, had fallen on his face in the mud before a previous buddha, Dīpakara, out of deep respect and admiration and in order to save that buddha from muddy feet. At that time Sumedha vowed that he too would become a Buddha:

(54) If I so wished I could burn up my defilements today. (55) What is the use while I (remain) unknown of realizing dhamma here? Having reached omniscience, I will become a Buddha in the world with the devas. (56) What is the use of my crossing over alone, being a man aware of my strength? Having reached omniscience, I will cause the world together with the devas to cross over. (57) By this act of merit of mine towards the supreme among men I will reach omniscience, I will cause many people to cross over. (Horner, pt. 3, 1975, p. 14)

The Buddhavasa explains that at this fortunate time various factors had come together through karma to make realistic aspirations to buddhahood possible:

(59) Human existence, attainment of the [(male)] sex, cause [possibility of becoming an arhat ], seeing a Teacher [a Buddha], going forth [as a renunciate], attainment of the special qualities [spiritual attainments], and an act of merit [sacrificing even one's own life for the Buddhas], and will power. (Horner, pt. 3, 1975, p. 15; commentary paraphrased from Buddhadatta, 1978, pp. 133134)

Dīpakara predicts that Sumedha will indeed, many aeons hence, become the Buddha Śākyamuni. And a buddha's prediction, Sumedha reflects, cannot be mistaken. Others at that time, hearing this, are delighted. If they fail to attain enlightenment under Dīpakara, they can always attain it in the future with Śākyamuni.

The following points are notable. The story of Sumedha's vow under Dīpakara is intended (a) to engender respect for Śākyamuni and (b) to encourage present followers who had failed to gain enlightenment in his presence with the possibility of enlightenment in the future under the next buddha. This will be Metteyya (Sanskrit, Maitreya), already predicted by Śākyamuni. In addition the bodhisattva makes a firm vow. His vow takes place in the presence of a previous buddha, who is able to predict the future success of the vow. Commentaries make it clear that it is not enough to take the vow in the presence of a substitute, like the Buddha's relics. Thus at this time the bodhisattva had reached an irreversible stage. But what had led to this? Later Pali works describe even earlier stages when, for example, a bodhisattva first conceives the idea of becoming a buddha. The notion of earlier stages had already been formalized in, for example, another important Mainstream Buddhist source, the Sanskrit Mahāvastu (The great topic) of the Mahāsāghikas. First, there is the "natural" stage, when the bodhisattva -to-be lives a normal virtuous life before conceiving the wish to become a buddha. Then there is the "resolving," when the vow is first conceived, then that of "living in conformity" with it. Finally, the bodhisattva is declared "irreversible" (Mahāvastu, 19491956, vol. 1, p. 1 n. 2, 3946). The Mahāvastu also mentions ten successive "stages" (bhūmi ) of a bodhisattva 's career to buddhahood (see Mahāyāna below).

Sumedha took the vow out of concern to help others as well as himself but also perhaps out of some sort of recognition that, under the circumstances that had come about, the highest fame and glory were fitting for him. It was, one might say, his duty. Had Sumedha not taken the vow of a bodhisattva at that time he would have wasted a precious opportunity, and crucially Śākyamuni buddha would never have existed.

All the sources, but particularly the Caryāpiaka and commentary, then describe the many rebirths of Sumedha between his vow and eventual fruition as Śākyamuni. During this time there were twenty-three further buddhas. The bodhisattva renewed his vows under each of them but also developed those qualities necessary to become a buddha. These are listed as ten and are called "perfections" (Pali, pāramī or pāramitā ). In the Pali sources they are giving, morality, renunciation, wisdom, energy, patience, truth telling, resolute determination, loving kindness, and equanimity. Dhammapāla reduced these to six: giving, morality, patience, energy, meditation, and wisdom. It has been suggested that this shows Mahāyāna influence, but this scheme of the perfections is also found in Mainstream Buddhist sources like the Abhidharmakośa. All of these perfections are to be acquired by each Buddhist practitioner. It is the degree of perfection that distinguishes a buddha.

With the plan of the rebirths of Sumedha, in which he develops the perfections, are recounted enjoyable stories of heroic virtue. For example, the bodhisattva was reborn as the prince Vessantara. In that life he particularly practiced the perfection of generosity. He gave everything away when asked, even his wife and children. In some lives the bodhisattva was an animal, like the virtuous monkey king. Thus popular fables with moral purpose were assimilated into Buddhist pedagogy. These "rebirth stories" are the Jātaka tales, and throughout the Buddhist world they really tell the path of the bodhisattva.

Crucially this whole account is entirely descriptive, within the context of admiration for the success and sheer goodness of Śākyamuni (and by implication the similar acts that led to past buddhas and will lead to future buddhas). No one denies that the concern of followers of Śākyamuni should be their own acquisition of freedom from all suffering, that is, nirvāa. There is no indication that anyone else need currently take the vow of a bodhisattva. Indeed they cannot, because a buddha is no longer around to confirm the vow. The next buddha, Metteyya (Sanskrit, Maitreya), is already predicted and "in process."

Yet there is instability in this account of Sumedha. It is quite clear that Sumedha could have become an enlightened arhat there and then. So why did he take the bodhisattva vow? The suggestion is that factors came together that might otherwise be wasted (there would now be no Śākyamuni) and that Sumedha sought the greater glory, perhaps precisely out of a sense of duty. He was also astonished by the sheer magnificence of Dīpakara, and he wanted to save more people than just himself. Overwhelmingly there is a feeling of moral justification, in Buddhist terms preeminently compassion. The soteriological thrust of early Buddhism, in common with other contemporary Indian soteriologies, was toward freedom through knowing (Williams and Tribe, 2000, pp. 1718). Yet with the account of Sumedha emerges a suggestion that it is actually in some way better to become a buddha, and this must be for reasons not of knowing but of virtue. Sumedha wished to help others in such a way that immediate freedom for himself was left behind. There is something better than immediate spiritual freedom. Almost all the perfections are matters of moral qualities, virtue. The Jātaka tales are accounts of heroic virtue. The liberation of a buddha must be significantly higher than, morally better than, that of an arhat. And the ways in which this is the case must relate to altruism, for there is nothing more to gain for oneself than becoming an arhat. If that is the case, then perhaps, some thought, all should try to aim for buddhahood, that is, take the vow of a bodhisattva.

The Mahāyāna goes beyond the descriptive account of the bodhisattva 's path as a description of Śākyamuni's previous lives in order to generate respect for the buddha and hope for the future, to a prescription. Because buddhahood is much better than being an arhat in ways that actually count, all who can should surely take the bodhisattva vow. It makes no sense in this Mahāyāna context to talk, as do some older books, of the bodhisattva postponing enlightenment. The bodhisattva renounces the goal of ever becoming an arhat in favor of attaining as quickly as possible a much superior buddhahood.

Textual evidence shows that the earliest Mahāyāna notion of bodhisattva s was as a group one should actually join. But there is an obvious problem. How is one to do this, given that the vow has to be taken in the presence of a buddha? There is currently no buddha around, and the next will not appear for a long time. Crucial here was the development of the notion that buddhas are still around and still active on behalf of sentient beings. One can verify this, it was argued, because it is possible to see them in visions and receive new teachings from them (Williams, 1989, 2931; Williams and Tribe, 2000, pp. 108111). If buddhas are still around even after their apparent deaths, everything changes. This makes sense too of the claimed superiority of buddhas over arhat s in key matters relating to their liberation.

In any relatively comprehensive discussion of a Mahāyāna bodhisattva path the root source has to be the Daśabhūmika Sūtra (Ten stage scripture). This can be supplemented with Indian exegetical texts like the Abhisamayālakāra (Ornament for the realizations) and the commentaries by Haribhadra (late eighth century ce), Asaga's (c. fourth century ce) Mahāyānasūtrālakāra (Ornament for the Mahāyāna Scriptures) and Bodhisattvabhūmi (Stages for the bodhisattva ), the Madhyamakāvatāra (Supplement to the middling) and the commentary by Candrakīrti (seventh century), Śāntideva's Bodhicaryāvatāra (Introduction to the conduct that leads to enlightenment; eighth century ce), and summaries of practice such as Kamalaśīla's three Bhāvanākrama s (Stages of cultivation; eighth century) and Atiśa Bodhipathapradīpa (Lamp for the path to enlightenment; eleventh century). Because of the limitation of space, however, this article follows the typical late Indian Mahāyāna scheme of the first Bhāvanākrama.

As befits the prescriptive Mahāyāna schema, where the earlier stages in particular have direct relevance to conduct, Kamalaśīla starts his account well before the bodhisattva has reached the stage of irreversibility or any prediction by a buddha. It is assumed of course that the aspiring bodhisattva is already an ardent Buddhist with a good practical appreciation of basic Buddhist tenets and practice, such as morality and renunciation. Note incidentally that historically the thesis (favored particularly by Japanese scholars) that the role of the bodhisattva in Mahāyāna had anything to do in India with the significance and aspirations of the laity is now doubted. In practice Mahāyāna path builds on existing patterns of morality and monastic renunciation rather than ignoring, negating, or superseding them. The aspiring bodhisattva, Kamalaśīla says, needs to strive in three things: compassion (karuā ), the "awakening mind" (bodhicitta ), and meditative cultivation. The basis of all is compassion. It is compassion that generates the motivation that leads one to undertaking the bodhisattva path. It is therefore compassion that produces Mahāyāna affiliation. Thus the bodhisattva practices systematic meditations calculated to create a deep sense of universal compassion for others. When compassion becomes perfect, it is called "great compassion" (mahākaruā ).

Eventually the bodhisattva conceives the deep yearning to obtain perfect buddhahood for the sake of all sentient beings. This is the "arising of the awakening mind" (bodhicittotpāda ). It is a completely self-transforming, deep revolution in the mind from selfishness to altruism in its highest degree. It is hymned extensively and beautifully in Śāntideva's Bodhicaryāvatāra, chapter one. Both Kamalaśīla and (famously) Śāntideva refer to two types of awakening mind. First is the aspiration, that is, the yearning intention, for buddhahood. Second, there is actually engaging in the bodhisattva path through making a vow and, over an enormously long period of time, acquiring the stocks of merit and wisdom necessary to become a buddha. The bodhisattva -to-be thus takes a vow to buddhahood. Kamalaśīla speaks of formally taking this vow in the presence of a master who holds the vow (and who as the guru is to be seen as a buddha). If there is no master available, significantly it can be taken in the presence of all the buddhas and advanced bodhisattva s who, from a Mahāyāna perspective, are still present throughout all directions.

This leads to a bodhisattva who truly practices as a bodhisattva. The practice is one of equal development in the means (of helping all sentient beings) and wisdom (seeing things the way they really are) without neglecting either. This requires mastery of meditative cultivation. The bodhisattva acquires "calm abiding" (śamatha ), an ability to steady the mind on a meditation subject perfectly and at will. He or she masters the various trance states, with the possible acquisition of supernormal powers and ability in meditation to visit and see buddhas. He or she also applies a calm, steady mind to analyzing reality until coming to an understanding of the true nature of things through meditative "insight" (vipaśyanā ). This true nature is described as "emptiness" (śūnyatā ), the complete absence anywhere of any sort of intrinsic existence. Eventually it becomes possible to place the mind steadily and one-pointedly in meditation on this true nature, the way things really are, but within the context of a compassion that will not lead to abandoning sentient beings and falling into the path of an arhat. Thus one aims for a "not-settled-down nirvāa " (apratihitanirvāa ), constantly engaged in benefiting beings.

The path from now on is organized in accordance with a path structure familiar from Mainstream Buddhism, such as the Sarvāstivāda (but not Theravāda). This is the five paths, and all the attainments of the way to buddhahood (typically spoken of as the thirty-seven principles conducive to enlightenment) are plotted onto this scheme in due order.

The first path is the path of accumulation (samb-hāramārga ). Kamalaśīla says little about this path. It initially occurs with the full arising of the awakening mind and is described as having three progressive phases. Through increasing depth in meditation, of integrating calm abiding and insight into the nature of reality, one reaches the path of preparation (prayogamārga ). This has four progressive phases of meditative achievement (further subdivided), known as warmth, climax, patience, and highest mundane thing. It leads to direct nonconceptual insight into the true nature of things. At this point one attains the path of seeing (or vision, darśanamārga ). As part of the bodhisattva path the bodhisattva is finally a noble one (ārya ), no longer an ordinary worldling, and can inter alia control his or her rebirths. But the bodhisattva still has far to go. Directly seeing the true nature of reality is in a sense just the beginning. The bodhisattva is only doing all this in order to become a buddha and benefit others. From now on a bodhisattva animated by deep compassion, who also sees directly the true nature of things, may act in ways not in keeping with legalistic "lower" moral codes.

On attaining the path of seeing, the third of the five paths, the bodhisattva also attains the first of the ten bodhisattva stages (bhūmi ), the Stage of Joy. The sequential attainment of the six or ten Mahāyāna perfections (pāramitās ) is grafted onto these stages. Thus at the first bhūmi the bodhisattva strives and attains the perfection of giving. Therefore for a bodhisattva giving and the other perfections are embedded in the achieving in meditation of direct nonconceptual insight into the true nature of things. This is no ordinary giving. That is why it becomes, at its highest degree, the "perfection of giving."

The following nine bodhisattva stages all occur on the fourth of the five paths, the path of cultivation (or contemplation, bhāvanāmārga ). Thus the corresponding perfection brings the:

Stainless Stage: morality

Luminous Stage: patience

Radiant Stage: energy

Difficult to Conquer Stage: meditation

Face-to-Face Stage: wisdom

Gone Afar Stage: skill in means

Immovable Stage: vow

Good Stage: power

Cloud of Dharma (Teaching) Stage: gnosis (jñāna )

Four further perfections are added to the basic six of Sanskrit Buddhism, correlating to the last four bodhisattva stages (compare also the Pali ten).

At the seventh stage a bodhisattva is said to become irreversible. The last three stages are thus termed "pure." At the tenth stage the bodhisattva appears on a lotus seat, surrounded by other bodhisattva s and buddhas, light rays fill the sky, and he (there is little evidence in Indian Buddhism that it could be a woman) is consecrated to full buddhahood. A tenth-stage bodhisattva is extraordinary. For example, he can emanate innumerable forms to help others or place whole world systems inside each pore of his skin. It is at this level that commonly Mahāyāna practitioners locate bodhisattva s like Avalokiteśvara (the Bodhisattva of Compassion) or Mañjuśrī (the Bodhisattva of Wisdom), iconically represented bodhisattvas to whose compassionate care prayers for help can be made.

Becoming a buddha is to attain the fifth path, the path of no more learning (aśaikamārga ). Kamalaśīla observes that even buddhas could not fully tell of the wonderful qualities possessed by buddhas for the welfare of all sentient beings.

This description of the path of the bodhisattva has been in accordance with exoteric Indian sources. But in later Indian Buddhism esoteric Tantric materials and practices begin to emerge. Two elements in Tantric doctrine taken as a whole make considerable difference to the bodhisattva picture. First, through certain Tantric practices it is possible to follow the whole bodhisattva path from beginning to end in just one lifetime. Second, no matter how much one practices the path described above, it becomes necessary to engage in Tantric practice to attain full buddhahood. Great summas of Buddhism, concentrating on the bodhisattva path and integrating Tantra at the appropriate point, are found particularly in Tibet. An example would be the Lam rim chen mo (Greater stages of the path) by Tsong kha pa (late fourteenth century and early fifteenth century). This tendency to shorten (or even sideline) the lengthy bodhisattva path is also found in some East Asian Buddhist traditions, such as Zen.

See Also

Amitābha; Buddha; Buddhism, Schools of, article on Mahāyāna Philosophical Schools of Buddhism; Iconography, article on Buddhist Iconography; Jñāna; Karuā; Merit, article on Buddhist Concepts; Pāramitās; Prajñā; Śāntideva; Soteriology; Stupa Worship.


Beyer, Stephan V. The Buddhist Experience: Sources and Interpretations. Encino, Calif., 1974. Includes a translation of the first Bhāvanākrama.

Bodhi, Bhikkhu. A Treatise on the Pāramīs. Kandy, Sri Lanka, 1996. Partial translation of Dhammapāla's commentary on Cariyāpiaka.

Buddhadatta. The Clarifier of the Sweet Meaning (Madhuratthavilāsinī). Translated by I. B. Horner. London, 1978. Translation of Buddhadatta's commentary on Buddhavasa.

Cleary, Thomas, trans. The Flower Ornament Scripture: A Translation of the Avatamsaka Sutra. Vol. 2. Boulder, Colo., and Boston, 19841987. Includes the Daśabhūmika Sūtra translated from the Chinese.

Horner, I. B., trans. The Minor Anthologies of the Pali Canon. Part 3, Chronicle of Buddhas (Buddhavasa); Basket of Conduct (Cariyāpiaka). London, 1975.

Jayawickrama, N. A., trans. The Story of Gotama Buddha. Oxford, 1990. The Nidānakathā.

Mahāvastu. The Mahāvastu. 3 vols. Translated by J. J. Jones. London, 19491956.

Norman, K. R. Collected Papers. 6 vols. Oxford, 19901996.

Śāntideva. The Bodhicaryāvatāra. Translated by Kate Crosby and Andrew Skilton. Oxford, 1996.

Sinor, Denis, ed. Studies in South, East, and Central Asia. Delhi, 1968. Includes the Daśabhūmika Sūtra translated from the Sanskrit by Megumu Honda.

Tucci, Giuseppe, ed. Minor Buddhist Texts. Part 2. Rome, 19561958. An English summary of Bhāvanākrama.

Williams, Paul. Mahāyāna Buddhism: The Doctrinal Foundations. London and New York, 1989.

Williams, Paul, with Anthony Tribe. Buddhist Thought: A Complete Introduction to the Indian Tradition. London and New York, 2000. Contains a full bibliography.

Paul Williams (2005)