Buddhas and Bodhisattvas: Ethical Practices Associated with Buddhas and Bodhisattvas

views updated


Buddhas and bodhisattvas represent exalted images of ethical perfection in Buddhism. In the midst of the kaleidoscopic complexity of Buddhist ethical thought and practice, the presence of buddhas and bodhisattvas serve as a universal focal point across traditions.

Buddhist ethics conceives of buddhas and bodhisattvas within a hierarchy of distinct categories of ethical actors. These categories are permeable and this hierarchy is not fixed; as ethical transformation occurs, over lifetimes or in some rare cases in a single lifetime, an actor's position is elevated (or potentially deescalated) in this ideational ordering of the ethical universe. It is a general truth that Buddhist traditions highly value the difference between ethical actors. While all beings have a future potential for enlightenmentand in some traditions an inherent capacity for buddhahoodthe potential to live in the company of those with greater capacities than oneselfepitomized in the figure of the kalyāamitra, or beautiful friendis a primary condition enabling ethical transformation.

The fluidity in this hierarchy is expressed in many ways, such as the debates over which category of being represents the highest ideal of ethical perfection: a buddha or a bodhisattva. Mahāyāna traditions have sometimes been characterized (and criticized) for elevating bodhisattvas over buddhas because bodhisattvas have postponed their full enlightenment for the sake of others, while the buddhas have entered into nirvāa before all beings have been freed from sasāra. Whereas the enlightened powers of the Celestial Bodhisattvas may be difficult to distinguish from buddhas, ordinary bodhisattvas that is, bodhisattvas at lower stages (bhūmis ) of the pathmay be imperfect in many regards because their own transformations are still taking place.

The conceptions of buddhas and bodhisattvas in Buddhist ethical practices are shaped to a significant degree by the Buddhists who stand in relationship to these enlightened beings. buddhas and bodhisattvas are the heroes of Buddhist traditions; their extraordinary acts of compassion mitigate suffering in the world. They are also role models for escaping the suffering of sasāra for oneself and for others. The intercession of buddhas and bodhisattvas is sought because of both their power as heroes and their accessibility as role models.

Buddhas and Bodhisattvas as Moral Heroes

The originating moment of the bodhisattva paththe arising of bodhicitta is nothing short of heroic. The aspiration for enlightenment is a vow to free all beings from suffering; the enormity of this commitment is unparalleledthe weight of the world's suffering rests upon the bodhisattva's shoulders. The power of this vow is captured by Śāntideva, an Indian monk believed to have lived in the seventh and eighth centuries ce. In his exposition of the bodhisattva paththe famous Bodhicaryāvatāra he writes: "As long as space abides and as long as the world abides, so long may I abide, destroying the suffering of the world"(Crosby & Skilton, 1995:143). Making the vow is an ethical act that recreates a person as a bodhisattva and sets the ethical course they will follow. While the ability to actualize this commitment is far in the futureindeed, potentially numerous lifetimes in the futurethe intention to realize this goal establishes the bodhisattva as a particular and extraordinary category of ethical actor. The obligations and challenges of this bodhisattva identity can at first evoke fear and self-doubt as well as determination, as Śāntideva so evocatively articulates. Buddhas and bodhisattvas serve as both inspiration and protection for bodhisattvas undergoing the process of ethical transformation as they move through the stages of the path.

Heroic actions of buddhas and bodhisattvas

Buddhas and Celestial Bodhisattvas actualize the power of their vows through ethical actions that appear nothing short of miraculous. The heroics of buddhas and bodhisattvas also lay in the miraculous, superhuman qualities of their actions. As fully enlightened beings, buddhas are perfectly ethical; thus ethics and soteriology are significantly intertwined. Among the perfections (pāramitās ) cultivated on the bodhisattva path is a specific virtue, śilā, often translated as morality. Yet all the pāramitās, including vigor (vīrya ), meditation (dhyāna ), and wisdom (prajñā ) are resources for the ethical life.

Buddhas' enlightened status enables them to act with absolute morality. This is modeled in some traditions, such as Chan or Zen, as perfect responsivenessan enlightened being instantaneously responds exactly as a situation demands. These actions, however, may not always be understood by those without an enlightened perspective. Actions by buddhas and bodhisattvas can actually appear to be contrary to moral prescriptions and ethical values. A famous example of this is the parable told by the buddha in the Saddharmapuarīka, Lotus Sūtra, in which a rich man lies to his children in order to get them out of a burning house. His actions are viewed not as a deception, but as upāya, a skillful means to most effectively teach the Dharma to beings in its most effective form.

The extraordinary quality of a buddha's or bodhisattva's actions raises the question of whether imitation is desirable or possible. Take for example the extraordinary act of dāna (giving) in the buddha's penultimate lifetime as a bodhisattva, when he was born as the prince Vessantara. He gives away not only his kingdom's auspicious white elephant, but also his two children and his wife. Different versions of the Vessantara jātaka emphasize the outrageousness of these actions, as well as the high stakes for everyone involvedhis children beg to be released from bondage from the cruel, torturous Brahmin, his wife writhes in physical and psychic agony upon discovering the loss of her children, and even Vessantara is tormented by the effects of his boundless generosity.

Vessantara's actions take place, from this perspective, on a normal moral stage. His actions, regardless of intent or motivation for the future attainment of buddhahood, cause pain. In fact, as Buddhist commentators from a variety of time periods have argued, his actions are not unquestionably ethical. The bodhisattva's actions are so different in degree from the norm of ethical practices so as to be a different kind of ethical action altogether. Because of this, the story is not meant to inspire imitation, but rather devotion. While the Vessantara story may be a source of inspiration for the ethical life, the actions it describes must be translated into a human morality. So, whereas it is not moral for a person to give away a child or a spouse in every circumstance, it is a valid moral choice, for instance, to give one's children to the sagha.

Heroic actions inspiring imitation

In certain instances extraordinary Buddhists have directly imitated the heroic actions of buddhas and bodhisattvas. A powerful example can be found in the self-immolation of Vietnamese monks during the Vietnam Wara dramatic demonstration of both commitment to Buddhist tradition and to the power of Buddhist ethical practices as a form of protest. As William LaFleur has argued, this modern-day act had precedence in the story of the Bodhisattva Bhaisajyaguru, in the Saddharmapuarīka, who devotedly lights himself on fire as offering to the buddhas. The heroics in both caseshistorical and textualdraw stark distinctions between the ethical agents capable of such extraordinary acts, and the more ordinary beings, who, although perhaps awed, might also have confused these actions different not only in kind but also in degree from the standards for Buddhist ethical life.

Heroic actions inspiring devotion

Devotion inspired by the heroics of buddhas and bodhisattvas alike is an important resource for ethical cultivation. Buddhist traditions value celebrating the good deeds of others as beneficial and efficacious for generating merit, as well as engendering gratitude towards buddhas and bodhisattvas. The descriptions of the celebratory responses to the heroics of buddhas and bodhisattvas are among the most beautiful narrations in Buddhist literature, in which a whole universeanimals, humans, gods and goddesses, as well as the material worldresponds with cheers of adulation, showers of flowers, and skies filled with rainbows. Lotus flowers arise from the earth to accept the tiny foot of the newborn baby who strides in each direction at his birth announcing his destiny to become the buddha. Thus, Buddhist traditions posit a world that is not ethically neutral; it is a moral world in which people live.

It would be a mistake to assume that devotion is transcended at a certain stage of ethical or spiritual development. Many Buddhist traditions emphasize that the experience of enlightenment should create a heightened sense of gratitude towards the buddhas. In his autobiography, Itsumadegusa, Hakuin, a seventeenth century Rinzai Zen monk, describes his commitment to teaching other monks as a way to repay the debt he felt he owed to the buddhas and his lineage patriarch. Many other examples from various Buddhist traditions emphasize the gratitude enlightened beings feel as they reflect upon the care they received at every stage of their own process of transformation. This gratitude necessitates a reciprocal devotion to caring for others.

Buddhas and Bodhisattvas as Ethical Role Models

Devotion for buddhas and bodhisattvas, inspired by their super-human achievements, is not antithetical to the desire to form oneself in their image. As ethical role models, buddhas and bodhisattvas are paradigms of virtuestheir paths to enlightenment become the templates for ethical transformation.

It is important to ask what people would have been likely to view the buddhas and bodhisattvas as role models for their own practices and goals. The bodhisattva path, systematized in different forms by Buddhist traditions, is the most basic model for attaining the achievements of buddhas and bodhisattvas. Each stage of the path is a form of ethical practice. The arising of bodhicitta, the practice of the perfections and the movement through stages of the path, entail commitments, obligations, and increasing resources for ethical life. A general assumption in scholarshipinformed to a significant degree by rhetoric in Mahāyāna sūtrasposits an extreme contrast between the exclusivity of the Hīnayāna conception of the bodhisattvas path with the Mahāyāna ideal of a universal path open to all beings. Indeed, the polemic term Hīnayāna (lesser vehicle) directly represents the Mahāyāna critique that these early Buddhist traditionsthe Therāvada being the only one now extant among themsettled for the less ethically robust figure of the arhant, a being, according to the Mahāyāna critics, who attains enlightenment for his or her own benefit alone.

Textual evidence suggests a historical development of the bodhisattva ideal and path in both Mahāyāna and Theravādin traditions. Recent studies by scholars such as Paul Harrison and Jan Nattier argue that the Mahāyāna ideals of a universal path were not present in early formulations of the Mahāyāna in the first centuries of the Common Era. In early sūtras the bodhisattva ideal and the practitioners who modeled themselves after it were an exclusive minority of male monastic practitioners and even fewer male householders. If the Mahāyāna universal imperative of buddhahood broadened in conception and practice over time, these ideals were not absent from Theravādin traditions either. Theravādin traditions developed a more inclusive category of the bodhisatta (the Pali form of the Sanskrit word "bodhisattva ") in the medieval period, expanding narrative traditions to include a fuller accounting of the bodhisatta path of Gautama as well as a more populous pantheon of additional bodhisatta who will become buddhas following the next buddha, Metteyya. While Theravādin descriptions of bodhisattas remained primarily hagiographical, and primarily (although not exclusively) tied to the jātaka lifetimes of Gotama, some systematic formulations of a bodhisatta path did emerge in the Theravādin commentarial and post-commentarial literature. Inscriptions and colophons from different parts of the Theravādin world suggest that practices paralleled the broadening of textual representations as some adherents conceived of their own future lifetimes, if not their present ones, as embarking upon the bodhisattva path.

Models for ethical transformation

Fascinating temporal issues are raised when we consider buddhas and bodhisattvas as ethical role models. From one perspective these figures offer an inspiring vision of the ethical being they aspire to become in the future, often a future lifetime, as it seems impossible for many Buddhists to attain this level of perfection in their present conditions. This future-orientation is powerfully at play in the bestowal of a prediction, vyākaraa, that is a condition of buddhahood for every bodhisattva. In order to become a buddha, a bodhisattva must first receive a prediction of their future buddhahood directly from another buddha. In this prediction a buddha describes the details of the bodhisattva's future biography when buddhahood will finally be attained. The buddha significantly models this future to be fulfilled by the bodhisattva. The prediction powerfully shapes the present as well as the face-to-face encounter between buddha and bodhisattva, narrated for example in the Pali Buddhavasa, gives the bodhisatta a vision of the perfect being he will become in the future.

The bridging of present reality with future ideals is accomplished in a variety of practices directed at generating and experiencing the virtues and powers of enlightened beings. Through the recitation of the buddha's names in the practice of buddhānusmti (remembrance of the buddha) the qualities of the buddha described in these honorific titles begin to be embodied by the practitioner. The Vajrayāna practice of deity yoga leads the meditator to an experience of identification with a buddha during the course of the visualization.

As Buddhist traditions have changed in different times and places so too have the imaginations of how to best follow the ethical imperatives for bodhisattvas and buddhas. In the post-modern, global Buddhist world, the imitation of classical ideals has continued. For example, throughout the Theravādan world ordination ceremonies include a re-enactment of the buddha's departure from his palace as he began his six-year struggle for enlightenment. Imitation has also given way to adaptation as Buddhists re-imagine what actions best emulate the compassion of buddhas and bodhisattvas. The Engaged Buddhist movement, led by figures like the Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hanh, image a universal practice of the bodhisattva path. Engaged Buddhism advocates a broad range of social conscious living such as participation in peace rallies, prison advocacy, and even recycling as bodhisattva acts.

The Intercession of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas

As moral heroes and ethical role models, buddhas and bodhisattvas intercede in the lives of others in order to extinguish suffering in its endless varieties and support individuals and communities in their ethical practices. Acts of intercession illuminate the heroic depths of buddhas' and bodhisattvas ' compassiona compassion that is active and effective. Important Buddhist conceptions of ethical agency underlie the many different ways buddhas and bodhisattvas contribute to the ethical lives of others. For the devotee, the petition to a buddha or bodhisattva and the confidence in their response underlies two basic conceptions of Buddhist ethics: first, that while existence is governed by the first noble truth of the ever-present reality of suffering, this suffering can be alleviated by the compassionate intervention of buddhas and bodhisattvas ; and following directly from this, Buddhist ethics demands that the ethical person conceive of their dependence on others for their own well-being. Communal agency is prioritized over autonomy. Beings depend upon the aid of others in order to reach the heights of ethical perfection as buddhas and bodhisattvas a perfection that is desired in order to more effectively aid others in turn.

While every bodhisattva makes a generalized vow to alleviate suffering, buddhas and Celestial Bodhisattvas are differentiated by their individualized vows to address suffering with particular forms of compassion. As a bodhisattva, Amitābha Buddha, for example, vowed to become Buddha of Infinite Light, of Infinite Life, and to create a Pure Land, Sukhāvatī, where all beings who said his name would be reborn. In his or her variety of regional, gendered and iconographic forms, the Celestial Bodhisattva Avalokiteśvara is the hero among heroes who saves beings in the sasāric world from suffering in whatever form it takes. This bodhisattva's interventions, such as granting a child to the infertile, or rescuing the shipwrecked from certain death, display the ever-ready responsiveness of the bodhisattva to the particularities of suffering. These examples of intercession are responses to petitions for aid made by engaging in devotional activities such as reciting a mantra or a sūtra, or leaving offerings at a bodhisattva shrine. The methods for invoking a buddha's or bodhisattva's aid is in some cases precisely defined, as in the Bhaiajyaguru sūtras the sūtras of the Medicine Buddhathat instruct the devotee how to rid oneself of physical illness.

A decidedly different conception of the un-requested intervention of a buddha or bodhisattva is seen as a response to the ethical achievements of particular actors. In these instances, a buddha or bodhisattva intervenes to support and encourage the dedicated practitioner striving for ethical fulfillment. In Japan, for example, the Bodhisattva Jizō, often disguised as a young monk, appears to support the beneficial activities of those desiring to follow an ethical path, such as a monk on austere retreat or a devotee leaving offerings at a shrine. In these instances, it is precisely in response to the already present ethical qualities that the bodhisattva intervenes in order to promote the success of further ethical development. Jizō's concealed identity in these narratives emphasizes both the worthiness of the person receiving his aid, as well as the intent of the bodhisattva to encourage the success of that person, rather than to primarily draw attention to the bodhisattva's power and virtues.

Buddhas and bodhisattvas as ethical refuges

Buddhas and bodhisattvas may also directly intercede in moments of crisis in order to prevent a being from causing physical and karmic harm to themselves or others. In many narratives they are imagined as the final refuge for beings who have found no other resources to redress their suffering. The concept of a buddha, and by extension, a bodhisattva, as one of three Refuges has a heightened ethical significance in stories, found in every Buddhist tradition, which describe the precise ways buddhas and bodhisattva prevent harm and bring relief. There are countless examples of these forms of intercession. For example, in the famous story of Agulimāla, a moral young man is commanded by his teacher to make him a necklace out of 1,000 fingers. Just as he is about to complete his necklace by murdering his own mother, the Buddha miraculously intervenes, preventing the heinous sin of matricide and setting Agulimāla on an ethical course ultimately ending in enlightenment.

Moral challenges directly confronting ethical self understanding can find a resolution through the intervention of buddhas and bodhisattvas, who can re-establish conceptions of integrity for ethical actors. People who perceive themselves as harming others can, through a separate set of actions directed towards a buddha or bodhisattva, either redress the particular wrong committed or establish their moral worthiness. Practices from various traditions and time periods show how recourse to interaction with buddhas and bodhisattvas provides a redemptive space for those who have faced and perceived failure in an ethical crisis. One might think of the devotional programs of the legendary King Asoka as, in part, a response to the warfare of his early reign; or the trials of the Tibetan yogi, Milarepadesigned by his teacher Marpa, a living buddhato cleanse the karma produced in his murderous youth; or the modern Japanese practices of mizuko kuyō, where devotional offerings are made to the Bodhisattva Jizōthe caretaker of dead childrenby those who have had an abortion. These forms of intervention for redressing or establishing ethical identity are inherently complex religious-social phenomena, as illuminated by this final example where gender, economic, and political factorsas well as ethical onesare at play.

The ethical formulation of dependency arguably reaches its fullest form in the thinking of Shinran, the twelfth- and thirteenth-century founder of Jōdo Shinshū. In his teachings, the only possibility for ethical action is to give oneself over completely to the Other power of Amida Buddha, who, as the Bodhisattva Dharmakara, vowed to end the suffering of all beings and to bring all who say his name to enlightenment through rebirth in his Pure Land, Sukhāvatī. It is the recognition of one's own complete inability to act ethically that enables the compassion of Amida to transform one into an ethical actor. According to Shinran's thought, the devotee neither inspires nor invokes Amida's compassion; rather, Amida is the sole agent in bringing about the ethical formation of his devotees. Without Amida, Shinran estimated, he was completely without options for leading an ethical life.

This emphasis on the power of a buddha to shape the ethical life of beings is not exclusive to Pure Land traditions. While not articulated with the same direct emphasis as with Shinran, there is, in the Theravādin traditions, for example, the conception that the presence of a buddhathrough physical proximity in his lifetime or through his relics after his parinibbāna can change people's destinies. Hagiographical accounts of the buddha's teaching career are filled with stories of the multitudes of people who quickly attained arahatship upon receiving the Dharma from the Buddha.

In addition to these generalized patterns, narratives also depict personalized encounters with the Buddha Gautama. The evocative story of Pattācāra, recorded in the Pali Therīgīthā, describes how the Buddha's intercession changes the ethical destiny of a woman whose grief at the loss of her entire family renders her insane, wandering naked as an outcast from society. The Buddha becomes literally her last refuge; he is the only one who clearly perceives her naked ravings as an exposure of suffering. The encounter brings sanity, a new family in the sagha, and ultimately, enlightenment. Attaining enlightenment is not the ultimate goal for Buddhist ethical life; rather, it is to continue to aid others, both through acts of heroic intervention and, like Pattācāra, by serving as an inspiring role model for others.

See Also

Buddha; Buddhism, articles on Buddhism in Japan and Buddhism in Tibet; Buddhism, Schools of, article on Tibetan and Mongolian Buddhism; Celestial Buddhas and Bodhisattvas.


For a translation and useful introduction to Santideva's Bodhicaryāvatāra, see Kate Crosby and Andrew Skilton, Bodhicaryavatara (Oxford, 1995). An engaging introduction to the Pure Land traditions of Shin Buddhism and Shinran's teachings on issues of ethical agency can be found in Taitetsu Unno's River of Fire, River of Water (New York, 1998). Among the many studies of the bodhisattva path, Paul Harvey's An Introduction to Buddhist Ethics (Cambridge, U.K., 2000) provides a useful overview of ethical conceptions of buddhas, bodhisattvas and the bodhisattva path. There are several excellent introductions to Buddhism containing insightful chapters on conceptions and roles of buddhas and bodhisattvas in Buddhist traditions, such as Donald S. Lopez's The Story of Buddhism (San Francisco, 2000). For a brief but helpful discussion of practices of self-immolation practiced, see William R. Lafluer's Buddhism (Upper Saddle River, N.J., 1988). For historical studies of early Mahāyāna movements and bodhisattva practices see Paul Harrison, "Who Gets to Ride on the Great Vehicle? Self Image and Identity among the Followers of the Early Mahāyāna," Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies 10, no. 1: 6789. See also Jan Nattier's A Few Good Men: The Bodhisattva Path according to the Inquiry of Ugra (Honolulu, Hawai'i, 2003).

Karen Derris (2005)

About this article

Buddhas and Bodhisattvas: Ethical Practices Associated with Buddhas and Bodhisattvas

Updated About encyclopedia.com content Print Article