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In Pāli bodhisatta, a term meaning "Wisdom Being," first applied to an incarnation of a candidate to Buddhahood, similar to the previous incarnations of Buddha narrated in the Jātakas (Birth Stories). In early bud dhism only a few zealous and persevering beings could be saved. But from the 1st century a.d., partly under Zoroastrian, Hellenic, and Christian influences, mahĀyĀna made Buddhahood accessible to all conscious beings with a mind for the truth (bodhicitta). "Bodhisattva" took on a dual meaning. On a lower level, the term applied to the ordinary believer who took the vow to gain supreme enlightenment for the sake of all suffering beings (in fact, an early term for the nascent Mahāyā movement was "bodhisattvayāa," the "vehicle of the bodhisattva"). Above the ordinary bodhisattvas are a divine compassionate savior who, upon developing Buddhahood through the practice of the perfections (pāramitā ) of charity, morality, patience, zeal, meditation, and wisdom, along with accommodation, vows, determination, and understanding, postponed nirvāna and underwent endless rebirths until all conscious beings who invoked him with faith could be saved. Inspired by this merciful soteriological teaching, all good Mahāyāanists strove after the bodhisattva ideal. Above the ordinary bodhisattvas are the great bodhisattvas (mahābodhisattvas), who, on becoming Heavenly Buddhas, save the faithful by the transference (parināma ) of their merit. The most popular Heavenly Buddha is Amitabha, assisted by Avalokitesśvara (Chinese, Kuan-yin; Japanese, Kannon), the God or Goddess of Mercy, Mañjuśri, the Begetter of Wisdom, and Maitreya, the Forthcoming Savior.

See Also: zoroaster (zarathushtra).

Bibliography: h. dayal, The Bodhisattva Doctrine in Buddhist Sanskrit Literature (London 1932). narada thera, The Bodhisattva Ideal (Colombo, Ceylon 1944). yÜ chÜnfang, Kuan Yin: The Chinese Transformation of Avalokiteśvara (New York 2001). p. williams, Mahāyā Buddhism: The Doctrinal Foundations (London 1989).

[a. s. rosso/

c. b. jones]

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Bodhisattva (Skt.; Pāli, bodhisatta, ‘Enlightenment-Being’; Chin., P'u-sa; Jap., Bosatsu; Korean, Posal; Tib., byang.chub sems.dpa, ‘Hero of the Thought of Enlightenment’). In Theravāda Buddhism a title exclusively identifying historical Buddhas (i.e. Śākyamuni) in their previous lives, before their Buddhahood was attained; and in Mahāyāna Buddhism to describe any being who, out of compassion, has taken the bodhisattva vow to become a Buddha for the sake of all sentient beings. Strictly, an ordinary person who has ‘engendered bodhicitta’ (generated a desire for enlightenment in order to save all beings from suffering) and taken the bodhisattva vow is a bodhisattva, but there are also ‘celestial bodhisattvas’, such as Mañjuśrī and Avalokiteśvara, who are almost Buddhas in their attainments.

A bodhisattva's progress is determined by his practice of the six (sometimes given as ten) perfections (pāramitās) which are: generosity and morality; patience and energy; meditation and wisdom.

This contrast between the bodhisattva and the arhat or pratyekabuddha ideals is the principal distinction between the Mahāyāna and Theravāda schools, since the overwhelming message of the Mahāyāna is that the nirvāna with which the arhats and pratyekabuddhas content themselves is not the highest goal. Some bodhisattvas, such as Avalokiteśvara, who in some Tibetan schools is considered to have already attained Buddhahood, even enter the hell-realms in order to alleviate pain there. The Mahāyāna notion of the bodhisattva as a being who views his own comfort (and sometimes his vows) as concerns subordinate to the needs of others, thus increased the social dimension of Buddhism and emphasized the value of lay life alongside monkhood. In Vimalakīrtinirdeśa-sūtra (c.2nd-3rd cents. CE), for example, it is the lay bodhisattva Vimalakīrti who is the hero, and Mañjuśrī is the only other bodhisattva deemed wise enough to converse with him.

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bodhisattva (bō´dĬsät´wə) [Sanskrit,=enlightenment-being], in early Buddhism the term used to refer to the Buddha before he attained supreme enlightenment; more generally, any being destined for enlightenment or intent on enlightenment. The spiritual path of the bodhisattva is the central teaching of Mahayana Buddhism. One becomes a bodhisattva by arousing the "mind of enlightenment," taking a vow to attain supreme enlightenment for the sake of all beings. The bodhisattva does not aspire to leave the round of birth-and-death (samsara) before all beings are saved; he is thus distinguished from the arahant of earlier Buddhism, who allegedly seeks nirvana only for himself and who, according to Mahayana teaching, has an inferior spiritual attainment. The practice of a bodhisattva consists of the six "perfections" or paramitas: charity (dana), morality (sila), forbearance (ksanti), diligence (virya), meditation (dhyana), and wisdom (prajna). Both laymen and monks may be regarded as bodhisattvas. In addition, many celestial bodhisattvas are worshiped along with the Gautama Buddha and the buddhas of other worlds. The most important celestial bodhisattvas are Avalokitesvara, the bodhisattva of compassion; Manjusri, the bodhisattva of wisdom, and Maitreya, who in heaven awaits birth as the next buddha. See also sunyata.

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A Buddhist term for one who exists in enlightenment of truth and compassion guided by love and wisdom. In Mahayana Buddhism, the bodhisattva is the ideal of progress; in Theravada Buddhism, the bodhisattva is an aspirant for Buddha-hood. In Theosophy the bodhisattva is the director of the spiritual development of each root-race and founder of religions, which he propagates through his messengers.


The Bodhisattva Doctrine in Buddhism. Waterloo, Ontario: Canadian Corporation for Studies in Religion, Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 1981.

Candragomin. Difficult Beginnings: Three Works on the Bodhisattva Path. Boston: Shambhala, 1985.

Dayal, Har. The Bodhisattva Doctrine in Buddhist Sanskrit Literature. Delhi, India: Motilal Banarsidass, 1970.

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bodhisattva (bodhista) In Theravada Buddhism, an individual who is about to reach nirvana. In Mahayana Buddhism, the term is used to denote an individual on the verge of enlightenment who delays his salvation in order to help mankind.

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bodhisattva in Mahayana Buddhism, a person who is able to reach nirvana but delays doing so through compassion for suffering beings.