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The term bodhisattva (Pāli, bodhisatta; Tibetan, byang chub sems pa; Chinese, pusa; Korean, posal, Japanese, bosatsu) refers to a sattva (person) on a Buddhist mārga (path) in pursuit of bodhi (awakening) or one whose nature is awakening. In the Mahāyāna tradition, a bodhisattva is a practitioner who, by habituating himself in the practice of the pĀramitĀ (perfection), aspires to become a buddha in the future by seeking anuttarasamyaksaṂbodhi (complete, perfect awakening) through prajÑĀ (wisdom) and by benefiting all sentient beings through karuṆĀ (compassion). A bodhisattva is one who courageously seeks enlightenment through totally and fully benefiting others (parārtha), as well as himself (svārtha). A bodhisattva is also termed a mahāsattva or "Great Being" because he is a Mahāyāna practitioner who seeks anuttarasamyaksaṃbodhi and who is equipped with the necessities for enlightenment—puṇyasambhāra (accumulation of merits) and jñānasambhāra (accumulation of wisdom)—and the quality of upāya-kauśalya (skillful means); that is, he knows how to act appropriately in any situation.

According to the Bodhisattvabhūmi, the bodhisattvayāna (spiritual path of a bodhisattva) is considered to be superior to both the śrāvakayāna (spiritual path of the disciples) and the pratyekabuddhayāna (spiritual path of a self-awakened buddha) because a bodhisattva is destined to attain enlightenment by removing the kleśajñeyāvaraṇa (emotional and intellectual afflictions), whereas those on the other two spiritual paths aspire for nirvĀṆa, that is, extinction of emotional afflictions only.

The bodhisattva is known by different appellations; for example, in Mahāyāna-sūtrālaṃkāra XIX: 73–74, the following fifteen names are given as synonyms for bodhisattva:

  1. mahāsattva (great being)
  2. dhīmat (wise)
  3. uttamadyuti (most splendid)
  4. jinaputra (Buddha's son)
  5. jinādhāra (holding to the Buddha)
  6. vijetṛ (conqueror)
  7. jināṅkura (Buddha's offspring)
  8. vikrānta (bold)
  9. paramāścarya (most marvelous)
  10. sārthavāha (caravan leader)
  11. mahāyaśas (of great glory)
  12. kṛpālu (compassionate)
  13. mahāpuṇya (greatly meritorious)
  14. īśvara (lord)
  15. dhārmika (righteous).

Bodhisattvas are of ten classes:

  1. gotrastha (one who has not reached purity yet)
  2. avatīrṇa (one who investigates the arising of the enlightenment mind)
  3. aśuddhāśaya (one who has not reached a pure intention)
  4. śuddhāśaya (one who has reached a pure intention)
  5. aparipakva (one who has not matured in the highest state)
  6. paripakva (one who has matured in the highest state)
  7. aniyatipatita (one who although matured has not yet entered contemplation)
  8. niyatipatita (one who has entered contemplation)
  9. ekajātipratibaddha (one who is about to enter the supreme enlightenment)
  10. caramabhavika (one who has entered supreme enlightenment in this life).

Regarding the bodhisattva's practice, different texts use different categories to discuss the process. For example, the Daśabhūmika-sūtra refers to the daśabhūmi (ten spiritual stages) of a bodhisattva, while the Bodhisattvabhūmi makes reference to twelve vihāra (abodes), adding two vihara to the list of ten bhūmis: gotravihāra (abode of the bodhisattva family) and adhimukticaryāvihāra (abode of firm resolution), the latter of which continues throughout the next ten abodes. The last ten of the vihāras essentially correspond to the ten bodhisattva stages of the Daśabhūmika-sūtra, although each has a name different from the names of the stages. In each of the ten stages of the Daśabhūmika-sūtra, a distinct paramita is practiced so that the bodhisattva gradually elevates himself to the final goal of enlightenment. The stages of practice according to the Daśabhūmika-sūtra, with their corresponding paramitas, are as follows:

  1. pramudita-bhūmi (joyful stage): danaparamita (perfection of charity)
  2. vimala-bhūmi (free of defilements stage): śīlapāramitā (perfection of ethical behavior)
  3. prabhākarībhūmi (light-giving stage): dhyānapāramitā (perfection of contemplation)
  4. arcīṣmatībhūmi (glowing wisdom stage): kṣāntipāramitā (perfection of patience)
  5. sudurjayā-bhūmi (mastery of utmost difficulty stage): vīryapāramitā (perfection of energy)
  6. abhimukhībhūmi (wisdom beyond definition of impure or pure stage): prajñāpāramitā (perfection of wisdom)
  7. dūrāṅgamā-bhūmi (proceeding afar stage [in which a bodhisattva gets beyond self to help others]): upāyakauśalyapāramitā (perfection of utilizing one's expertise)
  8. acala-bhūmi (calm and unperturbed stage): praṇidhānapāramitā (perfection of making vows to save all sentient beings)
  9. sadhumati-bhūmi (good thought stage): balapāramitā (perfection of power to guide sentient beings)
  10. dharmamagha-bhūmi (rain cloud of dharma stage): jñānapāramitā (perfection of all-inclusive wisdom)

However, the numbers of stages of a bodhisattva are inconsistent from sūtra to sūtra and from commentary to commentary. One finds fifty-two stages in the Pusa yingluo benye jing (Taishō no. 1485), fifty-one in the Renwang jing (Humane Kings SŪtra, Taishō no. 245), forty in both the Fanwang jing (BrahmĀSNet SŪtra, Taishō no. 1484) and the Avataṃsakasūtra (Huayan jing, Taishō no. 278), fifty-seven in the Śūrangama [samādhi]-sūtra (Taishō no. 642), fifty-four in the Cheng weishi lun (Taishō no. 1591), four in the Mahāyānasaṃgraha (She dasheng lun, Taishō no. 1594), and both thirteen and seven stages in the Bodhisattvabhūmi (Pusa dichi jing, Taishō no. 1581).

There are other classifications of bodhisattvas, such as those who enter enlightenment quickly and those who enter gradually; those who are householders and those who are not, each divided into nine classes; those who are extremely compassionate, such as Avalokiteśvara; and those who are extremely wise, such as Mañjuśrī. Maitreya bodhisattva is considered to be the future buddha who is prophesized to appear in this world. Śākyamuni himself is understood to have been a bodhisattva in his past lives and is so called in the accounts of his previous births (jĀtaka).

In order to distinguish him from the śrāvakas and pratyekabuddhas, who benefit only themselves, a Mahāyāna bodhisattva is characterized as one who makes vows to benefit all sentient beings, as well as himself. In the Pure Land tradition, for example, according to the Larger SukhĀvatĪvyŪha-sŪtra, the Bodhisattva Mahāsattva Dharmākara makes forty-eight vows and becomes the Buddha of Infinite Light and Life (AmitĀbha or Amitāyus), who resides in the Western Quarter and functions as a salvific buddha.

Among the well-known bodhisattvas, Avalokiteśvara and Maitreya are probably the most popular in East Asia. In the East Asian Buddhist tradition, Avalokitesśvara, better known by the Chinese name Guanyin (Korean, Kwanseuŭm; Japanese, Kannon), is worshiped by both clergy and laity as a mother figure, a savior, and a mentor, who responds to the pain and suffering of sentient beings. In Tibet, Tenzin Gyatso, the fourteenth Dalai Lama, is considered to be a reincarnation of Avalokitesśvara.

Maitreya (Pāli, Metteyya) bodhisattva, who is said to dwell in Tusita heaven, is known as the "future buddha" because he will appear in this world to reestablish Buddhism after all vestiges of the current dispensation of Śākyamuni Buddha have vanished. Tradition holds that AsaṄga went to Tuṣita to study

under Maitreya, where he received five treatises from him that became the basis for establishing the YogĀcĀra school. Worship of Maitreya as the future buddha has also contributed to millenarianism and millenarian movements in several Buddhist traditions.

Mañjuśrī and Samantabhadra are bodhisattvas who are often depicted in a triad together with the primordial Buddha Vairocana. Samantabhadra stands on Vairocana's right side and Mañjuśrī on his left. Samantabhadra is also often shown seated on the back of a white elephant, holding a wish-fulfilling jewel, a lotus flower, or a scripture, exemplifying his role as the guardian of the teaching and practice of the Buddha. Mañjuśrī, by contrast, represents wisdom, and is depicted wielding a flaming sword that cuts through the veil of ignorance.

Buddhist scholars and savants of India, such as NĀgĀrjuna and Vasubandhu, have been referred to as bodhisattvas; in China, Dao'an, for example, is known as Yinshou pusa. In more modern times, founders of new Buddhist movements in China, Taiwan, Japan, and the United States are considered by followers to be bodhisattvas and, in some cases, even buddhas.

See also:Bodhisattva Images; Mudrā and Visual Imagery


Dayal, Har. The Bodhisattva Doctrine in Buddhist Sanskrit Literature. London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner, 1932.

Dutt, Nalinaksha, ed. Bodhisattva-bhūmiḥ. Patna, India: K. P. Jayaswal Research Institute, 1978.

Hardacre, Helen, and Sponberg, Alan, eds. Maitreya, the Future Buddha. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1988.

Kawamura, Leslie S., ed. The Bodhisattva Doctrine in Buddhism. Waterloo, ON: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 1981.

Ogihara Unrai, ed. Bodhisattva-bhūmi: A Statement of Whole Course of the Bodhisattva. Tokyo: Sankibo Buddhist Book Store, 1971.

Yü Chün-fang. Kuan-yin: The Chinese Transformation of Avalokiteśvara. New York: Columbia University Press, 2001.

Leslie S. Kawamura