A bodhisattva is a great practitioner who is walking on the path toward Buddhahood by benefiting all sentient beings as well as themselves. The path of the bodhisattva is a long, selfless journey through countless kalpas that requires diligent cultivation of patience, compassion, mindfulness, and wisdom. Full of compassion for others, bodhisattvas make the great vow to liberate sentient beings from suffering and help guide them toward awakening.
The word “bodhisattva” is derived from two Sanskrit words: bodhi and sattva. Bodhi means “to awaken” and sattva means “sentient being.” Therefore, bodhisattva means a “sentient being who is seeking awakening.” A bodhisattva is a practitioner who is seeking awakening, helps others liberate themselves, cultivates various perfections, and eventually will attain Buddhahood. Bodhisattvas are beings who perfect the practice benefitting both themselves and others in their pursuit of awakening.
Liberating Sentient Beings
All bodhisattvas must make the vow to liberate all sentient beings from suffering. There are two different ways they can fulfill this vow:
First liberate oneself; then liberate others. Without attaining liberation for oneself, how is it possible to liberate others? When someone is drowning and we do not know how to swim ourselves, how can we save him? Therefore, before helping and liberating others, a bodhisattva must be liberated from the cycle of birth and death and must reach the state without affliction and suffering.
First liberate others; then liberate oneself. This is precisely the bodhisattva vow. A bodhisattva learns all teachings for sentient beings. If a bodhisattva cultivates the path away from sentient beings, then he can no longer be called a bodhisattva. When bodhisattvas completely liberate all sentient beings, that is when they fulfill the bodhisattva path.
Regardless of the approach we take, when we make a Mahayana vow to seek the Way, helping and liberating sentient beings becomes our primary responsibility. There is a saying for bodhisattvas to describe themselves, “Teaching Dharma is my duty, benefiting sentient beings is my mission.”
The Mind of a Bodhisattva
The mind of the bodhisattva has three elements: the aspiration for awakening, great compassion, and skillful means. Master Taixu (1889-1947) said that the aspiration for awakening is the cause, great compassion is the root, and skillful means are the ultimate truth. In Mahayana Buddhism, when practitioners are on the bodhisattva path, they cultivate the mind in this way.
The aspiration for awakening is the mind seeking to attain Buddhahood. Becoming a Buddha requires countless kalpas of cultivation. Unless we develop the aspiration for supreme awakening, how can we bear such long-term challenges?
The sutras say that if one more person in the world generates the aspiration for awakening, this creates another seed of awakening. Practicing Buddhism without generating the aspiration for awakening is like tilling the land without sowing seeds. If we do not sow any seeds, how can we have a harvest in the future? The aspiration for awakening leads to making the bodhisattva’s four universal vows:
Sentient beings are limitless, I vow to liberate them.
Afflictions are endless, I vow to eradicate them.
Teachings are infinite, I vow to learn them.
Buddhahood is supreme, I vow to attain it.
According to the Flower Adornment Sutra, “When one loses the aspiration for awakening, even if he cultivates good conduct, it is unwholesome.” When bodhisattvas lose the aspiration for awakening, they cannot benefit any sentient beings. Therefore, the aspiration for awakening is the root of all wisdom and the basis for practicing great compassion.
Great compassion is the quality of mind that wishes to liberate sentient beings. When a bodhisattva wishes to come to the aid of sentient beings, they must do so with a mind imbued with great loving-kindness and great compassion. A bodhisattva uses their great loving-kindness to bring others joy, and their great compassion to remove the suffering of others. Bodhisattvas should treat the suffering and happiness of all sentient beings as their own. When they liberate sentient beings, they do not seek anything in return, but instead see helping others as their responsibility. A bodhisattva is one who wishes to shoulder the burden of sentient beings, and hopes to liberate others from suffering rather than seeking peace and happiness for themselves. This is truly great compassion.
Skillful means can be implemented by practicing the four means of embracing. Sentient beings have different capacities to understand the Dharma, so bodhisattvas must wisely apply skillful means to liberate them. Having observed the different capacities of sentient beings, the Buddha taught 84,000 teachings, which all became the Buddha’s skillful means. A bodhisattva applies the four means of embracing—giving, kind words, altruism, and empathy—so that sentient beings can be happy.
The Characteristics of a Bodhisattva
The bodhisattva’s most unique characteristics are compassion and selflessness. Whenever bodhisattvas see sentient beings suffering, great compassion arises from deep within them, and they make the great vow to liberate sentient beings from suffering. Therefore, compassion is the force that moves bodhisattvas to attain Buddhahood by benefitting themselves and others.
The compassion that bodhisattvas have for sentient beings is like the love that parents have for their children. To fulfill their needs, they would be willing to sacrifice their own lives. A bodhisattvas’ great loving-kindness and compassion extends to all sentient beings just as the sun shines on every corner of the land. Bodhisattvas use their compassion as a foundation to apply prajna-wisdom to liberate sentient beings based on the needs of each of them.
One of the greatest bodhisattvas is Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva, who is known as the bodhisattva of compassion. With his incomparable compassion, he made twelve great vows to liberate all sentient beings. The name of Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva is translated into Chinese as guanshiyin (觀世音), “observing the sounds of the world,” for at any time and any place, he is able to observe the cries of those seeking assistance and applies his supernatural powers and skillful means to manifest before sentient beings. So long as there are sentient beings who cry out for help, Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva will appear and respond. In accordance with the various needs of sentient beings, he manifests in thirty-two bodily forms wherever he is needed to relieve suffering and distress.
In the Universal Gate chapter of the Lotus Sutra, the Buddha explains to Aksayamati Bodhisattva why Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva is known as “observing the sounds of the world”:
Aksayamati Bodhisattva said to the Buddha, “World-honored One, how did Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva come to this Saha world? How does he teach the Dharma for the sake of living beings? How does he apply the power of skillful means?”
The Buddha told Aksayamati Bodhisattva, “Good men, if there are living beings in this land who should be liberated by someone in the form of a Buddha, then Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva will manifest in the form of a Buddha and teach the Dharma to them.”
“For those who should be liberated by someone in the form of a pratyekabuddha, then he will manifest in the form of a pratyekabuddha and teach the Dharma to them. For those who should be liberated by someone in the form of a sravaka, then he will manifest in the form of a sravaka and teach the Dharma to them.
“For those who should be liberated by someone in the form of King Brahma, then he will manifest in the form of King Brahma and teach the Dharma to them. For those who should be liberated by someone in the form of Lord Sakra, then he will manifest in the form of Lord Sakra and teach the Dharma to them. For those who should be liberated by someone in the form of Isvara, then he will manifest in the form of Isvara and teach the Dharma to them.
“For those who should be liberated by someone in the form of the Mahesvara, then he will manifest in the form of the Mahesvara and teach the Dharma to them. For those who should be liberated by someone in the form of a great heavenly general, then he will manifest in the form of a great heavenly general and teach the Dharma to them. For those who should be liberated by someone in the form of Vaisravana, then he will manifest in the form of Vaisravana and teach the Dharma to them.
“For those who should be liberated by someone in the form of a lesser king, then he will manifest in the form of a lesser king and teach the Dharma to them. For those who should be liberated by someone in the form of an elder, then he will manifest in the form of an elder and teach the Dharma to them. For those who should be liberated by someone in the form of a layperson, then he will manifest in the form of a layperson and teach the Dharma to them. For those who should be liberated by someone in the form of a minister, then he will manifest in the form of a minister and teach the Dharma to them. For those who should be liberated by someone in the form of a brahman, then he will manifest in the form of a brahman and teach the Dharma to them.
“For those who should be liberated by someone in the form of a bhiksu, a bhiksuni, an upasaka, or an upasika, then he will manifest in the form of a bhiksu, a bhiksuni, an upasaka, or an upasika and teach the Dharma to them.
“For those who should be liberated by someone in the form of a woman who is an elder, a layperson, a minister, or a brahman, then he will manifest in the form of a woman and teach the Dharma to them.
“For those who should be liberated by someone in the form of a young boy or young girl, then he will manifest in the form of a young boy or young girl and teach the Dharma to them.
“For those who should be liberated by someone in such forms as a deva, a naga, a yaksa, a gandharva, an asura, a garuda, a kimnara, a mahoraga, human or nonhuman being, then he will manifest in all these forms and teach the Dharma to them.
“For those who should be liberated by a vajrapani deity, then he will manifest as a vajrapani deity and teach the Dharma to them.
“Aksayamati, such is the merit that Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva has accomplished, and the various forms in which he wanders the various lands bringing liberation to living beings.
“This is why all of you should single-mindedly make offerings to Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva, for it is the great Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva who can bestow fearlessness in the midst of terror and in dire circumstances. This is why everyone in this Saha world calls him the bestower of fearlessness.”
To Mahayana Buddhists, Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva is widely considered to be the very embodiment of the Buddha’s compassion. His deep cultivation is characteristic of the bodhisattva’s compassion and selflessness.
The Practice of the Bodhisattva Path
Buddhism is a religion that emphasizes practice, but it is also a philosophy with ethical characteristics. The Buddhist sutras contain many profound doctrines on truth and the universe, and in this sense it can be considered a philosophy. However, Buddhism places great emphasis on the application of morality and ethics to life, so it can be classified as a religion. In fact, the Buddha himself was regarded as a moral role model. After the Buddha attained awakening, he repeatedly taught that we should, “Do nothing that is unwholesome, do all that is wholesome, and purify the mind” with the hope that all sentient beings could purify themselves through moral conduct.
Practicing the bodhisattva path is just like any other kind of learning; one must go step by step. From the state of an ordinary person who has afflictions to the state of the bodhisattva who has cut off all defilements, there are definite stages of cultivation. In order to progress through these stages and become a sage, a bodhisattva must fulfill the thirty-seven aspects of awakening, the four means of embracing, and the six perfections.
The “thirty-seven aspects of awakening” are the four bases of mindfulness, the four right efforts, the four bases of spiritual power, the five faculties, the five strengths, the seven factors of awakening, and the Noble Eightfold Path. These methods are the resources that can help us cut off unwholesome deeds, develop wholesome conduct, eliminate ignorance, and enter the path of awakening. For these reasons, the practitioners on the bodhisattva path should diligently cultivate these thirty-seven aspects of awakening.
However, the most important teaching for developing the bodhisattva path is that of the six perfections. Called the six paramita in Sanskrit, it means “leading to the other shore” or having accomplished the goal of awakening. The six perfections liberate us from delusion and lead us to awakening, liberate us from evil and lead us towards the right path, and liberate us from suffering and grant us happiness. The six perfections liberate all sentient beings from the shore of affliction and ferry them to the other shore of liberation. The six perfections are forms of practice that bodhisattvas must cultivate in order to become Buddhas:
The perfection of giving. To be generous without any attachment to form is the perfection of giving. All gifts should be given without any attachment to what is being given, who is giving, or who is receiving the gift. This is the way that a bodhisattva gives.
The perfection of morality. This is to respect and not violate sentient beings. Observing the Buddhist precepts, acting in accordance with right Dharma, and practicing the path of benefiting sentient beings is the bodhisattvas’ way of upholding the precepts.
The perfection of patience. This is the sense of equanimity that allows us to endure what is difficult to endure. To learn all teachings, one should practice patience by being tolerant in the face of persecution, by being accepting amidst adversity, and by contemplating all truths. When one is able to do what is difficult to do and endure what is difficult to endure without retreating in fear, this is the bodhisattvas’ way of practicing patience.
The perfection of diligence. This means to fearlessly refrain from what is unwholesome and do what is wholesome. Bodhisattvas do not fear obstacles, but diligently develop courage, diligently practice the Dharma, and diligently bring joy and benefit to others. They do not tire of teaching even the most obstinate of sentient beings and apply their efforts ceaselessly.
The perfection of meditative concentration. This means to not differentiate with the mind and maintain right mindfulness. Bodhisattvas apply meditative concentration to settle themselves and others, and to demonstrate right mindfulness to all sentient beings.
The perfection of prajna-wisdom. Prajna is the great wisdom that is beyond the duality of emptiness and existence. Bodhisattvas skillfully apply their prajna-wisdom to inspire sentient beings to do what is right and good, and gradually liberate them from their suffering.
The six perfections of a bodhisattva are altruistic and profound. A true practitioner practices the six perfections and protects the Dharma, allowing it to spread throughout the universe. Such a person sincerely strives to create a bright future to benefit our communities. When we can generate the same compassion and the same aspiration for awakening as the bodhisattvas, and cultivate the six perfections for our own benefit and the benefit of others, then the Pure Land of Humanistic Buddhism will appear before us.