What is a Bodhisattva?

Bodhisattva – Kannon – Metropolitan Museum, New York

WHAT, OR WHO, IS A ‘BODHISATTVA’? And what are the ‘Bodhisattva Vows’?

There are two main ways of defining the term, ‘bodhisattva.’ The first, often seen as a Theravada view, is that a bodhisattva is a Buddhist practitioner, often considered as a kind of deity, who has attained the highest level of enlightenment, but who delays their entry into nirvana or paradise in order to help all other beings to achieve nirvana. These bodhisattvas, of which there are many, are often represented in sculptures and paintings in Buddhist temples and monasteries.

Well-known bodhisattvas include Manjusri – associated with wisdom, and Maitreya – a future Buddha. But probably the most well-known and popular bodhisattva is known in Sanskrit as Avalokiteśvara, who takes both male and female forms and is associated with the qualities of mercy and compassion; its Chinese incarnation, Guanyin or Kuanyin, is always represented as female – ‘Guanyin’ translates as the ‘perceiver of sounds’. Guanyin, Buddhists believe, can hear the cries of all those who suffer on earth and guide them towards nirvana or awakening. Bodhisattva is ‘bosatsu’ in Japanese, and Guanyin is ‘Kannon.’

The earliest source for the doctrines of Avalokiteśvara is in the 25th chapter of the Lotus Sutra, one of the foundation texts of Mahayana Buddhism, which originated in India around the beginning of the first century AD.

This statue of Avalokiteśvara, now in the St Louis Art Museum, depicts the bodhisattva seated, with legs folded as if meditating. It is made of a single woodblock, decorated with quartz and carnelian, and was made in China at the time of the Northern Song dynasty (960-1127).

The second way of defining bodhisattva, associated more, but not exclusively, with the Mahayana tradition, is that any person who devotes their life to the way of the Buddha (whether they call themselves Buddhist or not) is a bodhisattva. They seek awakening not just for themselves but for all beings – they work to ease suffering in themselves and other beings, and to ensure the wellbeing of the planet which is our home.

Within some Buddhist traditions practitioners may formalise their commitment to the path of the Buddha by taking what are known as the Bodhisattva Vows. These vows may have originated in China around the sixth century and may have been derived from an earlier Sanskrit gatha (a four-line verse). By the turn of the eighth century, the teaching of the Chinese Zen master, Huineng, seems well-imbued with the spirit of these vows. Today they are recited at the end of religious meetings in many Mahayana centres.

There are many different translations of the vows. Here are two:

Beings are numberless; I vow to save them.

Greed, hatred, and ignorance rise endlessly; I vow to abandon them.

Dharma gates are countless; I vow to wake to them.

Buddha’s way is unsurpassed; I vow to embody it fully.

[Trans. Robert Aitken]

Here is another:

Suffering beings are numberless, I vow to liberate them all.

Attachment is inexhaustible, I vow to release it all.

The gates to truth are numberless, I vow to master them all.

The way of awakening is supreme, I vow to realize awakening.

[Trans. Jack Kornfield]

Kornfield suggests that everyone can modify the language of these vows so that they are meaningful to each person. Reciting them every time we sit in meditation, may be an effective reminder of why we are meditating.

Here is my own version:

Everyone suffers; I vow to ease suffering.

Greed, hatred and delusion are insatiable; I vow to understand and let go.

There are many ways to ease suffering; I vow to learn some of them.

The paths of awakening work; I vow to practice them.