“Bodhisattva (bodhi = enlightenment + sattva = being) is a Sanskrit word which can be interpreted in two ways:

1) Enlightener of Sentient Beings. The Bodhisattva takes the enlightenment that he has been certified as having attained, the wisdom that he has uncovered, and uses that enlightened wisdom to enlighten all other sentient beings.

2) An Enlightened Sentient Being. The Bodhisattva is also a sentient being, but he is one who has become enlightened.

Together these two meanings show that a Bodhisattva is an enlightened sentient being who enlightens other beings.” (HD 13)

Good man, you should know that what a Bodhisattva does is most difficult. It is difficult for him to appear (in the world) and difficult for one to encounter him. To be able to see a Bodhisattva is twice as difficult. A Bodhisattva is one on whom all living beings rely. He causes them to grow and brings them to realization. He is the savior of all living beings, because he plucks them out of suffering and hardships. He is the refuge of all beings, because he protects and guards the world. He is the rescuer of all beings, because he delivers them from fear. (EDR II 70)

A Bodhisattva is someone who has resolved to become a Buddha (see Bodhi resolve) and who is cultivating the Path to becoming a Buddha. Usually the term Bodhisattva is reserved for those who have reached some level of enlightenment. The term Bodhisattva, Mahasattva (great being), refers to Bodhisattvas who have gone beyond the seventh ground of the Bodhisattva Path (see Ten Grounds).

“A Bodhisattva . . . is also called ‘a living being with a great mind attuned to the Way.’ No matter how badly people may act towards him, he doesn’t hold it against them. He absolutely never becomes irritated, never loses his temper. . . .” (SS I 107)

“Bodhisattva is an extremely spiritual and holy name. . . . Some people claim they are Bodhisattvas, although they are not. Some people who are Bodhisattvas will not admit it. You see, it is very strange: those who are not Bodhisattvas say they are, while those who are don’t say so. Ultimately, whether you say so or not, those who aren’t, aren’t, and those who are, are. There is no need to say so. Bodhisattvas don’t put ads in the newspapers saying, ‘Do you recognize me? I am a Bodhisattva.'” (HS 96)

“When the Bodhisattva walks the Bodhisattva Path, he does what is very difficult. From an ordinary point of view, a Bodhisattva practicing the Bodhisattva Path appears quite stupid. If he were not, then why would he choose to undergo suffering himself in order to come and teach and transform living beings? But no matter what kind of suffering there is, he can endure it. He undergoes intense suffering even to the point of enduring the suffering due other living beings. If the Bodhisattva weren’t stupid, then why would he take such a big personal loss? He doesn’t benefit himself in anything he does. But that isn’t because he is stupid. A Bodhisattva has great wisdom. Because he has great wisdom, he wants to take across all living beings and cause all of them to have wisdom too. He wants to forsake himself for the sake of the multitudes. He forsakes his own small self in order to bring living beings’ great selves to realization. When you walk the Path of the Bodhisattva you benefit yourself and you benefit others. In doing this you shouldn’t fear any kind of suffering. The Bodhisattva undergoes suffering just as if he were eating candy. He undergoes suffering as if there were no suffering to undergo. Furthermore, he wants to undergo suffering for the sake of all living beings. That is the one kind of suffering that’s worthwhile. Moreover, the Bodhisattva thinks that:

To endure suffering is to end suffering.
To enjoy blessings is to exhaust blessings.

Because he thinks in that way, he undergoes suffering on behalf of living beings. He transfers all of his bliss to all living beings in the Dharma Realm (see transference/dedication). The merit from this kind of open and unselfish action is inexhaustible. It is completely public spirited, and it is for the benefit of all living beings.” (FAS Ch9 44)

“A Bodhisattva is someone who likes to help other people. If you help others, then you are a Bodhisattva. If I help others, then I am a Bodhisattva. If you do not help others, then you are a raksasa ghost. If I do not help others, then I am a raksasa ghost. . . .

“‘But I have no power to help others,’ you say. ‘First of all I have no money, and secondly I don’t know how to talk to people. How can I help people?’

“. . . Have a compassionate mouth, not one which scolds people. Have a skilful tongue that finds ways to reason with people, not a tongue which continually gossips. Find a way to lessen the strife and discord in the world. Then, whether or not you have money, you can foster merit. If you have money, you can use that too, but what is more important is to have good thoughts, do good deeds, and be a good person. . . .” (DS 5-6)

The Path of the Bodhisattva consists of practicing the Six (or ten) Paramitas and traversing the many stages of partial enlightenment leading to the perfect enlightenment of Buddhahood.

The Venerable Shariputra Tries to Cultivate
the Path of the Bodhisattva

“The Venerable Shariputra, upon hearing the Buddha say that cultivating the Bodhisattva Way was the door of the Great Vehicle practice, decided that he too would cultivate the Bodhisattva Way. When you are cultivating the Bodhisattva Path, if someone wants your head, you have to give them your head. If they want your hands, you have to give them your hands. If they want your feet, you have to give your feet away. In general, if living beings want your body, you are supposed to give it to them: head, eyes, brains, marrow-that’s inner wealth. If someone needs those things of yours, and you’re cultivating the Bodhisattva Path, you have to give them up.

“Shariputra personally told the Buddha that he was going to cultivate the Bodhisattva Way, to cultivate Great Vehicle Dharma. The Buddha said, ‘You’d better try it out first. It is not all that easy. Give it a preliminary three-month trial run. Then if you find you really can do it, you can set about cultivation of the Bodhisattva Way in earnest. In cultivating the Bodhisattva Way, you must have an attitude of there being no self, no others, no living beings, and no lifespan. You have to be able to stomach the most bitter things, and yield the most pleasant ones to others. You must sacrifice yourself for the sake of others.’

“Shariputra said, ‘I think I can do that. I imagine I could give my body away to someone if that person asked for it.’

“The Buddha said, ‘Okay, go try it out.’

“Thereupon Shariputra set out to cultivate the Bodhisattva Way. As he was walking the Bodhisattva Path, he saw a stone in the road and said to himself, ‘I should move this rock away or else people with poor eyesight walking along this road could break a leg or have a spill and be injured.’ And so he moved the rock away and thought to himself, ‘I’m cultivating the Bodhisattva Way.’ He kept on going and ran into a hole full of water. He said, ‘I’d better fill this hole. It would be easy to walk here if there weren’t any water. Filling the hole would prevent situations such as that when Shakyamuni Buddha in a previous life had to spread out his hair to cover a mud puddle.’ And so he found a pail and brought load after load of dirt until he had filled the hole so there was no more water. Then he said to himself, ‘These are both ways of benefitting people. The road wasn’t easy to travel on but I’ve repaired it, and that is cultivating the Bodhisattva Way.’ He was very happy that he had cultivated the Bodhisattva Way twice that day. When he went back and sat in meditation that evening, he felt very comfortable and said, ‘It’s not strange that people cultivate the Bodhisattva Way. It’s really fine. Today I have fewer false thoughts during my meditation. I’m certainly going to continue to cultivate the Bodhisattva Way.’

“The next day he set out for the mountains, where he found lots of dead trees. He said, “I’m going to clear those dead trees off to one side, which will also be cultivation of the Bodhisattva Way.’ Then he met an eyeless person who was walking down the road without a guide. He thought, “I should cultivate the Bodhisattva Way and escort this blind person to his home.’ And so he said, ‘Mr Blindman, where do you want to go?’

“The eyeless person said, ‘You are the blindman!’

“Shariputra thought, ‘What? He’s the blindman, and he gets upset when I call him “Mr Blindman”. Oh well, when one cultivates the Bodhisattva Way, one has to be patient.’ And so he said, ‘Oh, you are Mr Has Eyes.’

“To that the blindman retorted, ‘What’s it to you if I have eyes or not?’ He was exploding with anger as he scolded him.

“Shariputra said, ‘I just want to help you. I’ll guide you wherever you want to go.’

“The blind man said, ‘I don’t need any help from you,’ and told him off.

“Shariputra said to himself, ‘The Bodhisattva Way is not easy to cultivate! I wanted to show him the road and he cursed me. But be patient, practice theparamita of patience and don’t pay any attention to him. However, I think I’ll take the Bodhisattva Way back with me for the day and let it rest a little. Tomorrow we’ll see.’

He returned, and as he sat in meditation that evening he kept having false thoughts about what had happened. ‘He was blind and when I wanted to guide him along the road he cursed me! People in the world are really weird.’ But he still didn’t think of quitting, and hadn’t decided it was too hard to cultivate the Bodhisattva Way. He still thought to himself, ‘If he scolds me a bit it’s not important. I can take it. I wouldn’t have even cared if he had hit me.!’

“The next day he set out again to cultivate the Bodhisattva Way. On the Bodhisattva Way he encountered a person who was walking along and crying, sobbing his heart out. Shariputra asked him, ‘What’s wrong? Whatever trouble you are in you can tell me about it. You don’t have to be so sad and in so much pain.’

“The crying person said, ‘You shouldn’t even ask about my troubles! There’s nothing you could do to help me.’

“Shariputra said, ‘Maybe there’s something I can do for you. Give it a try and tell me.’

“The man said, `It wouldn’t do any good to tell you. Don’t waste my time. I’ve got too much pain in my heart, so all I can do is cry.’

“Shariputra said, ‘I’m sure I can help you. Tell me what’s wrong, and I’ll find a way to help.’

“The man said,’Do you really mean it? It’s because my mother is sick. She went to see the doctor, who wrote her a prescription that says she needs the eye of a living person to cure her. I’ve gone the rounds of all the pharmacies trying to buy a live person’s eye, but there are none for sale. That kind of medicine doesn’t exist, so there’s no way to cure my mother’s illness, and all I can do is cry. At first I intended to take out my own eye to cure her, but I can’t give it up. It’s too painful. And so now there’s nothing I can do but cry!’

“Shariputra thought it over, ‘I really should help him out of this painful dilemma. This is a Bodhisattva Way I should cultivate! Also, he is very filial. I’ve found a friend in my cultivation of the Bodhisattva Way. This is excellent! I should practice this Bodhisattva Way!’ He thought it over for not very long-maybe two minutes-and made up his mind, ‘I’m going to do it!’ Then he said, ‘Don’t cry. I’ll give you my eye to help you out.’

“The man said, ‘Really? Of course that would be wonderful! Can you really give up your eye to cure my mother’s illness?’

“Shariputra said, ‘It’s no big deal. I can give it up. I’m someone who wants to cultivate the Bodhisattva Way.’

“The person said, ‘Fine. I’m going to bow to you first, bow to this Bodhisattva who wants to cultivate the Bodhisattva Way.’

“After the person bowed to him, Shariputra couldn’t get out of giving up his eye, and so he took a knife and gouged out his left eye. He was able to stand the pain and said, ‘Okay, you can take this to cure your mother’s illness.’

“The person took it, looked at it and said, ‘Ugh, your eye stinks! And anyway its a left eye, and I need a right eye. It’s totally useless!’ He slammed the eye to the ground and stamped it into the dirt with his foot, smashing it to bits.

“At that, Shariputra’s heart was filled with pain. Before he had been able to bear the hurt from his eye, but now there was hurt from his eye and from his heart too, and he said, ‘It’s no wonder the Buddha said to give cultivating the Bodhisattva Way a trial run. It’ really hard to cultivate the Bodhisattva Way! It’s really hard!!!’ He was in pain and regretted it; he didn’t want to cultivate the Bodhisattva Way anymore.

“The crying person started to laugh and said, ‘Oh, so that’s how your Bodhisattva Way was all along. It was just a start without a finish. You could only manage to get started, but you couldn’t keep it up. What kind of Bodhisattva Way were you cultivating anyway?’ After saying that, he rose into empty space; it turned out that he was a god who had come to test him. Furthermore, Shariputra hadn’t lost his eye after all, but his Bodhisattva Way was finished.” (FAS-PI 51-54)

The Bodhisattva in Theravada Buddhism

That Theravada Buddhists do not recognize the Bodhisattva is a widespread misconception. In Theravada both the Buddha Shakyamuni and the Buddhas of the past are referred to as Bodhisattvas. The reality of the Bodhisattva Path, which is the Path to becoming a Buddha, is acknowledged, but it is considered by Theravadins to be too difficult for all but a rare few to follow.

1) Ch. pu sa , pu ti sa duo , 2) Skt. bodhisattva, 3) Pali bodhisatta, 4) Alternate Translations: bodhi-being, Buddha-to-be, person destined for enlightenment.

See also: Mahayana and Hinayana compared, Bodhi resolve (Bodhichitta), enlightenment.

BTTS References: HS 95-97, DFS II 301-2; DS 5-6;TD 27-29; HD 13; EDR II 70-72; UW 25-26; FAS-PI 51-54 ; FAS Ch9 44-45; FAS Ch 11 39; SS I 107; SS VI 48-55; AS 98-99.