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Bodhisattva (Sanskrit: meaning “Awakened Truth” or "Enlightenment Being") refers to savior-like figures found in Mahāyāna Buddhism as well as distinctive Mahayana beliefs and practices that cultivate savior-like qualities. The Bodhisattva figures are famous for embodying compassion and other noble qualities. They take the "Bodhisattva Vow" to forsake their individual enlightenment in order to aid in the awakening (bodhi) of all beings.

The bodhisattvas are distinct from the arhat in three ways: 1) their motivation seeks to aid all beings rather than themselves, 2) their goal is complete enlightenment for all instead of extinguishing merely one's own suffering, and 3) they see sunyata (emptiness) as the deepest truth.[1] As a result, the bodhisattva path is often presented as distinctive practices of Mahāyāna Buddhism that distinguish it from the Theravadan tradition. This doctrine provides a model of an engaged form of Buddhism that does not run away from the suffering of the world, but actively seeks to end it for all beings.


Scholars are still unsure of when or how bodhisattvas emerged as such an important force within Mahāyāna Buddhism. The concept of celestial bodhisattvas and the practices that constitute the bodhisattva vehicle (bodhisattva-yāna) were well established by the second century C.E., as evidenced in their prominence in the then recent Mahāyāna sutras.

The archetype of the bodhisattva emerged out of the past life stories (jataka) of the Buddha, which tell of his lives before he was fully enlightened. Mitchell relates the story of what was perhaps the most critical moment of the Buddha's past lives:

In the Pali texts, there is a story about a person named Sumedha, who lived eons ago and during his lifetime met a Buddha named Diipamkara. Sumedha decided not to become a disciple of Diipamkara and strive to be an arhat. Rather, he decided to follow what is called the Path of the Bodhisattva in order to become a Buddha... Sumedha was successful and eventually became Gautama Buddha. (96)

Most of these jataka stories were ascribed to the Buddha posthumously, and seem to have their origins in folk tradition rather than canonical sources. Likewise, Western scholars believe that many celestial bodhisattvas may have their roots in local religious movements that worshiped a particular divine being. In a practice typical to Mahāyāna Buddhism, these figures were incorporated into the pantheon as bodhisattvas.

The Tripitaka, which Theravada Buddhists believe records the words of the historical Buddha, documents his insistence that no images or statues of him be made, and that followers instead focus on their own liberation. Western scholars believe that despite this request, he ended up setting the forces in motion that would become Buddhist devotionalism (out of which the notion of celestial bodhisattvas arises) when he agreed to have his cremated remains enshrined as a reminder of the impermanence of all things, even the Buddha. These artifacts, kept within stupas (reliquaries), eventually became pilgrimage sites for Buddhists, which in turn led to the advent of devotionalism in Buddhism. This change was embraced by the Mahāyāna school, who invited the mass participation of the laity more than the Theravadins.

The Pali texts also speak of a future buddha, Maitreya, who is presently a bodhisattva training for a future time when the world is in need of a fresh transmission of the dharma (Buddhist teachings). So while Theravadins recognize the existence of the bodhisattva-yāna, they do not see it as an appropriate path for most people, who would be better suited to the pursuit of nirvana.

Celestial bodhisattvas

Mahāyāna Buddhists believe that celestial bodhisattvas are advanced beings who are no longer bound by the suffering of birth and death, but are not yet fully enlightened Buddhas. The most popular ones are considered to be mahasattva (great truth) bodhisattvas such as Avalokiteshvara (Tib. Chenrizig, Chinese Quan Yin, Jap. Kannon), Tara, and Vajrasattva. These beings can be prayed to for particular needs, such as protection (Tara), and are often portrayed as the attendants of Buddhas.

Devotionalism directed towards bodhisattvas remains the most common form of practice in the Mahāyāna tradition, and it is common for laity to offer incense, food and prayers to these figures. Buddhists believe that bodhisattvas are able to help ordinary beings by transferring their good karma to them. This act creates a feedback loop, because giving selflessly of ones own merit in turn creates more merit, so that they are able to continuously offer their aid. While the worship of bodhisattvas may seem odd to some Westerners who see Buddhism as a religion of pure reason devoid of any “religious” features, it is extremely common and is encouraged by the monastic community as a way for the laity to generate good karma, and to bring about the qualities represented by the bodhisattvas into their minds. For instance, in praying to Avalokiteshvara, bodhisattva of compassion, this quality automatically arises in the mind of the devotee, thius helping to generate what is for Buddhists the most important of traits.

This last feature is also particularly important in the meditative practices of Buddhist tantra, where bodhisattva's are visualized in order to bring their qualities into practicioners' minds. As Powers points out, "such bodhisattvas are not creating a delusional system in order to hide from the harsher aspects of reality. Rather, they are transforming reality, making it conform to an ideal archetype"[2] Celestial bodhisattvas are also credited with starting various tantric lineages, appearing to advanced meditiators in their sambhogakaya (“enjoyment body”) form and initiating them into new practices (such as in the Kagyü school of Tibetan Buddhism).

Mahāyāna Buddhists also believe that these beings can create numerous emanation bodies, which may take any form that they choose. Famous saints are often posthumously said to have been emanations. The most renowned example of this is the Dalai Lama, who is simultaneously the reincarnation of the first Dalai Lama, Gendun Drup (1391-1474 C.E.), and a nirmanakaya of Avalokiteshvara.

The Bodhisattva Path

The bodhisattva path (often referred to by Vajrayāna practitioners as the “gradual path of perfections and stages”) offers Mahāyāna Buddhists a systematic guide to their development through the use of special vows, the generation of the six paramita (perfections), and a map of personal development through ten bhumi (stages), all of which is said to culminate in full buddhahood. This path is outlined in detail in Mahāyāna literature by authors such as Nagarjuna (the Precious Garland), Chandrakirti ("Entry Into the Middle Way"), Asanga ("The Stages of a Bodhisattva"), Shantideva (the Way of the bodhisattva), and Gampopa (the Jewel Ornament of Liberation).

The Bodhisattva Vows

The fundamental vow of the bodhisattva is to delay their nirvana until all beings have been liberated from suffering. This aspiration is expressed in the formal vow that, when taken, signifies one's entrance into the path of the bodhisattva:

The fourfold vow is indicated below in several languages:

Sino-Japanese English Chinese (pinyin) Chinese (hanzi)
Shi gu sei gan The Four Great Vows Sì hóng shì yuàn 四弘誓願
Shu jo mu hen sei gan do I vow to liberate all beings, without number Zhòng shēng wúbiān shì yuàn dù 眾生無邊誓願度
Bon no mu jin sei gan dan I vow to uproot endless blind passions Fánnǎo wújìn shì yuàn duàn 煩惱無盡誓願斷
Ho mon mu ryo sei gan gaku I vow to penetrate dharma gates beyond measure Fǎ mén wúliàng shì yuàn xué 法門無量誓願學
Butsu do mu jo sei gan jo I vow to attain the way of the Buddha Fó dào wúshàng shì yuàn chéng 佛道無上誓願成

In addition to this formal bodhisattva vow, Mahāyāna texts enumerate dozens of other vows (see for a full list), and there are variations from country to country (most noticeably between Tibet and others). The ten most common and important vows are as follows:

1 Not to harm any being

2 Not to take that which is not given

3 Not to engage in any form of sexual misconduct

4 Not to misuse speach

5 Not to take intoxicants

6 Not to gossip about the faults and misdeeds of others

7 Not to praise oneself or disparage others

8 Not to be stingy or abusive towards those in need

9 Not to harbor anger or resentment or encourage others to be angry

10 Not to criticise or slander the Three Jewels

In the Tibetan tradition, laypeople are often encouraged to take on the first five vows as a way of producing good karma and avoiding actions that produce negative results:

"At any given time, one may swear to one, two, up to all five precepts. In one typical tradition, one takes vows only for one day. If someone wants to carry the practice to the next day, he or she will take the vow again the next morning... The daily taking of precepts is important... one's commitment to them needs to be renewed frequently to keep one's intention and investment fresh."[3]

The Six Perfections

The six perfections (paramita) are another aspect of the practice path of the bodhisattva. The word paramita literally means "other shore," and implies that these six (or ten in some sources) qualities lead to enlightenment. The six paramitas are found in the Pali canon.[4]:

1. Dāna : generosity, giving of oneself. This perfection places its emphasis on having an attitude of generosity. It does not necessarily mean that bodhisattvas give away everything they own, but rather that they develop an attitude that undermines clinging to one's wealth, whether it be material or nonmaterial. The most important possession that a bodhisattva needs to give away generously is the teachings of the dharma.

2. Sīla : virtue, morality, proper conduct. This perfection is important for the bodhisattva to develop because it leads to better rebirths in which they can further their development, and because not engaging in misdeeds results in a calm mind undisturbed by guilt, or eventually even the mental dispositions that lead to negative actions.[5]

3. Ksānti : patience. Shantideva (6-7th c.e.) explains the importance of patience to the Mahāyāna path in the opening stanzas of the chapter on patience in his Way of the Bodhisattva:

1. Good works gathered in a thousand ages,
Such as deeds of generosity,
Or offerings to the blissful ones (buddhas) -
A single flash of anger shatters them all.
2. No evil is there similar to anger,
No austerity to be compared with patience.
Steep yourself, therefore, in patience -
In all ways, urgently, with zeal.[6]

Thus patience is the key to the accumulation of good merit, as it prevents negative emotions from destroying the results of positive actions.

4. Virya: vigor, energy, diligence effort. Like all of the perfections, vigor is to be combined with the others in order to mutually reinforce each-other. Again, Shantideva explains in his chapter entitled "Heroic Perseverance":

1. Thus with patience I will bravely persevere.
Through zeal (virya) it is that I shall reach enlightenment.
If no wind blows, then nothing stirs,
And neither is there merit without perseverance.[7]

Buddhists believe that the journey to Buddhahood is long and arduous, so the bodhisattva must practice their path with diligence in order to quickly attain complete awakening so that they can best help to liberate all beings.

5. Dhyāna: meditation, concentration (samādhi). All of the other perfections are strengthened by the practice of meditation. Through these practices, one is said to be better able to practice non-attachment due to a recognition of the emptiness (sunyata) of all things, which in turn leads to a stronger ability to practice generosity, moral conduct (due to a reduced attachment to negative mental states), and patience. As well, through meditation, the practitioner develops a one-pointed mind that concentrates all of its energy into the task at hand, allowing them to accomplish tasks with vigor and focus.[8] Conversely, the mental equanimity and momentum that the bodhisattva develops through the other paramita aids them in their meditation practice by ridding them of a mind distracted by conflicted emotions and lethargy.

6. Prajña: wisdom. The sixth paramita refers to the realization of the greatest truth (paramartha-satya), which is the realization of the unity, or non-duality, of all things. Wisdom is both the culmination and ground of the other perfections. For example, Mahāyāna practitioners believe that if one were to practice generosity with the conceptual notions of themselves as giver and another as the receiver, then only the Hinayāna (lesser vehicle) amount of merit will be created. However, "the bodhisattva is asked to recognize no giver, no receiver, and no action of giving. He or she is asked to engage in giving in a completely nonconceptual space... Thus one gives - literally without giving it a thought."[9] It is only once the bodhisattva is able to engage in their interactions in this way that they can be said to be practicing the paramitas which are the activities of "the other shore" of enlightenment.

In addition to the original six perfections found in early Mahāyāna literature, later writers added an additional four:

7. Upāya Kausalya: skillful means. In this perfection, the bodhisattva develops their ability to work skillfully with other beings in order to bring about their advancement toward enlightenment. Upaya can take what may seem to some as startling forms, such as the exchanges between Zen masters and their students made famous in koans, or in the "crazy wisdom" displayed by tantric masters. However strange their actions may seem, Buddhists believe that their motivation is compassion and their goal is to lead their students to awakening.

8. Pranidhāna : determination, aspiration. This perfection refers to the bodhisattva's resolve to realize full buddhahood. Until this is perfected (see the eighth bhumi below), there is always the danger of going backwards on the path, or off of it altogether. They must work constantly, with the help and encouragement of their teacher and sangha (Buddhist community), to keep their determination to realize their goal.[10]

9. Bala: spiritual power. Powers explains that

"because of their mastery of the four analytical knowledges (doctrines, meanings, grammar and exposition) and their meditation they are able to develop the six perfections energetically and to practice them continually without becoming fatigued."[11]

As well, as the bodhisattva advances in their practices, they are said to attain various supernatural abilities which aid them in realizing their goal of liberating all being from samsara.

10. Jñana : knowledge, exalted wisdom. This is the realization of a fully awakened being, a buddha. When the bodhisattva reaches this level of attainment, it is said that this limitless wisdom permeates all of the other perfections, and completes them.

Through the perfection of these qualities, the bodhisattva is able to realize their vow to attain full buddhahood for the benefit of all sentient beings. These paramita are directly related to the bhumi, or stages, that they progress through on their journey to awakening.

The Ten Stages

The ten bhumi (literally "ground") correspond directly to the paramita, and provide a map for the development of a bodhisattva on their journey to buddhahood. They practice all of the paramitas during each stage, but one is emphasized in each bhumi. The primary source for these stages is the Avatamsaka Sutra (Flower Garland Sutra), and it is also outlined in texts such as Candrakirti's Madhyamakavatara (Entry into the Middleway).

Relief image of the bodhisattva Guan Yin from Mt. Jiuhua in China's Anhui province.

1. Pramudita: Great Joy: After the accumulation of enough merit, bodhicitta arises for the first time in the bodhisattva. This causes enormous generosity to arise, which in turn results in enormous joy, as Chandrakirti explains:

"Even the happiness that comes from entering the peace [of nirvana] is unlike that happiness experienced by the son of the conquerers (buddhas) when he thinks about the word give. What can be said [about the joy that arises] from abandoning all [inner and outer posessions]?"[12]

2. Vilmala: Stainless: In accomplishing the second bhumi, the bodhisattva is free from the stains of immorality. The emphasized virtue is moral discipline (śila), which, at this stage, eliminates all harmful actions, even in the dreams of the bodhisattva.[13]

3. Prabhakari: Luminous: The third bhumi is named 'Radiant', because, for a bodhisattva who accomplishes this bhumi, the light of Dharma is said to radiate from the bodhisattva for others. This luminosity is said to shine forth from the fire of non-dualistic realization that consumes the last traces of discursive thought. Without the chatter of the wandering mind, the bodhisattva is able to develop perfect patience.

4. Arcismati: Radiant: Through the bodhisattva's vigor (virya), "a brilliance is produced which is superior to the shining of brass, and any [reified concepts] associated with the philosophical view of a subjective self are completely eradicated."[14]

5. Sudurjaya: Difficult to conquer: At this stage, the bodhisattva has developed extraordinary strength of meditation (dhyāna), so that they are very difficult to disturb, even for "all the forces of Māra" (Ibid), who symbolizes both inner and outer distractions. They also study in numerous fields (the arts, medicine, and the sciences) in order to benefit sentient beings.[15]

6. Abhimukhi: the Directly Facing: At this stage, they are brought face-to-face with the what Mahāyāna Buddhists teach to be the true nature of reality: emptiness. This is the perfection of wisdom (prajña), and with this realization, they could choose to pass into nirvana upon their death but because of their non-attachment to nirvana, as well as their deep compassion, they continue along the path to buddhahood.

7. Durangama: the Far Advanced: Through the powerful skillful means (upaya) developed by the bodhisattva at this stage, they are able to see into the hearts and minds of beings, and therefore know precisely how best to act in order to bring them closer to enlightenment. It is also said that at this point, in order to advance further, they will have to stop taking birth as human being, and instead manifest as celestial bodhisattvas, a choice they freely make at this stage in which they overcome birth and death.[16]

8. Acala: the Immovable: In this bhumi, the bodhisattva's aspiration becomes invincible, and there is no possibility of them faltering on their path. Buddhahood becomes inevitable, and progression through the last stages becomes much more rapidly than previous ones.

9. Sadhumati: the Unerring Intellect: In this stage, the celestial bodhisattva attains a number of supernatural powers (bala) to aid them in their quest to liberate all beings. Examples include the ability to understand all languages.

10. Cloud of dharma: At this stage, the bodhisattva is almost indistinguishable from a buddha. Their primordial wisdom (jñana) is said to pour down effortlessly, like rain.


The bodhisattva is the central figure of the Mahāyāna path. They present followers with an outlet for devotional practice, as well as offer a model for practitioners to guide them on the path to enlightenment. They remain an important part of Mahayana Buddhism today, and an inspiration for monastics and laypeople alike. Finally, the bodhisattva doctrine provides a model for Mahāyāna Buddhists of an engaged form of Buddhism that does not run away from the suffering of the world, but actively seeks to end it for all beings.


  1. Powers 93.
  2. Powers, 242.
  3. Ray, 288.
  4. Mitchell, 112
  5. Powers, 100.
  6. Translated by the Padmakara Translation Group, 78.
  7. Ibid, 98.
  8. Mitchell, 114.
  9. Ray, 346.
  10. Powers 109.
  11. Ibid, 110.
  12. Huntington Jr. 1994, 150.
  13. Ibid., 151.
  14. Ibid, 155.
  15. Mitchell 2002, 118.
  16. Mitchell 2002, 119.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Gampopa. The Jewel Ornament of Liberation. Translated by Khenpo Konchog Gyaltsen Rinpoche. Snow Lion Publications. ISBN 1559390921
  • Huntington, C. W. Jr. The Emptiness of Emptiness: An Introduction to Early Indian Mādhymika. Honolulu, HI: University of Hawai'i Press, 1994. ISBN 0824817125
  • Lampert, K. Traditions of Compassion: From Religious Duty to Social Activism. Palgrave-Macmillan. ISBN 1403985278
  • Mitchell, Donald W. Buddhism: Introducing the Buddhist Experience. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2002. ISBN 0195139518
  • Powers, John. Introduction to Tibetan Buddhism. Ithaca, NY: Snow Lion Publications, 1995. ISBN 1559390263
  • Ray, Reginald A. Indestructible Truth: The Living Spirituality of Tibetan Buddhism. Boston, MA: Shambhala Publications, 2002. ISBN 1570629102
  • Shantideva. The Way of the Bodhisattva. Translated by the Padmakara Translation Group (2003). Boston, MA: Shambhala Publications. ISBN 1590300572
  • White, Kenneth R. The Role of Bodhicitta in Buddhist Enlightenment: Including a Translation into English of Bodhicitta-sastra, Benkemmitsu-nikyoron, and Sammaya-kaijo. The Edwin Mellen Press, 2005. ISBN 0889460507


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