In simple terms, a bodhisattva is a wise and compassionate person who cherishes all others. Of course, there are lots of smart, kind people out there, so what makes a bodhisattva different? For a start, bodhisattvas don’t just wish others well, but they know many skillful methods that can actually help end others’ suffering, and they work tirelessly to actually help all beings. Bodhisattvas understand the deepest root of all problems and are confident that it is possible to cut this root so that beings never have any problems ever again. It is this knowledge and aim that makes a bodhisattva’s compassion so powerful.
The term bodhisattva comes from two Sanskrit words: “bodhi,” meaning “enlightenment,” and “sattva,” which means “being.” In the early Buddhist teachings, the word “bodhisattva” was used to describe Buddha Shakyamuni prior to his enlightenment. For instance, in the stories of the Buddha’s past lives, he is described as a bodhisattva. Thus, like the Buddha, who put in incredible effort and energy over countless lives to become awakened, a bodhisattva is someone who sets themselves upon the journey toward enlightenment in order to benefit all beings. They do this because they realize that they still have many limitations. Although they know many ways to help others, they can’t see completely which method will best suit each person. Only a Buddha knows this. So, while helping others as best as they can, they’re also working further on themselves to become a Buddha.
Bodhisattvas take a vow to work for the liberation of all beings. Their ultimate goal, then, is not just to attain enlightenment for themselves, but to help all beings attain enlightenment as well. Because of their great compassion, they postpone their own enlightenment in order to help others and are revered as spiritual guides and protectors.
The Practices and Qualities of a Bodhisattva
Bodhisattvas have, to a certain extent, many of the qualities that a Buddha has in full. They cultivate them further so as to bring them closer to enlightenment and aid them in benefiting others even more. Here is a look at some of the qualities that bodhisattvas have:
- Compassion – Bodhisattvas cherish all other beings. Most of us put ourselves first, but bodhisattvas put others before themselves. They’re like a mother who sees all beings as their dearest only child. When that child becomes sick, the mother cannot bear to see their child suffering and would do anything to help. In the same way, bodhisattvas cannot bear to see any of us suffer. They not only wish to take care of everyone equally, but they also help us whenever and however they can.
- Wisdom – Bodhisattvas are able to discriminate between what is helpful and what is harmful. They can also discriminate reality from fantasy. These profound understandings help them to guide others toward liberation.
- Skillful means – Bodhisattvas are skilled in knowing how to help others and use a variety of methods to do so.
- Generosity – Bodhisattvas are generous, both in terms of material possessions and in terms of their time and energy. They are willing to give everything they have in order to help others, and they are not attached to their possessions or achievements.
- Patience – Bodhisattvas are patient, both with themselves and with others. They understand that the path to enlightenment is a long one, and they are willing to take the time to help others at whatever pace they are able to go.
- Ethical conduct – Bodhisattvas are committed to ethical conduct, which means they avoid actions that cause harm to others and cultivate actions that are beneficial to all beings.
- Courage – Bodhisattvas are brave and courageous, willing to face obstacles and challenges in order to help others. They are not afraid of difficult situations or of taking risks to benefit others.
A Present-Day Bodhisattva in Action
A great example of a bodhisattva is His Holiness the Fourteenth Dalai Lama. His Holiness works tirelessly, non-stop, from early morning to late at night. He starts each day at 3 A.M. with many hours of meditation and then devotes the rest of the day to meeting and helping others.
One time, His Holiness came to Spiti after a long journey. By this point, he’d already been teaching for many days and his voice was gone from having talked so much. Not wanting to tire him even more, I just requested him to take a seat and give a transmission of the OM MANI PADME HUM mantra of compassion to the audience, to which he agreed. But once the teaching started, he said that although I had asked him to take it easy, he had slept well and, not wanting to waste anyone’s time, he had decided to teach. He then taught on the Foundation of All Good Qualities continuously, for almost 3 hours, during which his voice recovered.
After the teaching, I escorted him to his room whereupon he took off his outer robe and laid on the sofa, and he said I could leave as he was feeling so tired. But I couldn’t see any tiredness on his face; in fact, I could only see a face full of great energy. I felt that no ordinary being the age of 80 could work like this. His Holiness the Dalai Lama is truly amazing!
I wondered what the secret behind this was. It’s none other than compassion. He works tirelessly to help others get out of suffering permanently. We can play video games for 4 or 5 hours and not get tired, but he sees the only thing that is beneficial is to help others, so he doesn’t get tired. Looking at the qualities of a bodhisattva – compassion, wisdom, courage, and so on – we can see clearly without a doubt that His Holiness is one.
Bodhisattvas are powerful and compassionate guides who help their followers on the path to enlightenment. Through their selfless actions and teachings, they serve as role models for Buddhists and inspire us to cultivate these same qualities in ourselves. As such, bodhisattvas continue to play a significant role in the spiritual lives of millions of Buddhists around the world, providing a source of inspiration and guidance for those seeking to attain greater wisdom and compassion in their own lives.
Externally, there is no way to tell whether someone is or is not a bodhisattva and, in fact, each one of us can become a bodhisattva ourselves. If we are working to become a Buddha with the aim to be able to help all beings, then we are bodhisattvas. How wonderful it would be if we had not only the wish but the ability to help others and spent our time and energy working for the sake of all beings. If we truly want to benefit others, we need to first become a bodhisattva, and then we can work toward becoming a Buddha. There is nothing that would make life more meaningful.