What is a Bodhisattva?

Who and what is a Bodhisattva?

In Tibetan Buddhism, a Bodhisattva is anyone who is motivated by compassion and who seeks enlightenment not only for him or herself but also for everyone.

Becoming a Bodhisattva is a huge step in helping not only oneself, but also every other sentient being, both seen and unseen. Most people are self-motivated and work primarily to solve their own problems, keeping others a distant second. Should someone do an act of kindness, repayment is generally expected whether in the form of a thank you, further praise, or both of these things.

Bodhisattva Motivation

A Bodhisattva is motivated by pure compassion and love. Their goal is to achieve the highest level of being, the ideal of being that of a Buddha. Bodhisattva is a Sanskrit term which translates as Bodhi (enlightenment) and sattva (being). Their reason for becoming a Buddha is to help others. The Bodhisattva will undergo any type of suffering to help another sentient being whether they are a tiny insect or a huge mammal. In Shakyamuni Buddha’s ‘Perfection of Wisdom in 8,000 Lines’ it states: “I will become a saviour to all those beings, I will release them from all their sufferings.” According to this definition, the example of Jesus Christ, displays all the traits of a true Bodhisattva.

When someone first becomes a Bodhisattva, they develop Bodhichitta, or the mind of enlightenment. Even as a person strives towards such an exalted goal, they feel as though they are limited by the fact that they, too, are suffering. So that they can be of aid to others, they decide to become a Buddha for a Buddha is capable of unlimited compassion and wisdom. Also, Buddhas are able to relate to all other living beings at whatever level is needed. A Buddha will use simpler words to explain to those of a lesser intelligence, and a Buddha can explain answers in a more exalted language to those of a great intelligence.

The Six Perfections

The mind must become enlightened to truly and sincerely practice the life of a Bodhisattva. This mind training begins by practising the six perfections until the mind mixes with them like water with water. The six perfections are called perfections because they are all motivated by bodhichitta motivation. They are the perfections of generosity, ethics (moral discipline), patience, effort, concentration, and wisdom.

Generosity 

Giving money and material things to those that need them is practicing generosity. Being able to provide for people by starting a business and then hiring those who need jobs would be profitable not only for oneself but for those who were previously unemployed. Volunteering time and talents to those who need them is also a way of cultivating generosity. To share true spiritual (Buddhist) teachings so people are able to help themselves and in turn, others, is the finest gift to offer. This creates a positive ripple effect. The ripples of the teachings will travel far and wide to allow many to be assisted. The attitude behind generosity is of the utmost importance as giving with anger or the desire for payment isn’t a good motivation. To become a Bodhisattva have a humble motivation to help.

Ethics (Moral Discipline)

Knowing the basic difference between right and wrong is imperative to generating the six perfections. To practice the perfection of ethics means to refrain from doing harm to oneself and all those around you. Killing, sexual misconduct, consuming harmful substances such as alcohol or drugs, being deceitful, and using abusive language all need to be avoided. All harmful actions are caused by a mind that harbours them so it’s highly important to be mindful of all thoughts by being like a detective watching the mind.

Patience

A lack of patience that is observed in society will need to change in order to evolve into a Bodhisattva. Patience is the antidote to anger. In Chandrakirti’s ‘Supplement to the Middle Way’ he writes: “It makes us ugly, leads to the unholy, and robs us of discernment to know right from wrong.” When we become angry, our body stiffens, our blood pressure rises, our breathing is impaired, as is our reason. Far too many people languish in prisons due to a few seconds when they went out of control and their anger harmed someone. Anger directed at oneself can result in suicide. Anger causes wars of all sizes. Patience creates a joyful feeling within us. Our features become relaxed and we can look many years younger. We are then tolerant and happy and much further along the path of becoming a Bodhisattva.

Effort

Enthusiastic effort is necessary to achieve anything but for the challenge of joining the ranks of the Bodhisattvas, effort is definitely a requirement. The Bodhisattva’s way or path is arduous and requires virtues that many currently lack. Laziness is a huge fault that curtails effort. Tomorrow never comes so effort is needed now to overcome attachments and procrastination.

Concentration

Developing a calm mind through meditation will sharpen concentration. Being able to focus single-pointedly on one object with a non-wavering mind will be a great advantage. The calm-abiding mind develops clairvoyance and abilities to heal self and others. When radiating inward and outward calm, we become like lighthouses shining our lights brightly in a stormy night. We will inspire others with strong mental capabilities and they in turn will want the inner peace found for ourselves. Concentration is a form of mindfulness. This means that by paying unwavering attention to what we are doing, we avoid many frustrations. Not practicing mindfulness when driving causes accidents. Lama Je Tsongkhapa writes in his ‘Summary of the Stages of the Path’ that “Concentration is a king with dominion over the mind, once placed, immovable like the king of mountains.”

Wisdom

Wisdom is the root of all great qualities we can cultivate in this life. As the sixth perfection, it is the total of the other five. Meditation on wisdom is essential for entering into the stages of being a Bodhisattva. Buddhist texts emphasize selflessness and impermanence in relation to knowledge and wisdom. Everything changes constantly as nothing is fixed and everything is variable. As for selflessness, we must first discover the location of the self which upon analysis is not found in the body, the mind, or outside of them. The physical world and all living beings are created by the mind. As we are the results of our past actions, so is the world we live in. There are places on earth that are like heaven where so much virtue has settled that people travel great distances to see such wonderful locations. Hellish regions are dense accumulations of non-virtue and evil thrives there, keeping people captive to the negative states of consciousness.

To become a Bodhisattva is to be fearless. There is no aversion for those who are hostile and there is no obsessive clinging to those who are closest to us. There is no possessiveness, only love, compassion and discernment into the nature of reality.

Further information about being a Bodhisattva can be found in Shantideva’s ‘A Guide to the Bodhisattva Way of Life’. In chapter 10, verse 55 the entire essence of the meaning of Bodhisattva is beautifully expressed:

“For as long as space endures

And for as long as living beings remain,

Until then may I too abide

To dispel the misery of the world.”

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Tim