Bodhisattva Ideal in Buddhism


He who aspires to attain sammā-sambuddhahood is called a Bodhisattva. This bodhisattva ideal is the most refined and the most beautiful that could ever, in this ego- centric world, be conceived for what is nobler than a life of service and purity?

Those who, in the course of their wanderings in saṃsāra, wish to serve others and reach ultimate perfection, are free to pursue the bodhisattva ideal, but there is no compulsion that all must strive to attain Buddhahood, which, to say the least, is practically impossible. Critics, who contend that the bodhisattva ideal was evolved to counteract the tendency to a cloistered, placid, and inert monastic life, only reveal ignorance of the pure Buddha-Dhamma.

It is argued that Arahantship is selfish and that all must strive to attain Buddhahood to save others. Well one might ask: What is the object of attaining Buddhahood? Is it to make others attain Arahantship and save them? If so, the logical conclusion is that Buddhahood itself fosters selfishness which is absurd.

Buddhahood is indisputably the best and the noblest of all the three ideals, but all are not capable of achieving this highest ideal. Surely all scientists cannot be Einsteins and Newtons. There must also be lesser scientists who help the world according to their capabilities.

The Pali term Bodhisatta is composed of bodhi which means “wisdom” or “enlightenment”, and “satta” which means “devoted to” or “intent on.” A Bodhisatta, therefore, means one who is devoted to, or intent on, wisdom or enlightenment. The Sanskritized form should be bodhishakta but the popular term is Bodhisattva which means “wisdom being” or a being aspiring to become a Buddha.

This term is generally applied to anyone who is striving for enlightenment, but, in the strictest sense of the term, should be applied only to those who are destined to become supremely enlightened ones.

In one sense all are potential Buddhas, for Buddhahood is not the special prerogative of specially graced persons.

It should be noted that Buddhists do not believe that there lies dormant in us all a divine spark that needs development, for they deny the existence of a creator, but they are conscious of the innate possibilities and the creative power of man.

Buddhism denies too the existence of a permanent soul that transmigrates from life to life, acquiring all experiences. Instead of an unchanging soul, the so-called essence of man, it posits a dynamic life-flux where there is an identity in process.

As a man, Prince Siddhartha, by his own will, wisdom and love, attained Buddhahood, the highest state of perfection any being could aspire to, and he revealed to mankind the only path that leads thereto. A singular characteristic of Buddhism is that anyone may aspire to the state of the teacher himself if only he makes the necessary exertion. The Buddha did not claim any monopoly of Buddhahood. It is not a sort of evolutionary process. It may be achieved by one’s own effort without the help of another. The Buddha does not condemn men by calling them wretched sinners, but, on the contrary, encourages them saying that they are pure in heart at conception. Instead of disheartening followers, creating an inferiority complex, and reserving the exalted state of Buddha to himself, he encourages them and inspires them to emulate him.

A Bodhisattva need not necessarily be a Buddhist. We may find ever-loving bodhisattvas among Buddhists today, though they may be unaware of their lofty aspirations, and bodhisattvas may also be found among other religionists as well.

Three Types of Bodhisattvas

According to Buddhism there are three types of bodhisattvas—namely, Intellectual Bodhisattvas (paññādhika), Devotional Bodhisattvas (saddhā-dhika), and Energetic Bodhisattvas (viriyādhika). These three kinds of bodhisattvas correspond to Māna yogi, Bhakti yogi and karma yogi of the Hindus.

Intellectual bodhisattvas are less devotional and more energetic; devotional ones are less energetic and more intellectual; energetic ones are less intellectual and more devotional. Seldom, if ever, are these three characteristics harmoniously combined in one person. The Buddha Gotama is cited as one of the intellectual group.

According to the commentaries the intellectual ones attain Buddha-hood within a short period, devotional ones take a longer time, and energetic ones take longer still.

Intellectual bodhisattvas concentrate more on the development of wisdom and on the practice of meditation than on the observance of external forms of homage. They are always guided by reason and accept nothing on blind belief. They make no self-surrender, and are not slaves either to a book or to an individual. They prefer lonely meditation. With their silent but powerful thoughts of peace radiating from their solitary retreats they render moral help to suffering humanity.

The element of piety—saddhā or trustful confidence—is predominant in the devotional bodhisattvas. With saddhā as their companion they achieve their goal.

These bodhisattvas take a keen interest in all forms of homage. The image of the Buddha is a great inspiration to them.

It should be understood that Buddhists do not worship an image. They pay homage to what it represents and reflect on the virtues of the Buddha. The more they think of the Buddha the more they love him. This is the reason why Buddhism does not denounce these external forms of homage (āmisa pūjā) though undoubtedly practice (pațipattipūjā) is more commendable and indisputably superior. But dry intellect has to be flavored with saddhā (faith) to obtain satisfactory results. As excessive saddhā might also sometimes be detrimental, it has to be restrained by wisdom.

The energetic ones always seek opportunities to be of service to others. Nothing gives them greater delight than active service. “For them work is happiness, and happiness is work.” They are not happy unless they are active. As King Saņgabodhi of Sri Lanka said they “bear this body of flesh and blood for the good and happiness of the world.” They live not only for themselves but for others as well.
This spirit of selfless service is one of the chief characteristics of all bodhisattvas.

With relentless energy they work not as slaves but as masters. They crave for neither fame nor name. They are interested only in service. It is immaterial to them whether others recognize their selfless service or not. They are utterly indifferent to praise or blame.

They forget themselves in their disinterested service to others. They would sacrifice even life itself could such action save another fellow-being.

A bodhisattva who forgets himself in the service of others should practice karuņā and mettā (compassion and loving kindness) to an exceptionally high degree.

A bodhisattva desires the good and welfare of the world. He loves all beings as a mother loves her only child. He identifies himself with all. To him nothing gives more delight than to think that all are his brothers and sisters. He is like a mother, a father, a friend, a teacher, to all beings.

“The compassion of a bodhisattva consists in realizing the equality of oneself with others (para ātma-samatā) and also the substitution of others for oneself (para-ātma-parivartana).” When he does so he loses his I-notion and finds no difference between himself and others. He returns good for evil, and helps even unasked the very persons who have wronged him, for he knows that “the strength of a religious teacher is his patience.”

“Being reviled, he reviles not; being beaten, he beats not; being annoyed, he annoys not. His forgiveness is unfailing even as the mother earth suffers in silence all that may be done to her.”