The Bodhisattva Ideal

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The bodhisattva ideal

The teachings of Buddhism are about your life, about being the person you are. The practices of Buddhism are about being willing to be intimate with yourself, with your idiosyncrasies. So when we talk about compassion and the ideal of the bodhisattva, we are talking about how we as ordinary people—with this body, this mind, this life, these problems—can find generosity, effort, and wisdom right here and now. We realize that they are always available.

Bodhisattvas are beings who are dedicated to the universal awakening, or enlightenment, of everyone. They exist as guides and providers of relief to suffering beings. We will be learning about the lives of some bodhisattvas who are well known in the Buddhist tradition. They are models who exemplify lives dedicated to eradicating suffering in the world. But as we go along, it is important to remember that as soon as you are struck with the urge or intention to take on such a bodhisattva practice, you are included in the ranks of the bodhisattvas. Bodhisattvas can be awesome in their power, radiance, and wisdom, and they can be as ordinary as your next-door neighbor. Bodhisattvas appear wherever they can be most helpful.

  • A buddha, or awakened one, is a being who has fully realized liberation from the suffering of delusions and conditioning. This awakening is realized through deep experiential awareness of the undefiled nature of all beings and all phenomena, which are seen to be essentially pristine and clear. Buddhas see that everything is all right, just as it is. This insight in some sense liberates all beings, who may not yet realize this truth of openness and freedom themselves because of their own confusion.

  • A bodhisattva is a being who carries out the work of the buddhas, vowing not to personally settle into the salvation of final buddhahood until she or he can assist all beings throughout the vast reaches of time and space to fully be free. A bodhisattva is a buddha with her sleeves rolled up.

On the bodhisattva path, we follow teachings about generosity, patience, ethical conduct, meditative balance, and insight into what is essential, so we can come to live in a way that benefits others. At the same time, we learn compassion for ourselves and see that we are not separate from the people we have imagined are estranged from us. Self and other heal together.

The bodhisattva is the ideal of Mahayana (Great Vehicle) Buddhism, the dominant branch of Buddhism in North Asia: Tibet, China, Mongolia, Taiwan, Korea, and Japan, as well as Vietnam in Southeast Asia. This tradition is now spreading and being adapted to Western cultures. The word bodhisattva comes from the Sanskrit roots bodhi, meaning "awakening" or "enlightenment," and sattva, meaning "sentient being." Bodhisattvas are radiant beings who exist in innumerable forms, functioning in helpful ways right in the middle of the busyness of the world.