The Bodhisattva Ideal

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Bodhisattvas and the paramitas (continued)

Often, as in Shantideva's Guide to the Bodhisattva's Way of Life, the first six are presented as the six paramitas. At other times, such as in the Flower Ornament Sutra, ten paramitas are presented. These final four paramitas are the practices of accomplished bodhisattvas— informed by prajna paramita.

Skillful Means

Skillful means (upaya in Sanskrit) is the methodology of bodhisattvas, tailoring teaching to the needs of particular beings. The individuality of each person is acknowledged. Everybody has his or her own unique tendencies, inclinations, and path to awakening. The diversity of spiritual teachings and tools exists because of the variety of those in need. There is no single right method or means for all.
Some otherwise excellent methodologies may be harmful for those not ready to accept them.

The art and craft of skillful and appropriate develops response out of the resources at hand, based on the experience of patience, wisdom, commitment, and trial and error. To allow what is useful to come to hand, we must patiently open our grasp and be willing to let go of methods that may no longer be effective.

Vow or Commitment

All the Mahayana vows are based in the fundamental vow to remember and benefit all beings, which is inspired by the impulse of caring for others.

Although the bodhisattva vow has an ultimate, cosmic quality, inconceivable from the viewpoint of our mundane life, the practice of vow (pranidhana in Sanskrit) also includes vows to carry out work to better the lives of others. This spirit of vow may be expressed in a commitment to help feed hungry people, to care for one’s family, to learn a skill, or to complete a work of art. For the Mahayana devotee, vows may mean commitment to certain spiritual practices.

Our many unconscious vows that come from cultural conditioning can be reexamined in the light of the practice of insight, and they can then be abandoned or renewed, informed by intention to express our innermost, open nature. The dedication of vow supports ethics and effort, and is sustained through patience and meditation.


Powers (bala in Sanskrit) refers to psychic abilities often developed through meditation and used to support beneficial practices. Mahayana sutras and lore mention a variety of such supernormal powers, such as the ability to generate heat (very useful for mountain yogis), to foretell the future, to see the past lives of beings, to read minds, to radiate light, and to cause rain—sometimes of flowers!

The Buddhist attitude toward such powers has often been ambivalent, particularly in the Zen tradition, which emphasizes attention to ordinary, everyday activity. This outlook was epitomized in the legendary statement by the great eighth-century Chinese adept Layman Pang, who said that the ultimate supernatural power is chopping wood and carrying water. The ordinary world, just as it is, can be appreciated as an amazing, wondrous event. And experiences that seem supernatural and miraculous may only appear so to the limited portions of our mental and spiritual faculties that we conventionally use.

We can also see the perfection of powers as applying to our “natural” strengths and powers of character. We can study and develop how to properly use whatever strengths and spiritual resources we have and, perhaps more importantly, how to avoid their misuse.


Knowledge (jnana in Sanskrit, etymologically related to the Greek gnosis)—in contrast to wisdom—refers to practical understanding of the workings of the conventional world. The perfection of knowledge is the implementation of wisdom, but fully informed by wisdom's insight into the essential. This knowledge, also referred to as the perfection of truth, is at the service of wisdom, putting wisdom to work in the world. Such knowledge may be the result of detailed study in the ordinary realm or in any of the physical sciences, but it comes from mature intention to use the knowledge beneficially.

When awakened by insight, ethical conduct, and the basic bodhisattva vow to care for beings, whatever intuitive or acquired knowledge is available to us can be applied to strengthen appropriate skillfulness and generosity.