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Sogyal Rinpoche states “A bodhisattva is a being whose sole wish is to benefit all sentient beings, and who dedicates his or her entire life, work, and spiritual practice to the attainment of enlightenment, in order to be of the greatest possible help to other beings.” (2002, 399). It appears the bodhisattva path is truly a path of selfless devotion to humanity; in essence the bodhisattva devotes “…his or her wisdom and compassion to the service of the whole world.” (Sogyal Rinpoche, 2002, 368). By vowing not to flee the agony of samsara the bodhisattva forsakes the luxury of the liberated or emancipated state of nirvana and chooses to return to benefit humankind. This essay will focus on Bodhisavattas in the Mahayana Buddhist tradition by investigating the stages, paths and perfections of the “…Bodhisattva (“future Buddha”).” (Johnson et al, 1982, 7); in addition it will briefly highlight traces of this philosophical thought in the Christian faith tradition.
Before discussing Bodhisattvas it is useful to place this concept within the context of Mahayana Buddhism. According to Johnson et al the Mahayana movement arose during a period from 100 B.C.E. to 100 C. E. and state this movement “…called itself the Mahayana, the “ Great Vehicle or Course” (yana: a going, a course, a journey; a vehicle),…” (1982, 65). The Mahayana tradition differs to the earlier Theravada form of Buddhism because it places less emphasis on scripture and focuses on the practical aspects of being an active human being in the world. In other words the Mahayana tradition places more emphasis on preserving the spirit of the Buddha while the
this appears to suggest the possibility to move beyond the highest state of arhant-ship proclaimed in the Theravada tradition. which leads to Buddhahood (supreme. paths and perfections it is worth re-iterating the essence of a Bodhisattva and where he or she resides in the realm of physical and metaphysical dimensions in the lifespan of Buddhahood. hatred.” D. 66). in ‘Some Sayings of the Buddha’ Woodward includes a passage from the Digha Nikaya (DN) sutta which discusses the Buddha mentioning the coming of another “…Fully Enlightened One. perfect enlightenment). 181). 76. This concept is a major shift within Buddhism because it opens up the possibility of achieving Buddhahood and reaching nirvana to all human beings at any stage during ones lifetime: Johnson et al state that “The Mahayana innovation was to proclaim that the bodhisattva course is open to all.” (1989. 65).N. It seems this shift can be traced in the Pali Canon. iii. while the inferior Course…” which refers to Theravada “ leads only to arhant-ship.a Buddha like myself. he or she attains wisdom but preserves compassion.2 Theravada tradition focuses on preserving the word of the Buddha. Williams discusses a . Johnson et al state “The Great Course said its adherents. to lay out a path for aspiring bodhisattvas to follow. and to create a new pantheon and cult of superhuman bodhisattvas and cosmic Buddhas who respond to the pleas of devotees.” (1982. Prior to a discussion of the stages. in essence the Bodhisattva goes “…beyond duality. endowed with wisdom and righteousnesss…. abandons greed. and delusion but does not abandon sentient beings. 212). According to Williams it is vital that the Bodhisattva renounces samsara and also any conception of nirvana that abandons other sentient beings. was that of the bodhisattva. (1973.” (1982.
away from greed. Williams refers to it as the motivation to generate the “…Mind of Enlightenment or Awakening Mind…” (1989. the poem Bodhicaryavatara written around 700 AD by the Buddhist monk Santideva eloquently describes bodhicitta. “It is like the supreme gold-making elixir. How can I fathom the depths . Therefore firmly seize this Awakening Mind. To provide further explanation Williams draws on what he calls “…one of the greatest spiritual poems of mankind…”. while in another sense he is in neither. 183). Williams suggests that this wish to attain enlightenment is a truly life changing experience because “…one ceases to be an ordinary human being and becomes a ‘Son or Daughter of the Buddhas’ (Bodhicaryavatara 1:9). In relation to a Buddha Williams indicates that he or she abides neither in samsara or nirvana “…in the sense that he has abandoned suffering sentient beings” more “In a sense he has a foot (or a lotus) in both camps. 182). 198).” (1989. and a downward movement returning to the maelstrom of samsaric institutions and persons out of compassion (see Nagao 1981: 61 ff). and delusion.” (1989. “…which is to say that this is a nirvana which embodies two dimensions – the upward movement away from samsara.” because “He has gone beyond all duality and all clinging – he clings neither to the world nor to transcendence. 199).3 non-abiding form of nirvana and indicates this is the form of nirvana attained by the Bodhisattva on reaching Buddahood. For it transforms the unclean body we have taken Into the priceless jewel of a Buddha-Form. hatred.” (1989. An important concept on the path of the bodhisattva is that of bodhicitta which is the wish to attain enlightenment.
guide and teacher. 198). During the fourth bhumi known as Ignited. and makes ten great vows. to preserve the teaching of the Buddhas.4 Of the goodness of this jewel of the mind. 204). 1989. The first stage is know as the ‘Joyous’ stage and suggests the individual is “…filled with joy. and sexual misconduct. to realize bodhicitta and to practice all the duties of a bodhisattva. or . speech and mind. The panacea that relieves the world of pain And is the source of all its joy?” (1989. to understand the earthly life of the Buddha.” (1989. insulting. to make fruitful and successful actions of the body. and frivolous speech. in summary according to Williams without exception the vows center around worship to all Buddhas. stealing. the Bodhisattva is said to be possessed of a perfectly pure morality.…” (1989. The second bhumi is known as the “Immaculate or Pure. Williams states at this stage the perfections of morality are practiced and the Bodhisattva “…attains to their highest degree the ten good paths of action – three physical: abstention from killing. to attain enlightenment and spread the doctrine. to commence the path of the Great Way (Mahayana). 209).” (1989. to develop all beings in the knowledge of the Buddha. According to Williams when bodhicitta arises the individual enters the first stage (bhumi) of a ten stage process “…on the path to Buddhahood. Williams indicates that the Bodhisattva suggests these moral teaching to others and becomes their protector. slanderous.” (Williams. four vocal: abstention from lying. 209). this is outlined in the Dasabumika Sutra. malice and false views. at this stage the virtue of patience is perfected and the concept of impermanence is fully understood. 204). The third bhumi is referred to as Luminous. and three mental: abstention from greedy desire.
5 Radiant the Bodhisattva cultivates the many elements of enlightenment. we are told. 210). 211). but they are still involved in the appearance of birth and death.” (1989. The sixth bhumi is referred to as Approaching. 1989.” (1989. it “…lies in the ‘tranquility by which the mind abides within inself by the oneness of the good and wholesome’” (1989. 211).” which means that “Things are neither born nor do they perish. According to Williams it is said that the Bodhisattva cannot be conquered by demons or forces of evil therefore the fifth bhumi is called Difficult to Conquer. Most importantly at this stage the Bodhisattva “…could if he so .” (1989. According to Williams it is at this stage that the Bodhisattva is focused on the true apprehension of dependent origination. 210).” (Williams. 210). Williams states it is at this stage that the “…Bodhisattva masters the perfection of meditation. Williams states “…dependent origination is associated with the lack of inherent existence. Williams states this “…is the stage at which our aspirant attains the perfection of wisdom. According to Williams at this stage it is through meditiation that the Bodhisattva truly understands the Four Noble Truths and in addition becomes fully aware of “…any other sort of truth (such as ultimate and conventional). 210). Williams (1989) refers to a paradox in the requirements of the stages when he mentions that the content of the perfection of wisdom and direct insight into emptiness were prerequisites for the attainment of the first bhumi therefore all subsequent perfections are precisely so inasmuch as they are underpinned by an awareness of emptiness.” (1989. the Bodhisattva’s attachment to any sort of self comes to a complete end. “Here. Williams refers to sGam po pa who eloquently described the essence of this perfection.
” (Williams. At this rare level the Buddha masters all knowledge of grammer . The seventh stage is referred to as Gone Afar and in addition to the list of perfections above the Bodhisattva “…practices fully giving (!).…Bodhisattvas. 1989. beneficent conduct. 212). He can manifest in whatever form he likes for the benefit of others.” (Williams. 212). 1989. a Buddha.” (1989. the Immovable. the vow (supremely highest vow). even when asleep. According to Williams normally by the seventh or eight stage the progression of the Bodhisattva is said to be irreversible and as such “…he is destined for supreme Buddhahood and incapable of reverting to methods of liberation and aspirations of the Arhats…” (1989.” (1989. power. 1989. 211). 212) therefore the Bodhisattva passes on the message of the Buddha to all sentient beings. and impartiality. and gnosis or awareness.” (Williams. According to Williams having forsaken the opportunity to enter a selfish nirvana the Bodhisattva “…spends the remaining stages developing skiful means.is said to acquire the knowledge and duties pertaining to all the vehicles – Arhats. Some of most important points to note at this stage are that the mind of the Bodhisattva“…is always absorbed in the Doctrine. 212). 212). entirely devoted to the welfare of others. the Bodhisattva begins the immense task of eradicating for ever the obscurations to omniscience.” (1989. This suggests a defining distinction between the path of the Bodhisattva and that of the Arhat.6 wished abandon the world and enter the peace of (Arhat) nirvana. including that of an Arhat or. According to Williams the ninth stage referred to as that of Good Intelligence is when the Bodhisattva “.” (1989. and Tathagatas. one assumes.. Williams states that “From the eight stage. pleasant speech. 211) therefore from the seventh stage onwards a further list of perfections are added which are “…The perfections of skiful means. 212)..
1989. Kalamas. It could be said that the Bodhisattva has truly entered the realm of the Bodhisattvas. According to Williams the stage of a Buddha is beyond the tenth stage and this coincides with the “…fifth of the five paths. The tenth stage or the Cloud of Dharma is the final stage of the process. according to Williams it is thus called because “…a Bodhisattva at this bhumi lets the Dharma fall like rain and extinguishes the very subtle glow of conflicting emotions still held by sentient beings. …. Williams states “Many other Bodhisattvas appear. that of No-more Learning…” (1989. According to Williams when a Bodhisattva meditates at this stage he or she “…appears upon a wonderful jeweled lotus seat known as the Great King of Jewels. or hearsay.7 and becomes “…a wonderful preacher!” (Williams.” (1989. when .” (1989. and light rays permeate all the directions which relieve the misery and sufferings of sentient beings. it is proper that you have doubt. each separately and satisfactorily with just one sound. 1989. 213). essentially he becomes a very special preacher because “…he can understand different questions from all different beings in the entire cosmos in one go. nor by mere logic or inference. With reference to the process of the spiritual path it is worth noting that the Buddha himself offered advice which according to Sri Rahula is “…unique in the history of religions: ‘Yes. 213). 212).But. that you have perplexity…do not be led by reports. 212).” (1989. 213). 213).” (Williams. in addition within the Tibetan Buddhist tradition advanced Tantic practices are required to attain the end goal of complete Buddhahood. or tradition.…” and most importantly it is said that he can “…answer them all. Be not led by the authority of religious texts. O Kalamas.
” which is three centuries after they entered the literature. 2008. also referred to as great beings. …. Johnson et al indicate that up to fifty great beings have been mentioned in the Sutras and “Of these. Johnson et al conclude that “The strategic function of these bodhisattvas is to serve as Mahayana counterparts to the great arhants in the Pali Sutras. 78). With regard to their emergence in literature Johnson et al indicate “…no Sutra preaches devotion to a celestial bodhisattva until the third century C. and Maitreya.” (Sri Rahula. and wrong. 3). four become most important: Manjusri.” (1982. Mahasthamaprapta. 79). Johnson et al state “The Mahayana pantheon contains personages to whom the Mahayanist should offer worship. In addition the Buddha went further when he suggested that a disciple “…should examine even the Tathagata (Buddha) himself. 2). and propitiation.E…. Johnson et al indicate that the great beings cannot be placed in a specific human historical context.” (1982. then accept and follow them’” (2008.” (1982. Williams discusses the Celestial Bodhisattvas in the context of future Buddhas “…if . “… there is no evidence that any of them is an apotheosis of a human hero. 78). 79).” (1982. To return to the subject of the Bodhisattva it is important to mention the Celestial Bodhisattvas and their place within the Pantheon of the Mahayana tradition. veneration. According to Johnson et al a chief innovation of the Mahayana tradition is a class of great bodhisattvas. as Rama certainly was and Krishna probably was.then give them up…And when you know for yourselves that certain things are wholesome (kusula) and good. Avolokitesvara. so that he (the disciple) might be fully convinced of the true value of the teacher whom he followed.8 you know for yourselves that certain things are unwholesome (akusula).
he will next become a King of Dharma.” and . E. According to Johnson et al it is said that Manjusri normally appears to human beings in dreams and “Merely hearing Manjusri’s name subtracts many aeons from one’s time in samsara. Brahma. Indra and other gods.” (1982.” (1989. Like Maitreya and Manjusri he is a bodhisattva of the elevated tenth stage. According to Johnson et al Maitreya is the earliest cult bodhisattva and “…unlike the Buddhas before him. Johnson et al indicate that “Manjusri is the crown prince of Dharma. in addition Maitreya is presently the only Bodhisattva of celestial status accepted by both Mahayana and non-Mahayana traditions. so he can respond to the prayers of worshippers. 228). is alive. Williams states that Manjusri is perceived to be eternally young “…a youth of 16. 80). a Buddha.” (1989.9 there are future Buddhas then the being who is to become the very next Buddha must already exist and be far advanced…. like other tenth-stage bodhisattvas.” (1982. a disciple. 79). Johnson et al indicate that Avolakitesvara “…has purified his vows under millions of Buddhas…he adopts the guise of a Buddha.That being is Maitreya…” (1989. According to Williams another of the great celestial beings is Avolakitesvara who “In his (or her) different forms is perhaps the most popular of all Mahayana Bodhisattvas. Johnson et al indicate that “Manjusri shares with Maitreya preeminence among the bodhisattvas in the Mahayana Sutras up to 300 C.” (1982. and the Theravada tradition recognizes no other bodhisattvas in the present age. 231). bodhisattva. Johnson et al (1982) indicate that from its Sanskrit root his name means benevolent therefore he is viewed by his devotees as being compassionate and willingly grants help. because.” (1982. Johnson et al state “All Hinayana sects acknowledge Maitreya. 80).” (1982. 80). a ‘crown prince’ who is nevertheless ancient in wisdom. 238). 79).
The renowned 21st century writer Sogyal Rinpoche clearly states the importance of the ideal of the bodhisattva in society from a Tibetan Buddhist perspective. Mother Teresa.…” (2002. 368).” (2002. Possibly the most important point of all to stress is one made by Williams when he states the bodisattvas “…are as real as we are…and as unenlightened beings we need all the help we can get!” (1989. Francis. 81).” (1982. artists. Shakespeare. but can occur in all countries and all times. 82). “The most compassionate insight from my tradition and it noblest contribution to the spiritual wisdom of humanity has been its understanding and repeated enactment of the ideal of the bodhisattva.10 similar to Manjusri he has assumed the role of a Buddha and will do so again but “… without getting trapped in extinction. doctors and economists. Essentially these great . Mahasthamaprapta could possibly be viewed as having a lower profile than Avolakitesvara however according to Johnson et al as an attendant of the Buddha Amitabha “…the Sukhavativyuha Sutra places him on a par with Avolakitesvara…”. 81).” (1982. Most importantly Sogyal Rinpoche states “…that this process of incarnation is not limited to Tibet. Sogyal Rinpoche (2002) believes we need bodhisattva lawyers. 105) and refers to many great artists. in fact he asserts that we need bodhisattvas is all professions and aspects of society. scientists and humanitarians such as Gandhi. Beethoven and Michelangelo.” (1982. Einstein. leaders. 236). St. Abraham Lincoln. it is also worth noting that “…in Far Eastern art he is frequently represented standing on the right of Amitabha while Avolakitesvara stands on the left. Finally. Johnson et al suggest that it is in “…this respect that celestial bodhisattvas are superior to the Buddhas. politicians.
Where there is doubt. 105). Where there is injury. 2002. Bodhicitta which is the wish to attain enlightenment signals the entrance into the first stage (bhumi). Difficult to Conquer.” (Johnson et al. 198). joy. And where there is sadness. Approaching. this essay focused on the concept of the Bodhisavatta in the Mahayana Buddhist tradition by investigating the stages. Williams refers to it as the motivation to generate the “…Mind of Enlightenment or Awakening Mind…” (1989. paths and perfections of the “… Bodhisattva (“future Buddha”). the advice centers around the idea of trusting in . Ignited. Immovable. Gone Afar. faith. S. 7). where there is hatred. 2008. 1982.11 historical figures come from different faith traditions therefore perhaps the ideal of the bodhisattva is a common tread that links us all for “When Tibetans hear of such people. Where there is darkness. hope. 2). Good Intelligence and Cloud of Dharma. It outlined the evolutionary ten stages (bhumi ) the Bodhisattva must pass through to achieve the most elevated stage of development. Fundamental to the ideal of the bodhisattva is the renunciation of samsara and also any conception of nirvana that abandons other sentient beings. 2002. these include the Joyous. “Lord make me an instrument Of thy peace. Immaculate or Pure. With reference to the process of this or any spiritual path the Buddha offered advice which is considered “…unique in the history of religions:” (Sri Rahula. they immediately say they are bodhisattvas. Luminous. Let me sow love. pardon.” (Sogyal Rinpoche. Where there is despair. 369) In summary. It seems the wisdom or ideal of bodhisattva can also be found in the Christian writings of St Francis. light.” (Rinpoche.
12 instinctual feelings of what is good and wholesome or bad and unwholesome. In conclusion. Johnson et al indicate the most important ones mentioned in the Sutras are “… Manjusri. It seems the words expressed by Williams. It seems 21st century western society has pushed spirituality aside and replaced it with extreme economic and materialistic desire. 78).” (1982. Historical figures like Gandhi and St. 236) are very relevant as Ireland and Europe are potentially on the verge of economic and social crisis. It seems extreme sense gratification does not fulfill the human being therefore perhaps all things in moderation is best practice. Williams (1989) indicates that although the Celestial Bodhisattvas are enlightened beings they are as real as we are and most importantly they are present and active in the world. this approach could be balanced by a spiritual path or devotion to a faith tradition. Avolokitesvara. how does the tradition of the Bodhisattva relate to our society today? From a personal perspective it seems recent events close to home clearly identify a need for a more enlightened approach to leadership and life in community. Perhaps the ultimate contribution of the . and Maitreya. “…we need all the help we can get!” (1989. The Celestial Bodhisattvas are a very important feature within the Pantheon of the Mayayana tradition. Bod Geldof and Aung San Suu Kyi. In addition. An audit of the current state of affairs suggests that man continually strives to re-invent his world in a way that is possibly out of sync with both the physical and metaphysical dimensions of our environment. Francis were discussed and perhaps the ideal of the bodhisattva could be viewed as being alive in current figures such as Nelson Mandela. Mahasthamaprapta. this essay attempted to make a case that the ideal of the bodhisattvas is alive and well in other faith traditions.
W. F. Robinson. Some Sayings of the Buddha. The bodhisattva forsakes the luxury of the liberated or emancipated state of nirvana and chooses to return to benefit humankind. San Francisco: Harper Collins. 1973. Mahayana Buddhism. 1989. and Richard H. Willard. or other faith perspective. P.13 bodhisattvas is to steer humanity towards a path of oneness with our surroundings and ultimately ourselves. 1982. L. Perhaps at the heart of each tradition one can find the joy and happiness that can only come from communal selfless devotion. 2002. S. Rinpoche. California: Wadsworth. Oxford: OneWorld. Sri Rahula. What the Buddha Taught. At the very least it seems humankind could return the compliment by investigating and following spiritual paths be they from a Buddhist. The Tibetan Book of Living & Dying. Woodard. 2008. Oxford: Oxford University Press. L. London: Routledge. Bibliography Johnson. . The Buddhist Religion. Christian. Williams.