Bodhisattva


Bodhisattva
/boh'deuh sut"veuh/, n. Buddhism.
a person who has attained prajna, or Enlightenment, but who postpones Nirvana in order to help others to attain Enlightenment: individual Bodhisattvas are the subjects of devotion in certain sects and are often represented in painting and sculpture. Cf. Arhat.
[1820-30; < Pali, Skt]

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Term for the historical Buddha Gautama prior to his enlightenment as well as for other individuals destined to become buddhas.

In Mahayana Buddhism the bodhisattva postpones attainment of nirvana in order to alleviate the suffering of others. The ideal supplanted the Theravada Buddhist ideals of the arhat and the self-enlightened buddha, which Mahayana deemed selfish. The number of bodhisattvas is theoretically limitless, and the title has been applied to great scholars, teachers, and Buddhist kings. Celestial bodhisattvas (e.g., Avalokitesvara) are considered manifestations of the eternal Buddha and serve as savior figures and objects of personal devotion, especially in East Asia.

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▪ Buddhist ideal
(Sanskrit), Pali  bodhisatta (“one whose goal is awakening”) 
 in Buddhism, one who seeks awakening (bodhi)—hence, an individual on the path to becoming a buddha.

      In early Indian Buddhism and in some later traditions—including Theravada, at present the major form of Buddhism in Sri Lanka and other parts of Southeast Asia—the term bodhisattva was used primarily to refer to the Buddha Shakyamuni (as Gautama Siddhartha is known) in his former lives. The stories of his lives, the Jataka (Jātaka)s, portray the efforts of the bodhisattva to cultivate the qualities, including morality, self-sacrifice, and wisdom, which will define him as a buddha. Later, and especially in the Mahayana tradition—the major form of Buddhism in Tibet, China, Korea, and Japan—it was thought that anyone who made the aspiration to awakening (bodhicittotpada)—vowing, often in a communal ritual context, to become a buddha—is therefore a bodhisattva. According to Mahayana teachings, throughout the history of the universe, which had no beginning, many have committed themselves to becoming buddhas. As a result, the universe is filled with a broad range of potential buddhas, from those just setting out on the path of buddhahood to those who have spent lifetimes in training and have thereby acquired supernatural powers. These “celestial” bodhisattvas are functionally equivalent to buddhas in their wisdom, compassion, and powers: their compassion motivates them to assist ordinary beings, their wisdom informs them how best to do so, and their accumulated powers enable them to act in miraculous ways.

      Bodhisattvas are common figures in Buddhist literature and art. A striking theme in popular literature is that of the concealed greatness of the bodhisattvas. In numerous stories ordinary or even distinctly humble individuals are revealed to be great bodhisattvas who have assumed common forms to save others. The lesson of these tales is that, because one can never distinguish between paupers and divinities, one must treat all others as the latter. In popular folklore bodhisattvas appear as something like saviour deities, a role they acquired both through the evolution of earlier ideas and through fusion with already existing local gods.

      A particularly important mythology in East Asia is that of Dharmakara (Amitābha). According to the Pure Land Sutra, Dharmakara was a bodhisattva whose vows were realized when he became the Buddha Amitabha (Amitābha). Pan-Buddhist bodhisattvas include Maitreya, who will succeed Shakyamuni as the next buddha in this world, and Avalokiteshvara (Avalokiteśvara), known in Tibet as Spyan ras gzigs (Chenrezi), in China as Guanyin (Kuan-yin), and in Japan as Kannon. Although all bodhisattvas act compassionately, Avalokiteshvara is considered the embodiment of the abstract principle of compassion. Bodhisattvas of more localized importance include Tārā in Tibet and Jizō in Japan.

Jonathan A. Silk

Additional Reading
Much of the scholarship in Buddhist studies is published in Japanese, but a number of reliable works in European languages exist. An old but still valuable general survey of the topic is Har Dayal, The Bodhisattva Doctrine in Buddhist Sanskrit Literature (1932, reissued 1978). A more recent collection of useful essays is Leslie Kawamura, The Bodhisattva Doctrine in Buddhism (1981, reissued 1997).Many studies have been published on individual bodhisattva figures. Among the more important are Chün-fang Yü, Kuan-yin: The Chinese Transformation of Avalokiteśvara (2001); Françoise Wang-Toutain, Le Bodhisattva Kśitigarbha en Chine du Ve au XIIIe siècle (1998); Alan Sponberg and Helen Hardacre (eds.), Maitreya: The Future Buddha (1986); Raoul Birnbaum, Studies on the Mysteries of Mañjusri: Group of East Asian Mandalas and Their Traditional Symbolism (1983); John Blofeld, Bodhisattva of Compassion: The Mystical Tradition of Kuan Yin (1978, reissued 1988); Marie-Thérèse De Mallmann, Introduction à l'étude d'Avalokiteçvara (1948, reissued 1967); and M.W. de Visser, The Bodhisattva Akāśagarbha (Kokūzō) in China and Japan (1931), and The Bodhisattva Ti-tsang (Jizō) in China and Japan (1915). Some indication of the massive amount of material available in Japanese, with an extensive bibliography covering European as well as Japanese scholarship, may be found in Kanaoka Shuyu, Daijo Bosatsu no Sekai (1988).Jonathan A. Silk

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Universalium. 2010.

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