What Is A Bodhisattva?

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Bodhi (enlightenment) + Sattva (being)

Bodhisattva Definition

Within Buddhism a bodhisattva is an ordinary person who has chosen to walk the path of the Buddha – towards bodhi or awakening.

A bodhisattva is a person dedicated to “their own awakening to the benefit of all others.”

There are some famous bodhisattvas but anyone can become one if they are a kind and compassionate person.

a bodhisattva statue
Wood Bodhisattva”, by Mountain, licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0

Bodhisattva Deep Dive

We tend to be fairly self-centered as a species and we are mainly concerned with putting our happiness before the happiness of others.

Meditation is the first step in addressing our ego, but our initial aim might be to improve our own lives. So even our meditation practice needs to evolve if we are to become a bodhisattva.

Meditation can help us to develop our compassion for others, and with this, we can discover that fulfillment comes not from satisfying ourselves but by working to create happiness for others.

As our own healing journey develops, we may find that helping others is a part of that – this is role of the bodhisattva.

In Mahayana Buddhism, we develop this by doing the work.

We aim to heal our own suffering while developing our compassion for others and, ultimately, our ability to heal the suffering of all beings. It is about taking responsibility for ourselves – for our own suffering and joy. The reality is that nobody else can do this work for us.

Bodhisattvas work to help end the suffering of others. They will have studied suffering and the root of suffering, and this knowledge and wisdom will aid them in helping all beings rid themselves of suffering and pain.

The Buddha in his past lives was known as a Bodhisattva – this means that he spent whole lifetimes dedicated to cultivating bodhicitta and helping to end the suffering of others.

The ultimate goal of a bodhisattva is to gain enlightenment while helping others to attain enlightenment also.

They are often known as being spiritual guides.

a woman meditating in front of candles

How to Become a bodhisattva

The state of mind that helps us to focus on the path of becoming a bodhisattva is called bodhicitta.  Bodhicitta means “awakened mind or heart.” This is a principal element of Mahayana Buddhism. Without this, we are going to struggle to develop compassion for ourselves let alone others and the world.

So the big question is should we start the journey of being a Bodhisattva right now or wait until we are enlightened? Why not start right now? 

The path is a combination of; seeking our own liberation from suffering first before we help others, combining our own liberation with that of helping others, as well as helping others first.  They are interchangeable, and you might switch between them frequently.

We can all aspire to become a Bodhisattva by reminding ourselves that each step of compassion we take in our own journey towards liberation will ultimately be of help to others too.

What does it mean to be a Bodhisattva?

In order to be a Bodhisattva, there are certain qualities that one should have.  These include:

  • Compassion – A compassionate being puts others before themselves.
  • Wisdom – Bodhisattvas are able to help people distinguish wise compassion from compassion that seeks to soothe in the moment but ultimately does not target the person’s suffering.
  • Generosity – All aspects of a bodhisattva’s life are generous, from their material possessions to their time and energy.
  • Patience – This is an important trait.  Bodhisattvas are patient not only with themselves but with all others too.
  • Ethical behavior – Because bodhisattvas are committed to helping others their actions are ethical and non-harming.
  • Courage – Being truly compassionate and committed to life as a bodhisattva can be challenging and this requires courage and strength to do the right things and act with integrity.

Becoming a bodhisattva is a practice and a process of learning. It cannot be learned from books as it is fundamentally acts and thoughts. There is no way to tell if someone is a bodhisattva except for their actions.

An example of a modern-day bodhisattva is Mother Teresa.

a hand meditating in front of a sunset overlayed with text: may the benefits I’ve received benefit all beings everywhere

Bodhisattva In your life

There are practices that you can use within your meditations to help you on your bodhisattva path.  Why not try using “may the benefits I’ve received benefit all beings everywhere” at the beginning and end of your meditation practice?

A bodhisattva lives by a vow of compassion for all beings, and they believe that changing humanity lies within each individual person. They are a guide for those on the path of enlightenment and are role models for those within the Buddhist tradition.

Try giving some of the traits of the bodhisattva a go and see how it pans out in your life.

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Sarah is a Brighton-based yoga teacher and teacher trainer with a passion for teaching self-inquiry and rest.

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