What Is a Bodhisattva?

Kosho Uchiyama

A BODHISATTVA IS an ordinary person who takes up a course in his or her life that moves in the direction of buddha. You're a bodhisattva, I'm a bodhisattva; actually, anyone who directs their attention, their life, to practicing the way of life of a buddha is a bodhisattva. We read about Kannon Bosatsu (Avalokiteshvara Bodhisattva) or Monju Bosatsu (Manjushri Bodhisattva), and these are great bodhisattvas, but we, too, have to have confidence or faith that we are also bodhisattvas.

Most people live by their desires or karma. That's what the expression gossho no bompu means. Gossho are the obstructions to practicing the Way caused by our evil actions in the past. Bompu simply means ordinary human being--that is, one who lives by karma. Our actions are dictated by our karma: We are born into this world with our desires and may live our lives just by reacting or responding to them. In contrast is gansho no bosatsu, or a bodhisattva who lives by vow.

The life that flows through each of us and through everything around us is actually all connected. To say that, of course, means that who I really am cannot be separated from all the things that surround me. Or, to put it another way, all sentient beings have their existence and live within my life. So needless to say, that includes even the fate of all mankind--that, too, lies within me. Therefore, just how mankind might truly live out its life becomes what I aim at as my direction. This aiming or living while moving in a certain direction is what is meant by vow. In other words, it is the motivation for living that is different for a bodhisattva. Ordinary people live thinking only about their own personal, narrow circumstances connected with their desires. In contrast to that, a bodhisattva, though undeniably still an ordinary human being like everyone else, lives by vow. Because of that, the significance of his or her life is not the same. For us as bodhisattvas, all aspects of life, including the fate of humanity itself, live within us. It is with this in mind that we work to discover and manifest the most vital and alive posture that we can take in living out our life. . . .

[I]t's not enough for a bodhisattva of the Mahayana to just uphold the precepts. There are times when you have to break them, too. It's just that when you do, you have to do so with the resolve of also being willing to accept whatever consequences might follow. That's what issai shujo to tomo ni ("together with all sentient beings" --regardless of what hell one might fall into) really means. . . .

It's not enough just to know the definition of bodhisattva. What's much more important is to study the actions of a bodhisattva and then to behave like one yourself.

Regarding the question "What is a bodhisattva?" you could also define a bodhisattva as one who acts as a true adult. That is, most people in the world act like children. The word dainin means "true adult" or "bodhisattva." Today most people who are called adults are only pseudoadults. Physically they grow up and become adult but spiritually too many people never mature to adulthood. They don't behave as adults In their daily lives. A bodhisattva is one who sees the world through adult eyes and whose actions are the actions of a true adult. That is really what a bodhisattva is.

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mpilting's picture

I find the above explanation of the meaning of the word "bodhisattva" to be a bit too broad. According to the first paragraph, every Buddhist would be a bodhisattva, and this isn't true. I would say that the main quality that separates a bodhisattva from a run-of-the-mill buddha-follower is ability. It isn't enough to simply want to alleviate the suffering of the world. It isn't even enough to try. In order to be qualified as a bodhisattva, a being has to be capable of actually doing it. They must possess the ability to alleviate suffering, not just the desire to do so. I would say the statement, "You're a bodhisattva, I'm a bodhisattva" is false. If being a bodhisattva is that easy and simple, then it has no real meaning.

Blaze's picture

The explanation above is as good as it gets.

But fundamentally it cannot be "understood" by the discriminating mind, the mind that differentiates between you and I, between tree and grass, between good and bad, between shame and honour.

It can be seen by the One Mind, and One Mind is right here. Just sit down on a mat and breathe and question until it is clear who is questioning ...

a good Zen teacher would be helpful.

Dominic Gomez's picture

Bodhisattvas who alleviate suffering: mothers, doctors, defense attorneys...the list is endless!

ynia's picture

Is the primary distinctions the "vow" to alleviate the suffering of all sentient beings? I'm a new student on this path, so I'm questioning. Thank you too for the many helpful articles, insights and comments.

Dominic Gomez's picture

The vow is to teach people the means to become truly happy in this life. In Nichiren Buddhism this means chanting the mantra Nam Myoho Renge Kyo.

Kiera's picture

1. What is "true" for one person, can be "false" for another person. All perspectives are deliberately different, in order to provide multiple reflections of reality.

2. Every single thing in this 3rd dimensional physical reality is fundamentally *meaningless*. It has no meaning but what YOU give it. It is completely neutral, otherwise. You are the one who always decides, what meaning it has for you.

3. Absolutely anything, can be "easy and simple", if you choose to believe it CAN be.
You can always choose your experience of something, to be ridiculously "easy"...or incredibly hard. Or somewhere in-between.

4. The focus on "separation" through judgement of the abilities of others, leads away from unity consciousness and the connection with All-That-Is.
For instance, the low-frequency perspective "run-of-the-mill buddha-follower".... through the highest perspective, is simply a buddha follower at a different level than a bodhisattva.
Both levels are equally valid, through the non-judgemental perspective of All-That-Is.

5. An Enlightened Being knows the entire purpose of "suffering", and no longer focuses on alleviating it.....instead offering detached compassion. And acceptance/full understanding.
Suffering allows for the fastest experience of soul growth; accelerated evolution of the soul; massively accelerated ascension to higher frequencies.

Each one of your statements displays the child-like state of spiritual thinking.
When you eventually reach the state of being of Ascended Master, you will be able to see this for yourself.

mpilting's picture

Don't be fooled by the great white brotherhood: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_White_Brotherhood

Dominic Gomez's picture

Missing from the above description is the vow to help all human beings learn about the Law of the universe so that they too may bring forth indestructible happiness (enlightenment).

Spock's picture

Can anyone assist me with a pronunciation problem? Back in the 60's and onward those around me who studied The Path, pronounced Bodhisattva -- bodi sa tiva.

Does anyone else share that experience or memory and can explain why for years it was pronounced that way by my fellows?

Thanks for any and all input.

Dominic Gomez's picture

Sativa is a scientific designation for seed-grown crops such as oats (Avena sativa), rice (Oryza sativa), alfalfa (Medicago sativa) and hemp (Cannabis sativa). Sounds like you and your fellows are recalling a mispronunciation. It's actually "bōdiˈsätvə". No "long i" vowel between "satt" and "va".