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Prince Siddhartha Gautama as a bodhisattva, before becoming a Buddha. He is characteristically depicted as an Indian nobleman, posing with left hand on the hip, Gandhara, 2nd-3rd century.

In Buddhist thought, a bodhisattva (Ch.: 菩薩 p s) is a being that, while not yet fully enlightened, is actively striving toward that goal. Conventionally, the term is applied to hypothetical beings with a high degree of enlightenment and power. Bodhisattva literally means a "wisdom ("bodhi") being ("sattva") in Sanskrit.


Bodhisattvas in Theravada Buddhism

In Theravada Buddhism, the bodhisattva is seen as seeking enlightenment so that, once awakened, he or she may efficiently aid other beings with the expertise of supreme wisdom. Gautama Buddha's previous life experience as a bodhisattva before Buddhahood are recorded in the texts of the jataka. Lay Buddhists of Theravada seek inspiration in Gautama's skill as a good layman in these texts, which account not only his historical life, but many previous lives. When Gautama Buddha referred to himself in his pre-Buddha existence, he spoke in terms of "when I was still a Bodhisattva". The only currently active bodhisattva described in the Pali Canon is the future Buddha Maitreya (Pali: Metteyya). The Theravada tradition, i.e. the Pali Canon, speaks of no other bodhisattvas than these.

Bodhisattvas in Mahayana Buddhism

In Mahayana Buddhism, a bodhisattva has the compassionate determination to aid all beings on their quest for the highest state of development, full enlightenment of a Buddha. This type of motivation is known as bodhicitta. Remaining in this world of uncontrolled rebirth (samsara), this individual has taken the bodhisattva vows not to pass into nirvana until all other beings have likewise achieved enlightenment.

Mahayana Buddhist philosophy sometimes poses the concept of the bodhisattva in opposition to that of the sravakabuddha (conventionally referred to as an arhat). The arhat is seen as being having, in a sense, ultimate enlightenment, but has chosen to enter enlightenment without saving every other being.

According to many traditons within Mahayana Buddhism, on his or her way to becoming a Buddha, the bodhisattva proceeds through ten, or sometimes fourteen, stages or bhumi. Below is the list of ten bhumis and their descriptions from The Jewel Ornament of Liberation, a treatise by Gampopa, an influential teacher of the Tibetan Kagyu school. Other schools give variant descriptions.

Before a bodhisattva arrives at the first ground, he or she first must travel the first two of the five paths, which are said to correspond to words from the mantra that appears at the end of the Heart Sutra:

  1. the path of accumulation (gate)
  2. the path of preparation (gate).

The ten grounds of the bodhisattva then can be grouped into the next three paths

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The Bodhisattva Maitreya practices in a lotus position, 2nd century CE, Mathura.
  1. Bhumi 1 the path of insight (paragate)
  2. Bhumi 2-7 the path of meditation (parasamgate)
  3. Bhumi 8-10 the path of no more learning (bodhi)
The 10 Grounds of Buddhism
  1. Great Joy
    • It is said that being close to enlightenment and seeing the benefit for all sentient beings, one achieves great joy, hence the name. In this bhumi the bodhisattvas practice all virtues (paramita), but especially emphasizing generosity (dana).
  2. Stainless
    • In accomplishing the second bhumi, the bodhisattva is free from the stains of immorality, therefore, this bhumi is named 'Stainless'. The emphasized virtue is moral discipline (sila).
  3. Radiant
    • The third bhumi is named 'Radiant', because, for a bodhisattva who accomplishes this bhumi, the light of Dharma is said to radiate from the bodhisattva for others. The emphasized virtue is patience (kshanti).
  4. Luminous
    • This bhumi is called 'luminous', because it is said to be like a radiating light that fully burns that which opposes enlightenment. The emphasized virtue is vigor (virya).
  5. Very difficult to train
    • Bodhisattvas who attain this bhumi strive to help sentient beings attain maturity, and do not become emotionally involved when such beings respond negatively, both of which are difficult to do. The emphasized virtue is meditative concentration (dhyana).
  6. Obviously Transcendent
    • "By depending on the perfection of wisdom awareness, he [the bodhisattva] does not abide in either samsara or nirvana, so it is 'obviously transcendent'". The emphasized virtue is wisdom (praja).
  7. Gone afar
    • Particular emphasis is on the perfection of skillful means, or upaya-kaushalya, to help others.
  8. Immovable
    • The emphasized virtue is aspiration.
    • This, the 'Immovable' bhumi, is the bhumi at which one becomes able to choose his/her place of rebirth.
  9. Good Discriminating Wisdom
    • The emphasized virtue is power.
  10. Cloud of dharma
    • The emphasized virtue is the practice of primordial wisdom.

After the ten bhumis, according to Mahayana Buddhism, one attains complete enlightenment and becomes a Buddha.

Specific bodhisattvas

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Relief image of the bodhisattva Guan Yin from Mt. Jiuhua in China's Anhui province.

Various traditions within Buddhism believe in certain specific bodhisattvas. Some bodhisattvas appear across traditions, but due to language barriers may be seen as separate entities. For example, Tibetan Buddhists believe in Chenrezig, who is Avalokitesvara in India, Guan Yin in China, and Kannon in Japan. A modern bodhisattva for many is the 14th Dalai Lama, considered by many followers of Tibetan Buddhism to be an incarnation of that same bodhisattva, the Bodhisattva of Compassion.

The bodhisattva is a popular subject in Buddhist art.

The place of a bodhisattva's earthly deeds, such as the achievement of enlightenment or the acts of dharma, is known as a bodhimandala, and may be a site of pilgrimage. Many temples and monasteries are famous as bodhimandalas; for instance, the island of Putuoshan, located off the coast of Ningbo, is venerated by Chinese Buddhists as the bodhimandala of Avalokitesvara. Perhaps the most famous bodhimandala of all is the bodhi tree under which Shakyamuni achieved buddhahood.

Partial list of bodhisattvas

  • Akasagarbha (Ch. 虛空藏 Xu Kong Zang, Jp. Kokuzo)
  • Avalokitesvara (Ch. 觀音 Guan Yin, Jp. Kannon, Tib. Chenrezig)
  • Ksitigarbha (Ch. 地藏 Di Zang, Jp. Jizo)
  • Mahasthamaprapta (Ch. 大勢至 Da Sh Zh, Jp. Seishi)
  • Maitreya (Ch. 彌勒 Mi Le Jp. Miroku)
  • Manjusri (Ch. 文殊 Wen Shu, Jp. Monju, Tib. Jampal Yang)
  • Padmasambhava (Tib. Padma Jungne or Guru Rinpoche)
  • Samantabhadra (Ch. 普賢 Pu Xian, Jp. Fugen, Tib. Kuntu Zangpo)
  • Vajrapani (Ch. 金剛手 Jin Gang Shou, Jp.Shukongojin, Tib. Channa Dorje)



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