In the Early Buddhist schools as well as modern Theravada Buddhism, a bodhisattva (Pali: bodhisatta) refers to anyone who has made a resolution to become a Buddha and has also received a confirmation or prediction from a living Buddha that this will be so.
In early Buddhism, the term bodhisatta is used in the early texts to refer to Gautama Buddha in his previous lives and as a young man in his current life in the period during which he was working towards his own liberation. During his discourses, to recount his experiences as a young aspirant he regularly uses the phrase "When I was an unenlightened bodhisatta..." The term therefore connotes a being who is "bound for enlightenment", in other words, a person whose aim is to become fully enlightened. In the Pāli canon, the bodhisatta is also described as someone who is still subject to birth, illness, death, sorrow, defilement, and delusion. Some of the previous lives of the Buddha as a bodhisattva are featured in the Jataka tales.
According to the Theravāda monk Bhikkhu Bodhi, the bodhisattva path is not taught in the earliest strata of Buddhist texts such as the Pali Nikayas (and their counterparts such as the Chinese Āgamas) which instead focus on the ideal of the Arahant.
The oldest known story about how Gautama Buddha becomes a bodhisattva is the story of his encounter with the previous Buddha, Dīpankara. During this encounter, a previous incarnation of Gautama, variously named Sumedha, Megha, or Sumati offers five blue lotuses and spreads out his hair or entire body for Dīpankara to walk on, resolving to one day become a Buddha. Dīpankara then confirms that they will attain Buddhahood. Early Buddhist authors saw this story as indicating that the making of a resolution (abhinīhāra) in the presence of a living Buddha and his prediction/confirmation of one's future Buddhahood was necessary to become a bodhisattva. According to Drewes, "all known models of the path to Buddhahood developed from this basic understanding."
The path is explained differently by the various Nikaya schools. In the Theravāda Buddhavaṃsa (1st-2nd century BCE), after receiving the prediction, Gautama took four asaṃkheyyas ("incalculable aeons") and a hundred thousand, shorter kalpas (aeons) to reach Buddhahood.
The Sarvāstivāda school had similar models about how the Buddha Gautama became a bodhisattva. They held it took him three asaṃkhyeyas and ninety one kalpas (aeons) to become a Buddha after his resolution (praṇidhāna) in front of a past Buddha. During the first asaṃkhyeya he is said to have encountered and served 75,000 Buddhas, and 76,000 in the second, after which he received his first prediction (vyākaraṇa) of future Buddhahood from Dīpankara, meaning that he could no longer fall back from the path to Buddhahood. Thus, the presence of a living Buddha is also necessary for Sarvāstivāda. The Mahāvibhāṣā explains that its discussion of the bodhisattva path is partly meant "to stop those who are in fact not bodhisattvas from giving rise to the self-conceit that they are."
The Sri Lankan commentator Dhammapala in his commentary on the Cariyāpiṭaka, a text which focuses on the bodhisatta path, notes that to become a bodhisatta one must make a valid resolution in front of a living Buddha, which confirms that one is irreversible (anivattana) from the attainment of Buddhahood. The Nidānakathā, as well as the Buddhavaṃsa and Cariyāpiṭaka commentaries makes this explicit by stating that one cannot use a substitute (such as a Bodhi tree, Buddha statue or Stupa) for the presence of a living Buddha, since only a Buddha has the knowledge for making a reliable prediction. This is the generally accepted view maintained in orthodox Theravada today. The idea is that any resolution to attain Buddhahood may easily be forgotten or abandoned during the aeons ahead. The Burmese monk Ledi Sayadaw (1846–1923) explains that though it is easy to make vows for future Buddhahood by oneself, it is very difficult to maintain the necessary conduct and views during periods when the Dharma has disappeared from the world. One will easily fall back during such periods and this is why one is not truly a full bodhisatta until one receives recognition from a living Buddha.
Because of this, it was and remains a common practice in Theravada to attempt to establish the necessary conditions to meet the future Buddha Maitreya and thus receive a prediction from him. Medieval Theravada literature and inscriptions report the aspirations of monks, kings and ministers to meet Maitreya for this purpose. Modern figures such as Anagarika Dharmapala (1864–1933), and U Nu (1907–1995) both sought to receive a prediction from a Buddha in the future and believed meritorious actions done for the good of Buddhism would help in their endeavor to become bodhisattas in the future.
Over time the term came to be applied to other figures besides Gautama Buddha in Theravada lands, possibly due to the influence of Mahayana. The Theravada Abhayagiri tradition of Sri Lanka practiced Mahayana Buddhism and was very influential until the 12th century. Kings of Sri Lanka were often described as bodhisattvas, starting at least as early as Sirisanghabodhi (r. 247–249), who was renowned for his compassion, took vows for the welfare of the citizens, and was regarded as a mahāsatta (Sanskrit mahāsattva), an epithet used almost exclusively in Mahayana Buddhism. Many other Sri Lankan kings from the 3rd until the 15th century were also described as bodhisattvas and their royal duties were sometimes clearly associated with the practice of the Ten Pāramitās. In some cases, they explicitly claimed to have received predictions of Buddhahood in past lives.
Theravadin bhikkhu and scholar Walpola Rahula stated that the bodhisattva ideal has traditionally been held to be higher than the state of a śrāvaka not only in Mahayana but also in Theravada Buddhism. He also quotes the 10th century king of Sri Lanka, Mahinda IV (956–972 CE), who had the words inscribed "none but the bodhisattvas will become kings of a prosperous Lanka," among other examples.
But the fact is that both the Theravada and the Mahayana unanimously accept the Bodhisattva ideal as the highest...Although the Theravada holds that anybody can be a Bodhisattva, it does not stipulate or insist that all must be Bodhisattva which is considered not practical.
Jeffrey Samuels echoes this perspective, noting that while in Mahayana Buddhism the bodhisattva path is held to be universal and for everyone, in Theravada it is "reserved for and appropriated by certain exceptional people." Paul Williams writes that some modern Theravada meditation masters in Thailand are popularly regarded as bodhisattvas.
Mahāyāna Buddhism (often also called Bodhisattvayāna, or the "Bodhisattva Vehicle") is based principally upon the path of a bodhisattva. This path was seen as nobler than becoming an arhat or a solitary Buddha. According to David Drewes, "Mahayana sutras unanimously depict the path beginning with the first arising of the thought of becoming a Buddha (prathamacittotpāda), or the initial arising of bodhicitta, typically aeons before one first receives a Buddha’s prediction, and apply the term bodhisattva from this point."
The Aṣṭasāhasrikā Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra, one of the earliest known Mahayana texts, contains a simple and brief definition for the term bodhisattva, which is also the earliest known Mahāyāna definition. This definition is given as the following: "Because he has bodhi as his aim, a bodhisattva-mahāsattva is so called."
The Aṣṭasāhasrikā, also divides the path into three stages. The first stage is that of bodhisattvas who “first set out in the vehicle” (prathamayānasaṃprasthita), then there is the “irreversible” (avinivartanīya) stage, and finally the third “bound by one more birth” (ekajātipratibaddha), as in, destined to become a Buddha in the next life. Drewes also notes that:
When Mahāyāna sūtras present stories of Buddhas and bodhisattvas’ first arising of the thought of attaining Buddhahood, they invariably depict it as taking place in the presence of a Buddha, suggesting that they shared with all known nikāya traditions the understanding that this is a necessary condition for entering the path. In addition, though this key fact is often obscured in scholarship, they apparently never encourage anyone to become a bodhisattva or present any ritual or other means of doing so. Like nikāya texts, they also regard the status of new or recent bodhisattvas as largely meaningless. The Aṣṭasāhasrikā, for instance, states that as many bodhisattvas as there grains of sand in the Ganges turn back from the pursuit of Buddhahood and that out of innumerable beings who give rise to bodhicitta and progress toward Buddhahood, only one or two will reach the point of becoming irreversible.
Drewes also adds that early texts like the Aṣṭasāhasrikā treat bodhisattvas who are beginners (ādikarmika) or "not long set out in the [great] vehicle" with scorn, describing them as "blind", "unintelligent", "lazy" and "weak". Early Mahayana works identify them with those who reject Mahayana or who abandon Mahayana, and they are seen as likely to become śrāvakas (those on the arhat path). Rather than encouraging them to become bodhisattvas, what early Mahayana sutras like the Aṣṭa do is to help individuals determine if they have already received a prediction in a past life, or if they are close to this point. The Aṣṭa provides a variety of methods, including forms of ritual or divination, methods dealing with dreams and various tests, especially tests based on one's reaction to the hearing of the content in the Aṣṭasāhasrikā itself. The text states that encountering and accepting its teachings mean one is close to being given a prediction and that if one does not "shrink back, cower or despair" from the text, but "firmly believes it", one is irreversible. Many other Mahayana sutras such as the Akṣobhyavyūha and the Śūraṃgamasamādhi Sūtra present textual approaches to determine one's status as an advanced bodhisattva. These mainly consist in one's attitude towards listening to, believing, preaching, proclaiming, copying or memorizing and reciting the sutra. According to Drewes, this claim that merely having faith in Mahāyāna sūtras meant that one was an advanced bodhisattva, was a departure from previous Nikaya views about bodhisattvas. It created new groups of Buddhists who accepted each other's bodhisattva status.
Some of early depictions of the Bodhisattva path in texts such as the Ugraparipṛcchā Sūtra describe it as an arduous, difficult monastic path suited only for the few which is nevertheless the most glorious path one can take. Three kinds of bodhisattvas are mentioned: the forest, city, and monastery bodhisattvas—with forest dwelling being promoted a superior, even necessary path in sutras such as the Ugraparipṛcchā and the Samadhiraja sutras. The early Rastrapalapariprccha sutra also promotes a solitary life of meditation in the forests, far away from the distractions of the householder life. The Rastrapala is also highly critical of monks living in monasteries and in cities who are seen as not practicing meditation and morality. The Ratnagunasamcayagatha also says the bodhisattva should undertake ascetic practices (dhutanga), "wander freely without a home", practice the paramitas and train under a guru in order to perfect his meditation practice and realization of prajñaparamita. Some scholars have used these texts to argue for "the forest hypothesis", the theory that the initial Bodhisattva ideal was associated with a strict forest asceticism. But other scholars point out that many other Mahayana sutras do not promote this ideal, focusing on sutra based practices.
Some Mahayana sutras promoted another revolutionary doctrinal turn, claiming that the three vehicles of the Śrāvakayāna, Pratyekabuddhayāna and the Bodhisattvayāna were really just one vehicle (ekayana). This is most famously promoted in the Lotus Sūtra which claims that the very idea of three separate vehicles is just an upaya, a skillful device invented by the Buddha to get beings of various abilities on the path. But ultimately, it will be revealed to them that there is only one vehicle, the ekayana, which ends in Buddhahood.
Over time, Mahayana Buddhists developed mature systematized doctrines about the bodhisattva path. The authors of the various Madhyamaka shastras (treatises) often presented the view of the ekayana. The texts and sutras associated with the Yogacara school developed a different theory of three separate gotras or lineages, that inherently predisposed a person to either the vehicle of the arhat, pratyekabuddha or samyak-saṃbuddha (fully self awakened one). However, the term was also used in a broader sense. According to the eight century Mahāyāna philosopher Haribhadra, the term "bodhisattva" can refer to those who follow any of the three vehicles, since all are working towards bodhi (awakening). Therefore, the specific term for a Mahāyāna bodhisattva is a mahāsattva (great being) bodhisattva. According to Atiśa's 11th century Bodhipathapradīpa, the central defining feature of a Mahāyāna bodhisattva is the universal aspiration to end suffering for all sentient beings, which is termed bodhicitta (the heart set on awakening). Later Sanskrit Mahayana Buddhists also developed specific rituals and devotional acts for the arising of this absolutely central quality of bodhicitta, such as the "seven part worship" (Saptāṇgapūjā or Saptavidhā Anuttarapūjā). This ritual form is visible in the works of Shantideva (8th century) and includes:
Contemporary Mahāyāna Buddhism follows this model and encourages everyone to give rise to bodhicitta and ceremonially take bodhisattva vows. With these vows, one makes the promise to work for the complete enlightenment of all sentient beings by practicing the transcendent virtues or paramitas.
Related to the different views on the different types of yanas or vehicles is the question of a bodhisattva's relationship to nirvāṇa. In the various Mahāyāna texts, two theories can be discerned. One view is the idea that a bodhisattva must postpone their awakening until full Buddhahood is attained (at which point one ceases to be reborn, which is the classical view of nirvāṇa). This view is promoted in some sutras like the Pañcavimsatisahasrika-prajñaparamita-sutra. The second theory is the idea that there are two kinds of nirvāṇa, the nirvāṇa of an arhat and a superior type of nirvāṇa called apratiṣṭhita (non-abiding) that allows a Buddha to remain engaged in the world. This doctrine developed in Yogacara. As noted by Paul Williams, the idea of apratiṣṭhita nirvāṇa may have taken some time to develop and is not obvious in some of the early Mahāyāna literature, therefore while earlier sutras may sometimes speak of "postponement", later texts saw no need to postpone the "superior" apratiṣṭhita nirvāṇa.
In this Yogacara model, the bodhisattva definitely rejects and avoids the liberation of the śravaka and pratyekabuddha, described in Mahāyāna literature as either inferior or "Hina" (as in Asaṅga's fourth century Yogācārabhūmi) or as ultimately false or illusory (as in the Lotus Sūtra). That a bodhisattva has the option to pursue such a lesser path, but instead chooses the long path towards Buddhahood is one of the five criteria for one to be considered a bodhisattva. The other four are: being human, being a man, making a vow to become a Buddha in the presence of a previous Buddha, and receiving a prophecy from that Buddha.
Over time, a more varied analysis of bodhisattva careers developed focused on one's motivation. This can be seen in the Tibetan Buddhist teaching on three types of motivation for generating bodhicitta. According to Patrul Rinpoche's 19th century Words of My Perfect Teacher (Kun bzang bla ma'i gzhal lung), a bodhisattva might be motivated in one of three ways. They are:
These three are not types of people, but rather types of motivation. According to Patrul Rinpoche, the third quality of intention is most noble though the mode by which Buddhahood actually occurs is the first; that is, it is only possible to teach others the path to enlightenment once one has attained enlightenment oneself. The ritualized formulation of the bodhisattva vow also reflects this order (becoming a buddha so that one can then teach others to do the same). A bodhisattva vow ritual text attributed to Nāgārjuna, of the second-third century CE, states the vow as follows: "Just as the past tathāgata arhat samyaksambuddhas, when engaging in the behavior of a bodhisattva, generated the aspiration to unsurpassed complete enlightenment so that all beings be liberated, all beings be freed, all beings be relieved, all beings attain complete nirvana, all beings be placed in omniscient wisdom, in the same way, I whose name is so-and-so, from this time forward, generate the aspiration to unsurpassed complete enlightenment so that all beings be liberated, all beings be freed, all beings be relieved, all beings attain complete nirvana, all beings be placed in omniscient wisdom."
The six perfections that constitute bodhisattva practice should not be confused with the actual acts of benefiting beings that the bodhisattva vows to accomplish once he or she is a buddha. The six perfections are a mental transformation and need not actually benefit anyone. This is seen in the story of Vessantara, an incarnation of Śākyamuni Buddha while he was still a bodhisattva, who commits the ultimate act of generosity by giving away his children to an evil man who mistreats them. Vessantara's generous act causes indirect harm, however, the merit from the perfection of his generosity fructifies when he attains complete enlightenment as Śākyamuni Buddha.
According to many traditions within Mahāyāna Buddhism, on the way to becoming a Buddha, a bodhisattva proceeds through ten, or sometimes fourteen, grounds or bhūmis. Below is the list of the ten bhūmis and their descriptions according to the Avataṃsaka Sūtra and The Jewel Ornament of Liberation, a treatise by Gampopa, an influential teacher of the Tibetan Kagyu school. (Other schools give slightly variant descriptions.)
Before a bodhisattva arrives at the first ground, he or she first must travel the first two of five paths:
The ten grounds of the bodhisattva then can be grouped into the next three paths:
The chapter of ten grounds in the Avataṃsaka Sūtra refers to 52 stages. The 10 grounds are:
After the ten bhūmis, according to Mahāyāna Buddhism, one attains complete enlightenment and becomes a Buddha.
With the 52 stages, the Śūraṅgama Sūtra recognizes 57 stages. With the 10 grounds, various Vajrayāna schools recognize 3–10 additional grounds, mostly 6 more grounds with variant descriptions.
Some sutras said a beginner would take 3–22 countless eons (mahāsaṃkhyeya kalpas) to become a buddha. Pure Land Buddhism suggests buddhists go to the pure lands to practice as bodhisattvas. Tiantai, Huayan, Zen and Vajrayāna schools say they teach ways to attain buddhahood within one karmic cycle.
Various traditions within Buddhism believe in specific bodhisattvas. Some bodhisattvas appear across traditions, but due to language barriers may be seen as separate entities. For example, Tibetan Buddhists believe in various forms of Chenrezig, who is Avalokiteśvara in Sanskrit, Guanyin in China, Gwan-eum in Korea, Quan Am in Vietnam, and Kannon in Japan. Followers of Tibetan Buddhism consider the Dalai Lamas and the Karmapas to be an emanation of Chenrezig, the Bodhisattva of Compassion.
The place of a bodhisattva's earthly deeds, such as the achievement of enlightenment or the acts of Dharma, is known as a bodhimaṇḍa, and may be a site of pilgrimage. Many temples and monasteries are famous as bodhimaṇḍas. Perhaps the most famous bodhimaṇḍa of all is the Bodhi Tree under which Śākyamuṇi achieved buddhahood. In the tradition of Chinese Buddhism, there are four mountains that are regarded as bodhimaṇḍas for bodhisattvas, with each site having major monasteries and being popular for pilgrimages by both monastics and laypeople. These four bodhimandas are: