Ep. 046: How to Be a Bodhisattva

The Four Great Bodhisattvas and the Four Bodhisattva Vows

"Bodhisattva," like, "Saint," is one of those words that seems to be all connotation, with little denotation that we can put our finger on. Nevertheless, we'll take a shot at it, and also tell you how you can join this exclusive club, in this episode of


A Bodhisattva is second only to a Buddha in the pantheon of Mahayana Buddhism. But the line between the two is thin, and sometimes malleable. The word itself indicates that the Bodhisattva's being (sattva) is awakened (bodhi, related to the word buddha). One way these two ideas have been put together is to say that the Bodhisattva has "the essence of enlightenment."

What Exactly is a Bodhisattva?

While it's been said that a Bodhisattva is a Buddha-to-be--one who has vowed to eschew full Buddhahood (or nirvana) in order to remain in the world and help those in need--in fact the concept is much more complex. For instance, the term is used differently in the two main Buddhist traditions, the Theravada (mainly found in South Asia) and the Mahayana (in East Asia).

In the Southern tradition, the term "Bodhisattva" applies only to the Buddha before his enlightenment.

In the Southern tradition, there is only one Buddha for a very, very long age. So the best that most people can hope for, they say, is to become an Arhat: a type of enlightened being, one who has attained nirvana and will not be reborn after death, but without all the powers and responsibilities of a Buddha, especially that of being uniquely the Buddha with his function of teaching and leadership.

So in the Theravada tradition, the term "Bodhisattva" is reserved for the historical Buddha Shakyamuni before his Enlightenment (and by extension for the early careers of all the ahistorical buddhas believed to have preceded him). The term also applies to the previous lives of that Buddha as seen (for example) in the Jataka Tales, which detail his road to Enlightenment.

The Jataka Tales also tell of the Buddha as a Bodhisattva, before his enlightenment; here, one tale (of the Bodhisattva as a prince who sacrificed himself to save a tiger and her cubs from starvation) is illustrated in the Dunhuang Caves, as copied by artist Guan Shanyue.

Now, in the Mahayana tradition, to become an Arhat is considered selfish. Instead, one is to aspire to become a Bodhisattva, one who has pledged not to reach Enlightenment (which, in the Mahayana, means Buddhahood) until all sentient beings are able to cross over. In practical terms, this means "never," but "hope springs eternal."

In the Mahayana, the term will include--ultimately--virtually every sentient being. To help us keep all this straight, we can divide Bodhisattvas into three subcategories:

  • the Great Bodhisattvas or Mahasattvas ("Great Beings"), whom we'll discuss in a moment;

  • the lesser Bodhisattvas, still found in the literature (and in statuary) but seldom inspiring the devotion afforded the Mahasattvas;

  • and--since the Mahayana posits that all sentient beings will be Buddhas someday--there are numerous ordinary Bodhisattvas (perhaps with a small "b") including, they say, even you and me.

It should be noted that the distinction between the three is not one of type, but of level, of how far along the path one has gone. You and I and the other ordinary Bodhisattvas are just getting started; the Mahasattvas are near the finish line. The others are somewhere in the middle.

This is not unlike the system of saints in some Christian denominations, where there are the "Great Saints" like Peter, John, Paul, Augustine, Francis, and others; the "lesser Saints" like, say, Irmengard, or Abraham of Persia; and then the "saints" in the broadest sense, the everyday believers.

Let's agree, then, that a Bodhisattva is whatever Buddhism in its myriad definitions says it is.

The Four Great Bodhisattvas

The best way to get a handle on Bodhisattvahood is to look at the premier examples, the four Mahasattvas most commonly reverenced. Here are their names in Sanskrit, Chinese, and Japanese; hereafter I'll just use the Sanskrit.

  • Avalokiteshvara Bodhisattva, called in Chinese Guanyin Pusa, and in Japanese Kannon Bosatsu

  • Kshitigarbha Bodhisattva, called in Chinese Dizang Pusa, and in Japanese Jizo Bosatsu

  • Manjushri Bodhisattva, called in Chinese Wenshu Pusa, and in Japanese Monju Bosatsu

  • Samantabhadra Bodhisattva, called in Chinese Puxian Pusa, and in Japanese Fugen Bosatsu

These four are often seen in groups--for example, one facing in each of four directions in the center of a Hall of 500 Arhats. Likewise, each has been honored with a mountain "home" in China.


The Ofuna Kannon, a colossal outdoor image of Avalokiteshvara near Kamakura, Japan

Avalokiteshvara Bodhisattva is by far the most popular, and worthy of an entire episode of his (or her) own. (The figure is often portrayed with somewhat ambiguous gender; I'll use the masculine for convenience here.)

He is called the "Bodhisattva of Great Compassion," and his name signifies that he is the "one who hears the cries of the world." He is decidedly Buddhist in origin--in his headdress is seen the Amitabha Buddha, of which he is an emanation--but is so popular that he shows up in Daoist temples as well.

In China and Japan, Avalokiteshvara has several forms, including the very popular Thousand Armed Avalokiteshvara; the Eleven-Faced Avalokiteshvara (one for the center and one for each of the "ten directions"--the eight compass points, plus up and down); a combination of these two with a thousand arms and eleven heads; the awesome Horse-Headed Avalokiteshvara; and several others. He is venerated especially on Putuoshan in China's Zhejiang Province.

Avalokiteshvara is often shown in China with two attendants, a "Dragon Girl" and the monk Sudhana, and numerous stories are told of how they came to be by his side. Another time, I promise!


A charming Jizo (Kshitigarbha) in a garden at Tokei Temple, Kita Kamakura, Japan

A close second in popularity is Kshitigarbha, the "Bodhisattva of the Great Vow" whose name means "Earth Store"--or "Earth Treasury," "Earth Matrix," or "Earth Womb"--all meaning that his vow encompasses all of the earth (and beyond!).

While the other Mahasattvas are generally dressed as Indian royalty, Kshitigarbha most often appears as a simple monk, carrying a staff with six rings near the top. His particular mission is to save all the beings condemned to the six hells, and each ring represents a level of being (see Episode 040). He is particularly venerated on Jiuhuashan in Anhui Province, China, which we visited in Episode 015. There we also discussed his two attendants, the old man Min Ranghe--who was tricked into giving the mountain to Kshitigarbha for practice--and his son, the monk Daoming.

In Japan, Ksihitigarbha is especially associated with the death of children, as we discussed in Episode 012, "On the Banks of the River of Souls."


Wenshu (Manjushri) astride a lion at Shuxiang Temple, Wutaishan, China

Perhaps next in popularity is Manjushri, the "Bodhisattva of Great Wisdom" whose name means "Gentle Glory." His popularity--in China, at least--derives from the idea that a figure associated with wisdom is the one to approach for supernatural aid in passing a school exam!

This trivializes his character, though, because the "wisdom" he has mastered is prajna, the transcendent wisdom which perceives the true nature of reality: that it is empty. (Emptiness: another topic for an entire episode!)

We often see him holding symbols of this higher wisdom, such as a sword or a scepter. Moreover, he's seated on a lion, whose roar represents the wisdom of the Buddha's teaching. His mountain in China is Wutaishan in Shanxi Province.


Puxian (Samantabhadra) seated on an elephant, Hongyuan Temple, Shiyan, China

Last but far from least we come to Samantabhadra, the "Bodhisattva of Great Practice," whose name means "Universal Worthy."

We discussed his six-tusked elephant in Episode 022, on the "Six Perfections." Remember? He made a ten-fold vow with an emphasis on practice. And, as I explained in that episode, "A wild mind, like a wild elephant, is a dangerous thing; a tame mind, like a tame elephant, can accomplish a great deal for its owner. So the docile elephant in the image represents Samantabhadra's mind which has been mastered through meditation."

His devotion centers on Emeishan in Sichuan Province,


If we shuffle the order of these four, as is often done, we get this: Avalokiteshvara and Manjushri represent Compassion and Wisdom, two of the foremost values of Buddhism; Kshitigarbha and Samantabhadra are a Vow and a Practice, a reinforcing loop. There are of course many, many more lessons to be derived from these four. But let's move on.


There are four more "Pretty Greats," Mahasattvas who don't have quite the stature of these four. They are Maitreya, the familiar so-called "Laughing Buddha"; Mahasthamaprapta, usually seen only in a trio with Amitabha Buddha and Avalokiteshvara; Akashagarbha, especially popular in Japanese Shingon Buddhism where he is called Kokuzo; and Sarvanivarana-Vishkambhin who, like the elephant-headed Ganesha, is a remover of obstacles.

Six more, of the lower rank, are (1) the four guardians Skanda (better known by his Chinese name, Weituo), featured in Episode 003; Qielan, who was once the Chinese martial hero Guan Yu; and the Generals Heng and Ha from Episode 027; and (2) two attendants to the Medicine Buddha (Bhaisajyaguru) named in Sanskrit Suryaprabha and Chandraprabha, who are the Sun and the Moon.

The Bodhisattva Vows

Thus concludes our survey of some of the recognized Bodhisattvas.

Now, what about you?

The story of any Mahasattva (if he has a story) includes a number of pretty extravagant vows. The vows recited by most Mahayana practitioners, including yours truly, have been boiled down to just four, but they are extravagant indeed. These were mentioned in Episode 034, on how to behave in a temple, but let's take a closer look.

One who wishes to be a Bodhisattva (and don't we all?) enters the path by reciting with sincerity something like this:

Sentient beings are numberless; I vow to save them.

Desires are inexhaustible; I vow to put an end to them.

The Buddha's teachings are boundless; I vow to master them.

The Buddha Way is endless; I vow to follow it.

Let's consider these one by one.


Robert Aitken Roshi, co-founder of the Honolulu Diamond Sangha (Wikipedia)

Sentient beings are numberless; I vow to save them.

The late Robert Aitken Roshi wrote an excellent article on the Japanese version of the vows, unpacking some of the language. He points out that in the First Vow, the "beings" to be saved are not only the sentient beings, but all beings. In one of the first popular English translations of the vows, D. T. Suzuki in his 1935 Manual of Zen Buddhism also avoids the distinction, stating, "However innumerable beings are..."

Okay, I feel more comfortable with trying to save, say, an earthworm than an onion. But what does it mean to "save" another being at all? In the version developed by the Honolulu Diamond Sangha of Aitken Roshi, the verb used is "carry across." But still, how am I supposed to do that?

The Sixth Patriarch of Chan/Zen, Huineng, emphasized that all of the vows are accomplished in our own minds. By purifying our own thoughts, by developing bodhicitta or the "enlightenment-mind" which strives toward awakening and compassion, we benefit all sentient beings.

In more practical terms, we can practice Compassion by showing kindness to those around us, being generous to those who need help, not killing needlessly (e.g., vegetarianism), and so on. This, in turn, helps purify our minds as, in the end, it's all connected!


Desires are inexhaustible; I vow to put an end to them.

Again, Aitken Roshi brings clarity to a key concept here. The "desires" spoken of are translated by the Diamond Sangha as "greed, hatred, and ignorance," the Three Poisons.

It's not uncommon to hear people ask questions like, "Is it wrong to desire enlightenment?" or, more snarkily, "Can I desire to put an end to desire?" But the desire mentioned by the Buddha in the Four Noble Truths is not simple intention ("I desire to see a movie"), but thirst, craving, attachment, a situation in which the tail wags the dog, as it were. It is these negative, harmful desires that are to be cut off or, as the Diamond Sangha has it, abandoned.

The Japanese pronunciation of the first two characters in this line--the word translated "desire"--is bon no, a word I learned when I was living in Japan. It means "worries" or "concerns," and is generally thought to mean "distractions from the spiritual life"--in short, "defilements." I have joined the ceremonies in a temple on New Year's Eve where the temple bell is rung 108 times, to eliminate the 108 bon no. A translated list of these includes mental afflictions like ostentatiousness, gluttony, or callousness; but also some things that are sometimes lauded, such as eagerness and self-denial. In popular belief, even dedication to family or work can be seen as distracting one from the path.

The first steps towards conquering desire would probably be morality, as we discussed in Episode 016. You can take a look at that episode for more information.


The Buddha's teachings are boundless; I vow to master them.

Most translations really take liberties with the Chinese/Japanese version of this. The words there are "dharma (or law) gates," sometimes rendered "gates to enlightenment." Thus, wisdom. To walk through a dharma gate is to gain wisdom. It sounds much more poetic, doesn't it? And of course, wisdom is in some ways foundational to all the other vows.

By reading my Newsletter or listening to this Podcast, you're already taking practical steps toward developing more wisdom. :) Other ways to do this would be to join a class, find a teacher, do a sutra study, and so on.


The great Japanese Zen teacher Daisetsu Teitaro Suzuki (Wikipedia)

The Buddha Way is endless; I vow to follow it.

The Chinese and Japanese words rendered here as "endless" mean literally "no top," sometimes translated "supreme." Introducing the idea of "endlessness" is more congruent with the idea of a way or path. And the word "follow" here is better expressed as "succeed" or "accomplish," but again "follow" goes with "way." Dr. Suzuki used "attain." Maybe a better way of expressing this would be, "Buddhism is supreme; I vow to succeed at it."

Putting It All Together

Huineng, the Sixth Patriarch of Chan/Zen, at Mei An in Zhaoqing, China

Note the impossibility inherent in those adjectives: saving numberless beings; ending inexhaustible desires; mastering boundless teachings; and following an endless way. This may be intentional, setting such a high bar that ultimately the mind and the will fail; then the real work can begin.

But as I mentioned, Huineng said that all of these accomplishments are based in the mind:

We vow to deliver all beings within our own minds.

We vow to cut off the limitless passions within our own minds.

We vow to learn the limitless Dharma within our self-nature.

We vow to attain the highest degree of Buddhahood within our self-nature.


Somewhere I ran across this slightly more relaxed, humane, almost New-Agey version:

Wake all beings to the wonder of the world.

Set endless yearning to rest.

Walk through every gate of wisdom.

Live the way of the Great Beings.

Either way, the meaning is simple:

  • Help others.

  • End desire.

  • Learn as much as you can.

  • Live a wholesome life.

Who can disagree with that?


To tie things up, I want to go back to the list of the "Four Great Bodhisattvas" above, and suggest this:

  • The first Bodhisattva Vow, to save sentient beings, is represented by Avalokiteshvara, the Bodhisattva of Great Compassion.

  • The second Bodhisattva Vow, to end desires, is represented by Kshitigarbha, the Bodhisattva of the Great Vow who saves from hell those who had wrong desires.

  • The third Bodhisattva Vow, to master the Buddha's teachings, is naturally represented by Manjushri, the Bodhisattva of Great Wisdom.

  • The fourth Bodhisattva Vow, to follow the Buddha Way, is represented by Samantabhadra, the Bodhisattva of Great Practice in following the Way.


So there it is. Are you willing to take the Vows and become a Bodhisattva? I hope you'll consider it!

Until next time, then, may you and your loved ones and all sentient beings be well and happy.

Adios, Amigos!

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In the next episode: Like Buddhism itself, the teachings of one of Japan's greatest masters--Kukai, known as Kobo Daishi--has its roots in China. We'll visit some key sites of the Daishi's Chinese study tour.