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What is a bodhisattva?

A bodhisattva is literally a living being (sattva) who aspires to enlightenment (bodhi) and carries out altruistic practices. The bodhisattva ideal is central to the Mahayana Buddhist tradition as the individual who seeks enlightenment both for themselves and for others. Compassion, an empathetic sharing of the sufferings of others, is the bodhisattva’s greatest characteristic.

The path of a bodhisattva is not an otherworldly undertaking for people with unique gifts of compassion or wisdom. Rather, the qualities of the bodhisattva are inherent in the lives of ordinary men and women, and the purpose of Buddhist practice is to strengthen these qualities until compassion becomes the basis of all our actions.

On entering the way, a bodhisattva develops bodhicitta (mind of enlightenment). This begins by generating the six perfections: generosity, ethics, patience, effort, concentration and wisdom. Even as a person strives towards such an exalted goal, they feel as though they are limited by the fact that they too are suffering. To be of aid to others they decide to become a Buddha (enlightened one), as they are then capable of unlimited compassion and wisdom. A bodhisattva is able to relate to all others at whatever level is needed. To those of lesser intelligence, a bodhisattva will answer using simple words and to those of great intelligence a more exalted language.

Most people are self-motivated and work primarily to solve their own problems, keeping others a distant second. A bodhisattva is motivated by pure compassion and seeks enlightenment for all sentient beings, both seen and unseen. They will undergo any type of suffering to help. In Shakyamuni Buddha’s ‘Perfection of Wisdom in 8,000 Lines’ it states: “I will become a savior to all those beings, I will release them from all their sufferings”. If this sounds familiar to anyone not acquainted with Buddhism, then you only need to think of the example of Jesus Christ, a true bodhisattva.

“For as long as space endures, And for as long as living beings remain, Until then may I too abide, To dispel the misery of the world.”

– From ‘Bodhisattvacharyavatara – a guide to the Bodhisattva way of life’ by Santideva, an 8th century Bodhisattva.