What is a Bodhisattva?
Self-sacrifice is the basis of Buddhism: the Bodhisattva ideal.
The bodhisattva ideal is embodied in the bodhisattva vow:
May I attain Buddhahood for the benefit of all sentient beings.
This aspiration is called bodhicitta.
In practice this means that one vows not just to attain enlightenment or Nirvana (ambitious enough of itself), but to postpone enjoying that enlightenment fully until all other beings too haver reached liberation.
Depending on the tradition one expects to attain Buddhahood before really being able to help sentient beings, or will postpone becoming a Buddha so that all beings may be liberated. Either way: there's all those sentient beings, not all of whom want to be saved, that one vows to save none the less - whether it takes waiting for ages to do so or not.
This page explores how the Bodhisattva ideal is rooted in the life of Buddha, but is ultimately a central feature of Mahayana Buddhism. The stages of the path of the Bodhisattva are listed as well as the ideals (paramitas) a Bodhisattva tries to live up to. various versions of the Bodhisattva vow as used in daily prayers.
The full vows are much longer. For instance, in the Gelugpa tradition of Tibetan Buddhism there are 18 root vows and 46 secondary Bodhisattva vows, also known as faulty actions. In Zen Buddhism there are other lists and various traditions within Tibetan Buddhism also have their own specific vows.
However, that doesn't change the main aim of the Bodhisattva.
The lives of Buddha: the ultimate Bodhisattva
Before Gautama was Enlightened, he was Bodhisattva
Buddha was born 'Siddharta Gautama'. When he was born he was not yet enlightened, so he did not yet have the title 'Buddha' (enlightened one). Because he was on the road to enlightenment the young Gautama is called 'the bodhisattva' by Buddhists everywhere. More on the life of Siddharta Gautama, the later Buddha.
There are also many stories about the previous lives of the Buddha. In these lives he is said to have worked towards becoming a Buddha. The Jataka tales (tales of those previous lives) show him sacrificing his life, his health, his possessions and ultimately even his wife and kids for the wellfare of others. This sacrificial attitude shows why he was capable of becoming a Buddha - while most of us aren't (in this lifetime). And because he was on his way to becoming a Buddha, he is called 'the bodhisattva' in those lives as well.
It's unusual in the West to stress the place of ethics and precepts in Zen Buddhism. Zen is usually seen as a path of freedom, without rules or regulations.
This book explains the place of ideals of kindness and giving in the path towards realizing Buddha Nature in oneself. Within this context the 16 great Bodhisattva Precepts make sense. They enrich our understanding of what Buddha-ness is all about.
Joan Halifaxdoes a good job of integrating the Zen and Tibetan approach to meditating on Bodhicitta (the universal compassion of the bodhisattva).
The Arhat ideal - selflessness in Theravada Buddhism
Theravada Buddhism does not expect us to become Buddhas, but Arhats
In ancient Buddhism each kalpa (or age) has only one Buddha. This also implies that there is a very limited number of future Buddhas or Bodhisattvas. The Maitreya is one such future Buddha - famous not just amongst Theravada Buddhists, but among Mahayana Buddhists as well.
Everybody else is expected to become enlightened without being able to become a world teacher. This ideal is the 'arhat' ideal. Classic Buddhists would ask: fighting for one's own enlightenment is hard enough, why presume to be able to save the rest of conscious existence as well?
Current day 'Hinayana' (aka Theravada) Buddhists will say that one first becomes an arhat and then goes on to become a Buddha in some future life.
The essence of Mahayana Buddhism: the Bodhisattva ideal
You CAN become a Buddha, you CAN help save humanity
At some point in history people became dissatisfied with being told that they could not help save other people. Mahayana Buddhism, where each person is in essence a Buddha (though we don't yet know it), fills that gap.
In Mahayana Buddhism the central ideal is the Bodhisattva ideal. People entering Zen Buddhism as a serious spiritual path will be taught to pray the Bodhisattva Vow. The same is true for Tibetan Buddhism. It is thought to be selfish to just want to save your self - and ignore all other beings. Instead one vows not just to reach enlightenment, but to get the knowledge necessary to save others as well.
There are 18 primary vows and 46 secondary vows (there is some overlap between the two) in Tibetan Buddhism. In Chinese Buddhism there are two lists of vows: one for lay people, one for Buddhist monks and nuns.
Breaking a primary vow means breaking the whole Bodhisattva vow. Fully breaking a vow means:
- Not thinking of the action as faulty.
Aka - if you don't realize it's wrong, it contributes to breaking the vow
- Not intending to abstain from the action in future, or retaining the continuous desire to break the precept.
Aka - if you intend to repeat the mistake, you've broken the vow
- Rejoicing in the action, or enjoying having broken the vow.
Aka - don't rejoice in breaking your vows
- Not having any regret about the action.
Aka - do regret the action
In other words: you break the 18 primary vows if you don't see it's a mistake, if you aren't sorry or even enjoy breaking the vow, AND don't regret it.
Obviously that makes it doable. This is also the reason some of the primary vows are repeated in the secondary vow: to remind us that they're an issue, even if we haven't fully broken them.