What is a Bodhisattva?

Katinka Hesselink 2007, 2014

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. At the end I list various versions of the Bodhisattva vow as used in daily prayers.

I have also found some videos on the Tibetan Bodhisattva Vows, as taught in the Gelug Tradition

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.

Being Upright - Zen Meditation and the Bodhisattva Precepts

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.

The explanations by Anderson come close to home and really make these teachings come alive.

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.

Various versions of The Bodhisattva Vow

Bodhisattva Giclee Print Hsu, Yenhuei

The Bodhisattva is a being who has taken the Bodhisattva Vow to help save all sentient beings, before going into full Nirvana or enlightenment. There are in Mahayana Buddhist metaphysics a whole cosmology full of heavenly Bodhisattvas. The term is also used for human beings who have taken the Bodhisattva Vow to heart to such an extent that they will keep it, even in their next lives.

The Bodhisattva Vow is essential to Mahayana Buddhism, and thus also to Tibetan Buddhism and Zen Buddhism. Various forms are current. The essence is:

May I attain Buddhahood for the benefit of all sentient beings.

Or in the Pema Chodron formulation (The Places that Scare You: A Guide to Fearlessness in Difficult Times (Shambhala Classics), p. 122):

Few of us are satisfied with retreating from the world and just working on ourselves. We want our training to manifest and be of benefit. The bodhisattva-warrior, therefore, makes a vow to wake up not just for himself but for the welfare of all beings. (p. 122)

Here follow a few other ways of saying the same thing with a few more words (mostly found on the internet).

  1. I vow to save innumerable sentient beings.
  2. I vow to eliminate endless afflictions/delusions.
  3. I vow to learn innumerable doctrines.
  4. I vow to accomplish the unsurpassed Buddha Way.

With a wish to free all beings 
I shall always go for refuge
To the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha,
Until I reach full enlightenment.
Enthused by wisdom and compassion,
today in the Buddhas' presence I generate
the Mind for Full Awakening
For the benefit of all sentient beings.
As long as space remains,
As long as sentient beings remain,
Until then, may I too remain
And dispel the miseries of the world.

The version of the Bodhisattva Vow that the Dalai Lama often uses when giving it to people in ceremony.

The vow of the Bodhisattva is that she will not go into Nirvana until every single suffering being has entered Nirvana. One has to understand what this means. Our awakening is not a personal triumph. We do not have to win a spiritual sprint. We are one mind. Awakening is to penetrate more and more deeply into this truth. The world is alive. And as long as there is suffering then this living whole is shattered. Whether it is my suffering or the suffering of another, when seen from the perspective of the Bodhisattva makes no difference, because, seen from this perspective there is no ‘me’ or ‘another.’ In the Diamond Sutra, “Although the Bodhisattva saves all sentient beings, there are no sentient beings to save.”

Albert Low

However innumerable sentient beings are, I vow to save them.

However inexhaustible the defilements are, I vow to extinguish them.

However immeasurable the dharmas are, I vow to master them.

However incomparable enlightenment is, I vow to attain it.

All beings, without number, I vow to liberate
Endless blind passions I vow to uproot
Dharma gates beyond measure I vow to penetrate
The way of the Buddha I vow to attain

Beings are numberless; I vow to awaken with them.
Delusions are inexhaustible; I vow to end them.
Dharma gates are boundless; I vow to enter them.
Buddha's way is unsurpassable; I vow to become it.

I take refuge in The Buddha The Dharma and The Sangha
I take refuge in The Guru The Yidam and the Dakini
I take refuge in The Bodhisattvas The Protectors and The Tantras
Homage to all of you

As long as there is suffering
As long as there are sentient beings in the 6 realms
May I never attain Enlightenment
And never cross over into Nirvana

Gold Painted Bodhisattva in Contemplation, China
Gold Painted Bodhisattva in Contemplation, China Photographic Print
Su, Keren

The passions of delusion are inexhaustible.
I vow to extinguish them all at once.

The number of beings is endless. I vow to help save them all.

The Truth cannot be told. I vow to tell it.

The Way which cannot be followed is unattainable. I vow to attain it.

May I be a guard for those who are protectorless,
A guide for those who journey on the road;
For those who wish to go across the water,
May I be a boat, a raft, a bridge.

May I be an isle for those who yearn for landfall,
And a lamp for those who long for light;
For those who need a resting place, a bed,
For all who need a servant, may I be a slave.

May I be the wishing jewel, the vase of plenty,
A word of power, and the supreme remedy.
May I be the trees of miracles,
And for every being, the abundant cow.

Like the great earth and the other elements,
Enduring as the sky itself endures,
For the boundless multitude of living beings,
May I be the ground and vessel of their life.

Thus, for every single thing that lives,
In number like the boundless reaches of the sky,
May I be their sustenance and nourishment
Until they pass beyond the bounds of suffering

Countless sentient beings, I vow to help to cross the ocean of existence.
Eternal Sufferings, I vow to end.
Innumerable spiritual methods, I vow to study and comprehend.
The buddha's unsurpassable supreme dharma, I vow to realize.

[adapted from Kim Dieu's translation from the Vietnamese]


To be able to help all beings in this way, the Bodhisattva practices the six perfection, or paramitas and the Bodhisattva Ideal.

Videos explaining the detailed vows taken in Tibetan Buddhism as part of the Bodhisattva vow

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:

  1. Not thinking of the action as faulty. 
    Aka - if you don't realize it's wrong, it contributes to breaking the vow
  2. 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
  3. Rejoicing in the action, or enjoying having broken the vow. 
    Aka - don't rejoice in breaking your vows
  4. 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.

On the history of the mahayana Buddhist vows and expanded versions thereof.