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What is a ‘Bodhisattva’?

Image shows a traditional buddha statue with long ears from a frontal and side view, with a galaxy effect overlay. Under which is a hand offering help, as one might be offered when stepping over an obstacle

A bodhisattva is a concept in many ‘schools’ of Buddhism. Rising Lotus Sangha is of the American/Japanese Soto Zen line of the Mahāyāna ‘school’ of Buddhism, so you may hear us use the term occasionally or it might pop up in the material we read.

The term "bodhisattva" is derived from the Sanskrit words:

"bodhi," meaning enlightenment,


"sattva," meaning being or essence.

The word for bodhisattva in Japanese is Bosatsu 菩薩

“Bodhisattva” was originally used to refer to the historical Buddha before he found enlightenment. With the introduction of Mahāyāna Buddhism, however, the term came to mean one who achieves enlightenment but who delays Buddhahood, remaining instead on Earth to help all sentient beings attain salvation. You will hear this state of being as “one foot on both shores.”

Two golden feet are pictured. One stands atop the globe and the other in another realm, which might be Nivarna

Traditional imagery

Line drawing of Manjushri and Avalokiteshvara (aka Kwan Yin

Bodhisattvas are often depicted as compassionate beings who work tirelessly to alleviate suffering and guide others. You may have heard of figures like Manjushri and Avalokiteshvara (aka Kwan Yin), which are personifications of the basic virtues of wisdom and compassion respectively, and who are the two most important bodhisattvas in traditional Mahāyāna Buddhism.

Bodhisattvas are often depicted wearing jewelry to represent their spiritual riches and inner beauty. Although they have renounced the material world, they are still able to enjoy the finer things in life because they have found true happiness within themselves.

Just like me

In Mahāyāna Buddhism, a bodhisattva refers to anyone who has generated ‘bodhicitta’; a spontaneous wish and compassionate mind to attain Buddhahood for the benefit of all sentient beings.

They may not have found a sangha, or be working towards Kai Sanbo or Jukai. They could be a neighbor, a shop worker, a Rabbi, or a Priest. They could be anyone you meet. Mahāyāns believe there are countless bodhisattvas on earth at any moment.

many rows of golden bodhisattva statues stretch back into infinity

You see, a Bodhisattva is someone who works to attain awakening and is driven by The Four Immeasurables: loving-kindness, compassion, empathetic joy, and equanimity.

In Rising Lotus Sangha we are also driven and guided by the bodhisattva "perfections" (pāramitās) and our vows.

Bodhisattvas shaped my youth:

I grew up in the '80s and '90s and had the luxury of a community that raised myself and my sister. Mum and Dad did their bit to teach us to be moral and giving, as did their friends and family, the teachers in my schools, and the other role models of my society. Some stick out for particular moments where they demonstrated the qualities I now know as The Four Immeasurables, and others found a different way to encourage those qualities within me.

Images of the people metioned in the text.

History books and the news promoted the likes of Mother Teresa and Dr Martin Luther King Jr. As well as Princess Diana, whom I had the pleasure to meet in 1992, briefly.

We had the Care Bears, Banana Man, and other cartoons that showed us heroes acting without violence.

Who might you see as a bodhisattva from your youth? - let us know in the comments.

Some ways you can cultivate bodhisattva qualities in your life:

  1. Develop compassion: This includes self-compassion - how you speak to yourself has power. Taking care of your body, what it is fueled by, and how often it moves — finding time to journal and taking other steps to heal your mental and physical wounds. Cultivate a genuine concern for the well-being of others, including animals and plants. Practice empathy by trying to understand the feelings and perspectives of those around you. Explore where you are polarized and move towards understanding that ‘others’ are just like you; we are all interconnected. All things are interconnected. These practices can help cultivate inner peace, clarity, and insight.

  2. Practice loving-kindness: Cultivate a boundless sense of love and goodwill toward all beings, regardless of their background or actions. Practice Metta meditation to strengthen this quality. Why not join us on the last Saturday of the month for Guided Metta.

  3. Act with wisdom: Develop wisdom by seeking to understand the true nature of reality, including the impermanence of all things and the interconnectedness of life. Apply this wisdom in your actions and decisions. Recognize that you are part of a larger interconnected web of life and that your liberation is inseparable from the liberation of all beings. Cultivate humility by acknowledging your limitations and learning from others.

  4. Practice generosity: Be generous with your time, resources, and kindness. Offer support and assistance to those in need, without expecting anything in return. Look for opportunities to serve and support others in their journey. This could involve volunteering, assisting friends and family, or simply being present for someone who needs a listening ear.

  5. Cultivate patience: Develop patience with the sacred pause and a regular meditation practice. Develop tolerance, by looking at the stories you tell yourself that add to your restlessness. Could other people be going through the same sort of protectiveness? Cultivating patience allows you to respond to difficulties with grace and understanding, especially in challenging situations.

  6. Practice ethical conduct: What are your core beliefs and do they promote harmony, well-being, and non-harm to all beings? What opportunities abound for you to practice honesty, integrity, and compassion in all aspects of your life?

  7. Engage in spiritual practices: Dedicate time to spiritual practices such as meditation, prayer, or mindfulness. These practices can help cultivate inner peace, clarity, and insight, which are essential for walking the bodhisattva path.

  8. Consider committing to the path: Make a sincere commitment to the bodhisattva path, understanding that it is a lifelong journey of growth, transformation, and service to others. It could start by regularly joining us for meditation, or joining us for a book study, or having a conversation with Kyoji (email at the bottom of the page 😉)

By embodying these qualities and engaging in these practices, you can walk the path of the bodhisattva and contribute to the well-being and liberation of all beings.

🙏 Shinjin

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