The goal of Buddhist practice is to achieve supreme happiness and freedom from suffering. A person motivated by compassion will decide to attain this goal not only for himself but for all other sentient beings as well. When he has this wish, it means that he has awakened the Thought of Enlightenment and becomes a Bodhisattva. He has started on the path that will ultimately lead him to the supreme and perfect Enlightenment of a Buddha. The career of a Bodhisattva. is exemplified in the previous lives of Shakyamunu Buddha, from the time he awakened the Thought of Enlightenment until he become a Buddha.
Awakening the Thought of Enlightenment
In one of his former lives, the Buddha was a merchant who had a blind mother. She had no one else to look after her other than her merchant son. One day, he had to travel to another country on business. Not wanting to leave his mother alone and neglected at home, he brought her along on his journey. Unfortunately, the ship in which they are sailing was wrecked in a storm and all the passengers fell into the sea. The merchant held on to a floating plank and looked around desperately for his mother. When he spotted her struggling in the water, he quickly swam over to her side. While saving his mother, he realised that all sentient beings, like his own mother, are immersed in suffering. Filled with compassion, he thought of gaining Enlightenment to relieve the suffering of all sentient beings. In this way, he awakened the Thought of Enlightenment and become a Bodhisattva.
The Vow and the Prediction
In a later life, the Bodhisattva was born as a young man named sumedha who was extremely learned and wise.
One day, on a visit to the city, he found it being decorated as if for a festival and enquired the reason. He was told that the decorations had been put up in order to welcome Dipankara Buddha. On hearing this, Sumedha immediately decided to see the Buddha.
Sumedha was impressed by the serene and gracious manner of Dipankara Buddha who was also exceedingly pleasing to look at. Sumedha was filled with joy and made the following vow, "I too will strive to become an Enlightened one with all the qualities of a perfect Buddha. I too will teach the Dharma as this Dipankara Buddha has done just now. Having freed myself from the cycle of birth and death and gained supreme happiness, I too will lead others to the same goal."
Dipankara Buddha, aware of Sumedha's merits and knowing that he was sincere, then predicted that he would become a Buddha by the name of Shakyamuni. This was how the Bodhisattva vowed to attain Enlightenment for the sake of all sentient beings and received the prediction of his future buddhahood from Dipankara Buddha.
The Practice and the Attainment
Thereafter, through many lives, the Bodhisattva took steps to fulfill his vow by cultivating the perfection of giving good conduct, patience, energy, meditation and wisdom. For instance, in one life as King Shibi, he practiced the perfection of giving . It happened that he has rescued a pigeon which was about to be killed by a hawk. At that moment, he realised that by saving the pigeon, the hawk would have no food to eat and would starve to death. Faced with the situation, the king was filled with compassion and willingly offered his own flesh as food for the hawk which had lost its prey.
Throughout many lives, the Bodhisattva performed many acts of merit and strengthened his virtues until he was perfect and ready to become a Buddha. In his last life as the Shakyan prince, Siddhartha Gautama, the Bodhisattva renounced his family and kingdom. This was because he wanted to attain Enlightenment for the sake of all sentient beings. On the night of his Enlightenment, he ceased to be a Bodhisattva and became a Fully Enlightened One known as Shakyamunu Buddha.
Following the Way of the Bodhisattva
A person takes the first step along the way of the Bodhisattva when he awakens the Thought of Enlightenment. This takes place when he reflects upon the fact that all sentient beings are alike in their wish for happiness and fear of suffering. So out of compassion for all sentient beings, he does not think of attaining Enlightenment for himself alone, while others continue to suffer in the cycle of birth and death.
Moreover, he recognizes that through the rounds of rebirth, all sentient beings have at one time or another been his parents, relatives or friends. He realises then that he has benefited immensely from their kindness in the past. For instance, as a baby he was totally helpless and was only able to survive through the care of his mother. As a young child, his parents taught him to walk, sit, eat, clean himself, and so on. Still later, his parents provided for his education. It was only through the help of his parents that he was able to grow up to become self- reliant and independent.
Realising that all sentient beings have been related to him in one way or another in past lives, it is only natural that he should wish to repay them for their kindness. He wishes to help them achieve happiness and freedom from suffering. However, it is only a Buddha who has the ability to help sentient beings achieve this. Therefore, a person who wishes to follow the way of the Bodhisattva vows to attain Enlightenment for the sake of all sentient beings, just as Sumedha did in the presence of Dipankara Buddha.
One considers a person who sincerely vows to relieve even a few sentient beings of their suffering to be worthy and virtuous. A physician's vow to relieve the sick of their bodily complaints makes him worthy of respect. Similarly, one shows appreciation for a social worker's vow to improve the living conditions of the poor, and a psychologist's vow to reduce the problems and anxieties of the mentally distressed. even the vow of giving food and clothing to the poor, which relieves their need to a certain extent only, is considered meritorious. However, the vow if the Bodhisattva, whose objective is to attain Enlightenment in order to relieve the sufferings of all sentient beings, is greater than any of these.