The Bodhisattva Ideal: Buddhism and the Aesthetics of Selflessness
An article re-presented here for educational purposes from
Exotic India Art, a private company
A group of people was once traveling through a desert,
when it so happened that three of them strayed away and got lost. Tired
and thirsty this trio wandered around the desert in the hope of finding
some respite. Finally their quest came to an end when they discovered
a high well. The first man rushed to it, looked over the wall and found
it full of delicious ambrosial water. He immediately exclaimed in a gesture
of frenzied euphoria and jumped into it never to come back. The second
too did the same. The third man finally walked over quietly over to the
well, peeped over its high wall and then turned around and went back,
returning to the desert to search for his other fellow travelers, to help
guide them to this paradise.
The life of a bodhisattva too is made of similar stuff.
In strictly canonical terms a bodhisattva is defined as an individual
who discovers the source of the Ultimate Truth better known as nirvana,
but postpones his own enlightenment until he has guided all his fellow
beings to this same source of fulfillment. A formidable task to say the
least. The path of the bodhisattva is thus one of extreme self-denial
and selflessness. According to the Lankavatara sutra (4th century BC):
" A bodhisattva wishes to help all beings attain
nirvana. He must therefore refuse to enter nirvana himself, as he cannot
apparently render any services to the living beings of the worlds after
his own nirvana. He thus finds himself in the rather illogical position
of pointing the way to nirvana for other beings, while he himself stays
in this world of suffering in order to do good to all creatures. This
is his great sacrifice for others. He has taken the great Vow: "I
shall not enter into final nirvana before all beings have been liberated."
He does not realize the highest liberation for himself, as he cannot abandon other
beings to their fate. He has said: "I must lead all beings to liberation.
I will stay here till the end, even for the sake of one living soul."
The word 'bodhisattva' itself is prone to a rich etymological
analysis. It is composed of two words 'bodhi' and 'sattva' both of which
connote deeply spiritually meanings. Bodhi means "awakening"
or "enlightenment," and sattva means "sentient being."
Sattva also has etymological roots that mean "intention," meaning
the intention to enlighten other beings. Thus the composite word bodhisattva
signifies the very essence of the divine beings it refers to.
Buddhist aesthetics, very much like its literature,
brings home spiritual truths in the simplest manner graspable by all.
The various bodhisattvas too dominate the spectrum of Buddhist art, illustrating
this abstract conceptualization in as hard hitting a manner as do the
various myths surrounding them. The most prominent bodhisattva in this
regard is Avalokiteshvara.
The word 'Avalokiteshvara' is derived from the Pali
verb oloketi which means "to look at, to look down or over, to examine
or inspect." The word avalokita has an active signification, and
the name means, "the lord who sees (the world with pity)." The
Tibetan equivalent is spyanras-gzigs (the lord, who looks with eyes).
The text known as Karanda-vyuha (8th century AD) explains that he is so
called because he views with compassion all beings suffering from the
evils of existence. It is interesting to note here that a dominant feature
in the description of Avalokiteshvara is his capacity to "see"
the suffering of others. No wonder then that he is often represented with
a thousand eyes symbolizing his all encompassing ability to view with
compassion the suffering of others, thus sharing in their sorrows, a first
step towards their ultimate alleviation. Not only that, he further has
a thousand hands too which help in the mammoth task of delivering innumerable
beings to their ultimate spiritual fulfillment.
The mythology associated with Avalokiteshvara is as
interesting as his iconography:
Once by his sustained efforts, Avalokiteshvara was
eventually able to deliver all sentient beings to enlightenment, managing
salvation for everyone. Enthused, he reported the success of his efforts
to his spiritual father, Amitabha. Amitabha asked him to look behind himself.
Turning back, Avalokiteshvara saw the world again being filled with new
sufferers who awaited their escape from the constant cycle of birth and
rebirth. Sinking into despair, the eyes of Avalokiteshvara shed tears
of compassion. He wept so pitifully that his head burst. Amitabha attempted
to assemble the pieces but did not entirely succeed. In the ensuing confusion
he put together nine complete faces, each with a gentle expression. Above
this he placed the demonic head of Vajrapani that functions to ward off
evil, and finally at the very top he placed his own head to ensure that
in the future such a happening did not recur.
He thus sits on guard at the top of the rows of heads
of Avalokiteshvara making definite that Avalokiteshvara in his infinite
compassion doesn't get carried away, leading to his own destruction.
In addition to Avalokiteshvara two other important
at a meeting of numerous bodhisattvas at the house of Vimalakirti, the
lay disciple of Buddha, a debate developed on the meaning of nonduality,
an essential precept of Buddhist thought. After many bodhisattvas had
finely expressed their opinions on the subject and their success at understanding
its essence, it came to Manjushri's turn. He got up and announced that
all the previous speeches were themselves conditioned by linguistic limitations
and were subtly dualistic. When Manjushri turned to Vimalakirti and asked
for his views, Vimalakirti just maintained silence, thus demonstrating
the truth of Manjushri's statement.
This story is a beautiful reflection on the irony of
scholarship attempting to express itself through a medium (speech/language),
which contains within itself a contradiction of the very fundamental ideals
which it proposes to expound. In this particular case Manjushri identifies
this sublime and intrinsic inconsistency. An exalted individual may wax
eloquent upon the virtues of non-duality and his grasp of this abstract
concept, but the very language used to expresses these views is inherently
dual as it is composed of word and it's meaning, two exclusive entities.
This subtle, nonetheless significant gradation brings home a profound
truth taking the wind out of any sense of achievement derived out of purported
scholarship. Verily thus Manjushri carries in his two hands a book and
This sword is there to cut of fetters born not out
of ignorance but those which arise through knowledge, signified by the
book. This is not a negation of bookish knowledge, but only an assertion
of the realization that unless we gain it we cannot know the futility
of it in the quest towards ultimate spiritual truths. Manjushri appropriately
suggests not the path of renunciation but that of righteous karma. A Zen
story illuminates this aspect:
Once the chief cook of a temple on Mount Wutai (the
favorite mountain of Manjushri), was busy making lunch. Manjushri repeatedly
appeared sitting above the rice pot. This chief cook, who later became
a noted Zen master, finally hit Manjushri with his stirring spoon and
drove him away, saying, "Even if old man Shakyamuni came, I would
also hit him" In Zen temples the position of chief cook is highly
esteemed. This story denotes the priority of taking care of everyday life,
beyond attention to high-flowing rhetoric. Caring for the details of daily
life is sometimes seen as more important than spending time in studying
sutras or in concentration in the meditation halls, and indeed many monks
perhaps including this chief cook, have been encouraged to abandon any
preference for meditation over ordinary work.
Reconciling Manjushri's actions with his status as
a bodhisattva we realize that here we see a rare but distinctly significant
affirmation in Buddhist thought of an existence composed of normal and
'ordinary' family life rather than that of denial. The carrying out of
one's duties is as spiritually fulfilling an activity as any other 'bodhisattvic'
deed. Consider for example the activity of cooking. The Bhagvad Gita says
that one who cooks for others acquires the highest merit, while that who
selfishly cooks food only for his own consumption commits a sin. Likewise
the temple cook was engaged in an effort of the highest merit. Indeed
for contemporary times this is an ultimate tribute to those women of the
house who diligently provide us with sustenance which fulfills not only
our physical needs, but also nourishes us spiritually.
to some Buddhist traditions, the period of the Buddhist Law is divided
into three stages: a first period of 500 years is of the turning of the
Wheel of the Law; a second period of 1,000 years is of the deterioration
of the Law, and the third period of 3,000 years is the one during which
no one practices the Law. After this, Buddhism having disappeared, a new
Buddha will appear who will again turn the Wheel of the Law. This future
Buddha known as Maitreya is beloved to be still in the Tushita heaven,
in the state of a bodhisattva. It is believed that Gautama Buddha himself
enthroned him as his successor.
The word 'maitreya' is derived from the Sanskrit word
for friendliness. Thus this bodhisattva is fundamentally said to embody
the qualities of amiability and an attitude of well-meaning sympathy.
According to a legend there once descended to the earth
from Maitreya's Tushita heaven a Chinese layman and teacher named Mahasattva
Fu, widely regarded as an incarnation of Maitreya.
Fu attracted many students to his Dharma lectures.
Living in a time of great hardships and famines for the peasants, he sold
all of his possessions to feed the local villagers, and also fasted to
give away his food to the needy. Fu once undertook a long hunger fast
to protest against the king's treatment of the poor. He announced that
he would finish the fast with a fiery self-immolation, as an offering
to benefit all suffering beings. At the culmination of his fast, many
of his followers offered to burn themselves in his place, some going to
the extent of burning their fingers or cutting off their ears as offerings
and engaging in other ascetic extremes. They finally convinced Fu to abandon
The notion of a bodhisattva sacrificing his complete
physical self or at least parts of it conforms to a similar notion expounded
in ancient Buddhist texts. For example the 'Shat-sahasrika Prajna-paramita'
(5th century AD) says: "Besides wealth and material objects, a bodhisattva
should be ready to sacrifice his limbs for the good of others, his hand,
foot, eye, flesh, blood, marrow, limbs great and small, and even his head."
Indeed in the Jataka tales which are legendary stories about bodhisattvas,
there abound numerous instances where they are shown sacrificing parts
of their bodies or even their lives to save that of another.
A persistent paradox regarding Maitreya is his visualization
as an entity of the future. This presents a contrast to much of Buddhist
practice and teaching which emphasizes the importance of the present,
the current moment. This is sometimes referred to as the timeless eternal.
According to the Buddhist viewpoint time does not exist as some external
container, but is the vital expression and enactment of our own being
right now. Time does not exist separate from our own presence.
As a bodhisattva associated with the future, as against
the fundamental stress Buddhism places on the present moment of time,
Maitreya presents a wondrous amalgamation and a complex composite on the
plane of time. Buddhist esoteric thought achieves this is in a skillful
manner by associating him with children. Children are but the 'present'
of our 'future.' A number of stories abound which illustrate his loving-kindness
Once in his incarnation as a spiritual poet, Maitreya
was asked by a relative to help in dealing with his son, who was becoming
a delinquent. The poet (Maitreya) visited the family and stayed the night
without saying anything to the son. The next morning as he prepared to
depart, he asked the boy's help in tying up his sandals. As the lad looked
up from doing so, he saw a tear roll down the poet's cheek. Nothing was
said, but from that time the boy completely reformed. The easy camaraderie
with children and attention to young people shown by Maitreyan figures
amply justifies the 'friendly' origin of his name as described above.
In China too, Maitreya is synonymous with his supposed
incarnation as the tenth-century Chinese Zen monk Hotei, popularly known
as the Laughing Buddha. Hotei is legendary as a wandering sage with supernatural
powers who spent his time in village streets rather than the security
of temples. His image is recognizable as the fat, jolly Buddha, whose
statue can be seen in all Chinese Buddhist temples.
Hotei's name means "cloth bag," and he is
believed to have carried a sack full of candies and toys to give to children
with whom he is often depicted in play.
This scruffy, disheveled Buddha adds to our understanding
of Maitreya's warmth and loving-kindness. Hotei's fat belly and affinity
with children reflects yet another aspect of Maitreya in popular folk
religion, that of a fertility deity. He indeed is worshipped by those
wanting to have children, This ritual is especially popular in Korea.
The Samadhiraja-sutra (4th century) explains why a
bodhisattva does not feel any pain, even when he mutilates himself for
the good of others. When Buddha was asked how a bodhisattva could cheerfully
suffer the loss of his hands, feet, ears, nose, eyes and head, he explained
that pity for mankind and the love of bodhi sustain and inspire a bodhisattva
in his heroism, just as worldly men are ready to enjoy the five kinds
of sensual pleasure, even when their bodies are burning with fever.
A bodhisattva should regard every action and movement
of his body as an occasion for the cultivation of friendly thoughts for
the good of all creatures. When he sits down he thinks thus: "May
I help all beings to sit on the throne of enlightenment." When he
lies on his right side, he thinks thus: "May I lead all beings to
nirvana." When he washes his hands, he thinks thus: May I remove
the sinful propensities of all creatures." When he washes his feet,
he thinks thus: "May I take away the dirt of sins and passion from
all creatures." In this way the body can be converted into a holy
vessel of benediction. Blessed indeed is he who loses his physical existence
in doing good to others. A bodhisattva can never love the body for its
own sake, if he cherishes it, he does so only because he will gird himself
up to save someone sometime somewhere on some occasion in the moment of
By conceptualizing the lofty ideal of a bodhisattva,
Buddhism sets a high standard of virtuous conduct for us ordinary mortals
to emulate, thus striving for a spiritually enriched life radiant with
the glow of selflessness, indeed the foundation for a meaningful and fulfilling
existence, both for the individual and for the world around him, of which
he is but a microcosm.
References and Further Reading
- Dayal, Har. The Bodhisattva Doctrine in Buddhist
Sanskrit Literature: Delhi, 1999.
- Frederic, Louis. Buddhism (Flammarion Iconographic
Guides): Paris, 1995.
- Leighton, Taigen Daniel. Bodhisattva Archetypes:
New York, 1998.
- Meulenbeld, Ben. Buddhist Symbolism in Tibetan
Thangkas: Holland, 2001.
- Pal, Pratapaditya. Art of Tibet. Los Angeles:
The Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 1990
This article by Nitin Kumar