13. THE BODHISATTVA & FOUR UNIVERSAL VOWS
The word Bodhisattva is derived from Bodhi and Sattva, the former term meaning enlightened, and the latter term meaning sentimental. Strictly speaking, a Bodhisattva should be an enlightened being, such as Arhat or even Buddha, who regards the deliverance of sentient beings as the highest aspiration.
By definition, a true arhat eradicates the Three Poisons (greed, hatred and illusion) in the Three Realms (Desire, Form, Formlessness), then enters Nirvana.
Though an arhat can break up the ignorance of self attachment, he/she has not yet broken up the ignorance of dharma attachment. For instance, he/she attaches to the dharma of Nirvana, in which he/she swells. He/she is not able to escape from the dharma of existence and non-existence. He/she dares not to descend on the world to save all beings in order to protect himself/herself from what he/she has achieved.
However, some arhats may postpone to enter Nirvana, and prefers to deliver sentient beings, cultivating the Bodhisattva Path.
Some arhats may change, in the course of arhatship, their attitudes and goal and start the Bodhisattva Path. From the Buddha's point of view, these arhats may have attained Enlightenment, but they do not have sufficient merit and virtue. Therefore, they take a temporary rest in Nirvana, and ultimately will return to the Deva or lower realms.
These are the ten stages of development of Bodhisattva depending on their merits and virtues:
Some of the Bodhisattvas, e.g. the Four Great Bodhisattvas, are actually Buddhas who return to the Nine Realms and offer themselves to cross over the suffered beings.
Sometimes, the people who are ready to help others are called "Bodhisattva" too, though they are not yet enlightened. It is a common term to encourage people to practise the Bodhisattva Path in their daily lives, even they are not Buddhists.
While we always emphasize the Bodhisattva's practice in the deliverance of sentient beings, it is important to note that the sentient beings have their own causes and conditions, their own merits and virtues, their own karma. A Bodhisattva cannot change the principle of cause and effect, nor take on other people's karma.
13.2 Four Universal Vows
A Bodhisattva has a level and equal mind of great compassion to persuasively gather the sentient beings. He/she is able to recognize and accept the sentient beings and himself/herself as one unity, thus he/she put forth his/her effort to enlighten himself/herself by enlightening others, and to benefit himself/herself by benefiting others.
Every Bodhisattva revolves to realize the Four Great Universal Vows. They are:
It is because of the vows that Bodhisattvas come to be.
It is interesting to note that living beings are numberless, affliction is endless, dharma teaching is countless and Buddhahood is unsurpassed. There are different ways to interpret it.
A Bodhisattva really takes across many, many, many living beings which can be regarded as numberless. Similarly, our affliction seems to be never ending, therefore it is said to be endless.
Every person has his/her own character and personality, therefore countless Dharma doors are required to satisfy their needs and solve their problems. Lastly, the supreme Buddha Way is so complete and perfect that it provides the common goal for numberless living beings, who take countless dharma doors to eradicate the endless affliction.
Just from the quantity, we can already see how great the Four Universal Vows are. More importantly, according to the principle of impermanence, the existence of living beings are ever-changing with the conditions; some of them are born and some may die. The absolute number of sentient beings at any moment cannot be identified, and is is regarded to be numberless.
On the other hand, it is interesting to note a statement in Diamond Sutra:
"Yet of the immeasurable, uncountable and limitless numbers of living beings thus taken, across to extinction, there is actually no living beings taken across to extinction. And why? If a Bodhisattva has a mark of self, a mark of others, a mark of living beings, or a mark of a life, he is not a Bodhisattva."
This is a profound and subtle concept in Buddhism. A Bodhisattva does not cling to the false notion of any form of existence, nor abide to anywhere when he/she takes across the living beings, since there is actually no living beings to be taken across by him/her.
In this respect, living beings are also regarded as false notions of forms. They do not have their own nature. Their existence is not "real" as they are ever-changing under different complicated conditions. Therefore they can be regarded as "false".
This is the manifestation of the ultimate truth of reality, the Middle Way. The basic concept of Middle Way is not to allow oneself to be entangled in views, but just observe all matters as they are, without clinging to a standpoint, and perceive the nature of all matters in their true and real form. The reality is that worldly dharmas and matters are conditioned, and their existence is relative to each other. They are always in the middle between two extremes such as "many" and "little", "good" and "bad", as an "extreme" is just conceptual and intangible, relative to each other. An "extreme" is in fact inconceivable. This concept can also apply to the affliction, dharma doors and the Buddha Way.