The Boddhisattva As A Concept

The Boddhisattva ideal is a concept that was articulated and spread by later disciples after the historical Buddha left this planet physically.  Such a being is the “spontaneous display of wisdom and compassion” benefitting other beings  just as they are.

A Boddhisattva , although not explicitly emphasized in the early teachings of the historical Buddha, is one who endeavors to benefit other sentient beings by helping them, even gradually and painstakingly, find the path to enlightenment.  This manifestation is imbued by a sentiment of pure altruism, which would motivate him/ her even to deliberately delay his/her own liberation from the clutches of samsara in order to render the balm of relief to myriads of suffering beings.  This act of generosity is reflected in the Buddha’s resolve immediately after his enlightenment when he decided,  past a moment’s hesitation, to teach his discovery of the true nature of reality, if only for the sake of those beings with “less dust in their eyes.”  For he saw that those who were in the throes of pleasure and pain could not possibly see a way out of their predicament.  This prescription  to relieve  suffering is embodied in his teachings of the 4 Noble Truths and the Noble 8-Fold Path.

In the Jataka tales, it is said that in one of the appearances of the Buddha-to-be as a hell-being in consequence of inflicting harm to his mother during a prior incarnation as a human being, that action alone of inflicting pain upon his own mother caused him to be reborn in hell.  When he reached the hell realm, he witnessed another hell-being undergoing unspeakable torture who told him that it was foretold that he would soon be relieved from this relentless torment and death by someone who would arrive that moment.  He asked the other being how long he had suffered this fate and was informed that he had been there for some 500 years.   Witnessing this unmitigated horror, compassion arose in the Buddha-to-be who offered himself to endure 7 times the duration of this torment if it would prevent others from experiencing  the same fate, at which time the instrument of torture disintegrated and he died right there and then, as this compassionate gesture could not be contained by  hell, where only the operative principles of anger and hatred prevail.  Immediately thereafter, he was reborn in the heavenly realm for aeons, followed by countless other auspicious rebirths which paved the way towards his enlightenment, that is, until he was finally reborn as a human being and all the requisite factors for the event of enlightenment were ultimately fulfilled.  This tale illustrates the Boddhisattva’s compassion which Buddhists, mainly in the Mahayana tradition, idealize and emulate.

Wisdom and compassion are the hallmarks of a Buddha and these characteristics verily apply to countless other Boddhisattvas, irrespective of religious persuasions.

In China and Japan, a Boddhisattva called the Avalokiteshvara, is often depicted with a thousand arms, each arm bearing a different salve for one specific (form of) suffering.  This is why devout Chinese Buddhists would never dare to kill and cut the ‘arms’ of the octopus;  the Boddhisattva needs all his/her arms to extend relief from suffering to  all sentient beings.


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