Musings on the bodhisattva Path

What is the bodhisattva Path? How should one think on this? And, what is bodhisattva practice?

The term “bodhisattva,” though from the Sanskrit language, is a universal idea as well as an idealized embodiment of all that is good, sane, and fosters the well-being of others. There are animal bodhisattvas, plant bodhisattvas, human bodhisattvas, transcendent or other-dimension bodhisattvas. There are those who are dis-limited by anything including space, time, form, or thought. There are those who, for the benefit of others, endure great hardship or inaugurate newness through invention and innovation, and those who quietly and steadfastly accomplish the empowerment of all manner of beings seen and unseen.

Bodhisattvas are sometimes wrathful, using methods of compassion that pull the comfortable rug or literal ground out from under the feet of a person, culture, or epoch of history. Bodhisattvas are sometimes playful, displaying that life is as serious as one makes it but that Awareness is the primordial dance and play of knowing that “all that appears and appears to exist” is illusory, like a mirage or reflection of light in a puddle. Bodhisattvas are you and me when we chose to be, when we remind ourselves of our potential and let go of self as the primary calculus of our day. We might be baby-bodhisattvas, but babies have the full potential of their mature presence. That potential is intrinsic as so for any baby or seed.

The Blessed One, Buddha Shakyamuni, was asked about bodhisattva, the bodhisattva Path and practice many times. His responses are as varied as the character, capacity, and circumstances of the questioner (karma/merit). The plurality of replies is significant in that it indicates the vastness of the bodhisattva path and bodhisattva potency. In fact, one of the features of the bodhisattva path is how beyond it is:

  • – beyond in aspiration (the benefit of and liberation of all sentient beings as numberless as space),
    – beyond in its dedication (“may I perfect an ocean of aspirations, see an ocean of truths, and realize an ocean of wisdom”)
    – and gone beyond frames of reference and conceptual designations such as all, beings, ocean, truth or realization.

Shunyata and buddha nature underly the bodhisattva path. This is epitomized in the Buddha’s oft repeated statement that the wisdom of emptiness (shunyata) is the Mother of Buddhas. Prajna is the wisdom of emptiness and, thereby, is the awakening and liberation inherent in and necessary for the bodhisattva path. (prajna paramita)

The bodhisattva path is also ordinary. Brought forward through all activities of empathy and warm-heartedness, mindfulness and vigilance of body, speech, and mind, self and other are consistently eroded making the infinite potential of emptiness accessible. Benefit beyond time is seeded, set in the marrow of consciousness. Every sentient being everywhere throughout space and time will, at some point, recognize essence, including its stark radiance and inconceivable suchness. All the while, this essence is on display through every phenomenon that appears and exists right now, ever has or ever will. So ordinary, so close, so intimately now, suchness-emptiness is recognizable; usually by having gone beyond into the fresh awareness of nondual wisdom. With this, bodhi absorbs chitta, like water absorbs salt. Until that transfiguration, we live from goodness and sanity, an excellent ground.

The plurality of responses, instructions, illustrations, and specific practices given by the Buddha and then expanded upon through centuries by master male and female is encapsulated in: “Ananda, … emptiness and the path are not two different things. The path itself is emptiness.” 1 With this, we are reminded that emptiness is not voidness. Rather, it bespeaks of infinitude beyond conceivability.

The width and breadth of responses to the questions about the bodhisattva path is also nourished through a variety of voices responding in addition to Buddha Shakyamuni. These include Manjushri, Avolokiteshvara, Maitreya, Arya Tara, and Samantabhadra, plus mahasattvas, buddhas, and maras from various buddha realms. Each gives voice to bodhichitta and prajna, the leaves and blossoms expressing buddha nature, the root

One of the challenges in learning any aspect of the Wisdom path is language: it being used alternatively in the East and West, and BuddhaDharma comes out of the East. In the East, terms have connotations; in the West, terms have definitions. Connotation is conditional, flexible, gives a sense of rather than nailing something down as a singularity. For example the term maha (Sanskrit) or chen (Tibetan). In both cases, the connotation is vastness; which by both definition and connotation is beyond measure, defies limit and thereby is beyond the measurable and defined. The bodhisattva path, and the mahayana overall, require a constant erosion of edifications in the mind and of the scaffolding upon which thoughts and actions are based. As such, when the Buddha or any in the long lineages of Buddha Dharma say that something is inconceivable or inexpressible, they are to be taken at their word; and we are well served to take that statement as a pith instruction.

The common mind uses conceivable and measurable references, is edified by such, and is powerless and lost without them. Yet, the bodhisattva path is specifically a path of gone beyond and of going beyond references. Why so? Because references, names and categories, self and other, subject/object are expressions of dualism and are, therefore, fundamental obscurations. Bodhi, however, is nondual and is stabilized through cultivating prajna, nondual wisdom, in and through one’s life. As such, bodhi-sattva is not two discreet items bound together but a recognition of beingness and reason for being is wisdom-compassion.

Therefore, there is no set definition for mahayana, no single definition for bodhichitta, nor one meaning for the term prajna. What mind is is also subject to wide ranging explanations within specific contexts throughout all of BuddhaDharma. The result for us practitioners or those curious about BuddhaDharma is a set of contemplative instructions all of which direct beyond the reference-habituated mind, which could be confusing for a time as well. These are examples of how terms such as bodhisattva, its path, explorations, discoveries, and layered results are subject to language and cultural challenges.

Bodhi has the connotation of awake, illumined like the land is as the morning sun rises, and of the visionary view that awakeness provides. If awake is the essence of bodhi’s meaning, then pondering this repeatedly in the situations of life benefits one greatly. What does awake mean in such and such situation? What am I waking from; what awakening to?

As the person does this, habits of consciousness are revealed: personal ones and collective ones. With diligence and openness, one begins to understand the obviousness of self-made reality: a dream-like, mirage-like set of projections from within one’s self onto everyone and everything including one’s self. Now, one is beginning to wake up. Is one awake/bodhi? Likely not, due to habits, social expectations and norms in confluence with personal preferences for comfort or ease. But, is a process in motion? Yes; assuredly so. Slowly, slowly, the person in the dream and everything about self-made reality is recognized as never having truly existed in the manner in which one thought. As such, the awake of bodhi indicates the erasure of dreaming (self-made reality), therefore, the never-have-truly existed of the features of the dream (perceived existence), together with dissolving the sense of an identifiable, distinct self among other awakenings.

Sattva is a term used widely and variably in Sanskrit. It means balance, harmony, equilibrium as a guna (rajas, tamas, sattva), as well as referring to the dynamic character of harmony or equilibrium unto themselves. Sat, when in the family of sat-chit-ananda, indicates being or beingness. Chit refers to the active principle of cognition. Ananda stands for feelings and emotions as primary active or leavening ingredients that conventionally provide a sense of continuity which sentient beings experience as relatedness. The three terms together are pointing to the ongoing experience of being had through the processes of cognition and relation, both of which are dualistic. Therefore, within the overall connotation of sat is a) beingness ever in relation, thus relational, thus dynamic and unfolding. b) sat as changeless, ever at equilibrium, tranquil, serene. “Peace, utter peace,” says the Buddha. c) Sat is, at the same instant, the center of experience. This is due to relation/responsiveness. Sat is aware of flux but unmoved by it. As a result, sat infers beingness experienced and recognized through the play of duality though beingness is nondual. (play=lila in Skt)

Sattva when put with bodhi (bodhisattva) connotes: 1. the natural harmony of bodhi which, being by nature harmonious, is universally inclusive. As such, the term bodhisattva gives the impression of a toroidal flow of complete and effortless equanimity, ever breathing in the unsavory and breathing out benevolence and illumination. 2. Bodhisattva indicates that beingness is most truly engaged or recognized via bodhi. 3. Bodhisattva infers that the bodhi, the luminous emptiness of “all that appears and exists,” has been directly perceived by that being/person. Thereby, that bodhisattva is the ongoing cognition of the empty-beingness of phenomena inclusive of, if not beginning with, self-identity.

“… bodhisattvas do not perceive any movement of the mind toward external objects or abiding there, and yet their mind does move for the sake of accumulating roots of virtue, ripening sentient beings, and upholding the sacred Dharma. … Through the essential nature of their mind, they understand the essential nature of all beings. Through the essential nature of all beings, they understand the essential nature of all phenomena. Through the essential nature of all phenomena, they understand the essential nature of the roots of virtue. Through the essential nature of the roots of virtue, they reveal the essential nature of a bodhisattva. This is the bodhisattva’s revelation of their correct knowledge.”2

It is a joyous occasion when a child enters kindergarten. The child is ready for this newness as well as for its vast expansion of learning and interaction with others. The child will learn to do things in his or her way, expand his/her experience base, and will mature. The maturing of kindergarten provides entry into elementary school, which provides entry and maturing for all of the rest of life. Aspiration bodhichitta is the kindergarten of the mahayana path. Just as there is nothing lesser about kindergarten for child or parent, there is nothing lesser about aspiration bodhichitta and it as an entry to the maha path of bodhisattva.

A heartfelt aspiration to benefit others through clarifying or purifying our minds, emotions, sense of self, sense of reality and so forth is the joyous, necessary beginning to the bodhisattva path. Is one a bodhisattva yet? Yes, and no. Is a kindergartener a student yet? Yes. Does the kindergartener understand education, its methods, intended outcomes, or the tirelessness that will be heroically required so as to be educated? No. The same is so for us who might call ourselves bodhisattvas or profess to be on the bodhisattva path.

Lord Maitreya offered a lengthy treatise on the bodhisattva path called the MahayanaSutraLamkara. It explains the bodhisattva path in full -its trainings, pitfalls, recognitions and realizations- by drawing upon Buddha Shakyamuni’s voluminous teachings on the subject. Maitreya states that the teachings of the mahayana (great vehicle which is the bodhisattva vehicle) are “provable, understandable, conceivable, inconceivable, and perfect. … This Dharma is expansive, difficult, and deep.” Maitreya adds: “It is supremely hard to fathom. It is contemporary. It teaches a variety. It uses consistent explanation with many approaches. Its meaning is not literal. The Lord’s intention is mysterious. The wise … examine it properly.”3

Those who want will contemplate each of Maitreya’s descriptors. I’d like to focus on “Its meaning is not literal.” This declaration instructs us to go beyond the immediacy (read superficiality) of thinking that we know what something means within the BuddhaDharma (including myself). Maitreya’s statement is a bodhi invitation which rests upon prajna. The Buddha and the great masters of the mahayana traditions of the world tirelessly remind us that the foundation of the bodhisattva path is not compassion but is the wisdom of emptiness. Therefore, cultivating prajna, the wisdom of emptiness and itself as active bodhi, is the core practice of the bodhisattva path.

Then, why is the welfare of others the emphasis of many beginning bodhisattva practices and illustrations, including practices such as the 37 Bodhisattva Practices or Lojong slogans? It is to direct one’s focus to the shared suffering and situational challenges that all beings face due to everyone’s focus on “my”self. Therefore, the Buddha said early in his teachings, “Cease from all evil; cultivate the good; cleanse your own mind.” 5

Even this simple instruction, if taken literally, can not proffer its wealth to one. Our tendency would be to gloss over the term “evil” thinking that the idea of performing evil is personally preposterous. However, in this case, heinous examples of evil obscure the more subtle forms that are likely present and active in most of us including pride, arrogance or aggression, competitiveness, jealousy, or various mental scenarios of me/them, self/other. The Buddha’s injunction is not merely to cease the evil of butchery or cultural prejudice, but -more importantly- cease the evil in one’s mind. To truly evaluate one’s emotion-mind tendencies benefits others and oneself. Practices and reminders such as “all mother sentient beings,” generosity without bias, or tireless patience benefit everyone.

How are bodhisattvas described in the sutras? In ways that invite us beginners to ponder.

“They comprehended what is correct and what is incorrect. They were completely liberated. Endowed with the bud of discipline and the branch of conscience, they were compassionate by nature and affectionate toward sentient beings. They had attained many meditative concentrations, possessed the hand of insight, … They emerged from and relied upon the limit of reality. Extremely heroic, they had no abode. They were certain about the nature of the highest teachings. Their thoughts distinctly focused on the lack of inherent existence.”6

The sutra continues with a bodhisattva asking, “Blessed One, what is one factor that bodhisattvas should abandon? What is one quality that, when safeguarded by bodhisattvas, encompasses all the foundations of the training? What is one phenomenon to which thus-gone ones have truly and perfectly awakened?”7

The Buddha replied to the first aspect of the question: “Child of good family, ‘What is one factor that bodhisattvas should abandon?’ It is the quality of attachment. … Moreover, one factor that should be abandoned is the quality of anger. … Moreover, … the quality of delusion. … Moreover, … grasping at a self. … Moreover, … laziness. … Moreover, … lethargy and sleepiness. … Moreover, … craving. Child of good family, moreover, one factor that bodhisattvas should abandon is ignorance.”8

From the mahayana, thus bodhisattva view, any one of these suggestions is a full path, is a complete “foundation of the training”, and a “phenomenon which the thus-gone-ones (buddhas) have truly” perfected. Consider the awakening necessary to abandon attachment, or to abandon anger, or grasping at a self, or craving. Consider that, in this context, “lethargy and sleepiness” is not referring to sleep-walking through the dream that the unawakened call life but to embodied diligence, tirelessness, and awakened mind as the ordinary state. Bodhisattva training is to abandon each of these, beginning with any one.


  1. The Teaching (sutra) on the Indivisible Nature of the Realm of Phenomena, 1.41;
  2. Ibid. 1.49.
  3. MahayanaSutraLamkara: the Universal Vehicle Discourse Literature, pg. 3/4.
  4. Ibid. pg. 12.
  5. Piyadassi, The Buddha’s Ancient Path, 77, Dharmapada 183.
  6. The Basket Without Words, the Illuminators Matrix, 1.2-4;
  7. Ibid. 1.11.
  8. Ibid. 1. 114.

About Donna Mitchell-Moniak

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