Adyar Pamphlets

Masonic, Occult and Esoteric Online Library

Home / Publication Library / Adyar Pamphlets / Issue No.154 - The Bodhisattva Ideal

Adyar Pamphlets

By Theosophical Publishing House

Issue No.154 - The Bodhisattva Ideal

by Bhikku Narada Thero (Published in 1932)

IN Buddhism, three ideals are attainable by the seeker after peace — namely, the ideals of Arahantship, of Pacceka Buddhahood and of Samma-Sambuddhahood.

The Theravada Buddhist — unlike his Mahayanist brother whose doctrine totally denounces the so-called selfish idea of Arahantship — is free to choose for himself from the above three ideals that which best suits his temperament.

One may be so thoroughly convinced of the universality of sorrow that he would only be too willing to lay this heavy burden aside, and effect his escape from this world of rebellious passions by attaining Arahantship at the earliest opportunity possible. Such an individual must necessarily be guided by a superior spiritual instructor who himself has won the Eternal Peace.

There may be another who, prompted by his own inclinations, would deem it worthy to seek the ideal of Pacceka Buddhahood, and thus attain salvation solely relying on himself, independent of outside help. [Page 2]

There may be yet another who would not merely contemplate but feel all the sorrow of the world; so pervasive is his compassion, so boundless his love that he would voluntarily renounce his personal salvation, and dedicate his life to the lofty purpose of serving humanity.

Such is the noble ideal of an ever-loving, Bodhisatta.

This ideal of Bodhisatta, is the most refined and the most beautiful ever presented to the world, for a being who voluntarily renounces personal salvation to help suffering humanity is the acme of selflessness.

The Pali term Bodhisatta is composed of the two words, Bodhi, which means Wisdom, Enlightenment, or knowledge of the Truths, and Satta, denoting one who is attached to, or bent upon. By Bodhisatta, is, therefore, meant one who is attached to or bent upon Enlightenment or knowledge of the Truths. In this general sense it may without any distinction be applied to any person who is aspiring to the Bodhi, but, strictly speaking, a Bodhisatta is one who is destined to become a Samma-Sambuddha, a Fully Enlightened One.

According to the commentaries, he who aspires to attain Buddhahood makes at first a firm mental resolve (Mano-Panidhi) in the presence of a Buddha, to become an Omniscient One, and this he repeatedly affirms for a long period, but without intimating his desire to another. Later he gives verbal expression [Page 3] to the resolution formed in his mind (Vaci-Panidhi), in the presence of a Buddha, and repeats this for an equally long period. It is stated that the Bodhisatta Gotama, for instance, made Mano-Panidhi in the presence of 125,000 Buddhas for seven Asankheyyas, and the Vaci-Panidhi in the presence of 387,000 Buddhas for nine Asankheyyas.

Then with firm determination and strong will-power, he develops by degrees the self-sacrificing spirit latent in him, and cultivates intuitive knowledge until he reaches a high pitch of perfection, when unable to restrain himself any longer, he demonstrates his burning desire which has been so long held in abeyance. This outward demonstration is technically called Kaya-Panidhi.

These three periods of a Bodhisatta are known as the period of Aspiration, of Expression and of Nomination.

At this state of spiritual advancement he is capable of attaining Arahantship, If he is inclined to do so, but this golden opportunity he renounces to serve the world at large.

“Today, if such were my desire,
I my corruption might consume.
But why thus in an unknown guise
Should I the Doctrine's fruit secure?
Omniscience first will I achieve,
And be a Buddha in the world.
Or why should I a valorous man,
The ocean seek to cross alone?” [Page 4]

Such was the train of thought that passed through the mind of the Bodhisatta Sumedha, as he lay prostrate at the sacred feet of the Buddha Dipankara.

It is on such an occasion as this that a Bodhisatta receives the revelation or Vivarana from a Buddha who perceiving with His Divine Eye, publicly proclaims that the individual in question will positively attain Buddhahood in the near future. Henceforward he becomes fully entitled to the honourable appellation of Bodhisatta.

The Books mention three classes of Bodhisattas namely:

1. Those in whom is a superabundance of Confidence (Saddhadhika).

2. Those in whom is a superabundance of Energy (Viriyadhika).

3. Those in whom is a superabundance of Wisdom (Paññadhika).

Those Bodhisattas who are distinguished for wisdom are generally lacking in Confidence, the energetic ones in Wisdom, and the devotional one in Energy. Seldom, if ever, are these three characteristics harmoniously combined in one person. Buddha Gotama may be instanced as one belonging to the third group. Owing to his profound wisdom He completed his probationary period in four Asankheyyas and one hundred thousand aeons, which is the minimum time limit, the maximum being sixteen Asankheyyas and one hundred thousand aeons. [Page 5]

During this enormous period — far beyond the ken of human knowledge, being impossible to reckon by the ordinary years — he utilises his energy and power to qualify himself for the laudable task by persistently practising the Paramis or Perfections the sine qua non of Bodhisattahood.


According to the Commentary on the Cariya Pitaka Paramis are those virtues which are cultivated by a heart filled with compassion, guided by reason, utterly indifferent to worldly gain, and unsullied by error and all feelings of self-conceit.

Dana or Charitable Giving is the first Parami. It confers upon the giver the double blessing of inhibiting, on one hand, the immoral thoughts of selfishness, and developing, on the other hand, the thoughts of selflessness. It blesseth him gives and him that takes.

A Bodhisatta is not worried by the question whether the recipient is truly in need or not. His main object in giving is to eliminate craving that lies dormant within him. The consolation that comes to the recipient and the alleviation of suffering are matters of secondary importance.

He makes no distinction in extending his love with supernormal generosity, not forgetting at the same time to use his judicious discrimination in [Page 6] doing so. If, for instance, a drunkard were to ask him for some help, and if convinced that the drunkard would misuse his gift, the Bodhisatta would not hesitate to refuse him to his face for such generosity would not constitute a Parami.

Nevertheless should someone seek his help for a worthy purpose, instead of assuming a forced air of dignity or making false pretexts, he would only express his deep obligation for the opportunity afforded and willingly and humbly render him every possible aid. Yet, he would never set it down to his account as a favour conferred upon another, nor would he ever think in his mind of the man as his debtor for the service rendered. He is interested only in the good act, but nothing beyond. He does not, as fools do, expect any reward in return, nor does he crave for the empty reputation of having done some noble work.

A Bodhisatta is always ready to oblige, but seldom, if ever, does he stoop to beg for a favour. The Brahmadatta Jataka relates that once the Bodhisatta was leading an ascetic life in the park of a certain king, who visited him daily and ministered to all his needs. Yet for twelve long years he refrained from asking such a trifling boon as a pair of sandals and a leaf parasol. When questioned as to his strange, but modest, attitude, he replied to the king:

“Who begs, Pancala Lord, to weep are fain,
They who refuse are apt to weep again." [Page 7]

In abundance he gives, irrespective of caste, creed or colour, but he seeks nothing for he needs nothing. Contentment is his wealth, and an Edward Dyer would sing with him:

"Some have too much, yet still do crave;
I little have and seek no more.
They are but poor though much they have,
And I am rich with little store."

In the Kanha Jataka (No. 440) it is mentioned that Sakka, attracted by his exemplary life of virtue, approached him and prayed to be given the privilege of granting him a boon. He acceded to Sakka's kind request, and expressed his desire to have the following four boons:

1. May I harbour no malice or hatred against my neighbour.
2. May I not covet my neighbour's glory.
3. May I cherish no affection towards others.
4. May I possess equanimity.

Greatly disappointed, though more than pleased with the disinterested nature of his request, Sakka entreated him to make another. He replied:

" Where in the woods I ever dwell, where all alone dwell I,
Grant no disease may mar my peace, or break my ecstasy."

Hearing this the Sakka thought: "Wise Kanha in choosing a boon chooses nothing connected with food; all he chooses pertain to the ascetic life". [Page 8]

Delighted still more, he added thereto yet another. The Bodhisatta remarked:

“O Sakka, Lord of the world, a choice thou didst declare:
No creature be aught harmed for me, O Sakka, anywhere.
Neither in body nor in mind; this, Sakka, is my prayer."

A Bodhisatta exercises this virtue of Dana to such an extent that he is prepared to give away not only wealth and other cherished possessions, but his kingdom, his limbs, even children and wife. He is even ready to sacrifice his own life wherever such sacrifice will benefit humanity.

The Vessantara Jataka (No.547) mentions how when Prince Vessantara was a child of only eight years, he thought with all sincerity: “If one should ask my heart, I would cut open my breast and tear it out and give it; if one should ask my eyes, I would pluck them out and give them; if one should ask my flesh, I would cut off the flesh and give it".

Perhaps the readers are acquainted with the beautiful story wherein is graphically described the Bodhisatta sacrificing his life to a starving tigress, in order to appease her hunger, and thereby save her and her dying cubs.

The critic might question: “Is this kind of self-sacrifice of the Bodhisatta commendable? " Well, let us have recourse to the Great Being himself for the answer.[Page 9]

The Bodhisatta, moved by the pitiable sight of the starving tigress who was on the verge of death, commanded his disciple Ajita to go in search of some food to be given to her. Making this a pretext to send him away, the Bodhisatta reflected:

"Why should I search after meat from the body of another, whilst the whole of my body is available? Not only is the getting of meat in itself a matter of chance, but I should also lose the opportunity of doing my duty.

"This body being foul and a source of suffering he is not wise who would not rejoice at its being spent for the benefit of another. There are but two things that make one disregard the grief of another; attachment to one's own pleasure, and the absence of the power of helping. But I cannot have pleasure whilst another grieves, and I have the power to help; why should I therefore be indifferent?

“I will therefore sacrifice my miserable body by casting myself down the precipice, and with my corpse I shall feed the tigress thus preventing her from killing her young ones, and also the young ones from dying by the teeth of their mother.

"Furthermore by so doing I set an example to those who long for the good of the world; I encourage the feeble; I rejoice those who understand the meaning of charity; I stimulate the virtuous ...And finally that opportunity I yearned for. ’When may I have the opportunity of benefiting [Page 10] others by offering them my own limbs!’ I shall obtain it now, and so acquire ere long Supreme Wisdom (Samma Sambodhi)".

It will also not be out of place to cite an interesting account which appears in the Cariya Pitaka commentary, with regard to the mode of practising Dana.

In giving food the Bodhisatta thinks that he will thereby cause the people to acquire long life, beauty, happiness, strength, wisdom and the Highest Fruit, Nibbana. He gives water and other harmless beverages with the object of quenching the thirst of passion of beings; clothes for acquisition of the golden complexion, modesty and conscientiousness; conveyances to gain psychic powers; odours for the scent of Sila (morality); garlands and unguents to acquire the glory pertaining to Buddha's virtues; seats to win the seat of Enlightenment; lodging with the hope of serving as a refuge for the world; lights to obtain the five kinds of eyes — namely, the physical eye, the eye of wisdom, the divine eye, the Buddha eye, and the eye of Omniscience; forms to possess the Buddha aura; sounds to cultivate a voice as sweet as Brahman's; tastes so that he may be pleasing to all; contacts to gain the delicate organism of a Buddha; medicines for the sake of Deathlessness (Nibbana) emancipates slaves in order to deliver men from the thraldom of passions; renounces children to develop the paternal feeling towards [Page 11] all; renounces wives to become the master of the world; renounces kingdoms to inherit the kingdom of Righteousness, etc..

This important text bears ample testimony to the altruistic nature of the motives of a Bodhisatta. Further it indicates how he endeavours as best he can to direct all his disinterested efforts for the amelioration of mankind, not forgetting at the same time, his high aspiration — the Buddhahood.

Combined with this supernatural generosity is the purity of his Conduct (Sila). If he be living the life of a recluse, he would try his utmost to observe the Sila that pertains thereto. In case he leads the household life he will adhere, though his interests are at stake, to the five elementary principles of regulated behaviour.

Without killing or causing injury to any living being, he is kind and compassionate towards all, even to the tiniest creature that crawls at his feet. Refraining from stealing whether in its dissembled or obvious forms, he is upright and honest in all his dealings, and endeavours to cultivate a spirit of mutual confidence. He does not seek to secure gain by compassing loss for another in any under-hand way. Abstaining from sexual misconduct, he is pure and chaste. He refrains from lying, slandering, harsh speech and frivolous talk. He deceives none even if there be an opportunity to do so, nor does he speak falsehood even if he could go undetected. Avoiding all sorts of pernicious drinks, [Page 12] which lead to infatuation and heedlessness, he is sober and diligent.

A Bodhisatta endeavours to observe these elementary principles as strictly as possible, for transgression of them is likely to create fresh troubles and obstacles almost impassable and insurmountable.

It must not be understood that a Bodhisatta is wholly infallible and totally immune from all evil. Some Jatakas such as the Kanavera Jataka (No. 318) depict him as a highway robber of no mean order. This, however, is the exception rather than the rule.

The great importance an aspirant to Buddhahood attaches to Sila is evident from the Silavimansa Jataka (No.362) where the Bodhisatta says: "Apart from virtue wisdom has no worth".

Still keener is the enthusiasm he exhibits for Nekkhamma or Renunciation, for by nature he is a lover of solitude. Nekkhamma implies both renunciation of worldly pleasures by means of adopting the ascetic life, and the temporary inhibition of hindrances (Nivarana) by means of cultivating Jhana.

To him comes the idea, though he may sit in the lap of luxury, immersed in worldly pleasures that

"A den of strife is household life
And filled with toil and need;
But free and high as the open sky
Is the life the Homeless lead." [Page 13]

Realising thus the vanity — and suffering of life, he voluntarily forsakes his earthly possessions and donning the ascetic garb he tries to lead the Holy Life in all its purity. Here he practises the Higher Morality to such a degree that he practically becomes selfless in all his actions. Neither fame nor wealth nor honour nor worldly gain could induce him to do anything contrary to his lofty principles.

Sometimes the mere appearance of a grey hair, as in the case of the Makhadeva Jataka (No. 9), is sufficient to stimulate a Bodhisatta to leave his uncongenial atmosphere in order to lead the independent solitary life of a hermit. At times a tiny dew-drop acts as an incentive for him to adopt the ascetic life. The practice of renunciation is not observed as a rule by a Bodhisatta. In the Kusa Jataka (No. 531), for instance, the Bodhisatta was subject to much humiliation owing to his unrestrained desire to win the hand of them beautiful princess Pabhavati.

Again in the Darimukha Jataka (No. 378) it is mentioned that a Pacceka Buddha, a quondam friend of the Bodhisatta, approached him and said:

"Pleasures of sense are morass and mire,
The triply-rooted terror them I recall.
Vapour and dust I have proclaimed them,
Become a Brother and forsake them all." [Page 14]

To which he instantly replied:

"Infatuate, bound and deeply stained am I
Brahmin, with pleasures: fearful they may be,
But I love life, and cannot them deny:
Good works I undertake continually ."

Nekkhamma is followed by Pañña or wisdom. It is the right understanding of the nature of the world in the light of transiency, sorrowfulness and soullessness. Bodhisatta meditates on these three Characteristics — AniccaDukkha and Anatta — but not to such an extent as to attain Arahantship, for then he would be deviating from his goal.

He does not at the same time disparage worldly wisdom. He strives to acquire knowledge from every possible source. Never does he show any desire to display his knowledge, nor is he ashamed to plead his ignorance even in public, for under no circumstances does he prove to be a charlatan. He has no closed fist of the teacher. What he knows is always at the disposal of others, and that he imparts to them unreservedly.

Viriya or energy goes hand in hand with the above. Viriya does not mean here physical strength, as in the ordinary acceptation of the term, but mental vigour or strength of character, which undoubtedly is far superior to the former. It is defined as the relentless effort to work for others both in thought and deed. Firmly establishing himself in this virtue he develops self-reliance and makes it one of his prominent characteristics. [Page 15]

As Dr. Tagore has well expressed it, a Bodhisatta, would stand on his legs and say:

“Let me not pray to be sheltered from dangers, but to be fearless in facing them.
Let me not beg for the stilling of my pain, but for the heart to conquer it.
Let me not crave in anxious fear to be saved, but hope for the patience to win my freedom;"

The Viriya a Bodhisatta exhibits is beautifully illustrated in the Maha Janaka Jataka (No.539). Ship-wrecked in deep sea, he struggled strenuously for seven days until he was finally rescued.

All this pales into insignificance when one thinks of the indomitable energy displayed by him as a squirrel in the Kalandaka Jataka.

Failures he views as successes; opposition doubles his exertion; dangers only increase his
courage. Cutting his way through difficulties, which impair the enthusiasm of the feeble, surmounting obstacles, which dishearten the ordinary, he looks straight towards his goal.

To Mara who advised him to abandon his quest, the Bodhisatta said: “Death in battle (with passions) is more honourable to me than a vanquished life".

Just as his wisdom, is always at the disposal of others, so he has a fund of energy at his command. Instead of confining it to the realisation of private personal ends he directs it into the open channel of activities that tend to universal happiness. [Page 16] Ceaselessly and untiringly he works for others, expecting no remuneration.

As important as Viriya is Khanti. It is the patient endurance of suffering inflicted upon oneself by others, and the forbearance of others' wrongs.

A Bodhisatta practises patience to such an extent as not to be provoked even when his hands and feet are severed. In the Khantivada Jataka (No. 313) it appears that the Bodhisatta not only cheerfully endured the tortures caused by the drunkard king who mercilessly ordered his hands and feet, nose and ears, to be cut off, but also wished him long life.

Lying on the ground, sunk in a deep pool of blood, with arms and limbs severed from the body, the Bodhisatta said:

"Long live the king, whose cruel hand my body thus has marred,
Pure souls like mine such deeds as these with anger ne'er regard."

Of his forbearance it is said that whenever he is harmed he thinks: This person is a fellow-being of mine. Intentionally or unintentionally I myself must have been the source of his provocation. As it is the outcome of my own action, surely I must cherish no ill-will towards him.

It may be mentioned in this connection that a Bodhisatta is not irritated by any man's shameless conduct either. He tries to bear and forbear as well. [Page 17]

Sacca or truth comes next. By Sacca is here meant keeping of one's promise. This is one of the salient characteristics of a Bodhisatta, for he is no breaker of his word.

He makes Truth his guide and holds it his bounden duty to keep his word. He considers well before he makes a promise, but, when once the promise is made, he fulfils it at any cost.

In the Hiri Jataka (No.363) the Bodhisatta advises:

"Be thou in deed to every promise true,
Refuse to promise what thou cans't not do,
Wise men on empty braggarts look askew."

Again in the Mahasutasoma Jataka (No.537) it is stated that the Bodhisatta even went to the extent of sacrificing his life in order to fulfil a promise.

"Just as the morning star on high
Its balanced course doth ever keep,
And through all seasons, times and years,
Doth never from its pathway swerve;
So likewise he in all wise speech
Swerves never from the path of Truth."

This is followed by Adhitthana which may be interpreted as resolute determination. This will-power of his forces all obstructions out of his path, and no matter what may come to him — sickness, grief or disaster — he never turns his eye from his goal.

The Bodhisatta Gotama, for instance, made a firm determination to renounce his royal pleasures [Page18] and gain Enlightenment. For six long years he struggled hard. He had to endure many a hardship and face many a difficulty. At a time when help was badly needed, his five favourite disciples who attended on him deserted him. Yet he did not give up his noble effort. His enthusiasm was redoubled and at last achieved his desired goal.

"Just as a rocky mountain-peak,
Unmoved stands, firm-established,
Unshaken by the boisterous gales,
And always in its place abides;
So likewise He must ever be
In Resolution firm intrenched."

The most important of all the Paramis, it may be said, is Metta, which may be rendered as benevolence, good-will or loving-kindness. It is this Metta that prompts a Bodhisatta to renounce personal salvation for the sake of others. He is permeated with boundless good-will towards all beings. He identifies himself with all — irrespective of caste, creed or colour. To him nothing gives more delight than to feel that all are his brothers and sisters. Since he is the embodiment of Metta, he fears none, nor does he give cause for fear to any.

In the Maha-Dhammapala Jataka (No. 385) it is stated that the Bodhisatta, though yet a boy of seven months, extended his loving-kindness with equal measure towards his father, who ordered him to be tortured and killed, towards the executioner, towards his loving mother, and towards himself. [Page19]

Last, but not the least, of the Paramis is Upekkha or equanimity. The commentarial explanation of the term is consideration in the light of justice. According to this interpretation the Pali term has a far wider connotation than the English equivalent.

Slights and insults are the common lot of humanity. So are praise and blame, loss and gain. Under all such varied vicissitudes of life, a Bodhisatta stands unmoved like a firm rock, exercising equanimity and endeavouring his best to be constantly cheerful and happy.

In times of happiness and in times of adversity, amidst praise and amidst blame, he is even-balanced.

“Just as the earth, whate'er is thrown
Upon her, whether sweet or foul.,
Indifferent is to all alike,
Nor hatred shows, nor amity;
So likewise he in good or ill,
Must even-balanced ever be."

All these Paramis have to be cultivated continuously throughout the enormous periods previously mentioned.

In addition to all these he has to practise the following three modes of Conduct (Cariya) namely, Atta Cariya, working for self-development; Natyattha Cariya, working for the betterment of relatives; and Lokattha Cariya, working for the amelioration of the whole world. [Page 20]

By the second mode of conduct is not meant nepotism, but an endeavour to promote the well-being of one's kinsfolk, without in any way jeopardising the interests of those outside one's family circle.

Practising thus the ten Paramis to the highest pitch of perfection, developing the three modes of conduct as circumstances permit, giving the five kinds of Dana, as occasion demands, he traverses this tempest-tossed sea of Sansara, wafted hither and thither by the irresistible force of Kamma, manifesting himself at the same time in multifarious phenomena.

Now he comes into being as a mighty Sakka or as a radiant Deva, anon as a human being high or low, again as a helpless brute and so forth, until he finally seeks birth in the Tusita heaven, having consummated the Paramis and anxiously awaiting the opportune moment to appear on earth and blossom as a Samma Sambuddha.

It is erroneous to think that a Bodhisatta purposely manifests himself in such diverse forms in order to acquire universal experience. No person whatsoever is exempt from the inexorable law of Kamma. It is law in itself. It alone determines the future birth of every individual, except of course in the case of Arahants and Buddhas who have put an end to all life in a fresh existence.

However, it may be mentioned that a Bodhisatta is accredited with a special power, by the force of [Page 21] his own Kamma, when, for instance, he is reborn in a Brahma realm where the life span extends for countless aeons, thereby depriving him of the opportunity to perfect the Paramis. In such a case by will-power he ceases to live in that sphere, and comes to life in another place best suited to his temperament.

Apart from this Adhimuttikalakiriya (voluntary death), as the Pali phrase runs, the Jataka commentary states that a Bodhisatta enjoys the special privilege of not seeking birth in eighteen states, in the course of his wanderings in Sansara, as the result of the potential Kammic force accumulated by him. For instance he is never born blind or deaf, nor does he become an absolute misbeliever ( Niyata Micchaditthi), who denies Kamma and its effects. He is born in the animal kingdom, but never as a creature larger than an elephant or smaller than a snipe. He is to atone in the ordinary states of misery (Apayas), but is never destined to the Avicis. A Bodhisatta does not also seek birth in the "Pure abodes" (Suddhavasa) — the camping place of Anagamis and Arahants — nor in the formless realms where one is deprived of the opportunity to be of service to others.

It might be asked: Is the Bodhisatta aware that he is aspiring to Buddhahood in the course of his rebirths ? He mayor may not be.

According to the Jatakas it appears that at times he is fully cognisant of the fact that he is [Page 22] striving for Buddhahood. Visayha Setthi Jataka (No. 340) may be cited as an example. In some births, as in the case of the Jotipala Manavaka (Ghatikara Sutta No. 81, Majjhima Nikaya), he seems to have been perfectly ignorant of it, so much so that he starts abusing the Buddha at the mere utterance of the word.

Hence, who knows that we ourselves are not Bodhisattas who have dedicated our lives for the noble purpose of serving the world? Let us not be discouraged by the thought that the Bodhisatta ideal is a Herculean task, reserved only for supermen. What has been accomplished by one could also be accomplished by another with necessary effort and enthusiasm. Let us too endeavour our best to utilise every unit of energy and each moment of time to work disinterestedly for the good of ourselves and others, having for our objects in life — the noble ideals of service and perfection.




Masonic Publishing Company

Purchase This Title

Browse Titles
"If I have seen further than
others, it is by standing
upon the shoulders of giants."


Comasonic Logo

Co-Masonry, Co-Freemasonry, Women's Freemasonry, Men and Women, Mixed Masonry

Copyright © 1975-2024 Universal Co-Masonry, The American Federation of Human Rights, Inc. All Rights Reserved.