Wednesday, October 21, 2009

The Bodhisatta Concept In Theravāda Buddhism

The Bodhisatta Concept In Theravāda Buddhism


The Centre of Buddhist Studies, The University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong

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The Bodhisatta Concept In Theravāda Buddhism

In Theravāda Buddhism, the Bodhisatta concept (Pāli: Bodhisatta, Sanskrit: Bodhisattva) is considered to be seeking enlightenment so that, once awakened, one can efficiently aid other beings to develop an insight to know things as truly as they are.1,2 The Buddha's previous life experiences as a Bodhisatta before Buddhahood are recorded in the texts of the Jataka. Lay Buddhists of Theravāda tradition often seek inspiration in his skills as a good layman from these texts, which not only account his historical life, but also many other previous lives.1,3

Bodhisatta is a being who aspires for Bodhi or Enlightenment. The concept of Bodhisatta (meaning Buddha-to-be) is one of the most important concepts in Buddhism. Etymologically the term can be separated into two parts, bodhi and sattva: bodhi from the root budh, to be awake, means 'awakening' or 'enlightenment' and 'sattva' derived from sant, the present participle of the root as, 'to be', means 'a being' or 'one who is' or 'a sentient being.' Hence, the term is taken to mean 'one whose essence is Enlightenment' or 'enlightened knowledge'. By implication it means a seeker of the enlightenment and a Buddha-to-be. There is also a suggestion that the Pāli term may be derived from bodhi and satta, (Skt. sakta from sanj) 'one who is attached to or desires to gain enlightenment.' In original Pāli texts of early Buddhism, the term Bodhisatta was used more exclusively to designate Gotama Buddha prior to his enlightenment.

The Concept of Plurality Buddhas and Bodhisattas in Theravāda Tradition
The concept of Bodhisatta, along with that of Buddha and of the cakravartin (world-ruler), was in vogue in India even before the appearance of Gotama Buddha. When Prince Siddhattha (who later became Gotama Buddha) took conception in the womb of Queen Maya, a seer predicted that this son would become either a world-ruler (cakravartin) or a Buddha. While answering a question by a Brahmin, Gotama Buddha himself once admitted that he was not a god, but a Buddha. This implies that he indirectly meant that he was one in the lineage of buddhas.3,4

A well-known Pāli stanza states that: sabbapapassa akaranam, kusalassa upasampada,sacittapariyodapanam
etam buddhana sasanam. This proves that it contains the teachings of not just a single Buddha, but of all the Buddhas. The Amagandha Sutta is similarly recorded as a discourse not of Gotama Buddha but of a past Buddha named Kassapa.3,4

Sammasambodhi or Perfect Enlightenment is an impersonal universal phenomenon occurring at a particular context both in time and space. So, the Buddha is a person who re-discovers the Dhamma, which had become lost to the world. Gotama Buddha himself, as well as others, used the term Bodhisatta to indicate his career from the time of his renunciation up to the time of his enlightenment. During the later period, use of this term “Bodhisatta” was extended to denote the period from Gotama's conception to the enlightenment. Thereafter, this term was used to refer all the Buddhas from their conception to Buddhahood. By applying the doctrine of kamma and rebirth, which had general acceptance even in pre-Buddhist India, the use of the term “Bodhisatta” was further extended to refer to the past lives of Gotama Buddha and all those who aspire for Perfect Enlightenment.3,4,5,6,7

The Mahāpadāna Suttanta, belonging to the oldest Theravāda tradition, gives details of six Buddhas prior to Gotama. This discourse is attributed to the Buddha himself, who gives the time, caste, family, length of life etc. of his predecessors. After briefly outlining the lives of these six buddhas, Gotama begins an in-depth recollection of the first buddha, Vipassii, from his life in Tusita heaven until he dispersed his monks for the purpose of spreading the teachings. In this narration, Gotama not only refers to Vipassii up to his enlightenment as a Bodhisatta, but also takes the life events of Vipassii as the example for all future Bodhisattas and buddhas, including himself. Another section of the sutta-pitaka where the term "Bodhisatta" pertains to each of the six previous buddhas is the Samyutta Nikāya.3,5,6,7
In the Buddhavaṃsa, a later work belonging to the Khuddaka Nikāya, the number of buddhas increases to twenty-five with Gotama Buddha as the last and this number remain fixed in Theravāda tradition. However, in the Mahāpadāna Suttanta the Buddha started the story of the six Buddhas merely by saying that ninety-one kappas ago there was such and such a Buddha. This indirectly implies that the Buddhas are not limited by number. So, if the Buddhas are innumerable, the Bodhisattas too must be innumerable.3,5,6,7

The Pāli Canon had also mentioned the name of Metteya (Pāli: Metteya, Sanskrit: Maitreya) as the future Buddha after Sakyamuni or Gotama Buddha. But in the Pāli Canon, he is not referred to as a Bodhisatta. Instead, he is simply regarded as the next fully-awakened Buddha to come into existence long after the current teachings of the Buddha are lost. In the Cakkavattisīhanādasutta of the Dīgha Nikāya, the Gotama Buddha foretold that in future, an Exalted One named Metteya, who is Fully Awakened [i.e., sammāsambuddha] and adorned with wisdom and goodness, will arise.Though Metteya is the only future Buddha mentioned specifically in the Pāli Canons, but the possibility of attaining Buddhahood is not restricted solely to him. 1,3,5,8

In the Sampasādanīyasutta of the Dīgha Nikāya, it is mentioned that in future, there will be other Supreme buddhas equal to Gotama in the matter of Enlightenment. Thus, the term "Bodhisatta" was no longer used solely in conjunction with Gotama or other past buddhas or Metteya. The Bodhisatta-yāna was regarded as a difficult, but possible path open to anyone who desires to attain the Buddhahood.3,5,8

In later Theravāda literature, the term Bodhisatta is fairly frequent in the sense of someone on the path to enlightenment. The later Pāli commentarial tradition also recognizes the existence of two additional types of Bodhisattas. These are the paccekabodhisatta who will attain Paccekabuddhahood and the Sāvakabodhisatta who will attain enlightenment as a disciple of a Samyaksambuddha [i.e., sammāsambuddha].1,3

Textual Transmission of the Bodhisatta Concept in Theravāda Buddhism
The use of the term "Bodhisatta" occurs in a number of the suttas (Pāli: sutta, Sanskrit: sutra) in the Majjhima, Anguttara, and Samyutta Nikāyas. In addition to referring to the present life of Gotama, the term "Bodhisatta" is also used in relation to the penultimate life of Gotama in Tusita (Pāli: Tusita) heaven, as well as his conception and birth. In later canonical texts, the Bodhisatta ideal is further developed and associated with numerous concepts such as the concept of a Bodhisatta vow. This is believed to have been introduced from the Mahāyāna tradition which upholds the 'Bodhisatta ideal.' In the Suttanipāta, the Bodhisatta ideal is also associated with the quality of compassion.1,3,5

(A) Bodhisatta Concept in Pre-commentarial Literature
T. Sugimoto had analyzed the contexts in which the word “Bodhisatta” is employed in the Nikāyas. He had suggested six different usages of the term “Bodhisatta” in the Nikāyas, which are as follows:8
(1) The Bodhisatta who is imperfect and immature
(2) The Bodhisatta who is still imperfect but surpassing that state
(3) The Bodhisatta who is a wanderer and an ascetic
(4) The Bodhisatta who is the master of meditation and a seer of the dhamma
(5) The Bodhisatta at the time of his conception and birth
(6) The Bodhisatta who dreams of the five great dreams

All these types of Bodhisatta depicted in the Nikāyas can be broadly summarized into main two usages:8
(A) The Bodhisatta referring to the state before the attainment of Enlightenment in the life of Gotama Buddha. Here, the Bodhisatta is depicted as the One seeking higher knowledge.
(B) The Bodhisatta as a generic term referring to the previous existence of any Buddha in the past. This theory is based on the acceptance on plurality of the buddhas.

In the Khuddaka Nikāya, the word “Bodhisatta” does not occur as often as in the other four Nikāyas, but there is further development of this concept found here. The old stratum of Khuddaka Nikāya includes the last two chapers of Suttanipāta while the new stratum includes texts like Buddhavaṃsa, Cariyāpiṭaka and Apadāna.

(a) The Suttanipāta refers to Gotama Bodhisatta as a being who was born in this world for happiness and wheal of the people (hitasukhatāya). This idea of a compassionate Bodhisatta is also expressed in the Canon.3,8

(b) In the Buddhavaṃsa, the Bodhisatta ideal is developed to the greatest extent. The Buddhavaṃsa is entirely based on the history of Gotama Buddha’s career as the Bodhisatta from the time of making his abhinīhāra (resolve) before Dīpańkara Buddha to become a Buddha in the future. Under each and every past Buddha, Gotama Bodhisatta receives a declaration (vyākaraṇa) that he would be the Buddha named Gotama in distant future. Here, the term “Bodhisatta” refers to an ideal person, who makes a vow to become a fully and completely enlightened Buddha (sammāsambuddha) out of compassion for all sentient beings. He performs various acts of merit and finally receives a prophecy of his future Buddhahood. In addition, he had also made a vow to become a Bodhisatta only after the attainment of arahantship. This is portrayed in the chronicle of Sumedha, where he was lying in the mud and offering his body to the Dīpańkara Buddha to walk on.3,8

According to the Buddhavaṃsa and Cariyāpiṭaka, there are eight conditions (aṭṭhadhammā) which are mentioned as the preconditions for anyone to become a Bodhisatta and ten preconditions (pāramī) are to be practiced and fulfilled to become a Buddha. In this aspect, the Jātaka stories might be a later fabrication in an attempt to connect the mode of fulfillment of pāramīs with the varied forms of existences of the Gotama Bodhisatta. The generalization of preliminaries leading to Buddhahood was thus introduced for the first time in Pāli tradition and it further developed in the Aṭṭhakathā literature.3,8

More expanded use of the term "Bodhisatta" is explicitly expressed in the Khuddakapātha. In the eighth chapter of this canonical text (the Nidhikandasutta), the goal of Buddhahood is presented as a goal that should be pursued by certain exceptional beings. The sutta mentions a type of treasure that is more permanent and which follows beings from birth to birth. This treasure results from giving (dāna), morality (sīla), abstinence (samyama), and observing restraint (dama). This treasure fulfills all desires, leads to a rebirth in a beautiful body and leads to rebirth in the human realm from which liberation is possible. Moreover, the qualities of charity, virtue, abstinence and restraint would lead to the wisdom which produces the "bliss of Extinguishment" of Arahants or pratyekabuddhas or completely enlightened buddhas.3,8,9

The Udāna also mentions the word “Bodhisatta” at one place, but it is with reference to the mothers of Bodhisattas. It predicts that mothers of all Bodhisattas would die within seven days after their birth. It is the Dhammatā (general nature) that certain things are predetermined for a Bodhisatta these are his parents, Bodhi tree, chief disciples (aggasāvakā), son and attendant (upaṭṭhāka).8

(B) Bodhisatta Concept in Commentarial Literature
Dhammapāla was a commentator who showed greater interest in the dissemination of the Bodhisatta doctrine and introduce new concepts in the Theravāda tradition. Through the Buddhavaṃsa and Cariyāpiṭaka contain certain ingredients that can be regarded as the precursors of later developments in the commentaries, but the Bodhisatta concept gained acceleration and diversification in the Theravāda tradition in the form of Aṭṭhakathā literature.3,8

The word “bodhi” is a nominative derivative of the root “budh” (meaning to be awake, enlightened etc.) and it means enlightenment or supreme knowledge. The canonical texts give its meanings as the realization of the Four Noble truths (arya-saccāni) and the Seven Factors of Enlightenment (bojjhaṅga). In the Aṭṭhakathā texts, a classic definition of the verbal form “bujjhati”, meaning awake or enlightened or the one who knows, is given in Atthasālini and Sammohavinodanī.8

The interpretation of “bodhi” as the Four Noble Truths and Seven Factors of enlightenment testify clearly that it can be achieved by anyone and the attainment of them is what is termed as arahantship. In Theravāda tradition, though the term “sambodhi” was applied to Arahants as well, but the two terms “abhisambodhi” and “sammāsambodhi” were used exclusively for the buddhas. The Buddha’s designation of “sammāsambodhi” is explained in the commentarial texts as the knowledge which he attains rightly (sammā) and by himself (sāmaṃ). This also relates to the knowledge which is adorned (pasatthaṃ) and good (sundaraṃ). In other words, it is all that is to be discovered and known by a Buddha alone. When the word “bodhi” is described in the sense of knowledge (ñāṇa) in the Aṭṭhakathā texts, emphasis is given either in relation to the path leading to arahantship (arahattamaggañāṇa) or the omniscient knowledge (sabbaññutañāṇa). In commentarial literature, Buddhaghosa described the term “bodhi” in four different ways. These are: (1) Tree (rukkha) – referring to the Bodhi tree, (2) Path (magga), (3) Omniscient knowledge (sabbaññuta-ñāṇa) and (4) Nibbāna. The commentaries also discuss some definitions of the word “Bodhisatta” which are not found in the pre-commentarial literature. The Dīgha-aṭṭhakathā or Sumaṅgalavilāsinī describes the Bodhisatta as a wise being who is concerned with awakening; a being whose mind is attached to and bent on the four paths called “bodhi”.3,8,9

Keeping with the tradition found in the Pāli Canons, the term “Bodhisatta” was used mainly as a term denoting the former existences of Gotama Buddha in the Milindapañha. However, the Samantapāsādikā describes the term “sāvaka-bodhi” as the attainment or knowledge of a disciple. However, the Papañcasūdanī, Manorathapūranī and Sāratthapakāsinī also provide similar of the term “Bodhisatta” as the one who is being attached to bodhi or knowledge. This is also described as the One, who is full of knowledge (ñāṇavā), insightful (paññavā) and wise (paṇḍito).3,8

The meanings of the term “Bodhisatta” according to the commentaries can thus be classified into four categories:8
(1) A wise or insightful being
(2) A being on the way to awakening
(3) A being worthy of attaining sammāsambodhi or striving for it
(4) A being attached to or inclined towards bodhi

Thus, the Theravādins began to formulate a new classification of Bodhisatta in the Aṭṭhakathā literature and its development followed a natural corollary resulting from the interpretations of the word Bodhi. So, the interpretation of Bodhisatta in the Theravāda tradition now rests on two premises:8
(a) One who seeks catumagga-ñāṇa
(b) One who is worthy of attaining sammāsambodhi

The late Aṭṭhakathā texts made three distinctions on the existing Bodhisatta concept. Along with the gradation of Mahā-bodhisatta (Buddha-to-be), pacceka-bodhisatta and sāvaka-bodhisatta, the commentarial literature added some qualities to distinguish them from one another. Thus, there appeared the qualifying words in the Aṭṭhakathā texts like mahāsatta, mahāsambodhisatta, mahābodhisatta and sabbaññu-bodhisatta.3,8,9

Later Development of the Bodhisatta Concept in Theravāda Buddhism
The social importance of the Bodhisatta concept found in the Aṭṭhakathā should also be considered to be pertinent to the development of the Bodhisatta ideal in Sri Lanka. An attempt had been made in the past to merge the personality of Bodhisatta from commentarial texts with the ideal individual socially and ethically. Common people began to respect him not only as a person with highest virtues, but also a person with utmost administrative capability. The idea that anyone may become a Buddha by following the Bodhisatta-yāna was only present in seed form in the Theravāda Buddhist Pāli Canon. But later this concept was taken up seriously by the Theravādins. Numerous Theravādin kings, monks and textual copyists had taken the Bodhisatta vow and were following the Bodhisatta-yāna to the eventual attainment of Buddhahood. The relationship between kings and Bodhisattas has its source in the Bodhisatta career of Gotama as depicted not only in his life as Prince Siddhattha, but also in his penultimate earthly life when he was King Vessantara. The Bodhisatta exhibited his compassion by fulfilling the perfection of giving as King Vessantara. He gave away his elephant to alleviate a drought in nearby Kāliṅga. He gave away his wealth, his kingdom even his wife and children and was even willing to give away his own life out of compassion for other beings.3,10,11

The paradigm for close association between the institution of kingship and Buddhahood originally came from Gotama, when he was a Bodhisatta. This was later adopted by Theravādin kings by the second century B.C. The Bodhisatta-like compassion was also exhibited by King Duttagāmanī, Sirisamghabodhi and Upatissa of Sri Lanka. By the eighth century C.E., the amalgamation between the institution of kingship and Bodhisattas became even stronger. During this time, certain Theravādin kings in Sri Lanka, Burma, and Thailand had openly declared themselves as the Bodhisattas.3,10, 11

It might be argued that these Bodhisatta kings were influenced by the Mahāyāna doctrines when they adopted certain qualities of the Bodhisatta or took the Bodhisatta vow. But this does not dismiss the fact that the Bodhisatta ideal was taken seriously by Theravādin kings. The Bodhisatta ideal obtained a prominent place in Theravāda Buddhist theory and practice. A king might be influenced by Mahāyāna ideas at a given point of time. But this does not mean that certain Theravāda doctrines, including the ideas of a Bodhisatta as found in the Buddhavaṃsa and Cariyāpiṭaka, were not equally influential.3,10,11

The presence of a Bodhisatta ideal in Theravāda Buddhism is also represented by the numerous examples of other Theravādins who have either referred to themselves or have been referred by others as Bodhisattas. The celebrated commentator Buddhaghosa was viewed by the monks of the Anuraadhapura monastery as being an incarnation of Metteya. There are also some instances of Theravādin monks who expressed their desire to become fully enlightened buddhas. After being deemed worthy of receiving certain secret teachings by his meditation teacher, bhikkhu Doratiyaaveye of Sri Lanka (ca. 1900), refused to practice such techniques. He felt that it would pose hindrance in his path to attain the level of arahant in this lifetime or within seven lives. He saw himself as a Bodhisatta who had already made a vow to attain Buddhahood in the future.3,10,11

The vow to become a Buddha was also taken by certain Theravādin textual copyists and authors. The author of the commentary on the Jātaka (the Jātakāṭṭhakathā) concludes his work with the vow to complete the ten Bodhisatta perfections in the future so that he will become a Buddha and liberate the whole world with its gods from the bondage of repeated births and guide them to the most excellent and tranquil Nibbāna.9,10 Another example of a Theravādin author who wished to become a Buddha by following the Bodhisatta-yāna is the `Sri Lankan monk Mahā-Tipitaka Cūlābhaya. In his subcommentary on the “Questions of King Milinda” during the twelfth-century, he wrote that he wished to become a Buddha at the end of his work.9

When Prince Siddhattha attained Enlightenment and transformed himself into a Buddha from Bodhisatta, he did so as a human being and lived and passed away as such. He himself admitted that he was a Buddha and not a supernatural being. He was only the discoverer of a lost teaching. His greatness was that he found out what his contemporaries could not discover at all or only discovered partially. Both intellectually and morally he was a great man (mahapurisa) and a historical personality. However, when we analyze the term “Bodhisatta” in Theravāda Buddhism, it not only refers to Gotama and all previous buddhas before their enlightenment, but it also applies to any being who wishes to pursue the path to perfect Buddhahood.11,12 Though the Theravādins believe that anyone can become a Bodhisatta, they do not stipulate or insist that everyone must become a Bodhisatta as this is not considered to be reasonable. It is up to the individual to decide which path to take, that of the Srāvaka, that of the Pratyekabuddha, or that of the Samyaksambuddha [i.e., sammāsambuddha]. This concept resulted in a more general adherence to the ideal by numerous Theravādin kings, monks, scholars and even common people. 9

The introduction of three kinds of Bodhisatta namely Mahā-Bodhisatta, Pacceka-Bodhisatta and Sāvaka-Bodhisatta by Dhammapāla is a new departure in the Theravāda doctrine and the Bodhisatta ideal became reserved for only certain exceptional people. Thus, when the path of Buddhahood was made more difficult during the process of exalting the buddhas, the Thravādins had to emphasize the importance of the following sāvaka-bodhi more than before as the alternative and easier way to emancipation. Though the glorification of buddhas bears the emotional and devotional significance for the Buddhists, but the accomplishment of sāvaka-bodhi is more practical.3,10,12

The Bodhisatta-yāna and the goal of Buddhahood were already accepted as one of three possible goals by followers of Theravāda Buddhism. However, this same goal was viewed as the only acceptable goal by the followers of Mahāyāna Buddhism. Hence, it should be stressed that the change introduced by the Mahāyāna traditions was not an invention of a new ideology or any innovative thinking, but it was rather the adoption of an already accepted exceptional ideal and bringing it into prominence.12


1. Holt, J.C. 1991. Buddha in the Crown: Avalokitesvara in the Buddhist Traditions of Sri Lanka. New York: Oxford University Press.
2. Kariyawasam, A.G.S. 2002. The Bodhisattva Concept. Kandy, Sri Lanka: Buddhist Publication Society.
3. Saddhatissa, H.1975. The Birth-Stories of the Ten Bodhisattas and the Dasabodhisattuppattikatha. Sacred Books of the Buddhists. London: Pāli Text Society 29: 38-39.
4. Ñāṇamoli, B. 1992. The life of the Buddha. Kandy, Sri Lanka: Buddhist Publication Society.
5. Gombrich,R. 1980. The Significance of Former Buddhas in the Theravādin Tradition. Buddhist Studies: In Honour of Walpola Rahula, ed. Somaratna Balasooriya et al. Gordon Fraser Gallery: 68.
6. Endo, T. 2009. The Buddha Concept in Theravada Buddhism. Hong Kong: The Centre of Buddhist Studies. The University of Hong Kong.
7. Endo, T. 2002. Buddha in Theravada Buddhism. Dehiwala.
8. Endo, T. 2009. The Bodhisatta Concept in Theravada Buddhism. Hong Kong: The Centre of Buddhist Studies. The University of Hong Kong.
9. Walpola, R. 1971. L'ideal du Bodhisatta dans le Theravāda et le Mahāyāna. Journal Asiatique: 69.
10. Cohen, R.S. 1995. Discontented Categories:Hiinayāna and Mahāyāna in Indian Buddhist History. Journal of the American Academy of Religion 63 (1):2-3.
11. Norman K.R. 1983. A History of Indian Literature. Wiesbaden: Otto Harrasowitz 7: 94.
12. Ray, R. 1994. Buddhist Saints in India: A Study of Buddhist Values and Orientations. London: Oxford University Press: 251.

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