Buddhism A–Z
What is a Bodhisattva in Buddhism?
Seated Bodhisattva Avalokiteśvara (Guanyin) of Water-Moon Form, 11th–12th century, China, courtesy of the Saint Louis Art Museum

A bodhisattva is someone who is totally dedicated to the well-being of others and puts their happiness before their own. A bodhisattva will even forego their own enlightenment in order to remain in samsara and help suffering beings.

The bodhisattva is the central figure and ideal of Mahayana Buddhism. All Mahayana Buddhists aspire to be bodhisattvas and devote themselves as much as they can to freeing all beings from suffering. In the Theravada Buddhist school, the term is often used to refer specifically to the historical Buddha, Shakyamuni, before his enlightenment.

In Mahayana Buddhism, the term “bodhisattva” can refer to both ordinary people who have taken the bodhisattva vow and strive to live by the bodhisattva ideals, and to primordial bodhisattvas who epitomize particular spiritual values. These include bodhisattvas who are venerated throughout the Buddhist world such as Tara or Guanyin, and primordial bodhisattvas who represent virtues such as compassion (Avaloketishvara), wisdom (Manjushri), and spiritual power (Vajrapani.)

To fulfill their vow to help sentient beings, bodhisattvas practice of the six perfections, or paramitas. To be a bodhisattva, one must rouse bodhichitta, the “mind of enlightenment” or “heart-mind of the buddha,” that combines wisdom and compassion.

The Bodhisattva Vows

The bodhisattva vows are a set of ethical commitments and aspirations undertaken by Buddhists who seek to follow the path of a bodhisattva. There are various formulations of the bodhisattva vows in different Buddhist traditions, but they all revolve around the intention to cultivate compassion, wisdom, and altruistic actions for the purpose of helping others end suffering and attain enlightenment.

In Zen Buddhism, the bodhisattva vows often take the form of four vows:

Beings are numberless; I vow to save them.
Delusions are inexhausible; I vow to end them.
Dharma gates are boundless; I vow to enter them.
The Buddha Way is unattainable; I vow to attain it.

By taking the bodhisattva vows, one commits to living a life that is dedicated to the welfare of all beings.

Related Reading

How to Become a Bodhisattva

Pilar Jennings on how to overcome two common roadblocks to compassion. The key is facing the truth of suffering—your own and others.

The Bodhisattva Attitude

We all have an attitude, says Zen teacher Norman Fischer, our own way of approaching life. You can start to take a bodhisattva’s attitude toward life by practicing generosity and appreciation.

Mechanical bodhisattva sculpture by Wang Zi-Won.

Awakening the Bodhisattva

Venerable Pannavati, Anne Klein, and Ejo McMullen on the possibilities and challenges of the bodhisattva path. Introduction by Taigen Dan Leighton.

Best Practices for Bodhisattvas

Traditional Buddhist vows can seem hardcore, but they’re just maps for a good human life. Josh Bartok translates them into values we can relate to.

The Bodhisattva Vow

Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche explains; those who take the bodhisattva vow make one simple commitment: to put others first, holding nothing back for themselves.

Therevada Ajahn Amaro Arhat Bodhisattva Lion's Roar Buddhadharma Buddhism

Between Arhat and Bodhisattva

Ajahn Amaro examines the arguments for and against the arhat and bodhisattva ideals that define and too often divide the Buddhist traditions. He suggests a way out of the polarizing debate.

The Practice of a Bodhisattva

The bodhisattva’s commitment to the benefit of others manifests in the practice of the six perfections, the 17th Karmapa explains.

Buddhism A–Z

Explore essential Buddhist terms, concepts, and traditions.