In the Buddhist context, a bodhisattva (बोधिसत्त्व, ; ; Vietnamese: Bồ Tát; बोधिसत्त, ; Thai: โพธิสัตว์, phothisat; ) means either "enlightened (bodhi) existence (sattva)" or "enlightenment-being" or, given the variant Sanskrit spelling satva rather than sattva, "heroic-minded one (satva) for enlightenment (bodhi)". Another translation is "Wisdom-Being". The various divisions of Buddhism understand the word bodhisattva in different ways, but especially in Mahayana Buddhism, it mainly refers to a being that compassionately refrains from entering nirvana in order to save others.
While Maitreya (Pali: Metteya) is mentioned in the Pali Canon, he is not referred to as a bodhisattva, but simply the next fully-awakened Buddha to come into existence long after the current teachings of the Buddha are lost.
In later Theravada literature, the term bodhisatta is used fairly frequently in the sense of someone on the path to liberation. The later tradition of commentary also recognizes the existence of two additional types of bodhisattas: the paccekabodhisatta who will attain Paccekabuddhahood, and the savakabodhisatta who will attain enlightenment as a disciple of a Buddha.
The Mahayana encourages everyone to become bodhisattvas and to take the bodhisattva vows. With these vows, one makes the promise to work for the complete enlightenment of all sentient beings. Indelibly entwined with the Bodhisattva Vow is parinamana (Sanskrit; which may be rendered in English as "merit transference").
In Mahayana Buddhism life in this world is compared to people living in a house that is on fire. They take this world as reality pursuing worldly projects and pleasures without realising that the house is on fire and will soon burn down (the inevitability of death). A Bodhisattva is the one who has determination to free sentient beings from samsara with the cycle of death, rebirth and suffering. This type of mind is known as bodhicitta; Sanskrit for mind of awakening. Bodhisattvas take bodhisattva vows in order to progress on the spiritual path towards buddhahood.
There are a variety of different conceptions of the nature of a bodhisattva in Mahayana. According to some Mahayana sources a bodhisattva is someone on the path to full Buddhahood. Others speak of bodhisattvas renouncing Buddhahood. According to the Kun-bzang bla-ma'i zhal-lung, a bodhisattva can choose either of three paths to help sentient beings in the process of achieving buddhahood. They are:
Tibetan doctrine (like Theravada, for different reasons) recognizes only the first of these, holding that Buddhas remain in the world, able to help others, so there is no point in delay. The Dalai Lama notes:: "These are indications of the style of the altruistic motivation for becoming enlightened; in actual fact, there is no way that a Bodhisattva either would want to or could delay achieving full enlightenment. As much as the motivation to help others increases, so much closer does one approach Buddhahood.
East Asian doctrinal traditions tend to emphasize the second and/or third, the idea of deliberately refraining from becoming a Buddha, perhaps forever.
According to many traditions within Mahayana Buddhism, on the way to becoming a Buddha, a bodhisattva proceeds through ten, or sometimes fourteen, grounds or bhumi. Below is the list of the ten bhumis and their descriptions from The Jewel Ornament of Liberation, a treatise by Gampopa (an influential teacher of the Tibetan Kagyu school) and the Avatamsaka Sutra. Other schools give slightly variant descriptions.
Before a bodhisattva arrives at the first ground, he or she first must travel the first two of the five paths:
The ten grounds of the bodhisattva then can be grouped into the next three paths
The chapter of ten grounds in the Avatamsaka Sutra refers 52 stages, with the following 10 grounds
After the ten bhumis, according to Mahayana Buddhism, one attains complete enlightenment and becomes a Buddha.
With the 52 stages, the Shurangama Sutra in East Asia recognizes 57 stages. With the 10 grounds, various Vajrayana schools recognize 3-10 additional grounds, mostly 6 more grounds with variant descriptions.
Various traditions within Buddhism believe in certain specific bodhisattvas. Some bodhisattvas appear across traditions, but due to language barriers may be seen as separate entities. For example, Tibetan Buddhists believe in various forms of Chenrezig, who is Avalokitesvara in Sanskrit, Guanyin (other spellings: Kwan-yin, Kuan-yin) in China and Korea, Quan Am in Vietnam, and Kannon (formerly spelled and pronounced: Kwannon) in Japan. Jizo or Ti Tsang is another popular bodhisattva in Japan and China (Ksitigarbha in Sanskrit). Jizo is known for aiding those who are lost. His greatest compassionate Vow being: "If I do not go to the hell to help the suffering beings there, who else will go? ... if the hells are not empty I will not become a Buddha. Only when all living beings have been saved, will I attain Bodhi."
Two modern bodhisattvas for many are the 14th Dalai Lama and the Karmapa, both considered by many followers of Tibetan Buddhism to be an incarnation of that same bodhisattva Chenrezig, the Bodhisattva of Compassion.
The bodhisattva is a popular subject in Buddhist art.
The place of a bodhisattva's earthly deeds, such as the achievement of enlightenment or the acts of dharma, is known as a bodhimanda, and may be a site of pilgrimage. Many temples and monasteries are famous as bodhimandas; for instance, the island of Putuoshan, located off the coast of Ningbo, is venerated by Chinese Buddhists as the bodhimanda of Avalokitesvara. Perhaps the most famous bodhimanda of all is the bodhi tree under which Shakyamuni achieved buddhahood.
The nature of the Bodhisattva is apparent from a teaching story in which three people are walking through a desert. Parched and thirsty, they spy a high wall ahead. They approach and circumnavigate it, but it has no entrance or doorway. One climbs upon the shoulders of the others, looks inside, yells Eureka and jumps inside. The second then climbs up and repeats the actions of the first. The third laboriously climbs the wall without assistance and sees a lush garden inside the wall. It has cooling water, trees, fruit, etc. But, instead of jumping into the garden, the third person jumps back out into the desert and seeks out desert wanderers to tell them about the garden and how to find it. The third person is the Bodhisattva.