The Bodhisattva Ideal - Buddhism and the Aesthetics of Selflessness

Article of the Month - Jun 2002

This article by Nitin Kumar Editor

(Viewed 84540 times since Jun 2002)

A group of people was once traveling through a desert, when it so happened that three of them strayed away and got lost. Tired and thirsty this trio wandered around the desert in the hope of finding some respite. Finally their quest came to an end when they discovered a high well.

The first man rushed to it, looked over the wall and found it full of delicious ambrosial water. He immediately exclaimed in a gesture of frenzied euphoria and jumped into it never to come back. The second too did the same. The third man finally walked over quietly over to the well, peeped over its high wall and then turned around and went back, returning to the desert to search for his other fellow travelers, to help guide them to this paradise.

The life of a bodhisattva too is made of similar stuff. In strictly canonical terms a bodhisattva is defined as an individual who discovers the source of the Ultimate Truth better known as nirvana, but postpones his own enlightenment until he has guided all his fellow beings to this same source of fulfillment.

A formidable task to say the least. The path of the bodhisattva is thus one of extreme self-denial and selflessness. According to the Lankavatara sutra (4th century BC):

" A bodhisattva wishes to help all beings attain nirvana. He must therefore refuse to enter nirvana himself, as he cannot apparently render any services to the living beings of the worlds after his own nirvana. He thus finds himself in the rather illogical position of pointing the way to nirvana for other beings, while he himself stays in this world of suffering in order to do good to all creatures.

This is his great sacrifice for others. He has taken the great Vow: "I shall not enter into final nirvana before all beings have been liberated." He does not realize the highest liberation for himself, as he cannot abandon other beings to their fate. He has said: "I must lead all beings to liberation. I will stay here till the end, even for the sake of one living soul."

The word \'bodhisattva\' itself is prone to a rich etymological analysis. It is composed of two words \'bodhi\' and \'sattva\' both of which connote deeply spiritually meanings. Bodhi means "awakening" or "enlightenment," and sattva means "sentient being." Sattva also has etymological roots that mean "intention," meaning the intention to enlighten other beings. Thus the composite word bodhisattva signifies the very essence of the divine beings it refers to.

(Tibetan Buddhist Deity) Padmapani Avalokiteshvara with Floral Aureole

Buddhist aesthetics, very much like its literature, brings home spiritual truths in the simplest manner graspable by all. The various bodhisattvas too dominate the spectrum of Buddhist art, illustrating this abstract conceptualization in as hard hitting a manner as do the various myths surrounding them. The most prominent bodhisattva in this regard is Avalokiteshvara.

The word \'Avalokiteshvara\' is derived from the Pali verb oloketi which means "to look at, to look down or over, to examine or inspect." The word avalokita has an active signification, and the name means, "the lord who sees (the world with pity)." The Tibetan equivalent is spyanras-gzigs (the lord, who looks with eyes).

The text known as Karanda-vyuha (8th century AD) explains that he is so called because he views with compassion all beings suffering from the evils of existence. It is interesting to note here that a dominant feature in the description of Avalokiteshvara is his capacity to "see" the suffering of others.

No wonder then that he is often represented with a thousand eyes symbolizing his all encompassing ability to view with compassion the suffering of others, thus sharing in their sorrows, a first step towards their ultimate alleviation. Not only that, he further has a thousand hands too which help in the mammoth task of delivering innumerable beings to their ultimate spiritual fulfillment.

Thousand Armed Avalokiteshvara (Tibetan Buddhist Deity)

The mythology associated with Avalokiteshvara is as interesting as his iconography:

Once by his sustained efforts, Avalokiteshvara was eventually able to deliver all sentient beings to enlightenment, managing salvation for everyone. Enthused, he reported the success of his efforts to his spiritual father, Amitabha. Amitabha asked him to look behind himself. Turning back, Avalokiteshvara saw the world again being filled with new sufferers who awaited their escape from the constant cycle of birth and rebirth.

Sinking into despair, the eyes of Avalokiteshvara shed tears of compassion. He wept so pitifully that his head burst. Amitabha attempted to assemble the pieces but did not entirely succeed. In the ensuing confusion he put together nine complete faces, each with a gentle expression.

Above this he placed the demonic head of Vajrapani that functions to ward off evil, and finally at the very top he placed his own head to ensure that in the future such a happening did not recur. He thus sits on guard at the top of the rows of heads of Avalokiteshvara making definite that Avalokiteshvara in his infinite compassion doesn\'t get carried away, leading to his own destruction.

The Gracious Avalokiteshvara, Of Thousand Limbs And Thousand Heads

In addition to Avalokiteshvara two other important bodhisattvas are:


Once at a meeting of numerous bodhisattvas at the house of Vimalakirti, the lay disciple of Buddha, a debate developed on the meaning of nonduality, an essential precept of Buddhist thought. After many bodhisattvas had finely expressed their opinions on the subject and their success at understanding its essence, it came to Manjushri\'s turn.

He got up and announced that all the previous speeches were themselves conditioned by linguistic limitations and were subtly dualistic. When Manjushri turned to Vimalakirti and asked for his views, Vimalakirti just maintained silence, thus demonstrating the truth of Manjushri\'s statement.

Large Size Manjushri - Bodhisattva of Transcendent Wisdom (Tibetan Buddhist Deity)

This story is a beautiful reflection on the irony of scholarship attempting to express itself through a medium (speech/language), which contains within itself a contradiction of the very fundamental ideals which it proposes to expound. In this particular case Manjushri identifies this sublime and intrinsic inconsistency.

An exalted individual may wax eloquent upon the virtues of non-duality and his grasp of this abstract concept, but the very language used to expresses these views is inherently dual as it is composed of word and it\'s meaning, two exclusive entities.

This subtle, nonetheless significant gradation brings home a profound truth taking the wind out of any sense of achievement derived out of purported scholarship. Verily thus Manjushri carries in his two hands a book and a sword.

This sword is there to cut of fetters born not out of ignorance but those which arise through knowledge, signified by the book. This is not a negation of bookish knowledge, but only an assertion of the realization that unless we gain it we cannot know the futility of it in the quest towards ultimate spiritual truths. Manjushri appropriately suggests not the path of renunciation but that of righteous karma. A Zen story illuminates this aspect:

Tiebtan Buddhist God Manjushri

Once the chief cook of a temple on Mount Wutai (the favorite mountain of Manjushri), was busy making lunch. Manjushri repeatedly appeared sitting above the rice pot. This chief cook, who later became a noted Zen master, finally hit Manjushri with his stirring spoon and drove him away, saying, "Even if old man Shakyamuni came, I would also hit him" In Zen temples the position of chief cook is highly esteemed.

This story denotes the priority of taking care of everyday life, beyond attention to high-flowing rhetoric. Caring for the details of daily life is sometimes seen as more important than spending time in studying sutras or in concentration in the meditation halls, and indeed many monks perhaps including this chief cook, have been encouraged to abandon any preference for meditation over ordinary work.

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  • I really liked how the Buddhists used thier artistic characteristic features. Its really cool. It looks like they drew what they saw.
    Kayla November 15, 2002
  • a very elaborate explanation..I thoroughly enjoyed grasping the meaning of your essay. Kudos!
    anil menon July 02, 2002
  • I am a yoga teacher and completely lay educated about zen, I am from the west but have always been keenly aware of all the eastern deities, but little or no education about them. I often find the stories of zen in unlikely places relating to yoga and that plant the seed of what I today realize is the possible Bodhisattva in all the people I come to have contact with. I'm so glad I choose to sub-scribe to your site. One day i might get to have some of your art in my home!
    Lisa Gold June 24, 2002
  • I just wanted to send a very brief message thanking your company for the wonderful article for the month of June 2002. The warm and encouraging ideals of the bodhisattva lifted me out of what would have been a horribly depressing afternoon, had I not decided to open up the email message. Thank you so much for the article, and I hope to receive more in the future. You made my day.
    Nina June 17, 2002
  • I just want to tell you how much I apprectiate and learn from reading your monthly newsletter. I love the message. And, I admire your expert writing -- clear and graceful. Truly first rate.
    Rosemarie Heinegg Ph.D. June 16, 2002
  • Thank you, now I know what they mean! I truly enjoyed this article. well written and easy to understand. Enjoyed all your art and jewellry!
    Blue Baylady June 15, 2002
  • I really enjoyed the newsletter you sent me extra special as you also had images to look at. Thank you for sending it to me.
    Cris June 15, 2002
  • I am reading your story of chenrezig, and am surprised you do not mention anything about tara. infact, i am surprised in this monthly newsletter, the only mention of womyn that i have read so far, is that of cooks. Why is this?
    Karina Sabot June 15, 2002