I've read Walpola Rahula on this, and so I think I already understand that the frequently held view that the Bodhisattva concept is far less a part of Theravada than Mahayana, etc. is at best an over-simplification and at worst simply wrong. But I'd really like to hear it from the horse's mouth -- i.e. a knowledgeable, practicing Theravadin (hint hint, calling Canada, calling Canada).

The simple fact is, even a slightly more than superficial reading of Tibetan practices (for example) places the Bodhisattva way front and center of all practice. Developing compassion for all beings isn't just a practice off to the side; it seems to permeate everything they do. With Theravada, OTOH, it really does seem to have a different (i.e. lower) emphasis. It's not unimportant, it just seems to be something that tags along, alongside the core meditation practice.

I'm pretty sure that is incorrect, but how? How exactly, if at all, is the daily life of a Theravada practitioner influenced by compassion for others and, again if at all, by the Bodhisattva way as exemplified by, for example, Shantideva in the Bodhicaryavatara.

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    Hey, I'm in Canada... I'll see if I can find you a... oh, wait. – yuttadhammo Jul 6 '14 at 3:23

Compassion and the Bodhisatta path are two different things; compassion is a quality of mind, the Bodhisatta path is a determination. The latter is based, one could say, on a high level of compassion, but it is not equivalent to compassion. It is the determination to not enter into freedom from suffering until one is able to (in Theravada Buddhism) become a fully-enlightened Buddha, one who can teach others without having been taught oneself. From the Jataka Commentary:

62. Then loosened I my matted hair,
And, spreading out upon the mud
My dress of bark and cloak of skin,
I laid me down upon my face.

63. "Let now on me The Buddha tread,
With the disciples of his train;
Can I but keep him from the mire,
To me great merit shall accrue."

64. While thus I lay upon the ground,
Arose within me many thoughts:
"To-day, if such were my desire,
I my corruptions might consume.

65. "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.

66. "Or why should I, a valorous man,
The ocean seek to cross alone?
Omniscience first will I achieve,
And men and gods convey across.

67. "Since now I make this earnest wish,
In presence of this Best of Men,
Omniscience sometime I'll achieve,
And multitudes convey across.

68. "I'll rebirth's circling stream arrest,
Destroy existence's three modes;
I'll climb the sides of Doctrine's ship,
And men and gods convey across.


Compassion, on the other hand, is just a mind state that can be cultivated by anyone; we say a Buddha has great compassion because of his sacrifice, but anyone can cultivate it as a meditation practice. See Wikipedia on Karuṇā.

The reason why karuṇā is considered a side practice is because it cannot itself lead to enlightenment, taking as it does concepts (living beings) as its object.

Now, zeal consisting in desire to act is the beginning of all these things. Suppression of the hindrances, etc., is the middle. Absorption is the end. Their object is a single living being or many living beings, as a mental object consisting in a concept.

Path of Purification, IX.102

So the best it can lead to directly is worldly absorption (lokiya samatha jhana).

Since the goal of Theravada Buddhism is enlightenment here and now, meditation based on concepts takes a back seat role to meditation on the five aggregates, four foundations of mindfulness, etc., which take ul

karuṇā can play an important role in quelling cruelty in the mind, which is a hindrance on the path, just as metta can play an important role in quelling anger. They are useful practices, just not enough to lead to understanding of reality.

As for the Bodhisatta path itself, Theravada Buddhists in general tend to favour not reinventing the wheel; the path has been opened, why not walk it and encourage others to walk it as well? The only way the path will stay open is if people continue to practice and follow it to its goal; once everyone decides its better to wait until one can become a fully enlightened Buddha, the path will be effectively closed; the question then arises, what was the point of becoming a fully enlightened Buddha in the first place?

The Mahayana, if I'm not mistaken, gets around this quandary of everyone wanting to lead and no one to follow by suggesting that the arahant is not actually enlightened and still has further to go. Or something like that.

So, while there are many notable examples of Bodhisattas in Theravada Buddhism (the king of Thailand, I think, may have hinted at it), for the most part the idea is to keep the path that is already open open long enough to get as many people across to safety as possible. This seems preferable to waiting countless more eons and letting those people undergo untold suffering before the path can be opened again (assuming one is successful in attaining Buddhahood at all).

  • Bhante Yuttadhamma, Thanks for sharing your time explaining the Theravadan approach to concept of Bodhisattvas. In your answer, you seem to imply compassion and determinate action are mutually exclusive. Did I understand that correctly? I've always understood compassion to be a determinate action not a static state. If you have time, I would be happy to understand your point more throughly. All the best, Bhante... – DharmaEater Jul 6 '14 at 15:31
  • @NeilD - they are not mutually exclusive, they are just two different things. Compassion is just a mind-state; you need not be determined to be compassionate or vice versa. I may be filled with compassion and not do anything as a result; or I may be determined to hurt others, showing no compassion. One can be determinedly compassionate, of course. – yuttadhammo Jul 6 '14 at 17:24
  • Bhante, Thanks for the explanation. I've always understood compassion to be a dynamic active state, even if it is just an interior mind-state. Which requires determinate action to cultivate and maintain. So compassion explained as a quality of the mind like a flavor was interesting to me. I appreciate your time and help. Thank you.. – DharmaEater Jul 6 '14 at 20:48

This is a really important issue today and confusion surrounding it has caused an unnecessary antagonism between Theravadin and Mahayana practitioners. The central question is really this? Is it ever the case when a genuine practitioner of Buddhism chooses to assist others or improve the conditions of the world INSTEAD OF putting forth right effort towards his/her own liberation? The answer within both the Buddha's original teachings and the Mahayana sutras is NO. The true and original understanding of the Boddhicitta vow is that one will achieve liberation quickly for the benefit of all beings everywhere. The bodhisattva vow does not involve delaying one's enlightenment or liberation in order to help others or improve the world right now. One can and does, in fact, help others and improve the world by putting forth right effort to achieve liberation as quickly as possible. If one chooses to help others or improve the world INSTEAD of practicing the dharma (putting forth effort in mindfulness, self-restraint, sitting meditation, etc.), one is universally going against the Buddha's teachings within both the Theravadin and Mahayana vehicle paths. Any Buddhist teachers that do not exhort their students to strive for liberation no matter what worldly actions they are involved in are doing a disservice to their students and to Buddhism.

Wikipedia correctly states "In Mahayana Buddhism, a bodhisattva refers to anyone who has generated bodhicitta, a spontaneous wish and compassionate mind to attain Buddhahood for the benefit of all sentient beings."

"Because he has bodhi as his aim, a bodhisattva-mahāsattva is so called." from the Aṣṭasāhasrikā Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra.

So the boddhisattva is vowing to achieve liberation knowing that this is the best way to benefit others and improve the world. Thus right intention, right striving and 3 of the unlimiteds of maitri, karuna, mudita are developed. The goal of the Boddhisattva vow is to be liberated both ways: mind by wisdom and heart. The bohhisattva path is essentially the liberation of mind by lovingkindness mentioned by the Buddha (among other places) at SN 20.3:

"Bhikkhus, just as it is easy for burglars to assail those families that have many women and few men, so too it is easy for nonhuman beings to assail a bhikkhu who has not developed and cultivated the liberation of mind by lovingkindness. . . Therefore, bhikkhus, you should train yourselves thus: 'We will develop and cultivate the liberation of mind by lovingkindness, make it our vehicle, make it our basis, stabilize it, exercise ourselves in it, and fully perfect it.'"

By combining compassion for others into one's intention to achieve Nirvana, two things are accomplished. First, a compassion for others that helps one to navigate worldly interactions is developed and second, one gets support in one's striving after one's faith in the Buddha falters because of difficulties or discomforts encountered. In other words, a selfish, egotistical person may falter in his/her striving once a certain threshold of sacrifice/renunciation has been reached, thinking 'I am not willing to give up more than this.' But a Boddhisattva vow helps such a practitioner continue on, using the power of compassion developed by it, in the heart.

The distinction between different types of nirvana's, the arahant vs. the apratiṣṭhita (non-abiding) nirvana (or other similar divisions), is besides the point and unnecessary. One who reaches enlightenment can remain in body to benefit others. One who vows to be reborn within ignorance again and again in order to benefit others is not a disciple of the Buddha. How could one with right view intend on anything but liberation for the future? One cannot because it would involve a doctrine of a self and one with right view knows the danger in such a thicket of views.

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