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Was the Buddha a bodhisattva before his awakening? Are there references from the suttas which point to when (possibly in past lives)?

Bodhisattva is the Sanskrit term for anyone who has generated Bodhicitta, a spontaneous wish and compassionate mind to attain Buddhahood for the benefit of all sentient beings.

The following appears to suggest that the four immeasurables may have been present in the Buddha's past lives:

The early Buddhist texts assert that pre-Buddha ancient Indian sages who taught these [four immeasurables] were earlier incarnations of the Buddha.

I apologize if the answer is obvious, but I haven't found a direct answer from the suttas.

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Absolutely he was! In fact, there is no way to become a Buddha without becoming a Bodhisattva first. Numerous Mahayana Sutras attest to this. Without developing the immeasurable compassion of a Bodhisattva there is no way for a sentient being to become a Buddha.

As for the Theravada who do not regard the Mahayana Sutras as authentic Buddhavacana: the Pali canon still has many references to the past lives of the Buddha where he was a Bodhisattva. And they are not all part of the so-called Jataka tales either. See here for many examples.

You can find an example here - AN 5.196 - which is not one of the Jataka tales:

“When the Tathagata—worthy & rightly self-awakened—was still just an unawakened bodhisatta, five great dreams appeared to him. Which five?

“When the Tathagata—worthy & rightly self-awakened—was still just an unawakened bodhisatta, this great earth was his great bed. The Himalayas, king of mountains, was his pillow. His left hand rested in the eastern sea, his right hand in the western sea, and both feet in the southern sea. When the Tathagata—worthy & rightly self-awakened—was still just an unawakened bodhisatta, this was the first great dream that appeared to him.

Emphasis mine.

And here is the original Pali:

“Tathāgatassa, bhikkhave, arahato sammāsambuddhassa pubbeva sambodhā anabhisambuddhassa bodhisattasseva sato pañca mahāsupinā pāturahesuṃ. Katame pañca? Tathāgatassa, bhikkhave, arahato sammāsambuddhassa pubbeva sambodhā anabhisambuddhassa bodhisattasseva sato ayaṃ mahāpathavī mahāsayanaṃ ahosi, himavā pabbatarājā bibbohanaṃ ahosi, puratthime samudde vāmo hattho ohito ahosi, pacchime samudde dakkhiṇo hattho ohito ahosi, dakkhiṇe samudde ubho pādā ohitā ahesuṃ. Tathāgatassa, bhikkhave, arahato sammāsambuddhassa pubbeva sambodhā anabhisambuddhassa bodhisattasseva sato ayaṃ paṭhamo mahāsupino pāturahosi.

Emphasis mine again.

Here is another example from the Pali-canon which is not one of the Jataka tales:

“So it is, Ananda. So it is. Even I myself, before my Awakening, when I was still an unawakened Bodhisatta, thought: ‘Renunciation is good. Seclusion is good.’ But my heart didn’t leap up at renunciation, didn’t grow confident, steadfast, or firm, seeing it as peace. The thought occurred to me: ‘What is the cause, what is the reason, why my heart doesn’t leap up at renunciation, doesn’t grow confident, steadfast, or firm, seeing it as peace?’

Emphasis mine.

And here is the original Pali:

“Evametaṃ, ānanda, evametaṃ, ānanda. Mayhampi kho, ānanda, pubbeva sambodhā anabhisambuddhassa bodhisattasseva sato etadahosi: ‘sādhu nekkhammaṃ, sādhu paviveko’ti. Tassa mayhaṃ, ānanda, nekkhamme cittaṃ na pakkhandati nappasīdati na santiṭṭhati na vimuccati etaṃ santanti passato. Tassa mayhaṃ, ānanda, etadahosi: ‘ko nu kho hetu ko paccayo, yena me nekkhamme cittaṃ na pakkhandati nappasīdati na santiṭṭhati na vimuccati etaṃ santanti passato’?

And here is yet another one:

“Bhikkhus, before my enlightenment, while I was still a bodhisatta, not yet fully enlightened, it occurred to me: “What now is feeling? What is the origin of feeling? What is the way leading to the origination of feeling? What is the cessation of feeling? What is the way leading to the cessation of feeling? What is the gratification in feeling? What is the danger? What is the escape?”

Here is another one:

‘Both the quotations you have made, O king, are accurate. But when he spoke of Āḷāra Kālāma as his teacher, that was a statement made with reference to the fact of his having been his teacher while he (Gotama) was still a Bodisat and before he had attained to insight and to Buddhahood; and there were five such teachers, O king, under whose tuition the Bodisat spent his time in various places—his teachers when he was still a Bodisat, before he had attained to insight and to Buddhahood. And who were these five?

And another:

At Sāvatthī. “Mendicants, before my awakening—when I was still unawakened but intent on awakening—I thought: ‘What’s the path and practice for developing the bases of psychic power?’

Now, why did I emphasize "intent on awakening?" Because, this translation chose to use "intent on awakening" as a substitute for the original Pali which has this:

Sāvatthinidānaṃ. “Pubbeva me, bhikkhave, sambodhā anabhisambuddhassa bodhisattasseva sato etadahosi: ‘ko nu kho maggo, kā paṭipadā iddhipādabhāvanāyā’ti?

So I hope you can clearly see that according to both the Mahayana and the Theravada that the Buddha was an unenlightened Bodhisattva before he became the Buddha.

Now, was the Buddha as a Bodhisattva for the benefit of all? Here is a passage from a canonical Pali sutta describing the Bodhisattva Gotama being born into the world for the benefit of all:

“The Bodhisatta, the foremost jewel, unequaled, has been born for welfare & happiness in the human world, in a town in the Sakyan countryside, Lumbini. That’s why we’re contented, so wildly elated. He, the highest of all beings, the ultimate person, a bull among men, highest of all people, will set turning the Wheel [of Dhamma] in the forest named after the seers, like a strong, roaring lion, the conqueror of beasts.”

And from that same sutta here is the testament to his motivation:

He, seeing the utmost purity, will set rolling the Wheel of Dhamma through sympathy for the welfare of many.

So, to sum up: have no doubt The Buddha was a Bodhisattva who manifested the Mind of Enlightenment - pure Bodhicitta - for the benefit of all before his awakening.

  • Wonderful quotes. Thank you. So just to make sure - when Theravadans use the term Bodhisattva, they don't just mean "the Buddha prior to his enlightenment", but also the aspiration to liberate all sentient beings, correct? The bodhisattva definition is fairly uniform across the traditions, right? – avatar Korra Jun 15 '18 at 2:18
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    I am no expert on Theravada but I suspect some would agree and some would disagree. Theravada is just a word after all that different people with different minds decide to use to identify different things :). The Jataka tales for sure contain exposition on the seeds of bodhicitta. The Four Immeasurables do as well. I think anyone who continues to develop the four immeasurables to perfection will not fail to generate pure bodhicitta. However, you should know that the Mahayana regards ultimate bodhicitta to be exactly the same as the wisdom realizing emptiness. – Yeshe Tenley Jun 15 '18 at 3:22
  • Just found this answer, that bodhisatta and bodhisattva may be understood differently by different traditions, and while it seems not definitive in Theravada whether bodhicitta was there prior to the Buddha's awakening, we can say that it was definitely there from the view of Mahayana (and Vajrayana). Does this sound about correct? – avatar Korra Jun 15 '18 at 3:59
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    Yes, there is no doubt at all that prior to his awakening the Buddha developed pure bodhicitta – Yeshe Tenley Jun 15 '18 at 12:11
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    @avatarKorra the last quotes in the answer are from canonical pali canon and I think point to seed of bodhicitta. I'm not aware of bodhicitta the word being used in pali canon. In the Jakata tales there are numerous references to what amounts to bodhicitta if not the word itself. Jataka tales are part of pali canon, but some do not consider them authoritative. Finally, I am sure that you will always find some Theravada practitioners who deny Bodhisattvas are motivated by bodhicitta. Then again, you'll find plenty who say the opposite. Theravada and Mahayna are just words after all. – Yeshe Tenley Jun 18 '18 at 13:39
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The Jataka Tales (which is in the fifth Nikaya) say "Bodhisattva".

See also Buddha's past lives in the Pali Suttas outside of Jataka and Where is the description of the vow and the Bodhi tree?

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"Bodhisattva" is a reification, just like "a Buddha". To say that "Bodhisattva is a reification" - is, too, a reification. "For the benefit of all" is a reification. "For" and "benefit" and "all" - are reifications as well.

Śāriputra: How then should the Bodhisattva, the great being, course in perfect wisdom?

The Lord: Here the Bodhisattva, the great being, coursing in the perfection of wisdom, truly a Bodhisattva, does not review a Bodhisattva, nor the word "Bodhisattva", nor the course of a Bodhisattva, (nor the perfection of wisdom, nor the word "perfection of wisdom". He does not review that "he courses", nor that "he does not course"). He does not review form, feeling, perception, formative forces, or consciousness. And why? Because the Bodhisattva, the great being, is actually empty of the own-being of a Bodhisattva, and because perfect wisdom is by its own-being empty. And why? That is its essential original nature. (For it is not through emptiness that form etc. is empty.) Nor is emptiness other than form, etc.

And why? The very form, etc., is emptiness, the very emptiness is form, etc. And why? Because "Bodhisattva", "perfect wisdom", "form", etc. are mere words. Because form, etc., are like an illusion. Illusions and mere words do not stand at any point or spot; they are not, do not come into being, are false to behold. For of what the own-being is seen to be an illusion, of that there is no production or stopping, no defilement or purification. Thus a Bodhisattva, a great being who courses in the perfection of wisdom, also does not review the production (of any dharma); nor its stopping (or abiding, its decrease or increase), defilement or purification. (He does not review form, etc., nor "enlightenment", nor what is called an "enlightenment-being".) And why? Because words are artificial. People have constructed a counter-dharma. They express it conventionally by means of an adventitious designation (which is imagined and unreal, and they settle down in that conventional expression). A Bodhisattva, a great being who courses in perfect wisdom, does not review (that which is said to correspond to) all those words, (does not get at them). Not reviewing them, (not getting at them, he does not mind them), does not settle down in them.

Furthermore, a Bodhisattva, a great being who courses in the perfection of wisdom, does not consider the fact that these are mere words, i.e. this "Bodhisattva", this "enlightenment", this "Buddha", this "perfection of wisdom", this "coursing in the perfection of wisdom", this "form", etc. Just as one speaks of a "self, and yet no self is got at, and no being, soul, personality, person, individual, or man, etc., on account of unascertainable emptiness. And why? Because there a Bodhisattva does also not review that by means of which he would settle down. Coursing thus, a Bodhisattva, a great being courses in perfect wisdom.

(from The Large Sutra on Perfect Wisdom, translated by E.Conze)

Additional detail on the bodhisattva Gautama’s reflection that motivated him to set out on his quest can be gathered from another occurrence of the ‘before awakening’ phrase, found in the Discourse on the Noble Quest, the Ariyapariyesanā-sutta, and in its Madhyama-āgama parallel. The two discourses contrast an average person’s quest for worldly things that are subject to decay and death to the noble quest for what is not subject to decay and death. Both reveal that this noble quest motivated the bodhisattva to go forth in search of awakening, presenting his reflection in nearly identical terms:

“Being myself subject to old age … and death, now suppose I were to search for what is free from old age … and death, for the unsurpassable peace from bondage, Nirvāṇa.”
“Being myself truly subject to old age and death … suppose I were to search … for what is free from old age and death … for the unsurpassable peace from bondage, Nirvāṇa.”

This appears to be the only passage in the Pāli Nikāyas that explicitly formulates what motivated the bodhisattva Gautama to set out in search of awakening. Notably, this formulation does not in any way reflect a concern for others. Rather, according to this autobiographical report the bodhisattva Gautama’s motivation was to find a solution for the problem of being “himself”, attanā/自, subject to old age and death etc.

The same trait recurs in the description of the successful completion of the bodhisattva’s quest, given in the Ariyapariyesanā-sutta and its parallel. According to both versions, having arrived at the unsurpassable peace from bondage that is free from old age and death, Gautama realized that he had fully liberated himself from the prospect of future birth and existence. Here, too, there is no reference at all to being able to save others. Instead, the way the Buddha perceived his own awakening – according to early Buddhist discourse – is formulated entirely in terms of having freed himself.

The conspicuous lack of any concern for others becomes even more prominent with the next episode recorded in the Ariyapariyesanā-sutta, according to which the newly awakened Buddha was disinclined to teach others and decided to rather remain content with having reached liberation himself.

...

Such reluctance on the part of the newly awakened Buddha is not easily reconciled with the notion common to all Buddhist traditions that he had prepared himself over immense periods of time with the sole intention of executing the task of leading others to liberation. Judging from the account given in the Ariyapariyesanā-sutta, the reason for the Buddha’s disinclination to teach was that it would be fatiguing (klamatha) and vexing (viheṭhā) for him if others should fail to understand the profound truth he had realized. Similar reasons recur in other reports of his initial hesitation to teach, found in an Ekottarika-āgama discourse, in the Catuṣpariṣat-sūtra, and in the Vinayas of the Dharmaguptaka, Lokottaravāda-Mahāsāṃghika, Mahīśāsaka and (Mūla-)Sarvāstivāda traditions.

That is, when reflecting on the possibility of sharing his discovery with others, according to a range of sources the Buddha considered the matter entirely from the perspective of how it would affect himself. This ties in with the observations made above regarding his motivation and his reaching of the final goal. Throughout, according to these texts the Buddha’s predominant concern is with himself, when he forms his initial motivation to set out for awakening, when he successfully completes his quest, and even when he reflects about what course of action is to be taken next.

This certainly does not imply that from the perspective of the early discourses the Buddha was not compassionate. [...] However, the early discourses do not give any indication that a concern for others was part of the motivation of the bodhisattva Gautama to set out on his quest for awakening, nor does the successful reaching of this goal show any immediate relationship to teaching activity.

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In sum, in early Buddhist thought the compassionate impulse to become active for the sake of others was associated with the Buddha as well as with arhats and those who aspire to become arhats, but was not seen as a quality that motivated the bodhisattva’s quest for awakening.

(from The Genesis of the Bodhisattva Ideal, by Analayo Bhikkhu)

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    you can find much the same passage in the 8000 line version here: maitreya.nl/pdf/Both-8000-verse-prajnaparamita.pdf at the end of page 40 – Yeshe Tenley Jun 14 '18 at 18:50
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    As for the second long quoted portion of your answer, I don't agree :) Consider... can a first motivation be found? Is it possible to manifest the motivation to liberate countless sentient beings without first manifesting the desire or motivation to free one self? I'm not sure this is what @avatarKorra is asking, but that second quote sounds like it is trying to answer the question, "Did the Buddha ever have the motivation to liberate countless sentient beings before he became enlightened?" which I think is obviously affirmative. – Yeshe Tenley Jun 14 '18 at 19:49
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    Agreeing and disagreeing is papanca. The non-papanca is to see it as is. – Andrei Volkov Jun 14 '18 at 21:30
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    Yup, I think that's close – Andrei Volkov Jun 15 '18 at 1:58
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    He didn't think like that. He was just doing what he thought was right, not thinking about himself or others. Just doing what he thought was right. – Andrei Volkov Jun 15 '18 at 3:00

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