Everybody is born under his own Karma. Indeed, while respecting the Dharma, we need to follow our own paths. Monks live an undisturbed life inside closed communities apart from samsaric suffering. And when they are ready, they try to enlight others under the Bodhisattva_vow

If Sunyata is the ultimate reality, why hasn’t anyone achieved the ability to save others nowadays?


How (and with all respect) the Dalai Lama and other monks can have reached the Enlightenment if he wasn't able to free in this life ALL human beings?

They are not reborn KNOWING TO BE a Bodhisattva. They can maybe get near it with a hard work and faith, and so they cannot free others from bonds in this life. Furthermore, they can teach a path, which is of course important, but the basic logic of BEING a Bodhisattva contradicts this flow.

How can Bodhisattvas enlighten others if they themselves are not fully enlightened? If they are enlightened, then they would not have been reborn in the first place. If they were reborn, then it means they are not fully enlightened and therefore still working towards it and at this time, cannot liberate others because they themselves are not liberated. And they cannot be liberated until ALL beings are liberated, due to the Bodhisattva Vow. That's the paradox of the Bodhisattva path.

How can the paradox of the Bodhisattva path be resolved?


6 Answers 6


Taking Bodhisattva's vow doesn't mean one immediately becomes Bodhisattva, it just means one aspires to realize the Bodhisattva's Path. One can still help others even before one is fully enlightened.

Many of those who had taken the vow have attained Enlightenment eventually, and now they are helping many sentient beings to get on the right path.

But the Buddha wasn't able to free all sentient beings either. Some listen and some don't.

Also, Enlightenment is not the same as going to Nirvana and not getting reborn. In Mahayana they are two different things.

Another way to explain this would be to say that Mahayana recognizes two different Nirvanas. First Nirvana (known as the Nirvana of the arahants) requires leaving the world. Because of this it's incompatible with teaching. You can either teach others or be in this Nirvana. The second Nirvana is called non-abiding Nirvana. With this Nirvana you can be anywhere and do anything, including teaching. This second Nirvana is attained by complete realization of Emptiness and that is what's called Enlightenment.

  • 1
    @DoubtfulMonk Please see this chart. In Mahayana, attaining enlightenment is probably at point G, called the first Bhumi or first Ground. And then attaining liberation from Samsara is at point H at the eighth Bhumi or eighth Ground. But they can keep going on to Buddhahood after that. This is a completely different model when compared to Theravada.
    – ruben2020
    Commented Dec 30, 2020 at 6:06
  • 1
    @ruben2020 no, Enlightenment is the last Bhumi. 1st Bhumi is when you see Emptiness.
    – Andriy Volkov
    Commented Dec 30, 2020 at 9:08
  • Enlightenment is actually the 7th/8th bhumi, but this is not full enlightenment. The 7th bhumi is the enlightenment enjoyed by the Arhats. The 1st bhumi is stream-entry.
    – Caoimhghin
    Commented Jan 7, 2021 at 16:48

There is no paradox. Rather, it seems there may be some mistaken assumptions behind your question.

First, if someone is enlightened that does not mean that they will enlighten all people. For example, The Buddha was enlightened and yet he did not enlighten all people. In fact, after his enlightenment, he actually wondered whether he should teach what he learned to others!

Second, no one can enlighten anyone, they can only help or hinder people on their quest to enlightenment. Whether someone gets enlightened is up to that person.

Third, you don't need to be enlightened to help others on their quest for enlightenment. For example, I am not enlightened, but I can still explain the benefits of mindfulness to another person. This can encourage the other person to try mindfulness practices, and this can set them on their journey to enlightenment.

Finally, a Bodhisattva chooses to forego Nirvana in order to aid all sentient beings. Depending on which definition you go by, this aid can be mundane -- such as feeding the hungry, reducing pain, etc... Or it can be sublime, such as aiding people on their quest for enlightenment. Either way, there is no paradox here; the Bodhisattva chooses to be reborn.


Questions from the OP:

  1. "How can Bodhisattvas enlighten others if they themselves are not fully enlightened?"
  2. "If they are enlightened, then they would not have been reborn in the first place."

So I take it the questioner is coming from a Theravadin background. Mahayana Buddhism follows the precedent set by non-Theravadin so-called "Early Buddhist Sects," which is to say mostly the Dharma of the Mahasamghikas, but the Sthaviravada-derived Sarvastivadins and Dharmaguptakas have also influenced Mahayana. Theravada has had almost no historical influence on Mahayana at all. With this in mind, we can see a number of differences between the traditions, such as but not limited to:

  1. Multiple simultaneous Buddhas
  2. Buddhas from foreign world-systems
  3. Buddhas who are also devas and/or nagas, etc.

None of these are in Theravadin Buddhism.

So looping back to the two questions from the OP that I singled-out:

  1. Bodhisattvas capable of "enlightening others" are Aryas on the irreversible bhumis. They have a kind of enlightenment that is not complete enlightenment.
  2. Nirvana is non-abiding, which is to say that the Buddhas are not subsumed into a distant lone-gone state after parinirvana. They continue to teach the Dharma after the end of their bodies.

Both of these assertions are wrong/impossible in Theravada.


Agreed with Barzeli's answer.

Bodhisattva chosen to be reborn.

"Until the hells are empty (of suffering beings), I will not become a Buddha." (「地獄不空,誓不成佛。」) "Once all sentient beings are saved, I will attain Buddhahood." (「眾生度盡,方證菩提。」) "If I do not descend into hell, who will?" (「我不入地獄,誰入地獄?」)



I would like to answer the question that @Doubtful Monk asked, rather than the Update added to it.

He asked: “If Sunyata is the ultimate reality, why hasn’t anyone achieved the ability to save others nowadays?” As background he stated that everyone is born under their own particular karma, that respecting the Dharma while following our own paths is necessary, and that monks, such as he, live in privileged environments. So, at least in the case of the monastic community, conditions are ripe for success, even though it is always a self-motivated endeavor, that is only guided by the Dharma.

What I don’t see in his question is the suggestion that no one has reached enlightenment. I also don’t see a statement that anyone is supposed to enlighten others. His stated question was why doesn’t anyone achieve the ability to enlighten others, given that Sunyata is “the ultimate reality.” In this I infer that the OP is referring to the widespread teaching of “Emptiness.” Apparently, everyone knows what emptiness is, so why don’t they develop the ability to save others.

I’d like to address Sunyata first. It isn’t “the ultimate reality,” although it refers to the essential nature of the ultimate. What “sunyata” is, is the name of a concept, which is, hopefully, a pointer towards a reality that is beyond naming and conceptualizing. I feel it is important to point this out because, first, “emptiness,” is often taken as meaning “void” by those who haven’t experienced the awesome beauty that it is pointing to, and thus, is a weird translation for “sunyata.” As was said:

It is said that the world is empty, the world is empty, lord. In what respect is it said that the world is empty?" The Buddha replied, "Insofar as it is empty of a self or of anything pertaining to a self: Thus it is said, Ānanda, that the world is empty. (Suñña Sutta)

So, just an absence of self, not a void.

But in addition, the Sanskrit root “su” in the word “sunyata” conveys the concept of being swollen with possibility, according to David Loy, in the afterword to Swedenborg’s, “Buddha of the North,” page 104, Swedenborg Foundation, ISBN 0-87785-184-0.

Why this is important, is found in the eleventh “primary root downfalls” of the Bodhisattva vows listed by Santideva (found at the link supplied in the OP's question):

  1. Teaching voidness (sunyata) to those whose minds are untrained

I have attended open teachings on sunyata with hundreds of people, all of whom likely never have had a direct experience of sunyata, nor even practice mind-training. What happens when sunyata is explained to someone without a trained mind (and presumably, no direct experience of sunyata)? Their way gets blocked by ideas and imagined experiences. Or they fall into their self-understood “void” and become nihilists, even while attending teachings and being ‘buddhist’.

Orgyen Tobgyal Rinpoche’s teaching on this subject is illustrative in regards to what he calls “positive activity” which is the applied means to help enlighten others (in the sense of helping them along their own path):

Generally speaking, a lama who gives teaching should have three qualities: he must be knowledgeable, he must have experience and realization of practice, and he must have mastered positive activities.

The teachings also explain that knowledge alone is not useful, and that he must put the Dharma he has studied into practice. Through practice he develops qualities of meditative experience and realization, and once these experiences have permeated his mind, his teachings will be beneficial. If he doesn’t practice the teachings he studies, trying to teach others will prove fruitless.

Take the example of a man who spends his entire life talking about compassion and bodhichitta and how extraordinary it is. He talks about how to generate compassion, how complete awakening results from cultivating compassion, and so on, but however well he is able to explain it, as he never applies the compassion teachings to himself, what benefit is there in endlessly talking about it? None whatsoever! With no compassion in his own mind, there is no benefit at all! On the other hand, the teachings of someone who isn’t as good at talking about it, but who has meditated on the different stages and developed a natural sense of compassion in himself, will have an immediate impact on others. Teaching Dharma without having practiced is like saying, “I give you all the wealth of America!” But, as you don’t own that wealth, how can you give it?

This is true for all nine vehicles. Whatever the Dharma teaching, a teacher must practice it and have matured at least some of the fruits of practice.

A teacher who has become ‘learned’ and has experience and realization of practice automatically masters the third aspect: positive activity. ‘Positive activities’ are those activities you undertake for others motivated by compassion and altruism. Anything you do that doesn’t benefit others won’t fall into this category.

Rinpoche’s emphasis on the ability of “positive activities” developed through mind-training practice for helping others, beyond just learning the Dharma, is the point. This can also be found in the teaching of Buddha (in Chapter One of the Surangama Sutra):

When Ananda heard this solemn teaching, he became very sorrowful and with tears falling, with forehead, hands and feet touching the ground, he paid homage to the Lord. Then kneeling, he said:

Noble Lord! Since I determined to follow you and become your disciple, I have always thought that I could rely upon your supernormal strength and that it would not be difficult to put your teachings into practice. I expected that the Lord would favor me with an experience of Samadhi in this body; I did not appreciate that the body and mind were different and could not be substituted for each other, so I have likely lost my own mind. Although I have become a disciple of Buddha, my heart is not yet absorbed in Enlightenment. I am like a prodigal son who has forsaken his father. I now see that in spite of my learning, if I am not able to put it into practice, I am no better than an unlearned man. It is like a man talking about food, but never eating and becoming satisfied. We are all entangled in these two hindrances: knowledge and learning, and vexation and suffering. I can now see that it is all due to our ignorance of the eternal and tranquil nature of true Mind. Pray, my Lord Tathagata, have mercy upon us all; show us clearly the mysterious, enlightening Mind, and open our true eye of Enlightenment.

Thus, the ability to help others achieve enlightenment is not earned through the study of scripture, nor even the memorization of the Dharma—it is through the application of the Dharma in one’s own life, through a dedicated and consistent mind-training practice.

Again, referring to the teaching by Orgyen Tobgyal Rinpoche:

The mind—basically the buddha nature—of a person who wanders endlessly in samsara is no different to the mind of the Buddha; the ground is the same. The only difference between them is that one is deluded and the other is not. The Buddha explained this difference, and it’s very important that you get to grips with it right from the start. What you mustn’t do is pretend to believe something that doesn't seem to you to be true—“These are Holy Words!”, “This is what the Buddha taught!”, “This is the Law!”, or “This idea has been imposed on me by people with power...” Don't think like that, it’s not like that at all.

The question is, how many do that today? How many don’t?

Rinpoche continues:

In the past, genuine teachers were extremely rare. Only those who had received all the teachings, practised them, and as a result had a clear vision of the yidam deity, or their own teacher, would teach. This was still the case even fifty or sixty years ago. No one would teach the Dharma unless he had practised and achieved visible signs of accomplishment. Why were such teachers so rare? Because they thought, “Until I have myself benefited from the teachings, how can I benefit others?” Those willing to give empowerments were even more rare—for example, Dharma Lord Patrul Rinpoche himself said that he didn’t have the capacity to give empowerments. And only one or two lamas taught Dzogpachenpo.

Nowadays it’s not like that. The biggest problem teachers’ have is how to find anyone to listen to their teachings. But you’ll never have trouble finding teachers who want to teach. Modern teachers advertise themselves crudely, with language like, “I give the most profound teachings. I grant the most profound empowerments”, and so on. Obviously, things have changed. I don’t know how it happened.

Nowadays, many intently study scripture, memorizing the wisdom described in the Dharma, but never go beyond accumulating knowledge, teachings, and empowerments, as if they were badges of merit. Many things are done backwards now, and even though the Bodhisattva vow may be sincerely voiced, it is nothing better than New Year’s resolutions, forgotten in a few days time.

Happy New Year everyone.

Orgyen Tobgyal Rinpoche teaching “Following the Dzogchen Path” is taken from: http://all-otr.org/public-talks/1-following-the-dzogchen-path


No one 'enlightens' anyone else. People find their way to enlightenment, or they don't. The path laid out in the dharma helps; the guidance of a teacher helps; the support of a community helps; the presence of bodhisattvas helps. But no one is spoon-fed enlightenment.

If we convince ourselves that progress depends on the progress of someone else, we hobble ourselves. Sometimes that's a useful thing to do — when one is unsure of the way, and worried about straying from the path — but a hobble is a hobble, and ultimately needs to come off.

This question strikes me as a permutation of tanhā: a craving after a 'perfect' or 'unimpeachable' leader, and a consequent discontentment over the available choices. But a bodhisattva's goal to keep the spirit of the dharma alive so that others can find it; perfection is not an essential quality for that task.

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