What is a bodhisattva? In many convert Buddhist communities, the emphasis is on the “bodhisattva vow” to save all beings, and the ritual of having taken that vow defines one as a bodhisattva. In this sense, practicing the bodhisattva path is primarily around the underlying intention one brings to Dharma practice. The idea has roots in early discourses where the Buddha reports having made the vow to become a fully awakened Buddha himself in the presence of a long previous Buddha, Dīpaṇkara (24 Buddhas back). This vow made him into the bodhisatta, an “awakening being,” for the countless eons between then and our era.
This developed into the idea that bodhisattvas delay their own liberation in order to stay in the world of suffering in order to serve others. This relies on a literal interpretation of the teachings on rebirth: that when Buddhas and arahants (disciples of Buddhas who attain full liberation) die, they are no longer reborn into any kind of new body. The Buddha rejected questions about whether he would be “in” or “out” of the world after his death, and his karmic impact is clearly still serving beings long after his death, so I mostly think this is a red herring. If you don’t hold literal views of rebirth, it’s even more a non-issue—or should be. But the teaching continues to inspire, partly because it provides a vehicle for making compassion and service the heart of the path.
As a colloquial term now, “bodhisattva” has kind of replaced the Christian “saint” in some contexts as a term for someone who is devoting significant spiritual energy to the welfare of others. You can see how this idea evolved from the early sources. Originally, “bodhisattva” was about a vow made in the presence of a Buddha to become a Buddha yourself because that’s the most powerful way to express and teach the Dharma. Then the focus was put on the enormous length of time it takes to become a Buddha, with the natural result being that these aspiring Buddhas are hanging out in the ordinary world for a super long time, presumably helping out while they’re in training. Then these impossible vows were invented, turning the period of training into an intentional infinite delay based in compassion. Now, with the postmodern death of literal rebirth as the framework in which these eternities are being expressed, all that’s left is the intention to be of service. Bodhisattvas are now basically spiritual social workers.
I know that’s reductive, and ignores the nondual mystical grandeur of the bodhisattva traditions. We’ll get there, but first I want to talk about ethics. If bodhisattvas by definition are practicing for the well-being of others, you would expect a concern with ethics to be their primary domain. Ethics (Pāli: sīla or Sanskrit: śīla) is the domain of practice that is explicitly relational. The “five precepts” emphasized in the Theravāda tradition are guidelines for harm reduction in five domains where our actions most affect others, prohibiting killing, stealing, sexual misconduct, lying, and drunken misconduct. And indeed, Subhūti’s opening question in the Diamond Sūtra, the early Prajñāpāramitā (“Perfection of Wisdom”) text that establishes the Mahāyāna bodhisattva ideal, is about actions: “If a noble son or daughter should set forth on the body side for path, how should they stand, how should they walk, and how should they control their thoughts?” (Diamond Sūtra 2, tr. Red Pine)
This stock question is considered to be a gloss for the entire training. What is the posture of the bodhisattva? How do they move through the world? And how do they deal with the mind? There is a tension we can feel throughout these teachings, and it manifests here in the tension between training and service. The bodhisattva path is clearly focused on training, emphasizing long eons of practice and the qualities (“perfections,” pāramīs) that must be cultivated. But the emotional resonance of the role as a heroic archetype focuses on service.
The tension between these two images of the path comes to the foreground in the Buddha’s answer to Subhūti: “However many beings there are … in the realm of complete Nirvana I shall liberate them all. And though I thus liberate countless beings, not a single being is liberated.” Why is not a single being liberated? Because “no one can be called a bodhisattva who creates the perception of a self or who creates the perception of a being, a life, or a soul” (DS 3). It all hinges on emptiness: bodhisattvas liberate all beings by realizing they don’t exist as separate beings. This is going to make the social worker archetype a little awkward. Try telling someone as you’re helping them out that they don’t actually exist. Not really what traumatized people need to hear.
Skillful service happens in the relational world of self and other. Emptiness as a cosmic ontology is about as helpful to most suffering as quantum mechanics is when your car won’t start and you have to drop off the kids and get to work. It’s an underlying reality, but doesn’t do much in this moment. Even if it allows you to have some perspective and freedom within yourself, the kids and your coworkers still suffer when you show up late. That’s the thing about liberating others by realizing they don’t exist: they’re only liberated in your own heart. Teaching them to be liberated themselves is something else entirely.
I think the bodhisattva archetype is most successful when it is allowed to be a mystical invocation of emptiness and radical nonduality in the context of a firmly relational ethical practice. Being in service of others, whether in close relationships, professional work, or social activism doesn’t need an ancient transcendence-oriented theology as its motivation. If contemporary engaged Buddhists unhook activism, particularly, from being an expression of the bodhisattva path, we won’t have to struggle so much with our desire to integrate teachings on radical emptiness with our impulses toward social justice and engagement. Let emptiness be the radical teaching it is, and let ethical practice be clear and unclouded by mystical obscuration.