In Mahayana Buddhism, Bodhisattva is the Sanskrit term for anyone who, motivated by great compassion, has generated Bodhicitta, which is a spontaneous wish and a compassionate mind to attain Buddhahood for the benefit of all sentient beings. Bodhisattvas are a popular subject in Buddhist art.
In early Indian Buddhism, the term bodhisattva was primarily used to refer specifically to Gautama Buddha in his former life. The Jataka tales, which are the stories of the Buddha's past lives, depict the various attempts of the bodhisattva to embrace qualities like self-sacrifice and morality.
According to the Jataka tales, the term "bodhisattva" originally referred to the pre-enlightened practitioner of austerities that surpassed Śrāvakayana and Pratyekabuddhayana by far and completed Bodhisattvayana. Mount Potalaka, for example, is one of Bodhisattvayana. The term for practitioners who have not yet reached Bodhisattvayana was not fixed, but the terms Śrāvaka-Bodhisattva (聲聞菩薩) and Pratyekabuddha-Bodhisattva (縁覚菩薩) had already appeared in the Āgama scriptures of early Indian Buddhism.
Mahayana Buddhism did not place much emphasis in honoring Śrāvakayana and Pratyekabuddhayana since they were classified as part of the Hinayana, but praise of the general Bodhisattvayana was commonplace. Because Hinayana was disliked and the terms Śrāvaka-Bodhisattva or Pratyekabuddha-Bodhisattva were not widely used, while usage of the general term "bodhisattva" had grown in popularity. Nevertheless, "bodhisattva" retained an implied reference to someone on the path to become an arhat or pratyekabuddha. In contrast, the goal of Mahayana's bodhisattva path is to achieve Samyaksambodhiṃ.
Mahāyāna Buddhism is based principally upon the path of a bodhisattva. According to Jan Nattier, the term Mahāyāna ("Great Vehicle") was originally even an honorary synonym for Bodhisattvayāna, or the "Bodhisattva Vehicle." The Aṣṭasāhasrikā Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra contains a simple and brief definition for the term bodhisattva, which is also the earliest known Mahāyāna definition. This definition is given as the following.
Because he has enlightenment as his aim, a bodhisattva-mahāsattva is so called.
The earliest depiction of the Bodhisattva path in texts such as the Ugraparipṛcchā Sūtra describe it as an arduous, difficult monastic path suited only for the few which is nevertheless the most glorious path one can take. Three kinds of Bodhisattvas are mentioned in the early Mahayana texts: the forest, city, and monastery Bodhisattvas - with forest dwelling being promoted a superior, even necessary path in sutras such as the Ugraparipṛcchā and the Samadhiraja sutras. The early Rastrapalapariprccha sutra also promotes a solitary life of meditation in the forests, far away from the distractions of the householder life. The Rastrapala is also highly critical of monks living in monasteries and in cities who are seen as not practicing meditation and morality. The Ratnagunasamcayagatha also says the Bodhisattva should undertake ascetic practices (dhutanga), "wander freely without a home", practice the paramitas and train under a guru in order to perfect his meditation practice and realization of prajnaparamita. These texts seem to indicate the initial Bodhisattva ideal was associated with a strict forest asceticism.
Mahāyāna Buddhism encourages everyone to become bodhisattvas and to take the bodhisattva vows. With these vows, one makes the promise to work for the complete enlightenment of all sentient beings by practicing the six perfections. Indelibly entwined with the bodhisattva vow is merit transference (pariṇāmanā).
In Mahāyāna, life in this world is compared to people living in a house that is on fire. People take this world as reality pursuing worldly projects and pleasures without realizing that the house is ablaze and will soon burn down (due to the inevitability of death). A bodhisattva is one who has a determination to free sentient beings from samsara and its cycle of death, rebirth and suffering. This type of mind is known as the mind of awakening (bodhicitta). Bodhisattvas take bodhisattva vows in order to progress on the spiritual path towards buddhahood.
There are a variety of different conceptions of the nature of a bodhisattva in Mahāyāna. According to some sources a bodhisattva is someone on the path to full Buddhahood. Others speak of bodhisattvas renouncing Buddhahood. According to the Kun-bzang bla-ma'i zhal-lung, a bodhisattva can choose any of three paths in their aspiration to help sentient beings in the process of achieving buddhahood. They are:
- king-like bodhisattva - aspires to become buddha as soon as possible and then help sentient beings in full fledge;
- boatman-like bodhisattva - to achieve buddhahood along with other sentient beings;
- shepherd-like bodhisattva - to delay buddhahood until all other sentient beings achieve buddhahood. Bodhisattvas like Avalokiteśvara and Śāntideva are believed to fall in this category.
According to the doctrine of some Tibetan schools (like Theravāda but for different reasons), only the first of these is recognized. It is held that Buddhas remain in the world, able to help others, so there is no point in delay. Geshe Kelsang Gyatso notes:
In reality, the second two types of bodhicitta are wishes that are impossible to fulfill because it is only possible to lead others to enlightenment once we have attained enlightenment ourself. Therefore, only king-like bodhicitta is actual bodhicitta. Je Tsongkhapa says that although the other Bodhisattvas wish for that which is impossible, their attitude is sublime and unmistaken.
The Nyingma school, however, holds that the lowest level is the way of the king, who primarily seeks his own benefit but who recognizes that his benefit depends crucially on that of his kingdom and his subjects. The middle level is the path of the boatman, who ferries his passengers across the river and simultaneously, of course, ferries himself as well. The highest level is that of the shepherd, who makes sure that all his sheep arrive safely ahead of him and places their welfare above his.