Bodhisattva is the Sanskrit word for a being who is devoted to awakening and to acting for the benefit of all that lives. The way of the bodhisattva is one of the most radical and powerful of all Buddhist forms of practice. It is radical because it states that the fulfillment of our happiness comes only from serving the welfare of others as well as ourself. Our highest happiness is connected with the wellbeing of others.
The bodhisattva’s path is a striking contrast with the excessive individualism of our culture. Every wisdom tradition tells us that human meaning and happiness cannot be found in isolation but comes about through generosity, love, and understanding. The bodhisattva, knowing this, appears in a thousand forms, from scientist, to teacher, activist or nurse, from a caring grandmother to an engaged global citizen. Meditators often recite the bodhisattva vows when they sit, offering the benefit of their practice for the sake of others: “Sentient beings are numberless; I vow to bring liberation to us all.” Like the ancient Hippocratic oath, the vow to serve the sick taken by every physician, the bodhisattva vows to serve the welfare of all. In a more poetic fashion, the Dalai Lama is said to take bodhisattva vows based on the words of the beloved sixth-century sage Shantideva:
May I be a guard for those who need protection
A guide for those on the path
A boat, a raft, a bridge for those who wish to cross the flood
May I be a lamp in the darkness
A resting place for the weary
A healing medicine for all who are sick
A vase of plenty, a tree of miracles
And for the boundless multitudes of living beings
May I bring sustenance and awakening
Enduring like the earth and sky
Until all beings are freed from sorrow
And all are awakened.
Psychologically this is an astonishing thing to say. Does this mean that I am personally going to save six billion humans and trillions of other beings? How can I do so? When we think about it from our limited sense of self, it is impossible. But when we understand that it is a deep intention of the heart, we can begin to fulfill it. To take such a vow is to set a direction, a sacred purpose, a statement of wisdom, an offering, a blessing. “We are not separate, we are interdependent,” declared the Buddha. Unless we understand this, we are split between caring for ourselves or caring for the troubles of the world. When the world is seen with the eyes of a bodhisattva, there is no I and other—there is just us.