Who Is a Bodhisattva?
For any Buddhist practitioner, the ultimate purpose of practice is to attain complete enlightenment or Buddahood. To achieve this very lofty goal, we work to cultivate wisdom and accumulate merit, and through this practice we are able to benefit both ourselves and others. This practice is precisely the task of a follower of the bodhisattva path as put forth in the three sets of pure precepts (which we undertake in the transmission ceremony): to accrue merit and realize wisdom for the benefit of all sentient beings. Through the diligent cultivation of wisdom and merit, a bodhisattva practitioner will attain Buddhahood. In other words, walking the bodhisattva path is the cause of Buddhahood; Buddhahood is the result of having accomplished the bodhisattva practice.
In Buddhist circles, we hear the world bodhoisattva frequently. Among Chinese Buddhists, bodhisattve, transliterated as pusa in Chinese, is commonly used simply as a title with which to address a fellow practitioner. It is also often used by monastics as an honorific when speaking to or about a layperson. On the other hand, non-Buddhists visiting a Buddhist monastery may think that bodhisattvas are the statues placed on the altar. In short, many people, both Buddhists and non-Buddhists alike, do not know the true significance of the term bodhisattva. Therefore clarification of this term is essential for our understanding of what the bodhisattva practice entails.
Formed by the conjunction of two Sanskrit words meaning "enlightenment" and "sentient being" respectively, the word bodhisattva denotes an enlightened sentient being. "Enlightened" refers to the quality of having achieved, to some degree, enlightenment, awakening, understanding, or mindfulness. This concept has a very rich, multifaceted meaning, with many nuances. "Sentient being" refers to a living being who experiences the world through sentience, feelings, sensations, or emotions.
Thus, bodhisattva can be understood as having four levels of meaning. First, the being described by this word aspires upwardly to attain supreme wisdom or enlightenment. Second, this being aspires to do this in order to bring genuine benefit to all other sentient beings so that they too will attain enlightenment. Third, each bodhisattva seeks to fully awaken his or her own intrinsic nature, or Buddha-nature. Fourth, while striving for this kind of full awakening, a bodhisattva strives just as hard to awaken all of the innumerable sentient beings to the same Buddha-nature intrinsic to each and every one. By considering these four levels of meaning together, we come to the following definition of bodhisattva: a person who aspires to Buddhahood while seeking to enlighten all sentient beings on the path.