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THE BODHISATTA CONCEPT IN THERAVDA BUDDHISM

Introduction
In Theravda Buddhism, the Bodhisatta concept (Pli: Bodhisatta, Sanskrit: Bodhisattva)
is considered to be seeking enlightenment so that, once awakened, one can efficiently aid
other beings to develop an insight to know things as truly as they are. 1,2 The Buddha's
previous life experiences as a Bodhisatta before Buddhahood are recorded in the texts of
the Jataka. Lay Buddhists of Theravda tradition often seek inspiration in his skills as a
good layman from these texts, which not only account his historical life, but also many
other previous lives.1,3
Etymology 1,2,3
Bodhisatta is a being who aspires for Bodhi or Enlightenment. The concept of Bodhisatta
(meaning Buddha-to-be) is one of the most important concepts in Buddhism.
Etymologically the term can be separated into two parts, bodhi and sattva: bodhi from the
root budh, to be awake, means 'awakening' or 'enlightenment' and 'sattva' derived from
sant, the present participle of the root as, 'to be', means 'a being' or 'one who is' or 'a
sentient being.' Hence, the term is taken to mean 'one whose essence is Enlightenment' or
'enlightened knowledge'.
By implication it means a seeker of the enlightenment and a Buddha-to-be. There is also a
suggestion that the Pli term may be derived from bodhi and satta, (Skt. sakta from sanj)
'one who is attached to or desires to gain enlightenment.' In original Pli texts of early
Buddhism, the term Bodhisatta was used more exclusively to designate Gotama Buddha
prior to his enlightenment.
The Concept of Plurality Buddhas and Bodhisattas in Theravda Tradition
The concept of Bodhisatta, along with that of Buddha and of the cakravartin (world-ruler),
was in vogue in India even before the appearance of Gotama Buddha. When Prince
Siddhattha (who later became Gotama Buddha) took conception in the womb of Queen
Maya, a seer predicted that this son would become either a world-ruler (cakravartin) or a
Buddha.
While answering a question by a Brahmin, Gotama Buddha himself once admitted that he
was not a god, but a Buddha. This implies that he indirectly meant that he was one in the
lineage of buddhas. 3,4 A well-known Pli stanza states that: sabbapapassa akaranam,
kusalassa upasampada,sacittapariyodapanam etam buddhana sasanam. This proves that it
contains the teachings of not just a single Buddha, but of all the Buddhas. The Amagandha
Sutta is similarly recorded as a discourse not of Gotama Buddha but of a past Buddha
named Kassapa. 3,4

Sammasambodhi or Perfect Enlightenment is an impersonal universal phenomenon


occurring at a articular context both in time and space. So, the Buddha is a person who rediscovers the Dhamma, which had become lost to the world. Gotama Buddha himself, as
well as others, used the term Bodhisatta to indicate his career from the time of his
renunciation up to the time of his enlightenment. During the later period, use of this term
Bodhisatta was extended to denote the period from Gotama's conception to the
enlightenment. Thereafter, this term was used to refer all the Buddhas from their
conception to Buddhahood. By applying the doctrine of kamma and rebirth, which had
general acceptance even in pre-Buddhist India, the use of the term Bodhisatta was
further extended to refer to the pastlives of Gotama Buddha and all those who aspire for
Perfect Enlightenment. 3,4,5,6,7
The Mahpadna Suttanta, belonging to the oldest Theravda tradition, gives details of six
Buddhas prior to Gotama. This discourse is attributed to the Buddha himself, who gives
the time, caste, family, length of life etc. of his predecessors. After briefly outlining the
lives of these six buddhas, Gotama begins an in-depth recollection of the first buddha,
Vipassii, from his life in Tusita heaven until he dispersed his monks for the purpose of
spreading the teachings. In this narration, Gotama not only refers to Vipassii up to his
enlightenment as a Bodhisatta, but also takes the life events of Vipassii as the example for
all future Bodhisattas and buddhas, including himself. Another section of the sutta-pitaka
where the term "Bodhisatta" pertains to each of the six previous buddhas is the Samyutta
Nikya.
3,5,6,7
In the Buddhavamsa, a later work belonging to the Khuddaka Nikya, the number of
buddhas increases to twenty-five with Gotama Buddha as the last and this number remain
fixed in Theravda tradition. However, in the Mahpadna Suttanta the Buddha started the
story of the six Buddhas merely by saying that ninety-one kappas ago there was such and
such a Buddha. This indirectly implies that the Buddhas are not limited by number. So, if
theBuddhas are innumerable, the Bodhisattas too must be innumerable. 3,5,6,7
The Pli Canon had also mentioned the name of Metteya (Pli: Metteya, Sanskrit:
Maitreya) as the future Buddha after Sakyamuni or Gotama Buddha. But in the Pli
Canon, he is not referred to as a Bodhisatta. Instead, he is simply regarded as the next
fully-awakened Buddha to come into existence long after the current teachings of the
Buddha are lost. In the Cakkavattishandasutta of the Dgha Nikya, the Gotama Buddha
foretold that in future, an Exalted One named Metteya, who is Fully Awakened [i.e.,
sammsambuddha] and adorned with wisdom and goodness, will arise.Though Metteya is
the only future
Buddha mentioned specifically in the Pli Canons, but the possibility of attaining
Buddhahood is not restricted solely to him.1,3,5,8
In the Sampasdanyasutta of the Dgha Nikya, it is mentioned that in future, there will
be other Supreme buddhas equal to Gotama in the matter of Enlightenment. Thus, the term
"Bodhisatta" was no longer used solely in conjunction with Gotama or other past buddhas
or Metteya. The Bodhisatta-yna was regarded as a difficult, but possible path open to
anyone who desires to attain the Buddhahood.3,5,8

In later Theravda literature, the term Bodhisatta is fairly frequent in the sense of someone
on the path to enlightenment. The later Pli commentarial tradition also recognizes the
existence of two additional types of Bodhisattas. These are the paccekabodhisatta who will
attain Paccekabuddhahood and the Svakabodhisatta who will attain enlightenment as a
disciple of a Samyaksambuddha [i.e., sammsambuddha]. 1,3
Textual Transmission of the Bodhisatta Concept in Theravda Buddhism
The use of the term "Bodhisatta" occurs in a number of the suttas (Pli: sutta, Sanskrit:
sutra) in the Majjhima, Anguttara, and Samyutta Nikyas. In addition to referring to the
present life of Gotama, the term "Bodhisatta" is also used in relation to the penultimate
life of Gotama in Tusita (Pli: Tusita) heaven, as well as his conception and birth. In later
canonical texts, the Bodhisatta ideal is further developed and associated with numerous
concepts such as the concept of a Bodhisatta vow. This is believed to have been
introduced from the Mahyna tradition which upholds the 'Bodhisatta ideal.' In the
Suttanipta, the Bodhisatta ideal is also associated with the quality of compassion. 1,3,5
(A)Bodhisatta Concept in Pre-commentarial Literature
T. Sugimoto had analyzed the contexts in which the word Bodhisatta is employed in the
Nikyas. He had suggested six different usages of the term Bodhisatta in the Nikyas,
which are as follows: 8
(1) The Bodhisatta who is imperfect and immature
(2) The Bodhisatta who is still imperfect but surpassing that state
(3) The Bodhisatta who is a wanderer and an ascetic
(4) The Bodhisatta who is the master of meditation and a seer of the dhamma
(5) The Bodhisatta at the time of his conception and birth
(6) The Bodhisatta who dreams of the five great dreams
All these types of Bodhisatta depicted in the Nikyas can be broadly summarized into
main two usages: 8
(A) The Bodhisatta referring to the state before the attainment of Enlightenment in the life
of Gotama Buddha. Here, the Bodhisatta is depicted as the One seeking higher knowledge.
(B) The Bodhisatta as a generic term referring to the previous existence of any Buddha in
the past. This theory is based on the acceptance on plurality of the buddhas.
In the Khuddaka Nikya, the word Bodhisatta does not occur as often as in the other
four Nikyas, but there is further development of this concept found here. The old stratum
of Khuddaka Nikya includes the last two chapers of Suttanipta while the new stratum
includes texts like Buddhavamsa, Cariypit aka and Apadna.

(a) The Suttanipta refers to Gotama Bodhisatta as a being who was born in this world for
happiness and wheal of the people (hitasukhatya). This idea of a compassionate
Bodhisatta is also expressed in the Canon.3,8
(b) In the Buddhavamsa, the Bodhisatta ideal is developed to the greatest extent. The
Buddhavamsa is entirely based on the history of Gotama Buddhas career as the
Bodhisatta from the time of making his abhinhra (resolve) before Dpakara Buddha to
become a Buddha in the future. Under each and every past Buddha, Gotama Bodhisatta
receives a declaration (vykaran a) that he would be the Buddha named
Gotama in distant future. Here, the term Bodhisatta refers to an ideal person, who makes
a vow to become a fully and completely enlightened Buddha (sammsambuddha) out of
compassion for all sentient beings. He performs various acts of merit and finally receives
a prophecy of his future Buddhahood. In addition,he had also made a vow to become a
Bodhisatta only after the attainment of arahantship. This is portrayed in the chronicle of
Sumedha, where he was lying in the mud and offering his body to the Dpakara Buddha
to walk on. 3,8
According to the Buddhavamsa and Cariypit aka, there are eight conditions
(at t hadhamm) which are mentioned as the preconditions for anyone to become a
Bodhisatta and ten preconditions (pram) are to be practiced and fulfilled to become a
Buddha. In this aspect, the Jtaka stories might be a later fabrication in an attempt to
connect the mode of fulfillment of prams with the varied forms of existences of the
Gotama Bodhisatta. The generalization of preliminaries leading to Buddhahood was thus
introduced for the first time in Pli tradition and it further developed in the At t hakath
literature.3,8
More expanded use of the term "Bodhisatta" is explicitly expressed in the Khuddakaptha.
In the eighth chapter of this canonical text (the Nidhikandasutta), the goal of Buddhahood
is presented as a goal that should be pursued by certain exceptional beings. The sutta
mentions a type of treasure that is more permanent and which follows beings from birth to
birth. This treasure results from giving (dna), morality (sla), abstinence (samyama), and
observing restraint (dama). This treasure fulfills all desires, leads to a rebirth in a beautiful
body and leads to rebirth in the human realm from which liberation is possible. Moreover,
the qualities of charity, virtue, abstinence and restraint would lead to the wisdom which
produces the "bliss of Extinguishment" of Arahants or pratyekabuddhas or completely
enlightened buddhas.3,8,9
The Udna also mentions the word Bodhisatta at one place, but it is with reference to
the mothers of Bodhisattas. It predicts that mothers of all Bodhisattas would die within
seven days after their birth. It is the Dhammat (general nature) that certain things are
predetermined for a Bodhisatta these are his parents, Bodhi tree, chief disciples
(aggasvak), son and attendant (upat t hka). 8
(B)Bodhisatta Concept in Commentarial Literature

Dhammapla was a commentator who showed greater interest in the dissemination of the
Bodhisatta doctrine and introduce new concepts in the Theravda tradition. Through the
Buddhavamsa and Cariypit aka contain certain ingredients that can be regarded as the
precursors of later developments in the commentaries, but the Bodhisatta concept gained
acceleration and diversification in the Theravda tradition in the form of At t hakath
literature. 3,8
The word bodhi is a nominative derivative of the root budh (meaning to be awake,
enlightened etc.) and it means enlightenment or supreme knowledge. The canonical texts
give its meanings as the realization of the Four Noble truths (arya-saccni) and the Seven
Factors of Enlightenment (bojjhaga). In the At t hakath texts, a classic definition of the
verbal form bujjhati, meaning awake or enlightened or the one who knows, is given in
Atthaslini and Sammohavinodan.8
The interpretation of bodhi as the Four Noble Truths and Seven Factors of
enlightenment testify clearly that it can be achieved by anyone and the attainment of them
is what is termed as arahantship. In Theravda tradition, though the term sambodhi was
applied to Arahants as well, but the two terms abhisambodhi and sammsambodhi
were used exclusively for the buddhas. The Buddhas designation of sammsambodhi is
explained in the commentarial texts as the knowledge which he attains rightly (samm)
and by himself (smam). This also relates to the knowledge which is adorned (pasattham)
and good(sundaram). In other words, it is all that is to be discovered and known by a
Buddha alone.
When the word bodhi is described in the sense of knowledge (n a) in the At t hakath
texts, emphasis is given either in relation to the path leading to arahantship
(arahattamaggan a) or the omniscient knowledge (sabbautan a). In commentarial
literature, Buddhaghosa described the term bodhi in four different ways. These are: (1)
Tree (rukkha) referring to the Bodhi tree, (2) Path (magga), (3) Omniscient knowledge
(sabbauta-n a) and (4) Nibbna. The commentaries also discuss some definitions of
the word Bodhisatta which are not found in the pre-commentarial literature. The Dghaat t hakath or Sumagalavilsin describes the Bodhisatta as a wise being who is
concerned with awakening; a being whose mind is attached to and bent on the four paths
calledbodhi.3.8.9
Keeping with the tradition found in the Pli Canons, the term Bodhisatta was used
mainly as a term denoting the former existences of Gotama Buddha in the Milindapaha.
However, the Samantapsdik describes the term svaka-bodhi as the attainment or
knowledge of a disciple. However, the Papacasdan, Manorathapran and
Sratthapaksin also provide similar of the term Bodhisatta as the one who is being
attached to bodhi or knowledge. This is also described as the One, who is full of
knowledge (n av), insightful (paav) and wise (pan d ito).3.8
The meanings of the term Bodhisatta according to the commentaries can thus be
classified into four categories:8
(1) A wise or insightful being

(2) A being on the way to awakening


(3) A being worthy of attaining sammsambodhi or striving for it
(4) A being attached to or inclined towards bodhi
Thus, the Theravdins began to formulate a new classification of Bodhisatta in the
At t hakath literature and its development followed a natural corollary resulting from the
interpretations of the word Bodhi. So, the interpretation of Bodhisatta in the Theravda
tradition now rests on two premises: 8
(a) One who seeks catumagga-n a
(b) One who is worthy of attaining sammsambodhi
The late At t hakath texts made three distinctions on the existing Bodhisatta concept.
Along with the gradation of Mah-bodhisatta (Buddha-to-be), pacceka-bodhisatta and
svaka- bodhisatta, the commentarial literature added some qualities to distinguish them
from one another. Thus, there appeared the qualifying words in the At t hakath texts like
mahsatta, mahsambodhisatta, mahbodhisatta and sabbau-bodhisatta.3,8,9
Later Development of the Bodhisatta Concept in Theravda Buddhism The social
importance of the Bodhisatta concept found in the At t hakath should also be considered
to be pertinent to the development of the Bodhisatta ideal in Sri Lanka. An attempt had
been made in the past to merge the personality of Bodhisatta from commentarial texts with
the ideal individual socially and ethically. Common people began to respect him not only
as a person with highest virtues, but also a person with utmost administrative capability.
The idea that anyone may become a Buddha by following the Bodhisatta-yna was only
present in seed form in the Theravda Buddhist Pli Canon. But later this concept was
taken up seriously by the Theravdins. Numerous Theravdin kings, monks and textual
copyists had taken the Bodhisatta vow and were following the Bodhisatta- yna to the
eventual attainment of Buddhahood. The relationship between kings and Bodhisattas has
its source in the Bodhisatta career of Gotama as depicted not only in
his life as Prince Siddhattha, but also in his penultimate earthly life when he was King
Vessantara. The Bodhisatta exhibited his compassion by fulfilling the perfection of giving
as King Vessantara. He gave away his elephant to alleviate a drought in nearby Kli ga.
He gave away his wealth, his kingdom even his wife and children and was even willing to
give away his own life out of compassion for other beings. 3,10,11
The paradigm for close association between the institution of kingship and Buddhahood
originally came from Gotama, when he was a Bodhisatta. This was later adopted by
Theravdin kings by the second century B.C. The Bodhisatta-like compassion was also
exhibited by King Duttagman, Sirisamghabodhi and Upatissa of Sri Lanka. By the
eighth century C.E., the amalgamation between the institution of kingship and Bodhisattas
became even stronger. During this time, certain Theravdin kings in Sri Lanka, Burma,
and Thailand had openly declared themselves as the Bodhisattas. 3,10, 11
It might be argued that these Bodhisatta kings were influenced by the Mahyna doctrines
when they adopted certain qualities of the Bodhisatta or took the Bodhisatta vow. But this

does not dismiss the fact that the Bodhisatta ideal was taken seriously by Theravdin
kings. The Bodhisatta ideal obtained a prominent place in Theravda Buddhist theory and
practice.
A king might be influenced by Mahyna ideas at a given point of time. But this does not
mean that certain Theravda doctrines, including the ideas of a Bodhisatta as found in the
Buddhavamsa and Cariypit aka, were not equally influential. 3,10,11
The presence of a Bodhisatta ideal in Theravda Buddhism is also represented by the
numerous examples of other Theravdins who have either referred to themselves or have
been referred by others as Bodhisattas. The celebrated commentator Buddhaghosa was
viewed by the monks of the Anuraadhapura monastery as being an incarnation of Metteya.
There are also some instances of Theravdin monks who expressed their desire to become
fully enlightened buddhas. After being deemed worthy of receiving certain secret
teachings by his meditation teacher, bhikkhu Doratiyaaveye of Sri Lanka (ca. 1900),
refused
to practice such techniques. He felt that it would pose hindrance in his path to attain the
level of arahant in this lifetime or within seven lives. He saw himself as a Bodhisatta who
had already made a vow to attain Buddhahood in the future. 3,10,11
The vow to become a Buddha was also taken by certain Theravdin textual copyists and
authors. The author of the commentary on the Jtaka (the Jtakt t hakath) concludes his
work with the vow to complete the ten Bodhisatta perfections in the future so that he will
become a Buddha and liberate the whole world with its gods from the bondage of repeated
births and guide them to the most excellent and tranquil Nibbna.9,10
Another example of a Theravdin author who wished to become a Buddha by following
the Bodhisatta-yna is the `Sri Lankan monk Mah-Tipitaka Clbhaya. In his
subcommentary on the Questions of King Milinda during the twelfth-century, he wrote
that he wished to become a Buddha at the end of his work.9
Conclusion
When Prince Siddhattha attained Enlightenment and transformed himself into a Buddha
from Bodhisatta, he did so as a human being and lived and passed away as such. He
himself admitted that he was a Buddha and not a supernatural being. He was only the
discoverer of a lost teaching. His greatness was that he found out what his contemporaries
could not discover at all or only discovered partially. Both intellectually and morally he
was a great man (mahapurisa) and a historical personality. However, when we analyze the
term Bodhisatta in Theravda Buddhism, it not only refers to Gotama and all previous
buddhas before their enlightenment, but it also applies to any being who wishes to pursue
the path to perfect Buddhahood. 11,12
Though the Theravdins believe that anyone can become a Bodhisatta, they do not
stipulate or insist that everyone must become a Bodhisatta as this is not considered to be
reasonable. It is up to the individual to decide which path to take, that of the Srvaka, that
of the Pratyekabuddha, or that of the Samyaksambuddha [i.e., sammsambuddha]. This

concept resulted in a more general adherence to the ideal by numerous Theravdin kings,
monks, scholars and even common people. 9
The introduction of three kinds of Bodhisatta namely Mah-Bodhisatta, PaccekaBodhisatta and Svaka-Bodhisatta by Dhammapla is a new departure in the Theravda
doctrine and the Bodhisatta ideal became reserved for only certain exceptional people.
Thus, when the path of Buddhahood was made more difficult during the process of
exalting the buddhas, the Thravdins had to emphasize the importance of the following
svaka-bodhi more than before as the alternative and easier way to emancipation. Though
the glorification of buddhas bears the emotional and devotional significance for the
Buddhists, but the accomplishment of svaka-bodhi is more practical. 3,10,12
The Bodhisatta-yna and the goal of Buddhahood were already accepted as one of three
possible goals by followers of Theravda Buddhism. However, this same goal was viewed
as the only acceptable goal by the followers of Mahyna Buddhism. Hence, it should be
stressed that the change introduced by the Mahyna traditions was not an invention of a
new ideology or any innovative thinking, but it was rather the adoption of an already
accepted exceptional ideal and bringing it into prominence.12
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Buddhists. London: Pli Text Society 29:38-39.
4. n amoli, B. 1992. The life of the Buddha. Kandy, Sri Lanka: Buddhist Publication Society.
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of Hong Kong.
7. Endo, T. 2002. Buddha in Theravada Buddhism. Dehiwala.
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American Academy of Religion 63 (1):2-3. 11. Norman K.R. 1983. A History of Indian Literature. Wiesbaden: Otto
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251.