Cosmology of a Bodhisatva

A brief look at the cosmological side of Buddhas, Bodhisatvas and Enlightenment, as part of the ongoing look at Mahayana/Theravada Buddhism:

A ‘Buddha’ is an enlightened being – one who has gone beyond birth/ageing/death, who has realised the ‘unconditioned’ or Buddha Nature. There are three kinds of Buddha:

Anubuddha – an arahant, or enlightened being, who has heard and practised the teachings to completion.

Paccaekabuddha – an arahant who has come by their own means to enlightenment, but due to lack of parami (charismatic qualities) and lack of a training method, is not able to teach others to reach this enlightenment

Sammasambuddha – a ‘fully’ enlightened being, who has practised the parami for many lifetimes, so that when becoming enlightened they are able to teach multitudes of people.

These terms are not really fixed hard and fast however. The Arahants all had more or less ability to teach others. Paccaekabuddhas also had followings, albeit smaller than those of a full Buddha. And even Sammasambuddhas have variations – those enlightened through faith, wisdom or energy are of three levels – energy being the highest. Maitreyya Buddha, the next Buddha, is supposed to be of the third and best kind, and have 100 x as many followers as Sakyamuni, our Buddha, had.

The Parami (aka Paramitta) are:

Generosity, morality, renunciation, wisdom, energy, patience, truthfulness, resolution, compassion and equanimity

Note, in Mahayana there are only 6 Parami

Generosity, morality, patience, energy, concentration, wisdom

… and they are exemplified in the Jataka tales, especially those depicting the last 10 live of the Buddha where he supposedly dedicated one lifetime to each quality. Again, we don’t need to take this literally, but simply as stories exemplifying each quality.


The more you have these qualities, the more you will be able to influence and teach others. But it is not necessary to perfect each and all of them in order to become enlightened. This is quite important, as some people mistakenly believe that Enlightenment takes thousands of lifetimes of practise. There was never any such teaching, although Mahayana Buddhism tends to accuse Theravada of having just such a philosophy. The fact is that in the Suttas people attained to enlightenment very quickly, often after just hearing one or two short teachings.

It is also a fact that some people were not ‘ready’ to hear the teachings and so did not benefit from them.


Now, if you have the aspiration to become a Sammasambuddha, then you will have to dedicate many lifetimes to the process. You will be of great benefit to multitudes …. but it will take many eons before you can realise your aspiration, because in this eon there are supposed to be 5 Buddhas. We have had 4 already, and the slot for the next one is taken by Maitreyya! Future eons may have zero-5 Buddhas. Not many!

If you do decide to become a Sammasambuddha then the moment you take the vow you are known as a ‘Bodhisattva’. According to the mythology, you should really take the vow infront of a living Buddha. After that you will keep making the vow .. and if past lifetimes are real, then you may actually already have taken such a vow! You never know.

Taking this vow is known as the ‘Bodhisattva Vow’ and there is a fair summary of the varieties of these on Wikipedia.

Technically all Mahayana Buddhists have taken this vow – which is why it is called ‘Maha’ (greater) ‘Yana’ (path/vehicle). If you have not taken this vow you are ‘Hina’ (lesser) ‘Yana’ (path). If you want to get enlightened sooner rather than countless lifetimes down the road, you should not take the Bodhisattva Vows. The Vow also means, technically, that there are never any Mahayana Arahants (Enlightened people) since they have taken the vow to postpone their enlightenment in order to perfect the parami first.

But again, it is not necessary to get too dogmatic about this. Many Mahayana teachers view the vow more as an aspiration to help others than a real dedication to avoid enlightenment until such time as you are perfect in every quality and can become a Sammasambuddha. It is placing emphasis more on Compassion and helping others, than retreating to a forest for your own salvation. But of course, many Mahayana Buddhists do retreat to mountains and forests to pursue their own Enlightenment also.

This cosmology is more a general set of principles, than hard and fast rules to which all Buddhists adhere.

There is an extra layer to the Bodhisattva though. In Mahayana Buddhism, especially Tibetan style, there are certain Bodhisattva characters – such as Avalokiteshvara (Bodhisattva of compassion) or Manjushri (Bodhisattva of Wisdom). These can be understood as principles; angelic metaphors for certain qualities. Or they can be viewed as real existing beings in heavenly realms. While these Bodhisattvas hold a special place, it should be remembered that anyone who takes the Bodhisattva vow, is a Bodhisattva.


The remaining question is what exactly qualifies one as ‘Enlightened’.

The teachings say that one can attain to enlightenment as a temporary experience. Here is it called by various names such as cetovimutti (liberation of the heart) or khinasava (extinction of the Taints)  … and other terms. However one who makes this attainment is not an Anubuddha, Pacceakabuddha or Sammasambuddha. One is not an arahant as the attainment is only temporary.
There is still work to be done, and the path is not complete.

When the path is complete, you attain to full enlightenment and become an Arahant – one whose work is finished, and who will not be returning to any kind of rebirth in Samsara (we’ll leave the question of whether an Arahant has a non-samsaric existence for another time). Once you are an Arahant there is no ‘returning’ to the world to help others. You are finished, done! Thus technically, there have never been any Mahayana arahants, since they will all have taken the Bodhisattva vow to postpone their enlightenment for the sake of others (no need to take this too literally however).

While one is an Arahant but still alive – this is called ‘Enlightenment with residue’. When an Arahant dies, they attain to ‘Pari-nibbana’ or ‘Enlightenment without residue’

[there are some technical disagreements on the exact meanings of these terms, but the above is the mainstream view]

So if you wish to become enlightened sooner rather than later, do not take the Bodhisattva Vow which is the Mahayana requirement. There is no reason to speculate how long it will take you to achieve your goal, but certainly do not buy into the mythology that it takes thousands of lifetimes – this is only true if you are a real Bodhisattva and are practising for perfecting your qualities rather than practising to become enlightened.  A sincere person should make the resolution to keep pursuing Dhamma relentlessly until one becomes enlightened, however long it takes, and in whatever realm one finds oneself.

This cosmology is not to be taken too seriously – it is more a set of guidelines and principles than hard and fast rules. You don’t necessarily have to believe these things, or in past/future lives in order to see the value of spiritual work and meditation. So long as you are developing good qualities, and have the goal in enlightenment, you are heading in the right direction.






12 replies on “Cosmology of a Bodhisatva”

  1. Why the need for that last paragraph?
    When addressing Westerners why do we have to play up to the ‘doubting Thomas’ ‘ who find rebirth and karma difficult, so choose to cherry-pick the Dhamma and believe only what they feel comfortable with.
    Read the Suttas and they constantly refer to the Buddha talking about past lives and karma. How can a person call themselves a follower of the Buddha but at the same time refuse to believe what he taught.

    1. Well, not everyone does call themselves a follower of the Buddha.But that does not preclude them from following some of the teachings. I am not a Christian but I really love and appreciate some of the teachings there, such as the emphasis on forgiveness.

  2. You are right that the 9th Parami is Metta – ‘Loving Kindness’ as opposed to Karuna – ‘Compassion’: I am guilty of copying that list from the internet without checking it first *blush*

    I use my own term ‘charismatic quality’ to emphasise that the parami (usually translated as ‘perfections’) determine the scope of influence you will have on others. However, I should admit that this is not necessarily part of the Paccaekabuddha paradigm – maybe these ‘silent Buddhas’ can’t teach more because they came to enlightenment by chance rather than learning through a system/teaching of a Sammasambuddha.
    But again I don’t think its too serious an issue – all of this is not a big part of Buddhism. Karma and Rebirth, as Phra Fred points out, are a consistent part of the teaching, but all this about Bodhisattvas, Buddhas, Arahants … is not.
    Confusion comes about through the Mahayana teachers implanting false ideas, such as Theravada takes 1000s of lifetimes to reach enlightenment, where Mahayana takes only one. Technically we can see from the B. Vows that this is the wrong way round – takes longer if you have taken the B. Vows!
    At the end of the day though, it all depends on your own dedication, parami, and favourable circumstances.
    This practise you recommend of reflecting on your parami already built is great! Now that you mention it, in Wat Pak Nam system, you always do exactly this reflection before starting meditation.

  3. Thansk for this… some clarification always nice… There seems to be a lot of misunderstandings in this area…
    By the way…The 9th Parami, you have listed as ‘compassion’ – it is commonly listed as ‘METTA’ , which my teachers translated as COMPASSIONATE LOVING-KINDNESS, as it is not just any old loving-kindness…
    Also they use the term HUMAN ‘PERFECTIONS’ instead of ‘charismatic’ qualities, saying that these good qualities often work together, and are indeed advised to develop by all wise people/ religious traditions of
    re: The “silent Buddha” – havent heard of the ‘uncharismatic’ idea – having only heard that they ‘did not teach’ not that we necessarily know why… It makes sense ofcourse…

    I have been taught that although they dont have to be perfect, as we have the teachigns of a Buddha to guide us, the Paramis DO have to be very HIGH for us to become enlightened…

    and threfore … developing the Paramis IS a great focus for our daily lives,

    I can recommend what I learned to do – make a dedication before out formal meditation sessions:

    “May I take this opportunity to rededicate myself to perfecting the Paramis…”

    Helps to remind us of what is important in life…. and how far we have to go!

    We can also take sympathetic joy, and renew our direction through going through each Paramis and asking: how have I grown in xxx, how do I feel about this growth? …. how can I grow more in xxx
    It’s A great morale booster adn allround training energiser!
    (Also form Wat Kow Tham teschers Steve & Rosemary Weissman, Special Old Students Retreat)

  4. By making a vow or wish to become a future Buddha, we are becoming an Unofficial Bodhisattva from that moment on, and committing ourself to incalculable aeons stuck in Samsara. If we have already reached one of the four noble states then this vow would not have any effect, but if we are still a Putuchon then we are blocked from advancing to Ariya. The vow only becomes official and the counting starts from when we make the vow in the presence of a real Sammasambuddha.
    Many well known monks such as LP Mun had originally made the vow but recanted it, nothing to be ashamed of, after realising how much suffering one is committing oneself to.

    1. Nice story on the Zen monks – I will move it to its own post. I also read several times about monks who asked to be allowed out of past Bodhisattva vows. Apparantly in Burma it is common to ask for release from old vows (of all kinds) when making an aspiration of any kind – think of all those ex’s you promised to love eternally ! One can also make a vow to become a Buddha’s foremost disciple (as Sariputta and Moggallana), as a Buddha’s doctor, or to become a Buddha, but not wait until all beings are liberated before becoming enlightened.

  5. Walking in front of me, walking behind me……
    This following story depicts the idealism of a young novice who was juggling
    between the wish to become a Buddha or a mere Arahant, the fully enlightened one which
    can be achieved by all Buddha’s followers:
    Once there was a teacher and a young novice. Heading back to the monastery at the
    edge of the woods, the master walked in front and the novice walked behind him in single
    file. The novice drifted away into thought and tried to work out what he should aim for in his
    “I think I’ll be an Arahant. so I can free myself from the bondage of rebirth…on second
    thought…it is a bit selfish though…being an Arahant, how many people could I help? Maybe
    none at all. If I could be a Buddha, I could help many more people. Yes, I think I will aspire
    to be a Buddha.”
    The master suddenly came to a stop; he stepped aside and said to the novice: “Go, walk
    in front of me.”
    The young monk did what his master instructed without questioning. He walked in front
    of his master as he was told. Then, he drifted again into thought.
    “Now, if I set my goal to be a Buddha, I must be mad because it is extremely difficult
    as master has said. I have to go through samsara for a very long time. I don’t think I am
    capable of going through such suffering and sacrifice to be a Buddha. Maybe it is better just
    to stick with being an Arahant. Yes, I think I will do that.”
    The master came to a sharp stop again, stepped over to the side and said sternly to the
    novice: “Go, walk behind me.”
    Once again, the young monk obediently did exactly what his master had told him to
    do. He carried on walking behind his master but his mind was still preoccupied with his
    “Then again, as soon as I imagine myself as an Arahant, I can’t help thinking that I
    am selfish because there are so many people who need help in this world. And how about
    those in other realms of samsara, who is going to help them? Only a Buddha could help
    those beings to be free. And there are so very few Buddhas. If I vow to be a Buddha now, I
    might be of some use to beings in the distant future. No, I think it is better to be a Buddha
    than just an Arahant, I can help more beings. Yes, I will be a Buddha,” the young monk
    thought loudly in his mind.
    The master stopped sharply again, stepped to the side and said: “Go, walk in front of
    The young monk began to feel puzzled by his master’s sudden change of action but
    didn’t ask anything. This went on a few more times. The master either said “Go, walk in
    front of me” or “Go, walk behind me.” It reached a point when the novice felt a bit annoyed
    at his teacher’s indecisiveness. After the teacher told him to walk in front of him, the young
    monk refused to do as before. He stopped and asked his master:
    “Your venerable sir, could you please tell me why you keep on stopping and telling me
    to either walk in front or behind you?”
    The master then explained calmly to his novice:
    “Well, if you wish to be an Arahant, your wish and mine are the same. And because I
    am your teacher, you have to walk behind me. However, you also wish to be a Buddha.
    Whenever you have that wish, you are at that moment more superior than I am because I
    have no wish to be a Buddha. So, it was only right that you walk in front of me. And it was
    because you kept on changing your mind; one minute you wanted to be an Arahant and the
    next minute you wanted to be a Buddha. Your thoughts went up and down like a yo-yo.
    That’s why I kept on stopping for you to be in the right place.”
    Only then did the young monk realise that his master could read his mind!

  6. And, of course, you can simply call on Amida Buddha who will take you, upon death, just as you are, to the Pure Land (the majority view in Japan and in much of East Asian Buddhism). Likewise, and more ‘Zen’, you can simply entrust the whole question to your own inner Buddha-nature.
    These approaches takes all the worry out of it!

  7. Nothing tongue in cheek about it!
    Simply letting go, letting go of everything, is the whole practice! (For me at any rate!)
    All the best,

  8. Sorry…I assumed you were not serious about the Amida Buddha thing and were joking. Perhaps I assumed you were Theravada.

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