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The Ten Paramitas of Mahayana Buddhism : What is a Bodhisattva?

Last Saturday, on March 9, 2019, we continued our introduction to The Ten Paramitas of Mahayana Buddhism with a focus on the question “What is Bodhisattva?”.

We explored the meaning of the word “Bodhisattva” in its original Sanskrit form. We listen to a Dharma lecture: “The Bodhisattva Ideal” by Ven. Lawrence Dōan Grecco (Do’an Grecco). Then we shared a print out of Rev. Taigen Dan Leighton’s introduction to the article: Awakening the Bodhisattva.

Below is a copy of our handout. Scroll down for links to the Dharma lecture and see what our homework is for the upcoming weeks!


The Ten Paramitas of Mahayana Buddhism : What is a Bodhisattva?

Pāramitā (Sanskrit) or Parami (Pāli): “Perfection” or “Transcendent”. In Buddhism, the Paramitas refer to the perfection or culmination of certain practices. These practices are cultivated by Bodhisattvas for crossing from sensuous life (Samsara) to Enlightenment (Nirvana). But what is a Bodhisattva exactly? And what is the Bodhisattva Ideal?

“Bodhi” (Sanskrit, Pali):                        awakening, enlightenment
“Sattva” (Sanskrit. In Pali: Satta):        a sentient being, essence 

  • Bodhisattva: any sentient being who has generated a wish and compassionate mind to attain Buddhahood (awakening, enlightenment) for the benefit of all sentient beings.
  • A Bodhisattva is concerned about what she does but not about what she receives.” – Ven. Lawrence Dōan Grecco (from today’s video lecture)

Four Great Bodhisattvas especially venerated in Asia:

  1. Avalokiteśvara (Ch.: Guanyin; Jp.: Kannon; Kor.: Gwan-eum) – “Perceiver of Sounds/Cries”:
    Bodhisattva of Great Compassion
  2. Ksitigarbha (Ch.: Dizang; Jp.: Jizō; Kor.: Jijang) – “Earth Store/Womb”:
    Bodhisattva of Great Vows
  3. Mañjuśrī (Ch.: Wenshu; Jp.: Monju; Kor.: Munsu) – “Noble, Gentle One”:
    Bodhisattva of Great Wisdom
  4. Samantabhadra (Ch.: Puxian; Jp.: Fugen; Kor.: Bohyeon) – “Universal Virtual/Worthy”:
    Bodhisattva of Great Practice


Dharma Video:

The Bodhisattva Ideal” by Ven. Lawrence Dōan Grecco (Do’an Grecco)*

*Ven. Lawrence Dōan Grecco is the Guiding Teacher of Open Sky Zen. He was ordained as a Buddhist monk in the Korean Zen tradition (Five Mountain Zen Order) as well as the Vietnamese lineage of Ven. Dr. Thich Thien-An.


Dharma Reading:

Introduction for “Awakening the Bodhisattva” by Rev. Taigen Dan Leighton**

Awakening the Bodhisattva (excerpt)

June 1, 2018

Venerable Pannavati, Anne Klein, and Ejo McMullen on the possibilities and challenges of the bodhisattva path.

Introduction by Taigen Dan Leighton

Bodhisattvas are beings dedicated to helping relieve suffering for all, realizing universal awakening, and leading all beings to that same awakening. Such practice cannot be merely about self-help or personal salvation. Bodhisattva practitioners are those who realize their deep interconnectedness with all beings. Such realization might start from hearing teachings but then becomes viscerally affirmed through meditative or devotional practices. Bodhisattva practitioners do not see all the suffering beings as “other” or separate. We are all in this together. What are the implications of this for modern practitioners amid the many challenges we now face?

Among many other traditional lists of bodhisattva practices, we have the classic four vows: to free or save all the innumerable beings; to destroy all the numberless delusions, deeply ingrained in ourselves and our society; to enter all the boundless gateways to reality and teaching, to see all situations as opportunities for learning and practice; and to realize and express the way to buddhahood. Such vows are inconceivable. They might seem abstract or even irrelevant compared to the practical problems involved in our everyday lives, not to mention all the issues in the world around us. Even as we take on pragmatic everyday projects, including noble helpful ones, what could such inconceivable aims have to offer us? How could they be applicable to our lives?

Bodhisattvas commit to staying open to the suffering in the surrounding world, but they must include themselves among the beings worthy of care. As individuals, we are beset with the personal problems from our habits of grasping and craving, anger and frustration, fear and confusion. How does one practically balance self-care with a deep commitment to be helpful rather than harmful? Everyone has aspects of their lives worthy of gratitude. To do this work, we must somehow sustain a practice of caring for suffering beings while also finding the joy and contentment to celebrate all that is wondrous in our lives.

Our world also includes multitudes of systemic sources of suffering. We face the challenges of climate damage seriously imperiling our habitat, the deep karmic legacy of racism, and the rampant injustice and inequality destroying many lives. Although these issues can seem overwhelming, Buddhism and history show that change does happen; we do not know the outcomes. Just in the United States, popular movements going back to abolitionists before the Civil War, women’s suffrage a century ago, the civil rights movement, and more recently Occupy, the gay rights movement, the climate movement, and Black Lives Matter, human beings have made a real difference in the world again and again. We have the ability to respond, and we have bodhisattva responsibility.

For the full “Awakening the Bodhisattva” article, see Lion’s Roar website

**Rev. Taigen Dan Leighton is the Guiding Dharma Teacher at Ancient Dragon Zen Gate, a Japanese Soto Zen temple in Chicago. Ordained in 1986, he is a Dharma successor in the lineage of Shunryu Suzuki Roshi.



  1. To you, is “letting the desire to help all other people end their suffering and also reach enlightenment fuel your practice” (from today’s video lecture) a helpful motivation and inspiration for your practice?
  2. “How does one practically balance self-care with a deep commitment to be helpful rather than harmful?” (from today’s reading)



  1. Try to approach every person and situation with a mindset of:
    “How can I help you?”
    At the same time, see more clearly how you can truly be most helpful – sometimes, that may mean not helping is the best course of action. And, try not to expect anything in return or for any specific results to happen.
  2. Balance self-care also as you try to help others – know your limits, be kind to yourself.