Dispelling a very common myth about the Altruistic Intention and the Mahayana Bodhisattva Path; and how it applies to your practice and attaining enlightenment.
In this article we will (1) learn about the Buddhist Altruistic Intention: what it is, what it isn't, and how it applies to Bodhisattvas and to your practice. We will also briefly (2) review what Buddhist enlightenment is and what it means to be "enlightened."
Before we start, let's knock down some misbeliefs right now.
Mahayana Bodhisattvas and Nirvana: What People Get Wrong
Three Common Misbeliefs I Hear About Mahayana Bodhisattvas and/or the Mahayana Dharma:
These are remarkably common misunderstandings of the Mahayana Bodhisattava Path and the Altruistic Intention to guide others and spending time to understand the root texts and commentaries can help us better understand the intent and esoteric meaning of the teachings on this concept that hold us back from true progress along the Path.
But short of doing that—and before we jump into the concept of the Altruistic Intention—it's helpful to understand at a very high-level what enlightenment is to a Buddhist practitioner and what the implications are of attaining it, even partially.
So let's jump right in and begin!
Enlightenment and Its Impact on Mahayana Buddhists
In order to address the core misunderstanding that "Bodhisattvas put off their enlightenment until all other sentient beings have been freed from samsara and have attained nirvana," we must first understand what it means to be a Bodhisattva.
So, what is a Bodhisattva? In short, a Bodhisattva is a "noble person" who has cultivated and accepted renunciation and is committed to living and practising with vigilant adherence to the Buddha's teachings and the Bodhisattva Path. The clearest difference between a lay-practitioner who holds the Bodhisattva ideals as their motivation, and someone who has attained a level of progress and commitment that we call the Bodhisattva Path and its relevant precepts, is that the Bodhisattva is a partially-enlightened person. (Quick fact: "noble person" is the Buddhist way of referring to one who has reached any one of the stages of enlightenment).
Now, in order to understand what is means to be a Bodhisattva, we must first understand that it means to be "partially-enlightened."
There are four clearly defined stages of enlightenment in Buddhism and having reached the attainments that indicate achievement of any of the first three stages would equate one to being a "partially-enlightened" practitioner; with attainments of the fourth stage being fully-enlightened, naturally. The first of these three partial-enlightenment stages is called Stream-entry, and those who are disciplined enough to attain it are called Stream-enterers (sotapanna).
Stream-entry is no small feat and most Buddhists will perish having never attained the first stage of enlightenment, which is what makes being a Bodhisattva rather uncommon. That's because being a Bodhisattva means that that particular practitioner has directly experienced "path and fruition" and has successfully made progress sufficient enough for the moment of initial awakening to take place. This is critical because becoming a stream-enterer is not just an initial requirement of the Bodhisattva path, it's a fundamental pre-requisite: the very first level of the Bodhisattva Path is stream-entry and one cannot enter into the true Bodhisattva Path without already being a noble person.
OK. So, enlightenment is an incredibly big topic. Time for me to stop here. Additional details and insights into the nature of Buddhist enlightenment and the Stages of Enlightenment are beyond the scope of this teaching.
(hint: expect a new teaching on this to be posted at some point, please subscribe here to be notified.)
Nevertheless, for the purposes of this article, let it be sufficient to convey, and be understood, that once stream-entry is achieved, that the practitioner becomes destined for full enlightenment. That is to say, that entry into the first stage of enlightenment makes the attainment and completion of the fourth and final stage of enlightenment inevitable.
(oops, it seems I am not quite done covering enlightenment just yet, just one more thing that's relevant to this myth-busting!)
"Inevitable" enlightenment? How's that?
Once stream-entry is achieved, an irrepressible desire to continue to cultivate the views, skills, and practices to attain even higher levels of enlightenment in this lifetime is borne within the practitioner which further accelerates their progress toward full enlightenment. This snowball like momentum is a force that partially-enlightened beings are ultimately compelled to follow, which is what makes becoming a Bodhisattva so powerful and so special to Mahayana Buddhists. It's intended to serve as an effective and direct path to attaining full enlightenment in one's lifetime.
This is where the fundamental misunderstandings and confusion about Buddhism, enlightenment, and the path toward enlightenment serve to perpetuate the core misunderstandings that Bodhisattvas would ever want to, or even could, delay their own enlightenment for the sake of others. When one comes to understand the teachings, it's easy to see how wrong this view actually is.
Stream-entry and successful entry into the Buddhist Stages of Enlightenment, by definition, lead to the inevitable and unavoidable attainment of full enlightenment. It's a defining characteristic of the Buddhist path and enlightenment cannot be slowed down or avoided.
The Source and Continued Propagation of the Myth
Many teachers and practitioners are under the impression that in order to be a Mahayana Buddhist, and especially a Mahayana Bodhisattva, one must delay enlightenment until they have helped all sentient beings to their liberation. This is simply not true, and it's a misinterpretation of the teachings and the commentaries that followed them.
This misunderstanding is rooted in the well-intentioned way that the Mahayana Altruistic Intention is sometimes taught: with an emphasis on the need to take the highest of commitments. This is done with the intention to drive the altruistic intention deeply into the core of our motivations and intentions toward others (e.g., cultivating the four immeasurables, the six paramitas, et cetera). While well-intentioned, this developed into a general misunderstanding and has come to be broadly applied to all of "Mahayana" and has consequentially been misused by lay practitioners and unskilful monastics to judge or attack Buddhists of non-Mahayana traditions (e.g., Theravada, Vajrayana, and Early Buddhists).
The Mahayana Altruistic Intention Explained
The Altruistic Intention is neither a vow nor a precept. It's fundamental to remember that this practice is referred to as an altruistic intention, and it's an intention to attain enlightenment for the sake of others, not to forgo it in favour of others. The intention additionally serves to break down our Identity View and to generate and cultivate the Brahmaviharas (i.e., the Four Limitless Ones: compassion, loving-kindness, equanimity, and sympathetic joy) in order to make continued progression along the Buddhist path. The practice serves to cultivate other skills and views that aid the progress of enlightenment too.
However! The ultimate source of this misunderstanding is that when the Altruistic Intention is discussed, the discussions tend to be incomplete; it's often taught as a directive, and a singular one at that. But, the Altruistic Intention isn't singular, and there isn't just one way to be a practitioner or a Bodhisattva and hold the altruistic intention to serve others; in fact, there are three different ways, within Mahayana canon, that a person who walks the Mahayana Bodhisattva path can choose to help sentient beings while they are in-process of working toward their own enlightenment; and all practitioners are free to select the altruistic intention that serves their practice best, free from the judgement or umbrage of others, and based on their natural dispositions.
Guiding Others to Enlightenment as a Bodhisattva
Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama, explains the three different ways that a Bodhisattva can help others using the simile of "the King, the Boatman, and the Shepherd" like this:
"The three modes of generating an altruistic intention to become enlightened are described like a king, a boatman, and a shepherd. In the first, that like a king, one first seeks to attain the high state [of Buddhahood], after which help can then be given to others. In the second, like a boatman, one seeks to cross the river of suffering and attain enlightenment along with others. In the third, like a shepherd, one seeks to relieve the flock of suffering beings from pain first, and for oneself afterwards. However, these are only the indications of the style of the altruistic motivation for becoming enlightened; in actual fact, there is no way that a Bodhisattva either would want to or could delay achieving full enlightenment. As much as the motivation to help others increases, so much closer does one approach Buddhahood."
Bodhisattvas do not literally put off Buddhahood until all sentient beings have been freed from Samsara. That's not possible and doesn't make sense from a Buddhist World View. It's about generating the intention that drives their unshakeable desire to help other sentient beings enjoy happiness and freedom from suffering as well, and not just liberation for themselves.
A Distinction Worth Noting
It may also be worth noting that not all Mahayana Bodhisattvas hold the intention to delay their full enlightenment at all. Most Tibetan Vajrayana practitioners, for example, do not delay Enlightenment but rather strive to achieve it during this lifetime, in this very body, and as quickly as possible. Vajrayana Buddhism famously considers itself to offer the "fastest path toward Buddhist enlightenment" in a single lifetime.
General Guidance and Summary
Though perhaps the most clear guidance regarding this subject comes from the list of eighteen actions that, if committed, constitute a "root downfall" which means that the entire Bodhisattva Vow has been broken. This list of eighteen inviolate transgressions comes to us from the 10th-century Sumatran teacher Dharmakirti by way of his student, the Indian master, Atisha. On that list is the act of "turning others away from full enlightenment." Doing so is regarded as a hard-and-complete violation of the Bodhisattva Vow.
So while the highest of the Bodhisattva intentions, the shepherd, is to remain until all sentients have been liberated, and this is the level of altruistic intention that Mahayana Buddhists are frequently encouraged to take in their hearts and minds, it isn't the only way a Bodhisattva can electively choose to pursue the Path, nor is it meant to be taken literally—and doing so would be in contradiction to Buddhist metaphysical cosmology and the core tenants of the Buddhist World View.
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The Sagacious Buddhist Blog
Michael Turner is a pre-monastic Buddhist Ariya-puggala and a deeply accomplished enlightenment trainer and dharma life coach. He emphasises and teaches the practical application of Buddhism in our everyday lives to make real progress toward enlightenment and is particularly adept at explaining them in ways that can be easily understood and practiced by Western Buddhists. He has been meditating and cultivating the techniques to generate indestructible resilience and inner-strength for more than 25 years and has helped countless numbers of people enhance their practice to make clear progress along the Path.