Delivering the Last Blade of Grass: Aspects of the "bodhisattva" Ideal in the Mahayana
Vol.7 No.3 ( Nov 1997) Pp.181-194
COPYRIGHT 1997 Journals Oxford Ltd. (UK)
Doers of what is hard are the bodhisattvas, the great beings who
have set out to win supreme enlightenment. They do not wish to
attain their own private nirvana. On the contrary. They have
surveyed the highly painful world of being, and yet, desirous to win
supreme enlightenment, they do not tremble at birth and death. They
have set out for the benefit of the world, for the ease of the
world, out of pity for the world. They have resolved 'We will become
a shelter for the world, a refuge for the world, the world's place
of rest, the final relief of the world, islands of the world, lights
of the world, leaders of the world, the world's means of salvation'.
The unfolding of the Mahayana marked a decisive phase in the history
of the Buddhist tradition. Against earlier forms of Buddhism the
Mahayana represented a metaphysical shift from a radical pluralism
to an absolutism anchored in the doctrine of sunyata;
epistemologically, through Nagarjuna's Madhyamika, the Mahayana
moved from a psychologically-oriented empiricism to a mode of
dialectical criticism; ethically the centre of gravity shifted from
the arhat ideal of private salvation to that of the bodhisattva, one
attuned to the universal deliverance of all beings "down to the last
blade of grass". It has often been remarked that the two pre-eminent
contributions of the Mahayana to the spiritual treasury of Buddhism
are the metaphysic of sunyata and the bodhisattva ideal. To these
might be added the Mahayanist doctrine of the Trikaya, the Three
Bodies of the Buddha who now appears as a cosmic and metacosmic
After some prefatory remarks about the emergence of the bodhisattva
ideal this article focuses on its significance within the spiritual
economy of the Mahayana, and its relationship to the pivotal
Mahayanist doctrines centering on karuna (compassion), prajna
(wisdom) and sunyata (voidness). The latter part of the article
takes up some subsidiary questions relating to the bodhisattva's
'status', viz. the Buddha, the issue of 'self-power' and
'other-power', and the popular appeal of the bodhisattva ideal.
Although our knowledge of early Buddhism is somewhat sketchy, there
is some evidence to suggest that by about the 2nd century AD the
pre-Mahayanist tradition was affected by a kind of dogmatic
constriction and possibly by certain pharisaic currents within the
sangha. From the (later) Mahayanist perspective there had developed
an exaggerated reliance on the Abhidharma (the systematic
explication of the doctrines) and the Vinaya (the disciplinary rules
of the monastic community), and an undue emphasis on the ideal of
private salvation. Dr Har Dayal has herein located the source of the
They [the monks] became too self-centred and contemplative ... . The
Bodhisattva doctrine was promulgated by some Buddhist leaders as a
protest against this lack of true spiritual fervour and altruism
among the monks of that period. 
This suggests rather too narrow a view of the impulses behind the
ideal. Leaving aside the exigencies of the historical period in
which it emerged, it can be said that the blossoming of the
bodhisattva conception, in one form or another, was inevitable.
Frithjof Schuon has elaborated the 'spiritual logic', so to speak,
which made it so:
In considering the bodhisattva ideal, account must be taken of the
following fundamental situation: Buddhism unfolds itself in a sense
between the empirical notions of suffering and cessation of
suffering; the notion of compassion springs from this very fact and
is an inevitable or necessary link in what might be called the
spiritual mythology of the Buddhist tradition. The fact of suffering
and the possibility of putting an end to it must needs imply
compassion unless a man were living alone upon the earth. 
We are not here concerned with either the early
Theravadin-Mahayanist disputations on the issues raised by the
emergence of the bodhisattva ideal except to say that some polemical
excesses perhaps answered to certain necessities insofar as they
were 'defensive reflexes' to preserve or affirm the integrity of the
spiritual outlook in question. Be that as it may, one is still
exposed in the scholarly literature to certain prejudices and
over-simplifications which discolour any overview of the Buddhist
tradition. Edward Conze, for instance, is guilty of the charge when
he makes a claim as imprudent and as astonishing as the following:
The rationalist orthodoxy of Ceylon has a vision of Buddhism which
is as truncated and impoverished as the fideism of Shinran, and it
is no accident that they are both geographically located at the
outer periphery of the Buddhist world. 
Such asseverations betoken a failure to grasp the principle that
under the canopy of any great religious tradition there will
inevitably emerge a variety of spiritual perspectives answering to
In some of the literature on the bodhisattva ideal one finds a good
many wasted words on the 'selfishness' of the arhat ideal in the
Theravada - another polemical abuse. On such indiscretions nothing
need to be added to Schuon's salutary remarks that
... if there is the Mahayana an element which calls for some caution
from a metaphysical point of view it is not, of course, the vocation
of the bodhisattva as such but, what is quite different, the
bodhisattvic ideal in so far as this is polemically opposed to the
"non-altruistic" spirituality of the pure contemplative, as if,
firstly, all true spirituality do not necessarily include charity,
and secondly, as if the consideration of some contingency or other
could enter into competition with pure and total Knowledge. 
Finally, by way of prefatory remarks, it should be noted that the
bodhisattva conception is not exclusively Mahayanist. For all
Buddhists the Buddha himself was a bodhisattva before his complete
enlightenment. The Theravadin perspective generally restricts itself
to this understanding of the term although the Sarvastivadins had
elaborated a fairly full-bodied ideal before the time of the
Mahayana.  The decisive contribution of the Mahayana was to
"unfold to its furthest limits all that was to be found in the
ideal",  to give it its richest and most resonant expression.
The Bodhisattva Ideal and the Path to its Attainment
There is no shortage of either traditional accounts or scholarly
explications of the bodhisattva ideal and of the path to be followed
by its adherents. Let us state the matter briefly. The bodhisattva
is one who voluntarily renounces the right to enter nirvana, who,
under certain inextinguishable vows, undergoes countless rebirths in
the samsaric realm in order to devote his/her energies, in a spirit
of boundless compassion, to the deliverance of all beings down to
"the last blade of grass". The bodhisattva is committed to the
practice of the six paramitas (perfections), particularly the
all-encompassing ideal of prajna (wisdom). The bodhisattva advanced
on the path becomes an exemplar of sacrificial heroism and moral
idealism as well as an aspirant to complete enlightenment.
The bodhisattva path can be summarised this way. Firstly there is
the awakening of the thought of enlightenment which matures into a
decisive resolve to attain enlightenment for the benefit of all
beings. After making the Great Resolves, marked by the taking of
many vows, the bodhisattva (for such he/she now is, although still
on the early part of the path) perfects the six paramitas and
progresses through ten bhumis (levels or stages). A crucial
transformation takes place at the seventh bhumi by which stage the
bodhisattva has fully penetrated the nature of sunyata and has thus
perfected the paramita of wisdom. The bodhisattva is now "eligible"
for entry into nirvana which he/she has perpetually renounced.
However, the bodhisattva now takes on the nature and functions of a
celestial or transcendent figure and assumes a dharmic body - the
manomayakaya, a mind-made body of wonder-working powers whereby
he/she can manifest anywhere, anytime. The bodhisattva is now beyond
the terrestrial limitations of time and space, and is free from all
karmic determinations having now entered a realm of pure, effortless
compassionate activity, of spiritual action undefiled by any of the
contaminations of ignorance (dualistic notions, for instance). The
bodhisattva's compassionate wisdom (or, more strictly,
wisdom-in-its-compassionate-aspect) is now a super-abundance and
universal in its applications. On completion of the tenth and final
bhumi the bodhisattva becomes Tathagata, fully Perfect Being. 
The importance of the initial vows cannot be over-estimated. They
take many different forms but are always variations on a theme, as
it were. Here we shall note one such form which sounds the keynote
of all the vows:
I take upon myself ... the deeds of all beings, even of those in the
hells ... I take their suffering upon me ... . I bear it, I do not
draw back from it, I do not tremble at it, I do not lose heart ... I
must bear the burden of all beings, for I have vowed to save all
things living, to bring them safe through the forest of birth, age,
disease, death and rebirth. I think not of my own salvation, but
strive to bestow on all beings the royalty of supreme wisdom. So I
take upon myself all the sorrows of all beings ... . Truly I will
not abandon them. For I have resolved to gain supreme wisdom for the
sake of all that lives, to save the world. 
The similarity to the sacrificial ideal incarnated in Christ is
striking. We can also discern a parallel with Christian doctrine in
the idea of the transference of suffering and of merit. This was a
bold doctrinal innovation within Buddhism, and was integral to the
Mahayanist conception of both the Buddha and the bodhisattva.
Nevertheless one must be wary of attempts to explain the bodhisattva
ideal in terms of "borrowings" from Christianity. The differences
are no less striking. We note, for instance, the emphasis in the
Buddhist vow on the attainment of wisdom which assumes a secondary
place in the Christian perspective, addressed as it is primarily to
man's affective and volitional nature.
The vows set before the bodhisattva the goal for all time, and
direct all spiritual development. Furthermore, and this point is
fundamental in the Mahayana,
Man becomes what he wills ... . Spiritual realisation is a growth
from within, self-creative and self-determining. It is not too much
to say that the nature of the resolve determines the nature of the
final attainment. 
Lama Anagarika Govinda articulates the same Mahayanist principle
when he writes
If ... we take the view that consciousness is not a product of the
world but that the world is a product of consciousness ... it
becomes obvious that we live in exactly the type of world we have
created ... and that the remedy cannot be an "escape" from the world
but only a change of "mind". Such a change, however, can only take
place if we know the innermost nature of this mind and its power.
It is, of course, a change of "mind", a transformation of
consciousness, that the bodhisattva envisages in the original vows.
The vows are re-affirmed during the ninth bhumi by which time they
are no longer statements of intent but pure spiritual acts with
incalculable effects. 
The six paramitas to be actualised in the bodhisattva are charity
(dana), morality (sila), forbearance (ksanti), vigour (virya),
concentration (samadhi), and wisdom (prajna). In some schools these
six paramitas are linked with the first six bhumis, the
correspondence first being postulated by Candrakirti in the
Madhyamakavatara.  However, the practice of the six paramitas is
simultaneous, all of them being informed by the all-embracing ideals
of karuna and prajna. Indeed, the first five paramitas cannot be
separated from prajna of which they are secondary aspects, each
destined to contribute in their own way to the attainment of
During the early bhumis the bodhisattva's energies must be dedicated
in the first place to the realisation of sunyata without which the
perfection of prajna is not possible. Recall the incident in the
Life of Milarepa when the great Tibetan sage is asked by his
disciples whether they should engage in an active life of good
deeds. His reply:
If there is not attachment to selfish aims, you can. But that is
difficult. Those who are full of worldly desires can do nothing to
help others. They do not even profit themselves. It is as if a man,
carried away by a torrent, pretended to save others. Nobody can do
anything for sentient beings without first attaining transcendent
insight into Reality. Like the blind leading the blind, one would
risk being carried away by desires. Because space is limitless and
sentient beings innumerable, you will always have a chance to help
others when you become capable of doing so. Until then, cultivate
the aspiration toward Complete Enlightenment by loving others more
than yourselves while practising the Dharma. 
In considering the later stages of the bodhisattva's spiritual
trajectory we enter realms where any verbal articulation of the
realities in question becomes problematical. Any formulation must be
in the nature of a suggestive metaphor, a signpost fashioned out of
the limited resources of human language. Much of the Mahayanist
literature concerning this subject, especially in the Himalayan
regions, resorts to a densely symbolic mythology and its
accompanying iconography. 
The attainment of insight into sunyata makes possible the
compassionate mission of the bodhisattva, unhindered by dualistic
misconceptions. Once in the seventh bhumi, with the assumption of
the manomayakaya, the bodhisattva can appear in manifold guises,
each one appropriate to the spiritual necessities of the case. Thus
the bodhisattva can appear in forms fierce and gruesome as well as
benign and attractive - as we see in the resplendent and sometimes
startling iconography of the Vajrayana. Before reaching the seventh
level the bodhisattva remains in the phenomenal realm and his
compassionate acts partake of "strain and strenuosity", but now the
bodhisattva leaves behind all terrestrial and karmic constraints and
enters the realm of spontaneous, effortless, and pure spiritual
action. The Dasa-bhumika explains the transition to effortlessness
It is like a man in a dream who finds himself drowning in a river;
he musters all his courage and is determined at all costs to get out
of it. And because of these efforts and desperate contrivances he is
awakened from the dream and when thus awakened he at once perceives
that no further doings are needed now. So with the bodhisattva ... .
This does not mean that the bodhisattva settles into quietistic
inertia but rather that his/her being has been transformed into
compassionate wisdom radiating through the universe. It might be
compared to the Christian conception of God's love which is
universal, non-discriminating, indifferent, making the sun to rise
on the evil as well as the good, and sending rain on both the just
and the unjust.  Murti speaks of the bodhisattva being "actuated
by motiveless altruism ... his freedom is full and complete by
itself; but he condescends to raise others to his level. This is a
free phenomenalizing act of grace and compassion". 
If we return to Schuon's claim that the bodhisattva ideal is
implicit in the Buddhist vision which turns on the two poles of
suffering and deliverance, we can now, perhaps, see more clearly
what is meant by this claim. Schuon elaborates the claim in writing
that the bodhisattva
incarnates the element of compassion - the ontological link as it
were between Pain and Felicity - just as the Buddha incarnates
Felicity and just as ordinary beings incarnate suffering: he must be
present in the cosmos as long as there is both a Samsara and a
Nirvana, this presence of his being expressed by the statement that
the bodhisattva wishes to deliver "all beings". 
The Bodhisattva Ideal and the Metaphysic of Sunyata
The bodhisattva enterprise is oriented towards enlightenment, as the
etymology of the term itself makes clear:
Prajna informs and inspires the entire spiritual discipline; every
virtue and each act of concentration is dedicated to the gaining of
insight into the real. The stress has shifted [viz. earlier Buddhist
practices] from the moral to the metaphysical axis ... all the other
paramitas are meant to purify the mind and make it fit to receive
the intuition of the absolute. It is Prajna that can make of each of
them a paramita - a perfection. 
We have already noted, in the cautionary advice of Milarepa, the
emphasis on prajna. Without the guidance of insight, would-be
compassion is often no more than sentiment, all too easily
conscripted by what Chogyam Trungpa has called "the bureaucracy of
the ego" and turned, unwittingly, to destructive and futile ends.
In the Mahayanist perspective karuna (compassion) is inseparable
from prajna - insight into sunyata which, for the moment, we can
translate in conventional fashion as "emptiness" or "voidness". The
relationship is stated by Milarepa in this characteristic
If ye realize Voidness, Compassion will arise within your hearts; If
ye lose all differentiation between yourself and others, fit to
serve others ye will be ... 
Karuna arises out of insight into prajna. Compassion, at least in
its full amplitude, cannot precede prajna; it is a function of
prajna. On this point the Mahayanists are unyielding. As Herbert
Guenther has pointed out, karuna means not only compassion but also
action.  This anticipates the point at issue here: karuna is the
action attending an awareness of sunyata. However, even this
formulation implies a dualism not to be found in the reality itself.
Compassion, it might be said, is the dynamic aspect of knowledge or
awareness and as such, is a criterion of its authenticity. To recast
this in moral terms more characteristic of the Occidental religious
traditions we can say that virtue is integral to wisdom. As Schuon
has remarked, "a wisdom without virtue is in fact imposture and
hypocrisy ...".  At this juncture an interesting comparison with
Christianity arises. Buddhism insists that karuna without Prajna is
a contradiction in terms, a chimera, the blind leading the blind.
Christianity, with its more "bhaktic" orientation, alerts us, in the
first place, to the illusoriness of a wisdom bereft of caritas - a
'sounding brass' or a 'tinkling cymbal'.  Ultimately, of course,
the principle at stake is the same, but the different accents are
In the Mahayana karuna and prajna come to be seen not only as
inseparable but as identical: reference to one or the other
signifies the same reality when viewed from a particular angle. The
fully-fledged bodhisattva is simultaneously fully enlightened and
boundlessly compassionate. The compassionate aspect of the
bodhisattvas is stressed not because they are in any sense deficient
in wisdom but because their cosmic function is to highlight and to
radiate this dimension of wisdom-awareness. Ultimately Karuna is
identified not only with prajna but with sunyata itself. This is so
because the duality of knower and known must be transcended.
Further, because the universe itself is of the nature of sunyata,
karuna also comes to be identified with the universe itself.
Heinrich Zimmer put it this way:
Within the hearts of all creatures compassion is present as the sign
of their potential bodhisattvahood; for all things are sunyata, the
void - and the pure reflex of the void ... is compassion.
Compassion, indeed, is the force that holds things in manifestation
- just as it with-holds the bodhisattva from nirvana. The whole
universe, therefore, is karuna, compassion, which is also known as
sunyata, the void. 
The same principle is approached from a different angle in this
... the Mahayana under its sapiential aspect aims at maintaining its
solidarity with the heroic ideal of the bodhisattva, while
nonetheless referring back that ideal to a strictly metaphysical
perspective. It first declares that compassion is a dimension of
Knowledge, then it adds that one's neighbour (and one's self) is
non-real ... there is no one whom our charity could concern, nor is
there a charity which could be "ours". 
Now this, to say the least, is somewhat perplexing to the
ratiocinative mind. There is no gainsaying the fact that, at least
on the level of mundane experience and 'common sense', we are here
faced with several conundrums. What is the meaning of the
bodhisattva's mission in the face of sunyata? If all is 'emptiness'
is this much ado about nothing? Is the bodhisattva's enterprise
somewhat akin to the monkey trying to take hold of the moon in the
water?  What are we to make of such characteristic claims as
"Where an attitude in which sunyata and karuna are indivisible is
developed, there is the message of the Buddha, the Dharma, and the
Sangha"?  And then too, we must ask, in what sense should we
understand the bodhisattva's refusal to enter Nirvana until all
beings are saved? How be it that an enlightened being is not thereby
'in' nirvana? And what of the well-known formulation that "Samsara
is nirvana", and vice versa, or, similarly, that "Form is void, Void
Such questions can only adequately be answered through an
understanding of the term upaya, usually translated as "skilful
means" but perhaps more adequately rendered as "provisional means
which have a spiritually therapeutic effect" or, to use Schuon's
more poetic term, "saving mirages". Buddhism is directed in the
first place to our most urgent spiritual needs, the soteriological
purpose everywhere informing and shaping the means of which the
tradition avails itself. In other words, Buddhism, like all
religious traditions, resorts to certain mythological and doctrinal
... are objectively inadequate [i.e. in the light of a pure
metaphysic] but which are none the less logically appropriate to the
religious axiom they serve and justified by their effectiveness pro
domo as well as by their symbolic and indirect truth. 
Of course, Buddhism is not peculiar in dealing with 'partial truths'
in respect of its formal elements but the Madhyamika-based
traditions have been conspicuously alert to the dangers of
identifying Truth or Reality with any dogmatic or conceptual forms
which can never be more than markers guiding the aspirant.
Nagarjuna's whole dialectic (nearly two millenia before our own much
vaunted post-modernists!) is directed towards demonstrating the
inadequacy and self-contradiction of all mental and conceptual
formulations. Indeed, the Mahayanists speak of Reality itself only
in apparently negative terms reminiscent of the Upanisadic neti
neti. Nevertheless, certain truths can be brought within the purview
of the average mentality through 'therapeutic errors'. It is
therefore important to make the necessary discriminations in
considering myths and doctrines which might be situated on different
levels and which may answer to varying spiritual needs and
With these considerations in mind let us return to the questions
before us. Clearly any adequate understanding of the bodhisattva
ideal rests on an understanding of sunyata. Unhappily the
conventional English translations - "emptiness", "voidness" - often
carry negative implications and associations which can only blur our
understanding of sunyata. We cannot here recapitulate the
Nagarjunian dialectic nor explore the ramifications of the doctrine
of sunyata. However, it is useful to note Guenther's remark that
"openness" is at least as helpful a pointer as "emptiness". In
similar vein, Lama Govinda stresses that an understanding of sunyata
heightens our awareness of the "transparency" of phenomena. Sunyata,
is not a negative property but a state of freedom from impediments
and limitations, a state of spontaneous receptivity ... sunyata is
the emptiness of all conceptual designations and at the same time
the recognition of a higher, incommensurable and indefinable reality
which can only be experienced in the state of perfect enlightenment.
The penetration of sunyata allows the bodhisattva to experience the
phenomenal realm as it actually is and not under the illusory
aspects it assumes when experienced in a state of ignorance.
Understanding sunyata, the bodhisattva does not repudiate the world
of suffering beings as an utter non-reality; to do so would be to
succumb to what the Mahayanists call uccheddadarsanam, i.e. a kind
of nihilism. As Suzuki has pointed out,
That the world is like a mirage, that it is thus empty, does not
mean that it is unreal in the sense that it has no reality
whatsoever. But it means that its real nature cannot be understood
by a mind that cannot rise above the dualism of "to be" (sat) and
"not to be" (asat). 
The bodhisattva's karuna issues from the overcoming of this dualism.
As one translation of the Lankavatara Sutra has it,
The world transcends (the dualism of) birth and death, it is like
the flower in the air; the wise are free from (the ideas of being
and non-being); yet a great compassionate heart is awakened in them.
The mission of the bodhisattva, far from being 'invalidated' by
sunyata, actually derives from it. Murti has explicated this in
commanding fashion, especially in the light of the
sunyata-prajna-karuna-universe equation already discussed:
Sunyata is prajna, intellectual intuition, and is identical with the
Absolute. karuna is the active principle of compassion that gives
concrete expression to sunyata in phenomena. If the first is
Transcendent and looks to the Absolute, the second is fully immanent
and looks down towards phenomena. The first is the ... universal
reality of which no determinations can be predicated; it is beyond
the duality of good and evil, love and hatred, virtue and vice; the
second is goodness, love and pure act ... the bodhisatta ... is thus
an amphibious being with one foot in the Absolute and the other in
Prajna perceives the emptiness, openness and indivisibility of the
Absolute while karuna sees the diversity of the phenomenal realm.
But these aspects of awareness are inseparable: the bodhisattva is
the living embodiment, the 'personification' of this truth.
The bodhisattva appreciates the lack of any self-existent reality in
the phenomenal world and understands the impermanent and fugitive
nature of all things within the world of time and space.
Simultaneously the bodhisattva takes account of the relative reality
of manifested beings and thus sets out to eradicate evil on the
samsaric plane and to help deliver all beings from the Round of
Existence. In other words, the bodhisattva experiences whatever
measure of reality belongs to the phenomenal world while being
immune to dualistic misconceptions and their karmic effects. "The
bodhisattva weeps with suffering beings and at the same time
realizes that there is one who never weeps, being above sufferings,
tribulations and contaminations."  Because of his identification
with all beings the bodhisattva suffers; because of his wisdom he
experiences the blissful awareness of the full plenitude of the
What of the bodhisattva's 'location' in samsara/nirvana? In the
Mahayanist literature we can find different formulations of the
bodhisattva's 'whereabouts'; he remains in samsara; he is 'on the
brink' of nirvana; he is in nirvana because nirvana is samsara. Here
we are in a realm not amenable to factual exactitude and will only
succeed in tightening the 'mental knots' if we approach these
expressions in the either/or mode of rationalist, analytical and
empiricist philosophy; rather, we need to understand the truths
enshrined in these different formulations.
The first expression, as well as signalling various truths which we
have already discussed, suggests that enlightenment is possible
within the samsaric realm:
The condition of the gnostic bodhisattva would be neither
conceivable nor tolerable if it were not a matter of contemplating
the Absolute in the heart and in the world at one and the same time.
The second symbolises the truth that time and eternity, phenomena
and the Void, do not exist as independent opposites but are aspects
of the one reality, all of the nature of sunyata. The bodhisattva is
a link or axis that joins the apparently separate realms of the
phenomenal, the celestial and the metacosmic. (In this context the
bodhisattva conception is closely related to the doctrine of the
Trikaya). Thirdly, from the enlightened "point of view" the
opposition between samsara and nirvana is seen to be illusory, all
dualities having been transcended in the light of the supreme
unitive knowledge. Thus there can be no question of the bodhisattva
being either "here" or "there".
When the prajnaparamita Sutra and other scriptures tell us that
"Form is void and Void is form" this must be understood in the sense
of what is before we project our conceptualisations and designations
onto it. The formulation cannot be fully understood prior to the
intuition of sunyata. Once the liberative knowledge has been
attained then, and then only, will the duality of samsara and
nirvana disappear. Thus the Lankavatara Sutra speaks in one and the
same breath of the bodhisattva both being and not being "in"
The bodhisattvas, O MahatmA, who rejoice in the bliss of the samadhi
of cessation are well furnished with the original vows and the
pitying heart, and realizing the import of the inextinguishable
vows, do not enter nirvana. They are already in nirvana because
their views are not at all beclouded by discrimination. 
Many of these considerations are synthesised in a magisterial
passage by Frithjof Schuon, one which can stand as a conclusion to
this part of our inquiry:
If the bodhisattva is supposed to "refuse entry into Nirvana so long
as a single blade of grass remains undelivered" this means two
things: firstly (this is the cosmic viewpoint) it means that the
function of the bodhisattva coincides with what in Western language
may be termed the permanent "angelic presence" in the world, a
presence which only disappears with the world itself at the final
reintegration, called "apokatastasis" in the language of Western
gnosticism; secondly (this is the metaphysical viewpoint) it means
that the bodhisattva, realizing the "emptiness" of things, thereby
realizes on the same showing the nirvanic quality of Samsara as such
... expressed in the sentence "Form is void and Void is form." The
Samsara which seems at first to be inexhaustible, so that the
bodhisattva's vow appears to have something excessive or even crazy
about it, becomes "instantly" reduced - in the non-temporal
instaneity of Prajna - to universal Enlightenment (Sambodhi); on
this plane, every antinomy is transcended and as it were consumed.
"Delivering the last blade of grass" amounts, in this sense, to
beholding it in its nirvanic essence or to apprehending the
unreality of its non-deliverance. 
The Bodhisattva and the Buddha(s)
In keeping with its cosmic perspective, the Mahayana, unlike the
Theravadin tradition, sees the Buddha as the embodiment of a
spiritual principle, one who "acted out" his life for the benefit of
all sentient beings still lost in the "forest of birth, disease, old
age, death and rebirth", his own enlightenment, in the words of the
Sadharmapundarika Satra, having been attained "inconceivable
thousands of millions of world ages" ago. 
The Theravadins had recognized three ultimate spiritual
possibilities: Self-Buddhas (Paccekebuddha), the perfected saint
(arhat) and the Complete Perfect Buddha (Sammasambuddha). The arhat
ideal occupied the pivotal position, it being the possibility open
to the ordinary human being who was prepared to tread the path
mapped by Sakyamuni. This ideal rested on an austere monastic
asceticism. The Mahayana, on the other hand, established the Perfect
Buddha as an ideal whose realisation was open to all and equated it
with the aspirations of the bodhisattva. It also elaborated a
conception of a host of transcendent Buddhas and celestial Buddha -
Lands-Pure Lands or Paradises, of which Amitabha's Western Paradise
has been, historically, the most important. The celestial Buddhas
and Paradises, as well as the bodhisattvic figures such as
Avalokitesvara, Manjusri, Vajrapani and Tara, have played a
particularly important part in the iconography of the
Tibeto-Himalayan branches of the Mahayana.
The most significant Mahayanist distinction between the Buddha and
the Bodhisattva is not determined by 'degrees' of enlightenment but
by function. That of the bodhisattva is a dynamic and salvatory one
implying a perpetual 'descent' into Samsara (thus recalling the
Hindu conception of the avatar). From one point of view it might be
said that "the Buddha represents the contemplative aspect and the
bodhisattva the dynamic aspect of nirvana", or that "the former is
turned towards the Absolute and the latter towards contingency".
 As the bodhisattva and the Buddha are of the same nature there
is no rigid distinction between them but a subtle relationship which
appears in different guises under different lights. It is said in
the Lankavatara Sutra, for instance, that the bodhisattvas are
incapable of reaching their final goal without the "other-power"
(adhisthana) of the Buddha, without his all-pervading power. 
However, it is also sometimes said in the Mahayanist texts that it
is by virtue of the compassion of the bodhisattva that the Buddhas
come into the world. In the Sadharmapundarika Sutra, for instance,
we find this: "From the Buddhas arise only the disciples and the
Pratyekabuddhas but from the bodhisattva the perfect Buddha himself
is born". 
Self-Power, Other-Power and the Bodhisattva
The question of self-power and other-power has generated a good deal
of reckless and polarising polemic within nearly all of the major
religious traditions. Buddhism is no exception. Edward Conze has
remarked that the ineffable reality of salvation can be viewed from
three distinct vantage points; (a) as the product of self-striving
under the guidance of an infallible teacher, (b) as the work of an
external and personified agent accepted in faith, and (c) as the
doing of the Absolute itself. From a metaphysical point of view
doubtless the third represents the least restricted outlook.
However, the relative merits of these perspectives are not at issue
here; rather we must consider this question in the context of our
primary concern, the Mahayanist understanding of the bodhisattva.
The Theravadins, by and large hold to the first of these views. Take
this from an eminent contemporary Theravadin:
... man has the power to liberate himself from all bondage through
his own personal effort and intelligence ... . If the Buddha is to
be called a "saviour" at all, it is only in the sense that he
discovered and showed the path to Liberation, Nirvana. But we must
tread the path ourselves ... according to the Buddha, man's
emancipation depends on his own realization of the Truth, and not on
the benevolent grace of a god or any external power ... . 
In the Mahayana we find a less monolithic attitude. The Zen schools,
in the main, also emphasise self-power (jiriki) rather than
other-power (tariki) while the Jodo and Shin branches of Buddhism
place overwhelming importance on both faith and grace.  Taken
overall the Mahayana encompasses all the points of view posited
above. The precise way in which the saving power of the Buddha(s)
and bodhisattvas is envisaged varies according to the prevailing
spiritual climate and the proclivities of the peoples in question.
However, the bodhisattva conception can provide a meeting-place for
the truths which underlie the different attitudes under discussion.
Lama Govinda, by way of example, pays due respect to both the
other-power of the bodhisattva and the self-power of the aspirant
which, so to speak, 'collaborate':
The help of a bodhisattva is not something that comes from outside
or is pressed upon those who are helped, but is the awakening of a
force which dwells in the innermost nature of every being, a force
which, awakened by the spiritual influence or example of a
bodhisattva, enables us to meet fearlessly every situation ... .
Before leaving this question we might profitably remind ourselves of
a general point, one highly pertinent to the discussion at hand and
best laid bare by further recourse to the writings of Schuon, the
most profound of contemporary exponents of the sophia perennis:
All great spiritual experiences agree in this: there is no common
measure between the means put into operation and the result. "With
men this is impossible, but with God all things are possible", says
the Gospel. In fact, what separates man from divine Reality is the
slightest of barriers: God is infinitely close to man, but man is
infinitely far from God. This barrier, for man, is a mountain: man
stands in front of a mountain which he must remove with his own
hands. He digs away the earth, but in vain, the mountain remains;
man however goes on digging, in the name of God. And the mountain
vanishes. It was never there. 
Despite its theistic vocabulary this has a certain Buddhist
resonance and recalls the man drowning in the river. The multivalent
spirituality of the Mahayana certainly takes full account of the
spiritual possibilities latent in the principle.
No doubt Buddhism as a whole is founded upon self-power but since
other-power is a spiritually efficacious possibility it was bound to
appear somewhere within the orbit of the tradition. In the
Tibeto-Himalayan area, where the bodhisattva ideal is preeminent, we
find a happy and judicious blend of the two elements. In the
everyday life of the common people there was unquestionably a great
deal of emphasis on the miraculous effects flowing from a faithful
devotion to the Buddha and the bodhisattvas. As Conze has observed,
the Madhyamika dialectic and the doctrine of sunyata has exercised a
potent appeal for Buddhists of a 'jnanic' disposition. However, the
popular appeal of the Mahayana is, in good measure, to be explained
by the "spiritual magnetism" of the bodhisattva ideal which could
"stir the hearts of all" and provide "the basis for immediate
action".  Furthermore, the bodhisattva ideal helped introduce
into Buddhism a more explicitly religious element, particularly
through 'bhaktic' practices, as well as a cosmic perspective without
which Buddhism might easily have degenerated into what Murti calls
"an exalted moral naturalism".  In the popular teachings much is
made of the unlimited merits and "boundless treasury of virtues"
(gunasambhava) of the bodhisattvas. It is worth noting that the
three principal virtues - Merit, Compassion, Wisdom - correspond
analogically with the paths of karma-yoga, bhakti-yoga and jnana
yoga in the Hindu tradition.  The bodhisattva ideal also
provided fertile ground for the flowering of Buddhist mythology and
iconography, particularly in the Vajyarana and in the Far East where
the cult of Kuan-Yin remains pervasive to this day. 
The bodhisattva ideal has been of incalculable importance in the
Mahayana, although it has not everywhere received the same emphasis.
It gathered together in a vivid, living ideal the principles of
prajna and karuna and tied them firmly to the metaphysic of sunyata.
The conception found its most luxuriant expression in the Vajrayana
where it played an integrative role for many different aspects of
Buddhist teaching and practice. On the popular level the bodhisattva
provided an exemplar of the spiritual life and a devotional focus.
Cosmologically, the bodhisattva was an axial figure running through
terrestrial, celestial and transcendental realms. Metaphysically
considered the bodhisattva conception, rooted in the doctrine of
sunyata, provided a resolution of dualistic conception of Samsara
and nirvana and provided a bridge between the Absolute and the
relative. In its reconciliation of all these elements in the
bodhisattva Mahayana Buddhism finds one of its most characteristic
and elevated expressions. Let us leave the final word with Saraha,
reputedly the teacher of the Mahayana's greatest metaphysician,
He who clings to the Void And neglects Compassion Does not reach the
highest stage. But he who practises only Compassion Does not gain
release from the toils of existence. He, however, who is strong in
the practice of both, Remains neither in Samsara nor in nirvana.
Harry Oldmeadow, School of Arts and Education, La Trobe University
Bendigo, PO Box 199, Bendigo, 3552, Australia.
 DAYAL, HAR (1970) The Bodhisattva Doctrine in Buddhist Sanskrit
Literature (New Delhi, Motilal Barnisidass), (reprint; first
published 1932), pp. 2-3.
 SCHUON, FRITHJOF (1968) In the Tracks of Buddhism (London, Allen
& Unwin), p. 132. See also SUZUKI, D. T. (1973) Essays in Zen
Buddhism. Third Series (London, Rider), p. 78.
 CONZE, EDWARD (1967) Thirty Years of Buddhist Studies (Oxford,
Bruno Cassirer), p. 40.
 SCHUON, op. cit., note 2, p. 139.
 See CONZE, EDWARD (1959) Buddhism: Its Essence and Development
(New York, Harper & Row), pp. 125-126.
 SUZUKI, op. cit., note 2, p. 79.
 This adumbrated version of the ideal and the path is derived
from several sources; it is an unexceptional account which follows
the traditional sources. For a detailed discussion of the
significance of the tathagata, not canvassed in this article, see
MURTI, T. R. V. (1980) The Central Philosophy of Buddhism (London,
Allen & Unwin). For a detailed account of the ten bhumis see DUTT,
N. (1976) Mahayana Buddhism (Calcutta, Firma KLM), Chs 4 & 5.
 Taken from BASHAM, A. L. (1967) The Wonder that was India
(London, Collins Fontana), pp. 277-278. For an extended version of
the bodhisattva's vows see SANTIDEVA (1979) A Guide to the
Bodhisattva Way of Life (Bodhisattvacharya-vatara), (Trans.) STEPHEN
BATCHELOR (Dharamsala, Library of Tibetan Works & Archives), pp.
 MURTI, op. cit., note 7, pp. 266-267.
 GOVINDA, ANAGARIKA (1969) Foundations of Tibetan Mysticism
(London, Rider), p. 274. This passage might suggest the Yogacarin
view of "mind-only" but as Lama Govinda makes clear in the same
work, this is not the intention of the passage above. For a similar
statement but one protected by the appropriate qualifications, see
GOVINDA, ANAGARIKA (1974) The Way of the White Clouds (London,
Rider), p. 123.
 See CONZE (1967), op. cit., note 3, pp. 42-43.
 See MURTI, op. cit., note 7, p. 269.
 LHALUNGPA, LOBSANG (Trans.) (1977) The Life of Milarepa (New
York, E.P. Dutton), p. 171.
 For an illuminating discussion of the often-misunderstood
nature, in a traditional context, of both 'symbol' and 'myth', see
essays on these subjects in RAINE, KATHLEEN (1985) Defending Ancient
Springs (Cambridge, Golgonooza) (first published 1967).
 Quoted in SUZUKI, op. cit., note 2, p. 225. See also SHURMANN,
HANS W. (1973) Buddhism: An Outline of Its Teaching and Schools
(London, Rider), pp. 112-113.
 See ST. MATTHEW 5:45.
 MURTI, op. cit., note 7, p. 263.
 SCHUON, op. cit., note 2, p. 132.
 MURTI, op. cit., note 7, p. 267.
 This translation from EVANS-WENTZ, W. (Ed.) (1951) Tibet's
Great Yogi Milarepa (trans.) KAZI DAWA-SAMDUP (London, Oxford
University Press), p. 273.
 GUENTHER, H. V. & TRUNGPA, CHOGYAM (1975) The Dawn of Tantra
(Berkeley, Shambala), p. 31.
 SCHUON, FRITHJOF (1991) Roots of the Human Condition
(Bloomington, World Wisdom Books), p. 86.
 1 CORINTHIANS 12:1.
 ZIMMER, HEINRICH (1951) in: JOSEPH CAMPBELL (Ed.) The
Philosophies of India (London, Routledge & Kegan Paul), p. 553.
 SCHUON (1968), op. cit., note 2, p. 130.
 A traditional metaphor referred to, in this context, in SUZUKI,
op. cit., note 2, p. 215.
 Quoted in GUENTHER & TRUNGPA, op. cit., note 21, p. 32.
 SCHUON, FRITHJOF (1969) Spiritual Perspectives and Human Facts
(London, Perennial Books), p. 70. See also SCHUON, FRITHJOF (1976)
Understanding Islam (London, Allen & Unwin), pp. 144 ff.
 GOVINDA, ANAGARIKA (1976) Creative Meditation and Multi-Level
Consciousness (Wheaton, Quest), p. 11. On the 'transparency' of
sunyata, see also p. 51.
 SUZUKI, op. cit., note 2, p. 215.
 Sung translation, quoted by SUZUKI, ibid., p. 215.
 MURTI, op. cit., note 7, p. 264.
 SUZUKI, op. cit., note 2, pp. 229 & 216.
 See PALLIS, MARCO (1960) The Way and the Mountain (London,
Peter Owen), p. 182. See also Pallis's remarks in a footnote on the
parallels with the doctrine of the Two Natures of Christ.
 SCHUON (1968), op. cit., note 2, p. 136.
 SUZUKI, D. T. (Ed.) (1973) Lankavatara Sutra (Routledge & Kegan
Paul), p. 184.
 SCHUON (1968), op cit., note 2, p. 156.
 Sadharmapundarika Sutra (Lotus of the Good Law Sutra), cited in
SHURMANN, op. cit., note 15, p. 99.
 SCHUON (1968), op. cit., note 2, p. 144.
 See SUZUKI, op. cit., note 2, pp. 202-205.
 See Tattvasangraha per ZIMMER, op. cit., p. 552. For discussion
of some recent scholarly debate about the relationship of the
boddhisattvas and Buddhas see WILLIAMS, PAUL (1989) Mahayana
Buddhism: The Doctrinal Foundations (London, Routledge), pp.
 RAPOLA, WAHULA (1978) What the Buddha Taught (London, Gordon
Fraser), pp. 1-2.
 A great deal of ink has been spilt on the question of Buddhist
attitudes to faith and grace. For a salutary corrective to
overheated polemics on this subject see PALLIS, MARCO (1980) A
Buddhist Spectrum (London, Allen & Unwin), pp. 52-71.
 GOVINDA (1969), op. cit., note 10, p. 233.
 SCHUON, FRITHJOF (1961) Stations of Wisdom (London, John
Murray), p. 157.
 CONZE (1967), op. cit., note 3, p. 54.
 MURTI, op. cit., note 7, p. 263. On the place of the
bodhisattvas in devotional practices, see WILLIAMS, op. cit., note
41, pp. 215-276.
 SCHUON (1968), op. cit., note 2, p. 135. See also ZIMMER, op.
cit., note 24, p. 535.
 See BLOFELD, JOHN (1977) bodhisattva of Compassion: The
Mystical Tradition of Kuan-Yin (Boston, Shambala).
 From SARAHA Treasury of Songs, quoted in PERRY, WHITALL (1971)
A Treasury of Traditional Wisdom (London, Allen & Unwin), p. 607.