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Walking the Bodhisattva Path: Bodhisattva and Refuge Vows Explained

For many, the word “vow” makes us stop and signals that whatever is about to happen is serious—like everything seems laid back until someone mentions taking vows. That’s more of a relational perspective. As one dives deeper into Buddhism, they will likely hear about taking bodhisattva and refuge vows. These vows certainly aren’t the same as marriage vows, but it’s wise and recommended to be fully aware of the meaning and responsibility inherent to taking these vows. Then you can decide if refuge and bodhisattva vows are the right path for you.

Let’s begin by looking at the term bodhisattva. In Tibetan Buddhism, there are two common definitions of a bodhisattva. The first is that by merely generating the attitude or mind of bodhicitta, the wish to free beings from suffering and bring them to enlightenment, one receives the title of bodhisattva. The second is that you are considered a bodhisattva path once you have a direct realization of the truth of emptiness.

 What is taking refuge in Buddhism?

There is a formal refuge ceremony that you can go through with a Buddhist teacher. In this you say “Until I reach the state of Enlightenment, I take refuge in the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha.” The teacher will cut a small piece of your hair.  This symbolizes the Buddha cutting his hair when he left his palace to pursue the path to enlightenment. You will also receive a Dharma name.

What are the bodhisattva vows? 

The bodhisattva vows are a formal commitment to free others from suffering and bring them to enlightenment. While it might seem easy to wish all beings could be happy, free from suffering, and find enlightenment, it’s another thing to formally make a commitment to work towards that goal. The actions that you take towards that goal are more powerful and stabilized by making a commitment in that direction.

What is the purpose of the bodhisattva vows? Why would one become a bodhisattva?

The vows are in place in order for you to strengthen your resolve and your practice of bodhicitta, the wish to free others from suffering and to bring them to enlightenment. The vows encourage you to be generous, to develop Loving Kindness and compassion.

When you take bodhisattva vows, you’re already thinking in the direction of bodhicitta but are taking a step to further those commitments on a serious level. Making a commitment in the direction of bodhicitta, you aren’t just thinking it would be nice if all beings got to Buddhahood. Instead you are committing to bringing them to Buddhahood yourself to free them.

What’s the difference between a bodhisattva and a Buddha?

A bodhisattva can be talked about in two different ways. Sometimes a bodhisattva is labeled as anyone who has developed the mind of bodhicitta, the wish to free beings from suffering and bring them to enlightenment. In a technical sense, it is someone who has already had this direct realization of emptiness. It’s a much higher level than a person who has merely taken bodhisattva vows. Even though in the Way of the Bodhisattva path, Shantideva says that one attains the name “bodhisattva” the instant that they develop the mind of bodhicitta, when the word is used in Buddhist texts, it almost exclusively refers to one who has directly realized emptiness.

A bodhisattva path is in these higher paths of trainings leading to Buddhahood and is significantly further ahead on the path than an ordinary person. There are 10 levels of Bodhisattvas and these levels are stages of realization and purification of the mind. So, when one bodhisattva is said to be on a higher level than another, that means they have purified more of the things that need to be purified (afflicted mental states, emotions, habitual patterns) and realized emptiness on an even more subtle or profound level.

When the whole process is perfected and all of the afflictive and obscured states have been eliminated or abandoned (karma, mental afflictions, etc.), then the bodhisattva becomes a Buddha.

How many bodhisattvas are there?

In Buddhism, the idea of time is infinite, spaces are infinite, worlds are infinite. Therefore, when you accept the idea of infinity, you can recognize that there are infinite bodhisattvas.

Who is the bodhisattva of compassion?

The name of the bodhisattva of compassion is Chenrezig in Tibetan and Avalokiteshvara in Sanskrit. Chenrezig is considered to be the embodiment of the compassion of all buddhas and bodhisattvas. When he first generated bodhicitta, he vowed that he would not attain Buddhahood for himself until he first brought all other living beings to that state. He is often depicted as having either four arms which represent the four boundless thoughts, or alternatively as having one thousand arms and one thousand eyes which represent his compassion and activity which sees all the sufferings of the world and reaches out to free beings from them.

If you want to read more about this subject, we recommend The Way of the Bodhisattva by Shantideva and The Nectar of Manjushri’s Speech: A Detailed Commentary on Shantideva’s Way of the Bodhisattva by Kunzang Pelden.

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