The Chinese word pusa is an abbreviated transliteration of the Sanskrit word bodhisattva. The complete transliteration should be putisaduo. “Bodhi” means “awakened” or “enlightened” and “sattva” means “sentient being”, so bodhisattva means “awakened sentient being”. The term sentient refers to any form of life that can feel love and other emotions, mainly animals. Bodhisattvas are enlightened sentient beings that are aware of all sentient beings’ sufferings, feel sympathy for others’ plight, and act to succor them. Therefore, we often speak of a person who is altruistic and helps those in difficulties as “having the heart of a bodhisattva”.
The basic meaning of the word bodhisattva is very different from what most Chinese people understand. The clay or wooden statues of various spirits or gods such as the neighbourhood locality god or city god are definitely not bodhisattvas. Rather, bodhisattvas are those who have faith in the Buddha’s teachings and seek to practise them, who themselves vow to liberate themselves and others, and who can even disregard themselves in order to save others.
To become a Buddha, a sentient being must pass through the stage of being a bodhisattva, and he or she must make and take to heart great vows, especially the Four Great Vows: “To deliver innumerable sentient beings, to cut off endless vexations, to master limitless approaches to the Dharma, and to attain supreme Buddhahood”. We can see how difficult it is to be a real bodhisattva.
But in another sense of the word, anyone who aspires to become a Buddha, from the time the vow is first generated until the eventual attainment of Buddhahood, can be called a bodhisattva. Hence, there is a difference between ordinary bodhisattvas and noble bodhisattvas. The bodhisattvas mentioned in the sutras are mostly noble bodhisattvas. According to the Sútra on the Deeds of Bodhisattvas as Necklaces of Gems, bodhisattvas can be classified into fifty-two levels, and only the top twelve levels (from the first ground to the tenth ground, plus the ground of equivalent enlightenment and the ground of wondrous enlightenment) are noble stages. Actually, a bodhisattva in the wondrous enlightenment stage is a Buddha, and a bodhisattva in the equivalent enlightenment stage will become a Buddha in his next life. The bodhisattvas we know of, such as Guanyin, Mahásthámaprápta, Samantabhadra, Mañjusrí, Maitreya, and Earth Treasury are bodhisattvas at the stage of equivalent enlightenment.
Extracted from: Orthodox Chinese Buddhism (English version) by Master Sheng Yen