He who aspires to attain Samma Smabuddhahood is called a Bodhisattva. This Bodhisattva ideal is the most refined and the most beautiful that is ever presented to this ego-centric world, for what is nobler than a life of service and purity.
Those who, in the course of their wanderings in Sansara, wish to serve others and reach ultimate perfection, are free to follow the Bodhisattva Ideal, but there is no compulsion that all must strive to attain Buddhahood, which, to say the least, is practically impossible.
The Pali term Bodhisattva is composed of Bodhi which means wisdom or Enlightenment. Its Sanskritised form should be Bodhisakta, but the popular term is Bodhisattva which means a being aspiring to become a Buddha. This term is generally applied to any person who is striving for Enlightenment, but in the strictest sense of the term, it should be applied only to those who are destined to become supremely Enlightened Ones.
In one sense all are potential Buddhas. It should be noted that Buddhists do not believe that there lies dormant in all a Divine spark that needs development for they deny the existence of a GodCreator, but they are aware of the innate possibilities and the creative power of man.
Buddhism denies too the existence of a permanent soul that transmigrates from life to life acquiring all experiences. Instead of an unchanging soul, the socalled essence of man, it posits a dynamic life flux where there is an identity in process. A Bodhisattva need not necessarily be a Buddhist. Just as we find everloving Bodhisattvas amongst Buddhists today, though probably unaware of their lofty aspirations, even so they may be found amongst other religionists as well. According to Buddhism there are three classes of Bodhisattvas, namely; Intellectual Bodhisattvas (Pannadhika), Devotional Bodhisattvas (Saddhadhika) and Energetic Bodhisattas (Viriyadhika). These three kinds of Bodhisattas correspond respectively to Nana Yofi, Bhakti Yogi, and Karma Yogi of the Hindus.
The intellectual Bodhisattvas are less devotional and more energetic; the devotional ones are less energetic and more intellectual; the energetic ones are less intellectual and more devotional. Seldom, if ever, are these three characteristics harmoniously combined in one person. The Buddha Gotama is cited as one belonging to the intellectual group. According to the books the intellectual ones attain Buddhahood within a short period. The devotional ones take a longer time, and energetic ones take the longest time. The intellectual Bodhisattvas concentrate their attention more on the development of wisdom and on the practice of meditation than on the observance of external forms of reverence. They are always guided by reason and accept nothing on blind belief. They make no self-surrender, and are not slaves either to a book or to an individual. They prefer meditation in lonely solitudes. With silent peaceful thoughts radiating from their solitary retreats, they morally help the suffering humanity.
The element of piety - Saddha or trustful confidence - is predominant in the devotional Bodhisattas. With Saddha as their playmate they achieve their goal. Those Bodhisattvas would take a keen interest in all forms of reverence and so forth. The image2 of the Buddha is a great inspiration to them.
It should be understood that Buddhists do not worship an image. They pay their respect to what it represents and reflect on the virtues of the Buddha. The more they think of the Buddha the more they love Him. This is the reason why Buddhism does not denounce these external forms of reverence (amisapuja) though undoubtedly the practice (patipattipuja) is more commendable and indisputably superior. Dry intellect has to be combined with Saddha to obtain satisfactory results. Excessive Saddha too, has to be restrained, at times, by wisdom. The energetic ones always seek opportunities to be serviceable to others. Nothing gives them greater delight than active service. "For them work is happiness and happiness is work". They are not happy unless they are active. As King Siri Sangabodhi of Sri Lanka said, "bear this body of flesh and blood for the good happiness of the world". This spirit of selfless service is one of the chief characteristics of all Bodhisattvas.
With relentless energy they work, not as slaves but as masters. They crave not for fame or name. They are interested only in the doing. It is immaterial to them whether others recognize their service or not. They are utterly indifferent to praise or blame.
They forget themselves in their disinterested service to others. They would even sacrifice their lives if such action would save another's life. The compassion of a Bodhisattva consists in realizing the equality of oneself with others (para-atma-samata) and also the substitution of others for oneself (para-atma-parivartana). When he so regards his feelings of egoism fade and he makes no difference between himself and others. He returns good for evil, and helps of his own accord the very persons who have wronged him, for he knows that the strength of a religious teacher is his patience.
"Being reviled, he reviles not; being beaten, he beats not; being annoyed, he annoys not. His forgiveness is unfailing even as the mother earth suffers in silence all that may be done to her."
Courtesy: Travel Diary of a Philosopher