A Bodhisattva is someone who is on the way to becoming awakened. In Mahayana Buddhism it is a person who is bound for awakening, but who vows to help others before completing that path themselves. In a sense, there are two sorts of Bodhisattvas - there are legendary characters such as Kannon (Avalokiteshvara), who are a sort of Buddhist equivalent of saints, and there are ordinary practitioners like myself who have taken Bodhisattva ordination. Kannon could be understood as an inspirational ideal of Bodhisattvahood and a conceptualisation of the principle of compassion.
It could also be said that the Bodhisattva ordination is, in a sense, more important than the monk or nun ordination, even though a monk or nun is generally considered to be more 'senior' in the practice than a Bodhisattva. The monk or nun does not stop being a Bodhisattva - it's just that he or she has decided to practice that path with a greater level of dedication.
The Bodhisattva path and the Zen path are one and the same thing. They are characterised by a spirit of kindness and open-heartedness. We might feel that we sometimes (or often) fall short of such ideals, but the important thing is that we make an effort. This doesn't mean that we need to save the world by organising international rock concerts or other grand gestures, nor does it mean that we have to go around persuading everyone to practice Buddhism. I'm still very much in the process of learning what it means - perhaps I always will be - but it's clear that the emphasis is on ourselves - on paying attention to our own motivations and preoccupations in a detached way so that we can see them clearly as they are rather than being pushed around by them unconsciously. We avoid doing harm, and we follow the precepts. Is our Bodhisattva duty to save all beings from ourselves, as another practitioner put it. If our practice has a positive effect on our lives, others will be affected by that and recognise it. When it is necessary to directly help someone, hopefully we will have the wisdom to recognise that. Some Buddhist schools have meditation techniques specifically for cultivate compassion, but most Zen teachers encourage just Zazen, vows and an open-hearted attitude.
The Buddha told a story about lotus flowers growing out of the mud as an analogy for awakening - lotus flowers cannot grow on air or marble, they can only grow in mud and yet the blossoms are not spoiled by that mud. Awakening is not separate from samsara. The Bodhisattva works in the mud of life.
The bodhisattva is a living Buddha. In Mahayana Buddhism there is no fear of hell. In Christianity that is the supreme punishment. In Zen, if you have to go to hell you go...The Zen monk must leap into hell to save those who are suffering. The bodhisattva must leap into the impurities of the social world. Leap, not fall! Falling into the river and diving into the river are completely different things. If you fall into the river your only thought is to save your life. If you dive into the river you swim and then you can save people who are drowning. Bodhisattvas dive into the world to help...Sometimes it is necessary to rub your hands in impurities. - Master Deshimaru
From personal experience, it seems that there is a risk of misunderstanding compassion as 'being nice all the time' or avoiding upsetting people. Sometimes the kindest thing to do is to be firm. Apparent kindness can be short-sighted or motivated by a desire for approval. It is important that we don't fool ourselves. We need to experience all of our emotions with a calm mind and deal with them skillfully rather than being pushed around blindly.
I took the Bodhisattva ordination myself a few months ago found it both rewarding and challenging. I felt it was time to make a deeper committment to my practice and hoped that making public vows would strengthen my dedication to practice. For someone with a fairly rational and scientific approach to life, making firm and public religious vows was quite an alien and intimidating step. Also during the sesshin I had a problem with my posture which led to a lot of pain in my back. I had been hoping to feel serenely happy about the ordination, but in truth I felt like a bit of a wreck. Nevertheless, I learned important lessons about my posture and my - sometimes irrational - fear of 'religion'. Despite the challenges, I enjoyed the sesshin a great deal. It's clear to me that taking the vows has helped my practice in ways that go beyond just committment to zazen.
The principle vows made during the Bodhisattva ordination are the same as the ones chanted during ceremonies by Zen practitioners on a regular basis.
SHUJO MUHEN SEI GAN DO
However innumerable all beings are I vow to save them all
BONNO MUJIN SEI GAN DAN
However inexhaustible my delusions are I vow to extinguish them all
HO MON MURYO SEI GAN GAKU
However immeasurable the Dharma Teachings are I vow to master them all
BUTSU DO MUJO SEI GAN JO
However endless the Buddha's Way is I vow to follow it completely
The most remarkable thing about these vows is that, taken literally, they are impossible to fulfill. Perhaps if I made a vow which could be fulfilled, such as practicing zazen every day for an hour, I would forget about the vow when I succeeded or become disheartened if I failed. These vows are endless, representing a spirit of endless compassion and endless openness. The vows are an expression of the Bodhisattva spirit itself.
There are no limits. If I were to explain, you would be tempted to limit the role of the bodhisattva to what I had said. Every day you must find out the duties of a bodhisattva. They are not the kind of duties that come from a religious commandment. What you have to do is leap into the river to help those who are drowning, leap into the dangerous places. That is the bodhisattva's vocation. Leap into difficulties, not run away from them. It's very hard. That is what the bodhisattva does to help others. First give food and water to others, only afterward to yourself. "Please, you experience satori," says the bodhisattva. "I am going to help you to have that experience at any price, and afterward I shall try to have it myself." - Master Deshimaru
To live in service to others is an invitation to pass the barrier of self and other. To live an endless vow is an invitation to pass the barrier of success and failure. It's easy to talk about these things but it's not easy to live it in the face of your own desire and aversion, flawed judgement and difficult moral situations.
I'm very grateful to everybody who helped me to find my way onto the Bodhisattva path - those who ordained me and those who helped me to finish my rakusu on time.