The Bodhisattvas are honored in many famous artworks, including one of the highest sculptures of the Bodhisattva at the Chinese Puning Temple, built in 1755.
While Maitreya (Pali: Metteya) is mentioned in the Pali Canon, he is not referred to as a bodhisattva, but simply the next fully-awakened Buddha to come into existence long after the current teachings of the Buddha are lost.
In later Theravada literature, the term bodhisatta is fairly frequent in the sense of someone on the path to liberation. The later commentarial tradition also recognizes the existence of two additional types of bodhisattas: the paccekabodhisatta who will attain Paccekabuddhahood, and the savakabodhisatta who will atain enlightenment as a disciple of a Buddha.
The Mahayana encourages everyone to become bodhisattvas and to take the bodhisattva vows. With these vows, one makes the promise to work for the complete enlightenment of all sentient beings. Indelibly entwined with the Bodhisattva Vow is parinamana (Sanskrit; which may be rendered in English as "merit transference").
In Mahayana Buddhism, a bodhisattva is, at least in a sense, one who aspires to become Buddha for the benefit of all sentient beings. In Mahayana Buddhism this world is compared with a burning home where all sentient beings are resided without the knowledge of house being burnt. A Bodhisattva is the one who has determination to free sentient beings from samsara with the cycle of death, rebirth and suffering. This type of mind is known as bodhicitta; Sanskrit for mind of awakening. Bodhisattvas take bodhisattva vows in order to progress on the spiritual path towards buddhahood. According to some East Asian Mahayana sources a bodhisattva can choose either of three paths to help sentient beings in the process of achieving buddhahood. They are:
King-like Bodhisattva - one who aspires to become buddha as soon as possible and then help sentient beings in full fledge;
Boatman-like Bodhisattva - one who aspires to achieve buddhahood along with other sentient beings and
Shepherd-like Bodhisattva - one who aspires to delay buddhahood until all other sentient beings achieve buddhahood. Bodhisattvas like Avalokiteshvara, Shantideva among others are believed to fall in this category.
Tibetan doctrine (like Theravada, for different reasons) recognizes only the first of these, holding that Buddhas remain in the world for ever, in some sense, able to help others, so there is no point in delay. East Asian doctrinal traditions tend to emphasize the second and/or third, the idea of deliberately refraining from becoming a Buddha, perhaps for ever.
Mahayana Buddhist philosophy sometimes poses the concept of the bodhisattva in contrast to that of the Śrāvakabuddha (conventionally referred to as an arhat). An arhat is liberated from samsara (or the cycle of uncontrolled rebirth), but did not choose, in a previous life, to try and save each and every other living being before achieving Buddhahood before passing away into nirvana. (In Theravada terminology, Buddhas are also arahants.) Bodhisattvas, on the other hand vow not to become enlightened until all sentient beings have been saved. Ksitigarbha, for instance, has vowed not to become a Buddha until there is nobody left in hell.
According to many traditions within Mahayana Buddhism, on the way to becoming a Buddha, a bodhisattva proceeds through ten, or sometimes fourteen, stages or bhumi. Below is the list of ten bhumis and their descriptions from The Jewel Ornament of Liberation, a treatise by Gampopa (an influential teacher of the Tibetan Kagyu school). Other schools give slightly variant descriptions.
Before a bodhisattva arrives at the first ground, he or she first must travel the first two of the five paths:
the path of accumulation
the path of preparation
The ten grounds of the bodhisattva then can be grouped into the next three paths
Bhumi 1 the path of insight
Bhumi 2-7 the path of meditation
Bhumi 8-10 the path of no more learning
It is said that being close to enlightenment and seeing the benefit for all sentient beings, one achieves great joy, hence the name. In this bhumi the bodhisattvas practice all virtues (paramita), but especially emphasizing generosity (dana).
In accomplishing the second bhumi, the bodhisattva is free from the stains of immorality, therefore, this bhumi is named 'Stainless'. The emphasized virtue is moral discipline (śila).
The third bhumi is named 'Luminous', because, for a bodhisattva who accomplishes this bhumi, the light of Dharma is said to radiate from the bodhisattva for others. The emphasized virtue is patience (kṣanti).
This bhumi is called 'Radiant', because it is said to be like a radiating light that fully burns that which opposes enlightenment. The emphasized virtue is vigor (virya).
5.Very difficult to train
Bodhisattvas who attain this bhumi strive to help sentient beings attain maturity, and do not become emotionally involved when such beings respond negatively, both of which are difficult to do. The emphasized virtue is meditative concentration (dhyāna).
"By depending on the perfection of wisdom awareness, he [the bodhisattva] does not abide in either saṃsāra or nirvāṇa, so it is 'obviously transcendent'". The emphasized virtue is wisdom (prajña).
Particular emphasis is on the perfection of skilful means, or upaya-kaushalya, to help others.
The emphasized virtue is aspiration.
This, the 'Immovable' bhumi, is the bhumi at which one becomes able to choose his place of rebirth.
9.Good Discriminating Wisdom
The emphasized virtue is power.
10.Cloud of dharma
The emphasized virtue is the practice of primordial wisdom.
Some Mahayana traditions in East Asia recognize a much larger number of stages, more than fifty.
Various traditions within Buddhism believe in certain specific bodhisattvas. Some bodhisattvas appear across traditions, but due to language barriers may be seen as separate entities. For example, Tibetan Buddhists believe in Chenrezig, who is Avalokitesvara in India, Guanyin (other spellings: Kwan-yin, Kuan-yin) in China and Korea, Quan Am in Vietnam, and Kannon (formerly spelled and pronounced: Kwannon) in Japan. Jizo or Ti Tsang is another popular bodhisattva in Japan and China (Ksitigarbha in Sanskrit). Jizo is known for aiding those who are lost. His greatest compassionate Vow being: "If I do not go to the hell to help the suffering beings there, who else will go? ... if the hells are not empty I will not become a Buddha. Only when all living beings have been saved, will I attain Bodhi."
Two modern bodhisattvas for many are the 14th Dalai Lama and the Karmapa, both considered by many followers of Tibetan Buddhism to be an incarnation of that same bodhisattva Chenrezig, the Bodhisattva of Compassion.
The bodhisattva is a popular subject in Buddhist art.
The place of a bodhisattva's earthly deeds, such as the achievement of enlightenment or the acts of dharma, is known as a bodhimanda, and may be a site of pilgrimage. Many temples and monasteries are famous as bodhimandas; for instance, the island of Putuoshan, located off the coast of Ningbo, is venerated by Chinese Buddhists as the bodhimanda of Avalokitesvara. Perhaps the most famous bodhimanda of all is the bodhi tree under which Shakyamuni achieved buddhahood.