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Claritas: Journal of Dialogue and Culture

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Buddhist Studies | Religion | Religious Thought, Theology and Philosophy of Religion


The notion of the bodhisattva, the selfless individual who is dedicated to alleviating the sufferings of others, is traditionally articulated within a Mahāyāna Buddhist framework. The question posed here is whether and to what extent this religious ideal can be conceived or, or instantiated by, individuals whose religiosity is framed by a different set of be- liefs and values, taking the Roman Catholic Sister of Charity, Mother Teresa, as an example. The broader question of commensurability arises when the criteria for qualifying as a bodhisattva, set within a specifically Mahāyāna context, are superimposed upon a figure who is solidly grounded within another religious tradition. At first glance, the requisite virtues of the bodhisattva—renunciation, compassion and wisdom—seem to intersect aptly with the life and teachings of the “saint of Calcutta.” In the details, however, the Buddhist philosophical context of these requisites calls into question the legitimacy of attempting to blithely translate ideas and principles from one worldview to another. Ultimately, the contrivance may work, trumped by the attainments of the archetypal bodhisattva. With figures like Mother Teresa, who are regarded as moral exemplars not only within their own traditions but in other traditions and beyond religion as well, perhaps we can expand our understandings of compassion and of the cultural and religious categories that delineate religious ideals.


Originally published by Purdue Press in Claritas: Journal of Dialogue and Culture.