It is through the understanding and practice of the Buddha-dharma that one becomes a holy person–a living jewel. Sainthood in Buddhism has a somewhat different meaning than that held in Christianity although both refer to people who live an exceptionally holy life, are very compassionate, and can demonstrate certain “miracles.” In Buddhism it also means one who has become enlightened—been liberated from the cycle of reincarnation and all its related suffering. The Christian saint aspires to be born in the Christian heaven, but this is not the goal of a Buddhist. A Buddhist saint is one who has escaped samsara or existence all together and gone beyond what is possible in the heavenly realms. A Buddhist saint would live in the Dharma realms or wherever he choses to be to help living beings. A saint in Buddhism is one who, like the Buddha, has become enlightened and realized his or her original nature, possessing the skills and wisdom of a Buddha. They have gained control over life and death and are thus liberated from the cycle of reincarnation. This is true happiness!
In Buddhism saints may not lead what is normally thought of as a “conventional” life. There are many examples of Buddhist saints who exhibited most unorthodox or “deliberate” behavior. This unconventional behavior of highly advanced yogins was often taken to be that of a madman. There were three types: avadhuti (sinful behavior), totally good (nondual behavior), and completely victorious (behavior that makes everyone tremble). These eccentric actions of mad yogins served to enhance their realization, which was also referred to as a state of “sameness” or “equal taste.” Padmasambhava, Virupa, Manjusrimitra, Tsang Nyon Heruka, and Tangtong Gyalpo were all practitioners of deliberate behavior. Their actions, often counter to the precepts of non-tantric Buddhism, required proper motivation and a high level of realization. If they were not performed with pure intent to help living beings by someone lacking in sufficient realization they would result in the practitioner going to the lowest hells. Certain Zen hermit-monks, like Monk Ji-gong and the “Tian-tai Trio” also exhibited similar sorts of eccentric behavior. Saints can manifest in innumerable forms and may appear as humans or animals or live in other dimensions.
The key features of the various paths to becoming a holy being are summarized in the chart “How to Become a Holy Being.” It is useful to think of these paths as stages on the way to becoming a Buddha. It is interesting to note that the other world religions are also included as initial stages on the way to buddhahood in as much as they teach compassion, loving kindness, some aspects of morality, and discourage evil. Some also teach various forms of training the mind in meditation. Bodhisattvas do not only incarnate as Buddhists to help living being. The three pure precepts of Buddhism—cease evil, do good, and help others—can be practiced in many forms.
It is important to know that one cannot fully understand what takes place on higher levels of the path. For example, those on the first Bodhisattva stage do not know about what takes place on the second Bodhisattva stage and so on up the path. Those on the second Bodhisattva stage see those on the first Bodhisattva stage as having impurities. Even those on the tenth Bodhisattva stage see those on the ninth Bodhisattva stage as having certain impurities. It is natural that the impurities and obscurations of those on the lower levels would be greater than those at the higher levels. Nevertheless, those who are kind and benefit others can guide and transform living beings no matter where they are on the path. However, ordinary beings and those at the lower levels of the path cannot possibly understand the behavior of true holy beings.
You must remember that ALL sentient beings are evolving toward the perfection of being a Buddha, whether they know it or not, and whether at the moment they may be very confused and behaving in foolish or even evil ways. This includes the minions of Mara and the demons of hell as well as the devas or gods in heaven.
Click the heading below for more on Buddhas, Bodhisattvas, and other Holy Beings and how one becomes a Holy Being.