The term Bodhisattva has been used throughout history in many different ways. The Buddha in the Buddhist scripture, the Pali Canon, used it to “refer to himself both in his previous lives and as a young man in his current life, prior to his enlightenment, in the period during which he was working towards his own liberation”. Given this definition, it makes sense why Chu T’ien-Wen would choose to use it in her work. Bodhisattva is in reference to the way the main character, Little Tong, continuously refers back to his childhood before his enlightenment. However, this term is also usually used to describe someone who is on his or her way to enlightenment in the future, which gives the term a more hopeful meaning that may be applied to Little Tong’s life. But there is also a more depressing part to being a “bodhisattva” in that, since you are unenlightened, you are still subject to the horrors that plague the world such as death, sorrow etc. This is definitely applicable to Little Tong’s life in that he still feels heartbreak over his first relationship with Jabbar and this sorrow has the capacity to help Little Tong find his way too enlightenment.
Even Little Tong’s name itself alludes to how he is still called the name of his childhood, and how he is still like that child inside, having not found his enlightenment yet that most people his age seem to have found. Yet the difference I find between Little Tong and the Bodhisattva is that the Bodhisattva is supposed to have the goal of eventual enlightenment. To me, however, it seems as though Little Tong loves staying in his unenlightened past. The only time he seems like he is truly happy and where he wants to be is when he is talking with Zhong Lin about their shared childhood. Little Tong does not seem like he has the motivation to move past being a Bodhisattva into enlightenment.
All the hardships and experiences Little Tong has to endure throughout his Bodhisattvahood with men help shape him and steer him on a path of enlightenment, that however unwilling he is about it, helps transform him by the end of the story. I am unsure exactly how far he gets in his path to enlightenment, but by the end he says “he know that since he’d been able to refuse desire the first time, he’d be able to do it the second time, the third time, the nth time. The day of the nth time he could die and ascend to heaven”. This reminds me of the cycle of rebirth that is included in the religion of Buddhism. The belief that after many many rebirths, someone will finally reach “nirvana” or final liberation in which they will be “free from suffering” and not be reincarnated any more. This cycle is apparent in the quote that Little Tong says, and it seems to me that by “refusing the desire” he is being re-born in a way, through further enlightenment that comes with the suffering emotionally that comes from this refusal. Eventually after many “re-births” he will reach Nirvana and can actually die and go to heaven. However, he questions this end, asking, “would that be cause for happiness? For sadness?”. This shows that he is perhaps doubting if the end result of nirvana is all it is made out to be, maybe the path taken there, being the Bodhisattva is what really makes a person feel satisfied with their life. Maybe it is the struggles we have to face and overcome, more than the end result of nirvana, that we should be cherishing and looking forward to as we embark on our journey as the Bodhisattva Incarnate.