In Mahayana Buddhism, the general definition of the Bodhisattva is one who foregoes ultimate liberation (full Buddhahood/nirvana) in order to be reborn ad infinitum until all sentient beings are liberated from dukkha (often translated as suffering). This conception is entirely dependent on the Buddhist cosmological world-view of cyclical re-birth, suffering, and death (skt. samsara). The Bodhisattva encompasses the ideal of Mahayana Buddhism: self-transcendence, embodied wisdom, and limitless compassion.
The Savior-Complex is a psychological construct based on what we might consider particular submerged and/or emergent affective and cognitive patterning within the subject. The patterning is what can be thought of as the complex, and the particular type of complex I am referring to is patterning that involves the draw towards "savior-hood."
But what is a savior? This is where things start getting a little more tricky, and open to interpretation. Generally speaking, we can say that both Christianity and Buddhism are soteriological traditions in that both emphasize some form of salvation, albeit some might disagree that salvation is an accurate description of the Buddhist nirvana. Regardless if we use salvation or liberation, what we are referring to by this terminology is being saved (or saving ourselves) in some way. In Christianity it is from sin, so that we might live eternally in the presence of God's Light (Heaven). In early Buddhism it is from samsara, from cyclical existence wherein re-birth means re-suffering. Thus we might say, that within the traditions that sprung from their teachings, both Jesus and Siddartha were saviors of sorts (whether or not they set out to be). Each showed a path towards achieving some kind of optimal realization, or at least some state or place beyond our normal conception of existence. For Jesus it was the "Kingdom of God," and for Buddha it was "nirvana." Now first let me say, I am not here to argue that these two are one and the same, nor am I here to say that they are ultimately different. Rather, I talked about these areas to qualify what is meant by "savior," so that I can be clear in the distinctions that follow.
In salvific traditions most of us non-saviors are stuck with a conflict of sorts. We are meant to idealize the respective saviors of our given traditions, and yet we can never become them- we can never achieve the symbolic status of savior. Firstly a savior is defined as such because that individual is the ONE (ie. 'Neo from the Matrix')- which is a very Christian concept if you ask me. Therefore, we can not all be the savior because then who would be the saved? In other words savior by definition is set aside from us "normals," rather drastically. Perhaps there could be saviors for different populations, ideas, cultures, yet once there is one "savior," it seems that there can only be one savior in a given tradition- Therefore, unless you start your own religion, you can never attain the status of savior. Secondly, I would argue (without citations) that the two examples of saviors I have given were actually NOT trying to start their own religion. Therefore, the status of savior could only be applied to them posthumously, namely by the traditions that began with them (although some may argue Jesus already commanded a savior status prior to his death).
I am making some pretty big leaps here. There is simply more nuance to this issue than I can capture in this blog post (could be a dissertation). However, I am working towards defining the relevance of the Savior-Complex. Before that, I would like to briefly differentiate Christ from the Buddha as saviors- and thus their Christian and Buddhist conceptions as such.
In Christ, there is only one savior. As Christians, people don't need to become the savior, that is impossible actually, rather they need to believe that the savior is indeed the savior in order to be saved. Therefore, there is a tacit recognition that it is impossible for anyone but Jesus Christ to be a savior. Although Christians may take the body and blood of Christ as a form of symbolic identification with/internalization of Jesus, the separation between my "self" and Jesus is apparent.
In Buddhism, the realization of the Buddha (liberative in function) is said to be accessible to anyone. While some Buddhists may say the Buddha's enlightenment was supreme, it is also said that there have been many Buddhas, and that perfect enlightenment (although rare) is accessible to those fortunate enough to discover the Dharma if not in this life, then a future one. The Buddha's realization is not one of the separation between the Buddha and others, rather that underneath layers of mistaken identity we actually are all Buddhas (totally awakened beings). Yet despite this, symbolically it is still the Buddha that is idealized as the one who first showed the way (at least in this 'time cycle'). Thus while people may attain the realization of the Buddha, the achievement of the status of savior is arguably not possible, at least at this time, because no matter what the Buddhist narrative - at least historically- begins with the historical Gautum Buddha.
The Savior-Complex and It's Function
OK. Now that that contextualization is out of the way, let's talk about the Savior-Complex.
The Savior-Complex arises from the desire not to simply be a follower of one of the Great Traditions, but actually the desire to be a savior or savior-like figure to others. I have already mentioned for us normal people, achievement of the status of savior is virtually impossible- although we are meant to idealize such people- which in my opinion can be confusing for some parts of us.
In my experience the Savior-Complex has little to do with what we might call "savior-envy..." In other words, it is not resultant from envying the status of a savior necessarily- although I can see how the complex might include such a desire. Rather, the Savior-Complex is directly related to the desire to be significant, to really fucking matter. Who matters more than a savior to his or her followers?
Now there are a couple of further interpretations of this "wanting to be significant," that I will go into. First, I would like to name this as a type of narcissistic wound. A Narcissistic wound is a type of psychological trauma that occurs when the child's value is not reflected back to him or her clearly and/or regularly by the primary attachment figure(s) through not just words but actions. There are more specific types of narcissistic wounds, this is perhaps the most general (I would recommend checking out Kohut's Self Psychology for more). Over time, the sense of "not mattering," becomes internalized and as the child grows up and into adult life it can manifest as low self-esteem, addiction, depression, anxiety, and any number of other psychological symptoms. My theory is that one such way the self seeks to heal this particular wound of not mattering is to create situations and/or fantasies where savior-hood is possible. Such savior-hood need not be crucifixion, it could be simply only caring about others while neglecting one's own needs (codependency), some form of aggrandizement (over estimating ones own power), comparing oneself to others to find out areas where one's self is superior, attachment to anything that makes one feel special, beyond others, better, etc.
Now, please be careful not to shame this part if you notice it coming up! These tendencies are reflections of a bruised younger self asking for help, not a shameful edict about how you think you should be currently! The Savior-Complex related to narcissistic needs deserves tenderness, as that is really what it is looking for. It is SO important to our health to feel significant, to matter, to feel powerful, and yet at the same time if we try to achieve these feelings unconsciously we are more likely to act them out in ways that are ultimately unfulfilling (because the underlying message is not being heard). Therefore, a non-judgmental attitude towards self is best, while trying to really make space for what may be lurking underneath (narcissistic grief/rage).
From the perspective of existential psychology, it is not just a narcissistic wound that makes us feel insignificant, but the very fact that we are one of seven billion humans on the planet, that in the grand scheme of things we are utterly small, that after our relatively short lives all the work we have done won't matter, and that we may not be remembered at all just a generation or two after we have lived. Of course, this existential insignificance couples rather well with narcissistic wounding to make the Savior-Complex all the more relevant to our psychological protective mechanisms. You see, saviors are remembered for much longer than their life spans. By very nature, a savior is significant!!
The Bodhisattva is a being who, within Buddhist cosmology, vows to forego total liberation until all beings are liberated from suffering and its causes. Think about that- it is no joke to be reborn indeterminately, to pass through birth, life, and death until all beings are liberated from suffering! That is some commitment in the Mahayana Buddhist world, especially because the cosmology Mahayana Buddhists inhabit is not a universe but a cyclical multiverse- in other words it is not thought that there is ONE universe that begins and ends in a linear fashion, rather that there are multiple universes that are cyclically manifesting and dissolving for an indeterminable amount of time- the extent of which our minds can really not even fathom. It would be quite challenging for the Bodhisattva to hold on to being meaningful on one planet in a previous life when he or she could be born in an entirely different universe the next!
Unlike the Savior-Complex, the Bodhisattva only operates from the principle of compassion. Although I am comparing the two- please again remember not to "put down" the Savior-Complex, because these two principles are totally different. The Savior-Complex has contextual intelligence yet it is clearly distinguishable from the Bodhisattva ideal. Not only does the Bodhisattva ideal transcend the desire to be significant, the ideal actually transcends the concept of savior-hood because in principle the Bodhisattva recognizes that there is really no one to be saved. What does this mean, no one to be saved?
In Mahayana Buddhism there is a movement to "Non-Dual" Buddhism. In other words, no longer is nirvana some place beyond what is happening now that people try to get to, rather nirvana and samsara (cyclical existence/suffering) are actually completely and totally unified. Saving implies getting out of something, someplace, and into something, somewhere else. Yet in Mahayana Buddhism, the Bodhisattva is able to recognize the simultaneity of suffering/non-suffering, samsara/nirvana and dedicates him/herself to helping bring others into this recognition. That being said, the statement "no one is saved" is valid in at least two premises (my interpretations are by no means exhaustive).
The first one I have already mentioned, saving implies that nirvana is ontologically distinct from samsara- that is that nirvana actually exists outside of what we call samsara. From a Mahayana perspective on which the Bodhisattva ideal is founded, this is simply false. Secondly the very idea that there is "one" to be saved is representative of a dualistic relationship between self and other. Prominent in Buddhism is the concept of "no-self," which I am not going to deeply get into now. The point is the Bodhisattva is able to see through the distinctions of self and other to recognize that ultimately those classifications do not inherently exist. Therefore in choosing to reborn ad-infinitum the Bodhisattva has done so with the recognition of the simultaneity of suffering/non-suffering and what I might call the recognition of other as self and other.
Thus, it is possible to say that the Bodhisattva saves no one (absence of self/other dichotomy) from nothing (absence of distinction between nirvana/samsara)- and at the same time is motivated by the intention of sourceless compassion to be of service to beings unaware of their "Buddha nature..." or their nature beyond suffering.
In conclusion, the Savior-Complex and the Bodhisattva are two totally different ideas relevant in two totally different contexts- however they do intersect. Learning to recognize the difference between being motivated to act because I want to try to be immortal/significant is much different than being motivated to act without regard for a self that does not inherently exist in order to help others do the same. The Savior-Complex is not the Bodhisattva ideal, rather it is a psychological signal to ourselves that perhaps we need to pay attention to a younger part of ourselves who does not feel significant. This is why I have suggested trying not to shame this part of ourselves, rather being willing to be with it and listen to it. Thus the relevance of differentiating the Savior-Complex and the Bodhisattva ideal is so that we can give each part what that part needs, rather than mixing the two up resulting in confusion, or further hurt.
Ultimately in a culture of choice you can begin to choose your own beliefs. Regardless of what you choose, the intention from which you enact beliefs is the most important. This is really (in my opinion of course) one of the most important messages of the Bodhisattva ideal, and Mahayana Buddhism- that our intention has the utmost significance in our actions. Whether or not you believe in a cyclical multi-verse, a universe, non-duality, Christianity, salvation, Heaven, nirvana, it is clear that the intention with which you act impacts others no matter which life or plane you exist on.