Monday, October 28, 2013

Who is a bodhisattva?

Someone left a comment to my last post that is worth responding to.  She asked if I was positing that there is no such thing as genuine concern for the welfare of others, or, in Buddhist terms, whether I thought there is no such thing as a bodhisattva.  Certainly, I did not mean to imply that.  By positing of two kinds of self-absorption, I did not mean to imply that those are the only types of people that exist.  Nor did I even mean to imply that a person would always be self-absorbed in one way or the other.  In fact, most human beings are naturally outwardly focused and only become oriented inward either because their upbringing was difficult or because of some other suffering through which they have come to understand that something is lacking in the kinds of satisfaction that outward focus provides. And they may only be self-absorbed for a period of time and then turn outward again.

But rather than dismantling my analysis for lack of completeness or clarity, let me add a bit to it.  There could be said to be a third type of self-absorption.  This is the one in which the "self" is absorbed into the All or the One.  This would be when a genuine concern for the welfare of  "others" begins to arise because the thought-wall between self and others has been seen through.  One is, then, not concerned for others because "but for the grace of God go I" (which is more akin to pity), but because one has seen that others are not separate from oneself.

I, like the reader, have also been transformed by those I saw as bodhisattvas.  For those who aren't familiar with the term, let me define bodhisattva before I continue.  Technically, as I understand it, a bodhisattva is a being who has reached nirvana but vows to come back and help other beings reach it also, and not to enter nirvana until every other being does so.  In general terms, though, the word is often used just to mean someone who acts with selfless compassion.  Either definitions will work for purposes of this discussion.

In fact, though, I think there may be a problem with the bodhisattva concept.  We see a person acting with selfless compassion and call him or her a "bodhisattva."  But does that person see himself or herself as a bodhisattva?  I would guess that, to the extent that someone thinks, "Ah, now I'm finally a bodhisattva," it indicates that they really have quite a bit of self-concern, and that maybe even that person is getting some ego-gratification out of being such a good person.  This is not what we usually think of as a bodhisattva.

So, then, a genuine bodhisattva will be someone who does NOT see himself or herself that way.  Thus, the ambition to become a bodhisattva is problematic because, once the separate self is seen through, it is no longer the separate person who acts with selfless compassion.  The reason, that is, that SELFLESS compassion is such a powerful force in the world is that the act does not come from individual self but from a deeper source.  (Of course, it may be said that all of our actions come from a deeper source, but usually the ego wants to take credit and that dilutes the effect.)

So perhaps "bodhisattva" as a noun is misleading since, as a goal, it is never reached for the self or ego who has that goal; that is, "selfless" acts are not in fact done by the separate self.  Maybe it would be more accurate if we just used the term as an adjective -- bodhisattvistic -- meaning that a certain generous act was pure and did not come from any concern for how the actor would be seen.  Or maybe it could be a verb:  "He bodhisatted yesterday."

Describing the act rather than the actor is more accurate anyway since the actor is, in a sense, channeling spirit at such times.  And it may prevent us from idealizing someone whom we experience from the outside as the epitome of compassion.  This idealization can be a motivating force in the beginning of one's spiritual journey, but it can also be a hindrance later on.  Almost everyone who seems to be completely without self has gone through the same struggles all human beings go through, and to see this is also to see that we all are, at times, bodhisattvas for each other, often without that intention.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Self-Absorption and Awakening

I've some inchoate thoughts around this topic, so let's just see where this goes.

Based on my own experience at different stages in my life as well as on observation of others, I would describe two types of self-absorption.  The first is the unaware kind.  This is where the person's orientation is basically outward, toward finding satisfaction outside him/herself.  But s/he is unable to find it because the reason for the outward orientation in the first place is the deep belief that there is nothing of value inside.  Thus, the only hope is that what is needed will come from somewhere else.  That need for the sense of emptiness to be filled is self-absorbed because the person isn't really interested in others except to the extent that s/he sees hope that others might fill the emptiness.  Usually this orientation is pretty unconscious although someone who is doing this and is scrupulously honest might eventually get a sense that it really isn't about any genuine interest in others.  Such a realization might be the start of a genuine search for truth.

The other type of self-absorption is the one that arises as one starts on the path to awakening, or re-starts after a period of outward orientation.  Suddenly, everything and everyone in the environment comes to take a back seat.  One does the daily tasks and maybe has a few recreational pursuits but the meaning of life only comes from absorption in one's advancement on the path.  This kind of self-absorption, unlike that above, arises from an inner orientation.  It is the one that leads to freedom.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

What IS spiritual, anyway?

I caught a bit of an old talk by Alan Watts on the radio yesterday.  He was re-defining spirituality in an interesting way.  We usually think of abstractions as more "spiritual" than concrete reality, but he says it is just the opposite.  Abstractions are nothing but thoughts -- attempts to pin things down and define them.  And when we label our physical world or physical events, that too is a way of limiting.  We think once we have found a label to attach, we "understand" something, but the label, of course, doesn't capture the physical object or event at all.  But if we set the label aside, then we can see that the physical world is that which can never be limited or understood. It is, in fact, all of those things that we sometimes think of God or Spirit as being.  The world itself is plenty spiritual enough as it really is, if we can experience it as it really is.