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.

1 comment:

  1. Interesting idea! But different i think from the full import of the term bodhisattva, at least within the teachings of Tibetan Buddhism, the only tradition I have studied in any depth. In the sutras of the Mahayana, a bodhisattva is not a being who has achieved full Enlightenment, but rather a person who is trying to achieve it based on the achievement of a pure and unwavering motivation of bodhicitta. To reach this extraordinarily rare and powerful mind state, the practitioner must have first have realized perfect equanimity, seeing all beings as equal in value, without attachment to some and aversion to any other (a not so easy feat, i think we can all agree! One technique is to meditate until we truly see all beings as having been both enemies and friends to us and also a loving mother to us in the myriad of past lives). On the basis of this, the practitioner has developed Great Compassion, wishing to free that "mother" from the suffering, and terrible potential for suffering he or she endures now as an embodied being; on the basis of that comes the achievement of Great Love, the unwavering wish to bring that mother - i.e. all beings - happiness. On the basis of that, Great Will, the wish to make that happiness permanent. And only then does one glimpse Bodhicitta, the unsimulated wish to reach Enlightenment in order to bring the most benefit possible to each and every being around you. At this point one is actually at the BEGINNING of the Mahayana path. A stable mind that does not waver in its concentration and insight is also an esssential building block. The Dalai Lama describes the ability to meditate single-pointedly on one thing for 4 hours as the starting point. Yet anyone who has truly developed, or even made great progress toward the stable mind of bodhicitta is creating such powerful positive karma with every thought and action, that progress on the spiritual path becomes much faster. The upsets and confusions of the daily sturm und drang do not affect such a mind. Full Enlightenment comes when the stable, fully realized mind of Bodhicitta is combined with ultimate wisdom.

    According to Tibetan Lamas, the temporary feelings of compassion and love we all experience are the basis of entering this path. The more we develop them the better we are able to help both our self and others, and the happier we are. The Dalai Lama wrote on this once, in a quote I read now and then to remind myself. Worth sharing I hope?

    "The precious awakening mind of Bodhicitta, which cherishes other sentient beings more than oneself, is the pillar of the bodhisattva's practice - the path of the Great Vehicle (Mahayana). There is no more virtuous mind than Bodhicitta. There is no more powerful mind than Bodhicitta. There is no more joyous mind than Bodhicitta. To accomplish one's own ultimate purpose, Bodhicitta is supreme. To accomplish the purpose of all other living beings there is noting superior to Bodhicitta. The awakening mind is the unsurpassable way to accumulate merit. To purify obstacles Bodhicitta is supreme. It is the ultimate and all-encompassing method. Every ordinary and supra-mundane power can be attained through Bodhicitta. Thus, it is absolutely precious. " ~ His Holiness the Dalai Lama


I love to get comments from readers who want to mutually explore Truth as we at the same time remember that the words are just fingers pointing...