Search Buddhist Channel
Bodhisattva as Revolutionary
by Ven. Kobutsu Malone, The Buddhist Channel, June 10, 2005
Sedgwick, Maine (USA) -- The Bodhisattva ideal is one of the many doctrines of Buddhism that is incompletely and poorly understood. The Bodhisattva ideal is a manufactured concept created to describe a state of being, it is a materialistic handle used for convenience. It is a term used to discuss behavior, a term used to describe action, an intellectual hook on which to hang something.
<< Imagery of the 1000 hands Guanyin Bodhisattva, symbol of all-encompassing Compassion
I'm often asked to talk about "zazen" practice, zen meditation, and I sometimes preface my comments by telling people that if I were giving a class on sex for virgins no matter how well I described the experience, no matter how detailed an exposition was presented, it could never quite convey the actual experience.
The same thing applies to any experience, skydiving for example - all the talk in the world cannot convey the first experience of leaping out of the doorway of an aircraft at 2,000 feet! We cannot convey zazen in words, nor can we convey the Bodhisattva path verbally. It's easy to talk about it, but in this case it is impossible to even experience it in the common sense of something that is experienced by an individual.
The Bodhisattva path, the Bodhisattva state of mind is an embodiment of the Mahayana approach in Buddhism. It is the culmination of the training of the mind in simplicity, precision, concentration, panoramic awareness, and fully open acceptance of things as they are. This Bodhisattva character, this path, involves a full commitment to awakening. It is not just a path leading to individual enlightenment - not even individual enlightenment with the added conceptual caveat "for the sake of all beings". The Bodhisattva way is far more ruthless! Indeed, this path is intensely open - wild even, in its actualization.
The Bodhisattva does not fit nicely into our preconceived notions at all. So often we hear descriptions of some saintly figure, a being shrouded in love and light, an embodiment of purity from whom good will and non-harmfulness flow forth as the Bodhisattva incarnate. This notion of the Bodhisattva as an enlightened "Mr. Rogers" permeates the American Dharma scene. It's time to take a closer look.
The Bodhisattva may be quite well informed and may be able to converse endlessly on many topics, spiritual or otherwise, including the Bodhisattva ideal - but she knows better. The Bodhisattva may not have a clue either, as to this concept of a Bodhisattva ideal; most assuredly the Bodhisattva is unconcerned either way. The Bodhisattva has no idea of his or her actions being anything at all. She or he has no concern whatsoever about doing the right thing so as to fit into the behavior pattern of the Bodhisattva ideal. The Bodhisattva simply acts, freely and spontaneously, without concern for such notions as rules of conduct or credibility.
We in the West have sold ourselves short in many respects, in our approach to Buddhadharma. In a rush to deny our own legacy, hastily trying to abandon our unpleasant cultural heritage out of fear of facing the true horror of our history, we have sought salvation in mythological constructs woven out of our Judeo-Christian social fabric and the Buddhism brought to us through eastern teachers unfamiliar with the subtleties of our language and culture. Our eastern Buddhist heritage is likewise woven out of threads taken from its social cradles.
A critical examination of our American historical legacy is needed to fully comprehend the development of our present culture, as it forms the basis for our approach to Buddhadharma. Our examination must delve beyond the myths created and presented to us in the "Reader's Digest" version of history we learn in school. An honest look at our history reveals a disturbing picture of the legacy we hold, our societal karma if you will.
Our historical heritage has much to do with our perception of our world; it is the warp and weft of our society, our collective past. It cannot be hidden, glossed over or ignored through the construction of myths designed to hide the unpleasantries of our past. Our heritage is with us no matter what myths are woven to embellish or sugarcoat our past. Heritage lives in each one of us in our psychological makeup, in the social fabric of our family and community lineages. These deep, big-picture effects of heritage are far more profound than myths written in so-called history books with the sensibilities of children in mind. As a consequence, generations of us have grown up never looking at our history beyond what we learned in grammar school.
A profound example exists in the foundational cultural myth that surrounds the "discovery" of the "New World" by Christopher Columbus. Every reader can, no doubt, relate to the common view of this event - "Columbus sailed the ocean blue in 1492"... "He was a hero"... "He discovered The New World"... "We celebrate a national holiday named after him"... "He was a great man".
In truth however, Columbus did not discover any "New World" - the New World was quite well populated with innumerable indigenous peoples, living their lives as they had been for hundreds of generations. The indigenous people that Columbus came in contact with were devastated as a result of his arrival, they were abused, contaminated by disease, contaminated psychologically by euro-centric power-over dynamics that destroyed their cultures and left the survivors to be taken into slavery in the name of civilization. From October 11, 1492 on, the western hemisphere was conquered by European adventures who inexorably took possession of the ancestral lands of the indigenous peoples of the Americas. This conquest resulted in the genocide and slaughter of millions of people in the name of "civilization".
Our heritage also encompasses the enslavement of millions of African people brought to this continent in bondage and exploited for generations as slaves for the benefit of the privileged wealthy elite landowners. Slavery was not just a Southern phenomenon, it extended far into the North. The cultural impact of Slavery on the North was not mitigated by the events of the Civil War, but rather was buried deeper within its social norms by them. There is bigotry throughout our society; some of it is obvious and some of it is subtle, but all of it is damaging and must be acknowledged in order to be dealt with.
The scars of our past have not healed - the legacy of our violent history is still with us, embedded within our culture; it entertains us, it drives many aspects of our capitalistic economy, it affects our day-to-day interactions with each other...it is a living force with an immediate impact upon our day-to-day reality and it must be acknowledged openly in order to be dealt with permanently. Our "past" was not so very long ago, and the motivations that enabled genocide and slavery cannot just be legislated away or banished from the social continuum through the evolution of a sanitized and mythical history.
Understandably, on an unconscious level we might wish to somehow escape from this horrible legacy. Looking at the western religious traditions that offer "salvation" from sin, "salvation" from certain doom, we can detect the subtle underlying feeling that there is something awry which we sense the need to expiate through "salvation." The Buddha's message is that there are no "saviors", that our "salvation" is our own responsibility, that the untangling of the thread of confusion may not even be relevant to a term such as "salvation". In the Mahaparinibbana Sutra, the last words of the Buddha are reported:
"You are the Light itself, Rely on yourself, Do not rely on others.
The Dharma is the Light, Rely on the Dharma,
Do not rely on anything other than the Dharma."
Still, are we culturally and socially ready to receive this message? Are we sophisticated enough to be able to view our legacy of hatred and oppression and acknowledge fully the karmic debt we are all part of? Do we yearn for a "Mr. Rogers Neighborhood" world, a "pure-land" where all is wiped away, where all unpleasantries are brushed aside, where we can abide in peaceful tranquility doing serene meditation seated on a lotus throne, where Mayberry meets the Matrix?
The escapist sort of approach to Buddhadharma seems vaguely "fishy"; there is something not quite real about it. If anything, Buddhism can be said to be realistic at its root. This realism has been obscured somewhat by the effect that each society has had upon the Buddha's teachings as they have been transmitted from one locale to the next around the world. Each society, with it's own collective karma and cultural legacy, has filtered the Buddha's teachings in unique ways. Variations of approach in the tradition have developed in response to these influences, and in some cases teachings diametrically opposed to fundamental principles of the founder have appeared. In many cases such teachings are subtly crafted on two levels, with fundamental practices and principles "maintained" by those "in-the-know," the monastic Sangha, while the common people, those of the lay Sangha, are left with a set of interpretations which pander to egoistic and materialistic tendencies. These teachings are well suited to maintain control of a population held in ignorance by theocratic monastic rule, and have been allowed to disseminate in countries where Buddhist monks have held power or even controlled governments. As American Buddhism evolves, we as American Buddhists must examine not only our own unspoken legacies but also those of the eastern nations from which we have inherited the Dharma.
We have to be very careful in how we examine any teaching. The Buddha's Charter of Free Inquiry, laid out in his exposition in the Kamala Sutra, is a succinct guide to this matter.
"Do not go upon what has been acquired by repeated hearing; nor upon tradition; nor upon rumor; nor upon what is in a scripture; nor upon surmise; nor upon an axiom; nor upon specious reasoning; nor upon a bias towards a notion that has been pondered over; nor upon another's seeming ability; nor upon the consideration, "The monk is our teacher."
... when you yourselves know: "These things are bad; these things are blamable; these things are censured by the wise; undertaken and observed, these things lead to harm and ill," abandon them.' ... when you yourselves know: 'These things are good; these things are not blamable; these things are praised by the wise; undertaken and observed, these things lead to benefit and happiness,' enter on and abide in them."
- KALAMA SUTTA - The Buddha's Charter of Free Inquiry Translated from the Pali by Soma Thera The Wheel Publication No. 8
It is not an easy task to extricate our selves from the morass of our culture or to penetrate our psychological beings. We make many attempts in this vein time and again. It is not something that occurs overnight, nor is it some sort of crescendo experience, a cosmic orgasm, that magically clears away all our impediments to seeing clearly and awakening fully. It is in essence an interminable process, an endeavor that eternally reveals itself before us at every instant of our lives.
Engaged practice requires looking at the big picture, not just one little aspect, not just being concerned about a few people sitting in meditation while others, no less our brothers and sisters, are living lives of deprivation and neglect. Engagement involves dealing with the fundamental materialistic paradigms that exist at the foundation of the present global socio-economic system, which operates and propagates our society. To awaken involves seeing the big picture. It means looking deeply into the notion of selecting and producing scapegoats of classes of people, races and those who may function with different psychology than defined as mainstream. Walking on the path of the awakened state of mind, the Bodhisattva ideal, requires insight into the quality of our community structures and social order. It requires a through examination of the physical environment, the psychological environment, and the political and governmental environments. Ultimately, the path of full awakening, the Bodhisattva ideal involves revolution.
The awakened state of mind, the revolution of the Bodhisattva, calls for far more that personal enlightenment, more than personal entitlement through kensho, more than insight into our "true nature", more that the complete experience of anatta, more than the transmission received from a teacher. It is more than a title, more than clerical garb or a certificate on the wall. Our preconceived ideas as to the nature of "enlightenment" often delude us into thinking that somehow insight is the be-all-to-end-all and that once it occurs all of one's problems are magically solved. Hardly - that is the savior myth, the notion that there is some sort of instantaneous insight experience that does all of our work for us, leaving us completely free of all psychological and social baggage. It is not like that, it is wishful thinking.
Our responsibility in approaching this Bodhisattva ideal is heavily weighted with questioning authority and thinking for ourselves. Ultimately we are responsible for our choices and our awakening; nobody can do it for us, no teacher, no Bodhisattva. We are obliged to discard our preconceptions, toss our ideals into the trash can and continue on our own two feet. In time we may come across that instant in our lives when our stress and loss are at just the right point, where a breakthrough into genuine insight is possible. Should that take place, then we have gone beyond foolish talk, the gate of the oneness of cause and effect is opened. Then awakening begins and the Bodhisattva ideal becomes irrelevant.