AMIDA TRUST OL-Conference - News
On-Line Conference: 20-30 November 2000
The Bodhisattva Path - Br David

As Chogyam Trungpa succinctly said, "The bodhisattva vow is the commitment to put others before ourselves. It is a statement of willingness to give up our own well-being, even our own enlightenment, for the sake of others" (Trungpa 1977, p.46). He goes on, "And a bodhisattva is simply a person who lives in the spirit of that vow, perfecting the qualities known as the six paramitas…. Taking the bodhisattva vow implies that instead of holding onto our own individual territory and defending it tooth and nail, we become open to the world that we are living in… in fact, it means taking a big chance."

In the history of Buddhism, the term bodhisattva has also taken on a number of other meanings that amplify or supplement this basic idea of living an altruistic life. There is the idea that a bodhisattva is a person who is on the way to becoming a Buddha. This makes sense. A person who puts others before self will become a Buddha. A person who does not, will not. There is an idea in some quarters that everybody will inevitably become a Buddha eventually. This is a nice idea in some ways but it is not really in the precise spirit of Buddhism, according to which we have choice. Whether we become Buddhas or not is not inevitable. It is a matter of whether or not we each create the right conditions. The condition that matters most is to put others before self.

Then there is the idea that a bodhisattva is a person who has reached the "other shore," or the Pure Land, and returns in order to help other beings. This also makes sense. A person is willing to put others before self when he or she is inspired by a vision that is bigger than the little vision provided by selfishness. A person who has been to the other shore is one who has seen things from the viewpoint of others. The other shore means "other than self". The Pure Land is the finer world that results when there are many beings acting in altruistic ways. Clearly, therefore, it makes sense to say that a bodhisattva has seen the Pure Land.

Then again it is said that a bodhisattva is one who puts off his or her own enlightenment until all beings can enter enlightenment together. This idea expresses the notion that spiritual progress is not something that can be owned as a personal possession. It is a collective affair. The bodhisattva is not helping others in order to accumulate merit in order to reserve a personal seat in heaven. The bodhisattva sees that the only things worth doing are the things that contribute to the good of all beings.

Then, there is the word itself. Sattva means spirit in the sense of courage. Bo means enlightened. Dhi means vision. A bodhisattva is a person who has the courage of the enlightened vision. This can be taken either way. It can mean the person who has the enlightened vision and finds the courage to work to put it into practice. It can also mean the person who is given courage by that vision itself. Buddhism is thus both a vision quest and, more importantly, a work inspired by vision. What vision? The vision of the Pure Land, or enlightened world. What world is that? A world where greed, hate, and delusion – that is exploitation, war, and prejudice - have been overcome.

Hence we come to the idea that bodhisattvas are those who assist the work of a Buddha. The work of a Buddha is to create a Pure Land. Bodhisattvas assist in that work. In the Pratyutpana Samadhi Sutra, which is generally thought to be one of the earliest Sanskrit Sutras, the bodhisattvas who assemble to hear the Buddha teach, each come from a designated city. This implies that these people were householding citizens rather than homeless renunciants. The Vimalakirti Sutra also gives us this message by portraying Vimalakirti, the archetypal bodhisattva, as a layman. The early bodhisattvas were, I suggest, those lay people who worked to advance the Buddha's work. The Buddha appears to have been an organiser of considerable skill. He built up a movement that was powered by co-operation between people who offered two different kinds of leadership in the community. One of these groups was the bodhisattvas who worked for the Buddhist cause in the big cities. The other was the renunciant "sharers" (bhikshus) who were free to travel from place to place.

Generally speaking I think we can say that Buddhism has prospered when these two groups have co-operated well and has declined when they have not done so. Originally, the sharers were mobile and the bodhisattvas were relatively static. Over history, this arrangement has sometimes been reversed. The renunciants have been confined in monasteries and the faithful have had to travel to them. When this has happened it has not been necessarily disastrous, but it has certainly reduced the effectiveness of the Buddhist movement as a force for the creation of a better society. In the Amida community we are trying to maintain what we believe to have been the original arrangement as far as possible.

Being a bodhisattva is thus also a stage in the development of one's Buddhist commitment. First a person may become a "refugee" – one who goes for refuge to Buddha, Dharma and Sangha. This step is generally considered to be the first step on the Buddhist path. There is a sense, of course, in which it can be said to encompass the whole path. Throughout a lifetime of Buddhist training one is constantly learning to deepen one's sense of refuge. This is the sense of depending upon the enlightened way of life rather than upon selfishness.

Then a person may take the five precepts. This is an undertaking to "clean up one's act". It is not easy to be much use in the world when one is oneself still part of the problem in gross ways. We will not bring about a world free from killing while we are still doing it ourselves. The same applies to each of the other ethical undertakings. If the land currently devoted to growing alcohol crops were used for food instead, there would be no starvation in this world and the hospitals would be half empty – not to mention the divorce courts and therapist's offices. A person who takes these precepts is, therefore, not just cleaning up their own behaviour. They are also taking a stand in favour of important enlightened values. They are beginning to develop the courage to stand against the crowd.

This courage is further advanced by plunging into the deeper water of the bodhisattva vow. When we do this we are not making a grand claim for ourselves. The person who takes such a vow should be in no doubt about their own inadequacy and faultfulness. Nonetheless, we are willing to take the risk – to be reckless. Through deep honesty such a person says to him or herself, "I may or may not have anything much to offer, but however that may be, if my life is to be in any way meaningful, I have to give it to this worthwhile purpose." Shantideva says, "As a blind man might find a jewel in a heap of rubbish, in the same way this mind infected with the enlightened vision has somehow been born in me." (III, 27)

We can see that the bodhisattva path is, in a sense, romantic and passionate. It is to give one's all. Shantideva again, "Therefore, to do what is good for others, may I give up my very body without attachment. Despite its numerous faults, I will use it for the great work" (VIII, 184) and "As long as space remains, and as long as beings remain, so too will I remain, to eliminate the sufferings of others." (X, 55).

So is this path just romantic nonsense – an outmoded ideal from a byegone age? Are we not nowadays more advanced? Have we not discovered that the world is made so much better by people loving themselves rather than caring about others? Have we not discovered the miracles of the market economy and consumerism? Will we not all be healthier and happier by pursuing bigger houses, bigger cars, and bigger orgasms? Well, will we? And is any of that really so modern anyway? Isn't all this consumerism and selfishness just what humans have always done when they lost sight of the consequences, let alone of their own better nature? And is it not the root of most of our misery, in fact?

Given the strength, ubiquity and persistence of the pressures to join the "what's in it for me" philosophy that dominates our world, I am impressed that there are even a few people still inspired by such romantic nonsense as the bodhisattva ideal. It does seem that, though the impulse to enlightenment can be abused and suppressed, it somehow never ceases to spring up again somewhere – as a troubling irritant disturbing the complacency of those who think the world is doing well when all they mean is that the American and European stock markets are sucking in all the resources of the world like vacuum cleaners gone out of control.

We live in a world of astonishing beauty. Let us also make it one in which the human spirit reflects that beauty. We live in a world of great suffering. Let us make it one in which the human spirit overcomes all affliction. Let us work together to create a better world. Let us acknowledge our many failings and still go forward in faith, fulfilling the deeper longing of all beings, to make life full and meaningful.

Trungpa C. (1977) Garuda V: Transcending Hesitation. Boulder, CO: Vajradhatu