On a cool crisp spring morning, while the sun was rising silently over the horizon, the birds woke from their slumber and started singing their sweet songs – an ancient master while sipping tea whispered this wisdom to no one in particular, “Great is the matter of birth and death; Life is quickly slipping by. Wake up! Wake up! Don’t waste another moment. Don’t waste this precious life!”
This is the start of the Bodhisattva Path.
In the Zen tradition and other branches of Mahayana Buddhism this is where we start. We look into the great matter of life and death. We slow down our busyness and take a moment to ask the great questions…
What am I?
What does it mean to be alive?
What is this life for?
What am I supposed to do with my life?
Why am I here?
It’s from this place of courageous wonder that awakening is realized.
As we mature in our practice, our selfishness begins to dissolve. What initially brought us to the dharma – our pain, our stress, our existential crisis begins to fade from memory. We start to see and know that our lives are not our own and there is a reason why we’re here.
Why You’re Here
Your life is not about you
It’s about all the people around you
All the people you can touch
All the people you can help
It’s so apparent when we stop to think about it for a moment.
We are life itself
We are infinitely connected to everything and everyone.
There is no separation.
But we’re not shown this.
We’re not given the time and patience to see it for ourselves.
But once you do – once you can see it then within the very fibre of your being you know that the only real purpose for your life is to give it away
To dedicate it to a greater purpose
To a greater goal
That you were born with a mission
A reason for being alive
And that reason is all around you
You are here to help
And to reach out and use whatever gifts and talents that you have to make other people’s lives better
To help free them from the suffering
To help them find true authentic happiness
To help them awaken
And to inspire them to do the same for others
Your life is not about you
It’s about all the people around you
All the people you can touch
All the people you can help
Your life isn’t yours
May you start to use this precious human life for the benefit of all.
This heart opening is tied together with the heart-felt-wish and vow to the great work of attaining awakening – not only for ourselves but really for the benefit of others.
We see how we’re suffering, we see how all the world is caught up in greed, hatred and delusion and we know that it doesn’t have to be that way.
We start to feel that another path is possible. That a different kind of world is possible and a great confidence begins to arise in us. A confidence in our own capacity – in the inherent potential within us (Buddha Nature) – and in actualizing the potential that we can now feel for ourselves.
This is the birth of a Bodhisattva.
Bodhisattva (“enlightenment being”): The spiritual ideal of the Mahayana, a selfless being with universal compassion who has generated the profound aspiration to achieve enlightenment in order to benefit sentient beings. In the course of their spiritual careers, bodhisattvas engage in the practice of the six perfections and pass through stages of increasingly higher levels of spiritual accomplishment.
The Bodhisattva path is a path of contradictions. You can’t be rigid and fixed about anything really.
Each element of the Bodhisattva path is a conundrum.
- Bodhicitta is the wish for awakening for the benefit of all and awakening itself
- The Paramitas as the teachings to help us awaken and the natural expression of awakening
- OM Mani Padme Hum as a skillful means to actualize the potential of awakening and help us let go of what we’re learning
- Avalokitesvara as spiritual ideal or embodiment of that awakening, but an ideal that we can actually feel within us
- Bodhisattvas – the everyday embodiment of and expression of awakening in the most mundane of circumstance and through the most normal of people – it’s not about living on the mountaintop it’s about going deep into the marketplace
- The Path itself – which we walk and the more we travel along it, the more it unfolds, is the more we realize there is no path, no awakening, no person that experiences awakening and no sentient beings to save and nothing to save them from
This is the Bodhisattva way – to be able to be at ease in uncertainty. To be comfortable in uncomfortable situations. To have one foot in form and another in formlessness.
My teacher Zen Master Hwasun Yangil Sunim said this one day to me, “If anyone asks you what kind of person you are you tell that that you have one foot in wisdom and one foot in helping all beings.”
Whatever realization and awakening we have it cannot be called awakening unless it’s directed toward bringing benefit to all beings.
And the Bodhisattva path is a process of doing just that.
Bodhicitta – This Wish to Attain Enlightenment for the Benefit of All Beings
There may have been a couple times in our lives where we’ve actually tasted freedom – even for just the most fleeting of moments.
Some kind of rare and magnificent moment of peace, ecstasy, insight, oneness, love and compassion. A beautiful moment that we may have just stumbled upon. Where something drops away and we open up into a fresh and boundless state of awareness. Simple, sweet lucidity. One usually filled with fullness, oneness, awareness, clarity, stillness, and love. This new dimension completely changes the way that we see things – for maybe just the briefest of moments.
These instances come in many forms: being in nature (seeing a sunset), listening to music, looking at a beautiful painting, gazing at someone they love, in the ecstasy of orgasm, reading something that makes the world stop, and from meditation (just to name a few).
We experience freedom from our habitual patterns, freedom from our likes and dislikes, freedom from our selfish little self.
And maybe there, in that freedom, in that release, in that vast spacious radiance – when our heart cracks open and we feel this sense of ease, clarity, contentment and joy – where oneness is a real experience – in that moment we may have had a thought, a faint glimmer of an idea – a soft whisper of, “Wow! Wouldn’t it be nice if we all could experience this, if we all could see this. If we all could feel this way. I wish we all could be free and happy like I am right now. I feel so alive, so at ease, so full of contentment. I know that it’s possible for all of us to experience this. I want to help others to see this, to feel this, to experience this for themselves”
This is a teeny tiny taste of Bodhicitta.
Bodhicitta can be translated as awakened mind or the heart essence of awakened mind. Sometimes it’s presented as the wish to attain enlightenment for the benefit of all beings.
In various traditions they talk about relative bodhicitta and ultimate bodhicitta.
Relative Bodhicitta can be the desire to achieve awakening not only for ourselves but for all sentient beings and ultimate Bodhicitta is the direct realization and embodiment of awakening.
The Journey of Relative Bodhicitta
It usually starts with some sort of pain, stress, hardship or some experience of hollowness in our lives.
We know that…
We want to feel happy again.
We want to feel at ease again.
We want to feel safe.
We want to feel well.
Or there’s this nagging feeling that there’s gotta be something more to life – more to you – more to what it means to be a human being.
And then you start off on your journey.
You start reading spiritual books, take some workshops, try some yoga.
We all know some aspect of this.
And things get better – more mysterious and magical in many ways – but still something is missing.
Then you maybe find a group or teacher you resonate with. They inspire you to practice. To take what you’re doing a little more seriously.
And you do – well at least you try a little bit harder.
Then you have that first feeling – where you’ve broken through the armour of the selfish self, where you see that everyone is hurting in some way, that you’re hurting in some way, that this pain has made you do crazy things, it’s making us all do crazy things and you really start to develop a deep longing to be free from that pain, that isolation, those harmful mindstates and unskillful behaviours.
You start to see that you DO have some power over your life. Some power over yourself. That you can change your thoughts, words and deeds such that they minimize the burden you’re placing on others and yourself and now you’re trying to be more of a blessing in the world.
You start to practice a little more. You catch yourself a little sooner when you’re being carried away by unskillful states of mind. Your thoughts, words and deeds become a little more noble.
Then we start to feel a little bit happier, more at ease, a little safer and we start to experience a strange sense of well-being.
Then a little further on we start to want those same things for others.
That they feel happy.
That they feel at ease.
That they feel safe.
That they feel well.
We start to feel love.
A deep love that only sees oneness.
Then from this this newfound realization of love and oneness we start to feel again.
Something opens in us.
And maybe we start to notice a new-found inner silence. A stillness. That the petty tyrant of our small “me-me-me” mind has become quieter. That there seems to be a little more time between thoughts.
That you find yourself more and more in a grounded state of presence.
Now illusionary barriers of separation have begin to really dissolve.
We begin to know beyond reason that other’s joy is our joy. Their ease is our ease. Their pain is our pain.
We know this because it’s getting harder and harder to see and feel these hard lines that seperate us.
We’re opening up even more.
In those moments where we experience this freedom of presence – a heart-felt wish springs up – that you wish that we all can experience this potential for themselves.
We wish that all people become free from suffering and the causes of suffering.
We start wishing that we all experience happiness and the causes of happiness.
It’s a heartfelt wish.
And maybe we feel that more and more when we come here. We see the teacher, we see our fellow sangha members, when we sip tea, we hear the teachings and meditate.
That wish starts to grow.
It then may grow into the heartfelt wish to attain enlightenment, not only for ourselves but for others as well – for all sentient beings.
But we need more than a wish.
We need to take action. We need to put some effort into it. Some sort of determination and resolve.
And now we take our practice more seriously. We dedicate more time for meditation. We go to dharma takes more regularly. We actively investigate our unconscious tendencies. We start to redirect our energies from harmful to helpful activities. We start to really be mindful of our thoughts, words and deeds and now make a dedicated effort to becoming a blessing to the world.
And now – a dogged and compassionate resolve to do something about the world emerges.
We have seen personally how the dharma and the practice has benefited us and we want the same for others.
We start to have a certainty – that it doesn’t matter what gets in the way or how long it takes you’re committed to awakening, you’re committed to dealing with your own garbage, you’re committed to showing up to your life – to every aspect of it.
You become compassionately committed to do what you can to help all beings awaken.
Now at this point the Bodhisattva Vow starts to make sense and speaks to us in new ways.
Beings and creations are numberless,
I vow to free them.
Delusions are inexhaustible,
I vow to transform them.
Reality is boundless,
I vow to perceive it.
The enlightened way is unsurpassable,
I vow to embody it.
We let forth our lions roar.
As long as space remains
As long as sentient beings remain
I too shall remain
To free us all
And now energy of awakening begins to flow through us more easily
And the words of Master Santideva spring forth from our hearts
THE WAY OF THE BODHISATTVA
Thus by the virtue collected
Through all that I have done,
May the pain of every living creature
Be completely cleared away!
May I be the doctor and the medicine
And may I be the nurse
For the sick beings in the world
Until everyone is healed!
May a rain of food and drink descend
To clear away the pain of thirst and hunger,
And during the eon of famine
May I myself change into food and drink!
May I become an inexhaustible treasure
For those who are poor and destitute;
May I turn into all things they need
And may these be placed close beside them!
Whether those who encounter me
Conceive a faithful or an angry thought,
May that always become the source
For fulfilling all their wishes!
May all who say bad things to me
Or cause me any other harm,
And those who mock and insult me
Have the fortune to awaken fully!
May I be a protector of those without one,
A guide for all travelers on the way;
May I be a bridge, a boat, and a ship
For all who wish to cross the water!
May I be an island for those who seek one,
And a lamp for those desiring light!
May I be a bed for all who wish to rest.
May I be a wishing jewel, a magic vase,
Powerful mantras, and great medicine,
May I be a wish-fulfilling tree,
And a cow of plenty for the world!
Just like space
And the great elements such as earth,
May I always support the life
Of all the countless creatures!
And until they’re free from suffering,
May I also be the source of life
For all the realms of varied beings
That reach unto the ends of space!
Just as the previous Sugatas
Conceived the Spirit of Enlightenment,
And just as they successively lived
In the Bodhisattva practices
Likewise for the sake of all that lives
Do I conceive the Spirit of
And likewise shall I too
Successively follow the practices.
So what are these Bodhisattva practices?
Just as athletes train so do those of us that want to actualize our awakened potential need to train as well.
In the Samdhinirmocana Sutra the Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara asks the Buddha, “How many bases for training are there for those seeking enlightenment?”
The Buddha replied, “There are six: generosity, morality, patience, energy, meditation, and wisdom.”
“Blessed One, why are these bases of training known as a six fold classification?”
“Avalokiteśvara, there are two reasons. It is because they benefit sentient beings, and because they are antidotes to the afflictions. Know that three [perfections] benefit sentient beings, while three are antidotes to the afflictions.
Bodhisattvas benefit sentient beings by giving them material goods, they benefit them through generosity.
Because they benefit beings by not impoverishing them, not harming them, nor scorning them, they benefit them through ethics.
Because they benefit beings by not even considering [their own] impoverishment, harm, or scorn, they benefit them through patience.
Thus they benefit sentient beings through these three [perfections].
Through effort they apply themselves to a virtuous course that overcomes and completely conquers the afflictions. Thus, the afflictions are unable to sway them from implementing a virtuous course.
Through concentration, they suppress the afflictions.
Through wisdom, they completely destroy the pre-dispositions [toward afflictions].
These three [perfections] are antidotes to the afflictions.
The six perfections serve as bases for progressively higher achievements.
Bodhisattvas who do not focus on their bodies and physical resources attain ethics.
Those who guard their moral practice become patient.
Those who have patience initiate effort.
Those who initiate effort achieve concentration.
Those who achieve concentration attain wisdom that transcends the world.”
The Paramitas have a two-fold purpose: 1) they help us bring benefit to others 2) they help us to stop being such a burden to the world – to free us from the mental afflictions of greed hatred and delusion that are making us do so many unskillful things.
So when we talk of the Paramitas, right now for us they’re abstract concepts, distant from us, not really that inspiring. So we need to have an example of how to unfold our own awakened potential in life and the Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara gives us the highest most stunningly radiant view of that potential.
This Bodhisattva shows us the embodiment of Complete Enlightenment.
We even can see this embodiment of Complete Enlightenment being expressed in the dialogue from above between the Bodhisattva of Compassion Avalokitesvara and the Buddha.
Avalokitesvara knows everything there is to know about the Paramitas. There’s nothing that the Buddha can teach on the subject that Avalokitesvara doesn’t already know and embody in every fibre of his being. His being alone is made of the Paramitas and OM Mani Padme Hum is his very essence. He himself aspired for awakening and achieved that goal.
So why then is Avalokitesvara asking all these questions about the Paramitas?
He’s asking them for you. He asking for all of us. He vowed to free all beings from suffering and he knows what sentient beings need to heal, grow and awaken to their own potential. And he knows because we’re so caught up in our own garbage that we’ll miss the chance to ask the Buddha for help. So he does it for us. He does it on our behalf.
So this series is about unfolding and exploring your own potential. It’s about taking aim at awakening and letting our arrows fly toward that target. It’s about discovering and taking on an impossible mission and then rising up to meet the challenges of that goal along the way. It’s about actualizing our very own potential right now. Not when we’re ready, not when all our ducks are in a row and the stars have aligned. It’s about starting right where you are and starting now with the belief that there’s a huge untapped potential inside of you (Buddha Nature) – and it’s time to discover it for ourselves and help others do the same.