Friday, 1 April 2016

How to be a Bodhisattva

Defining Bodhisattva
Buddha statue from Ghandara (Pakistan), 1st-2nd century CE.
Loosely put, bodhisattvas can be described as Buddhist deities, or if one comes from a Christian background one might understand them to be like saints. Bodhisattvas are particularly important within the Mahayana tradition and practitioners are encouraged to aspire to become bodhisattvas themselves. The history of the bodhisattva concept is described thus:
“The term ‘bodhisattva’ appears first as the title the Buddha used to refer to himself before he realised nirvana. The Jataka Tales, popular scriptures of Theravada Buddhism, extend the concept of bodhisattva to include previous lives of the Buddha before he was born as Siddhattha Gotama [Skt. Siddhartha Gautama] … Already on the path to Buddhahood, the bodhisatta (Skt. Bodhisattva) in these stories exhibits many of the qualities of a Buddha, most notably a selfless desire to serve others regardless of the consequences for himself.   
… Mahayana Buddhism … seized upon the concept of the bodhisattva as one of its most important spiritual ideals. Followers of Mahayana Buddhism are expected to take and repeatedly reiterate the ‘bodhisattva vow’, a promise to dedicate one’s life to the welfare of other beings and to forgo final realisation of nirvana until all beings have been led to release. In essence, the bodhisattva vow replaces nirvana, the supreme goal of Theravada Buddhism, with the supreme goal of Mahayana Buddhism: Buddhahood [Reat, Buddhism: A History at 50-51].”
Another way of describing a bodhisattva (from a Nichiren Buddhist perspective) is:
“After the rise of Mahayana, bodhisattva came to mean anyone who aspires to enlightenment and carries out altruistic practice. Mahayana practitioners used it to refer to themselves, thus expressing the conviction that they would one day attain Buddhahood … Mahayana sets forth the ideal of the bodhisattva who seeks enlightenment both for self and others, even postponing one’s entry into nirvana in order to lead others to that goal. The predominant characteristic of a bodhisattva is therefore compassion [The Soka Gakkai Dictionary of Buddhism].”
A Zen description of the bodhisattva life state is as follows:
“We use the term Nirmanakaya (transformation body) to describe the bright side of mind/body. In this body and mind there is no longer ignorance ... or wrong consciousness. The function of this body and mind is to awaken and liberate living beings. Love and compassion can manifest in hundreds of thousands of forms ... A bodhisattva can be beautiful or ugly, poor or rich, healthy or sick. Any mind/body that has the function to bring  about love, understanding and happiness is the transformation body of the Buddha [Thich Nhat Hanh, The Heart of the Buddha's teachings at 242].”
And from a Vajrayana (Tibetan) perspective:
“Bodhisattva literally means ‘pure enlightened attitude.’ In general this term is applied to anyone who has taken the vow to relinquish their personal enlightenment in order to work for the benefit of all other sentient beings. More specifically, it designates a special class of beings who have not only taken the above vow but who also have attained a significant degree of realisation on the path [Lama Lodo, Bardo Teachings at 67].”

The Bodhisattva Precepts
In Mahayana Buddhism, particularly within the lineages most popular in Japan (such as Zen and Nichiren Buddhism) the Lotus Sutra is a core Buddhist teaching, expounding the importance of the bodhisattva aspiration. Within this Sutra the following is said:

"Because deep in their minds they think of the Buddha
and practice and uphold the pure precepts,
they are assured they will attain buddhahood ...
If there are living beings
who have encountered ... buddhas,
and if they have listened to the Law, presented alms,
or kept the precepts, shown forbearance,
been assiduous, practiced meditation and wisdom ...
cultivating various kinds of merit and virtue,
then persons such as these
all have attained the buddha way."

This passage makes it clear that adhering to the "pure precepts" is one of the things we should do if we want to attain the "buddha way", but what are the "pure precepts"? It seems they are not the traditional precepts for lay-Buddhists* or monastics, but are instead the embodiment of a philosophy by which to live, as opposed to a series of rules to diligently follow. A Zen summation of the three pure precepts is:**
  1. Refrain from causing harm to oneself and to others;
  2. Act with loving kindness and compassion; 
  3. Embrace all beings: purify your mind so that you can truly benefit yourself and others.
A Nichiren summation of the same precepts, which are translated into English as the three comprehensive concepts, is (sourced from
  1. Prevent evil:
  2. Strive to perform good deeds; and
  3. Benefit all living beings.
It is said that these precepts derive from the Jewelled Necklace Sutra and the Brahma Net Sutra which are essentially bodhisattva manuals. They in turn appear to be influenced by a passage from one of the earliest Buddhist teachings, verse 183 of the Dharmapada (or Dhammapada in Pali) which, according to a Mahayana/Vajrayana translation, reads:
"Commit not a single unwholesome action; cultivate a wealth of virtue; to purify one's mind, this is the teaching of all the Buddhas."*** 
What I especially like about this approach is that it is not necessarily about inflexible rules that must be uniformly applied in all contexts. Rather it is a fluid philosophy. The principles of "commit not a single unwholesome action" and "cultivate a wealth of virtue" means that we might measure up every action, recognising the complex contexts within which actions sit. Is removing lice from the head of a child unwholesome when the child cannot return to school until the lice is gone? What about the itchy cat riddled with fleas? What about killing intestinal parasites that degrade our health? I think the emphasis of the three precepts allows for some weighing up here - when it comes to insects there are competing harms (the suffering of insects vs. the suffering experienced as a result of allowing our health and happiness to be harmed by insects) and virtues (the wellbeing of insects vs. the well being of humans and animals).

There is a risk of becoming an unthinking slave to doctrine and rules when one says that, without exception, no being should be killed (but what of euthanasia?), or one should never lie - ever, at all, even if lying would be more compassionate than telling the truth, or one should never steal, in any circumstances, even in times of famine when one has children to feed. If we are able to admit exceptions to the more well known "five precepts" (or the longer eight, ten, 227 or 311 precepts) we must inevitably acknowledge that they are best regarded as guidelines, not didactic commandments. This is why I would rather focus on abiding by the philosophy of the three precepts, for they are flexible enough to be rationally applied to an unlimited number of situations, while being clear and succinct. Their very general nature liberates us from the risk of falling victim to obsessing over petty theological concerns and does not necessarily invite us to abandon every other Buddhist precept, but rather to understand that the most important of the precepts are the three which advise us to avoid harm, do good and act with the best interests of all beings.


* One reason we can deduce that the "pure precepts" are not the same as the traditional precepts (such as the Theravada precepts) is because elsewhere in the Lotus Sutra the making of Buddhist music is praised, whereas the traditional eight precepts for lay-Buddhists to observe on designated holy days (generally these occur a few times a month) specifically advocate the avoidance of music. The eight precepts are:
  1. Abandon destruction of life – be merciful and compassionate towards all living beings.
  2. Abandon taking that which is not given – dwell with an honest heart devoid of theft.
  3. Abandon sexual relations and observe celibacy.
  4. Abandon false speech – speak the truth, be trustworthy, reliable and not deceptive.
  5. Abandon the use of drugs which cause negligence, deluded thoughts and/or indolence.
  6. Abandon food after noon – eat only one meal a day.
  7. Abandon dancing, singing, music, self-adornment, cosmetics and perfume.
  8. Abandon the use of high and luxurious beds and seats.
Traditionally, monks and nuns must also avoid music (see the ten precepts for novice monks and nuns; 227 precepts for ordained monks and 311 precepts for ordained nuns). Note that, traditionally, on non-holy days lay-Buddhists are entreated to abide by the five precepts which are the first five precepts of the eight above with the exception that sexual relations are permitted, while "sexual misconduct" (promiscuity, etc) is not.
** See eg, San Francisco Zen CenterBright Way ZenZen Mountain MonasteryBoundless Way ZenChapel Hill Zen CentreNebraska Zen Center.
*** From the Rigpa Study and Practice Programme, "Student's Manual, Introduction to Buddhism". 

Note that this blogpost was repurposed from a discontinued blog of which I am also the author.

Written by M. Sentia Figula.

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