As I have been attending Ken Ford’s Buddhist history class
at Clouds in Water, I was struck by this observation of a myth about
The myth that I have heard and often said in teaching is
that bodhisattvas forgo full buddhahood in order to save living beings. In other words, at the brink of
enlightenment, a bodhisattva turns back and vows not to cross over until all
beings cross over. This, Andrew Stilton in the book, A Concise History of
Buddhism, says is a distortion.
The bodhisattva is motivated by compassion and for this reason should
not turn away from enlightenment because buddhahood is the most effective state
in which to help other beings.
Isn’t this a subtle discernment?
What is the difference between a bodhisattva and a buddha?
Stilton writes about three main factors that characterize a
A profound, non-dual wisdom
An extensive compassion
The presence of the Bodhicitta
The basis for helping others is understanding the true
reality. This is a profound,
non-dual wisdom. We begin to see
that there is no inherent, separate, permanent existence to anything. If things are permanent, there can be
no change and this does not align with what we actually know is true. If we look, we see change. Even the physicists now agree with
this. Emptiness is empty of
inherent existence, which means, all things are dependent upon conditions and
are completely influenced by the “other.”
There is no separate “I” and separate “other. All things originate in interdependence. So how does this understanding
influence how we help others?
From the diamond sutra:
Why is it
that a bodhisattva who creates the perception of a being cannot be called a bodhisattva
create a perception of a being
have consolidated in our thinking, an independent, isolated ‘self’ that doesn’t exist. This statement really revolutionizes
the understanding of a bodhisattva, doesn’t it? This is quite different than our ordinary understanding
of ‘helping others’ or ‘saving all
beings’. It is a deeper expression
of non-dual wisdom. We should not
hold back in any way our aspiration to enter this non-dual understanding. Our enlightened task is to organize our
life from ever-present, awakened, boundless, timeless, non-dual,
non-individualized awareness. In
this way, we can, all of us together, find freedom. As Buddha said, “I and the world together realize
The Buddha recognized in his teaching the equal importance
of wisdom and compassion, the two arms of the buddha or the two wings of
enlightenment. This is the second
factor – an extensive compassion. To
see with the ominiscient eyes of the Buddha, is to be able to skillfully respond
with unconditional love and right action to all aspects of the human
predicament of suffering.
In many of the
later Mahayana teachings, the bodhisattva path becomes the means for a
bodhisattva to become a Buddha.
There were many ways of cultivation but one of the most basic was is to
cultivate the Paramitas or perfections.
(Generosity, Patience, Ethics, Zeal, Concentration, Wisdom) As I’ve
already mentioned, even in this schema, all the Paramitas are sealed with the
Paramita of wisdom. In the ten
Bhumis or stages of the Bodhisattva Path,
after the 7th ground of being, a bodhisattva is called a
mahasattva. Some bodhisattvas such as Samantabhadra are also said to have
already attained buddhahood.
The third factor of a Bodhisattva is the presence of
Bodhicitta, the mind of, or will towards, enlightenment. It is not just an intellectual thought
about enlightenment but a force or urge which completely transforms the life of
the future bodhisattva. This
“mind” springs forth and encourages us on. This is likened to Pranidhana, one of the 4 paramitas added
on in later formulations of the Paramitas (the four additions: skilful means, the vow to achieve
buddhahood, power, and knowledge).
The urge, the energy, the vow to achieve buddhahood
encourages us. We aspire to expound all the dimensions of Buddhahood in our
life and practice, which in turns frees all beings simultaneously and helps us
intuitively and automatically know what “help” means.
Labels: 10 Paramitas, 6 paramitas, Bodhicitta, Bodhisattvas, Buddhas, compassion, emptiness, non-dual wisdom