Bodhisattvas Never Outside the World of Suffering

Here is a post from 2012 that has recently gotten a bit of attention.  Perhaps it was re-blogged or posted in a forum – I don’t know but all the sudden I am getting inquires about it.  A few people want to know where I found Thich Nhat Hanh’s version of the vows.  I wish I could remember.  I have no note about it, nor can I find the source among my files and books.  If anyone knows the source of this interpretation, please let me know.

A second inquiry I’v have received is about The Transcendental Bodhicitta Treatise by Nagarjuna.  The title and translation is D.T. Suzuki’s.  The Sanskrit title is Bodhicitta-vivarana, often rendered in English “A Commentary on the Awakening Mind” and “Exposition of Bodhicitta”, a work the Dalai Lama has been taught on many times.  Links to English translations at the bottom.

Many Buddhists are familiar with the Four Great Bodhisattva Vows.  Most of the Mahayana schools in China, Korea, Tibet and Japan, uphold and recite the Vows.  They are thought to have originated with the Chinese master Chih-i during the sixth century.  I don’t know whether this is true or not, but apparently there was some form of Bodhisattva Vows already in place during Chih-i’s time, and it is recorded that a prince of the Ch’en dynasty, Yang Kuang, received from Chih-i the “Bodhisattva Vows” for lay practitioners along with a Buddhist name, Tsung-ch’ih P’u-sa (“Bodhisattva of Absolute Control”) in 591.*

The Four Great Bodhisattva Vows (Shi gu sei gan) are as follows:

Shu jo mu hen sei gan do
Bon no mu jin sei gan dan
Ho mon mu ryo sei gan gaku
Butsu do mu jo sei gan jo

Sentient beings are numberless; I vow to save them all.
Desires are inexhaustible; I vow to end them all.
The Dharma Gates are infinite; I vow to enter them all.
The Buddha Way is unexcelled; I vow to attain it completely.

In some versions, the last vow is given as a pledge to attain “complete, perfect enlightenment (Skt. anuttara samyak sambodhi).  It is said that if a bodhisattva does not accomplish the first vow of saving all sentient beings, he or she can never complete the fourth vow of enlightenment.  But, how is that possible?  How can one save all living beings?  In Taking the Path of Zen, Robert Aitken wrote, “Nobody fulfills these ‘Great Vows for All,’ but we vow to fulfill them as best we can. They are our path.”  In the long run, it doesn’t matter if we are unable to fulfill the Vows, what is important is that we engrave the spirit of the vows upon our hearts and minds.

We should also be aware that from the standpoint of the Mahayana doctrine of emptiness, a bodhisattva does not cling to the idea that there are beings at all, nor that there is anything such as “complete, perfect enlightenment.”  This is the doctrine found in the Mahayana Diamond Sutra.

While there are not quite as many English versions of the Vows as there are sentient beings or grains of sand in the Ganges River, there are quite a few.  Perhaps the most interesting one is by Thich Nhat Hanh:

tnh-bodhisattvaHowever innumerable beings are, I vow to meet them with kindness and interest.

However inexhaustible the states of suffering are, I vow to touch them with patience and love.

However immeasurable the Dharmas are, I vow to explore them deeply.

However incomparable the mystery of interbeing, I vow to surrender to it freely.

The hidden teaching within Mahayana Buddhism that it is more important to practice the Way of the Bodhisattva than it is to become a Buddha.  In actuality, the Way of the Bodhisattva is the Way of the Buddha.  However, people often miss this point and think that enlightenment is the ultimate goal.  There is no goal, there is only the path, and it is a path of compassion, and everything in Buddhism leads up to this one truth.

A work by Nagarjuna, The Transcendental Bodhicitta Treatise, reads:

The essential nature of all Bodhisattvas is a great loving heart, and all living beings constitute the object of their love . . . They are like the beautiful lotus-flower, which rises up from the swamp, its blossoms unsullied by the mud.  Their great hearts of compassion, which constitute the essence of their being, never leave suffering creatures behind in their journey.  Their spiritual knowledge is in the emptiness of all things, but their work of salvation is never outside the world of suffering.”

2016 note:   Some people approach Buddha-dharma in what I would term a casual manner, that is, they practice mindfulness to relieve stress, or use it a therapy, a psychology.  Others may engage in a more formal practice, chasing after the rapture of meditative states called jhanas.  From the Mahayana perspective, the focal point of Buddhism is suffering (harking back to the Four Noble Truths) and the purpose of dharma is to transcend suffering, which is accomplished by concentrating of the suffering of others before thinking of one’s own suffering.

The bodhisattva is like the captain of a ship that ferries beings across the great sea of suffering.  To captain such a ship requires courage, commitment and strong determination.  The four vows are like the charts used to set the course, but without preparation a captain cannot command a ship, let alone follow a course, and this necessary preparation requires the generation of altruistic intention or bodhicitta.  Those who tread the path of the bodhisattva do not seek enlightenment outside of themselves, and they realize there is no nirvana or bliss apart from this mundane world.

– – – – – – – – – –

* Denis C. Twitchett, The Cambridge History of China: Volume 3, Sui and T’ang China, 589-906 AD, Part One, Cambridge University Press, 1979]

Links to translations of Nagarjuna’s treatise:

Outlines of Mahayana Buddhism by D.T. Suzuki (Google books)

Commentary on Awakening Mind (opens PDF)

Translation by Chr. Lindtner

Exposition of Bodhicitta (opens PDF)

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Deplorables and Name Calling

Some people think Hillary Clinton’s remark about “basket of deplorables” was a strategic mistake.  Others are making the argument that she was setting a trap for Trump, forcing him into the position of having to defend racists like David Dukes.

On CNN, Pence was asked if Dukes, the former KKK leader and a Trump supporter,  was a deplorable. Pence said the Trump campaign was “not in the name calling business.”  That’s a laugh.  Name-calling seems to be an obsession with Trump. His behavior has been, um, deplorable.

Well, this is nothing new.  Name calling has always been a part of politics.  According to Wikipedia, “Name calling is a cognitive bias and a technique to promote propaganda. Propagandists use the name-calling technique to incite fears or arouse positive prejudices . . . “  There is nary a politician alive who has not engaged in it.  From what I’ve read name calling in presidential elections used to be much worse, but I don’t recall that in my lifetime.  I have not seen nothing like the 2016 election.

peanuts-sticksandstonesName calling is actually a form of bullying.  And it’s not just politicians.  People everywhere, young and old, from the schoolyards to the boardrooms engage in name calling, perhaps not always directly or consciously or with malice.  This is an important issue  given that racial slurs have become more prevalent than ever in American society.

In trying to stem the use of racial slurs and name calling, I think we may be going about it the wrong way.  We want to prevent people from name calling, but we need to also toughen our skin so that names won’t hurt or cause outrage.  They’re just words.  We can also try to diminish the power of certain words.

Nagarjuna told us that words are only signs, dependent designations ( prajnaptir-upadaya ), and names nothing more than derived names (upadaya-prajnapti).  They exist as convention designations and have no real substantiality.

As I mentioned once before, legendary outlaw comedian Lenny Bruce used the N-word 22 times in a routine.  At the end of the bit he said, “Well, I was just trying to make a point, and that is that it’s the suppression of the word that gives it the power, the violence, the viciousness.” He went on to say that if you used the word repeatedly until it “didn’t mean anything anymore, then you could never make some six-year-old black kid cry because somebody called him a nigger at school.”

Lenny’s point coincides to some extent with the Buddhist teaching on this subject.  In his essay on Nagarjuna, German existentialist philosopher Karl Jaspers wrote,

The final step is to perceive the untruth of all signs and hence of language.  Once it is understood that a word is a mere sign without any real meaning, the word disappears and that is deliverance.  Consciousness, which created suffering by shaping emptiness into many worlds, is carried back to its source.

The aim of all true thinking is a return from the unfolding of thought to nonthinkng.  What happened through the unfolding of thought can be undone by better thought in the dissolution of thought.”

Clinton is right, of course.  Many of Trumps supporters are worthy of strong condemnation.  But then, they feel the same way about us.  Liberals, left-wingers, extremists, tree huggers destroying America . .  .  It all depends on your view . . . and hopefully you recall from previous posts Nagarjuna’s injunction about the emptiness of views.

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Throwback Thursday: “Woman is the incarnation of ahimsa”

This is an edited version of a post published in 2014

Gandhi’s relationships with women were complicated but I believe he operated from the conviction that men and women are completely equal.  He wrote,

Woman is the incarnation of ahimsaAhimsa means infinite love, which again means infinite capacity for suffering.  Who but woman, the mother of man, shows this capacity in the largest measure?  She shows it as she carries the infant and feeds it during nine months and derives joy in the suffering involved. What can beat the suffering caused by the pangs of labour?  But she forgets them in the joy of creation.

gandhi-womenWho, again, suffers daily so that her babe may wax from day to day?  Let her transfer that love to the whole of humanity, let her forget that she ever was or can be the object of man’s lust.  And she will occupy her proud position by the side of man as his mother, maker and silent leader.  It is given to her to teach the art of peace to the warring world thirsting for that nectar.”

M.K. Gandhi

Photo: Gandhi with women workers, Greenfield Mill, England 1931

Ahimsa (Sanskrit: “not to injure”) means non-violence.  Do not harm.  An important principle in all the major Indian religions, and in fact, the phrase “do no harm” is often used for the Buddha’s first precept.

Historically, Buddhism has exhibited some extremely misogynistic tendencies and even today there remain issues in a few Buddhist schools regarding gender equality. Yet, Buddhism has also a tradition of revering women as uniquely awakened beings.  In Prajna-Paramita literature, Buddhas are not born from Nirvana but from the practice of Prajna-Paramita or Transcendent Wisdom.  Transcendent Wisdom is called the mother of all Buddhas.

In the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, the first step toward generating bodhicitta, the altruistic thought of awakening, is to recognize all sentient beings as one’s mother.  Based on the idea of infinite rebirth, at some point every sentient thing was one’s mother.

Women are seen as the symbol of compassion, personified by not only ‘mother beings’ but also such celestial beings as Kuan Yin, the ‘goddess of compassion.’

Some people maintain that women are naturally more empathetic than men, but there is research that suggests one gender does not experience more compassion than the other, rather each experiences compassion differently.

And so, the potential for what Gandhi called “infinite love” is universal, compassion is innate.  Gandhi’s words echo this famous guidance from the Buddha in the Metta Sutta:

Even as a mother protects with her life
Her child, her only child,
So with a boundless heart
Should one cherish all living beings;
Radiating kindness over the entire world.

– – – – – – – – – –

* Quote: M.K. Gandhi, Women and Social Justice, Ahmedabad, Navjivan Publishing House, 1954, 26-27.

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