Every Day Should Be A Day of Service

Today, Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, is not only a time for remembering the life of a courageous man, it is also meant to be a Day of Service. As explained on the mlkday.gov site,

The MLK Day of Service is a way to transform Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s life and teachings into community action that helps solve social problems. That service may meet a tangible need, or it may meet a need of the spirit. On this day, Americans of every age and background celebrate Dr. King through service projects that strengthen communities, empower individuals, bridge barriers, and create solutions.”

Buddhism teaches that every day should be a day of service. It is not alone in promoting this idea, but I would argue that Buddha-dharma has a unique conception of what service means. And service is the core, the heart and soul, the supreme path of Buddhism, at least in the Mahayana branch.

The ideal that epitomizes the spirit of service is that of the bodhisattva. This means “enlightening being,” a person who helps others, primarily by assisting others to light their inner light – by awkening them. Formally, a bodhisattva vows to liberate all beings without exception from suffering. What’s more, the bodhisattva resolves to remain in this world for “as long as beings remain” and not only liberate them but assume the burden of their sufferings, to take into his or her body the sufferings of all living beings.

For some time now, I’ve been of the opinion that the hidden message of Mahayana Buddhism is that it is more important to be a bodhisattva than it is to become a buddha. The seed of this idea was planted in my mind by something the Dalai Lama said at UCLA in 1997. I’ve posted it before, but a good teaching can’t be repeated too many times. He was talking about a passage in Nagarjuna’s Precious Garland that deals with feeling discouraged over the length of time required to become “enlightened”:

If, as a result of one’s commitment to the principles of the Bodhisattva ideal, one sees that the purpose of one’s life is to be of benefit to others, and from the depths of one’s heart there is a real sense of dedication of one’s entire life for the benefit of other sentient beings, and that kind of strong courage and principle – for that kind of person, then time doesn’t seem to matter much. Whether or not that person becomes enlightened, as far as he or she is concerned, it doesn’t make any difference, because the purpose of existence is to be of benefit to others, and if the person is able to be of service to others, then that person is really able to fulfill his or her true purpose. Such is the kind of courage and determination to altruistic principles that bodhisattvas should adopt.”

In promoting the bodhisattva ideal, the Mahayana Buddhists were rejecting the notion that Nirvana meant extinction. This very world of suffering is Nirvana, they said. Buddhahood is not some supra-mundane state, and this is perhaps why in the Mahayana sutras the Buddha was elevated to a mythological, celestial status, a reality that could not possibly be realized. Bodhisattvahood, on the other hand, is a state of being for this mundane world, and can be realized by everyone. Indeed, most Mahayana schools teach that Buddhahood or enlightenment is possible in this very life, with this very body.  Some teachings put the Buddha and the bodhisattva on the same level. For instance, Nagarjuna in his Treatise on the Maha-Prajna-Paramita Sutra wrote,

The Buddha and the bodhisattva are one, undivided. It is therefore that the bodhisattva is considered to be the same as the Buddha is.”

Unfortunately, many Buddhist chase after Buddhahood as if it were a prize.  They are so busy trying to realize supra-mundane states, that they neglect the mundane but necessary work of helping others.  They never know the joy of bodhicitta, the thought of awakening, the starting point of the bodhisattva path.  I can’t help but feel that the path of a solitary buddha must be a lonely one.

Had he been a Buddhist, Martin Luther King, Jr. would have understood all this. Actually, he did understand it, in his own way, on his own terms as a Christian. He knew that every day should be a day of service, which is why he once said,

Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, ‘What are you doing for others?’”


Being Everywhere

The Time Warner Cable/CBS dispute continues, with all CBS programming blacked out. The two multimillion dollar companies fighting are squabbling over a $1 per customer increase and digital rights. And it is we, the viewers, the people, who are suffering. Naturally.

Cover of my 1946 Bantam paperback edition.
Cover of my 1946 Bantam paperback edition.

For the second week in a row I was unable to watch Dexter or Ray Donovan on Showtime (owned by CBS), so I watched The Grapes of Wrath on TCM instead. That’s the 1940 film based on John Steinbeck’s novel by the same name, his protest novel about how capitalism is a ruthless system of exploitation. How fitting.

I hadn’t seen the film in a long time. It’s been even longer since I read the book. The Grapes of Wrath tells the story of the Joads, an Oklahoma family forced from their farm by the Dust Bowl during the Great Depression. They journey to California along with thousands of others in search of work and a new life.

John Ford was the director, an odd choice because The Grapes of Wrath was regarded as a “leftist” novel, and Ford was a staunch right-winger. But he was also a humanist, and no doubt identified with the plight of the migrant workers in the same way as he did with his ancestors who suffered through the Irish Famine, and with the struggle of the Welsh coal miners whose lives he depicted so beautifully in his 1941 film How Green Was My Valley.

Although his conservatism, and at times, his brand of patriotism, is not my cup of tea, I consider John Ford a great filmmaker. It seems to me that his version of The Grapes of Wrath follows Steinbeck’s novel closely, even the political part. The film was produced 73 years ago, and yet it is a thoroughly realistic portrait of that time, rather atypical for films of the period. Shot in glorious black and white, Ford’s cinematographer was Gregg Toland, who a year later would perform the same duty for Orson Welles on Citizen Kane.

Watching the film this time around, I was stuck by the scene where the Joad family finally finds some work in California. They’ve already been preyed upon, and they show up at a ranch where work is a sure thing. The migrants drive through the barbed wire gates of the ranch in their overloaded vehicles, past the guards who act like Nazi thugs – it’s more like a German concentration camp than an California work camp, an eerie parallel considering not much was known about the Nazi camps in 1940. And, at the same time, a premonition of the Japanese internment camps two or three years later.

The first night, young Tom Joad meets up with some “agitators” who are planning a strike against the oppressive landowners, and he ends up killing a deputy who has in turn killed his friend, the former preacher, Casy.

Henry Fonda plays Tom Joad, the basically decent man who finds himself thrust into some violent situations that turn him into an outlaw. Tom Joad’s journey is not just from Oklahoma to California, but also from self-interest to selflessness, and as he becomes a fugitive, his sense of family grows larger to include all humanity.

The climactic scene in the film is when Tom has to say goodbye to his Ma. He figures that since he is already an outlaw, he might as well go out and “do something, maybe find out what’s wrong.” The words he says to his mother are not word for word from the novel, but close enough. It’s doubtful that either Steinbeck or screenwriter Nunnally Johnson had Buddhism on their minds, but I’ve always thought Tom Joad’s short speech is about as good a description of the Buddhist concept of interconnectedness as I’ve ever heard.

Ma Joad accepts that Tom must leave but how will she know where he is and if he will be all right?

grapes-fondaTom Joad: Well, maybe it’s like Casy says. A fellow ain’t got a soul of his own, just little piece of a big soul, the one big soul that belongs to everybody, then . . .

Ma Joad: Then what, Tom?

Tom Joad: Then it don’t matter. I’ll be all around in the dark – I’ll be everywhere. Wherever you can look – wherever there’s a fight, so hungry people can eat, I’ll be there. Wherever there’s a cop beatin’ up a guy, I’ll be there. I’ll be in the way guys yell when they’re mad. I’ll be in the way kids laugh when they’re hungry and they know supper’s ready, and when the people are eatin’ the stuff they raise and livin’ in the houses they build – I’ll be there, too.

Ma Joad: I don’t understand it, Tom.

Tom Joad: Me, neither, Ma, but – just somethin’ I been thinkin’ about.

Being everywhere . . . being a piece of something that belongs to everyone . . .


True Happiness Pt. Two

Monday I shared some thoughts on the subject of true happiness by Chuang Tzu. According to this Chinese sage, happiness was found in wu-wei or “not doing.” Chuang Tzu said, “I consider doing nothing to obtain happiness to be true happiness.”

19th Century Tibetan Tangka of Shantideva
19th Century Tibetan Tangka of Shantideva

For Shantideva, the 8th century Indian Buddhist philosopher, there was no greater happiness than generating bodhicitta, the thought of awakening. Bodhicitta, the aspirational wish to relieve the sufferings of all beings, is considered the first and leading step toward awakening or Buddhahood.

In the first chapter of the “Bodhicaryavatara” (“A Guide to the Bodhisattva Way of Life”), in which Shantideva describes the benefits of bodhicitta, he writes, “The jewel that is this thought is the true cause of happiness for all wandering beings.”

The selection below was included in a Mahayana liturgy based on Shantideva’s book. In the Wallace annotated translation this section has three headings: meditating on the happiness of fulfilling one’s own wishes, meditating on the happiness of benefiting others and fulfilling their wishes, and exhorting others to meditate on happiness.

This selection is roughly the last nine or ten verses (depending on the version) of Chapter Three. This version is my own, based on various translations.

Embracing the Thought of Awakening

After generating the thought of awakening, a person with a sincere and seeking mind will strengthen the aspiration with such thoughts as these:

Today my life is fruitful, my human existence a blessing. This day I joined the family of the Awakened, and now am I their heir.

In every way, now, I should undertake the tasks of my family, and never stain this pure lineage.

Like a blind man who has found a gem in a pile of rubbish, somehow this thought of awakening has arisen within me.

It is an elixir made to alleviate death in the world, an inexhaustible treasure to relieve the world’s poverty, a supreme balm to heal the world’s sickness.

It is a tree under which all living beings who wander over life’s paths may rest; the universal bridge open to all wayfarers.

It is the rising moon of the mind that soothes the afflictions of the mind; the great sun dispelling the darkness of ignorance. It is the fresh butter churned from the milk of dharma.

For the caravan of beings traveling the road of life hungering for the taste of happiness, this is the feast of true happiness that provides sustenance to all.

Today, I summon the world to the state of awakening, and enter into the true meaning of happiness, and may this cause all celestial beings, titans, and others to rejoice.


The Sacrifice of the Bodhisattva

Buddhist nun Palden Choetso
Buddhist nun Palden Choetso (d. Nov. 3, 2011)

This week two more Tibetans set themselves on fire in the cause for greater freedom and the return from exile of the Dalai Lama. 102 Tibetan monks, nuns and laypersons have set themselves on fire since 2009.

I support not only autonomy for the Tibetan region but independence from China. That, however, is not the subject of this post, just my simple statement of solidarity with the Tibetan people.

While some, the Chinese government, for instance, maintain that the self-immolations violate Buddhist principles, there is another side to that. In traditional Mahayana teachings, the sacrifice is a critical aspect of Bodhisattva path. The Bodhisattva engages in altruistic action with all the forces of body, speech and mind, and in the cause for the liberation of all living beings, there is nothing the Bodhisattva should hold back. A Bodhisattva does not acquire anything that “he would have not the heart to let go,” says the Narayana-pariprccha. That includes “his own hand, his foot, nose, head, limbs greater and lesser, son, daughter, wife, love, servant, mind, ease, house, wealth, country, treasure and all that is his,” according to the Bodhisattva-pratimoksha. The merit the Bodhisattva accrues because of altruistic action is up for grabs. Even one’s own body is but an offering to place on the altar of altruism.

Elsewhere in the Narayana-pariprccha, it says,

Even so the Bodhisattva must regard as medicine this his frame composed of the four great elements, and say, ‘Let all creatures take it of me as they require it, a hand, for such as need it, or a foot, for such as need it.”

In the Akshayamati Sutra, the Bodhisattva vows, “I must wear out even this my body for the behests of all creatures.” Because the Bodhisattva understands the impermanence of the body, it is not held dearly. The body is shared in any case, shared as we shared the air and the space around us, through interconnectedness. And yet, even though the body is non-essential, to be shared, “worn out,” renounced, the Bodhisattva is nonetheless enjoined to preserve the body, keeping it healthy and strong:

“O Sariputra, one must preserve one’s self when one intends to preserve others.”


The Akshayamati Sutra suggests that it is important for the Bodhisattva to keep the body free from disease, “out of regard for his fellows.” That’s an interesting thought, to maintain good health for the benefit of others.

Medicine King Bodhisattva
Medicine King Bodhisattva

There are a few stories about this extreme form of compassionate effort, such as the jataka tale of the Bodhisattva who made a sacrifice of his body to a hungry tigress. The Mahayana Nirvana Sutra tells of Himalaya Kumara or the Snow Mountains Boy who leaped into the mouth of a demon to receive a teaching composed of eight characters. There are self-immolations, as well, one being the Medicine King Bodhisattva who as an offering to the Buddha set his body on fire and burned for twelve hundred years.

But, these are myths, and as the Japanese priest, Nichiren once pointed out, “Such austere practices are for saints and sages, but not for ordinary people . . . Yet even common mortals can attain Buddhahood if they cherish one thing: earnest faith. In the deepest sense, earnest faith is the will to understand and live up to the spirit, not the words, of the sutras.”

Faith in this sense is not a matter of belief, but sincerity. For those who follow the Buddha way, more important than offerings of incense or money and the like, is the offering of our sincere efforts to live up to the spirit of the teachings. That means to practice kindness, to respect others, to take care of others, and to take care of ourselves.

Most of us, hopefully none of us, will ever find ourselves in a situation that would demand engaging in the ultimate selfless action of setting our body on fire, or any other sacrifice of that nature. Those living in Tibet, however, are living in the worst kind of nightmare.

Recently, Prof. Robert Thurman, in an article, “The Cry of Freedom,” wrote of the self-immolation of the Tibetan Buddhist nun Palden Choetso:

When you destroy your body, you violate your own life, the lives of what Buddhists call “the 84,000 cells” that constitute it. This does seem violent. Yet in this case, the individual sacrifices herself to appeal to her enemy, to convey the perhaps all-too-subliminal message that they have nothing to fear from her, that she will resist their relationship of fear and harm by removing herself from being the target of their ultimately self-destructive, evil behavior. That is true non-harming—perfect resistance by complete surrender.”

Thurman calls these extreme acts “a final appeal for a change in the iron hearts of their oppressors.”

Some critics of the self-immolations say the Tibet situation is not about Buddhism, it must be about politics or something. However, it seems they are missing one of the prime points of the teachings. The Bodhisattva-pratimoksha says, “in all business of life.” The Anantamukha-nirhdradhdrani, “Wherever conflicts arise amongst living creatures . . .” And the Lotus Sutra, “No affairs of life or work are in any way different from the ultimate reality.” It’s all about dharma. Everything.

How one reconciles these teachings on the sacrifice of the Bodhisattva with conflicting Buddhist teachings is an individual matter. My own feelings about the self-immolations are torn. I believe, for instance, that being outside the region, Tonden (David Alain), the British monk who set himself on fire at Nalanda monastery near Labastide-Saint-Georges, might have had more lasting impact and greater influence had he chosen another way to protest. As far as the Tibetans are concerned, they are inside the tyranny, I am not, and therefore I cannot judge them. All I can do is to support their cause in my own meager and ineffectual way.


The Four Great Bodhisattva Vows

Many Buddhists are familiar with the Four Great Bodhisattva Vows. Some people seem to have the impression this is an almost exclusively Zen thing, but most of the Japanese traditions recite the Vows, as well as Korean and Chinese schools. In fact, the Vows 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 in place during Chih-i’s time, although perhaps not as we know them today. 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. [1. Denis C. Twitchett, The Cambridge History of China: Volume 3, Sui and T’ang China, 589-906 AD, Part One, Cambridge University Press, 1979]

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.

The last one is actually a vow 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, the American Zen Buddhist 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 other words, it’s doesn’t matter if we are unable to fulfill the Vows, what is important is that we capture the spirit behind them.

We should also keep in mind 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.”

Subhuti, someone who gives rise to the supreme, perfect thought of awakening [annuttara-samyak-sambodhicitta] will resolve thusly: ‘I shall liberate all sentient beings,’ and then having liberated all sentient beings, he understands that in truth, not a single being has been liberated. Why is this? Subhuti, if a bodhisattva has the view of a self, a person, of sentient beings, a soul, then that is not a bodhisattva. And why not? Subhuti, there is no independently existing thing such as the supreme, prefect thought of awakening. Subhuti, what do you think? When the Buddha was with Dipankara Buddha, he had attained supreme, perfect enlightenment [annuttara-samyak-sambodhi]? No.”

– The Buddha in the Diamond Sutra

While there are not as many English variations of the Vows as there are sentient beings, there are quite a few. Perhaps the most interesting one is by Thich Nhat Hanh:

However 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. 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 simple truth.

In a work attributed to Nagarjuna, The Transcendental Bodhicitta Treatise, it 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.”