The Way of the Bodhisattva

By Peter Della Santina

 

Just as the goal of Buddhism can be divided into the provisional goal and the ultimate goal, likewise, the ultimate goal can be divided into the goal of Arhatship and the goal of Buddhahood. Respectively, the goal of Arhatship and of Buddhahood refer to freedom from the suffering of samsara for oneself and freedom to liberate other sentient beings from the suffering of samsara. This goal of achieving Buddhahood in order to liberate all living beings from suffering is the goal of the Bodhisattva.

We can see the way of the Bodhisattva exemplified in the career of the Buddha Sakyamuni and in the accounts of his previous lives. The career of the Bodhisattva begins with the awakening of the Enlightenment Thought, the thought to free all living beings from the suffering of samsara. In the case of the Buddha Sakyamuni, he first awakened the Thought of Enlightenment many lifetimes before he attained Buddhahood when in a certain life he was a merchant who had a blind mother. He had to go to a distant land on a business trip, and as he did not wish to leave his mother unattended, he took her with him. They had to travel across the ocean and in the course of their journey their ship sank in a storm. Finding themselves in the water, the Bodhisattva looked about for his mother and eventually with the aid of a plank saved her from drowning. In the course of saving his mother, he awakened the thought to free all sentient beings from suffering. This awakening of the Thought of Enlightenment marks the beginning of the Buddha Sakyamuni's progress along the way of the Bodhisattva.

After the awakening of the Enlightenment Thought, the next step of the way of the Bodhisattva is the formal articulation of the vow and the reception of the prediction to Buddhahood. In the case of the Buddha Sakyamuni, this took place in the time of the Buddha Dipankara when he had already achieved the eighth of the ten stages of Buddhahood. According to one account, on seeing Dipankara one day in the city, he had a compelling desire to become a Buddha like Dipankara. He articulated his vow to become a Buddha and he received a prediction from Dipankara to the effect that in a future life he will become a Buddha by the name of Sakyamuni.

This event of the articulation of the vow and the reception of the prediction functions more as a confirmation of his resolve and progress towards Buddhahood than as an instrumental cause of his Enlightenment. It is perhaps for this reason that they have received somewhat less attention than the other steps of the way of the Bodhisattva within the living Mahayana tradition. In fact we do have a formalization of the articulation of the vow and reception of the prediction in the Mahayana tradition. This functions as a kind of imitation of the events of the career of the Bodhisattva. Today, one who wants to follow the Bodhisattva path could articulate the vow before a living spiritual master and receive from him the prediction to Buddhahood.

In terms of one's practice and progress towards Buddhahood, the practice of the perfections is more important than the others. This constitutes the essence of the way of the Bodhisattva and it occupies the largest amount of time and energy in the course of Bodhisattva practice. The practice of the perfections of generosity, morality, patience, energy, meditation and wisdom are exemplified in the former lives of the Buddha Sakyamuni. For example, we have the account in which having saved a pigeon from a crow, he then gave his own flesh to the crow in order to compensate him for the loss of his meal. This story is interesting as it suggests the difficulty of practicing the perfections. It requires a real and total commitment to the benefit of all living beings, not just for some to the exclusion of others.

In the career of the former lives of the Buddha Sakyamuni, we see his gradual accumulation of merit and knowledge through the practice of the perfections which culminated in his birth as Prince Siddhartha. The events of his last life -- his renunciation, practice and achievement of Enlightenment are paralleled in the life of the other Buddhas and Bodhisattvas. They are standard stages in the career of the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas and they are the awakening of the Enlightenment Thought, the vow, the prediction, the practice of the perfections and ultimately the attainment of Buddhahood. Those who wish to follow the way of the Bodhisattva need in general to follow these steps.

In awakening the Enlightenment Thought, the first step is to consider the sameness and equality of all living beings. This is the foundation of the universal altruism of the Mahayana just as it is the foundation of Buddhist ethics and morality. What this means is that all living beings are alike in wanting happiness and not wanting suffering. This is true of the highest of the gods, of the tiniest of the microscopic organisms, and of the most miserable of beings in the hells.

In the context of Buddhist ethics, this forms the basis of good conduct because just as oneself would not like to be beaten or robbed, so all living beings would also not like to be beaten or robbed. And just as oneself would like to be spoken to with courtesy, so all living beings would also like to be treated in the same way.

In the case of the aspiration for Enlightenment, this sameness and equality of all living beings is also fundamental as it leads us to think that in so far as we are all alike in wanting happiness and freedom from suffering, it is improper to wish for our own happiness and freedom from suffering while neglecting the happiness and freedom from suffering of others. This consideration leads one to aspire for Buddhahood.

This consideration of the sameness and equality of all living beings is amplified by considering the very close relationships which are shared with all human beings. We have recourse to the emotional commitment that one feels towards one's mother. Here we consider the fact that at one time or another all sentient beings have been our kind mothers. We consider the kindness of our mother, the indebtedness which we owe to our mother. At birth, each and every one of us is totally helpless and incapable of surviving. It is only through the kindness of our mother that we gradually grow to become independent, taught to function successfully in the world and so forth. Each and every one of us owes a tremendous debt to our mother. The debt that we owe to our mother in this life is similarly owed to all living beings.

The Buddha once said that even if one were to carry one's parents on one's shoulders for the whole of one's life, one would not be able to repay the debt one owes them. But through striving for the happiness and freedom from suffering of all living beings, one can repay the debt. If one were to see one's mother drowning in the ocean of samsara, and if one had the capacity to save her, surely it would be an ungrateful act not to rescue her. Similarly, seeing all sentient beings suffering in the ocean of samsara, knowing that at one time or another they have been our kind mothers, surely it is befitting that we should strive to rescue them. This is done through the attitude of the cultivation of great love and great compassion, the altruistic wish for all living beings to be happy and free from suffering.

The real driving force of the Enlightenment Thought arises out of the conflict between the objective of great love and great compassion and the reality of our present situation. Presently, we are not even able to secure our own happiness and freedom from suffering let alone the happiness and freedom from suffering of all living beings. We also recognize that even though we may be able to do so marginally by making material gifts and encouragement, only by achieving Buddhahood are we able to secure the ultimate happiness and freedom from suffering of all living beings. Only the Buddha with his infinite qualities of wisdom, compassion, skilful means and so forth has the ability to achieve this.

The awakening of the Enlightenment Thought has a totally transforming effect on the nature of one's experience. Shantideva said that by the mere power of the awakening of the Enlightenment Thought a wretch living in a prison is transformed into a son of the Buddha. The awakening of the Enlightenment Thought destroys previous unwholesome karma. It secures one against depression and fear. It is able to do this because of the greatness of the intention embodied in the Enlightenment Thought.

We can understand the greatness of the Enlightenment Thought by comparing it with other resolutions. For example, if we resolve to give food or clothing to an orphanage for one year, or if we resolve to be a physician in order to care for the physical ills of others, these resolutions are considered meritorious. However, in both cases, only a limited benefit for a limited number of beings for a limited length of time is involved. In the case of the awakening of the Enlightenment Thought, what is involved is the ultimate and permanent happiness and freedom from suffering of all living beings without exception. In comparison to those lesser yet meritorious intentions, one can understand the greatness of the Enlightenment Thought. It is said that nowhere in the world, not among kings nor among parents is there any thought equal in greatness to the thought of achieving Buddhahood.

The aspiring Enlightenment Thought that we have discussed so far is itself a great marvel. Nonetheless, it needs to be utilized. This is just as if one were to come across a great jewel one would be greatly overjoyed by one's discovery; or if one were to dream of visiting a distant country and one would be elated by the thought, and yet one would not make any progress simply by the discovery or wish alone. Similarly, the awakening of the Enlightenment Thought is a source of great joy in itself. But the intention by itself is not enough. It has to be coupled with practice. The aspiring Enlightenment Thought has to be coupled with the applied Enlightenment Thought to enable the practitioner to reach the goal of Buddhahood.


Based on lectures held at Sakya Tenphel Ling, Singapore, by Dr. Peter Della Santina, Ph.D., November 1984 - January 1985 . Published for free distribution by The Singapore Buddha Sasana Society, 1987.