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Exemplars of bodhisattva Maitreya (continued)

Ram Dass

The image of Maitreya studying the nature of consciousness to benefit beings is evident among many prominent sixties counterculture figures. Ram Dass, in his former identity as Richard Alpert, was a Harvard psychologist researching the effects of LSD with his colleague Timothy Leary. Ram Dass abandoned his academic position and middle-class identity to pursue expansion of consciousness, initially through psychoactive drugs. Later, through his pilgrimages to India and practice with his guru there, Ram Dass redirected his explorations toward Hinduism and a variety of other spiritual approaches to consciousness. His book Be Here Now was a popular inspiration and preparatory guidebook inviting post-hippie involvement in a wide range of Eastern religions and yogic practices, and it encouraged the emerging New Age spiritual movement.

Bearing the unbearable is the root of the deepest compassion.

Ram Dass's teachings have included exercises ranging from Sufi to American Vipassana Buddhist practices, and more recently he has engaged in dialogues investigating his Jewish roots. Such eclectic inclusiveness echoes the popular Maitreya figures of China and Japan, with their Taoist and native shamanic associations. Although all the bodhisattva figures have interacted with native cultural traditions, this eclecticism seems especially prominent in the openhearted figure of Maitreya.

Ram Dass also embodies Maitreya's loving-kindness in his extensive work on behalf of programs such as the Seva Foundation. Seva, from a Sanskrit word for service, offers medical assistance to people with blindness and other health problems in economically disadvantaged countries such as Nepal, India, Tibet, Guatemala, and Mexico, and also has programs on Native American reservations.

In his many writings, Ram Dass has given practical advice to help those engaged in healing work to avoid stress and burnout. A popular lecturer, Ram Dass often speaks directly of loving-kindness practices, and his cheerful, humorous demeanor makes him look like a modern Hotei.

Henry David Thoreau

The hippies of the sixties were a continuation of a long tradition in America, which includes meditative and communal aspects of the Maitreya archetype that date back to the nineteenth-century Transcendentalists. An early exemplar of this tradition is Henry David Thoreau, whose writings and concerns about right livelihood, in its deepest sense, are still relevant and inspiring today. In his contemplations by Walden Pond, and in his dedication to social justice and responsibility, Thoreau thoroughly expressed aspects of the Maitreya archetype.

Thoreau's musing as he sits in front of his Walden shack reminds us of contemplative Maitreya or of Ryokan sunning himself by his hermitage. Thoreau's intimate observations of the surrounding plants and animals, even to the workings of ants, echoes Maitreya's loving concern for all beings. We witness the loving-kindness and foolish joy of Maitreya in Thoreau's rejoicing at the simple wonders of the natural world, and in his practices to simplify his life.

It is never too late to give up your prejudices..

Thoreau's writings against slavery and his public act of civil disobedience in opposition to U.S. imperialism in the Mexican War inspired both Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. But Thoreau did not adopt a Samantabhadra-like programmatic activism; rather, his brief sojourn in jail was more an independent, idealistic statement, aimed at provoking in others a vision of social justice, perhaps to come about in a Maitreyan future.

If a man does not keep pace with his companions,
perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer.
Let him step to the music which he hears,
however measured or far away.

Thoreau's contemplations give us insight into Maitreya's view of time and future. In a famous passage in the concluding chapter of Walden, Thoreau speaks of hearing a different drummer, and keeping pace to the music one hears.