Introduction

5 of 5

The bodhisattva ideal

There is one ideal that consistently undergirds engaged Buddhism, and that is the notion of a bodhisattva.  Bodhi means "awaken," and sattva means "being."  A bodhisattva can be an awakened being, a being on the way to awakening, or a being who awakens others.  Bodhisattvas share one overriding aspiration -- to become a Buddha, and they share one overriding motivation -- to relieve others' suffering.  Shakyamuni was a bodhisattva before he became a buddha.  Traditionally, the time he spent in this role includes not only the period of austerities and meditation that preceded his enlightenment, but also his many previous lives, as popularly depicted in the Jataka tales. 

There are also archetypal, cosmic bodhisattvas such as Manjushrì, who embodies wisdom, and Avalokiteshvara (Chinese: Kuan-yin), who embodies compassion. <<See Taigen course>> In some streams of Buddhism, practitioners are called bodhisattvas.  The path for a bodhisattva-in-training classically has ten stages: joy, immaculacy, splendor, brilliance, invincibility, immediacy, transcendence, immovability, eminence, and "dharma-cloud."  Such heroic terms were meant to inspire rather than exclude; this path has room for beginner bodhisattvas too. 

A bodhisattva is both a paragon and a paradigm, an exemplar for individual conduct and a gateway to an entire worldview.

The bodhisattva ideal is freshly evocative today, for Buddhists and non-Buddhists alike.  Philip Kapleau captures the gist of it in nonsectarian terms: "The object of gaining an insight into the inner truth of things is really to qualify oneself for greater compassion­ate action in the world."  In this course the phrase bodhisattva mind refers to the deep intention to come to awakening together with all beings. At once ordinary and mysterious, bodhisattva mind sometimes manifests as a quality of awareness, sometimes as a mode of practice.  

The New York Times recently asked a number of scholars what they thought was the "most underrated idea."  One answered, "Kindness."  Engaged Buddhists would agree.  The Dalai Lama makes it official when he says, "My religion is kindness."  Basically, the Wheel of Engaged Buddhism is a mandala of kind gestures.  Although a mandala is not a maze or labyrinth, it wouldn't hurt to have a strong thread as a guarantee that we will not lose the way.  That thread is kindness. 

As you begin, reflect on your current knowledge of engaged Buddhism. What do you want to understand better?


Compose a short verse, in your own voice, as a reminder to bring more awareness to some aspect of your life.