The Bodhisattva Ideal

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Contemporary exemplars

Spiritual development and awakening still occur in the world, and enlightening beings still walk among us, helping and inspiring us where we might least expect them. Despite all the problems, cruelty, and despair of our world, the bodhisattva ideal is not irrelevant, idealistic, or beyond our reach. So in looking at the bodhisattva archetypes, we will also be considering examples of modern people who exemplify particular aspects of awakened action. The examples include people of our own time. I hope that these sometimes provocative examples will demonstrate that the inclination toward awakening is still alive and well.

By designating known persons as examples of the bodhisattva archetypes, I am certainly not saying that these persons are (or are not) bodhisattvas. The point is that everyone has the capacity to act as a bodhisattva. Furthermore, everybody, at times and in ordinary ways, does act kindly and beneficially as a bodhisattva. All human beings, even great cultural heroes, might also at times act in unfortunate ways, out of small-mindedness and from petty concerns or desires.

I mention some famous people in the context of discussing bodhisattvas only because they may be generally familiar as examples. Bodhisattvas usually are unknown and anonymous rather than celebrities, and they function humbly and invisibly all around us, expressing kindness and generosity in simple, quiet gestures. Having opened their hearts beyond delusions of craving and estrangement, bodhisattvas can just be themselves, not seeking out good deeds to perform, but in their very ordinariness presenting inspiring examples that help others.

Although bodhisattvas take on innumerable styles and approaches, all bodhisattvas are concerned for their fellow beings, especially for all those suffering in unfortunate conditions. Even the yogi sitting in meditation by herself near a remote mountaintop can never truly sit alone. Myriad beings are mysteriously present, and all society is subtly and intimately affected, whenever one takes on the bodhisattva project. Insight into the wholeness of reality is not separate from the responsibility to regard and respond creatively to the suffering of our fellow creatures.