The Bodhisattva Ideal

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Self and other: the illusion of separation

In approaching the bodhisattvas as archetypes, you may wonder whether these figures are external entities to venerate or internal forces to uncover and express. They are both.

Traditionally, Mahayana devotees petition bodhisattvas for aid and support. We can honor this view of the bodhisattvas as cosmic beings while also seeing them as potential forces within us. In Mahayana understanding, all dualities are seen as distinctions that may be practical in specific situations but are barriers to awakening if seen as ultimately real. The sacred does not exist separate from, or outside, the worldly realm. Nirvana, the salvation from all struggle, exists in the midst of samsara, the endless runaround of cause and effect and grasping for gain, just as a lotus blossoms out of muddy water.

When we understand our deep connection to each other, the dichotomy between self and other—which is basic to our usual ego operations—is exposed as a fiction. Ultimately we are each distinct expressions of one whole, not separate competing entities. It is impossible to be truly free and enlightened oneself if others down the street are in misery. To ignore the suffering of others is to ignore some part of oneself. This does not mean that we destroy the ego, or deny the presence of our particular body and mind. Rather, we engage in and care for our own unique personhood by understanding the larger view as well. We begin to live with awareness of the illusory nature of the self-other separation that is continuously produced by our conditioned mentality.

Sit down and consider how many beings are sitting with you. You are breathing the air that others have breathed. You are sitting with your thoughts, feelings, your whole life situation, your friends, family, parents, even your great great grandmother.

If self and other are not separate, we need not decide whether bodhisattvas are inside or outside. The point is to effectively help beings, either as self or as others.