The Bodhisattva Ideal

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Ascending and descending bodhisattvas

We can see the bodhisattva path as ascending to buddhahood. Step by step, over many lifetimes, the bodhisattva develops enlightening understanding and practice, and skillfulness in helping beings, until at some time he is ready to realize the "unsurpassed complete perfect enlightenment" of a buddha.

We can also describe the bodhisattva as descending from buddhahood. The story goes that it was only at the urging of the Indian deity Brahma that Shakyamuni Buddha agreed to stay in the world to help teach those beings who were ready to enter into the way of awakening.

Although a buddha teaches and demonstrates this awakening, a buddha is also one who already sees the world as whole and perfected. In this sense, a buddha does not need to do anything and has nothing to accomplish. Bodhisattvas, on the other hand, do the work of the buddhas in the world, acting to relieve suffering and liberate all beings.

All the bodhisattvas that we will discuss as archetypes are considered to have the same understanding as a completely awakened buddha, but they take on the job of helping all suffering beings to actualize, or make real, this awareness. Although they may have realized the equivalent awareness of a buddha, they return to the state of bodhisattvas to perform beneficial work for beings.

The descending bodhisattva practices in order to enact and express enlightenment, not to achieve it. There is nothing to gain; it is only a matter of all beings reconnecting with their own fundamental, inherent buddha nature. When bodhisattvas descend and return to delusion for the sake of beings, usually they actually return to delusion. A bodhisattva manifesting in the limitation of a particular body, in a specific time and place, necessarily is fooled by the world of delusion. He does not just pretend to be in that world, but actually takes on and is gripped by delusion for the sake of demonstrating awakening in the midst of it.

AUDIO The classic illustration of this aspect of the bodhisattva path is the parable of the prodigal son in the Lotus Sutra. In this story, a son and father have a falling-out. The son leaves home and travels the world, getting involved in various misadventures. Meanwhile, the father works and acquires a fortune. One day the son, in his wanderings, arrives at the town where the father is living. Reduced to a beggar in rags by the troubles of the world, the son loiters in front of the gates of a magnificent mansion, which happens to belong to his father. The father instantly recognizes his son and sends his attendants to bring the son to him. But the son, full of self-contempt, is terrified and runs away when he sees people approaching him from the big house. The father understands and has one of his men don rags and befriend the son, then offer him a job shoveling manure in the fields of the estate.
Gradually, the son becomes comfortable and skilled in his job as a menial laborer and is given increasing responsibilities in the father's business. Eventually, after many years, the son is given the job of managing the whole property. On his deathbed the father gives the son ownership of the whole business and finally announces that his new heir is, in fact, his true biological son. In the same way, bodhisattvas return to the world of delusion, forgetting they are children of buddha, and work their way back to realizing their original, inalienable buddha nature.

Bodhisattvas engaged in their beneficial work in the world take on whatever roles may be helpful. They may be female or male, lay person or priest; doctor, scientist, or fortune-teller; king or beggar; engineer, bus driver, architect, or laborer; musician, magician, teacher, or writer. Any of these may be great bodhisattvas.

In the Lotus Sutra, the Buddha says that bodhisattvas are right here. He points to the ground, and out of the ground spring hundreds of enlightened beings. When people ask where they came from, Shakyamuni says they are always in the open space under the ground, practicing intently in order to help awaken