The Bodhisattva Ideal

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Bodhisattvas and the paramitas (continued)


Patience or tolerance (kshanti in Sanskrit) is the attitude of accepting and working with the difficulties of existence. Patience is simple: it means waiting. No matter how good our conduct or practice, expecting or grabbing at some reward or result is a hindrance. When we do our best without any particular expectation, we are ready for whatever happens. Patience is flexible, open, and ready to respond to the world before us. When the world presents hardships, when we are stuck in misery, trying to force ourselves out of the situation may only embed us more deeply. Patience allows us the space to see some other option. But we must be willing to wait.

In Buddhist meditation we explore patience by learning to maintain upright posture and attitude in the midst of our fears, confusions, and anger. We do not need to react, to deny or vanquish this turmoil. Developing patience, just continuing, we gradually can see through such emotional upheavals and even befriend the parts of us that are used to being impatient. We can sing ourselves lullabies, soothe our wounds, while remaining aware of our inner conflicts and also aware of an underlying calmness.

This world in which Shakyamuni was the Buddha is called the world of endurance. This is considered an auspicious place to practice. Living in this difficult place, filled with situations of apparent suffering, cruelty, and injustice, we can develop our capacity to endure, to be patient with our life, without feeling overwhelmed or compelled to react impulsively.

And the ultimate patience is particularly talked about in the Vimalakirti Sutra (see Lesson 8): patience with the inconceivability, ungraspability, of all things. This is another way of talking about emptiness. To be patient with our total inability to get a hold of anything is kind of the ultimate patience.


The perfection of effort is the enthusiasm to continue amidst adversity. Spiritual strength and stamina are required to persist on the path. We continue and sustain our enthusiasm by keeping our balance. If our effort is too severe, if we push ourselves too hard, we may snap from the pressure. If we are too easy and lax with ourselves, our energy will flag and we will also fail to continue. Effort and endurance are two sides of the balance in continuing practice.

Strenuous persistence is the stuff of bodhisattva legends. Milarepa, the eleventh-century Tibetan yogi and poet, had used his yogic skill to destroy his family's enemies before he took up the Buddhist path. To burn up and purify this karmic obstruction, Milarepa's teacher, Marpa, made him undergo many trials and frustrations. For example, Marpa asked Milarepa to build a stone house. Then he was asked to tear it down and rebuild it. Marpa had him repeat this ten times. Thanks to Milarepa's dedication and energy, he persisted.

Effort includes a nurturing side, balancing firmness with flexibility. The self-confidence of a bodhisattva includes joyfulness and rest as well as exertion. An aspect of holding firm is letting go, the willingness to start fresh from any point, to continue our efforts even when it seems we are starting all over, as Milarepa did with his house.

Enthusiasm supports and depends on many of the other practices. Meditation and mindfulness can help us marshal and care for our energy. Effort is an expression of vow, or commitment. Such a bodhisattva vow is the starting point for developing our spiritual energy and vitality.


The perfection of meditation (samadhi in Sanskrit) helps make many of the other perfections more effective. Samadhi is transformative, helping the meditator to settle more deeply into true self and openness. Such settling allows us to cut through delusions and obsessive thought patterns, seeing the insubstantiality of preconceptions and cherished assumptions. Samadhi is ultimately not separate from the insight of prajna, seeing discriminations between self and other as illusory.

Meditation also includes introspection, the investigation of consciousness. Meditation helps uncover emptiness and the vision of interconnection, but it also shows us how our usual thought processes obstruct such insights and gives us a means of studying our mental chatter. Through meditation we experience the texture of ordinary mental states, the grasping of our streams of thought. We can learn to find our presence amid these mental phenomena, without being caught by the patterns of conditioned attachments. In meditation, we maintain upright posture amid the swirl of conflicted thoughts and emotions, without feeling the need to react and act out. Meditation allows the space and calm for us to settle more deeply.

In a number of Buddhist traditions, nondual, objectless meditation is considered the highest development of meditation practice. The whole field of awareness becomes the object of concentration. One just lets it go and returns to the uprightness of the sitting posture, ready to be present and calmly attentive with whatever appears. Meditation is objectless in the sense that it has no particular goal or objective. Meditation becomes simply an ongoing expression and celebration of our fundamental openness and awakening, rather than a method of fulfilling expectations or attaining some desired state.


Wisdom (prajna in Sanskrit) is insight into the essential emptiness or insubstantial nature of all phenomena. All material and mental events are fundamentally empty, void and vast as space. This emptiness does not mean vacancy or nonbeing in a nihilistic sense. Rather, in the nature of their existence all things are empty of any independent, substantial quality and are not separate from the totality of all being or from each other.

Prajna is the experience of the essential unity and sameness of all things, in the midst of their diversity. In spite of all the distinctions we cherish, all people are alike in having fears, needs, and desires, in wanting to love and to be loved. The awakening to this insight slices through the confusions of our conditioning, which habitually obstruct our life and awareness.

Emptiness is not a thing, some new toy or crutch to grab hold of. The greatest delusion, warned against by masters of emptiness teaching, is attachment to emptiness. Even emptiness is empty. It is simply a way of being that releases attachments. It is a practice of opening and letting go.

The wisdom of prajna is not a matter of book knowledge or accumulation of information. Rather, prajna is insight; anyone can turn to look within and see this truth. Buddhas and deluded beings are completely alike in having access to wisdom. The only difference is in whether or not it is realized and enacted. The activity of wisdom is to illuminate and cut through the obstructions of greed, hatred, and confusion that block us from expressing our fundamental radiance and openness.
Prajna is the final of the first six perfections, which develop bodhisattva qualities. The four further paramitas are beneficial practices of accomplished bodhisattvas returning to the world for the sake of saving others.