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.
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
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.