Do you think you’ve got what it takes to be a bodhisattva?
Are you ready to live in Truth for the benefit of all sentient beings, even if there is no Truth to serve and no others to serve it to?
Do you think you can handle your family for a week straight without losing it?
Do you think that little bit of patience and compassion you’ve cultivated is enough to prevent you from getting sucked into the vortex of drama and reactivity?
Just what the hell is a Bodhisattva, you ask, and why in the multiverse would anyone want to be one?
Literally, bodhisattva means “awakened being” (bodhi= awake, sat= being). But what does that mean? Awakened to what?
To seeing reality as it is.
There are four vows that bodhisattvas take that can help situate you as to what exactly this entails. If you reflect on them, you can perhaps get an idea about what it means to see reality as it is. To do so is a humbling, but inspiring exercise.
(If you haven’t already, click here to read part 1)
Vow #2: Delusions are inexhaustible:
I vow to transcend them
So you realize that sentient beings are indeed numberless, and it is a blessing beyond words just to arrive at this understanding.
Seems like an appropriate reaction would be to thank your monkey mind for even getting you this far, and go out to sing and dance in the streets! What would it be like trying to recruit a group of strangers into an ‘existence party’ where everyone would celebrate the basic fact of being here? (Know any DJs who could keep that party going?!).
But we all know how difficult it is to hold yourself open in reverent awe toward the vastness of the mystery that you are. Things get in the way. You’ve still got to eat. The garbage needs taking out. Your neighbor’s dog is barking, and your parents want to know when you’re coming to visit. And you’ll be late for work if you don’t start to get going.
Urgh! Can’t my family and the government and everyone else see I’ve got more important things to do?!
As much as you wish it could, popping in reference to the magnificence of creation cannot defuse the reality of human drama (directing your lover to contemplate the cosmological constant in the middle of a fight is not an advisable strategy). Wouldn’t it be nice if awareness of our good fortune could serve as an antidote against the poisonous effects of ignorance, attachment, and anger? The chances of that happening seem about as unlikely as the universe’s laws being what they are.
The reality is that even though all that carbon in our bodies came out of the belly of exploding stars, we are largely unaware of that, and still fundamentally attached to our personality and sense of separateness.
And being as ego-based as we are, friction between the way we want things to be and the way they are is inevitable. The Buddha very succinctly described this reality as dukkha, a term that gets translated as suffering, but whose literal meaning is ‘stuck wheel.’
You become aware of this aspect of reality as it is, and begin to turn your inquiring mind inward to investigate itself. You soon realize that just as there was a lot you didn’t know about the physical universe before you started investigating it, you’re still a kindergartener when it comes to knowing your own mind.
The first thing that becomes apparent is that the delusion of ignorance gives rise to all others. This is the first delusion that needs to be transcended, since it’s really the root from which your judgment, attachment, and envy spring. We’re not speaking of ignorance pejoratively here; in the Buddhist literature, ignorance (in the sense of being simply unaware of the nature of things) is a fundamental aspect of our human existence. So, you reason that if you could manage to counter your ignorance with the wisdom of the way things are, then you’d be less likely to react in ways which you know will lead to suffering.
You get to work right away on your meditation cushion. By sitting still, you begin to see that all phenomena are impermanent, that you don’t need to react immediately to your anger, for it (along with everything else) passes on its own accord. You’re beginning to know the laws of the mental universe!
After many more hours of observing the mind, you realize that ‘I’ is just one (particularly repetitive and emotionally charged) thought among many. You begin to see how, in fact, it is this perception of being a substantial ‘I’ set apart from everything else in the world that allows anger, jealousy and the like to arise (ignorance at work!). The story of ‘I’ drives you to defend its existence, often by acting in all sorts of absurd, self-righteous ways.
And when you listen closely to what this ‘I’ is demanding moment after moment, you realize that it actually sounds like a cross between a spoiled princess and a fascist dictator. “I want that! Screw that guy! It’s too hot. Mosquitos shouldn’t be allowed to exist.” And on. And on. And on.
This little voice will never be satisfied no matter what you do, no matter how perfect the situation. And you’ve given that little bastard in your head an almost god like power over your life.
Slowly, you learn that you don’t have to believe everything you think. There is a part of you that is prior to the thought of ‘I.’ This silent witness can just watch the thought parade go by like a never-ending procession of curiosities and horrors. You realize that’s the part of you that’s been there all along, that’s remained throughout all the body’s physical changes and the mind’s capricious preferences. That’s the part of you where you most deeply feel the very basic and tremendous fact of simply being.
It’s kind of like realizing the sun had been hidden there behind all the clouds and pollution. Bathing in its warmth, you realize how you had failed to notice this vital element of your existence that has actually underpinned your entire life. The more you sunbathe, the more you realize it actually has the power to melt away the fog of chaos and drama that you had mistakenly assumed was the reality of life.
Just like when you looked up at the stars, listening to the thunderous silence helps to re-set your priorities. You see that whatever this silence is, it is not yours to possess. As tempted as you are to take it and hold it up as your possession- to say “look what I have realized!”- it resists all attempts to grasp and hold on to it. How could you ever own the ineffable essence that gives rise to all beings? It is impossible to grasp the mystery out of which we all arise and into which we dissolve; a fact that, once again, leads to humility, understanding, and compassion for all our fellow sojourners who have been thrown into this cosmic ocean.
By this point, you might be feeling pretty good about yourself for having come this far.
Maybe you’ve even integrated these meditations to the point where nothing your parents say trips your reactive circuits, where your ego can stand aside just long enough for that deeper part of you to understand that we’re all conditioned by forces beyond our control to behave in the ways we do.
You begin to think to yourself, wow, look at me, I’m uprooting the causes of suffering. I’m beginning to see how blind I was in my ignorance (amazing grace!), and I’m on my way to becoming a transparent vessel for Being to see Its true nature.
Careful, aspiring bodhisattva, to keep in mind that the second vow (as well as all the others) are not hyperbole!
Delusions are inexhaustible. Don’t think that you can get around this one, for the thought that you are getting around this one proves that you are not getting around this one! It’s simply ignorance re-inscribing itself on a deeper level.
You see, if you think you are special for being perfectly equanimous in a bank line, if you think “wow! good thing I got all that ego shit out of the way so that Being/God/Enlightenment can become transparent to Itself through me”… this is yet another delusion.
It is a misperception- a delusion- that your ego-self is somehow responsible for awakening to this reality beyond itself.
Remember the vastness of the sky and the infinity of sentient beings and the humility that came with that realization? This awakening process you’re part of is simply the natural unfolding of the unnamable, ineffable, indefinable, inconceivable silent reality underlying all things that people call “God” or “Being” or “The Universe” or “Enlightenment” (choose your metaphor!) calling you home to Itself.
This is what It does. Awakening to Itself is Its nature.
And Buddha help you if you think that It is somehow diminished if It’s not transparent to Itself and Its workings! Don’t get high on yourself just because you are willing to heed the call of the Mystery to investigate what It is and align yourself with Its nature.
Think of it this way: when you’re walking in a forest, it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that there are many unseen forces (both in both space and time) that bring forth its fruits. Without an immense conspiracy of bacteria, fungi, animals, and other plants, a tree could not flower. It would be naïve and ludicrous to think that any one of these elements is superior to the others, for each is interdependent with all the others.
Similarly, looking at the mass of seemingly unselfconscious and ‘unenlightened’ beings in this world, it may be tempting to think that cutting through delusions so that Being can become aware of Itself is an extraordinary event, perhaps even the goal (telos) of the whole show. In some ways, it is, and should be celebrated as such.
But in other ways it’s not. As a bodhisattva, you are playing just one role in the vast array of evolutionary possibilities. Even those who seem “lost”, “confused”, or “unenlightened” are equal manifestations of the Mystery that has brought forth all beings, including the one who thinks that there are other beings in need of help. The fully-grown tree is not superior to the seedling, as Alan Watts liked to mention.
For reasons that are unknown to any single species, the forest needs different strands to weave its web of life. And in the vast forest of Being, the bodhisattva is just one flowering tree who is dependent on countless others to blossom. The bodhisattva is not suddenly exempt from interdependence just for having caught a glimpse of it.
You might be thinking now that looking out at that sky (or coming close to death, or whatever it was that brought you to this point) was a bad idea. Sorry to break it to you, but you can’t put the genie back in the bottle now.
Buck up, sprouting bodhisattva, and tap into some of that courage and perseverance you know you have. As painful and frustrating as it sometimes can be, you know that even if it is easier in some ways to live with closed eyes, you’d rather know the truth, even if the truth consists in knowing that you don’t know.
Speaking of that…
Original art by Joe Bocanegra.