Today I’m going to talk some good Buddhist talk, so if that’s not your cup of nog, you’re free to click on over and watch the "Top 10 Incredible Animal Videos" of 2008 (I know the Buddhist types are going to click this, too, and you should: the gibbon teasing the young tigers made my sides ache and the lion reunion brought a tear ta me oi). Otherwise, a couple thoughts for the new year, in some ways a thank you to those who offered such kindness and wisdom in the comments to the previous post and privately by email:
The way we construct concepts of beginnings and endings is somewhat arbitrary, isn’t it? And yet, since we collectively accept them, they carry some psychological weight. So I’ve made it a habit to precede the transition from one year to the next in purification meditations, and then mark the moment of the new year with a renewal of my fundamental vows. In Buddhism, these are called the Refuge and Bodhisattva Vows.
Taking the Refuge Vow is what makes one a Buddhist. Listening to and contemplating the Buddha’s teaching, one may come to realize the futility of pursuing stable happiness among the ever-shifting phenomena of this world. One may further see that the state of enlightenment, the unbound, natural state free from the deeply delusional idea of ego, and the disquiet emotions and unskillful actions that flow from this error, is perhaps the highest and most noble goal of this human life. In a simple but profound ceremony one declares one’s refuge from the endless round of rebirths impelled by ignorance to be threefold: the Buddha as the exemplar of the enlightened state, the one who overcame suffering and saw precisely how others might do the same; his teaching, or the Dharma, as the true method by which one may reclaim one’s natural state of enlightenment; and the community of those who live according to the ethics, contemplation and meditation of the Dharma, known as the Sangha, as the reliable support for one’s pursuit of enlightenment. Finding this sublime refuge was, for me, an indescribable relief as I struggled with an increasing sense of the meaninglessness of worldly pursuits.
But somehow, as 2008 mysteriously flowed into 2009, I was able to regain the sense of awe and wonder that my first teacher, Jetsunma Ahkon Lhamo, instilled in me through introducing the birth of bodhicitta and inspiring me to take the Bodhisattva Vow.
Now, don’t be scared off by big Sanskrit words. It’s actually my hope that someday “bodhicitta” will become a common and well-known part of our spiritual lexicon. “Bodhi” means “enlightenment” – you can see the same roots that produce “Buddha”; “citta” means “mind” or “thought”. So together, bodhicitta is the mind or thought of enlightenment. At least one English translator calls it the “enlightened attitude.”
At the level of the Refuge Vow, one’s aim is to break free oneself from the bonds of samsara, the rounds of rebirth caused by our unenlightened views and actions. As one delves deeper into the matter, however, one may see that the notion of liberation separate from others ultimately makes no sense. In truth, we are inseparable from others. It becomes clear that thinking that “my” suffering will be overcome by “my” enlightenment, as opposed to “others’ suffering” and “others’ enlightenment” which is theirs to work out, is just more ego-based thinking and has no place in the goal of realizing non-dual awareness. Thinking about the false way we create the ego-idea, and how it unnecessarily separates us from others, begins to dissolve those barriers. As they dissolve, our neurotic, competitive attitude towards others gets replaced by an abiding sympathy, love and compassion. We see that we’re all dissatisfied and suffering for the same reason, and enlightenment is the ultimate solution.
So at this point we can take the example of two drowning people. If one of them has his or her wits about them, they will realize that in order for both to be saved, one has to get to shore, and then throw a lifeline to the other. In other words, to reach the safety of the enlightened state, one must achieve it first, then save the others. This is the basis for the Bodhisattva Vow.
The bodhisattva is an “awakening being” and his or her vow is this: to strive along the path to Buddhahood, supreme awakening, while at the same time promising never to leave samsara until each and every sentient being has been established in the supreme bliss of enlightenment beyond any possibility of suffering, no matter how many countless lifetimes this takes. Sometimes extremists of other religions might say to a Buddhist, “Your path is a false one and when you die you will go straight to hell.” A savvy Buddhist might reply, “I would welcome that. How else would I save the beings there?”
I can’t think of any idea in any culture or religion higher than that of bodhicitta. Seriously, can you? It has nothing to do with just being righteous in this life; it’s the motivation and actions whereby one feels no compunction to even sacrifice one’s own supreme enlightenment, lifetime after lifetime after lifetime, until such time as the infinite variety of beings in all six realms of existence are utterly free.
Shantideva, as ever, puts it best. This is from the first chapter of The Way of the Bodhisattva on “The Excellence of Bodhicitta,” verses 21-30, and it’s my small New Year’s gift to you. I cannot claim in any way to be a bodhisattva, and yet I truly wish for your every satisfaction in this world, and your liberation in inconceivable enlightened bliss:
“If with kindly generosity
One merely has the wish to soothe
The aching heads of other beings,
Such merit knows no bounds.
“No need to speak, then, of the wish
To drive away the endless pain
Of each and every living being,
Bringing them unbounded virtues.
“Could our fathers or our mothers
Ever have so generous a wish?
Do the very gods, rishis, even Brahma
Harbor such benevolence as this?
“For in the past they never,
Even in their dreams, conceived
Such profit even for themselves.
How could they have such aims for others’ sake?
“For beings do not wish their own true good,
So how could they intend such good for others’ sake?
This state of mind so precious and so rare
Arises truly wondrous, never seen before.
“The pain-dispelling draft,
This cause of joy for those who wander through the world –
This precious attitude, this jewel of mind,
How shall it be gauged or quantified?
“For if the simple thought to be of help to others
Exceeds in worth the worship of the buddhas,
What need is there to speak of actual deeds
That bring about the weal and benefit of beings?
“For beings long to free themselves from misery,
But misery itself they follow and pursue.
They long for joy, but in their ignorance
Destroy it, as they would a hated enemy.
“But those who fill with bliss
All beings destitute of joy,
Who cut all pain and suffering away
From those weighed down with misery,
“Who drive away the darkness of their ignorance –
What virtue could be matched with theirs?
What friend could be compared to them?
What merit is there similar to this?”