Bodhisattva Ideal

Great Teacher Series @ Theosophy Trust


The attempt to understand and assimilate the central spiritual core of any religious tradition or collective religious heritage is most difficult. This is especially true of the Buddha's man-affirming doctrine that one must work out one's own salvation with diligence, that one must assimilate teachings so that they manifest in practice. The principle that there is no distinction between doctrine and practice constitutes the metaphysical underpinning of all Buddhist thought, no matter how much it may be lost in sectarian Buddhist theologies. This doctrine emanates from and is utterly dependent upon the centrality of the possibility of enlightenment, and it lays bare our difficulty in assimilating the teachings of the Buddha.

The difficulty takes the form of a paradox: on the one hand, one must pay careful attention to the scriptures, for one will never achieve salvation by blind belief nor will one achieve salvation by fuzzy thinking, being constantly victimized by maya. Discrimination must be developed; Buddhi must be activated. On the other hand, mere scriptural analysis, higher criticism, pedantic argumentation over the origin and meaning of particular words and over the historical development of formulations of doctrine, will not in any sense lead one to true understanding or realization. The need to develop discrimination is itself indicative of the necessity of handling the concepts taught by the Buddha, and applying them to our daily experience in such a way that we may articulate the teaching in our own words, from our own experience. Every doctrine, every scriptural point, is valid in a true Buddhist sense only to the extent that we 'engage' it and embody it in our own learning, experience and illumination. The Sixth Patriarch went so far as to say of enlightened men:

Since they have their own access to highest wisdom through the constant practice of concentration and contemplation (dhyana and samadhi), they realize that they no longer need to rely on scriptural authority.

While he could say this of enlightened men, the rest of us have to be a good deal more cautious. Nevertheless, the point he is making is germane to every individual who wishes to assimilate the basic teachings of the Buddha. Religious experience will reveal itself neither to the scholar nor to the tea-table conversationalist, but only to the man who makes the central conceptions of Buddhist thought the basis of his mental activity and the subject of his deepest meditation.

This is paradigmatically the case with the Bodhisattva ideal. Neither the nature nor the reality of the Brotherhood of Bodhisattvas, the grand fraternity which devotes its entire effort with one mind, one will and one overriding thought, to the welfare and liberation of all beings, can be grasped by other means. To assume that such a lofty conception as that of the Bodhisattva could be understood by the worldly mind would be to fall into the error of thinking that its subject could ever be understood in a realm where samvrittisatya ('relative truth') necessarily reigns. Nevertheless, if we put aside the rare case of the brilliant intellect which is refined by a fine attunement to its inner nature and warmed by a full devotion to the idea that there is no religion higher than truth, we may say that any man who continuously meditates on the ideal conception of the Bodhisattva can come to some understanding of the nature of such a being and its role in the world.

While the term 'Bodhisattva' means a number of different things and refers to various levels of spiritual attainment, we may take it that the Bodhisattva is reflected most archetypally in the Kwan-yin pledge. Kwan-yin is said to have been a Chinese princess who married a Tibetan king and led him to become a follower of the Buddha, but Kwan-yin is also assimilated to Avalokiteswara, a Buddha of inexpressible stature. Kwan-yin is said to have taken this pledge:

Never will I seek nor receive private, individual salvation; never will I enter into final peace alone; but forever and everywhere, will I live and strive for the redemption of every creature throughout the world from the bonds of conditioned existence.

This noble pledge immediately reveals two things about the Bodhisattva. The pledge can only be authentically taken by a very high being who cannot use speech in the degraded and careless fashion that we do in making cavalier claims and commitments, for the Bodhisattva commits himself to a central focus of thought in action for life and for lifetimes. The Bodhisattva has understood the full meaning of the first verse of the Dhammapada, "All that we are is the result of what we have thought: it is founded on our thoughts," and he has taken on, in making such a vow or pledge, the highest ideal conceivable to an individuated entity. For him, then, such ideal thoughts are more real than the maya of what we call everyday facts. Herein we find a paradox or mystery. The Bodhisattva sets for himself an ideal which cannot ever be fully attained and yet he throws his whole being into its achievement with a focus of interest, concern and total commitment unknown to the average man. The taproot of reality, then, is a plane of ideation so refined that it can never fully incarnate in this world.

But we also must notice that the Bodhisattva takes a pledge. A pledge must be taken to someone or something. The Bodhisattva, however, cannot take this pledge to human beings, for although they benefit greatly from the Bodhisattva's activity, the Bodhisattva works for them whether or not they realize, understand or even care. So, since the pledge must be taken to something or someone that can hold the pledge-taker accountable, we must rule out human beings. While the Mahayana is full of the most marvelous celestial and transcendental beings, it does not identify any sovereign God, does not teach any ultimate external source of accountability. Therefore, the Bodhisattva must take the pledge to something within himself, and yet to something higher than whatever set of forms he currently occupies or anything which he can fully manifest. Remaining true to the doctrine, 'Work out your own salvation with diligence,' the Bodhisattva holds himself accountable to the highest in him for what he is pledged to do on the plane of thought in some form or rupa.

Just what is it the Bodhisattva wishes to do for all beings? While it is clear that he cannot save another, we might give the defining characteristic of the Bodhisattva in any level of spiritual attainment as constant attention to the true self-interest of another. Thus the Bodhisattva sees that his own true self-interest is bound up in serving others to the utmost. While, except for the psychic selfishness and blockage of the personality, it is easy to serve the apparent self-interest of others, the Bodhisattva must have the supreme wisdom to know at any given time, in any particular context, what the true self-interest of another is. This is perhaps why some sutras, such as the Gandavyuha, maintain that to arouse fully the desire for enlightenment is to have already gone a long way toward achieving it. Or, when applied to the Bodhisattva, we might say that to be truly able to take the pledge of Bodhisattvahood, the Bodhisattva must already have achieved a high state of spiritual knowledge, self-control, devotion and illumination.

The Bodhisattva, then, is much more than a human being with an exceptionally generous heart. In fact, in striving to achieve an ideal himself, the Bodhisattva becomes an ideal for us, since his life can be reflected in our lives. If, indeed, the Buddha-nature is to be found in every man and universal brotherhood is thus a reality, then the Bodhisattva's help is not simply a matter of abstract good will or localized assistance, but comes in part through his standing as a model or archetype for all human activities and relations. Perhaps this is why the Mahayana has portrayed the Arhat ideal as being ultimately selfish and divisive, and not directly contributory to the spiritual evolution of mankind.

In D.T.Suzuki's commentary on the Gandavyuha Sutra, we find remarks made about what assists one in becoming a Bodhisattvic being. One element that is taken as important is the cultivation of good friends (kalyanamitra). Suzuki implicitly recognizes that we must ask the question, "What constitutes a good friend?" Those who are our friends because they can use us and exploit us for their own purposes cannot be counted as good friends; neither can those who are friends with us because of a kind of neurotic dependence and who attach themselves to us because they find a lack in themselves and need us to fill it. While this characterization is of course crude, it is clear that most interpersonal relations are of this kind. Plato, in his dialogue The Symposium, has Aristophanes say that at some time in man's past, he was slit in half so that each one of us is only half a whole human being. Thus it is that we rush about the world desperately clinging to various people whom we hope to see as our other half. This mythic characterization captures very well the substance of most human relationships. There is a desperation about them, a fulfilling of needs, which suggests that neither party is a whole independent being, a true individual on his own. To put it in the strongest possible terms, this kind of friendship is a mutual vampirization of one another. And good friends cannot engage in that.

Because the good friend cannot be an exploiter nor solely moved by needs, he must, then, be one who can benefit and uplift his friend. The good friend leaves each one he meets with a little clearer intimation, a little stronger feeling of the essential nobility, the germ of Buddhahood within himself, and of the possibility of transcending himself. Hence two or more good friends working together may generate a powerful current elevating both towards enlightenment. The good friend can do this only by recognizing the higher within himself and thereby recognizing the higher within others. Perhaps this is the meaning of the Christian assertion: "Where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them" (Matthew 18:20). Perhaps it lies behind Krishna's words in the Bhagavad Gita (Chapter 9): "Unto thee who findeth no fault, I will now make known this most mysterious knowledge."

The good friend is one who always sees so much good in others, who sees so many possibilities for the good, that he is capable of handling judgments of the limitations of others – an ideal completely inverted in Kali Yuga where we are all capable of analyzing in great detail one another's faults, but are almost blind to the Buddha-nature in ourselves and hence in others. Our judgmental excesses are naturally the result of forgetting our true heritage, our real nature and, thus, of succumbing to the pressures of corrupt social relationships. The good friend constitutes an emulation of the Bodhisattva on the terrestrial plane. Good friends working together form an earthly reflection of the Brotherhood of Bodhisattvas who work for all beings.

But the Diamond Sutra tells us that while the Bodhisattva vows to save every being, the Bodhisattva at the same time recognizes that there are no beings to be saved. Because of this kind of statement, and because of our discussion of the appeal to the higher in the Bodhisattva, we must ask the question, "What kind of view of the universe must the Bodhisattva have?" The Bodhisattva must have a profound realization of the essential unity of all things and must see that unity reflected on every plane of existence. Hence, while we see fragmented consciousness on the worldly plane, due to the fragmentation of our own consciousness, the Bodhisattva sees the thread that unites all consciousness, and hence all beings, into one. Where consciousness is fragmented, it may be united by law. The Bodhisattva therefore sees Karma not as an obstacle or a burden, but as the factual unity of all agents in maya. But further, the Bodhisattva has a reverential intimation of the one source of all differentiations, of all the worlds. This has been called divine or universal mind, the highest Ishwara, Alaya, undifferentiated consciousness.

From Alaya the Bodhisattva gets his sustaining compassion, for he sees that, "Compassion is no attribute. It is the Law of Laws," in the words of The Voice of the Silence. In the Bhagavad Gita the Krishna who says, "I established this whole Universe with a single portion of myself, and remain separate," (Chapter 10) is also the Krishna who says:

I am the sacrifice and sacrificial rite; I am the libation offered to ancestors, and the spices; I am the sacred formula and the fire; I am the food and the sacrificial butter. . . (chapter 9)

This suggests that all manifestation, all differentiation, is a sacrifice, beginning with universal mind and ending with the smallest element of existence. Properly understood, sacrifice and compassion are the same thing. Hence the Bodhisattva sees the justice of Karma, for Karma is but sacrifice-compassion reflected in maya.

Thus we are finally led to the question of the agony or suffering of the Bodhisattva. Since the full Bodhisattva has the option of entering into Nirvana and renounces it, we are inclined to think that he suffers. But he sees Nirvana as a flight from mankind. The desire for it may be the subtlest form of that very sense of separateness that he believes is the origin of suffering in the universe. On the other hand, in renouncing Nirvana, he definitely takes on limited forms of embodiment and action on the human plane. Even if he chooses to remain disembodied, he nevertheless must occupy some vehicles, no matter how refined, and thereby limit his own modes of operation. Thus the Bodhisattva's primordial sacrifice is that of impelling his consciousness into some level of incarnation, a vehicle, which is necessarily more limited than the full range of his consciousness. That is only part of the suffering of the Bodhisattva. In fact, it is probably presumptuous of us to call this suffering at all. For while the Bodhisattva is operating under limiting conditions, as are all beings who have Buddha-nature, the Bodhisattva has voluntarily and with full self-awareness engaged in this activity, in his return to Plato's cave. Since he knows why he is limited, whereas we do not, his suffering is not the suffering of ignorance. Hence, insofar as we suffer because we do not understand the conditions in which we must operate, or because we cannot get what we want, or because others do not do what we desire, we are not suffering the suffering of the Bodhisattva.

There is another kind of suffering, both more tragic and more noble, the suffering of others which we must helplessly observe, in the knowledge that people must learn for themselves and that vicarious learning is impossible. This is akin to the suffering of the Bodhisattva who must stand by, without interfering with Karma, and watch countless humans destroy themselves and one another, committing useless acts of physical and psychological violence, only to be swept away in the first great psychic vortex, incarnation after incarnation. He who would find no fault, who would usher every being into Buddhalands, must stand and watch this, and that surely is Bodhisattvic suffering. Yet the Bodhisattva is not caught up in psychic pressures and whirls as we are.

While he must see this all, he has a larger picture, a cosmic perspective, and he knows that all beings, suffering and to be saved, are, in the largest cosmic perspective, somewhat 'unreal' – so he may appreciate the dance of Siva, the regenerator. He may in his perception transcend good and evil and see the fitness of all things in the Great Dance which has a nature and a value of its own, independent of any incarnated consciousness or limited conceptions of what right and wrong must be. He stands as witness to seemingly perpetual personal degradation and yet sees the untouched purity of our Buddha-nature. Such a being can throw himself into the world, seeking the true self-interest of every sentient creature, remaining Krishna-like in utter detachment from the world. To dwell on such an exalted conception, and to seek ceaselessly to embody it in daily living, is doubtless the noblest endeavor conceivable for any human being anywhere on earth. As The Voice of the Silence, dedicated by H.P.Blavatsky to the few, teaches:

In Northern Buddhist countries, where the doctrine of Nirmanakayas – those Bodhisattvas who renounce well-earned Nirvana or the Dharmakaya vesture (both of which shut them out forever from the world of men) in order to invisibly assist mankind and lead it finally to Paranirvana – is taught, every new Bodhisattva, or initiated great Adept, is called the "liberator of mankind."


Just as the earth and the other three elements, together with space, eternally nourish and sustain all beings, so may I become that source of nourishment and sustenance which maintains all beings situated throughout space, so long as all have not attained to Peace. When the Sugatas of former times committed themselves to the Bodhichitta, they gradually established themselves in the practice of a Bodhisattva. So, I too commit myself to the Bodhichitta for the welfare of all beings and will gradually establish myself in the practice of a Bodhisattva. Today my birth has become fruitful; my birth as a human being is justified. Today I am born in the Buddha Family; I am now a son of the Buddha. Now I am determined to perform those acts appropriate to my Family; I will not violate the purity of this faultless, noble Family.