Bodhisattva as Revolutionary

by Kobutsu Malone

Manjusri Image
courtesy of jwmanjusri
The Bodhisattva ideal is one of many doctrines of Buddhism that is incompletely and poorly understood. So often, we hear descriptions of the Bodhisattva incarnate as some saintly figure, a being shrouded in love and light, an embodiment of purity from whom good will and non-harmfulness flow forth. This notion of the Bodhisattva as an enlightened "Mr. Rogers" permeates the American Dharma scene. It's time to take a closer look.

It’s important to remember that, while it may be central to our understanding of living the Buddha Way, the Bodhisattva ideal is nothing more than a manufactured concept created to describe a state of being. It is just a materialistic handle used for convenience, a term used to discuss behavior, describe action; it is an intellectual hook on which to hang something. But a true Bodhisattva does not fit nicely into our preconceived notions at all.

I'm often asked to talk about zazen practice – Zen meditation. I sometimes preface my comments by pointing out that, if I were giving a class on sex for virgins, no matter how well I described the experience, no matter how detailed an exposition was presented, it could never quite convey the actual experience. The same applies to any experience, skydiving for example; all the talk in the world cannot encapsulate that first experience of leaping out of the doorway of an aircraft at 2,000 feet! Just as we can’t convey the experience of zazen in words, it is impossible to distill the Bodhisattva path into a verbal description. While it's easy to talk about, it is impossible to even experience the life of a Boddhisattva, at least in the commonly understood sense of something that can be experienced by an individual.

The Bodhisattva path, the Bodhisattva state of mind, is the embodiment of the Mahayana approach to Buddhism. It is the culmination of the training of the mind in simplicity, precision, concentration, panoramic awareness, and fully open acceptance of things as they are. This involves a full commitment to awakening. It is not just a path leading to individual enlightenment – not even individual enlightenment with the added caveat "for the sake of all beings." The Bodhisattva way is far more ruthless! Indeed, this path is intensely open, wild even, in its actualization.

While the Bodhisattva may be quite well informed, and may be able to converse endlessly on many topics, spiritual or otherwise, including the Bodhisattva ideal, she knows better. The Bodhisattva may not have a clue either, as to the concept of the Bodhisattva ideal. Most assuredly, the Bodhisattva is unconcerned either way. The Bodhisattva has no idea of his or her actions being anything at all. He has no concern whatsoever about doing the right thing so as to fit into the behavior pattern of the Bodhisattva ideal. The Bodhisattva simply acts, freely and spontaneously, without concern for such notions as credibility or rules of conduct.

We in the West have sold ourselves short, in many respects, in our approach to Buddhadharma. In a rush to deny our own legacy, hastily trying to abandon our unpleasant cultural heritage in our fear of facing the true horror of our history, we have sought salvation in mythological constructs woven out of our Judeo-Christian social fabric and the Buddhism brought to us by Eastern teachers unfamiliar with the subtleties of our language and culture.

To fully comprehend the development of our present culture as it informs our approach to Buddhadharma, a critical examination of our American historical legacy is needed. We must delve beyond the myths created and presented in the "Reader's Digest" version of history most of us learned in school. An honest look at our history reveals a disturbing picture of the legacy we have inherited, a “societal burden” if you will.

Generations of us have grown up never looking at our history beyond what we learned in grammar school. Yet, our historical heritage colors our perception of our world; it is the warp and weft of our society, our collective past. This heritage cannot be hidden, glossed over or ignored through the construction of myths designed to hide the unpleasantness of our past. Our past is with us no matter how we might attempt to embellish or sugarcoat it. It lives in each one of us, in our psychological makeup, and in the social fabric of our family and community relationships. These deep, big-picture effects are far more profound than any of the myths appearing in so-called “history” books written with the sensibilities of children in mind.

A profound example is the foundational cultural myth that surrounds the "discovery" of the "New World" by Christopher Columbus. Every reader can, no doubt, relate to the common rendering of this event: "In Fourteen Hundred and Ninety-two, Columbus sailed the ocean blue"; "He discovered The New World"; "He was a hero"; "We celebrate a national holiday named after him"; "He was a great man".

In truth, however, Columbus did not discover any "New World"; the New World was already quite well populated with innumerable indigenous peoples, living their lives as they had been for hundreds of generations. These people were devastated as a result of Columbus’s arrival; they were abused, contaminated by disease, and psychologically damaged by Euro-centric power-over dynamics that destroyed their cultures and left the survivors to be taken into slavery in the name of “civilization.” Beginning on October 11, 1492, the Western hemisphere was subjugated by European conquerors who took possession of the ancestral lands of the indigenous peoples of the Americas, propagating genocide and the slaughter of millions of people.

Our heritage also encompasses the enslavement of millions of Africans, brought to this continent in bondage, and exploited for generations as slaves for the benefit of privileged, elite landowners. Contrary to popular belief, slavery was not just a Southern phenomenon; it extended far into the North. The cultural impact of slavery on the North was not mitigated by the events of the Civil War, only buried deeper within its social norms. Bigotry is alive and well in our society; some of it is obvious, and some is subtle, but all of it is damaging.

The scars of our past have not healed. The legacy of our violent history is still with us, embedded within our culture. It entertains us, it drives many aspects of our capitalistic economy, and it affects our day-to-day interactions with one another. It is a living force with an immediate impact upon our day-to-day reality. Our "past" was not so very long ago, and the motivations that enabled genocide and slavery cannot just be legislated away or banished from the social continuum through the evolution of a sanitized and mythical history. Rather than pretending this is not the case, we must be acknowledge this legacy in order to effectively deal with it.

Understandably, on an unconscious level we wish to somehow escape from this horrible legacy. Looking at the Western religious traditions that offer "salvation" from sin, "salvation" from certain doom, we can detect a subtle underlying feeling that there is something awry – something we sense the need to expiate through "salvation." In contrast to our Western fixation on salvation, though, the Buddha's message is that there are no saviors; our salvation is our own responsibility. In fact, the untangling of the thread of confusion that is our cultural inheritance may not even be relevant to a term such as "salvation". In the Mahaparinibbana Sutra, the last words of the Buddha are:

"You are the Light itself, Rely on yourself, Do not rely on others. The Dharma is the Light, Rely on the Dharma,
Do not rely on anything other than the Dharma."

But are we culturally and socially ready to receive this message? Are we sophisticated enough to be able to view our legacy of hatred and oppression and fully acknowledge our karmic debt? Or do we yearn for a "Mr. Rogers Neighborhood" world, a Mayberry-meets-the-Matrix "pure-land," where all unpleasantness is brushed aside, strife is magically wiped away, and we can abide in peaceful tranquility doing serene meditation seated on a lotus throne?

Like it or not, this escapist approach to Buddhadharma is antithetical to the Buddha’s message of awakening and liberation. At its root, Buddhism is unabashedly realistic. This realism has been obscured by the effect each society has had upon the Buddha's teachings as they were transmitted from one culture to the next around the world. Far from being “pure,” Eastern Buddhist heritage is, much like our own, woven out of threads taken from its social cradles. Each society, with its own collective burdens and cultural legacy, has filtered the Buddha's teachings in its own unique ways. Variations of approach to the tradition have developed in response to these influences and, in some cases, teachings diametrically opposed to fundamental principles of the founder have appeared. In many cases, such teachings have been subtly crafted on two levels, with fundamental practices and principles "maintained" by those "in-the-know" – the monastic Sangha – while the common people of the lay Sangha are left with a set of interpretations that pander to their egoistic and materialistic tendencies. These teachings are well suited for the maintenance of control over a population held in ignorance, and have permeated in countries where Buddhist monks have held power, and even controlled governments. As American Buddhism evolves, we must examine not only our own unspoken legacies, but also those of the Eastern nations from which we inherited the Dharma.

We must carefully examine any and every teaching, no matter how widely accepted. The Buddha's Charter of Free Inquiry, laid out in his exposition in the Kamala Sutra, is a succinct guide in this matter:

"Do not go upon what has been acquired by repeated hearing; nor upon tradition; nor upon rumor; nor upon what is in a scripture; nor upon surmise; nor upon an axiom; nor upon specious reasoning; nor upon a bias towards a notion that has been pondered over; nor upon another's seeming ability; nor upon the consideration, ‘The monk is our teacher.’

... when you yourselves know: ‘These things are bad; these things are blamable; these things are censured by the wise; undertaken and observed, these things lead to harm and ill,’ abandon them. ... when you yourselves know: 'These things are good; these things are not blamable; these things are praised by the wise; undertaken and observed, these things lead to benefit and happiness,' enter on and abide in them." *

Extricating ourselves from the morass of our culture to penetrate our psychological beings is not an easy task. We must make many attempts in this vein time and again. Awakening does not occur overnight – some sort of crescendo experience, a cosmic orgasm, which magically clears away all our impediments to seeing clearly. It is, in essence, an interminable process, an endeavor that eternally reveals itself to us at every instant of our lives.

Engaged practice requires looking at the big picture, not just one little aspect. We cannot be concerned only about the few people sitting in meditation with us, while others, no less our brothers and sisters, are living lives of deprivation and neglect. Engagement involves dealing with the fundamental materialistic paradigms that exist at the foundation of the global socioeconomic system, which operates and propagates our society. To awaken means looking deeply into the practice of scapegoating whole classes of people – not only those of other races, but also those who may function with a different psychology than what has been defined as “mainstream.” Walking on the path of the awakening – the Bodhisattva ideal – requires insight into the quality of our community structures and social order. It requires a thorough examination of the physical environment, the psychological environment, and the political and governmental environments. Ultimately, the path of full awakening – the Bodhisattva ideal – involves revolution.

The awakened state of mind – the revolution of the Bodhisattva – calls for far more than personal enlightenment, more than personal entitlement through a kensho experience, more than insight into our "true nature", and more even than the complete experience of anatta – “no self.” It is more than transmission received from a teacher, and more than a title, clerical garb or a certificate on the wall. Our preconceived ideas of the nature of "enlightenment" delude us into thinking that, somehow, insight is the be-all-and-end-all and, once it occurs, all of life's problems are magically solved. Hardly. The notion that there is some sort of instantaneous insight experience that does all of our work for us, leaving us completely free of all psychological and social baggage, is just another savior myth. It is more wishful thinking. Awakening is not like that at all.

Our responsibility in approaching this Bodhisattva ideal is heavily weighted with the need to question authority and to think for ourselves. Ultimately, we are responsible for our own choices and our own awakening. Nobody can do it for us – no teacher, no Bodhisattva. We are obliged to discard our preconceptions, toss our ideals into the trash can and continue on our own two feet. In time, we may come across that instant in our lives when our stress and loss are at just the right point for a breakthrough into genuine insight to be possible. Should that take place, we will have gone beyond foolish talk, and the gate of the oneness of cause and effect will be opened. Once true awakening begins, the “Bodhisattva ideal” becomes irrelevant.

KALAMA SUTTA - The Buddha's Charter of Free Inquiry Translated from the Pali by Soma Thera The Wheel Publication No. 8

© Copyright Kobutsu Malone 2002