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The Path of the Bōdhisattva

A talk given by Sankarankutti Menon Marath at the Phiroz Mehta Trust Autumn School on 28th October 2000

There is a legend about the Bōdhisattva Avalokiteśvara which explains why he relinquished the bliss of nirvana. Just as he was on the point of passing into nirvāna there arose from all inhabitants animate and inanimate of every quarter of the universe a terrible cry of despair and hopelessness. Hearing this cry the Avalokiteśvara in the fullness of his compassion relinquished nirvāna and vowed to lead all beings to liberation before he would seek nirvāna himself.

The Bōdhisattva thus renounces liberation for ever, for all eternity. This is the destiny which a Bōdhisattva deliberately designs for himself. “The burden of all creatures must be borne by me,” he vows. “It is my resolution to save all creatures, set all free from the wilderness of birth, old age, disease, death and of rebirth. I have no concern whatsoever for my own deliverance. For the salvation of all creatures I resolve to abide in each single state of misfortune through numberless future ages, and as in one abode of misfortune, so in all such abodes belonging to the worlds. Why? Because it is better indeed that I alone be in pain than that all those creatures fall into the place of misfortune.”

The ordinary human mind boggles at the magnitude and the heroic sublimity of the ideal to which he dedicates himself.

That this ideal should have had its origin and inspiration in the teaching of the Buddha is natural. When dukkha was seen to be the over-riding experience of existence, manifest in the lives of every human being, the need of compassion assumed an importance which it did not have in other schools of spiritual thinking in India.

However, in early Buddhism the path of complete deliverance was usually not for the ordinary mortals, but for those who had renounced the world and become bhikkhus. The bhikkhu pursues the goal of nirvāna and attains to it simply by his own efforts. Each one for himself; the teaching is there for all to follow — that appears to have been the rule. Compassion, which in Buddhism is not merely the emotional response to man’s suffering, but the active pursuit of means for ending it, embraced a narrow, perhaps elitist group of individuals, viz. the disciples who had renounced the world. If it extended beyond to those mortals outside, the feeling of compassion was probably remote, without any sense of immediacy, an abstraction. There was not enough concern for the prthagjana, the ordinary man, the householder, lost in false views; he was left to his own devices to fend for his spiritual life as best he could.

Then, suddenly, still in the period of the pre-Christian era, there appears this grand and wondrous flood of compassion, in protest against the solitariness of the arahat ideal of the Lesser Vehicle. Now for the first time there is a mighty passionate swing away from this exclusiveness of the early Buddhist schools. We see an unprecedented sensitiveness to the human condition, an acute awareness of the predicament of all beings caught in the toils of samsāra in the founders and sages of the Māhayāna schools. They used the Bōdhisattva concept of the Pali canon to express their zeal and their new and splendid understanding of the ideal of compassion. They reinterpreted the concept and invested it with singular grandeur and profundity.

The career of the Bōdhisattva actually begins when bōdhicitta, the thought of enlightenment, first arises in the disciple. Śāntideva, the Indian Buddhist philosopher poet of the eighth century, in his work Bodhicaryāvatāra, Entering the Path of Enlightenment, calls the experience this “highly prized jewel”, because it has taken many lifetimes for the urge to serve all humanity to ripen and become unwavering; to be spontaneous and without any kind of prompting from the outside. Before the true dawning of bōdhicitta the good thoughts of the aspirant are “like arrows shot forth in the dark, which have very little chance of hitting the mark.” The aspiring Bōdhisattva is called the “Bōdhisattva mounted on a chariot drawn by oxen”, because of the slowness and doubtfulness of his success. Seizing the jewel he proceeds to dedicate himself to enlightenment by taking the Great Vow: “to save all beings from delusion, to destroy all evil passions, to learn the truth and teach others, to lead all beings to Buddhahood” (Sangaraksita). The pilgrimage to the goal starts with the offering of gratitude that the urge for enlightenment has appeared in him. He looks into himself and searches and brings forth into the light everything that is evil or unwholesome in him, in the form of a full and frank confession to them. He does this three times each day.

Now the career is in progress. The disciple must now not only purify and refine the bōdhicitta but also strengthen it by the cultivation of the six pāramitās, perfections. Later texts have 10 pāramitās. He is still swayed by the demands of his ego and he has to be ever vigilant that he does not lose the insight of illumination.

The first of the pāramitās is dāna, giving. The giving understood here is boundless generosity, not only to man but to all beings. Not mere dāna, of material things, but also the gift of one’s own limbs. And equally he should be ready to sacrifice his own life if circumstances demand it. The Jātakās contain many arresting examples of what such unbounded compassion may entail. He gives without thought of himself.

Some western students of Buddhism have tended to be revolted by the apparent senselessness of this kind of sacrifice. They ask, if the tigress is allowed to die from starvation does it make any difference at all to the cruel course of nature? But then such calculations are wholly alien to the idea the Bōdhisattva has vowed to pursue. “My neighbour suffers his pain just as I suffer mine; why should I be anxious about myself and not about him?” (S.VII.90). By sacrifices of this nature the distinction between one’s own suffering and that of others is eroded and then destroyed. Continued exercise of dāna alone does away with the illusion of self. His compassion has to be total; he must not be stopped by any notion of his own self. Only action can free one from enslavement to greed, hatred and delusion.

The pāramitā of dāna, though only the humblest of virtues, is the most crucial of the perfections. It demonstrates the way in which the ideal of the Bōdhisattva is given expression in practical terms. The remaining pāramitās, except prajñā, are directed to removing any insufficiencies that may weaken the cultivation of dāna.

It is for this reason that even breaches of morality are allowed if by “the eye of knowledge” he sees some advantage for his neighbour in doing so. He may choose to abandon meditation and even break the vow of dāna if he is convinced that by these infringements compassion can be made more effective. If true compassion is the motive these transgressions are forgiven. However, he does not make such decisions lightly. The needs of each situation and the help required are determined by his knowledge. He is deferent and courteous and full of humility. He makes no distinction between friends and enemies.

The second pāramitā isśīla, morality. It ensures that no moral or harmful actions, that is, ego-centred actions, are done by the disciple. This is to be seen as a positive virtue, (pravritti), not one of inaction (nirvritti).

The third pāramitā is kşānti, a virtue which embraces endurance, patience, tolerance, forbearance, humility, absence of anger. Impatience or anger in the disciple is perhaps the greatest of sins. It destroys all the progress that has been made over the aeons, because it springs from discontent which again is born of desire. “No evil is equal, to hatred.” says Śantideva; “and no austerity is equal to kṣānti. For me let there be hatred of hate.” Here too, true knowledge it is that helps the aspirant to understand the pointlessness of anger, impatience etc. It is foolish to be angry with men who injure us, for they are impelled by causes, and among the principle causes are the wicked deeds of our previous lives. “Far rather think of means of saving them in spite of themselves.” (S).

The pāramitā of vīrya, strength, energy, resolution, zeal, the fourth one, has a number of subtle connotations. Vīrya is the endeavour for good, the unceasing energy for the destruction of all vices, including one’s own, and the filling of oneself and one’s neighbour with every good quality. He takes pride in this, pride in what he has undertaken, pride in his power to accomplish it, in his endurance, pride against harbouring passions, pride that all lowly tasks and those fraught with difficulties are his to do. Śantideva says, “Those are truly proud, victorious, even heroic, who destroy pride for the conquering of the enemy, pride; …” (VII.59). Ever aware and alert, he knows the extent of his powers when he embarks on anything; and equally he knows that it is time to cease when these powers are seen to be inadequate. When he has brought to an end one task he is all readiness to start again. He is fully prepared always, and nothing takes him by surprise. Vīrya is the vigilant energy required for success in the practice of dāna. The enemy of vīrja is sloth, relish for pleasure, despair and self-contempt.

In the stage of sāmadhī or contemplation, the fifth pāramitā, his mind is detached and absorbed in dhyāna. He is not troubled by worldly desires. The phenomenal world is seen for what it is, relative and unreal.

Perhaps there is a slight suggestion here that while practising this pāramitā the disciple apparently ceases to give active help to beings. At any rate, so it must have struck the poet Śantideva. “What good is the insipid deliverance of an arahat or a pratyeka-buddha?” he questions; “When beings are delivered it is for them an ocean of joy, which overwhelms all”. In his view therefore the more profitable and compassionate course is to sacrifice oneself for one’s neighbour. So Śantideva proceeds to equate his neighbour with his own self. He installs the neighbour in the place where the ego is accustomed to reign. The ego then is subjected to every one of the kinds of treatment which are normally reserved for the neighbour. The ego now is the stranger, suspected, vilified, maligned, attacked and so on. And the neighbour is cherished, praised and admired: whatever advantages the self may have are appropriated and used for the neighbour. The germ of such transference is already there in the meditation on the four Brahmavihāras of Maitri (friendliness), Karuṇā (compassion), Muditā (sympathetic joy), and Upekṣā (equanimity).

The disciple by this substitution gains a penetrating insight into the real nature of the ego, and thus is able to lose the attachment to the notion of “self”. The insight so achieved is expressed by Śantideva by these paradoxes: “If I really love myself I must not love myself. If I am to preserve myself I must not preserve myself”.

The last and the greatest of the pāramitāsis prajñā, the knowledge of all things as they really are. Every pāramitā is intended of course to lead to the arising of prajñā. This is the perfect and total understanding, wisdom. Sarva dharmesu yathāvad vyavastā jñāna. All false views about self are extinguished. The ego is destroyed. However, his is committed to deliverance of all beings. And to him the joys of this work are infinitely superior to those of the Buddha passing into nirvāna.

In further (and perhaps later) elaborations of the Bōdhisattva ideal his career was conceived as an ascent through ten bhūmis, periods or stages of levels, and the cultivation of one pāramitā isvisualized in each bhūmi. To facilitate this the four further pāramitās mentioned before were added to the previous six. The four are: upāya, kauśalya, skilfulness in choice of means for helping others; praṇidhāna, the vows; bala, strength; jñāna, knowledge, wisdom.

In these bhūmis we get a detailed, rounded, and, if one may use the phrase, a full-blooded and credible portrait of the Bōdhisattva. Here the pāramitās are only one of the ideals to be striven for and attained. The pāramitās are designed largely to bring about the extinction of the ego and the consequent world of subject and object, of you and me. While the ego dominates and injects duality into every human activity, true giving will not be possible.

Every being of course is a potential and future Bōdhisattva. If this were not so compassion would be partial and exclusive, which would be a betrayal of the nature of the ideal.

The first bhūmi is properly called the joyful because here the aspirant celebrates his joy at the good fortune of the blossoming in him of the bōdhicitta, the thought of the Bōdhisattva ideal. Then, as we watch his progress from bhūmi to bhūmi, we see the process of refinement and purification at work. He is not hindered by fears that dog the ordinary mortal’s existence. He is unafraid of death and of unpleasant births. Virtues mature and grow more perfect in him. He cannot think of destroying any being, however insignificant. He covets nothing. He deepens his understanding of doctrinal works, both worldly and Buddhist, and also his knowledge of the world and of men. The limits of his endurance increase. By his good reputation, which he carefully keeps untarnished, he is able to help beings to ripen. The sense of I and mine no longer operates in him. When he speaks he is direct and considerate, but he never flatters. He is fully aware that if he fails he puts the universe at peril: He now knows the truth of dukkha, anicca, and, anattā.

Then, freed from all defilements, he goes beyond the relative, the conditioned and transient, and experiences Absolute Truth, Śunyata, Void. What this experience is, is the theme of the Prajñā Pāramitā Sutras, which appears in condensed form in the Hrdaya Sutra, the Heart Sutra. He is now possessed of all the qualities of the Buddhas. But he is reminded of the great vow to deliver all beings. So for the benefit of all beings the Bōdhisattva remains for ever poised between Paramārtha Satya, Absolute Truth, and Saṁvṛiti Satya, relative truth, which is the world of ego, duality and illusion; between time and eternity. Śantideva explains the difference between the absolute and relative truths: “It is understood that truth is of two kinds, saṁvṛiti and paramārtha. True reality is beyond the range of understanding; so understanding is called saṁvṛiti.”

However lofty and heroic the Bōdhisattva ideal is, it is founded unequivocally on the capacity for good in man. But an ideal, a spiritual ideal, is the measure of man’s concern for what is good, ennobling. The spiritual quality and worth of any people, any nation, is therefore seen in the ideals it has created for it to strive for. The loftier the ideal the greater is the moral worth of the people concerned.

The tremendously heartening thing about the Bōdhisattva ideal, as of any truly compassionate ideal, is the magnanimity with which the spiritual and moral capacity of man is viewed.

Despite the heroic reaches of determination and strength expected of the Bōdhisattva, we are never able to forget or ignore the fact that the aspirant is a human being, though a very great one. His frailties are squarely faced and practices prescribed to overcome them. Nothing is beyond the ability of man to attain — this is the faith of the sages, and the lesson which they wish to transmit to us. When we learn of a Buddha, a Christ, a Gandhi, a Mother Teresa, we realize that here is the proof that this is not a wild or a fantastic estimate of what man is capable of achieving.


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