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The Bodhisattva

(excerpted from a talk at Barre Center for Buddhist Studies, The Wings of the Bodhisattva, Insight magazine, spring/summer 2001)

In the major religions, the spiritual journey seems to be presented in two ways.
One is like a journey out of this messy, broken, imperfect world of suffering, into a sacred realm of eternal light. At the same time, within the same tradition, the spiritual journey is also experienced and expressed as going right into the heart of the world--into this world of suffering and brokenness and imperfection--to discover the sacred.

In Buddhism, this movement into the world is associated with the bodhisattva. In early, Theravada, Buddhism the term bodhisattva refers to the earlier lives of Gotama the Buddha. He had lots of them, and in each he practiced and grew in compassion and wisdom. These are the hallmarks of a bodhisattva: compassion and insight into the interconnecredness of all beings. And he developed those capacities not just in human lives, but also in non-human lives. Many of you probably share my delight in the Jataka stories, where these earlier lives, with wondrous displays of courage and compassion, are recounted. In some of them the Buddha was a rabbit, or a monkey, or an elephant, or a snake, as well as a merchant and a prince, and a counselor to kings.

As Mahayana Buddhism comes on the scene, the central doctrine of the Buddha, dependent co-arising, is understood with fresh appreciation and vigor. As that happens, a resounding recognition comes: "Oh, given that we course together in radical interconnectedness, we belong to each other. We are all bodhisattvas--that is our true nature." That is a major message of the Perfection of Wisdom sutras which inaugurate the Mahayana.

As the tradition ripened over the centuries, archetypal forms of bodhisattvahood appeared, as celestial bodhisattvas. These you can call on at any time; they are right at hand. You honor your own capacity for wisdom, as you think of the celestial bodhisattva Manjushri, the embodiment of wisdom. Or you experience your own compassion, as you turn to the Compassionate One who listens, Avalokiteshvara. Or you access your own creativity and courage, as you turn to the bodhisattva of action, Samantabhadra. Or you discover your own fearlessness, as bayou turn to the bodhisattva Kshitigarbha, who's not afraid to go down into the deepest level of hell for the sake of those who suffer there.

That's the gift from these celestial bodhisattvas--to symbolize and evoke the capacities of the human heart and mind, to represent what we all want to expect of ourselves. As we learn to see ourselves and others as potential bodhisattvas, we find more equanimity in our relationship to our world--not to be scared of the messiness and the pain; not to hold back and close off from the world. Instead we open up and move into it. So there?s both fearlessness, and a kind of celebration.

In the earliest Mahayana texts, the bodhisattva is portrayed as flying on two wings. These sutras explain at length that the bodhisattva doesn't have any place to stand, because there is no turf, views or possessions that she can call her own. Nor is there a solid self, or an unchanging identity, or any security, as we understand security. What security can there be for the bodhisattva, if you take seriously the Buddha's teaching of the nature of the self?

Well, the bodhisattva doesn't need a place to stand because she or he flies--flies in the "deep space" of the Perfection of Wisdom. And the two wings on which the bodhisattva flies are compassion and wisdom. Instead of looking for a safe harbor, for a place where you're all protected and cozy and safe, you just fly high on these two wings and place your trust in them.

Alan Watts talked about the wisdom of insecurity. He says when you try to capture water and hold on to it, it becomes stagnant. And so does life. But when you let the water flow, it remains sparkling and fresh. My own private mudra, to help me through the sorrow of leaving beloved people or places, is this: to open my fingers and imagine water running through them, sparkling and touching the light and staying fresh as it moved. In the Buddha's teachings, that's what we are, a stream of being, bhava-sota. And vinnana-sota, stream of consciousness. We are not a permanent, unchanging self; we flow like water, with no place to abide. So with no safe place to stand, the bodhisattva flies, flies on the wings of compassion and wisdom.