Bodhisattvas – What they are & what they do

To follow up the last post, I would like to clarify that when I use a Buddhist term in some unusual way, I try to make sure I qualify it. Thus, the term “Bodhisattva” in the previous post should be understood by its usual Buddhist meaning.

“Bodhisattva” means “enlightened being”, or “enlightening being” (bodhi; enlightenment – sattva; being).

According to Buddhism, these enlightened beings hear or see the suffering beings of “samsara” (an imperfect, or impure world), are moved by great compassion, and deeply “wish” or greatly “desire” to transform the world of anguish and distress to a world of perfection, or “nirvana.”

The vocation of a Bodhisattva is often described with a metaphors like “delivering all suffering beings to the other shore”—that is, from samsara to nirvana, or from the impure (or imperfect) world to a pure (perfect) world.

The doctrine of the Bodhisattva is a Mahayana teaching, therefore “Bodhisattvas” should never be thought of as “objective” beings apart from our own mind-body. Mahayana teachings on shunyata and interdependence demonstrate the nonduality of subject and object. Mind is Buddha. Buddha is all being—including you and me. The Bodhisattva doctrine is not about various independent beings, it is about our own true nature here and now. “Bodhisattvas” are “sentient beings” whose bodhi-mind is activated—this is the “pure world” itself. As mentioned in the previous post, “to know it is to be it.”

One example in the Vimalakirti Sutra puts the doctrine of the Bodhisattva’s wish to save all beings by creating a perfect world (pure land) in these terms:

Because bodhisattvas’ acquisition of the pure countries is entirely for the benefit of sentient beings. It is like a man who wants to build a palace on empty land who is [able to build it] according to his wish without hindrance. He would never be able to build it in space. Bodhisattvas are like this. In order to accomplish the [salvation of] sentient beings, they vow to acquire the buddha countries. The vow to acquire a buddha land is not done in empty space!

“Jewel Accumulation, you should understand that sincerity is the bodhisattva’s pure land—when the bodhisattva attains buddhahood, it is sentient beings who do not flatter [and lie] that come to be born in his country.

“A profound mind is the bodhisattva’s pure land—when the bodhisattva attains buddhahood, it is sentient beings who are complete in merit that come to be born in his country.

“The mind of bodhi (bodhicitta, i.e., the intention to achieve perfect enlightenment) is the bodhisattva’s pure land—when the bodhisattva achieves buddhahood, sentient beings of the Mahayana come to be born in his country.  ~Vimalakirti Sutra

In the same sutra we see that “perfect worlds” that are created by Bodhisattvas are the “Six Perfections” of Mahayana Buddhism:

“Charity (dana) is the bodhisattva’s pure land—all sentient beings capable of renunciation come to be born in his country.

“Morality (sila, lit., “maintaining the precepts”) is the bodhisattva’s pure land—when the bodhisattva achieves buddhahood, sentient beings who have fulfilled their vows to practice the path of the ten types of good come to be born in his country.

“Forbearance (ksanti) is the bodhisattva’s pure land—when the bodhisattva achieves buddhahood, sentient beings who have ornamented themselves with the thirty-two marks [of a buddha] come to be born in his country.

“Exertion (virya) is the bodhisattva’s pure land—when the bodhisattva achieves buddhahood, sentient beings who have energetically cultivated all the [types of] merit come to be born in his country.

“Meditation (dhyana) is the bodhisattva’s pure land—when the bodhisattva achieves buddhahood, sentient beings who control their minds and keep them undisturbed come to be born in his country.

“Wisdom (prajna) is the bodhisattva’s pure land—when the bodhisattva achieves buddhahood, sentient beings who [have achieved] correct concentration come to be born in his country.  ~Vimalakirti Sutra

This sutra, like many Mahayana sutras, also explains the nature and qualities of the tools and methods that all Bodhisattvas train with and are equipped with, including the 37 methods mentioned in the previous post.

“Skillful means are the bodhisattva’s pure land—when the bodhisattva achieves buddhahood, sentient beings whose skillful means are without hindrance regarding all the the dharmas come to be born in his country.

“The thirty-seven factors of enlightenment are the bodhisattva’s pure land—when the bodhisattva achieves buddhahood, sentient beings who [have accomplished the] foundations of mindfulness, correct exertions, numinous capabilities, faculties, powers, and the noble path come to be born in his country…

“Further, to be without skillful means is to have one’s wisdom in bondage, while to have skillful means is to have one’s wisdom emancipated. “To be without wisdom is to have one’s skillful means in bondage, while to have wisdom is to have one’s skillful means emancipated.  ~Vimalakirti Sutra

It is important to remember that Mahayana Buddhism is not about something apart from our own body-mind here and now. There are no angels and demons, Buddhas and Devils apart from us—to transform the world is to transform the self, to transform the self is to forget the self, to forget the self is to drop off notions of self and other than self. Enlightened minds think enlightened thoughts, thus creating perfect realms—Unenlightened minds transform the world into anguish and distress. Thus the Platform Sutra of Huineng tells us:

A single moment of thought is called a transformation. To think of evil means transformation into the hells. To think of good things means transformation into the heavens. Poison and injury are transformed into dragons and snakes. Compassion is transformed into bodhisattvas. Wisdom is transformed into the upper realms. Stupidity is transformed into the lower regions. The transformations of the self-nature are extremely numerous. The deluded person cannot understand this and activates evil in every moment of thought, constantly practicing the evil ways.  ~Platform Sutra of Huineng

If we are Bodhisattvas, we cannot help but desire to liberate all beings—to liberate beings they must be trained in the skillful means of transforming thoughts—and as Huineng points out:

If you want to teach others, You must have expedient means yourself.  ~Platform Sutra of Huineng

How do we realize (make real) such wisdom (prajna)? Dogen was not the only one to point this out—all the Zen ancestors knew how, and left teachings for those with genuine aspiration. Here is how Paichang put it in one statement:

Generally speaking, a bodhisattva who seeks the insight of prajna should raise the mind of great compassion, issue forth the universal vow [of liberation], engage himself in the ardent practice of samadhi, and resolve to liberate sentient beings. ~Paichang

I hope this helps clarify things a bit.

Peace,

Ted