The Heart of a Bodhisattva

sweet color lotus in soft color and blur style on mulberry paper texture

Today, I’d like to share a story that illustrates what the heart of a Bodhisattva is like.  Bodhi means enlightenment.  Sattva means being.  Bodhisattvas are called Dharma Princes and the Buddhas are called Dharma Kings – so they are on their way to becoming Buddhas.

Now, in current day Buddhism, there are 2 schools of thought:

  • Save yourself before you save others – Because you have to get good yourself before you can help others.  You gotta be able to get yourself out of this mess before you can help get others out.  This is the Arhat path – the path of seeking enlightenment for yourself – to escape the suffering of the world.  So, for example, you need to study really hard to become a doctor before you can treat patients.  If you don’t advance your skills first – your ability to treat patients will be severely limited to the most rudimentary, basic ways of treatment.  It will never be on the level of a skilled surgeon with advanced, state of the art equipment and post graduate education from the finest medical schools in the world.
  • Save others before you save yourself – this is the Bodhisattva path.

So what does the heart of one of these enlightened beings look like?

Ajahn Amaro, an amazing western monk of the Theravadan Buddhist tradition (the Arhat Path), once related a story where he was feeling apathy about being a monk.  So he was tired of being a monk and it was getting all boring to him.

But suddenly, he had this extremely vivid dream, where, even though he practices the Arhat path, all of a sudden, all these Bodhisattva-like thoughts started to arise within him!

Check it out!

Theravada Buddhism, for instance, is often taken to represent the Hinayana position, the self-concern of “Quick let me out of here, I’ve had enough of this mess; I want this to be over as quickly as possible.” One can see that that represents a very definite stage in one’s own spiritual development. For example, we start out with just a worldly attitude; basically we’re not interested in spiritual development at all. We just want happiness, however and wherever we can find it. We have a worldly outlook and no real spiritual direction at all. So then our first kind of awakening to spiritual life is when we start to acknowledge suffering. We recognize the need to rescue ourselves, to help ourselves.

So, the Hinayana refers to this initial stepping onto the spiritual path and seeing that there’s something that needs to be done to sort out our own life. It’s a natural self-concern; you don’t set about helping other people or being too concerned about the welfare of others if you yourself are drowning. You have to get yourself to some firm shore to begin with. But then basing your spiritual practice around self-concern, and just trying to make your own life peaceful and happy is obviously of limited worth. We can see that if we do get stuck at that level, there is a certain aridity and barrenness that will set in.

I had an interesting experience concerning this recently. Normally my personality is of a friendly, generous, outgoing type, and I’ve always had quite a fondness for the Mahayana Buddhist teachings. However, I found toward the end of last year that a certain nihilism was creeping in. The abiding tendency was one of “I’ve had enough of this; I want out.” This was really quite unusual for me and it started to come on very … strongly. The idea of living into old age and having to cope with human existence and the trivialities of life and the tedium of a boring monastic routine was … NO FUN. It all started to look incredibly uninviting. It was like being stuck out in the middle of a salt flat with no horizon visible. It was a strong, grinding negativity. I didn’t feel friendly toward anyone, I felt no inspiration toward monastic life. The whole thing was a tedious rigmarole.

Every two weeks we have a recitation of our monastic rules and it takes about 45 minutes to chant. This is the regular refreshment of the spirit of monastic community – renewing our aspiration and our dedication to our discipline and our life-style. And I’m sitting there reciting these rules and my mind is saying, “What a total farce, what a waste of time this is” – and … trying to remember the words I’m supposed to be chanting at the same time. Also, this was at the beginning of the monastic winter retreat that I was supposed to be helping to teach; I thought, “This is really … going to be difficult.” I was supposed to be inspiring these young monks and nuns and my mind was going through this very negative state. I was watching this, but there seemed to be a lot of justification for thinking in this negative way. I thought, “Well, maybe I had it wrong all these years, maybe I was just being an empty-headed, overly optimistic fool and maybe being a bored cynic was actually the right path all along.”

Then one night I had a very vivid dream, in full colour. In this dream I ate my hands, finger by finger. I pulled off my thumb and then each finger and ate them. It was so vivid I could taste them and it was even a bland taste. I ate the whole of my left hand then started on my right hand, and I ate the first three fingers until there was only my index finger and thumb left.

Then something in me said, “Wake up!” I woke up and there was a very, very clear memory of this dream. Instantly I realized what I had been doing. Out of heedlessness I had been destroying those very faculties that were my most helpful friends and assistants. The negative and self-destructive attitudes were covering up and burning away all of the good qualities. The spiritual qualities that were there were being destroyed. It was really a shock to the system, and I realized I had been taking the wrong track.

Then something else happened spontaneously. I had not really been thinking about Mahayana Buddhism or the Bodhisattva ideal, but what happened was that I started to say to myself, “Well, I don’t care whether I feel even one moment of happiness for myself in this life; I don’t care if I have to be reborn ten thousand million times. If I can just do one kind act for one other being in a thousand million lifetimes, then all that time will not have been wasted.”

Thoughts like this began to come up spontaneously in my mind, and I suddenly felt an incredible joy and happiness, and a feeling of relief; which is strange if you think about it rationally: ten thousand million lifetimes of ineffective activity and complete pain and boredom. But the result was a vibrant joy and delight. It was the breaking out of the prison of self-concern.

You can read the whole article here:


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