(NOTE: The term Bodhisattva is from Mahayana schools of Buddhism, and I am grounded more in Theravada, the school of the elders, the one that you might say keeps the Buddha’s flame burning without additional fireworks. However, Bodhisattva has resonance for me and perhaps for you. Just hold all I am about to say lightly and then, if interested, you can explore more on your own.)
When visiting the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco we come across many images of Bodhisattva in various representations, including one with a thousand arms, called Avalokiteshvara, the bodhisattva who is said to hear the cries of the world and embody the compassion of the buddhas.
When we come to the term anew and learn that a person who chooses to be a bodhisattva sacrifices their own entry into nirvana until all beings can enter as well, we might imagine a superhero or a supernatural being — certainly not something we could become. But at some point in our practice, we can revisit the idea of bodhisattva with a more spacious perspective.
In his book The Wisdom of Imperfection, British psychologist and Tibetan Buddhist meditation teacher Rob Preece writes, “A Bodhisattva chooses to live within this paradox of knowing deeply the illusory nature of the world he or she inhabits while still being willing to remain within it.”
Choosing to live within the paradox — that’s what we do as Buddhist practitioners when we stop chasing bliss and choose to stay present fully with whatever arises.
The paradox we live with is that, on the one hand: This moment matters. We matter. Those around us matter. Our actions matter. Our words matter. How we make our livelihood matters. How we care for the earth matters. It all matters.
AND YET! Held with grace and a sense of equilibrium, we and all that we care about, do and feel is, in the grand scheme of things, gone in the blink of an eye. We can go further to say that all of this matter that seems to matter so much is most likely illusory. But if we’re not ready to recognize that, it’s enough for us, in moments when the mattering weighs heavily upon us, to remind ourselves that: Life is fleeting. We all die, some sooner some later, but death comes without exception. We are each of us only one of seven billion people in the world and it is not all up to us to solve all the problems on the planet. Our amazing beautiful earth is but a speck of dust in the vastness of space.
This is just putting things into practical perspective!
When we can hold deeply and lightly these two seemingly opposite truths — that it all matters/that none of it matters — in a balanced way — not teetering, not juggling, but opening our embrace to include it all, then we are skillfully living with the paradox.
The ability to hold this paradox in a spacious balanced way makes life rich and meaningful, gives each moment luminosity. Perhaps we came to the practice of meditation to escape from the world that seems to be an impossibly challenging source of bottomless suffering. But with the practice of being present, we find that what gives joy and meaning to our lives is not escape, but the ability to bring a heightened awareness into this moment, to be fully engaged and caring. What we learn by being present is the existence of this wondrous paradox, that through the development of spacious, present, compassionate mind, we can be whole-heartedly engaged in the world without losing the awareness of its temporal nature.
Living with the paradox: This is our practice. We can use this sense of paradox to live joyfully, or we can misuse it, as we all do from time to time. For example: We take the sweetest moment and are sad that it will not last. In a difficult moment we try to escape to a bliss state. At times perhaps we even feel put upon to be here. “I didn’t ask to be born.” At times we may feel that nothing we do matters, so why bother?
Recognizing any tendency we may have to ‘lose heart’ in this way is part of the gift of the practice. Through quieting down in meditation, we begin to hear the ways we talk to ourselves, the stories we tell, the myths we live by, the habitual patterns of thought and emotion that course through us. Through awareness we can begin to question these thoughts. Is this true? How do I know this is true?
With full attention, we can also find within us a spark of infinite loving kindness, metta, and we can use this spark to kindle compassion for ourselves and others.
When we feel a connection with all that is, we lose the fear of disappearing. How can we disappear if our being-ness is saturated into the fabric of life? We lose the need to feel solid and unique in order to exist. We can rest in the awareness that nothing is as solid as we believed it to be. The physical world becomes diaphanous, like the sheer veils of a dancer: intoxicating, delightful but ultimately of no substance. (Science tells us this as well, but our minds connect the dots and see substance in the objects around us where in fact, at the cellular level, there is primarily space.)
The bodhisattva is able to sustain his or her deep compassion and sense of engagement, while wearing all this earthly being-ness lightly. The bodhisattva knows the nature of bliss, but instead of crossing the threshold into eternal bliss state, chooses to dance with it and weave it skillfully in his or her interactions in the world.
So if we have experienced bliss — that sense of the ego falling away, of our pain and suffering disappearing into an infinite sense of joy, gratitude and acceptance — and yet we choose to live in this world fully, offering a lightness of being into all our interactions, then perhaps we are already bodhisattvas. We can let go of awed admiration for some other being’s self-sacrifice, the comparing mind and the sense of personal failure.
The bodhisattva is a being of joy! The attributes of a bodhisattva naturally arise out of ongoing dedication to a joyful practice. These attributes are known as the Six Paramitas or perfections: Morality, generosity, patience, perseverance, meditation and wisdom.
If we strive to ‘become a Bodhisattva’ we can turn these Paramitas into distant goals and beat ourselves up with the word ‘should.’ More wisely, we can use them as gentle guiding lights to expose and explore painful areas where we suffer, and let our deepening understanding and access to inner wisdom spark the bodhisattva that lives within us all.
Many of us have stood at the door to Nirvana — perhaps a fleeting glimpse in childhood that we have since forgotten or discounted. Some of us have even stepped beyond the threshold and have recognized the eternal nature of being. All of us have the capacity to access this infinite source, if we release the fear and rest in awareness of what is true in this moment.
Once accessed, we can choose to live inside that bliss state or, instead, allow it to live inside us, fueling us with the infinite energy of compassion. In this way we are not rejecting the gift of being alive in this world. It is no sacrifice to live from a state of full joyful appreciation whatever arises in our experience.