Do you think you’ve got what it takes to be a bodhisattva?
Are you ready to live in Truth for the benefit of all sentient beings, even if there is no Truth to serve and no others to serve it to?
Do you think you can handle your family for a week straight without losing it?
Do you think that little bit of patience and compassion you’ve cultivated is enough to prevent you from getting sucked into the vortex of drama and reactivity?
Just what the hell is a Bodhisattva, you ask, and why in the multiverse would anyone want to be one?
Literally, bodhisattva means “awakened being” (bodhi= awake, sat= being). But what does that mean? Awakened to what?
To seeing reality as it is.
There are four vows that bodhisattvas take that can help situate you as to what exactly this entails. If you reflect on them, you can perhaps get an idea about what it means to see reality as it is. To do so is a humbling, but inspiring exercise.
Vow #3: Dharma teachings are boundless:
I Vow to Master Them
When you begin to touch the reality of the infinity of sentient beings and the limitlessness of delusion, you’ve begun to wake up.
As with all transitions out of bed, it can be difficult at first. You might rant and rail about why you didn’t just hit the snooze and stay under the covers. But once you’ve come this far, you realize the dream state for what it was. Even if waking life is smelly and rough, it’s still better than the alternative.
It’s awfully tiring trying to find some fixed conclusion to hold on where you can just rest, isn’t it? It can be maddening to invest all this effort investigating the outer and inner universes only to realize how one thing leads to the next, where you never arrive at some point and say “there, now I’ve got it.”
Let’s try to redirect some of that energy spent looking for a platform and learn how to have fun in the free-fall.
Let’s keep peeling the onion, shall we?
When I read about the Buddha, I sometimes like to imagine his story as a newspaper headline:
Noble born prodigy abandons family and duty; finds ultimate truth of himself after six years of diligent struggle; sits blissed out for seven weeks under tree.
Then we see the subtitle:
His conclusion: life sucks.
I don’t know about you, but I was kind of hoping for some fireworks. Come on, at least tell us about the look on Mara’s face when the earth bore witness to your enlightenment! We want the juicy details!
But no, the first thing out of his mouth is that life is dukkha. It’s like reading an epic novel only to have the heroine throw herself under a train at the end. Bummer.
Fortunately, the conclusion here was not the last word, but only the beginning of a dialogue that’s lasted 2,500 years, and continues in its own way through every practitioner.
The Buddha was faced with a big dilemma after he came out of his bliss: how to communicate a truth that can’t be spoken? It’s like trying to fit an entire ocean into a glass.
He wanted to continue sitting there, but the gods begged him to go out and teach for the benefit of others (ah, the appeal to compassion: oldest trick in the book!). Lucky for us, he couldn’t keep this all to himself. I suppose it’s only natural, for once you see what he saw, you want others to see it too, especially when they are suffering as a result of their delusions.
For six years, the Buddha had trained with the great yogis of his day, all of whom had teachings about “the ultimate nature of Reality,” and the way of going about knowing It. Despite his superhuman efforts to realize these teachings, he never found a satisfactory conclusion. None of their concepts, ascetic practices, or meditation techniques offered him any respite from the inevitable realities of sickness, old age, and death. So he had to forge his own way, beyond all ideas, beyond the attachment that arises from blissful meditative states, until he reached a brilliant, liberating reality within himself.
He had discovered something infinitely valuable in the silence that underlies all chatter. But how to teach the way to that silence in such a way where he wouldn’t replace the concepts it took him six years to see through with new ones?
Although it might have been closer to the truth of what he discovered, he couldn’t just hold up flowers all the time (even among a group of highly trained monks, only one of them understood). Somehow, teaching by sitting won’t satisfy most people, even if that is the only way liberation can truly be experienced. Like using a bucket to carry water, he had to use words to point to the silence.
He knew that most people want answers and certainty to hold onto. “If I’m not going to get any concrete answers out of this whole affair, then why bother investing myself in it?” To get around this urge, he had to teach in such a way that would sufficiently intrigue us to pursue the teachings without disclosing that they won’t actually take us anywhere beyond where we are now. He knew that people would project their own longings and ego-based fantasies onto anything he said.
The ego hears about nirvana and thinks, wow, that sounds pretty good, how can I get me some?! What the ego doesn’t immediately realize, however, is that the method to get this ‘reward’ will actually lead to its demise.
The ‘you’ who signs up for the project doesn’t get to complete it. But by the time you realize this, it’s too late to turn around. Once you begin to see the true promise of the path, it’s difficult to not make it the central priority of your life, even if that means giving up everything you thought you knew.
In a way, the Four Noble Truths are the ultimate example of a spiritual bait-and-switch.
You could say that the Buddha was a fantastic salesman (with nothing to sell) who started his pitch by getting us to see the suckiness of life in all the disease, death, disappointment, and dissatisfaction. Don’t just agree that it sucks, he said, but actually go out and actively cultivate disgust with life as you know it so you’ll be discouraged enough to abandon your hopes of getting something out of it and start trying something new.
He then pointed out that there is a reason why it sucks, which has more to do with our minds than the things themselves. It’s simple, he said: the origin of the suckiness really has to do with your desire to make things other than what they are. You are attached to your idea of the way you want things to be. Just drop that and you’ll be free to roll with life as it comes.
Great! Halleluiah! Praise Buddha! All we have to do is stop desiring, and the suckiness will go away! This is seeing reality as it is!
Sounds like a plan, until you realize that even if you could drop all desires, you’re still desiring not to desire.
How to desire not to desire? How to not be attached to your non-attachment?
In fact, these are really good questions.
You chop down one delusion and see that another springs up. Ridding yourself of one desire only creates another. The more you try to do something, the more futile it becomes. And by now, you’re thinking you should have just stopped at vow #2, because now you’re in an even thornier predicament than before!
You’re about to go mad because you can’t think your way out of this problem and then, boom!
Exhaust the Ego
Humans used to hunt animals by running them to exhaustion, and the ego based mind works in much the same way. It won’t give up without a fight, but if you can pursue it with long enough, it might finally accept the futility of further struggle and surrender.
The bodhisattva vows and the noble truths (4 of each!) give you the stamina to do this. They are formulated in such a way that it’s impossible for the ego/small self/’I’ to comprehend.
Of course, you cannot extinguish all delusion or master all the dharma teachings. Of course, you cannot desire to not desire. That’s the point! Frustrating at first to realize this, but quite a relief when you realize these ‘roadblocks’ are designed to give you something to munch on long enough so you can get out of your own way.
Substitute Short Term Pleasures for Long Term Growth
In giving you the space to see the futility and dissatisfaction inherent in the ‘I’, the vows and the Noble Truths have led you to modify your actions, words, and thoughts to be less self centered. You’ve seen that lying, stealing, or being intoxicated deliver short-term rewards, but ultimately make things worse. Once you reduce or eliminate these behaviors, life does indeed suck less.
By making meditation and self-knowledge a priority, you’re more likely to see that the ego will always find something to complain about. It will even complain when it gets everything it wants. The seemingly distasteful and difficult aspects of life are just part of what it is, and the resistance to the inherent suckiness of illness, loss, and death actually makes it suck worse.
In this way, the teachings are not a linear progression toward some higher and more exalted spiritual states; they merely create the conditions where you are more likely to see all this at work.
Find Shelter in the Storm
The Buddha promised you a raft to get to the other shore, and you followed him on this little adventure. You got all turned around, tossed about by violent storms, nearly drowned in the madness, and then you finally washed up on the shore and thought ‘yes, I’ve made it, it is truly different here, it is the Promised Land.’
And then you recognize the mischievous look on the boatman’s face and realize he’s pulled a fast one on you. But you’re infinitely grateful for this brilliantly compassionate joker who got you to invest all you got in this scheme. The journey itself has transformed you, and even though you are at the place where you began, it is indeed different.
Your spine is the trunk of the Bodhi tree, and there’s a Buddha on your cushion whose teachings are contained in every breath. Like the Buddha, you may want to alert others to the fact that they too are sitting under it, but you must be exceedingly careful not to turn it into an object of possession (speaking in poems, paradox, or flowers helps).
You know you can’t make sense of it and explain it to yourself, because your nature is an ellipses rather than a period. You are an infinite dialogue that exists for the sake of being spoken. The teachings are indeed limitless, because life itself is limitless! Like everything in the universe, they evolve and deepen, revealing more of what they are with each passing moment. There will always be more to know, more to discover, more to explore.
Even though all this talking leads us to recognize the inadequacy of talking, we needed to talk in order to realize that. We needed the discourse to bring out the silence. The Buddha’s teachings point you in this direction, and that’s why…