Monday, June 21, 2010

What Makes A Bodhisattva?

My post on Dr. Ambedkar (16th June) has attracted a few interesting comments. Teck pointed out that some of the ‘bodhisattvas’ I mentioned had their shortcomings and I have replied to this comment. Richard has asked, ‘Christians consider Father Damien to be a saint. Would you consider him a bodhisattva?’ Two questions are implied here, (1) What is a bodhisattva? and (2) Could a non-Buddhist, say a Taoist, Muslim, Christian, a Jew or Sikh, qualify to be considered a bodhisattva? I will give my take on this issue. A bodhisattva is someone fully committed to complete enlightenment, a Buddha in the making if you like. I interpret this to mean someone totally focused on the Absolute, however they understand it. A Hindu will see the Absolute as Siva or Visnu, a Christian will see it as God, a Taoist as the Great Tao and a Buddhist as Nirvana. By this I do not mean that Visnu, God, the Tao and Nirvana are the same. They are not. But at an early stage in a bodhisattva’s progress they may well see the Absolute in terms of their conditioning and pre-conceived ideas. This will gradually give way to a more realistic understanding as they draw near the Absolute.
The second thing that makes a bodhisattva is that their passion for the Absolute (however they may see it now) inspires them to practice one or several of the Perfections (Parami) to a extremely high degree. The Perfections are generosity (dana), virtue (sila), renunciation (nekkhamma), wisdom (panna), energy (viriya), patience (khanti), integrity (sacca), resolve (adhitthana), love (metta) and equanimity (upekkha). Okay! That’s what a bodhisattva is. Now could a non-Buddhist be a bodhisattva? I think they could. After all, Siddhattha Gotama was a bodhisattva in his earlier lives and he was a non-Buddhist at that time. He had to be! There was no Buddhism then! It seems to me that most of the major world religions teach all the Paramitas (except perhaps wisdom) although they do not call them that. History also shows us that most of these religions have produced exceptional individuals from time to time. I have mentioned Gandhi, Mother Teresa and Maximillian Kolbe but I could think of others. So Richard’s question was, ‘Would I consider Father Damian to be a bodhisattva?’ and the answer is ‘I would’.
Father Damian was a Catholic priest living in Hawaii and by all accounts was a rather uncouth man who wasn’t particularly fond of washing. In those days there was a horror of leprosy and when someone was found to have it they were forcibly confined on the isolated island of Molokai and basically left to fend for themselves. The leper colony was a vision of hell – the strong dominating the weak, little food, inadequate housing and everyone slowly rotting for want of any medical attention. Realizing that something needed to be done, in 1873 the Bishop of Hawaii called for a priest to volunteer to minister to the lepers knowing that it was tantamount to a death sentence. Surprisingly there were four volunteers, of whom Damian was selected because of his apparent enthusiasm. He spent the rest of his life with the lepers, producing food, building a church and houses, giving them medical treatment, counselling and consolation. Inevitably he contracted leprosy himself and died of it in 1889. There is little doubt that Damian’s inspiration was the stories of Jesus healing lepers. Now it seems to me that whether such miracles actually happened is irreverent. The point is that such stories inspired in him a self-sacrificing compassion and renunciation that few of us could muster. In fact, we stand in awe at his behaviour. And the fact that he was a bit rough around the edges should not lessen our awe. He was prepared to give his life for others, inspired by his vision of the Absolute. So to me, that would make Father Daman a bodhisattva. In traditional Buddhist iconography bodhisattvas are depicted as beautiful youths bedecked in jewels. Father Damian looks ordinary, human, un-special, real. Mahayana sutras are full of legendary stories of bodhisattvas giving their lives for others, although Buddhist history offers very few examples where people actually did this.
One last point. If a non-Buddhist can be a bodhisattva, could a non-Buddhist attain enlightenment? As I wrote at under 'Universalism' ‘The attainment of enlightenment is not dependent of winning the approval of a deity but by realizing certain natural truths, which everyone has the capacity to do. This being the case, it is conceivable that even those who have never even heard the Dhamma could become enlightened. However, we could say this. Openness to the Buddha’s teaching makes an appreciation of it more likely. Appreciation of the Buddha’s teaching would make the desire to practise it more possible. Practising the Buddha’s teaching would make attaining enlightenment many times more probable’.


Ben said...

Was Siddhartha ever a buddhist? Did he take refuge to the Buddha, dharma and sangha? Do the buddhist today try to achieve enlightenment the way he did?

And one further addition: Avalokiteshvara is said to emanate not only as a buddhist, but also to preach completely different religions in different emanations, not to fool people, but to bring them on the path to enlightenment although they might not be reading for 'higher' teachings. To carry the thought a bit further, Jesus could be an emanation of Avalokiteshvara...

yen's pencil said...

Can I translate this article into Bahasa? thank u _/\_

Buddha said...

A thought Provoking Article..Thanks

David said...

What makes a bodhisattva is very simple: seeing that the purpose of life is to be of benefit to others. Anyone who has that understanding can be viewed as a bodhisattva.

Ben's questions are very interesting, although to another point, being that we tend to forget that much of the stuff that we've layered onto Buddhism, did not exist when the Buddha was actually teaching. Refuge then was simply “ehi bhikkhu” - “come, bhikkhu.”

Shravasti Dhammika said...

Dear Yen
I am happy to give my permission to translate my article into Bhasa.

Dear Ben,
To say the Buddha wasn’t a Buddhist is, in my opinion, being a bit to pedantic. He not only practiced what he preached but he had realized it as well. That’s a pretty good definition of a Buddhist. I don’t know what else one could call him? Avalokitesvara has had a long and rather interesting life. In his earliest years and well into middle age he was a distinct individual. It was only in later life (after the 7th-8th centuries and even more so later in Tibet) that he started to have the ability to become a ‘manifestation’ of, well, just about anything. While it is good to be open to the good in other faiths it is important that we don’t go so far down that road that we end up wandering aimlessly in the forest of ‘all religions are the same’. Then the unique insights and perspectives of the different faiths are thrown overboard in the name of ‘globalized’ spirituality.

Ben said...

Dear Bhante,

of course it is pedantic, I am German ;) The point I wanted to make is that in my opinion it is really ridiculous to make a state of mind, the bodhisattva mind, dependent on more or less strict formal criteria. Anybody can realize this state of mind, which I think os in most aspects not expressible on words and can not be pinned down to a distinct behavior as most of our daily behavior is culturally "standardized". Buddhism is a tool, not more not less.

I am far away from claiming that all religions are the same, have the same inherent truth or a common mythical core, as the Bahai do. I greatly appreciate the diversity among people, cultures and religions.

Shravasti Dhammika said...

Dear Ben,
Well said – even for a German.

fred said...

If I make the vow to become a Buddha in the future that aspiration puts me upon the Boddhisatva path....unofficially. It also blocks me from reaching the state of Ariya so commiting myself to innumerable lives perfecting myself. It only starts officially when I make the same aspiration in the presence of a Buddha, who also confirms that I will reach my goal.
The number of beings which actually reach Buddhahood after making such an aspiration is said to be compared to one grain of sand against all the sand in the world.
Having met a Buddha, a rare and precious event, it would be easier to ordain and become one of his monks with a very good chance of attaining to arahant.
This is why Buddhas are so worthy of praise, what they suffered stuck in samsara for billions upon billions of aeons.

Anonymous said...

I had translated some of your article into Bahasa, n I posted it into my blog, here's the link:

Thank you Bhante _/\_

Seten said...

Hello, there is a typo in your article. "Now it seems to me that whether such miracles actually happened is irreverent." Should be "irrelevant" I believe. Thanks for the article on bodhisattvahood.