Bodhisattvas and Buddhas

As I have been attending Ken Ford’s Buddhist history class at Clouds in Water, I was struck by this observation of a myth about Bodhisattvas.

The myth that I have heard and often said in teaching is that bodhisattvas forgo full buddhahood in order to save living beings. In other words, at the brink of enlightenment, a bodhisattva turns back and vows not to cross over until all beings cross over. This, Andrew Stilton in the book, A Concise History of Buddhism, says is a distortion. The bodhisattva is motivated by compassion and for this reason should not turn away from enlightenment because buddhahood is the most effective state in which to help other beings. Isn’t this a subtle discernment? What is the difference between a bodhisattva and a buddha?

Stilton writes about three main factors that characterize a bodhisattva:

  1. A profound, non-dual wisdom
  2. An extensive compassion
  3. The presence of the Bodhicitta

The basis for helping others is understanding the true reality. This is a profound, non-dual wisdom. We begin to see that there is no inherent, separate, permanent existence to anything. If things are permanent, there can be no change and this does not align with what we actually know is true. If we look, we see change. Even the physicists now agree with this. Emptiness is empty of inherent existence, which means, all things are dependent upon conditions and are completely influenced by the “other.” There is no separate “I” and separate “other. All things originate in interdependence. So how does this understanding influence how we help others? 

From the diamond sutra:

Why is it that a bodhisattva who creates the perception of a being cannot be called a bodhisattva ?

To create a perception of a being we have consolidated in our thinking, an independent, isolated ‘self’ that doesn’t exist. This statement really revolutionizes the understanding of a bodhisattva, doesn’t it? This is quite different than our ordinary understanding of ‘helping others’ or ‘saving all beings’. It is a deeper expression of non-dual wisdom. We should not hold back in any way our aspiration to enter this non-dual understanding. Our enlightened task is to organize our life from ever-present, awakened, boundless, timeless, non-dual, non-individualized awareness. In this way, we can, all of us together, find freedom. As Buddha said, “I and the world together realize enlightenment”.

The Buddha recognized in his teaching the equal importance of wisdom and compassion, the two arms of the buddha or the two wings of enlightenment. This is the second factor – an extensive compassion. To see with the ominiscient eyes of the Buddha, is to be able to skillfully respond with unconditional love and right action to all aspects of the human predicament of suffering.

 In many of the later Mahayana teachings, the bodhisattva path becomes the means for a bodhisattva to become a Buddha. There were many ways of cultivation but one of the most basic was is to cultivate the Paramitas or perfections. (Generosity, Patience, Ethics, Zeal, Concentration, Wisdom) As I’ve already mentioned, even in this schema, all the Paramitas are sealed with the Paramita of wisdom. In the ten Bhumis or stages of the Bodhisattva Path, after the 7th ground of being, a bodhisattva is called a mahasattva. Some bodhisattvas such as Samantabhadra are also said to have already attained buddhahood.

The third factor of a Bodhisattva is the presence of Bodhicitta, the mind of, or will towards, enlightenment. It is not just an intellectual thought about enlightenment but a force or urge which completely transforms the life of the future bodhisattva. This “mind” springs forth and encourages us on. This is likened to Pranidhana, one of the 4 paramitas added on in later formulations of the Paramitas (the four additions: skilful means, the vow to achieve buddhahood, power, and knowledge).

The urge, the energy, the vow to achieve buddhahood encourages us. We aspire to expound all the dimensions of Buddhahood in our life and practice, which in turns frees all beings simultaneously and helps us intuitively and automatically know what “help” means.