Monday, April 20, 2009

The Bodhisattva: Soldier of Love


Is a yogi who has vowed to achieve the full awakening of Buddhahood, motivated by love and compassion for all sentient beings. The Bodhisattva can be seen as a soldier in the army of love and a champion of the contemplative path.

The Hinayana or “Lesser Vehicle”, represents the original phase in the development of Buddhism, which occurred during the life of the Buddha and in the years after his passing. The Hinayana tradition is characterized by monasticism and renunciation, whereby an individual renounces the stresses of compulsive living, drops out of the world to study and meditate with other contemplatives and yogis, and eventually achieves enlightenment. The Mahayana or “Great Vehicle” represents the second phase in the development of Buddhist thought and practice. Mahayana teachings arose in the 1st century of the Common Era, roughly 500 years after the Buddha. Central to the development of the Mahayana were the prajnaparamita or perfection of wisdom scriptures, which present the notions of emptiness, relativity and non-dualism. These concepts help to establish that no difference inherently exists between the compulsive world (samsara) and freedom (nirvana). As a result, Mahanyana teachings shift their emphasis from individuals renouncing and retreating from the world in a spirit of detachment, to reengaging and transforming the world in the spirit of love and compassion.

The ideal of the Hinayana is the arhant or liberated saint, who has given up compulsive life, followed the Four Noble Truths, and achieved liberation. In the Mahayana, the ideal shifts to the bodhisattva or warrior of love. Rather than solely cultivating renunciation, there is a greater emphasis on the development of bodhicitta, or spirit of enlightenment. Bodhicitta has two parts: the ultimate non-dual insight of emptiness/relativity; and, the conventional application of compassion that arises naturally from that insight. The Bodhisattva’s motivation is to engage in self-development in order to refine the skills (upaya) necessary to help teach all beings how to become happy and free. Arhants focus on their own liberation, while Bodhisattva’s work towards the liberation of others. The purpose of the Mahayana movement is to reverse not just an individual’s central preoccupation, but the social order of the world, from egocentric and disconnected into altruistic and harmonious.

The Bodhisattvas, can be seen as urban yogis, who take the contemplative education and stress-free lifestyle out of the monastery or ashram, and into the market place. They do so by taking on spiritual commitments and vows of conduct to help train their mind’s in the midst of the inevitable adversity of worldly life. The Bodhisattva vow is to achieve the full awakening of a Buddha, in order to benefit all living beings. Nothing short of full Buddhahood will suffice to accomplish such a vast aspiration. It might be helpful to examine the lifestyle and behaviors of people like the Dalai Lama and Tich Nat Hanh, who represent the bodhisattva ideal and vows. Far from monastic recluses, each of them remains committed to worldly activities, social engagement and and endless teaching schedule, designed to help beings transform adversity into opportunity and hatred into love.

The Bodhisattva trains in the Six Perfections or Transcendent Virtues (paramitas): Generosity, Ethics, Patience, Diligence, Concentration, and Wisdom. The trainings all aim fundamentally to uproot the self-habit (atmagraha), the root of suffering, and develop positive qualities of mind in its place. In the Hinayana approach, represented in the Four Noble Truths, liberation is achieved using wisdom as an antidote to misperception, concentration or mental development as an antidote to disturbing emotions, and ethics as an antidote to harmful behavior. To these core trainings, the Mahayana add generosity, patience and diligence in order to achieve full enlightenment and social transformation. Generosity is necessary to build positive karmic energy (aka force, merit) that fuels the engine of altruism; patience is necessary to endure the hardship encountered when dealing directly with the anger and afflictions of living beings; and, diligence is required because the process of social transformation on the scale envisioned by the Mahayana will take countless lifetimes. The six perfections are expounded in the 8th century classic training manual, the Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life (Bodhicaryavatara), written by Master Shantideva.

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