Sunday, December 2, 2012

The Bodhisattva Express

The Bodhisattva's way is called "the single-minded way," or "one railway track thousands of miles long." The railway track is always the same. If it were to become wider or narrower, it would be disastrous. Wherever you go, the railway track is always the same. That is the Bodhisattva's way. So even if the sun were to rise from the west, the Bodhisattva has only one way. His way is in each moment to express his nature and his sincerity.

We say railway track, but actually there is no such thing. Sincerity itself is the railway track. The sights we see from the train will change, but we are always running on the same track. And there is no beginning or end to the track: beginningless and endless track. There is no starting point nor goal, nothing to attain. Just to run on the track is our way. This is the nature of our Zen practice.

Shunryu Suzuki Roshi from Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind

To my simple-minded way of thinking, there is a lofty view and a lowly view of what a Bodhisattva is. One is a highly evolved being so far up the awareness food chain as to barely have physical existence, who, out of great compassion, foregoes buddhahood to come to the aid of all beings.

The other is anyone with a sincere desire to end the suffering of others.

I can relate to the lowly one, of course, but the other, multiple arms and all, is so beyond my event horizon that my third eye glazes over. True, given our amazing interconnected universe of infinite dimensions, we can probably say the two versions are one and the same, but really, I don't think I need to know that just now.

Pema Chödrön's book had been tirelessly beckoning to me from the bookshelf. Despite its title (or probably, because of it) I studiously ignored No Time to Lose for as long as I could. After struggling with it for over a year, I finally gave in. The masterpiece is her companion to The Way of the Bodhisattva (Bodhicharyāvatāra), by the 8th century Buddhist monk Shantideva. She calls it the essential guidebook for fledgling bodhisattvas longing to alleviate suffering.

Although I quote from it quite a bit, this post is not a review of her wonderful book. These are just some thoughts about the subject closest to my heart: the spread of kindness by ordinary people. The awakening of the bodhi heart of compassion. The flowering of bodhichitta.

These are Pema's words:

The Sanskrit term bodhichitta is often translated as "awakened heart" and refers to an intense desire to alleviate suffering.  On the relative level, bodhichitta expresses itself as longing.  Specifically, it is the heartfelt yearning to free oneself from the pain of ignorance and habitual patterns in order to help others do the same.  This longing to alleviate suffering of others is the main point.  We start close to home with the wish to help those we know and love, but the underlying inspiration is global and all encompassing.  Bodhichitta is a sort of "mission impossible":  the desire to end the suffering of all beings, including those we'll never meet, as well as those we loathe.

On the absolute level, bodhichitta is nondual wisdom, the vast, unbiased essence of mind. Most importantly, this is your mind - yours and mine. It may seem distant but it isn't. In fact, Shantideva composed this text to remind himself that he could contact his wisdom mind and help it to flourish.

When I first read Suzuki Roshi's comparison of the bodhisattva path to a railway track, it struck a chord. Although compassionate action takes myriad forms, adapting and reaching out to suffering wherever it calls from, the resolve to do it is straight as an arrow.

As we grow in our practice, its fruits - wisdom and compassion - come to our aid: wisdom guiding our actions to be more skilful, and compassion giving us the courage to act more for others and less for ourselves.

But "sincerity itself is the railway track." From the very first moment we decide to take this path, there is really only one answer to our question, "what should I do next?" The answer is, "follow your heart!"

Here is some guidance from a champion of compassion:

So we can ask: What is compassion comprised of? And there are various facets. ... But first, compassion is comprised of that capacity to see clearly into the nature of suffering. It is that ability to really stand strong and to recognize also that I’m not separate from this suffering. But that is not enough, because compassion, which activates the motor cortex, means that we aspire, we actually aspire to transform suffering. And if we’re so blessed, we engage in activities that transform suffering. But compassion has another component, and that component is really essential. That component is that we cannot be attached to outcome.

Joan Halifax Roshi TED Talk

To start each day on the right track, Pema Chödrön recites these verses from the Bodhicharyāvatāra every morning before getting out of bed:

Just as all the buddhas of the past
Embraced the awakened attitude of mind,
And in the precepts of the bodhisattvas
Step by step abode and trained,

Just so, and for the benefit of beings,
I will also have this attitude of mind,
And in those precepts, step by step,
I will abide and train myself.

Let's give Pema the last word:

Personally, I am indebted to Shantideva for his determination to get this message across: people like you and me can transform our lives by awakening the longing of bodhichitta. And I am deeply grateful to him for expressing, unrelentingly, that it is urgent, very urgent, that we do so.  We have no time to lose. When I look at the state of the world today, I know his message could not possibly be more timely.

And now as long as space endures,
As long as there are beings to be found,
May I continue likewise to remain
To drive away the sorrows of the world.

The Way of the Bodhisattva, v. 10.55

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  1. I have just recently realized this, as you said, acting with less self-interest, more unconditional acceptance, not needing anything from the other, including a change in behavior, but just meeting people where they are. This is the great challenge and great "reward" if you will - to be so openhearted that there is just complete acceptance. I'm certainly not there yet.:) And yet I find that once the attitude within me changes, there is a change in the relating - from the place of the Heart...

    1. Hi Christine - yes I think it's more about making the change than getting there. If I ever got so openhearted that there was just complete acceptance I would be sprouting extra pairs of arms :)

  2. David, as always I'm moved by your focused and simple (in the Buddhist sense of direct and uncomplicated!) approach to wisdom and compassion, and struck by your lack of arrogance. Thank you. I love Pema's work but don't know that book - I mean I haven't read it, perhaps because I know it's urgent ;-) as you have hinted.

    1. Thanks Roselle! I greatly admire Pema's down to earth style of writing and her endearing lack of pomp.

  3. I'm glad this arrived at the station. Lovely post, David. Yes, Roshi's visual of a railway is a nice one, and yours with practice, the fruits, wisdom and compassion, skill and courage...exactly!

    I'll add No Time to Lose to my reading list. I have a feeling that the title may do the same to me, as it did to you :) I'm currently reading Pema's 'Comfortable with Uncertainty'. One of those little Shambhala books with 108 short excerpts. Easy to read bit by bit.

  4. Thank you Susan for your kind comment. I carry a little book around with me - The Pocket Pema Chödrön - full of nuggets.

    1. Oh yes, nice. I have that one too but digital version, which is easier to forget to read. Funny, when I see real snow branches now, I think of your snow branches and posts.

  5. Thank you David! It never fails that when I read your posts - That I take something of value away. The best lesson I've had in a long time and something I desperately needed to hear "But compassion has another component, and that component is really essential. That component is that we cannot be attached to outcome." Remembering this critical axiom will offer relief to the mandates we activists sometimes put on ourselves... To be responsible for change. It really isn't in our hands at all is it?

    But we are responsible and able to stay on track with our own lives and how we choose to live day to day - Ever forward with eyes and sincere hearts wide open.

    I'm grateful you've shared this meaningful message.

    1. Thanks Bea! Joan Halifax does make a wonderful point. We can only put our energies into whatever sincerely feels like the right thing to do. Period. Since we can never know all the results of our actions, not seeing them is probably not a good reason for quitting ... although a few encouraging glimmers of progress never did any harm :) As always, bows to you, Bea for your tireless work over at PROVOKED!

  6. I just belatedly discovered this meaty post, and love the picture. Katagiri was also fond of the train metaphor, and Dosho Port has a post about practicing Zen like a long-distance train.
    Thank you.

    1. Jeanne, thank you so much dropping by and your kind comment. I'm honoured to be visited by The Dalai Grandma. I found Dosho Port's post you referred to: Practicing the Path of Zen Like a Long-Distance Train. Thanks for the tip!


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