By Daniel Scharpenburg
Bodhisattva is a sanskrit word that means “Enlightenment Being.” It has multiple definitions:
- an enlightened person
- one who is on the path to enlightenment
- one who enlightens others.
Mahayana Buddhism rests entirely on the Bodhisattva ideal. We have innate wakefulness—we are enlightened already—but we are also on the path to realizing the fact that we are awakened and our true nature is not separate from bringing others to awakening along with us. Helping others is helping ourselves and helping ourselves is realizing what has always been true.
You get there by realizing you’ve been there the whole time.
The nature of Mahayana practice is learning how to walk the Bodhisattva path. When we accept the task placed before us, to awaken for the sake of ourselves and all beings, then we are Bodhisattvas. As a sangha we strive together to make the world a better and more awakened place. I humbly suggest that this is what the Buddha intended when he started the first sangha.
This is sometimes taken further. Our Bodhisattva role is sometimes expanded through teachings on interpenetration. That is: when I help other beings I’m helping myself because the truth is that we are one. In the Avatamsaka Sutra the universe is described as an infinitely large net full of jewels. Every jewel reflects all of the other jewels. We’re all interrelated—not just to other people but to everything in our environment.
We think of ourselves as separate and independent but the truth is we simply aren’t. Because we have this idea that we’re separate from everything, we experience feelings like jealousy and we often make enemies out of everything around us. We bind ourselves to concepts like I and you, self and other. That’s why seeing things as they really are helps us to walk the Bodhisattva path.
We can come to an understanding that things aren’t as divided as they seem.
We demonstrate our commitment to the Mahayana path by taking the Bodhisattva vow. We are already on the path, the vow is just an affirmation of our commitment and if you are curious about the Bodhisattva path, that means you are already on it.
We enter the path and give ourselves to others. We expand our compassion, our selves, to include all beings. When we take the vow we are joining the lineage of all Bodhisattvas.
When we commit to the Bodhisattva path we develop a sense of gentleness, benevolence and warmth. And we can take the Bodhisattva vow as ordinary people—we don’t have to be monks and nuns. Bodhisattvas live in the world, they do not separate from it.
We engage our sitting practice on and off the cushion, in our day to day lives. We work to cultivate the six perfections: generosity, discipline, patience, diligence, wisdom and concentration. And once we have taken the Bodhisattva vow we work to develop what’s called the five powers:
- Having a spiritual friend. We have a companion who initiates us into the path and that gives us a spiritual bond with them.
- Awakening into the Mahayana family. We are inspired to work for the benefit of others, motivated by emptiness with a heart of compassion.
- Expanding virtue. We stop thinking of ourselves all the time and we stop making enemies of everything all the time. When we do this, we extend the potential for enlightenment.
- We learn. We come to understand how others from the past have awakened on the path. We learn from their actions and their mistakes.
- Identifying what we’ve learned. We can relate the lessons of the path to our current situation.
When we take the Bodhisattva vow we realize that enlightenment has to take place for the benefit of others, not just for ourselves. That’s the foundation of the path—emptiness with a heart of compassion.
The commitment of the Bodhisattva vow is the first big step.
Editor: Dana Gornall
Daniel has taken the vows of a lay zen teacher and Bodhisattva Vows.
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