Tuesday, March 25, 2008

No Time to Lose: The Way of the Bodhisattva

Last week I began another book to be read over a period of time. In this case it is for a class series at my temple. The first class was last Wednesday. One of the teachers told us that years ago she was looking for information on the bodhisattva path, and she found Shantideva. By reading No Time to Lose: A Timely Guide to the Way of the Bodhisattva, we get the full text of Shantideva, as well as the contemporary voice of Pema Chodron.

Like the Buddha, Shantideva was a prince in India, and was destined either to be a ruler or a renunciate. One legend has it that Manjusri appeared to him in a dream, another legend says his mother intentionally burned him, and said the pain would be nothing compared to the pain he would suffer as king. Shantideva left. He went to Nalanda University, this was in the 8th century. To put this in context, our teacher G (formerly a professor) told us that Nalanda began as a monastery in the 2nd century. The earliest university in the West was founded in the 12th century in Paris.

Pema Chodron tells us Shantideva wasn't well liked at the University. Sounds like others thought he was a slacker. He didn't come to class, or he showed up late, didn't seem to do the work, to do the practices that the rest were so diligently practicing. They invited him to give a talk, probably hoping his slackerdom would be painfully obvious. This was his talk, fully aware and utilizing the traditions they thought he didn't know, as well as his own unique dharma.

G told us that shortly after The Way of the Bodhisattva was written in Sanskrit, it was translated into Tibetan, so this work is as pivotal a work for the branch of Tibetan Buddhism as the Lotus Sutra is for Zen Buddhism.

This is a manual of sorts on how to be a bodhisattva. G admires this work because Shantideva comes across as a real person. She said, "The text is built on the sutras, but also shows his struggle." A bodhisattva necessarily experiences and cultivates bodhichitta, one of those Sanskrit terms that defies translation. Often translated as "awakened heart," G said it is a "mind-state that has a kind of warmth to it."

I have been aware of this term for a long time, and personally I feel it has a strong quality of unconditional love to it, but to attach a quality to it is to dissect it, and I'm not sure it is dissectable. H.H. the Dalai Lama said, "The wish for perfect enlightenment for others is bodhichitta." I think in real-life, everyday you-and-me-are-bodhisattvas terms, it means we wish others could awaken to the suffering they create for themselves and just let it go, let it dissolve. The same goes for our own selves.

If one must translate it, I kind of prefer the "awakened heart" translation. It is an open, spacious, uncramped heart awareness that comes before thought, in spite of thought, in between the thought that clouds up the mind. It is a clarity that can grok the effects of karma, in one's self or others, and in the same instant know the boundlessness that can change that karma.

I do not use grok lightly, but at the same time this is not uninformed by experience over time. Pema Chodron quotes Nagarjuna (another pivotal Tibetan dharma ancestor)

May bodhichitta, precious and sublime,
Arise where it has not yet come to be;
And where it has arisen may it not decline,
But grow and flourish ever more and more.
The Excellence of Bodhichitta
(the link is to a different translation of Shantideva that is available online.)

This talk is dedicated to the Buddhas, but that includes us, with buddha nature...that potential in all of us to be buddhas. Chodron says, "We, too, can free ourselves from the hopes and fears of self-centeredness." Self-centeredness is the hardened karma that makes up me me me, kind of like the crust on creme brulee, hard and brittle and so self-enclosed.

The humility of the second verse is traditional. Chodron:

Humility, however, should not be confused with low self-esteem. When Shantideva says he is 'destitute of learning and of skill with words,' he is not expressing self-contempt. The low self-esteem so common in the West rests on a fixed idea of personal inadequacy. Shantideva is committed to not getting trapped in such limiting identities.
In Zen we say, "Do not waste time!" Shantideva says, "If now I fail to turn it to my profit, How could such a chance be mine again?" Chodron says, "This life is, however, a brief and fading window of opportunity. None of us knows what will happen next."

As when a flash of lightning rends the night,
And in its glare shows all the dark black clouds had hid,
Likewise rarely, through the buddha's power,
Virtuous thoughts arise, brief and transient, in the world (Shantideva 1.5)
flash of lightning = bodhichitta
dark black clouds = karma, karmic conditioning
buddha's power = buddha nature, awakened mind, bodhichitta

When we're thinking of others, it is freeing, this lack of self-absorption. Chodron said, "We share the same reactivity, the same grasping and resisting. By aspiring for all beings to be free of their suffering, we free ourselves from our own cocoons and life becomes bigger than "me."

"At some point, we realize that what we do for ourselves benefits others, and what we do for others benefits us. This is what Shantideva means when he says that those who wish to win great happiness should never turn their back on bodhichitta."

Yet we do. We do we do. The black clouds of karma can make it easy to ignore that quick little flash of illumination. If we don't cultivate the eye that sees it, it's as good as not there.

The difference between helping someone, and helping someone with bodhichitta, is like the difference between giving someone fish, and teaching someone to fish. We can keep helping over and over and over, or we can try to show the clarity among the dark clouds so they can help themselves.

A great and unremitting stream,
A strength of wholesome merit,
Even during sleep and inattention,
Rises equal to the vastness of the sky (Sh. 1.19)

Once this bodhichitta thing is turned on, it's not going away. Turned on isn't right. There's always the possibility of illumination, but once illumination occurs, and is turned towards over and over, it becomes too strong to shut down. This is why I find it hard to say no. Chodron:

This is the happiness of egolessness. It's the joy of realizing there is no prison; there are only very strong habits, and no sane reason for strengthening them further. In essence these habits are insubstantial. Moreover, there is no solid self-identity or separateness. We've invented it all. It is this realization that we want for the endless multitude of beings.

I consider myself lucky that I stumbled upon meditation at the age of 19. We speak of habit energy, and dissolving that, or channeling it in a different way, becoming aware of those deep grooves that play over and over. It is all something we created, and it is all something that we can let go of. I often would say I trust in the practice. As long as the intent is there, the practice will take care of it in good time. This is that unstoppable flow. Huh, have I just stumbled upon an equation? Zazen is the practice. The practice is bodhichitta. Zazen is bodhichitta. I guess that makes a zen kind of sense. It all collapses and turns in and around on itself into emptiness anyway. It is the emptiness that informs all.

We can't look at how to be a bodhisattva without investigating the paramitas, and Shantideva shows us how the paramitas fulfill bodhichitta. This first thing, the intent to help others, this is generosity. There are three kinds of generosity in this tradition. The first is giving of material things. The second is giving fearlessness. We talked about that in class. G sees it "as the courage to stay with this practice." I felt my teachers gave me the gift of fearlessness by so completely accepting me. They taught me that there was nothing to be afraid of. The third is the gift of the dharma. It is helping to point out that lightning flash, and those clouds.

And those who harbor evil in their minds
Against such lords of generosity, the Buddha's heirs,
Will stay in hell, the Mighty One has said,
For ages equal to the moments of their malice. (Sh. 1.34)

Remember, this is all our own creation, this hardening of karma into a self-absorbed being. As long as we keep recreating those moments, we will keep experiencing those moments as a hell realm. What do we wish to cultivate, negative blaming, or positive giving? I wonder sometimes at the hells people create over often unimportant things. I have some thoughts on 25 cent karma, coming soon.

G, and her co-teacher of this class, K, work with prisoners, some whom have done horrific deeds. They truly see the potential for enlightenment, buddha nature, in everybody. She said there is one young man who committed murder who talks about what he's done. There is no blame of others, he's working with what he's done. "We see their beauty. That's why we do this. We need beautiful people there." This young man so carefully, earnestly, gracefully, offers the incense. They see his beauty. G said, "Some of the greatest masters started out as criminals. We do still have to deal with the karma. We all have negative things we need to look at."

I thought, who better can see the effect of suffering and karma? Who better, when they learn to look with unflinching clarity at themselves, can look with unflinching clarity at all suffering? It is indeed a beautiful person who can offer that help.

In short, it is easier to wrap ourselves around a hard cramped identity, even if painful, than it is to stick with the practice of cultivating bodhichitta. It's something to hang on to. Yet if we can do the brave thing, keep the intent and action alive to fuel bodhichitta, that is where true joy can be found.

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