The Compassionate Bodhisattva

There are mainly three types of Buddhist traditions, even though each has numerous denominations in itself, which is common in every religion. These types are as follows:

  1. Theravada Buddhism (The Teachings of The Elders)
  2. Mahayana Buddhism (The Great Vehicle)
  3. Vajrayana Buddhism (The Way Of The Diamond)

Historically, the primary form of Buddhism could be similar to the Theravada tradition. That is why we call it the teachings of the elders. After enlightenment, the Buddha started his community called Sangha, where people could learn and practice his teachings. And probably, those seniors at that time in Sangha memorized the words of the Buddha for others. Indeed, it was only many years after the Buddha’s death, people decided and agreed to document those teachings for preservation, which became a series of voluminous sutras such as Tipitaka.

During those early days, Buddhist practitioners focused mainly on their individual enlightenment. And, as well-known, the basic tenet was the Noble Eightfold Path. Following these teachings of the elders, it was the key priority in their secluded lives of Sangh. The style of the Theravada tradition reminds me of the following words of the Buddha. He encouraged them to “wander alone like a rhinoceros.”

Renouncing violence for all living beings, harming not even a one, you would not wish for offspring, so how a companion? Wander alone like a rhinoceros.

And, a sort of “great division” took place. A group of practitioners called themselves “Mahayana (the great vehicle)” branched out. In this group, their focus shifted or expanded into the efforts of saving others instead of individual enlightenment. Or even they thought staying with people who suffer could be more important. Indeed, we could see this point from their “new” interpretation of the term, bodhisattva.

The original meaning was any person who is practicing the teachings of the Buddha on the path towards Buddhahood. Disciples in Sangha were, in this sense, all bodhisattvas. Also, one version of the meaning was the role model or ideal figure on the path to the enlightenment. If the Buddha was too high for their role model, then, people imagined the ideal bodhisattva figure who could be near his level.

In the tradition of Mahayana Bddushim, on the other hand, they generated and added the particular message to the term, not only bodhisattvas but rather the Bodhisattva with capital B. They called one symbolic, individual figure, the Compassionate Bodhisattva, or Avalokiteśvara in Sanskrit.

Who is the Compassionate Bodhisattva?

It is a sort of archetypal figure who is about to enlighten herself or himself or has enlightened already; nevertheless has intentionally decided to stay with those people who suffer in their earthly lives. If you sacrifice yourself because of your compassionate mind (bodhicitta) for everyone in this world, you are acting like the Compassionate Bodhisattva. It indeed symbolizes the Great Vehicle for solvation.

It even reminds me of the following Bible verse, saying “in the form of a servant, and made in the likeness of men.”

Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus: Who, being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God: But made himself of no reputation, and took upon him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men:

Philippians 2:5-7

If there could be the love of agape in Buddhism, perhaps, the act of the Compassionate Bodhisattva should be one such example. It was that the Buddhahood intentionally became “unenlightened” to sacrifice herself or himself to stay with people and understand their sufferings. The Compassionate Bodhisattva is such a paradoxical symbol of embracing completeness and incompleteness.

Avalokiteśvara consists of three words, ava (down), lokit (take care), and eśvara (lord). It means the master who takes care of the world with her or his compassion. The gender was initially not so clear (or perhaps male due to the anecdote such as the Buddha’s flower sermon). Focusing on the mercy of the figure, people started recognizing its image as a female figure called Guanyin in China, and Kanzeon or Kannon in Japan.

And the third tradition is Vajrayana Buddhism, which further branched out from the Mahayana tradition. It seems this type returned to the individual enlightenment with more esoteric practices.

Put it bluntly; the Theravada tradition focused on the pragmatic aspects of skillsets for enlightenment, which is somewhat similar to the Buddha’s attitude to “God” or “Unknown.” And, the Mahayana was more on the salvation of everyone; a typical example is the school of Pure Land Buddhism, which emphasized one’s salvation in heaven through faith, rather than one’s self-effort. And then, the Vajrayana was, if anything, similar to the mysticism – neither self-effort nor faith alone, but more esoteric unison. We could see certain parallelism with Christian traditions.

Going back to the Mahayana tradition, due to its nature of the great vehicle, the teachings also transformed some extent. Aside from the Noble Eightfold Path, people in this school focused more on what is called Six Perfections (Pāramitā in Sanskrit), and even there could be Ten Perfections for the strict practitioners.

  1. Dāna pāramitā: Giving of oneself
  2. Śīla pāramitā: Virtue
  3. Kṣānti pāramitā: Patience
  4. Vīrya pāramitā: Effort
  5. Dhyāna pāramitā: Contemplation
  6. Prajñā pāramitā: Wisdom
  7. Upāya pāramitā: Skillfulness
  8. Praṇidhāna pāramitā: Vow
  9. Bala pāramitā: Spiritual power
  10. Jñāna pāramitā: Knowledge

The Theravada tradition also knew these teachings. Only in the Mahayana, however, these became the fundamental tenet for practitioners to be more authentically compassionate.

As you notice, the initial teaching is “giving of oneself.” To become compassionate, merciful, altruistic, and selfless, we must give up ourselves first. It is the alpha and omega of all teachings. And of course, it should never mean the narcissistic sacrifice, either.

Whatever we do for others, if it is on a glimpse of self-consciousness, even unconsciously aiming at our enlightenment, we can’t even start the first pāramitā. In this sense, whether Perfections or Eightfold Path, the basis of all teachings should be non-self of the Noble Fouth Truths called anattā (Pali) or anātman (Sanskrit).

And it reminds us of the self-denial of the Christian faith.

Then said Jesus unto his disciples, If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me.

Matthew 16:24

Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not charity, I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal. And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries, and all knowledge; and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, and have not charity, I am nothing. And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, and have not charity, it profiteth me nothing. Charity suffereth long, and is kind; charity envieth not; charity vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up, Doth not behave itself unseemly, seeketh not her own, is not easily provoked, thinketh no evil; Rejoiceth not in iniquity, but rejoiceth in the truth; Beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things. Charity never faileth: but whether there be prophecies, they shall fail; whether there be tongues, they shall cease; whether there be knowledge, it shall vanish away. For we know in part, and we prophesy in part. But when that which is perfect is come, then that which is in part shall be done away.

1 Corinthians 13:1-10

There is no such thing as the self who is supposed to perform well for self-serving and suffering. There has never been, either. Only when we see genuine compassion, charity, love of agape, and emptiness, we see ourselves in the way nobody sees nobody in heaven. In eternity, only God sees Himself. That is why the figure of the Compassionate Bodhisattva is so elusive and esoteric; at the same time, we feel her mercy embraces us all.

Image by falco

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